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Remembering the seafarers who defied the fascist blockade of Spanish ports

JIM JUMP tells the story of British seafarers who traded with Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War

NEXT month sees the unveiling in Glasgow of a memorial to British seafarers who braved fascist bombs and U-boats – and the British government’s appeasement of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini – to trade with Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Thanks must go to rail and maritime union RMT and its Glasgow Shipping Branch for raising the money for a memorial to the crews of British ships who risked and in some cases gave their lives to break Franco’s blockade of Spanish Republican ports. Designed by sculptor Frank Casey, the memorial will stand proudly across the Clyde from Arthur Dooley’s landmark Pasionaria memorial to the more than 500 Scots of the International Brigades.

The blockade-busting seafarers brought vital supplies to Spaniards fighting the fascist-backed uprising against their elected Popular Front government. Big cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao remained loyal to the Republic, while much of their agricultural hinterlands fell into fascist hands. Swollen by refugees, these urban centres became dependent on imports. Food shortages and starvation were an ever-present reality.

Later in the war, British ships and crews played a key role in taking thousands of Republican refugees to safety, again running the gauntlet of Franco’s mines and bombs.

The Spanish Republic’s embassy in London reported that in the first two years of the war, up to June 1938, 13 British merchant ships had been sunk, 51 others bombed from the air, two had been damaged by mines, five were attacked by submarines and 23 had been seized or detained by Franco’s forces.

Thirty-five British seamen were killed in these attacks and nearly 50 badly injured. The Royal Navy also lost eight sailors when in May 1937 the destroyer HMS Hunter struck a mine laid by Franco’s navy south of Almeria.

The final tally by the end of the war in April 1939 was much higher. At least 26 were sunk or wrecked – though the number of British seafarer deaths is unknown.

The attacks on British shipping were played out against the background of Britain’s cynical policy of “non-intervention” in the Spanish Civil War. This meant an arms embargo on Spain’s legitimate government – while turning a blind eye to the troops, weapons and aeroplanes that Hitler and Mussolini were sending Franco, and doing little to protect British shipping.

The Royal Navy was not even allowed to clear mines around Bilbao and other northern Spanish ports to allow free passage of British ships. Speaking on behalf of the Conservative-led government, Home Secretary John Simon told the House of Commons on April 14 1937 that such action would constitute intervention in favour of the Republic. An angry Clem Attlee, the Labour leader, accused the government of giving up trying to protect British shipping.

Many British ships, however, defied the government’s official warnings. The blockade was eventually broken on April 20 by the Cardiff-registered Seven Seas Spray, having sailed through the night with its navigation lights off. Thousands of Bilbao’s inhabitants greeted the ship’s arrival, shouting: “Long live the British sailors! Long live liberty!” Other ships soon followed, ignoring Francoist warning shells fired across their bows, while Royal Navy ships looked on. They too were cheered by enthusiastic crowds as they docked in the Basque port.
It’s true that there was good money to be made by shipowners trading with Republican Spain. The war had doubled freight rates, and the Basque government offered generous incentives to masters to beat the blockade. The National Union of Seamen (NUS) negotiated a 50 per cent wage bonus for entering a war zone following the refusal of several crews to set sail for Spain without a guarantee of danger money. This allowance was later doubled.

But it was clear where most seafarers’ sympathies lay. Some crews donated wages to help relief work. Many seafarers jumped ship in Republican ports to join the International Brigades – including Londoner Geoffrey Servante, the last surviving British volunteer, who came ashore in Valencia in June 1937 and promptly caught a train to the International Brigade base in Albacete.

The food crisis in Bilbao worsened sharply in April in 1937, as the city and other Basque towns, including Guernica, were bombed by German and Italian planes.”The food situation is acute, and the wharf is crowded with children begging the crews of British ships for food,” reported a Basque government representative on April 29.

Soon British seafarers were taking refugees to safety in France. A total of 10,000 were evacuated from Bilbao, mostly women and children, half of them in a single convoy of nine freighters on May 3. After Bilbao fell on June 19 the rescue mission extended to Santander and Gijon.

On the Mediterranean coast a similar sealift would take place in the dying days of the Republic in March 1939. The last two ships to leave Alicante, the only major port in Republican hands, were the African Trader and the Stanbrook, who between them took nearly 4,000 Republicans to safety in French Algeria as Mussolini’s forces were about to enter the city.

Attacks on British ships in the Mediterranean were even worse than in Atlantic ports, with Italian submarines operating along the coast. Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia and Alicante were regularly targeted by German and Italian bombers and warships.  

The new Blockade Runners memorial in Glasgow lists the names of many of these British ships that were targeted. They include the Thorpeness, damaged by an air attack while at anchor off Tarragona on January 20 1938. Seven crew members were killed, and another seven seriously injured.

In Britain, the NUS was so alarmed by these attacks and loss of seafarers’ lives that it commissioned, along with the Committee of Shipowners Trading to Spain and the Merchant Navy Officers’ Federation, a news film to be shown to cinema audiences. Made in 1938 by the Progressive Film Institute and directed by Ivor Montagu, Britain Expects pointed the finger at Neville Chamberlain for being the first British Prime Minister to deny the merchant navy adequate protection.

But the film was banned by the British Board of Film Censors, highlighting the extent to which the authorities were prepared to go to suppress criticism of appeasement.

Another film shot by Montagu in 1938, Prisoners Prove Intervention in Spain, showed the bombed wreck of the British-flagged Stanwell in Tarragona harbour, in which two British crew members were killed. It also featured footage of the 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 asked: “Where was the strong arm of England now?”

Anticipating the rout of the Tories in the 1945 general election, Spence wrote in his union’s journal in June 1938: “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.”

The Blockade Runners memorial will be unveiled at 12 noon on Saturday March 2 on the Clyde Walkway by Jamaica Street Bridge, followed by music and entertainment from The Wakes and others at the Admiral Bar, 72a Waterloo Street, Glasgow G2 7DA.

Jim Jump is the chair of the International Brigade Memorial Trust.



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