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SS Cantabria: Wikis


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The sinking of SS Cantabria as seen from the Nationalist raider Nadir
Career (Spanish) British Red Ensign
Name: SS Cantabria
Owner: A Zubizarreta[1]
Operator: On charter to the Mid-Atlantic Shipping Company of London
Ordered: 1919
Builder: J. Coughlan & Sons
Launched: 1919
Maiden voyage: 1919
Homeport: Santander
Fate: Sunk by the Spanish Nationalist Auxiliary cruiser Nadir of the North Norfolk Coast
General characteristics
Tonnage: 5,649 tons
Length: 410 feet (120 m)
Beam: 54 feet (16 m)
Height: 27 feet (8.2 m)
Propulsion: triple-expansion engines, 532 n.h.p.
Speed: 8-10 knots
Crew: Captain, 32 crew

The SS Cantabria was a Spanish ship which was sunk in a military action of the Spanish Civil War, off the coast of Norfolk twelve miles ENE[2] of Cromer on 2 November 1938.[3] The ship was shelled by the Spanish Nationalist Auxiliary cruiser Nadir, which was part of General Franco’s navy.


The incident

The SS Cantabria (5649 tons) was built in 1919 as the War Chief at the shipyards of J. Coughlan & Sons, Vancouver, Canada.[4] She was purchased by A.F. Pérez, Santander in 1919 and renamed Alfonso Pérez. In 1937 she was requisitioned by the Departamento de Navegación of Santander for the Republican government and renamed Cantabria.[2] She was registered at the Bay of Biscay port of Santander in the north of Spain. At the time of the incident, the SS Cantabria was under charter to a British Company called the Mid-Atlantic Shipping Company based in London. She was not engaged in Spanish trade. She was on passage in ballast between the River Thames and Immingham bound for Leningrad under Captain Manuel Argüelles. On board were 45 people made up of crew and passengers, of which five were children and three women. One of the children was only three years old. The passengers included Arguelles' wife Trinidad, their son Ramon, aged six and their daughter Veyona, aged eight.



Map showing the area of the incident

At around 11.30 am on 2 November, Argüelles was concerned that his vessel was being shadowed by a smaller vessel. He had good reason to have concerns as the Spanish Nationalist navy had been given the use of German North sea harbours by Hitler, to act as bases for them to raid Spanish shipping in the North Sea and the English Channel areas. With this situation in mind, the captain ordered his vessel to change course a degree or two to see if the following ship was following them. To Argüelles' concern, the vessel followed Cantabria 's new course. His officers studied the following vessel with binoculars, but the vessel appeared to be of no threat and looked like an ordinary passenger steamer of around 1500 tons. The vessel was in fact the Nadir, an auxiliary cruiser of General Franco's Spanish Nationalist forces armed with a 120 mm main gun, a battery of two 105 mm and other two 47 mm AA. She was actually the Ciudad de Valencia, a very active warship during the blockade of Biscay in 1937.[5] The Nationalists had renamed her in order to deceive the Republican navy about the real number of commerce raiders at sea. Captain Argüelles again changed course heading towards the Norfolk coast. The Nadir followed and speeded up. The crew of the Cantabria then saw that the flag of the Spanish insurgents had been raised on the Nadir. At the same time the Nadir 's guns were unmasked and she ordered the Cantabria to ‘Heave to or I fire’. It was now the afternoon of the 2 November and the Nadir began to fire shells at the ship.[6] The action occurred on the high seas, outside British territorial waters, but near enough to the coast to be witnessed from the shore. The Cantabria, according to the statement of Argüelles himself, had refused to stop after having a shot fired high across her bows. At this point, nearby fishing boats intervened by heading towards the Nadir sounding their sirens. This had an effect as the attacking ship, although under no threat from the commercial trawlers, changed course and broke off its attack. The fishing boats, satisfied that they had broken up the confrontation, continued on their way. The Nadir, however, as soon as she was back in range, began to target the ship itself. A shell stuck the bridge, destroying it. The Nadir circled the Cantabria firing shells and raking the ship with machine-gun fire. Another shell penetrated the engine room rendering the Cantabria powerless. During this time the radio operator had been sending messages that the ship was ‘being shelled by unknown vessel’. After the bridge had been destroyed and the engine room had been disabled he sent out the SOS. The Cantabria's position was given as 8½ miles south-east of Haisbro Light ship.[7]


It was now nearly dark and at 5pm the Cromer Lifeboat H.F. Bailey with coxswain Henry Blogg at the helm was launched to rescue the Cantabria's crew and passengers. Before the lifeboat arrived fire had spread through the ship. Two boats were lowered and some of the crew and passengers abandoned the ship. Captain Argüelles, his wife and children and the second steward, Joaquin Vallego, remained aboard the Cantabria fearing what their fate would be if they surrendering to the insurgents aboard the Nadir. With the boats now lowered, the Nadir ceased fire. The attack was witnessed by two freighters, the British Monkwood and a Norwegian merchant, which gave up any rescue attempt, fearing the reaction of the Nadir, which was still in international waters.[8] Another British Merchant Vessel, the Pattersonian appeared on the horizon, responding to the SOS sent from the Cantabria.[9] Captain Blackmore of the Pattersonian had seen the Nadir heading towards the lifeboat and had steered his ship across the attacking ship, getting his vessel between the Nadir and the lifeboat. Eleven of the crew were taken off the Cantabria’s lifeboats by the Pattersonian. A further 20 of the crew in the second lifeboat were captured by the Nadir. This act was judged an unlawful interference with British shipping in the House of Lords, since the Nadir obstructed the legal duty of rescuing seamen.[10] It was now dark and no more shots were being fired. The Cromer lifeboat arrived at the scene of the incident at 6.30 pm. A relieved Arguelles signaled the lifeboat with a torch and it pulled along the starboard side of the Cantabria, which was heavily listing. A line was thrown and the children and the captain's wife were handed down to the lifeboat and were soon followed by the steward and the Captain. With all rescued the Cantabria suddenly heeled over damaging the lifeboat’s stanchions. With great haste the lifeboat moved away from the sinking Cantabria. Soon after the Republican steamer sank. At least one sailor, Juan Gil, was lost with the vessel.[8]


H. F. Bailey returned to Cromer arriving at 8.15pm. Captain Argüelles, his family and the steward were taken to the Red Lion Hotel. Meanwhile the other 11 rescued crewmen were taken to Great Yarmouth by the Pattersonian. An account of the incident was reported on the BBC along with a warning to shipping, giving the sunken Cantabria's position. The national press carried the story as their headlines but many of the crew at Yarmouth refused to be photographed fearing reprisals from Franco. Questions were also asked in the Houses of Parliament about the incident.[10]

SS Cantabria
Rescued Persons[11]
By Cromer Lifeboat H.F. Bailey By the Pattersonian Captured by the Nadir
Capt. Manuel Arguelles Jose Lopez (English speaking) 24 crew
Trinidad Argüelles Pedro Garcia Eduardo Collade (wireless operator)
Ramon Begona Argüelles (aged 6) Francisco Pou The wife of Eduardo Collade
Veyona Argüelles (aged 8) Francisco Garcia 2 children of Eduardo Collade
Joaquin Vallego Fernando Manciro
Rafael Leou
Rafael Leou
Hilaro Trilear
Santiago Glorente
Roman Amorebieta
Armando Abad
Manuel Figuciras

Gestapo involvement

Two weeks after the sinking of the SS Cantabria, Danish police released information that shed new light on the recent confrontation that proved that it had been no coincidence that the Nadir had intercepted the Cantabria.[12] For some time, the Danish police had been quietly interested in the Copenhagen correspondents for a German newspaper. One of these correspondents was Horst von Pflug-Hartnung. He worked for the paper, BerlinerBoersen Zeitung, which was an organ of the Reich War Ministry.[13] The police arrested Hartnung along with eight other Germans living in Denmark, along with three Danes and charged them of operating as spies in Copenhagen. During their investigations the Danish police proved that the accused had all been trained at Gestapo spy schools and had operated secret broadcasting stations, as well as engaging in nautical and hydrographical research. Between them they had drawn up maps and charts, graphs and complex mathematical tables of data. They communicated by complex code systems, which they changed frequently. The outlay for so extensive an apparatus as theirs could be justified only as part of Third Reich preparation for war against major countries. The spy ring just so happened to use the shadowing and sinking of Loyalist Spanish freighter SS Cantabria as a practical demonstration of their complicated subversion mechanism that the Gestapo was honing. The sinking had been formulated on behalf of Franco, backed by his allies, as a warning to Britain. Franco was serving notice on British government that, unless she proved reasonable in the current flux of world events, this was a warning of threats to come. Thanks to the investigations of the Danish police, it had been established that the attack had been planned by a more sinister power than General Francisco Franco, and one that was in a better position to threaten, namely Nazi Germany.[13]

Horst von Pflugk-Hartnung

Horst von Pflugk-Hartung was a German spy, who along with his brother Georg, had previously been charged in Berlin for the assassination of the Socialist leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Both men were acquitted but evidently many thought them guilty, for the brother was assassinated himself sometime later. After Horst von Pflugk-Hartung's trial in Denmark,[14] he was only sentenced to a year and a half in prison and was released after a few months owing to German government pressure. He became one of the leading German Intelligence chiefs in Denmark.


Captain Manuel Argüelles and his wife Trinidad eventually emigrated with their children to Mexico to make a new life for themselves and their family. In 2006, when the new Henry Blogg lifeboat museum was opened, Ramon Begona Argüelles along with his sister Veyona made a visit to pay tribute to Henry Blogg and his crew.


  1. ^ Times Online Archive, Letter to the Editor dated 5 November 1938
  2. ^ a b pg 13 The Ship-wrecks off North Norfolk. Ayer Tikus Publications
  3. ^ "Henry Blogg, the Greatest of the Lifeboatmen", Jolly, C., Pub: Poppyland Publishing, new edition 2002, ISBN 0-946148-59-7
  4. ^ "Henry Blogg, the Greatest of the Lifeboatmen", Jolly, C., Pub: Poppyland Publishing, new edition 2002, ISBN 0-946148-59-7, page 158
  5. ^ M/N Ciudad de Valencia (Spanish)
  6. ^ The Times, message from Reuters dated from Oslo, 4 November 1938
  7. ^ "Henry Blogg, the Greatest of the Lifeboatmen", Jolly, C., Pub: Poppyland Publishing, new edition 2002, page 161, par 5, ISBN 0-946148-59-7
  8. ^ a b El último viaje del Cantabria, by María del Mar Argüelles (Spanish)
  9. ^ Heaton, Paul Michael: Welsh Blockade Runners in the Spanish Civil War. Starling Press, 1985. Page 96. ISBN 0950771457
  10. ^ a b 15 November 1938 : Lords Sitting : Rule of Law on the High Seas
  11. ^ List of the rescued
  12. ^ Armies of Spies, Author: Joseph Collomb, Published in 1939 by Macmillan, New York. Chapter 5, Franco’s Fifth Column, page 88
  13. ^ a b Armies of Spies, Author: Joseph Collomb, Published in 1939 by Macmillan, New York. Chapter 5, Franco’s Fifth Column, page 89
  14. ^ Mike Jones on Danish Trotskyism, especially Trolle

Coordinates: 53°1′58″N 1°31′57″E / 53.03278°N 1.5325°E / 53.03278; 1.5325


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