The Passionate War at Sea
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.