Rosario Sanchez: Front-line fighter against Franco

Rosario Sánchez was one of the first women to enlist in the revolutionary militias that fought Francisco Franco's troops in the civil war, joining the day the Spanish army rose up against the republic in July 1936.

She was 17, one of the few women fighters on the front-line in defence of Madrid, and the only one among the élite dynamiters section. Within two months, her right hand was blown off in the trenches while she was making bombs and explosives.

While Sanchez was recovering in hospital, she received a visit from the distinguished Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. The republican poet Miguel Hernandez, who was to die in prison in 1942, wrote a poem in her honour:

Rosario, dinamitera,
the dynamite watched over your pretty hand
envying its fiery attributes . . .
The enemy knew well
the hand of this maiden
that is no longer a hand, because
without moving a single finger
it ignited the dynamite
and made her a star.

The republican government ordered female milicianas to withdraw from front-line fighting in 1937, and Sánchez became a postwoman. A driver took her every morning to the front to collect and distribute correspondence between the combatants and their families. But her nickname, "La Dinamitera", stuck.

Later she worked with "La Pasionaria", the Communist militant Dolores Ibárruri, trying to recruit women for the jobs left by men who had gone to the front. She married a handsome young sergeant, Paco Burcet, who promptly went off to fight in Teruel; they lost contact for the rest of the war.

In 1939, with Franco on the point of entering the Spanish capital, Rosario Sánchez burned her papers and buried her rifles, left her baby daughter with her mother, and went to join her father, a left-wing republican, in Valencia where the government had withdrawn. They headed for Alicante, to take a boat to safety. But the boats failed to arrive and they were detained. Her father was executed.

Rosario Sánchez was imprisoned and condemned to death "for joining the rebellion" – a common sentence for those who resisted Franco's rebellion with arms. The sentence was commuted to 30 years' jail, of which she served three. After her release in 1942 she tried to find Paco, and eventually learned that their civil marriage had been dissolved by Franco's dictatorship. Paco had remarried and had two sons, and she found herself a single mother (she later had another daughter).

She set up a little stall in Madrid selling cigarettes, which sustained her throughout the dictatorship until her retirement. With the advent of democracy she became a fount of oral history, whilst losing none of her Communist convictions. She recorded her memories in exercise books and said, in her eighties, "I had the opportunity to fight when women didn't fight. They stayed at home. I lost my hand. It didn't matter. I was prepared to lose my life."

In recent years she was finally recognised as "war wounded" – mutilada de guerra – for defending the republic.

Elizabeth Nash

Rosario Sánchez Mora, militia fighter: born Villarejo de Salvanés, Spain 21 April 1919; married 1937 Paco Burcet (one daughter; marriage dissolved), (one daughter); died Madrid 17 April 2008.

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