The Passionate War at Sea

 Surface Action


Background:  The Spanish Civil War conjures up images and the International Brigades and the Kondor Legion, of death in the orange groves and For Whom the Bell Tolls.   The naval aspects of this conflict are more obscure, but were significant none the less.  Spain in 1936 had a small but modern navy, and that navy was drawn into a violent, bitter, and protracted struggle that mirrored the course of the war on land.


The coming of civil war posed naval problems for both the Nationalists and the Republicans.  Each side wanted to keep its maritime supply lines open while closing down those of its opponent, but each side also grappled with its own unique problems.  Many of the Nationalist troops began the war in Spanish Morocco, and so had to be convoyed across the Straits of Gibraltar to the Spanish battlefields.  The Republicans started the war controlling two separate regions of Spain -- a large eastern region bordering on the Mediterranean and a smaller northern region bordering on the Bay of Biscay.  These two areas were linked only by air and water, with the water link passing through the Gibraltar Straits.


When the civil war got underway in July 1936, the Spanish navy divided into Nationalist and Republican largely through geographic happenstance.   While officers tended to be Nationalist in sympathy and crews Republican, the location of a ship at the time that war broke out often determined whether that ship would be Nationalist or Republican.  Ships lying at the Nationalist-dominated port of El Ferrol tended to wind up on the Nationalist side, particularly if they were immobilized there undergoing construction or repair.  Ships located elsewhere or sent from El Ferrol to other ports generally gravitated to the Republicans, either as their officers declared for the Republic or their crews mutinied.


The great naval divide in July of 1936 gave the Nationalists a very unbalanced force.  They attracted one of two small, old battleships, both of navy’s heavy cruisers (then just completing), one of three light cruisers and only one of seventeen destroyers.  They later bolstered their forces by various expedients: refitting a de-commissioned pre-WWI cruiser, salvaging a Republican destroyer bombed and sunk in port, and buying four superannuated destroyers from Italy.  The Nationalists also had a shortage of submarines -- two to the Republicans’ twelve -- but they supplemented these with Italian boats operated by Italian crews.  The Republicans had a lighter force, but a more flexible one: one old battleship, three light cruisers, fourteen destroyers (with two more building) and a dozen submarines.


As the struggle began, the Nationalists had the most pressing naval problem -- convoying their troops from Spanish Morocco to the Spanish mainland.  This problem was compounded by the Republican predominance in destroyers and submarines, but eased somewhat by a number of factors, including Hitler’s offer of the Luftwaffe’s transport services to the Nationalists, air support from Italian combat units, a supine attitude on the part of the Republican navy, and the ominous presence of German naval units off Gibraltar.  Sealift was needed to move troops, heavy equipment and supplies across the Gibraltar Straits in bulk, but the Nationalists were able to run their convoys with minimal Republican interference.  And when in September the Republicans moved the major part of their naval forces to the Bay of Biscay to support the Republican enclave there, the Nationalists were able to sink or run off the few Republican destroyers left guarding the Gibraltar passage.


The naval war then settled into a round of blockade and counter-blockade, bombardment and counter-bombardment, and convoy escort and interception.   During this time, the Nationalists operated from El Ferrol and Cadiz, while the Republicans used bases at Gijon and Cartagena.  With both sides dependent on other countries for war material, and most of that material being carried by sea, both naval forces were active throughout the war.  Amid a number of brushes and skirmishes, highlights of the naval war included two full-fledged battles: a daylight action off Cape Cherchell in  September 1937 and a night battle off Cape Palos in March of 1938.


Losses were significant on both sides.  At the war’s end, Nationalist losses stood at one heavy cruiser sunk in surface combat and one battleship mined, while the Republicans had lost one battleship (to grounding, progressive battle damage, and an internal explosion) and three destroyers: one to gunfire, one to air attack, and one to grounding after a surface engagement.  Italian “Nationalist” submarines also took a toll, torpedoing (but failing to sink) a light cruiser and a destroyer.


With the Nationalist victory, the operable remnants of the Republican navy steamed for Bizerte, where the ships were interned and eventually returned to the Nationalists.  Some sailed on for their new masters into the 1960s before seeing the scrapyard.




20 August 1936.  Republican destroyer Galiano intercepted a Nationalist troop convoy from Morrocco, but was driven off by the escort.  The Nationalist gunboat Dato was involved in the action.


29 September 1936.  After the main part of the Republican fleet steamed for Gijon on the Bay of Biscay, the Nationalist cruisers Canarias and Cervera flushed the remaining Republican forces out of the Straits of Gibraltar.  In a daylight action against two destroyers, Canarias sank Ferrandiz and Cervera damaged Gravina.


25 April 1937.  In response to a Republican bombardment of Malaga, Canarias and her sister Baleares raided the Republican naval base at Cartagena.  No significant damage was done by either side, although the Nationalist cruisers just missed engaging the Republican battleship Jaime I, which had gone aground after the bombardment but was able to limp into Almiera.


20 May 1937.  Escorting a tanker in fog, the Baleares ran across a Republican force of two cruisers (presumably Libertad and Mendez Nunez) and six destroyers.  A brief action resulted, with no damage inflicted by either side.


12 July 1937.  Off Valencia, Baleares ran across a Republican convoy of two freighters escorted by six destroyers.  All of the Republican ships escaped.


7 September 1937.  Battle off Cape Cherchell.  In a daylight action, Baleares fell in with a four ship Republican convoy escorted by cruisers Libertad and Mendez Nunez and destroyers Juan, Escano, Gravina, Antequera, Valdes, Lepanto, and Miranda.  The cruisers traded gunfire while the convoy escaped to Cherchell.  Both Baleares and Libertad were hit, and Baleares was set afire.  Canarias was summoned to the scene, but arrived too late to intervene.


23 September 1937.  In a night action, Canarias seized two Republican freighters off Callella.  She damaged Barcaiztegui while driving off the other two escorting destroyers, Antequera and Gravina.


5/6 March 1938.  Battle off Cape Palos.  The Republicans planned to attack Nationalist cruisers lying at Palma de Mallorca with MTBs, but bad weather forced a cancellation of the MTB attack.  By happenstance, the Republican fleet units providing distant cover for the attack collided with a Nationalist convoy of two freighters escorted by cruisers Canarias, Baleares and Cervera with destroyers Huesca and Teruel.  The Republicans, under Admiral Ubieta, attacked with cruisers Libertad and Mendez Nunez and destroyers Lazanga, Gravina, Antequera, Lepanto and Barcaiztegui.  In a confused night action, the Republican destroyers torpedoed and sank Baleares.  The Nationalist force, commanded by Admiral Vierna, inflicted no losses on the Republicans.


27 August 1938.  Nationalist destroyer Diez had put in at Le Harve after operating in the Bay of Biscay.  In August of 1938, she tried to slip through the Straits of Gibraltar, but was intercepted and damaged by Canarias, Huesca and Ceuta.  She was subsequently run hard aground off Gibraltar after a night action with four Nationalist minelayers.




Espana Class.  These two pre-WWI ships were the world’s smallest dreadnoughts, displacing only 15,700 tons standard and mounting a main battery of 8 12”/50 cal. in two turrets fore and aft and two turrets amidships.  Twelve coal fired boilers gave them a speed of 19.5 knots on 20,000 HP.  Espana had a secondary armament of 12 4”/50 cal. guns plus AA guns; Jaime I carried 20 4”/50cal. guns and some AA.  Both had belts of from 3 to 9 inches, deck armor of 1 to 2 inches and 10 inch turret armor.  Jaime I fought on the Republican side, Espana with the Nationalists.  Neither ship survived the conflict, Espana being mined off Santander in April 1937 and Jaime I being lost to an internal explosion in May of 1937 after grounding and being bombed.  A third ship of the class had been lost to grounding in the 1920s.


Canarias Class.  Two Canarias class heavy cruisers were the centerpiece of Nationalist naval power.  These were modern ships, British-designed and based on the Royal Navy’s County class, but with their boilers grouped in three internal spaces and less fuel tankage.  They displaced 10,000 tons standard, with a 2 to 4 inch vertical belt, 1 to 3 inches of deck armor and 1 inch armor on their main battery turrets.  Main armament was 8 8”/50 cal. guns in twin turrets.  Secondary armament varied from ship to ship. Canarias was commissioned with 4 single  purpose 4” guns, but replaced them with 6 4.7” single DP mounts in October of 1936 and added another 2 in February of 1937. Baleares mounted 4 4.7” and 4 3.9” Italian AA guns, all in single mounts.  Each also had some light AA.  Eight boilers drove 4 turbines for 90,000 HP, giving 33 knots. 


Neither ship was completed at the start of the civil war but both were rapidly pressed into service: Canarias was completed with a non-naval fire control system (presumably just a land-style rangefinder) while Baleares did not ship her aftermost turret until the June of 1937.  Canarias began service in September of 1936; Baleares followed in January of 1937.


Cervera Class.  The Cervera class of three ships split their loyalties.  Cervera fought with the Nationalists, while Libertad and de Cervantes fought for the Republic.  They were modern ships based on the British “E” Class cruisers, but with revised armament arrangements.  Main armament comprised 8 6”/50 cal. guns disposed in two single mounts fore and aft and 3 twin mounts forward, aft and amidships.  They also carried 4 triple 21” torpedo mounts and 4 single 4” AA mounts, plus light AA weapons.  They displaced 7975 tons standard, with 2 to 3 inch side armor and 1 inch deck armor.  Eight boilers drove 4 turbines for 80,000 HP, giving from 33 to 34 knots.


Cervera and Libertad fought throughout the war, but de Cervantes was torpedoed in November 1936 and then bombed in drydock.  She did not leave dockyard hands until March 1938.


Mendez Nunez.  This was Libertad’s constant companion and a derivative of the British “C” class cruisers.  She displaced 4780 tons standard, with 2 to 3 inch side armor and 1 inch deck armor.  She mounted 6 6”/50 cal. guns in single mounts -- 3 superimposed forward and 3 superimposed aft -- as well as 4 triple 21” torpedo mounts and light AA.  Her 6 coal fired and 6 oil fired boilers drove 4 turbines for 43,000 HP, giving 29 knots.


Navarra.  The Nationalists took the Navarra in hand as a replacement for the Baleares.  She was a pre-WW I cruiser similar to the British Birmingham class, lying out of service in August of 1936.  The Nationalists re-boilered her and gave her new AA armament, putting her in service in June of 1938.  She displaced 4857 tons standard and carried 2 to 3 inches of belt armor and 3 inches of deck armor.  Her main armament was 6 6”/50 cal. guns disposed in single mounts: all on the centerline, two superimposed forward, two amidships, two superimposed aft.  For AA, she carried 4 single 3.5 inch guns.  She had 4 coal-fired and 4 oil-fired boilers; these drove two turbines for 25,000 HP, giving a speed of 25 knots.


Churruca Class.  Fourteen of this destroyer class served with the Republicans and none with the Nationalists.  Twelve were in service at the start of the war or shortly thereafter; two more were completed in 1937.  Some of the last completed may have begun service with 4” main batteries.  They were based on the British Scott class.  On a displacement of 1650 tons standard, they mounted 4 single 4.7”/ 50 cal. guns (built for 5 but shipping 4 for war service) and 2 triple 21” torpedo mounts.  Machinery consisted of 4 boilers and two turbines, giving 45,000 HP and speeds of 36 knots or more.


Alsedo Class.  Two of this class of destroyers (Alsedo and Lazaga) served with the Republicans, one (Velasco) with the Nationalists.  They were based on the British WW I Nimrod class, but were smaller in size.  They displaced 1145 tons standard and mounted 3 4”/50 cal. guns and two double 21” torpedo mounts.  Four boilers drove two turbines for 33,000 HP and 34 knots.


The Republican Alsedos were not very active -- not surprisingly given the 14 Republican Churrucas -- but the Velasco had a very active war in the Bay of Biscay.


Cueta Class.  The Cueta and Melilla were scrapings from the Italian Navy barrel, WW I era destroyers that were short-legged and slow.  Both were sold to the Nationalists in October 1937 to ease their destroyer shortage.  They carried 4 4”/45 cal. guns and 2 double 17.7” torpedo mounts on 1400 tons standard displacement.  Five boilers drove two turbines for a nominal 39,000 HP, giving them speeds of less than 34 knots.  For some part of their Nationalist service both ships mounted dummy fourth funnels to make them resemble the Velasco.


Huesca Class.  Huesca and Teruel were more Italian dregs, two WW I veterans pawned off on the Nationalists.  They carried 5 4”/35 cal. guns and 2 double 17.7” torpedo mounts on a standard displacement of 845 tons.  They had 5 boilers and 2 turbines, giving 20,000 HP and a reputed top speed of 31 knots.


Castillo Class.  A class of sloops (rated gunboats) with 4 4” guns -- 2 superimposed forward and 2 on the same deck level aft -- and no torpedoes.  They had 2 boilers and 2 reciprocating engines giving speeds of 15 knots.  They displaced 1,314 tons standard.  One of the class -- Dato -- figured in Nationalist attempts to convoy troops from Africa to Spain before she was sunk by a Republican bombardment.  In appearance, they resembled somewhat the River class frigates of the Royal Navy.




Hallmark Miniatures offers the entire Spanish Navy (excepting the Italian ships bought by the Nationalists and the Castillo class) for a pittance.  The Italian destroyers are represented by Hallmark World War I offerings, while Royal Navy River class frigates make passable Castillo class gunboats.