“And when I get another ship…”
Exact figures are still hard to find, probably because they would have embarrassed the British government had they been compiled at the time. But two things are irrefutable: first, British ships and seafarers trading with Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War suffered serious casualties; secondly, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – “Franco’s lackey” in Herbert L Peacock’s poem (see panel on left) – did virtually nothing about it.
A report published by the Republic’s embassy in London in 1938 calculated that, between July 1936 and June 1938, 13 British merchant ships were sunk by enemy action, 51 others were bombed from the air, two were mined, five were attacked by submarines and 23 seized or detained by Franco’s forces.
Thirty-five British seamen had been killed in these attacks and nearly 50 badly injured. The Royal Navy also lost eight killed when in May 1937 the destroyer HMS Hunter struck a mine laid by Franco’s navy south of Almería.
Victims of non-intervention
The attacks were being perpetrated by bombers, ships and submarines sent by Franco’s allies, Hitler and Mussolini. Underlining the farcical nature of the notorious international non-intervention agreement instigated by Britain and France during the civil war, the Italian dictator was entrusted with policing the agreement along Spain’s Mediterranean coast – while the Royal Navy patrolled the country’s Atlantic seaboard.
In fact, the figures put out by the Spanish embassy at the time appear to have understated the losses. According to a later study by historian Rafael González Etchegaray, 29 British ships were wrecked or lost during the civil war. Wikipedia, meanwhile, lists 26 British-flag ships destroyed by enemy action; see [http://en.wiki pedia.org/wiki/List_of_foreign_ships_wrecked_ or_lost_in_the_Spanish_Civil_War].
The total number of seafarers killed and injured is not known, but casualties were likely to have been substantial.
So alarmed was the National Union of Seamen (NUS) that it commissioned, along with the Committee of Shipowners Trading to Spain and the Merchant Navy Officers’ Federation, a film about the attacks on British ships and their crews. Made in 1938 by the Progressive Film Institute and directed by Ivor Montagu, “Britain Expects” was intended to be shown to cinema audiences in order to tell them what was happening in and around Spanish Republican ports. It also pointed the finger at Chamberlain for being the first British Prime Minister to deny the merchant navy adequate protection.
But the 16-minute film was banned for public viewing by the British Board of Film Censors, high- lighting the extent to which the authorities were prepared to go to suppress criticism of the government’s policy of appeasement towards the fascist powers.
Another film shot by Montagu in 1938, “Prisoners Prove Intervention in Spain”, showed footage of the bombed wreck of a British ship, the Stanwell, in Tarragona harbour, in which two British seamen were killed. Included is an interview with a captured German pilot of one of the planes involved in the raid.
Outraged at the British government’s failure to act, NUS General Secretary William Spence contrasted the Royal Navy’s blockade of Piraeus in 1850 in response to a mob attack on a single British national in Athens. “Where was the strong arm of England now?” asked Spence. Neville Chamberlain “faced by the pseudo Christian Spanish gentleman Franco, the murderer of thousands of defenceless women and children, was tragic in his futility. These things would be remembered by seamen in the next general election,” he wrote in June 1938.
The only time a credible threat to take retaliatory action was issued by the British government was in the summer of 1937 following a spate of attacks by Italian submarines – which immediately ceased as a result. Significantly, the British response was led by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who resigned a few months later in protest at Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.
Lest we forget
This piece of British history connected to the Spanish Civil War has long been largely overlooked. But some people are determined that we should not forget it.
One of them is Geoff Cowling, the former IBMT Trustee, who was Britain’s Consul General in Barcelona for many years.
In 2008 he used his influence to see to it that the graves of nine British merchant seamen were repaired in what had been the near-derelict British Cemetery in Tarragona. They included the two crewmen of the Stanwell.
Coordinated by Cowling’s successor as Consul General, David Smith, the work was carried out by sailors from HMS Bulwark, which was on a goodwill visit to Barcelona at the time, and with the help of the Tarragona local council.
Cowling is still concerned that other graves might be in disrepair. “As far as I can tell, we still don’t know how many British merchant seamen were killed during the Spanish Civil War and whether they were properly buried.”
Another IBMT member who wants appropriate recognition for the seafarers is sculptor and artist Frank Casey. Frank’s interest in the subject developed after he heard an interview with WH Roberts, captain of the Seven Seas Spray, about how he ran the gauntlet of Franco’s blockade to bring food to the starving people of Bilbao.
He was also startled to learn that the search for the wreck of HMS Ark Royal, sunk by a German u-boat off Gibraltar in 1941, had been made especially difficult by the many wrecks from the civil war lying on the sea-bed in the search area.
Frank has made a maquette of a memorial to the British crews who faced great danger while sailing in and out of Spanish Republican ports. He has received backing for the project from rail and maritime union RMT. But an appropriate site for the memorial, plus adequate funding, still have to be found.
His research efforts have been helped by reading Paul Heaton’s “Spanish Civil War Blockade Runners”, which tells the story of the ships trad- ing out of Welsh ports, including the famous exploits of Captain David “Potato” Jones.
However, Frank, a Glaswegian now settled in St Albans, is quick to point out that it was not only Welsh ships involved. The Glasgow-registered Oakgrove, for example, took badly needed provisions to Republican Spain – and crew members waived their salaries as a protest at the shameful stance of the British government.
These are stories of heroism and sacrifice that the IBMT also hopes will be remembered in the form of a memorial to the seafarers involved.
For more information see: “La Marina Mercante y el Tráfico Marítimo en la Guerra Civil” by Rafael González Etchegaray (Editorial San Martín, Madrid, 1977); “The Seamen: A History of the National Union of Seamen” by Arthur Marsh and Victo- ria Ryan (Malthouse Press, Oxford, 1989); “Spanish Civil War Blockade Runners” by Paul Heaton (PM Heaton Publishing, Abergavenny, 2006).