BASQUE TRAWLERS AGAINST A SPANISH BATTLECRUISER

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 10 minutes)

The 5th of March is the anniversary of the naval Battle of Cape Machichaco (cabo matxitxakoko borroka, in Euskera/ Basque), which took place on 5 March 1937 off Bermeo (Bizkaia province, Basque Country), during the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, between the Spanish Military-Fascist heavy cruiser Canarias and four Basque Navy trawlers escorting a Republican convoy. The trawlers were protecting the transport ship Galdames, which was sailing to Bilbao with 173 passengers.

Looking from Cabo Matxitxako out to sea and to the French Border dividing the Basque Country.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

(The following account of the battle is from Wikipedia; the section titles and comment are mine)

          On 4 March, four armed trawlers of the Basque Auxiliary Navy section of the Spanish Republican Navy, Bizcaia, Gipuzkoa, Donostia and Nabarra departed from Bayonne, France. Their intention was to defend Galdames‘s mail, passengers, machinery, weapons, supplies and 500 tons of nickel coins property of the Basque government.

The battlecruiser Canarias.
(Photo source: Internet)

Canarias sailed from Ferrol with Salvador Moreno as the captain, with orders to stop the transport ship. Galdames, which was steaming up with the lights and the radio switched off, and was unknowingly left behind by Bizcaya and Gipuzkoa.

FOUR CONVERTED TRAWLERS AGAINST A BATTLE CRUISER

          Next morning, while all the trawlers were watching for Canarias, Galdames rejoined them. Bizcaya‘s captain was Alejo Bilbao, Nabarra‘s Enrique Moreno Plaza from Murcia, and Gipuzkoa‘s Manuel Galdós. The trawlers had the intention of luring Canarias close to the Biscay coast to have the assistance of the coastal batteries.[

The first trawler to spot Canarias was Gipuzkoa, 30 kilometers (19 mi) north of Bilbao. The Basque trawler was hit on the bridge and the forward gun. Return fire from Gipuzkoa killed one Canarias seaman and wounded another. The armed trawler, with five fatalities and 20 injured aboard, managed to approach the coast, where the shore batteries forced Canarias to retreat.

Nabarra and Donostia tried to prevent Canarias from finding Galdames and engaged the cruiser.

The Nabarra during the Battle of Matxitxako, painting by David Cobb.
(Photo source: Internet)

Donostia withdrew from the battle after being fired on by Canarias, but Nabarra faced the enemy for almost two hours. She was eventually hit in the boiler and came to a stop; 20 men abandoned the sinking trawler, while other 29 were lost with the ship, including her captain, Enrique Moreno Plaza.

The transport Galdames, which was hit by a salvo from Canarias and lost four passengers, was eventually captured by the military-fascist cruiser.

Gipuzkoa arrived at Portugalete seriously damaged and Bizcaia headed for Bermeo, where she assisted the Estonian merchantman Yorbrook with a load including ammunition and 42 Japanese Type 31 75 mm mountain guns, previously captured by Canarias and released.

Port town of Bermeo, seen from Cabo Matxitxako.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Donostia sought shelter in a French port.

AFTERMATH

          The 20 survivors from Nabarra were rescued by the military-fascists and taken aboard Canarias. Instead of the expected hostility and mistreatment, they were given medical assistance, and both the cruiser commander, future Francoist Admiral Salvador Moreno and Captain Manuel Calderón interceded with Franco when the Basque seamen were sentenced to death in retaliation for the shooting of two crewmembers of the armed trawler Virgen del Carmen, captured by Republican sympathizers and diverted to Bilbao in December 1936. The survivors were eventually acquitted and released in 1938.

In contrast, one of the passengers aboard Galdames, Christian Democrat politician Manuel Carrasco Formiguera, from Catalonia, was imprisoned and executed on 9 April 1938.

Map/ diagram of the Battle
(Image source: Internet)

PERSONAL COMMENT

COURAGE, COWARDICE AND CRUELTY

           The story is one of incredible bravery of a number of converted trawlers and their Basque crews, in particular that of the Nabarra and her Captain from Murcia. One account I read related that her Captain consulted his crew and they agreed to fight to the death or the sinking of their ship. Their valour and stubbornness (two qualities which commentators often associate with the Basques) was of such magnitude as to impress  even their military-fascist opponents, to the extent of their interceding with Franco to save their lives.

It is also the story of the cowardice of at least the captain of the Donostia.

And of the bestiality of the military-fascists in the execution of a member of the Catalan Government returning to his country with his family, guilty of no crime but to serve his the administration of his elected republican government (one of hundreds of thousands of such crimes of the miiltary-fascists coupists and their victorious regime).

VISIT TO CAPE MATXITXAKO

           I visited the land part of the location on a number of occasions in recent years. Access by public transport is by a bus every hour but I was driven by friends.

Monument to the Battle of Matxitxako by sculptor Nestor Barrentxea, who is from the nearby port town of Bermeo.  (Photo source: Internet)

On a windy promontory on private land I saw one of the shore artillery battery sites (which has had nothing done to conserve it) and, close enough, the monument to the battle. Not far from there is a local bar-restaurant which is popular and a short trip by car, the iconic hermitage of Gastelugatxe.  Many tourists visit the area but I wonder how many get to hear of the story.

Thinking of the determination and courage of those crews, not even trained for war, in converted trawlers, facing a trained naval crew of a huge battle cruiser, I am not ashamed to say my eyes fill and my lip trembles.

Aerial view of the Matxitxako Cape. (I took my two photos from beside the building furthest to the right).
(Photo source: Internet)

 

end.

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