By Michael Alpert 

Pen & Sword Books. 288 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-52676-436-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’ve noted before that the Spanish Civil War has attracted attention from numerous writers. Most, whether writing fact or fiction, have focused on the war on land, and, to varying degrees, in the air. Little has been written about what happened at sea, though the physical location of Spain, and the supposed embargo on other countries supplying war materials, meant that shipping had an important part to play in keeping both sides provided with the essentials required to enable them to carry on functioning. Non-intervention was something of a farce in that Germany and Italy regularly supplied men and weapons to the Insurgents (I’m using Michael Alpert’s term for Franco’s forces) while Russia did the same for the Republicans.  

When Franco and his supporters launched their insurrection in July, 1936, the Republic’s navy was in what might be called a run-down condition. There had been an attempt to build up the fleet after it suffered heavy losses in the Spanish-American War of 1898, but little had been achieved in forming a truly modern naval force. By 1936 many of the ships were outdated in terms of their equipment. In theory the Government had a battleship, three cruisers, thirteen destroyers, twelve submarines, and a variety of smaller vessels, including torpedo boats, a gunboat and coastguard cutters, at its disposal. In practice it would soon become obvious that not all of the officers and crews of these ships could be relied on to support the Republic.

The situation in the Spanish Navy appears to have been that a sharp class distinction existed between the officers and the rest. Alpert puts it this way: “As for the men, the Spanish navy was not a happy service. There was mutual antipathy and suspicion between officers of the General Corps or Cuerpo General, who commanded the ships, and the specialist branches of engineers and gunnery, both among officers and the various branches and ranks of petty officers”. No matter how skilled or experienced they were, petty officers could never become officers.

On the other hand, Alpert suggests that “Significant communist or revolutionary cells do not seem to have been present in the navy……Nor was there a history of indiscipline in the navy even during the social and industrial agitation in Spain in the months since the electoral victory of the Popular Front in February 1936”. But sailors’ committees were formed “and their purpose was to observe the officers and to nip a possible officers’ uprising in the bud”. It would soon become obvious that, when they could, the great majority of officers would ally themselves with Franco and, given the opportunity, place their ships in insurgent hands. It was largely due to one man, a warrant officer and telegrapher named Benjamin Balboa, based in the navy’s communications centre, that some plots by officers were foiled. He kept In touch with radio operators on ships at sea and alerted them to attempts by officers to put in at ports controlled by the insurgents.

Mutinies among the crews spread on most of the ships that did stay loyal to the Republic. It was probably a sign of the existing antagonism that 350 officers were killed, usually by being thrown overboard. We know from other accounts that the Spanish Civil War was often a particularly brutal episode, with old enmities and class resentments coming to the fore. Anarchist sympathies were strong in Spain, and a hatred of all forms of authority, whether in the shape of religion or class, led to many outrages. It needs to be said that the Insurgents, for their part, could be just as savage when repressing any kind of radical activity.

The majority of ships remained under Republican command, but there were major problems facing them. Some of the more suitable ports had been occupied by the Insurgents, so questions of re-fuelling and similar matters were important. Republican ships were denied fuel in Tangiers, then under international control, ostensibly because the Control Commission feared that Franco might send aircraft to bomb the ships. But the port was full of French, Portuguese, Italian, and British warships, and their commanders were fearful of the effects of having mutinous sailors alongside their own crews. Alpert refers to a report that the Republican fleet “was under the direction of a Soviet led by a warrant officer”. The absence of officers on the ships disturbed observers from other countries. Alpert also says that Shell refused to provide fuel for the Spanish ships because they were controlled by mutineers. And Shell’s interests would probably have been more aligned towards the Insurgents than to a radical Republican government.

The position regarding officers who appeared to have remained loyal to the Republic was never very clear. The submarines were especially affected by doubts about their effectiveness because of a seeming lack of enthusiasm on the part of their commanders to carry out orders. And it was a fact that the removal of so many officers due to either desertion to the Insurgents or death at the hands of mutinous sailors, caused major Republican concerns. With men being promoted to the rank of officer at short notice, and with little practical experience in the overall running of a ship, not to mention the sailors’ committees questioning and sometimes countermanding orders, putting to sea could be a risky enterprise.

The Insurgents did take over some ships, including a battleship, four cruisers, a destroyer, three minelayers, and some smaller vessels. They also established a number of armed trawlers to stop merchant ships heading for Republican ports. And they had the advantage of experienced officers and disciplined crews, though they sometimes had to train men quickly to take over from sailors who refused to fight for Franco. It’s also significant to note that the presence of Italian and German ships played a major part in the operations of the Insurgent navy. They had reasons for being there, not just because Mussolini and Hitler wanted to support a fellow-dictator, which is what Franco would become with their assistance, but for strategic purposes. The Italians, for example, were keen to present a challenge to the dominance of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

I mentioned earlier that moving goods into Spain, whether of a military or non-military nature, had to be done largely by sea. The land access through France was closed most of the time due to the Non-Intervention policy of the French Government. Some supplies could be landed in Portugal, whose dictator, Salazar, was sympathetic to the Insurgents and would then allow them to be moved into Spain. But this was not an option available to the Republicans. Most of what they needed had to arrive by sea, and was transported by merchant ships, many of which were British, or at least registered as such to enable them to fly the British flag and be protected by the Royal Navy in certain circumstances. This didn’t stop them being torpedoed by Italian submarines or bombed by Insurgent aircraft frequently manned by German or Italian pilots. It isn’t necessary for me to give a ship-by-ship account of all the attacks and incidents involving merchant ships – sometimes they were stopped so their cargoes could be examined to see if they were carrying war materials – but Alpert provides an informative selection of relevant stories.

It’s often alleged that the role of the Communist Party, and particularly of Russians present in Spain, was a determining factor in the decisions made by countries like Britain and France in relation to the Republic. It might seem obvious now that Hitler and Mussolini were using Spain as a form of testing ground, not only for their armed forces, but also to determine how other nations would react. And to hopefully have Spain on their side when a showdown with the British and French came. As it happened, Franco kept Spain out of the Second World War. But at the time the possibility of a Republican victory leading to a communist Spain seemed the greater danger to politicians and business leaders in Britain and France. Their turning a blind eye to Germany and Italy openly intervening can be explained in this way. Russia, of course, was also intervening by providing arms and ammunition, together with some “advisers”, to the Republic, but that was condemned.  

With regard to the Russians who arrived in Spain, it’s useful to note the comments of Nikolair Kuznetsov on the lack of qualified officers in Republican ships. He had a low opinion of their “insufficient and out-of-date training” and the navy generally was “not even minimally ready for a naval war”. What appeared to have caused him much consternation, however, were the on-board sailors’ committees: “For Kuznetsov, the lack of organisation, leadership, and firm direction, added to anarchistic indiscipline, rendered ineffective the efforts of petty officers and officers”. The inefficiency among the crews was also found in the dockyards where ships being repaired could be held up for months. Some blame for this was attributed to sabotage, and management sympathy for the Insurgents.

There were no major confrontations between the two fleets. Alpert sums up the situation at one point: “Thus, by spring 1937, the tone of the naval war off the Spanish coast had been established. The Insurgents would strive even more to prevent merchant ships bringing arms to Republican Spain, and the Republicans would continue to escort vessels on their way to Republican ports. Neither fleet would show much enthusiasm for an encounter which might endanger their navies ‘in being’".

This didn’t mean that individual ships weren’t sunk or badly damaged. The Insurgent battleship, Espana, struck a mine (seemingly one laid by the Insurgents themselves in a blockade operation off Santander) and sank. Luckily, most of the crew survived. But when the Insurgent cruiser, Baleares, was torpedoed by Republican destroyers, 790 of her crew died. And an Insurgent transport ship, the Castillo de Olite, hit by shore batteries near Cartagena, went down with 1,477 men.  In the Republican fleet, the battleship, Jaime Primero, which was in dock for repairs following an air attack, was lost when an explosion in a powder magazine killed 179 men and rendered it unfit for further service. There was also the loss of the destroyer, José Luis Diez, and several submarines, some of which may have been deliberately scuttled by their officers who were secretly pro-Franco and reluctant to follow Republican orders.  

When the end came the Republican fleet left Cartagena and sailed to Algiers where it was ordered to proceed to Bizerta. The ships were eventually handed over to the Insurgents when France recognised the Franco government. Some of the sailors went into exile, others opted to return to Spain.  Franco wasn’t content to have won, he needed to exact revenge, and Alpert reports that “192 officers appeared before courts-martial, of whom 80 were acquitted and 112 found guilty. Ten death sentences were imposed, of which two were commuted”. Some other officers were sentenced to life imprisonment. And he adds, “As for other ranks, 153 death sentences were handed down of which 115 were carried out”.

The Spanish Civil War at Sea is an important book, providing as it does a useful account of what happened off the coast of Spain. It was often a story of relatively small-scale actions involving individual Insurgent and Republican ships, Royal Navy, German, and Italian warships, and numerous merchant ships. Michael Alpert supplies a brisk, detailed history of events between 1936 and 1939.