When the Civil War caused the largest prison break in Spanish history

The most massive escape in the history of Spain took place on May 22, 1938. It took place on Mount Ezkaba, north of the city of Pamplona and only fifty kilometers from the French border. The protagonists of this escape escaped from the fort of San Cristóbal, an old fortress that had been used as a prison. Almost 2,500 prisoners gathered there at a time when the Civil War was still raging in Spain.

From a fortress to stop the Carlists to a state prison

Fort of San Cristóbal

Fort of San Cristóbal. | Shutterstock

The fort of San Cristóbal is today an abandoned and overgrown place, but it still crowns Mount Ezkaba. Its construction began a few months after the end of the Third Carlist War, with the aim of having a fortress near Pamplona that would stop any aspirations of the Carlist side with respect to the powerful Pamplona citadel.

The fortress was never used as such, as its construction was not completed until forty years later. By then, it was already an obsolete building. The appearance of the air forces ruined all the defensive functions planned for this place. It was in 1934 when it was decided to give it another use.

After a remodeling, it came to be considered one of the busiest prisons in the North. The peak of its activity was reached during the Civil War, when it came under Franco’s control. At that point in history begins this other one.

The terrible conditions of the San Cristóbal Fort

Fort of San Cristóbal civil war

Fort of San Cristóbal. | Shutterstock

By the year of the prison break, the prison was occupied by nearly 2,500 inmates and about 90 officials, who were actually army men. Many political leaders and activists who had been against the Popular Front were locked up here.

They reported many times the distressing situation in which they lived. A situation which, on the other hand, was repeated in the vast majority of prisons in Spain. Prisoners were physically mistreated, they were made to suffer extreme hunger and there was no remedy for serious illnesses, such as tuberculosis, which at that time was on the rise in the country. Not that this was unexpected. During the course of the Civil War and afterwards, those on the front lines in Spain could hardly feed themselves, much less were they concerned about the health and welfare of prisoners on the other side.

The future of the captives had only two variants. Either they would be condemned to the maximum penalty, the firing squad, or to the minimum, life imprisonment. In the second case, they were subjected to the aforementioned conditions. Hundreds died as a result of this abandonment. Hundreds more died after the famous escape.

The greatest escape in the history of Spain

Fort of San Cristobal

More pictures of the Fort of San Cristobal. | Shutterstock

It was these horrible conditions that pushed some thirty prisoners to plan their escape. Taking advantage of their superior numbers, 2,500 captives compared to about 90 prisoners, as well as the small timetable that existed during the dinner shift, the mutiny was successful. They disarmed their captors and managed to imprison many of them. It is said that in order to prevent them from knowing their plans, they used the language of Esperanto.

In the early morning of May 22, 795 prisoners escaped from the fort of San Cristobal. It was and still is the greatest escape in the history of Spain. They rushed down the hillside, especially hoping to reach the French border, which, as already mentioned, was about 50 kilometers away. During this escape, the numerous escapees took different paths. Many of them got lost, others were injured.

Nevertheless, most of them were captured. That morning alone, 259 people returned to the prison. By the following day, 445 of the 795 escaped inmates were accounted for. As a curiosity, it is worth mentioning that the last of the captured escapees was known as Tarzan, due to the way of life he led until he was arrested again on August 14 of the same year.

585 of the 795 prisoners returned to the appalling conditions from which they had escaped. Only three managed to reach the French border and flee for good. The rest, more than 200 people, were killed in the chase or subsequent shootings.

What remains of this story

Fort San Cristobal civil war

Fort San Cristobal has been invaded by nature. | Shutterstock

The memory remains and the Fort of San Cristobal, which although abandoned has not been demolished. It was closed in 1945. The army abandoned it definitively forty years later. In 1988, a monument to the prisoners who died there was built on one of the slopes of Mount Ezkaba. In addition, the excavations that have taken place for more than a decade have made it possible to locate and exhume many corpses buried near the fort. Nowadays the access is closed to the public, but it is worthwhile to get as close as possible to contemplate this piece of Spanish history and the Civil War.

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