The body of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco has been exhumed from the tomb in the Valley of the Fallen where it has lain since his death in 1975 and is being taken by helicopter to lie alongside that of his wife in a cemetery near Madrid.
Shortly after 10.30am local time the Spanish government announced that the operation to move his body was under way.
Twenty-two members of the Franco family gathered in the basilica, along with Spain’s justice minister, Dolores Delgado, in her role as first notary of the kingdom.
A canopy was erected to cover the grave and guard against any attempts to film the exhumation, and those present were checked for electronic devices to make sure there were no images or sound recordings.
Hundreds of thousands of people – including groups from Scotland and West Dunbartonshire – have visited the the controversial tomb over the years either as pilgrims or simply curious dictators.
Even in bright sunshine, the basilica which is built over it is an eerie place to visit and one woman who was in a party which I joined for a con-celebrated Latin Mass refused to enter the building.
She was one of many who remain scandalised by the acts of the right wing dictator in the Spanish Civil War, in which many Scots joined the international brigade.
The 1.5-tonne slab that covered the tomb was lifted and the coffin brought up. Although the zinc-lined casket had deteriorated, the family chose not to transfer the remains to a new one.
The body was blessed by the Benedictine abbot of the basilica and the coffin brought out of the church’s entrance just before 1pm on the shoulders of eight of his descendants. It was swathed in cloth and topped with a huge wreath.
As they lowered the coffin into the hearse that would take the body to a waiting air force helicopter, family members shouted “Viva España!”
A private family service was held inside the Franco mausoleum at Mingorrubio-El Pardo municipal cemetery, where the dictator’s widow, Carmen Polo, was buried after her death in 1988.
Franco’s remains have had pride of place in the basilica, which is 40 miles (64km) north-west of Madrid, since his death.
Although the Valley of the Fallen and its 150-metre (490ft) cross ostensibly commemorate all those killed in the Spanish civil war, for many people it serves only to glorify Franco and his nearly four-decade dictatorship.
The government said his remains needed to be moved as they could no longer “remain in a public mausoleum that exalts his figure”, adding that the removal would “symbolically close the circle of Spanish democracy”.
After months of appeals and legal arguments, Spain’s supreme court gave permission for the exhumation at the end of September.
LOOKING BACK; Friday, 29 April 2016
Renton brothers died fighting fascism in Spain
Local people attend gatherings in remembrance of those who died in the Spanish Civil War. Pictures by Bill Heaney
In the sun scorched hills outside Madrid, there is a striking symbol of half a century of dictatorship, which I visited with a group from Dumbarton, writes Bill Heaney.
I was in a party of pilgrims who had been to Salamanca and Avila to visit shrines to people who had done much good in this world – St Theresa of Avila, St John of the Cross – patron saint of journalists – and some magnificent churches and cathedrals.
We decided on our way from Salamanca to the Spanish capital to call in at the Valley of the Fallen, a vast monument General Francisco Franco commissioned to commemorate his victory in the Spanish Civil War.
It was there that our cheerful mood changed and a cold shiver ran down my spine at the thought of the thousands killed and the thousands more, political prisoners, who were enslaved into forced labour to build this dark and monstrous shrine to the dictator.
Eighty years after that war began, there are finally plans to change this landmark, a move that will be welcomed on Saturday, May 7, at 11am, at the International Brigade Memorial Day events in the village of Renton, Dunbartonshire.
One of the organisers, Drew MacEoghainn, said: “This will be a day to take time to remember the ordinary men and women who left Scotland to fight Franco and his fascists, ordinary men and women who became legends. At least 27 people left here to go to fight for justice. This is a day for all comrades from around the globe who appreciate the cause that saw our men and women go to Spain to fight for a cause they held dear. The people of Spain will never forget these brave fighters neither will we.”
The main event is being held at the John Connolly Centre, Main Street, Renton – where an iron statue of a Spanish bull was unveiled five years ago .
This was to commemorate the five Communists from Renton and Dumbarton who joined the International Brigades to combat General Franco’s fascist uprising against the country’s democratically elected Republican government.
The heroic efforts of Rentonian brothers Patrick Joseph, Tommy and Daniel Gibbons, along with James Arnott and Patrick Curley, were acknowledged when the Rev Ian Miller, of Bonhill Church, paid a glowing tribute to the men and unveiled the statue.
Danny Gibbons was wounded in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, and was allowed to return home – but he made his way back to Spain, distressed that his brother Tommy had been killed in the battle for Brunete in July that same year. Danny was eventually captured by Franco’s troops at the battle of Calaceite in March 1938.
Danny Gibbons and his comrades were kept in filthy conditions in a concentration camp, but were eventually exchanged in February 1939, for Italian and German prisoners.
Patrick Joseph – ‘Joe’ – the third Gibbons brother, who volunteered as part of a Chicago-based battalion in Spain, was on a Barcelona-based ship which was torpedoed by an Italian submarine.
Two hundred volunteers were lost at sea, but Joe bravely kept two colleagues, neither of whom could swim, afloat for hours until they could be rescued.
He went on to fight the Falangists in numerous battles during the Civil War and was wounded after an enemy tank opened fire.
Of the Renton five, James Arnott was repatriated and Patrick Curley was killed at Jarama – the same battle in which Danny Gibbons was wounded.
More than 500 Scots left their homeland to fight against Franco and 65 of them lost their lives. There were 31 in total from West Dunbartonshire, including the five from Renton, and another 11 from Alexandria. The others came from Clydebank, Dumbarton, Duntocher and Dalmuir.
Eighty years on from the end of the Spanish Civil War the statue in Renton plus one of La Pasionaria in Glasgow, and memorial plaques have been erected throughout Scotland.
Back in Spain that basilica still stands. It was scooped out of the hills by labourers who worked until they dropped, and Franco himself is buried behind the altar, beneath a gravestone decorated with fresh flowers.
The Valley has long been a rallying point for the far right in Spain, built to exalt the armed nationalist uprising Franco led against the elected Republican government, his “glorious crusade”.
Now the government is considering exhuming the dictator’s remains in order to transform the site into a place of reconciliation, a delicate task.
“Spain’s transition to democracy was an act of prudence after the deep wounds caused by the war and the dictatorship,” Ramon Jauregui, a Spanish socialist politician explained.
“We have dealt with the past little by little. Maybe we’re tackling this site a little late, but prudence has been the key to our peaceful transition.”
Spain held no truth and reconciliation process after the war; there was no accounting for crimes, or punishment. The country agreed to “forget” and look to the future, for the sake of peace.
But as the fear has faded, that approach has been changing.
In the 21st century, archaeologists and volunteers have been exhuming the remains of Republicans from unmarked graves. (The bodies of most of those who died fighting for Franco were recovered long ago.)
Then in 2007, the government passed the Historical Memory Law, granting victims of the war and dictatorship formal rehabilitation and compensation. All remaining monuments to Francoism were to be removed.
But Spain’s conservative opposition party, the PP, refused to back the bill. There was talk of opening up old wounds.
“There are people in Spain who are afraid of being confronted with the darkness of the past,” explains historian Angel Vinas.
“There were horrors committed here, massacres. But we’re not unique in that and other countries have come to terms with it. I don’t see why Spain should not,” Mr Vinas says.
For him, reforming the Valley of the Fallen is all part of the process.