Last minute withdrawals, a military column stopped at a red light, a member of the Government sleepy and two crying: the 25th of April coup that overthrew the dictatorship was also made up of caricatured episodes.
Between the night of the 24th and the afternoon of the 25th of April 1974, a group of young captains set in motion a military operation that overthrew, in less than 24 hours, a dictatorship of half a century.
These are tense, mind-blowing hours, but also full of ridiculous episodes.
Dawn of April 24th
“Everything is quiet”
On the night of the 24th, even before the transmission of the first password – at 22:55 pm, when the voice of João Paulo Dinis would announce Paulo de Carvalho to the microphones of Emissores Associados de Lisboa with “E After do Adeus”, triggering the gear of the coup – the of Command of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) suffers the first casualty: Infantry Regiment 1, from Amadora, makes it known, at that moment, that it does not align. The coup starts without the movement having anyone to take care of the fort of Caxias or the headquarters of the political police (PIDE/DGS).
Hours later, at 03:00 am, with the troops of the rebel movement already in the streets, the Minister of the Army Andrade e Silva is still working. He plans to travel to Beja in a few hours. The MFA intercepts a conversation between him, in his office, and Defense Minister Silva Cunha.
Cunha asks him how the situation is and Silva replies that everything is “unchanged and perfectly under control”. And he adds: “I ask you not to worry, as everything is quiet and there are no problems anywhere in the country”.
Shortly after this conversation, Silva Cunha receives a call from the General Director of Security, Major Silva Pais, who tells him: “You can sleep well, Minister”.
Maia's Column starts from Santarém
At almost the same time, a column of 240 men left the Cavalry Practice School in Santarém, commanded by Salgueiro Maia, the captain who would end up negotiating that day, in Largo do Carmo, for the surrender of the council president, Marcello Caetano.
On the other side of the barricade, at 03:30 am, the Commander of the Porto PSP, Colonel Santos Júnior, learns of the occupation of the North Military Region Headquarters. It is only at this moment that the regime realizes that the revolution is in the street.
Two “Berliet” were lost in Camarate
At 04:00 am, under the command of Captain Rui Rodrigues, then 30 years old, a force from the Mafra Infantry Practice School stormed Lisbon airport, which was the last objective of the MFA to be achieved and which led to the postponement, 26 minutes of the reading of the Movement's first successful communiqué on Rádio Clube Português.
Consisting of 150 men and 30 vehicles, of which two "Berliet", were lost along the way between Mafra and Lisbon.
"I got lost. I reconnoitred the route on April 21, during the day, but we marched at night, which is different. I didn't want to enter Lisbon directly because of the Traffic and Traffic Police. The GNR was our main enemy. To avoid it, I went around Camarate and that's where I got lost", said Rui Rodrigues.
“Other than this mishap”, the operation proceeded without incident.
“We entered the airport without any difficulties. He said there was a terrorist threat and he was going to take over the airport. Nobody objected. My big problems at the airport were civil, not military, like, for example, feeding all those people, PIDE/DGS agents, police, that we confined to an area, without arresting them. It ended up being EPI that paid for lunch on the 25th. I still remember the price: 25 thousand escudos”.
At about the same time, when elements of the movement went to the facilities of Rádio Clube Português to occupy the station, from where the first communiqué of the MFA would be issued, around 04:30 am, the doorman, seeing the military, and hearing them explain that they were there carrying out a coup d'état, he suggested that they return again around 07:00, when, he argued, they would certainly find more people.
stop at red light
Marcello Caetano is surprised when he first falls asleep by the General Director of Security, who tells him that the revolution is on the street and recommends that he go to the Carmo barracks. He agrees. As he passes close to Terreiro do Paço, he sees patrols occupying the ends of the streets. He thinks: “General Andrade e Silva is taking his precautions.” He wasn't. They are rebel troops. They let us pass without noticing them.
With the clock close to 06:00, Salgueiro Maia's column approaches Lisbon. Carlos Beato, a former soldier from Abril, Salgueiro Maia's assistant on this mission, says that “nobody” in that column “knew Lisbon very well”.
They had studied the maps the day before. As they approach Cidade Universitária, the captain hits his head on the window of the jeep he is traveling in. The column stopped. Salgueiro Maia asks: “What is this, man?”. And he hears: “'It's red, my captain!'”.
In his memoirs, Army Undersecretary of State Viana de Lemos says that, that night, “I was fed up and sleepy”. For this reason, he justifies, he is limited to watching “as a mere spectator because he found, very early on, that there was no chance of stopping the insurrection, unless there was a risk of bloodshed”.
Ham and Cloves for the Soldiers
Later, already after 12:00, in Rossio, there is an episode that comforts the stomach of the military, but that the carnations – which quickly became an icon and even the name of the revolution – overshadow. Alongside the saleswomen who distribute these flowers, white and red, to the soldiers there is, says Salgueiro Maia, “a man with a ham and a knife”, offering the snack.
After 15:00, when the time allotted for the surrender of the Carmo Barracks had elapsed, Salgueiro Maia gave the order to open fire on the Barracks. Several rounds are fired, there is broken glass. A reporter loses a shoe.
An hour and a half later, and still facing an impasse, awaiting surrender, Maia enters the Barracks to speak with Marcello Caetano. He would later tell that inside he heard “a child’s cry”. César Moreira Baptista, Minister of the Interior, and Rui Patrício, Minister of Foreign Affairs, “cry like two children, with an attack of hysteria”.
Respond only to “direct shot”
If Captain Salgueiro Maia's troops fired several volleys at the Carmo Barracks, the truth is that they only had orders to respond with “direct fire”.
The episode is recalled by Maia, in an interview with journalist Adelino Gomes, published in the magazine “Factos e Fotos” just a week after the coup.
“Orders to my men were to respond with direct fire only. They would not even respond to shots in the air,” said the captain.
By the time Marcello surrendered, foreign embassies in Lisbon were already communicating events to Paris, Bonn and Washington.
Costa Gomes at the military hospital, with suitcase and passport
On April 25, 1974, António de Spínola unsuccessfully tried to speak with Costa Gomes, one of the future strongmen of the Junta de Salvação Nacional (JSN) and former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (CEMGFA). .
Costa Gomes was accompanying the woman who had gone for tests at the military hospital in Estrela. “It had been a stratagem not to commit to the military coup”, affirm José Matos and Zélia Oliveira, authors of the book “Towards the Revolution” (Ink from China).
The former CEMGFA took with him “a suitcase with all the documents he needs, including his passport, in case he has to leave the country”. and there he stayed with his wife, while receiving visits, such as his former chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Ferreira da Cunha, who brings him messages from the MFA.
One more explanation given in the book: “In the event that the coup failed, the police or the PIDE/DGS could arrest him at home, in the center of Lisbon, and at the Military Hospital he was more safeguarded, not being able to be arrested so easily when he was in a military institution.
Phones Failed to Washington
To the United States of America, however, communications had to be by telegram because the telephones did not work.
From the communications between the US diplomatic representation in Lisbon and the Department of State, deposited in the National Archives of the United States, one can see the caution with which diplomacy faced the MFA coup d'état.
But there is also an unusual record: the phones failed on the day the dictatorship in Portugal fell, precisely at the end of the afternoon, at the time that the head of the Government, Marcello Caetano, surrendered in Largo do Carmo, in Lisbon, between 18:00 and 19:00.
From Lisbon, the diplomats sent at least two telegrams, asking that they be called “immediately” from Washington. And they even gave the embassy numbers (555141 or 555149).
Early in the morning, when the outcome of the coup was unknown, the registration of US diplomats in Lisbon, but also in the Azores, where the US has a base, in Lajes, was cautious.
“Everything is calm”, reads a telegram from the Consulate in Ponta Delgada sent to Washington in the early hours of the day on which the Armed Forces Movement overthrew the dictatorship, and which is deposited in the National Archives.
From Lisbon, the first telegram, with the same title, “Distúrbios em Portugal”, appears at 09:50 am, making a mere description of what was happening: tanks in the streets of Lisbon, ministries surrounded by the military, reports of calls for calm, made by the MFA over the radio.