“Men of the Basque country, the Mar Cantabrico… Simple men who asked of their life no mythical splendour, They loved its familiar ways so well that they preferred
In the rudeness of their heart to die rather than to surrender…“
Cecil Day-Lewis “The Nabara” * (Overtures to Death and Other Poems)
Every year on March 5th, we must remember the heroes who, at dawn on this same day in 1937, took a stand the cruiser Canarias aboard the armored trawlers that made up part of the Auxiliary Navy of the Basque Country. These trawlers are ships of iron, large and fast, which can handle the heavy seas of the Bay of Biscay and Grand Sole, and the ice of Newfoundland, in search of codfish.
It’s important to understand what this Basque Government body was. On the magnificent website marinavasca.eu (which we link to below), you can get all the details. But it’s worth covering a bit of information to get our bearings.
It was created by order of Joaquín Eguía for the Basque Government in October 1936. Eguía was a captain in the merchant marine, from Bilbao, and was a Basque nationalist who led a life worthy of a movie, as you can see in this article about his life.
This naval force was made up of the ships that were available; that is, fishing boats. As marinavasca.eu says:
“In order to organize this auxiliary force, Egia converted into “warships” a good number of fishing boats that were sheltering in Bilbao, but not being used for their real purpose. Most of them had arrived during the evacuation of Pasajes. There were fitted out with artillery in some cases (armed trawlers) or rigs for sweeping underwater mines in others (mine sweepers). All the vessels were painted lead grey and the initial of their name or equivalent numeral painted in black on their rigging. They flew the ikurriña (Basque flag) at the bow and the Republican tricolour flag at the stern. The crews were made up of volunteers, from the fishing and merchant navy fleets. They made up for their lack or no military training with their commitment, discipline and high motivation. More than 900 passed through the ranks of the Basque Country Navy.
…The outcome of the military and political circumstances of the conflict – particularly the fact that the North was cut off from the rest territory controlled by the government forces, the poor performance of the Republican Cantabrian Sea Naval Forces (Cantabrian Sea is the Spanish name for the Bay of Biscay), which led to tension between the commands of both forces and ended in mutual distrust, and the character of the head of the Auxiliary Navy, Joaquín de Egia, was that the latter became totally autonomous from the Republican Navy, both from an organizational and operational point of view…”
Video found at the Eukal Itsas Museoa. These images are preerved at the Euskadiko Filmategia-Filmoteca Vasca.
A Historic Battle
On that morning, four armed Basque trawlers, the Gipuzkoa (commanded by Manuel Galdós), the Nabarra (commanded by Enrique Moreno), the Bizkaya (commanded by Alejo Bilbao), and the Donostia (commanded by Francisco Elortegi) were escorting the cargo ship Galdames that had left Bayonne with 173 passengers, three tons of nickel coins minted in Belgium for the Basque Government, and other cargo.
The convoy broke up the night of March 4–5 due to a storm and the fact that they were sailing without lights. At dawn, the Gipuzkoa and the Bizkaia, 20 miles away from the Abra Bay at the mouth of the Nervión, came across the cruiser Canarias. This ship, along with her sister Baleares, was the most powerful warship in the hands of the rebels, and one of the most powerful in the Spanish Civil War.
In the following battle, specifically the shelling between the Gipuzkoa and the Canarias, the trawler suffered heavy damage, including a fire on the bridge, and had to take refuge at the port of Santurtzi. But first, one of its shots at the Canarias caused a death and an injury (the first casualties of the campaign).
The other trawler that had been separated from the convoy, the Bizkaya, had come across a strange merchant ship flying the Estonian flag near Cape Matxitxako. It turned out to be the Yorkbrook, loaded with weapons for the Republicans, which had been captured by the Canarias just before the battle. The Bizkaya immediately took advantage of the fact that the Canarias was focused on the Gipuzkoa and led the Yorkbrook to Bermeo, thereby recovering the ship and its cargo.
David vs. Goliath
Soon after, the Canarias came across the other ships. It shot at the Galdames, causing the death of five passengers, so the merchant ship raised the white flag and turned off its enginges. The rebel ship then shot at the Donostia, which backed off, and then against the Nabarra. The commander of the Nabarra, Enrique Moreno (who had been born in Unión, Murcia, but who fought with the Basque Government until the end), despite the overwhelming force, decided to fight back against the cruiser and die fighting rather than give up his ship.
And that was the beginning of these heroes’ story. The what the men on the Nabarra did could only be described as heroic. We’re sure that if it had happened in a different place, it would be the subject of innumerable books and films. But, it happened in the tiny Basque country, and is barely remembered today; indeed, it runs the risk of being forgotten.
That’s why today we wanted to focus on another essential document to better understand not only this bit of history, but also its significance.
We’re referring to the book El Combate del Cabo Matxitxako (5-3-1937), by José María de Gamboa. It was published in the late 1970s by the Bidasoa Asociación para la promoción de la Historia vasca, which had been created around 1970 to try to recover Basque history from the war and dictatorship.
Despite the incredible work they did, there’s hardly any trace to be found of this association today. At least its records are in safe hands at the Sabino Arana Foundation. We’ll try to get the necessary licenses to be able to share this book with you as a .pdf, as it has been out of print for a long time.
The Importance of This Story
But we can reproduce a few paragraphs of this book, which we found especially important to understand the meaning this battle has.
“Historically, the combat is the first time a Basque naval battle group under its own flag (with the Republic’s on the stern). Before the Matxitxako episode, there had been run-ins and skirmishes between the trawlers and Franco’s boats, but on this occasion, it is an important group that is facing up (even if seaparately) one great unit, the cruiser ‘Canarias.’ This fact is fundamental. While it is true that over the centuries, the Basques had fought in all seas and in every navy, this is the first time that four armed Basque ships, crewed by men who were perfectly aware of what they were fighting for, fought on the open sea. They weren’t fighting under other flags, or for commercial rights, dynastic problems, or colonization. They were fighting for the Basque Country. In that lost battle, many lost their lives, but the Auxiliary Basque Navy will always have its place, the naval weapon of the Basques.
In this sense, the symbolism of the battle is the same as that of the ‘gudaris’ on land, but, in our opinion, due to its brevity and drama, it highlights better the historical and military peculiarities of our war. While the land and sea ‘gudaris’ shared this important characteristic, that of being the first armed forces for the Basque people with political consciousness, they also shared another: being outnumbered and outgunned. The enemy had German and Italian planes, and the heavy artillery on land matched the large guns of the cruiser. Their professional commands, legion, regulars, Italians, were matched by the speed, the armor, and the professionalism of the ‘Canarias.’ The same causes had the same effects, some ‘gudaris’ ended up in Santoña in front of a firing squad, while others ended up in Ondarreta, miraculously escaping the squad.
However, history also teaches us that there are battles that hide their true transcendence, which is not victory or defeat, but rather how it was won or lost and what arose from its arches of triumph or ashes. This, for us, is the true importance of the Battle of Cape Matxitxako, which is itself a symbol of the war in the Basque Country 1936–1937. It is the historian’s duty to highlight this fact, so that the Basques can know their recent history. As Santayana said, “The peoples who don’t know their own history…”
Militarily, there are several considerations to be made. It’s obvious that the ‘Canarias’ won, as it maintained control of the area of sea where the battle took place. Strategically, however, the cruiser’s victory had little impact, as the conditions for control of the sea changed little from before to after the battle. These conditions were the sporadic control of Franco’s naval forces, when one of their large units appeared in Basque waters. In practice, the merchants entered and left Bilbao freely, though with some risk and with minimal losses when compared in relative terms with the losses suffered by the great merchant fleets sailing to England 1941–1942, fighting off German submarines. The trawlers kept carrying out their missions, protecting merchants and fishermen, at times collaborating with land operations, such as the trawler ‘Bizkaya’ during the Italian advance towards Bermeo. The military conclusion is that the Auxiliary Navy duly fulfilled its duty, and that the war in the Bsque Country was lost for many reasons, but fundamental among them was not the strangulation of its access to the sea…
…For reasons that are already known, the Basque trawlers faced off against the cruiser in an uncoordinated way. There is still the question of what would have happened if they’d fought together, but without the destroyer ‘José Luis Díez,’ there are infinite possibilities, most of them pessimistic. An officer of the Royal Navy, after having studied the battle, gave us many comments and critiques. He found it incredible that the Basque group was not led by any of the four trawler captains. That’s how it was. All four had the same order of operations, but none had control over the others. He criticized the lack of communications, first between Artxanda and the trawlers, and then between the trawlers themselves. He added that it seemed obvious that the commanders had not considered the difficulties of maintaining formation at night in bad weather, nor had any special precautions been taken, such as special limited-sector lights or varying the formation from in-line to closed line, lessening the risk of dispersion and collision. He also commented, from his own experience protecting convoys, that maintaining formation in bad weather was the most arduous job there was before the appearance of radar. I believe we can draw our own opinions.
What most surprised this skilled war sailor, as well as many others ,was the actions of the four commanders separately, each one facing their own situation and destiny. These four merchant captains fulfilled their difficult duty according to the highest professional traditions of any war sailor, and they were followed by their crews. Here, too, is another important conclusion: some Basques, professionals at sea, but amateurs in war, acted exceptionally because they were highly motivated. From 1937 on, the knowledge and appreciation of the importance of motivation in the behavior of combatants has increased considerably.
Finally, let’s look at the political conclusions of the battle. Who were the men aboard the ‘Nabarra’ or the trawlers? On the crew manifests, next to about 85% of the names, appears PNV-STV; the rest have only STV or ANV, as well as a few socialists and republicans.
An important fact of this faraway war seems to us to be that the men who fought, beyond parties and other diversities, reached the transcendental condition of Basque warriors. There was a patriotic, and at the same time military, solidarity, a unit of action, that was typical of the Basques, but which tragically only appears at the most tragic moments. There must be some deep-rooted reason behind why the most popular song today, one which brings all together, is “Euzko gudariak”.
In conclusion, it seems evident to us that the ‘gudaris’ on the trawlers, as well as their brethren on land, were the Basque people in arms, in its clearest and most important expression since. It was that Basque army, the first one in the history of the Basque Country. And at sea, the sailors aboard the ‘Nabarra’ were its cleanes and most brilliant symbol, as sharp as a sword’s edge.
Over the years, the trawler ‘Nabarra’ sends us a message about the sense of duty and of death for the Basque homeland. The crews of the ‘Nabarra’ and other trawlers, Basque sailors, fishermen, men of a people without classes, but men of class, shall not be forgotten.”
What do the old sailors for the Auxiliary Navy think today, especially the survivors of the ‘Nabarra’? Of them, only seven are alive with certainty (1977). Knowing these men and speaking with them is a rare privilege, while also an experience worth reflecting on. The first effect of that reflection is that of looking at these Basques with respect and humility. Respect because they’ve touched death and gone through life in dignity, suffereing and working hard up to today as they always were, whole, simple, human. Humility because they talk about what they did simply, truly, and naturally, when we are today surrounded by exaggerations, maximalisms, and exclusivisms. From these men who suffered war, jail, and the post-war hardships, we have never heard a cross word against anyone or anything. They’re just like they’ve always been. Men of iron; time has hit them and ended up broke. Some are retired, some still work. What do they think today? The same as in 1937. Would they do the same if they went back to when they were 20? “Of course,” they all respond.
On March 5, 1967, at 10:00 am, a fishing boat silently set sail from Bermeo. With the collaboration of the Bidasoa Association, a simple commemorative act had been organized for the Battle of Cape Matxitxako. In the waters where the ‘Nabarra’ sank, with the help of five survivors, a brief narration of the battle was read, as was a poem by Cecil Day-Lewis, “Nabarra.” Then, a flower wreath bearing the inscription “Nabarra’ko gudarientzat” [To the warriors of the ‘Nabarra’] was released to the sea by Perico de la Hoz. Then the following was read:
“In the waters off Cape Matxitxako, on March 5, 1976. A group of Basques was gathered aboard a fishing boat in the waters off Matxitxako, where we have released a wreath of flowers in memory of the Battle of Cape Matxitxako and the sinking of the ‘Nabarra.’ To commemorate the 39th anniversary, we salute those Basque sailors who died for their country, as well as the others who participated in the battle. We likewise wish to send, from these waters, warm regards to Rear Admiral Manuel de Calderón, in thanks for having saved the lives of the survivors of the ‘Nabarra,’ an act that will not be forgotten by Basque sailors.”
In 1975, this same Bidasoa Association commissioned a series of oil paintings about the battle to British painter David J. Cobb, and for many Basques, these have become the “image” of the battle.
As we said a few years ago:
With this memory and homage, we also wish to remember and pay homage to all the people who fought for freedom and for the Basque Country: to those who defended the Intxortas; to those who recovered Artxanda to give the citizens of Bilbao time to abandon the city and escape the fascists; to the women who worked under the bombs; to the children who had to abandon their homes and families to find safety from the savage bombing of the fascist savages; to the gudaris who kept fighting fascism in the Second World War; to the exiles who took the call of Liberty for the Basque Country around the world; and to those who stayed in our homeland and suffered the persecutions and oppression of the fascist dictatorship. And they did all that for freedom, justice, and democracy.
Therefore, we hereby recall all those who, with their effort, created a glorious page in the history of the Basque Nation, and showed us with road to follow.
To all of them, agur eta ohore.
Marina Vasca – Euskadi
Información de la Batalla del Cabo Matxitxako y de la Marina Auxiliar de Euzkadi
*”The Nabara”. We preserve the original title as chosen by its author. The lack of another R, (“Navara” rather than “Navarra”) is most likely due to the way the trawler’s name was written at that time, according to the spelling rules set out by Sabino Arana, where the common double R was represented by a single R with an accent: ŕ (Navaŕa).
Header photo: Raising the ikurriña aboard the trawler Gipuzkoa, a unit of the Basque Auxiliary Navy, February 1937, not long before the Battle of Cape Matxitxako
Last Updated on Mar 24, 2023 by About Basque Country