A photo of Anselmo Vilar, Torre del Mar's lighthouse keeper / sur

Anselmo Vilar, the lighthouse keeper who switched off the lights during ‘La Desbandá’

Torre del Mar is planning a memorial for the man from Galicia who was murdered for trying to help thousands of people fleeing Malaga towards Almeria during Spain's Civil War

Eugenio Cabezas

La Desbandá' was one of the most tragic episodes of the Spanish Civil War, when thousands of people from Malaga fled by road towards Almeria after Franco’s troops entered the city in February 1937. However, there were many unsung heroes whose courageous acts are gradually being brought to light.

One of these people was lighthouse keeper Anselmo Antonio Vilar García, who for two nights turned off the Torre del Mar lighthouse in an effort to prevent thousands of people from being killed as Italian troops bombed the Malaga to Almeria road (now the N-340), along which the refugees were fleeing.

Vélez-Málaga town hall now wants to remember the figure of Vilar, originally from Galicia, who kept the lighthouse of Torre del Mar switched off during the early hours of 6 and 7 February 1937. It is working alongside local journalist and researcher, Jesús Hurtado Navarrete, who has compiled information on Vilar and has written a number of articles about him.

The town hall is looking into the best site to commemorate this hero of ‘La Desbandá', coinciding with the 85th anniversary of the tragedy, which took place earlier this month.

The story of Vilar, born in Castro de Rei (Lugo), has been brought to light by Hurtado, after speaking to five survivors who were able to confirm the events. Vilar took charge of the lighthouse when he was 48, in 1930. But as Hurtado explained, "life was soon to put him in a momentous situation.”

Between 6 and 7 February 1937, tens of thousands of people left not only Malaga, but also Cadiz and Loja in Granada province. However, besieged by Franco-supporting Italian forces who launched their attack from the skies and the sea, the refugees crowded into Torre del Mar in an attempt to hide from the bombs.

According to Hurtado's research, Vilar, knowing that thousands of people were hiding near his lighthouse, made his decision: he turned off the lights to prevent the planes from getting their bearings and continuing their slaughter.

There is no official record of the lighthouse keeper's fate, but Vilar is believed to have been captured and killed inside the walls of Vélez-Málaga's cemetery. "It is for this heroic act that we think he should be honoured and thanked," concluded Hurtado.

A view of Torre del Mar's original lighthouse in the 1940s / sur

The original lighthouse is now just off Avenida Toré Toré and has been replaced by a blue and white striped one / sur