SS Cantabria (1919)

SS Cantabria was a Spanish cargo ship which was sunk in a military action of the Spanish Civil War, off the coast of Norfolk 12 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 sinking of SS Cantabria as seen from the Nationalist raider Nadir
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 off the North Norfolk Coast 53°1′58″N 1°31′57″E
General characteristics
Tonnage: 5,649 tons
Length: 410 ft (120 m)
Beam: 54 ft (16 m)
Height: 27 ft (8.2 m)
Propulsion: Triple-expansion engines, 532 nhp
Speed: 8–10 knots (15–19 km/h; 9.2–11.5 mph)
Crew: 33

Construction and early career

SS Cantabria (5649 tons) was built in 1919 as War Chief at the shipyards of J. Coughlan & Sons, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.[4] She was purchased by A.F. Pérez of Santander in 1919 and renamed Alfonso Pérez. She was used as a prison ship during the Asturian miners' strike of 1934.[5] 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 northern Spain, where she was used again as a prison ship by Republican authorities.[5]

1938 incident

At the time of the 1938 incident, Cantabria was under charter to a British company called the Mid-Atlantic Shipping Company based in London. Cantabria was not engaged in Spanish trade at the time of her sinking. 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 Argüelles' wife Trinidad, their son Ramon, aged six and their daughter Begoña, aged eight.

Raider Nadir

Nadir was a 1,132-ton auxiliary cruiser of General Franco's Spanish Nationalist forces armed with a 120 mm (4.7 in) main gun, two 105 mm (4 in) guns and other two 47 mm (2 in) anti-aircraft guns. She was actually Ciudad de Valencia, a warship very active during the blockade of Biscay in 1937. The Nationalists had renamed her in order to deceive the Republican navy about the real number of commerce raiders at sea. Her targets were Republican freighters operating from ports in northern Europe. The Nationalist raider had been launched on 18 October 1930 at the shipyard Unión Naval de Levante as Infante D. Gonzalo, owned by the Transmediterránea company. She was requisitioned by the Nationalist government on 30 October 1936.[6]


At around 11.30 am on 2 November, Argüelles was concerned that his freighter was being shadowed by a smaller ship. He had good reason to have concerns as the Spanish Nationalist navy had been given the use of the German port of Emdem by Hitler, to act as base for them to raid Spanish shipping in the North Sea and the English Channel areas.[7]

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 Nadir. Captain Argüelles again changed course heading towards the Norfolk coast. Nadir followed and speeded up. The crew of Cantabria then saw that the flag of the Spanish insurgents had been raised on the mast of Nadir. At the same time the raider's guns were unmasked and she ordered Cantabria to 'Heave to or I fire'. It was now the afternoon of 2 November when Nadir began to riddle the Republican freighter with gunfire.[8]

The action occurred on the high seas, outside British territorial waters, but near enough to the coast to be witnessed from the shore. 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 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. Nadir, however, as soon as she was back in range, began to target the ship itself. A shell struck the bridge, destroying it. The raider circled Cantabria firing round after round and raking the ship with machine-gun fire. Another shell penetrated the engine room rendering 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. Cantabria's position was given as 8½ miles south-east of Haisbro Light ship.[9]


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 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 Cantabria fearing what their fate would be if they surrendering to the insurgents aboard Nadir. With the boats now lowered, 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 Nadir, which was still in international waters.[10] Monkwood later sent a report to the naval authorities, who dispatched some naval units to the spot to assure that no hostile action would be taken inside British territorial waters.[11] Another British Merchant Vessel, Pattersonian, appeared on the horizon, responding to the SOS sent from Cantabria.[12] Captain Blackmore of Pattersonian had seen Nadir heading towards the lifeboat and had steered his ship across the attacking ship, getting his vessel between Nadir and the lifeboat. Eleven of the crew were taken off Cantabria's lifeboats by Pattersonian. A further 20 of the crew in the second lifeboat were captured by Nadir. This act was judged an unlawful interference with British shipping in the House of Lords, since Nadir obstructed the legal duty of rescuing seamen.[13] 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 Argüelles signaled the lifeboat with a torch and it pulled along the starboard side of 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. When the rescue was completed, 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.[10] Other sources report the loss of four crewmembers.[14]


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 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.[13]

SS Cantabria
Rescued Persons[15]
By Cromer Lifeboat H.F. Bailey By Pattersonian Captured by Nadir
Capt. Manuel ArgüellesJosé López (English speaking)24 crew
Trinidad ArgüellesPedro GarcíaEduardo Collade (wireless operator)
Ramón Argüelles (aged 6)Francisco PouThe wife of Eduardo Collade
Begoña Argüelles (aged 8)Francisco García2 children of Eduardo Collade
Joaquín VallegoFernando Manciro
Rafael Leou
Hilaro Trilear
Santiago Glorente
Román Amorebieta
Armando Abad
Manuel Figuciras

Gestapo involvement

Two weeks after the sinking of SS Cantabria, Danish police released information that shed new light on the recent confrontation that proved that it had been no coincidence that Nadir had intercepted Cantabria.[16] 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, Berliner Börsen Zeitung, which was an organ of the Reich War Ministry.[17] 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 Spanish Republican 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.[17] In effect, Nadir and her sister ship Ciudad de Alicante used the German port of Emdem as a resupply base.[7]

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,[18] 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.

2006 tribute

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, Ramón Argüelles along with his sister Begoña 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. The Ship-wrecks off North Norfolk. Ayer Tikus Publications. p. 13.
  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, p. 158.
  5. Historia de “el barco” El Cuévano del Pasiego
  6. M/N Ciudad de Valencia Archived 26 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine (in Spanish)
  7. Garcia Duran, Juan (1985). La guerra civil española: Fuentes (in Spanish). Editorial Crítica. p. 331. ISBN 9788474232660.
  8. The Times, message from Reuters dated from Oslo, 4 November 1938
  9. "Henry Blogg, the Greatest of the Lifeboatmen", Jolly, C., Pub: Poppyland Publishing, new edition 2002, page 161, par 5, ISBN 0-946148-59-7
  10. El último viaje del Cantabria, by María del Mar Argüelles (in Spanish)
  11. Parliamentary debate, 3 November 1938
  12. Heaton, Paul Michael: Welsh Blockade Runners in the Spanish Civil War. Starling Press, 1985. Page 96. ISBN 0-9507714-5-7
  13. 15 November 1938 : Lords Sitting : Rule of Law on the High Seas
  14. "Corsarios en la Guerra Civil Española. | Todo sobre la Segunda Guerra Mundial". (in Spanish). Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  15. List of the rescued
  16. Armies of Spies, Author: Joseph Collomb, Published in 1939 by Macmillan, New York. Chapter 5, Franco's Fifth Column, p. 88.
  17. Armies of Spies, Author: Joseph Collomb, Published in 1939 by Macmillan, New York. Chapter 5, Franco's Fifth Column, page 89
  18. Mike Jones on Danish Trotskyism, especially Trolle
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