Franco's Pirates spanish civil war

Civil War on the High Seas

E.R. Hooton, author of Franco’s Pirates, reflects on naval warfare during the Spanish Civil War.

Modern attacks upon the world’s merchant shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden echo an even greater threat 80 years ago. For three years during the Spanish Civil War, more than 700 foreign merchant ships were harassed or attacked off the Spanish coast, throughout the Mediterranean as far east as the Aegean and into the North Sea. Hundreds of men, women and children were threatened with some 170 killed.

The conflict was the Spanish Civil War, whose land campaigns are the subject of my previous book Spain in Arms. This war was won, and lost, on the high seas because the Nationalists had an uninterrupted flow of men and materials while Republican trade was subject to attack. These dangers included aircraft, submarines and warships but there was also the hidden threat of mines which almost sank a British liner.

Franco’s Pirates is the first comprehensive account of these events, and it does not ignore the role of Spain’s merchant ships, many of which came under German and Italian control. The roles of navies from both sides of the Atlantic are also discussed and for the first time the operations of a US Navy task force off Spain are examined.

What make this story so shocking is the fact that most attackers were not Spanish rebels but their German and Italian allies who behaved worse than pirates. Italian submarines, for example, were ordered to sink merchant ships on sight only days after Rome signed an international agreement banning such attacks. Yet the hands of British and French naval commanders were tied because the attacks were nominally by rebels whom their governments did not recognize, while the aircraft attacking shipping would fly from Majorca with impunity over Royal Navy and French Navy warships in Palma harbour. Yet the bomber commanders, while nominally under General Franco’s brother, often ignored the Nationalist leader and lied to him about their actions.

Trade into Republican Spain was largely dominated by the British Merchant Marines, some ships being rust-buckets used by unscrupulous owners because they attracted the lowest insurance premiums. The Royal Navy in particular faced dilemmas in its traditional role of protecting shipping flying the Red Ensign because they could do nothing for ships in Republican ports, one merchantman was actually sunk within sight of a British destroyer. The situation was made more complex by the fact that many ships flying the Red Ensign were only nominally British, often with foreign masters and crews.

More than a dozen ‘British’ shipping lines trading with the Republic were actually Greek owned, and Athens itself was happy to supply munitions to both sides! The duplicity was shared by Hitler’s deputy, Herman Goering, who provided Franco’s enemies with arms but sometimes took their money and sent crates of bricks! The book reveals that, in addition to conventional weapons and munitions, both sides also received poison gas munitions!

The French Navy wanted to take an active role in protecting its shipping but the nation was polarized between Right and Left, indeed there was a mutiny in some warships and talk of a crew handing their submarine to the Republic, while the French Communist Party created its own shipping line. Only when the submarine attacks became too intense did the British and French act firmly and their show of force rapidly ended an Italian submarine campaign, which British code-breakers knew this almost immediately. Yet the Royal Navy still followed the rules of the sea and twice saved the lives of German seaplane crews who were responsible for sinking many ships.

Some examples of the heroism which occurred during the three years of conflict are described, such as the British destroyer commander who rescued half-a-dozen men after his ship was mined in a Spanish harbour. There are also tragedies including the fate of the master of the Gibraltar-registered Dellwyn who was lost with his wife when their ship was torpedoed by a submarine.

These events would be an ominous portent of the Second World War with the first aerial campaigns against merchant shipping and the first operational use of active sonar by the Royal Navy against an Italian submarine. It also follows the careers of many leading figures into the Second World War where they often played key roles in major events, including the 1942 Battle of Sydney, but tragically some allies would end on opposite sides.

E. R. Hooton is a retired defense journalist and a member of the British Commission for military history. He has written numerous articles and books.

More Spanish Civil War Books

Spain in Arms

E.R. Hooton

German Military Vehicles in the Spanish Civil War

Jose María Mata, Lucas Molina, José María Manrique

Tank Combat in Spain

Anthony J Candil