Aberdeen Trawlers in the Spanish Civil War

Guest blog by Textor

When in 1927 the men of Hall, Russell & Co. turned their hands and minds to designing and building trawlers 692 and 693 they had no idea that these vessels would become famous not for catching cod but for the parts they played in one of the bloody conflicts of the 20th century: the Spanish Civil War.

Hall, Russell & Company Shipbuilder, Aberdeen

Hall, Russell & Company Shipbuilder, Aberdeen


The story of men and women who left Scotland to give support to the Spanish Republic is well documented.   Most went to fight, most were part of the International Brigades and many died.   Less well known is that for a brief period two Aberdeen built ships achieved international prominence as symbols of the war in Spain.


Trawlers 692 and 693 were to be named Galerna and Vendaval.   Built to identical specifications they were big vessels, much larger and more powerful than the fishing boats usually built by Hall, Russell & Co.   Size and power came at a price:  Strathgarry cost just a shade over £9000 whilst 692 and 693 were £32000 each; big investments for big fishing.   Their fishing grounds were to be the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.      

General arrangement trawlers 692-693 courtesy of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

General arrangement trawlers 692-693 courtesy of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections



PSYBE company flag

Company Flag PYSBE; Courtesy Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections.


Whilst the Great Depression did little for the fishing industry it did even less for world peace.   The dislocation within and across national boundaries exasperated class divisions and heightened inter-imperialist rivalries.   Spain with its generally backward industries, a large peasantry, militant working class, reactionary landlords and powerful Catholic Church was primed to explode.   Republicanism advanced and workers and peasants confronted industrialists and landlords.   Unsurprisingly reactionary elements within the Army were appalled by the presumption of lower classes questioning the right of the aristocracy, capitalists and the Church to exploit labour.   On the 17th July 1936 Francisco Franco led a coup against the Republican Government.   The Spanish Civil War had begun.

 Aid for Spain Map

Franco’s intention was to take control of the whole of Spain including the Basque country, strategically and economically important because of its ports, fishing fleets and iron ore deposits.   Basques had, and still have, a strong national identity and a more liberal Catholicism than Franco’s supporters.   So the Basque Government prepared for war.   Bilbao was the centre of resistance.   On the south east corner of the Bay of Biscay the city’s port channelled the region’s imports and exports and it was in the waters of the Bay that trawlers Galerna and Vendaval made their mark in the bloody conflict.


From the earliest days anti-Franco forces looked to total mobilisation of the regional defences.   Central to this was utilising the fishing fleets.   Almost every vessel was seen as potential for the newly formed Basque Auxiliary Navy and the two Aberdeen built boats were high on the list for requisitioning.   Their power and size made them an ideal complement to the few genuine naval ships under Basque control.


In late 1936 Galerna and Vendaval were commandeered, the former for the Basque Auxiliary Navy.   She was fitted with 101mm and 57mm guns.   Sadly Galerna was to have a less gallant role when in October 1936 the trawler was boarded and seized by pro-Franco seamen and like her sister ship was armed ready for battle but on the opposite side to her sister vessel; in this way the respective roles assigned the trawlers mimicked the civil war.   Galerna became auxiliary support in the Nationalist navy destined to work with the cruiser Almirante Cervera which had been launched in 1925 and carried crew of over 500 men; the cruiser had already established its credentials as a reactionary force when in 1934 it had been used to fire on civilian insurgents in the Asturias.   This formidable ship was captured by the nationalists at El Ferrol, the ships captain Juan Sanchez-Sandalio Ferragut was taken prisoner and subsequently executed, an early example of the ruthlessness of the war being waged.


After fitting out as an armed trawler Vendaval took up escort duties in the Bay of Biscay: her role was to help keep the seaway open to ships entering and leaving the port.   Manned with over forty of a crew through November and early December the armed vessel guided cargo ships to the safety of harbour.  On the 15th December the fishing boat was renamed Nabarra and it was in this guise that she achieved world-wide fame becoming a symbol of absolute defiance to the brutalities of Spanish (and by extension all European) fascism.   Before 1936 was out Nabarra was involved in a confrontation with a German merchant ship Palos.   Accompanied by another armed trawler, Bizkaya, the Aberdeen boat arrested Palos and forced her to berth in Bilbao.   Hitler’s Nazi Germany unsurprisingly had thrown its weight behind Franco and any German vessel approaching Spain was suspected of carrying arms or other war materials for the Nationalists hence was open to search and arrest.   But Hitler was a big player in a dangerous game and when the German cruiser Konigsberg appeared off Bilbao on the 28th December it became obvious that Franco’s Nazi supporter was not going to sit by and have his nation’s ships seized.   With little choice the Basques released Palos

Crew  of Vendaval

Crew of Vendaval; Courtesy Archivo Juan Pardo http://www.marinavasca.eu/es/ Gipuzkoako Furu Aldundia.


 Into 1937 and the war at sea intensified.   Franco was attacking Bilbao from the land and sought to starve out the Basques.   To this end mines were laid in the Bay of Biscay with the hope that this would not only inflict damage on the Basque Navy but also and more importantly deter foreign ships from trading with the Basques.   On the 7th-8th of January Nabarra took up the challenge and chased off Nationalist ships Velasco and Genoveva Fierro which were laying mines just off Bilbao.   Although Franco’s mine laying operations were largely unsuccessful, eight days after Nabarra forced Velasco from the area the minelayer returned put down a field which caught a Basque patrol boat and minesweeper; both were sunk and 23 men died.

As the conflict deepened so Nabarra and her sister ships were called to increasing action coming to a head on the 5th of March 1937.  Four armed republican trawlers were escorting merchant ship Galdames to Bilbao when about Cape Matxitxako they encountered Franco’s cruiser Canaries which was then in the process of arresting the British registered Yorkbrook.   A battle to free Yorkbrook ensued.   Canaries turned her guns on armed trawler Gipuzkoa.   On fire and with five men dead Gipuzkoa made for Portugalete, east of Santander.   Meanwhile shore batteries opened fire on Canaries forcing her to momentarily withdraw.   But respite was short for the Basque naval forces.   Sighting Galdames and her escort the rebel cruiser returned to the fight.      The cruiser being faster and more heavily armed than the fishing vessels the trawlers stood little chance of surviving a face to face confrontation.

David Cobb's painting of Nabarra under attack

Depiction by David Cobb of Nabarra under attack by the cruiser Canaries; Courtesy Archivo Juan Pardo http://www.marinavasca.eu/es/ Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia.


Trawler Bizkaya ran with Yorkbrook eventually finding refuge at Bermeo east of Bilbao.   This left the lightly armed Donostia and Nabarra protecting Galdames.   Donostia succeeded in breaking towards the French coast.   Nabarra was alone.   Her master Enrique Moreno did all he could, he was resolute in defiance of the cruiser.   But against a ship carrying 203mm turret mounted guns Nabarra had no chance.   The skilled men in Aberdeen had done everything they could to make a seaworthy vessel; it was a good fishing boat but carried no armour plating.  The riveted hull had withstood the storms of the North Atlantic.   Steaming in dangerous seas, shooting, trawling and hauling nets this was what Vendaval-Nabarra was designed for not fending off a cruiser’s shells.   First to die was the Bos’n; then came a direct hit on her boilers which killed most of the engineers and stokers and ended any slight chance the ship had of escaping.  

Enrique Moreno , Comandante del NABARA

Captain Enrique Moreno of Nabarra; Courtesy Archivo Juan Pardo http://www.marinavasca.eu/es/ Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia.

Captain Moreno gave his men the opportunity to abandon ship, however, knowing that this would mean being taken prisoner by Canaries he along with his next in command Ambrosio Sarasola chose to stay with the sinking vessel.  


Out of a crew of forty nine only twenty men survived.   They were taken prisoner, tried by Franco’s court and sentenced to death.   Fortunately their bravery in defying the might of Canaries was recognised, the commander of the cruiser recommended that they be spared which Franco allowed: an act of humanity which stands in stark contrast to the brutality typical of the dictator’s rule.   The Battle of Matxitxako came to be a symbol of Basque resistance to Franco, indeed such was its fame that British poet C. Day Lewis composed a long narrative poem extolling the bravery and the virtues of the men, fishermen, “who hewed an everlasting image of freedom” in their life and death struggle against reactionary nationalists.   The poem “The Nabara” is a tale of “redoubtable men, stout armed trawlers” and the fight for a freedom “whose light through time still flashes”.    


And what of sister ship Galerna?   While Nabarra was being pounded to submission and loss Galerna was earning a less than glorious reputation: captured and crewed by pro-Franco seamen the trawler was doing all it could to harry and forestall any help being sent to the Basques.   She was in the Bay of Biscay attempting stop arms, raw materials and food getting to beleaguered Bilbao.   Supporting the cruiser Almirante Cervera the armed Galerna patrolled waters outside the three mile limit and beyond the reach of republican shore batteries and in this role the ship achieved international notoriety, indeed, she became involved in a series of incidents which brought the Royal Navy close to breaking the British Government’s stance of so-called non-intervention in Spain.


On the 6th of April 1937 Franco decreed that he was to enforce a blockade on the city of Bilbao.   Up until then his navy had sporadically tried to stop all mercantile traffic to the port but with little success.   By formally declaring a blockade he hoped to exploit the apparently supine action of European governments and thus scare off all traders.   Galerna and Almirante Cervera were key players in this strategy.   The British response was to declare that all waters beyond the three mile limit were high seas and therefore in principle Franco should not interfere with lawful merchant vessels.   But in acknowledging this the British Government stepped back from saying it would do all in its power to keep the seaways open for British traders resorting rather to lying about the threat from mines, in the process ignoring the advice from naval and consulate personnel that there was no serious risk; ministers advised merchant vessels to avoid the area.   The merchant marine paid no heed, it saw the opportunity for good business and continued to trade.   In a political rather than a naval display of force the Government dispatched Royal Navy ships to the area with the intention of warning British shipping from the area rather than looking for confrontation with Nationalists.  


Events overtook the Government’s cautious appeasement when the British registered Thorpehall steamed to Bilbao; but ten miles from the Basque coastline Galerna sighted the “blockade runner” and fired on the unarmed merchant vessel.   Galerna’s master intended to do all he could to prevent much needed supplies reaching the Basques.   Thorpehall sent a message to the destroyer HMS Brazen which arriving on the scene ordered the armed trawler to pull away.   All looked under control when Almirante Cervera steamed to the scene and the Royal Naval ship now found itself outgunned.   However, irrespective of this Brazen’s commander decided to face-down the Nationalists and he put his ship on action stations whereupon Galerna made for Almirante and the two took up position between Thorpehall and the coast in an attempt to stop it entering Basque territorial waters.   Royal Navy destroyers Blanche and Beagle were then called to assist the seriously threatened Brazen.   Within an hour it looked like this stand-off was about to escalate into a much more serious incident when the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee came upon the scene, however, she adopted a conciliatory stance and advised the Spanish vessels to pull off.   Thorpehall was instructed to enter Bilbao but Franco’s navy was not done and had one final attempt at enforcing the blockade yet again with no success: the three destroyers placed themselves between the cruiser and the Aberdeen trawler and thanks to the intervention of the Royal Navy Thorpehall made port safely.   British opposition MPs contrasted the resolute action of the Royal Navy with the “turning tail” stance of the Government saying it had hauled down the down the White Ensign and “hauled up the white flag”.


On the 13th of April, a week after the stand-off, Almirante Cervera’s commander sent the message that henceforward any British ships found within Spanish territorial waters would be seized or sunk and that the territorial limit was to be extended from three to six miles (taking the cruiser beyond the reach of shore batteries).   HM Government’s response was to reject the new limit, stating that outside of three miles Franco had no right to interfere with lawful trade (it was acceptable within the old limit) but Prime Minister Baldwin hoped the Red Ensign would not be found in these troubled waters telling any captain seeking to run the blockade “it is impossible to protect them [merchant ships] who go into that area so long as conditions prevail”, nonetheless the Royal Navy would continue to patrol the Bay of Biscay.


Things were becoming desperate in the Basque country, food was in short supply and Basque ministers encouraged British ships to break the blockade one government minister saying “But even if they don’t come we shall never surrender to Franco.                                               We would rather eat dogs and cats than do so”. 

Aberdeen Press & Journal  16April 1937

Aberdeen Press & Journal 16 April 1937

In one of those odd coincidences of history the very next incident involved another Aberdeen ship: Marie Llewellyn a 1400 ton steamer built by John Lewis & Sons. Launched in 1920 the cargo ship was owned by a Cardiff shipping company, she was captained by David “Potato” Jones (he was called Potato to differentiate him from two other Jones also running the blockade: “Ham-and-Egg” and “Corn-Cob” all names derived from the cargoes their vessels carried).   Although he was advised not to sail for Bilbao by Commander Caslon of HMS Blanche Potato Jones decided that the adventure and the profits to be made outweighed the risks so he sailed from the French port Saint-Jean-de-Luz.   Marie Llewellyn might well have been soundly built in the Aberdeen tradition but modern she was not.   Unlike the trawlers the merchant steamer carried no radio meaning that if she had been intercepted by Nationalists there was little chance of the Royal Navy coming to her assistance.   Nevertheless with 1000 tons of potatoes she made for Bilbao, looking to carry back to Wales much needed iron ore for the country’s steel industry.   It was not to be and after much bluster, with the ship’s whereabouts being uncertain (Aberdeen Press & Journal headline was “Where is ‘Potato’ Jones?”) Marie Llewellyn was reported as making for Alicante.   The bold captain was praised as a hero but this was not universal.   Member of Parliament Robert Bernays described him as a “grand figure” but rather than a hero Jones was a “sailor of fortune” who should not be given the protection of the Royal Navy.


Potato Jones had decided that caution was preferable to glory and Galerna and Almirante Cervera continued, largely unsuccessfully, with the blockade.   Faced with merchant ships continuing to run the blockade Franco told the British Government that all such attempts “would be resisted by insurgent warships by all possible means”.   This had little impact on the trade: between the 1st and 20th of April thirty two ships docked at Bilbao.  


Trawler Vendaval; Courtesy Archivo Juan Pardo www.marinavasca.eu Gipuzkoako Furu Aldundia.

Trawler Vendaval; Courtesy Archivo Juan Pardo http://www.marinavasca.eu/es/ Gipuzkoako Furu Aldundia.

On the 23rd of April the Nationalist navy confronted three British vessels – Macgregor, Hamsterley and Stanbrook – running to Bilbao and yet again had to contend with superior naval force this time rather than three destroyers it was battle cruiser HMS Hood supported by destroyers Firedrake and Fortune.   Hood was fast and carried massive 15” guns; she had been designed in the aftermath of WW1 and was meant to ensure the continued global superiority of the Royal Navy.   So when the Spanish cruiser and the armed trawler intercepted the three vessels they found themselves confronted by massive fire-power.   Undeterred Galerna went after the merchant steamer Macgregor, ordering her to stop.   This brought Firedrake into action who trained her guns on the trawler.   Galerna then found herself under attack from shore batteries and her master decided prudence was needed and he pulled away to the North West.   Almirante Cervera took up the battle and turned her guns on the merchant ships at which point HMS Hood confronted the cruiser, not surprisingly the Nationalist ship backed off.   And so the British ships entered Bilbao as one observer put it they arrived “to enormous crowds [who] cheered as the procession of three red dusters passed slowly up river”.   This was the 23rd of April.   Three days later much of the joy felt by the Basques was lost when the German Condor Legion bombed the town of Guernica.   The war against Franco was being lost. Aid for Spain


On the 19th of June Franco’s forces entered Bilbao.   The long nightmare of his dictatorship was about to begin.   Between her encounter with HMS Hood and the fall of the Basque Government Galerna had continued the unholy fight, indeed the day before Bilbao fell she had engaged with the republican armed trawler Gipuzkoa which had survived the Battle of Matxitxako.   Along with other vessels Gipuzkoa had sought refuge in Santona, near Santander; she was hit and her men abandoned ship, one seaman was drowned.   This was more or less the end of the Basque Auxiliary Navy.   Galerna was retained as part of the Nationalist forces until 1939 and the final defeat of the Republic when she returned to her normal duties as a fishing boat. As for the other Aberdeen built ship, Potato Jones’s Marie Llewellyn which had caused such a stir in 1937, she was renamed Kellwyn and eventually became part of the British war effort against Germany.   On the 27th of July 1941 she was torpedoed by U-79 with the loss of 19 men.   The struggle against Franco’s brand of fascism had grown into a worldwide conflagration.




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