Why you should care
This daunting fort saw the most daring escape of the Spanish Civil War.
The doors of Fort San Cristóbal, one of the largest prisons in Francoist Spain, flew open unexpectedly on the evening of May 22, 1938, enabling 2,487 inmates to flee.
It was already dark, and Pamplona, 4 miles down the slopes, seemed far away from this mountaintop military facility-cum-prison. France, the dream destination for most of the escapees, was 25 miles north, on the other side of the Pyrenees — quite a distance when you’re on the run.
Two years earlier, in July 1936, Gen. Francisco Franco had launched a coup d’état against the legitimate republican government, sparking one of the most gruesome conflicts of the 20th century. Pamplona, a pleasant provincial town in the north, soon fell into rebel hands. Relatively far from the front, the Navarre province capital — now famed for its annual bull runs — became a hotbed of repression, with Fort San Cristóbal providing the perfect backdrop.
The prisoners estimated that they would have all night to reach the border, but an unforeseen loose end turned their escape into chaos.
The huge military base covering more than 600,000 square meters — roughly the size of 60 soccer fields — was designed in the late 19th century to be a camouflaged fortress. But the citadel never got to shine as a defensive structure: Under construction for more than 40 years, it wasn’t finished until after airpower was in effect. With grass covering half of San Cristóbal’s buried buildings, Spain decided to use the compound as a prison instead.
From 1934 to 1945, San Cristóbal hosted more than 6,000 prisoners, at least 700 of whom died in the fort. Those who survived spoke of starvation, torture and abuse, which only worsened during the Spanish Civil War. “It was sort of a concentration camp,” says Koldo Pla, co-author of Fort San Cristóbal in the Memory: From Prison to Penitentiary Hospital and a member of the Txinparta Association for the Recovery of the Memory of Ezkaba (the Basque name for the fort). “The inmates came from all around the country. There was also a group of Argentines, some Venezuelans, Cubans, Americans, Austrians …”
Facing appalling conditions, some inmates decided to flee, and meticulously planned their escape. “The organizers even spoke in Esperanto among themselves so that no one could know about their intentions,” says Pla. On the big day — a Sunday, chosen because the jail was largely understaffed then — all went according to plan. At dinnertime, some prisoners disarmed officials in the dining room, silently took control of the guards’ room and then forced the soldiers at the gates to surrender. The whole operation took just 30 minutes.
The prisoners estimated that they would have all night to reach the border, but an unforeseen loose end turned their escape into chaos: One guard managed to get away and alerted the garrison in Pamplona. By midnight, scores of armed soldiers, policemen and trucks with floodlights were deployed to retake the prison.
Most of the San Cristóbal inmates were not men of action — they were political prisoners, not hardened criminals. Nearly 1,700 of them, scared by the show of military force and frightened by the prospect of death, decided not to risk it and returned to their cells. But 795 dared to go on, leaving the jail and Pamplona behind — albeit briefly.
Controls and checkpoints were everywhere. “They could not advance. They had to move at night, very cautiously, and hide during the day,” Pla explains. Within days, 207 men had been shot dead and buried in nearby fields. Only three or four made it to France. “The rest,” Pla says, “were detained and returned to the fort.”
Thus ended one of the most spectacular escape bids from Francoist prisons — a daring attempt that few would learn about because it was deemed “unimportant” by the state-controlled media at the time. “Forty years of dictatorship dedicated to silence and oblivion of all those facts had an enduring effect,” Pla says.
The fort remained a jail until 1945, when it was converted into a military barrack. Only in 1989, 14 years after Franco’s death and Spain’s return to democracy, was it closed for good. Now it sits, an abandoned, oft-forgotten icon. The country is commemorating the 80th anniversary of its civil war, and while many Spaniards attend Pamplona’s running of the bulls each July, most remain unaware of the daring escape attempt made just a few miles away.