A little Spanish adventure in 1981

NavyI would like to tell you about a little adventure I had on the 23rd February, 1981 when there was an attempted coup d’état in Spain. I was, at that time, in the British Royal Navy and my parents, sister, and brother lived in Dénia, Alicante.  I had not seen them for over a year. I missed them and thought it was high time I paid Spain, and the family, a surprise visit.

At the time I was based at HMS Drake in, Devon and was given a long weekend leave pass, one of four given every year. I decided to fly to Valencia, get a taxi, and arrive unannounced at my parent’s house on the Montgó Mountain in Dénia.

I arrived at a very quiet Valencia airport and walked outside to a waiting taxi. The taxi driver shook his head and informed me that I had arrived on a terrible night. I looked up at the night sky and all I could see were stars and all I felt was warmth in the air. It had been snowing in Plymouth that morning. I said to him:

“Oh, you should be in England. The weather is awful there.”

He replied with passion in his voice: “We might be at war again!”

After that, I began to notice tanks and armoured vehicles lining the streets of Valencia and driving slowly down its avenues. On the entire journey to Dénia I saw more of the same. There were soldiers at intersections and on the main Valencia exits. I also noted that there were very few cars about and no people! Being dressed in military uniform I also felt a sense of something akin to fear, but actually I felt more excited than frightened, if truth be told.

We were stopped at a check-point and my uniform was scrutinised. I was asked to show my passport and Royal Navy identity card and I was interrogated at the side of the road for a good half-hour.  I was asked for my reasons for being in the country and in military dress. I told them I simply did not have time to change and that on British Airways flights one usually got bumped up to business class when in uniform. I told them I was visiting my parents and ended my long explanation with a “¡Viva España!”

We arrived at my parents’ house, after having had a long discussion on the journey, and the driver, who was called Juan, told me he was going straight home to Gandía and to his house where he would remain. He told me not to venture out and to stay indoors, which irked me because I had been looking forward to going out for dinner with my family, seeing my childhood friends. I had come for a good time, a relaxing few days without rules and regulations. My parents’ house was in darkness, apart from flickering candles on the window sills, which I saw from the driveway. My mother and father appeared at the door. I threw my arms around them and tears were shed by all three of us; the surprise had been well worth it. When we got inside, six Spanish neighbours were there drinking my father’s Scotch (this was back in the day when there were only Spanish living in this area of the mountain). Everyone was drunk and singing patriotic songs but, when I look back, I now know that the neighbours were terrified and convinced that if the coup succeeded, they would be arrested at any moment!

They were socialists, as were most of the Dénia population, and two of them were secretly affiliated to the Communist Party. These neighbours, all one family owned a radio station called, Radio Dénia.   Pep, the father was a very well known socialist/communist, and he made that quite clear in all political broadcasts on the station.  The neighbours had asked my father for refuge, as there was a curfew in place, and I spent the entire weekend drinking wine and singing ‘Granada’… I always sing Granada when I’m tipsy, even now.

By Monday morning it was all over.  The neighbours left with huge hangovers and my father took me back to Valencia but during my three day visit I never left the house, saw my friends, or went shopping. I did have a great time at a long drawn out party where Spanish passion and humour was at its best and it was at that moment I decided to make it my mission in life to study, research, and write about the Spanish Civil War.

When I got back to my Naval Base the girls in my mess asked me if I’d had a nice time:

“Lovely!” I replied.

The attempted coup that began on 23rd February 1981 ended on the following day. It is also known as ‘El Tejerazo’ from the name of its most visible figure, Antonio Tejero, who led the failed coup’s most notable event: the bursting into the Spanish Congress of Deputies by a group of 200 armed officers of the Guardia Civil during the process of electing Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo to be the country’s new Prime Minister. King Juan Carlos I gave a nationally televised address denouncing the coup and urging the maintenance of law and the continuance of the democratically elected government. The coup soon collapsed. After holding the Parliament and cabinet hostage for 18 hours the hostage-takers surrendered the next morning without having harmed anyone.

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