Book Review: The Spanish Civil War At Sea

7 Apr

Michael Alpert

One does not normally think of the Spanish Civil War as a naval war.  It was the fighting on land that determined the winner, with much of the naval fighting serving as little more than a sideshow at best.  The only real time the navies might have made a significant impact on the tactical level was during the early weeks and months of the war, when Franco and the Nationalists were shipping troops from North Africa to the mainland.  This part of the war has been treated, by and large, as a sideshow.  It is very rarely mentioned as a crucial part of the war.

The Spanish Civil War At Sea covers three different aspects of the naval war.  First, there is the fragmentation of the Spanish Navy in the wake of the attempted coup of 1936 and both sides trying to repair the damage while fighting the war.  Second, there is coverage of the naval fighting and encounters – such as they were – during the bitter years of 1936 to 1939, when the war ended with a Nationalist victory.  Third, and perhaps most interestingly in our current times, there is an overview of foreign involvement in the naval aspects of the conflict, from diplomatic issues and quibbling over the legalities of which side could declare a blockade to brief and sometimes violent clashes between Spanish and foreign warships. 

The Spanish Navy was sharply divided even before the fighting, with officers largely supporting the Nationalists and most enlisted men supporting the Republicans (basic training was apparently very poor).  The early days of the war were marked, therefore, by horrendous confusion that made it hard for anyone to take control.  Some officers tried to lie to their men, with varying levels of success; others were overthrown in mutinies, which sometimes ended badly.  The chaos continued even after the battle lines were clearly drawn, with both sides having very real problems recognising their fleets, appointing new commanding officers (at this, the Nationalists had an advantage) and prosecuting the war.  The chance to impede shipping from Africa, for better or worse, was lost before anyone realised it had existed. 

The shortage of officers made it harder for the Republicans to sort out a valid strategic direction for their navy, let alone send it into battle.  They did not follow a unified plan, which played a role in their defeat.  At the same time, the Nationalists had trouble crewing the ships that had fallen into their hands (although they looked and acted more like a navy, which worked in their favour when dealing with foreign officers.)  Both sides had very real problems dealing with everything from supplies to foreign interference and neither one could use the navy to land a killing blow.

The book is far more detailed on the subject of outside involvement.  Germany and Italy sent direct support to the Nationalists, while the Soviets backed the Republicans.  Both sides worked hard to get supplies to their people while denying them to their enemies.  Other powers, Britain and France in particular, did their best to stay out of the fighting, a difficult task with three unfriendly powers involved.  Spain became a poisonous issue for both, raising problems they didn’t want to solve.  For example, if a ship was registered in Britain but wasn’t truly British, should the Royal Navy try to protect it?  Indeed, there was a split in both Britain and France, as people tried to take sides.

This led to a problem all too familiar nowadays.  If outsiders back the wrong side, i.e. the one that loses the war, the victors will be none too happy about it.  The risk of Franco turning completely to Germany was not to be overlooked, nor was the risk of Spain becoming a communist state in the wake of a Republican victory.  In the end, the outsiders were luckier than they deserved.  Franco won the war, but he didn’t join the Germans in 1940.

The book does, however, suffer from a grave weakness.  Alpert very much supports the Republicans, to the point of constantly referring to the Nationalists as the Insurgents.  This is technically accurate, but not very helpful.  He also glosses over the problems caused by political commissioners and sailors councils, as well as the fact the Republicans were turning more and more authoritarian as the war turned against them.  (The reluctance to trust what few senior officers entered Republican service was probably common sense, based on how some of them turned their coats during the fighting.)

Overall, though, it is a good outline of the naval aspects of a conflict that not only served as a forerunner of World War Two, but also casts a long shadow to this day.

One Response to “Book Review: The Spanish Civil War At Sea”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 7, 2022 at 4:04 pm #

    As for this author referring to the Nationalists as the Insurgents, I remember a story about some teacher showing students some old-time movie news reels about the Spanish Civil War.

    The students cheered when the news reel said “the Rebels have entered the City”.

    This was when the original Star Wars movies were out so the students saw the “Rebels” as the Good Guys.

    Of course, “everybody” knew that Franco was the “Bad Guy”. [Very Big Grin]

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