Posts tagged ‘Spanish Civil War’

Mar 9, 2018

Bellowed for nearly an hour: fascists V communists in Aberdeen (and Dundee)

Black shirts in Aberdeen








It was the Reds doing the bellowing. The occasion was an attempt by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists to speak at Aberdeen’s Music Hall in September 1935.

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Raven Thomson front low left

“They may be croaking like old hens, but their bellowing and braying last night completely drowned out the voice of Fascism in the Ball Room of the Music Hall” reported a local newspaper. Such was the vocal opposition to the extreme rightwing Black Shirts, the report went on, the meeting ended almost the moment it opened. The would-be guest speaker that evening was to be A. Raven Thomson, the BUF’s Director of Policy but before he could utter a sound he and his fellow fascists were given the bum’s rush.

“Aberdeen is the toughest town we have ever struck,” Thomson told the paper’s reporter.

The public address was due to begin at 8pm but an hour before the hall was already packed with a couple of thousand more outside, unable to get in.

Protected by ten black-shirted stewards from Peterhead, Edinburgh and Manchester the Fascists took their seats to a wall of sound of booing and shouting from within the hall. Plain clothes police officer sat amongst the audience and they, too, were loudly booed.

The moment the speaker Raven Thomson got onto the stage and appealed for quiet he was drowned out by a huge roar and a sea of shaking fists. Someone stood up and waved a red flag which set off a rendering of the socialist anthem, the International followed by more noise and chants of  

“One, two, three, four, five,

We want Mosley, dead or alive.”

Thomson tried to press on but his words were totally drowned out with no break in the racket from the public in the hall. At 8 o’ clock the Chief Constable, McConnach, had a word with the Fascists then announced the meeting was cancelled. Wasting no time the Fascists hurried away to the delight of excited demonstrators roaring

“Three cheers for the defeat of Fascism.”

Outside a large force of uniformed and plain clothes police were gathered in anticipation of trouble but the protestors; Communists and Socialists as they were described by the press, were in no mood for violence but “swarmed down Union Street, marched to the Market Stance, singing the ‘Internationale‘ and other Communist songs on the way” and held their own meeting at the Castlegate.

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Raven Thomson

Raven Thomson issued a statement in which he said the Fascists had had several successful meetings on their tour of the country but – “It is very difficult to deal with a town like this where the people do not know our case” adding the reaction they had in Aberdeen was unusual and the city was “the toughest town they had ever struck.”

Edinburgh born Raven – Alexander Raven Thomson – was a theoretician of the British Union of Fascists and grandson of the architect Alexander (Greek) Thomson. One-time a member of the Communist Party he came to admire Nazi Germany and spent time in Germany learning the trade of silver paper manufacturing which later provided his living back in Britain. By 1933 he was a fascist and became the BUF’s Director of Policy and close associate of leading fascists Oswald Mosley and Neil Francis Hawkins. He was interned in Brixton jail for most of the Second World War and remained a fascist all his life. He married Lisbeth, daughter of the x-ray pioneer, Wilhelm Röntgen, and they lived in the East End of London where he died in 1955.  

Chief Constable McConnach was criticised by the anti-Socialist and anti-Communist Union for his handling of the Music Hall meeting. He responded saying the Fascist speakers had been given police protection and suffered no violence in Aberdeen but that he would not put up with speakers being obstructed in future. And he had advice for organisers of meetings, such as the Fascists, that any complaints against the police should be pursued through the courts. In the event the Fascists chose not to pursue their complaint as they didn’t want to appear in court in case what came out damaged their reputation it was said. They did, however, complain in one of their publications of “Mob Rule in Scotland” – indicating only at Aberdeen and Dundee had the British Union of Fascists suffered such disorderliness but they also mentioned they dared not hold meetings in Glasgow after dark.


The following week the Fascists’ tour of Britain found them in that other most disorderly city, the “Red city” of Dundee, where around 1,000 mostly Communists had already gathered for their own meeting knowing the BUF were due. Fascists G. Easterbrook and J. A. F. Nolan from London planned to speak but they and their fellow Blackshirts were forced into a hasty retreat chased by 500 Socialists. Some Fascists jumped onto a tramcar where Nolan was punched on the jaw, twice, and Easterbrook received a bloody nose before securing safe passage in a police van and driven away from the West Port area with shouts of “Down with the Blackshirts” and “Run them out of town” ringing in their ears – their planned 11 meetings during a week-long stay in Dundee cancelled.

At the time Nolan, insistent they were not Blackshirts but included Liberals and Conservatives, said their campaigns in Edinburgh, Ayr and Saltcoats got excellent hearings while in Aberdeen they’d encountered opposition though not as violent as in Dundee. Easterbrook was more blunt he condemned the reception in Dundee as “contemptible” and “un-British.”

It would be misleading to portray fascism as universally unpopular in Britain. Its ideology took root across Europe in the 1930s including in the United Kingdom. Indeed much of the British press were keen advocates of fascism: The Mirror and Sunday Pictorial were so tickled with fascism they proposed a prettiest woman fascist competition and published photographs of blackshirts having a sing-song around the piano. The Daily Mail’s owner Lord Rothermere welcomed Oswald Mosley’s moves to shake up Britain. On 8 January 1934 the Daily Mail editorial proclaimed –

“Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”



And Rothermere’s message to Britons was-

 “Britain’s survival as a Great Power will depend on the existence of a well-organised party of the Right, ready to take on responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed.”

And enthusiastic Daily Mail readers clamoured to join the fascist movement. At the Albert Hall in London that April 10,000 people crowded in to hear the movement’s leaders speak. Soon 100 branches of the fascist organisation had sprung up around the UK.

The British Fascist movement was led by the well-heeled Sir Oswald Mosley – an MP with wide interests – at times a Conservative, an Independent and member of the Labour Party he served in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour administration as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. After he resigned from Labour he was expelled and formed the New Party, a forerunner of the Union of Fascists.

Mosley favoured greater powers for the state in order to tackle unemployment and argued it should have more control over public assets. Unemployment was a huge problem in the UK in the thirties with levels of poverty and suffering hardly credible to us today. He wanted the UK to adopt the Italian type of fascism and become a corporate state of 24 bodies that would harbour no criticism, be governed by an elite elected through plebiscite every five years and replace local government with appointed representatives provided by the national government. In Aberdeen that man was to be William Keith Abercrombie Jopp Chambers-Hunter.

Despite the British Union of Fascists chiefly being London-based, in the East End in particular, its supporters endeavoured to create a UK-wide organisation. The biggest support outside of London was found in Liverpool and Manchester while efforts to spread their ideology into Scotland, intensified from 1936, were centred in Aberdeen. The simple reason for that was the presence of Chambers-Hunter, a fanatical fascist and his sister-in-law Agnes Evelyn Flora McDonald Botha – known as Mrs Botha (the last name might be familiar to you as she was a daughter-in-law of South Africa’s first Prime Minister, Louis Botha.) Chambers-Hunter was a laird at Tillery near Udny in Aberdeenshire who had been educated at public school in England, later spending time as a tea planter in Ceylon before returning to Scotland to live on the estate he inherited. His family’s fortune was made as plantation owners in South Carolina, the heart of slavery for around 200 years, in the 18th century. Chambers-Hunter, himself, was said to have come from a scion of the family born into less affluent circumstances, as the son of a grocer in Footdee (Fittie) and was formerly known as the more humble William Jopp. The family appear to have had a penchant for changing their names for his slave-owning grandfather was once Chalmers before adopting Chambers.

Chalmers-Hunter and Botha were determined fascists who didn’t allow adversity to come between them and their recruitment drive for the movement – and they had to be. Whenever and wherever they turned up Aberdeen’s anti-fascists quickly on hand to provide some opposition. That equal determination of the anti-fascists forced the local BUF from 1935 to stop publicising their appearances in advance instead they would turn up unannounced – most often at the Green, Craigie Street off George Street and Woodside where Chambers-Hunter would stick his head out of the sun roof speak briefly and perhaps sell copies of their newspapers Action and Blackshirt in the hope of getting away before being tracked down by the opposition – not easy for in the city an interesting network of anti-fascists emerged with eyes and ears open to their activities: bus and tram drivers and conductors; unemployed men and women on the streets and more organised groups of Communists and Socialists with bikes who got into the habit of cycling around the town searching out  Blackshirts in their usual haunts. As for the residents of Craigie Street it was said the women there were quite capable of sending the itinerant fascists packing whenever they turned up on their doorsteps.

Harassing fascists became a popular activity in Aberdeen. Many of you will know that nineteen Aberdonians felt so strongly that fascism had to be resisted they went to Spain as part of the International Brigades to fight it in the Spanish Civil War. Five were killed in Spain.

Aberdeen being a major port meant Aberdonians came into contact with seamen from around the world, including Germany, and from them they learnt about the rise and progress of fascism across Europe and the imprisonment and murder of Socialists, Communists, Trades Unionists, Jews and so many others. 

Communists used the town’s pavements to spread word of their meetings; writing time and place with bits of clay pipe – the habit of chalking messages on pavements lingered on among the city’s Socialists through to the 1960s CND, anti-Vietnam war movement.

The local press proved a lively medium for the exchange of political view. In March 1936 C. W. Edward of Sanquhar, Forres wrote in defence of fascism-

“Mr Chambers-Hunter’s excellent letter of February 28 voices the feelings of a vast number of people in Britain today.”

He went on to condemn the government’s treacherous attitude towards the USSR; its damage of trade through sanctions and risk of war so that “people of all political opinions are turning to Fascism as the only way out of the political morass in which we are floundering.”

His opinions were countered in the same paper by someone with the initials ACH who criticised Chambers-Hunter for his over-simplification of political situations –

“Russians are vermin (168 million people disposed of), Germany and Japan can squeeze them out of existence (No trouble!) Friendship with Russia means the ruin of the British Empire. (Shouldn’t it be the British Commonwealth of Nations?) …Fascism means the Union Jack —Nothing to do with the birch rod evidently…If a thinking man or woman refuses to accept any or all of these postulates, the shape of his or her nose may be taken as decisive evidence that he or she is wrong. – Drivelation. -A.C. H.”

Another correspondent sardonically ‘sided’ with the local fascist leader Chambers-Hunter and his opinions on the activities of Italy in Abyssinia.

“I was very interested in Mr Chambers-Hunter’s views on Italy’s great campaign, but I feel that he errs a trifle on the side of moderation.

It makes my blood boil when I think of the hindrances which have been placed on this great work of extermination, and I was only restrained by silly sentimentality from sending on my signet-ring to that saintly ascetic Il Duce to help him in his great work for civilisation.

The incredible bravery of the Italian airmen cannot be overpraised, considering the immense odds, but it is Marshal Badoglio who will live in history. His great feat of bringing about a series of glorious victories at a loss of a hundred thousand of the enemy to only a paltry thousand of his brave dare-devils marks him as one of the world’s greatest generals and mathematicians.

I remember when the Germans carried out an extermination campaign in their African colonies there was some talk, and the usual busybodies instituted a commission which allowed itself to be fooled by the usual lying stories…is not surprising therefore that misguided people even nowadays, no doubt influenced by lying “Red” propaganda, are squealing because some ****** women and kids happened to be slightly bleached by a harmless form of gas sent out to incapacitate the enemy camels from taking up supplies.”

It was signed  Hero Worshipper.

Asserting its empirical claims to a piece of Africa, Italy had been engaged in converting natives of Adowa to their caring regime through machine gun diplomacy, bombing and spraying poisonous gas from aircraft to kill individuals, poison land and water.

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Fascists and anti-fascists at Aberdeen’s Market Stance 1935

 One evening in July 1937 Chambers-Hunter and Botha and others turned up in a van with four loudspeakers at the Market Stance at the Castlegate. The four speakers were intended to drown out expected shouts and barracking from those against them. The inevitable scuffles broke out and when someone tried to remove the loudspeaker cables he was arrested, along with others. Chambers-Hunter continued to speak for around half an hour under a barrage of missiles of stones, tomatoes and anything else to hand but was scarcely audible over calls for Mosley “dead or alive.”

Once the Fascists had left the Castlegate the crowd turned its attention to the police and their arrested comrades. At police HQ in Lodge Walk the police were ready for them lined up with batons drawn and there was a stand-off with pleas to release the arrested men on bail at the same time the Chief Constable insisted there would be no bail until people moved away from the police station. They did. Back at the Market Stance a large crowd remained  and a collection was taken for bail money but the Chief Constable still refused to bail any of those detained.

Meanwhile a group of women arrived at Lodge Walk with food and drink for the men who they insisted all required special treatment. There were no files concealed in cakes but the men were allowed coffee, sandwiches and rolls provided by the women. One man used his sandwich bag to scribble a note which he hid in the dry lavatory in his cell. Next morning the note went to court along with the accused. As they were leaving the dock he threw the screwed up paper to the public benches but it was picked up by a detective.

Following their court appearance the men were taken to Craiginches prison where the governor tried to intimidate them, according to one of the arrested, Duncan Robertson.

“Stand to attention when you talk to me!” the governor demanded.

“Will I buggery!” came Robertson’s reply.

And he didn’t and the governor didn’t try that again.

A few days later the men were released from Lodge Walk on bail to cheers from a welcoming group waiting outside. One of the detained, Bob Cooney, was carried on shoulders from Lodge Walk to Castle Street where he addressed their supporters. Cooney had been assigned leader of the men by the police who always insisted there must be a leader. In their subsequent court appearance, Cooney was fined £10, being leader, and the others around £3 by Sheriff Laing. The average weekly wage for a skilled man at the time was around £3. Of the nine on trial, two were found not proven and others guilty of obstruction or assaulting the police. In all their fines amounted to £100, a great deal of money for working class heroes.

Following the Battle of Cable Street in London in October 1936 the Westminster government passed a Public Order Act on Jan 1, 1937 which handed greater powers to the police to control demonstrators and enable easier prosecution of hecklers who could be charged with disturbing the peace – a charge frequently employed in Aberdeen by fascists confronted by opposition so providing them with free rein to promote their propaganda unhindered and unchallenged for any who dared shout out could be pointed at and duly arrested with the prospect of being fined a whole week’s pay.

On 23rd October 1937 eight Aberdonians were before the sheriff on charges of acting in a disorderly manner at a meeting of fascists at Woodside. The public benches were filled with their cheering supporters who received a warning from the sheriff. Outside the court the fascists were booed and jeered and given police protection. 

And so the cat-and-mouse game between Left and Right continued with the Left always the ones sent to jail or fined.

Northeast fascists declared they had considerable support in Scotland – for example 200 members by 1933 in Motherwell. In order to boost their numbers Chambers-Hunter and Botha worked tirelessly taking their message to Inverness, Banchory, Kemnay, Inverurie, Forres, Peterhead, Turriff, Oldmeldrum and Stonehaven as well as Aberdeen.

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Scenes at the Market Stance where the BUF tried to speak 1937

In February 1937 the BUF were again at the Music Hall where the main speaker was their National Organiser in Scotland, Richard Plathen. Admission was by ticket only, sold by younger members. Local communists managed to buy a few before their ruse was discovered and a block placed on them obtaining more but the young fascists, not being over-burdened with sense, left the ticket box for a short time but long enough for the Communists to get to it and help themselves. The result was plenty Communist and Socialist comrades were able to find their way into the meeting despite a general warning from the police to the Left to stay away.

The evening began as it ended – in uproar. Around 80% of the audience were hostile to the fascists and they didn’t hold back from expressing their disapproval of the BUF; singing and chanting that familiar refrain -“One, two, three, four…” to which the fascists reacted by singing God Save the King – provoking in turn a hearty rendering of the Internationale accompanied by the waving of a red flag by Communist George Esson.

And so throughout the thirties clashes between Left and Right continued with no real violence other than pushing and shoving, a great deal of noise and forceful expression of opinion. But one Sunday in July 1937 around 50 Communists interrupted a BUF rally at the beach Links. During the ensuing rammy missiles and punches were thrown and a vehicle damaged. This resulted in several weel kent faces among the Communist fraternity being picked up later at home and instructed to appear at an identity parade at Lodge Walk the following day. One who wasn’t obliged to go was prominent anti-fascist campaigner Bob Cooney who later in the year was to head off to Spain to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. However on the day of the Links rammy he was in Glasgow but that did not prevent him insisting he take part in the line-up – muddling up the order of men arranged by the police. Being such a familiar face he was immediately recognised by one of the fascists there to identify the man who allegedly assaulted his brother at the Links. He pointed at Cooney and insisted he was the assailant. As this was patently untrue the others in the line-up were allowed to leave after receiving a warning from the police to refrain from hindering fascists in the future, again. Cooney claimed he was approached and asked why he changed the position of men in the line-up which made some suspect an arrangement had been made to get a particular man or men.

On the fifth anniversary of the founding of the British Union of Fascists Aberdeen was chosen as the venue for their Scottish conference. As their van with delegates from Perthshire, Fifeshire and Edinburgh made its way along Union Street towards the Market Stance the waiting crowd surged forward and succeeded in pushing the vehicle backwards for a short distance. The police were ordered to draw their batons and the van, its windows protected by wire, was able to complete its journey. A local paper described the crowd being “in a very noisy mood.” At the Market Stance Chambers-Hunter attempts to address the gathering were once again silenced despite his use of loudspeakers. The newspapers reported that little could be heard of his speech as it was drowned out by the ‘red rabble.’ Once again the fascists appealed to the police for protection before abandoning their pitch. As for the anti-fascists they met later on, in the Music Hall, at a high spirited meeting at which the principal speaker was the Communist Willie Gallacher.

The role of the police handling demonstrators was raised in the council chamber in October of 1937 with claims that they assaulted people in Aberdeen.

“The police seemed to run amok”

“The police concentrated on free speech for the fascists and threw overboard a score of other…rights of the public. Nothing mattered but to preserve the right of free speech for the fascists.”

(P&J 7 Oct 1937)

A complaint went to the Secretary of State for Scotland but was taken no further. In defence of police action it has to be said without their presence it is likely there would have been more injuries, to fascists at least, for tensions and tempers ran hot and wherever the fascists turned up their vehicles were set-upon and rocked, usually fairly gently. On one notable occasion, however, a fascist meeting had been arranged in Torry and people were again out in force with lots of yelling, fireworks and missiles. The police were also on hand but interestingly refrained from intervening until the crowd had toppled the fascists’ car was onto its side.

The worm had turned. Without police protection the fascists had to face up to the anger they provoked among Aberdonians. Unable to get to a public spot to speak from in Torry because of the crush of a crowd of around 6,000 the fascists slipped along Sinclair Road and stopped at a coal yard, misguidedly. Pieces of coal became missiles to be hurled their way. The coal yard was also private property and the owner complained to the police who ordered them off. A furious Chambers-Hunter turned on the police inspector -“You bastard!” which might have proved unwise. But Chambers-Hunter was nothing if not thrawn.

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Mosley visits Aberdeen

Oswald Mosley visited Aberdeen only once, on 22nd November 1937 where a luncheon was given in his honour in the Caledonian Hotel. The police blocked off the whole street to prevent demonstrators getting close to him. However, Aberdeen’s Communists were aye on the ba’.  Painted in huge letters across the road, in full visibility of guests at the hotel read the message FASCISTS OUT


 ran the Press & Journal headline


“Fine” the only comment Mosley is recorded as saying of his visit to Aberdeen.

The report claimed over 100 Aberdeen Fascists attended the luncheon. It is doubtful they all came from Aberdeen given the paltry numbers involved in their other activities but presumably were members who travelled near and far to touch the cloth of their leader.

The newspaper also reported the luncheon was disturbed by “continuous derisive shouts and the singing of the “Internationale” coming from Union Terrace, where a large crowd of anti-Fascists had assembled. Mosley’s address to the faithful centred on the wickedness of international Jewery and the fascist ambition to create a self-contained empire. At their lunch the fascists were subjected to catcalls which most ignored although one young woman did return the fascist salute.

Later, greater numbers gathered, having finished their work, to vent their feelings against the visiting fascists. When Mosley emerged from the Party’s base on Union Street he was faced by a “yelling and gesticulating crowd” and as he waited to for a flunky to open his car door he smiled towards those booing and gesticulating.  

In July 1938

Anti-Fascist crowd demonstrate

Police Escort for Witnesses

Five Sentenced at Trial

 “The trial on charges of breach of the peace and assault of five Aberdeen anti-Fascists, two of whom were sent to prison and the others fined, ended with a remarkable demonstration of anti-Fascist feeling at the door of the Aberdeen Sheriff Courthouse last night.”

The five told the court they had no religious beliefs and affirmed instead of taking the oath. They denied the charges, maintaining provocation by the Fascists who had shouted “One day Hitler and Franco would conquer the world, Hail Hitler, Join the Blackshirts, Keep Out Moscow and gave the Nazi salute.”

Lots of noise in the courtroom resulted in Sheriff Dallas warning that he would clear them from the court if they didn’t keep quiet. Witnesses came and went and the accused were found guilty.

Convicted were George Shepherd a salesman of Roslin Street and John Winton a sawyer of King’s Crescent both sent to jail for 30 days; Alexander Shepherd, son of George, also a salesman of College Bounds was fined £15 or 30 days in prison; Sydney Shepherd, labourer, of Bloomfield Road, another son of George Shepherd along with George Esson, labourer, of Chronicle Lane were each fined £3 each or 10 days in prison.

When their accusers William Keith Abercromby Jopp Chambers-Hunter and Agnes Evelyn Flora McDonald Botha of Tillery, Udny Station and Jane Imlah whose address was given at the headquarters of the BUF in Aberdeen on Union Street left the courthouse they were confronted by a large crowd, fists raised in the Communist salute shouting “Down with Fascism.” As the demonstrators surged forward the three fascists retreated into the building before being given police protection back to their car.  

An appeal against these sentences was made to the Secretary of State for Scotland but went nowhere.

In October 1938 Chambers-Hunter addressed Aberdeen Round Table Club.

“The doctrine of Fascism simply was, “‘United we stand, divided we fall'” and went on to condemn international finance for skewing economies explaining Hitler was hated by international finance run by Jews for trying to break free of the “net of borrowing and lending” in order to make his country self-sufficient.

“Twenty-four years ago, if the Kaiser had walked up Union Street on a Saturday afternoon he would probably have been lynched. If the poor old gentleman were to do so now, probably no one would recognise him, or if they would not worry about him.”

He told his audience he had fought during the war in the Cameroons and German Togoland and the natives there were treated as well as in Ceylon where he’d also lived as a planter and in fact the natives of Cameroons and Togoland were “devoted to their German masters.”

Which I suppose is why the Germans required an army to protect their interests there. To explain further – the extent of German popularity in East Africa can be illustrated by the Maji Maji War fought over resentment of enforced labour, heavy taxes and violent repression responsible for destroying the lives of so many and devastating the area’s social fabric. German imperialists adopted a scorched-earth policy of punishment and control along with horrendous brutality and cruelty – much like, it should be said, practised by other western  powers to their shame.  

Germany, along with other European states, undertook what was known as the Scramble for Africa – carving up the continent to stake their claims to areas they regarded ripe for exploitation, to appropriate and control their colony’s natural wealth and resources from precious metals to bananas, cacao, coffee and cotton.

And so for years the clashes between Left and Right were unrelenting. Then something happened – as atrocities carried out in the name of fascism across the world came to be taken more seriously mainly for the threat fascism posed to the UK so support for fascism began to lose its vigour. In 1939 Aberdeen’s own fascist Chambers-Hunter retired from politics presumably exhausted from the uphill struggles he encountered on each occasion he went public and in addition he had spent huge sums of his own money supporting the BUF. In June that year Chambers-Hunter’s country house at Udny burnt down.

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Driven out of his home by fire Chambers-Hunter, his wife and Mrs Botha

As for the Left there ranks were split by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Nazi-Soviet non-aggression Pact) signed between Germany and the USSR in August 1939. At the start of the Second World War Stalin argued it was not an anti-fascist struggle but an imperialist war but then came Operation Barbarossa when the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941 and dragged it into the conflict. At that point the Left forgot their differences to defeat the fascist states of Germany and Italy. Of course the Left had already been destroyed in Spain where a form of fascism survived until 1975 … at least.  

Sources: Aberdeen newspapers; Fascism in Aberdeen – Street Politics in the 1930s (Aberdeen People’s Press.)


Aug 13, 2013

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 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 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 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 Gipuzkoako Furu Aldundia.

Trawler Vendaval; Courtesy Archivo Juan Pardo 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.