A Long Journey
To tell the truth I felt a bit nervous as I entered the new building of the Naval Forces Department in Moscow. I wondered what my superiors had in store for me, if they demanded my presence so urgently.
I had known Vladimir Mitrofanovich Orlov, Chief of Naval Forces, for a long time, since my days at Naval School. Two years we were members of the same Party organisation. I had repeatedly met Vladimir Mitrofanovich informally and we had spoken as friends. Orlov liked to discuss matters with young sailors. Sometimes he would purposely provoke an acute argument to hear our views on some question. However, that was a long time before. For five years Orlov had been Chief of Naval Forces and, as rumours suggested, he changed noticeably. His manners betrayed high handedness. He would crack a mocking joke or ask a sudden treacherous question a person could not answer straightaway.
When I entered his office, Orlov behaved without ceremony. He only asked me something about duty aboard my ship and told me to wait for a summons to K.Y. Voroshilov.
I did not have to wait very long. I was met by R. P. Khmelnitski, head of the secretariat, who sent me to one of the departments. Semyon Petrovich Uritski, head of the department, asked me:
"Do you know what is happening in Spain?" "Yes, of course," I replied, though the question came as a surprise. "Would you like to go there?"
Without waiting for an answer he began to brief me on the civil war in the Pyrenean Peninsula. He deliberately exaggerated the danger that threatened anybody who went there.
"Mind you, give thought to what expects you. Think before saying yes or no. Everything depends on your wish." I had no reason to think a lot. I said I was willing to go. "That is all very well," Uritski remarked. "It was my duty to warn you and to report if I noticed hesitation on your part. You have been appointed naval attache in Spain."
This was so unexpected that I was at a loss. Uritski took a good look at me.
"What do you know about Spain?" Apparently my face betrayed confusion. "I mean as a sailor. Nothing else," he added hastily. Early in the morning of August 23, 1936 I left Moscow in a plane. The planes were different from those we know today. They had to land after covering several hundred kilometres. We changed planes several times. In Kaunas we boarded a plane with a German crew. At Königsberg we changed planes again on the way to Berlin. Finally, we landed at Orly.
I could not sleep, because I was worrying whether I would be able to settle everything in Paris to get to Madrid as quickly as possible. At nine o'clock in the morning I arrived at the Soviet Embassy. The Soviet Ambassador to France was V.P. Potyomkin. He invited me to his office straight away, briefed me on the situation and told me the news. The main news item for me was that between Paris and Madrid there was no regular service any longer. Soviet Ambassador M.I. Rosenberg and Military Attache V.Y. Gorev went there by special plane. To arrange the flight was extremely difficult and costly. It seemed that I would have to wait for an opportunity. Once in a while a Spanish plane would arrive at Paris to fetch aviation equipment that had been purchased earlier. The Ambassador said I could count on a plane like this.
N.N. Vasilchenko, air attache, informed me on the situation on the battlefronts in Spain.
The insurgent Franco could not seize power straight away. Nor could the Republic quell the revolt, when the insurgents were in a critical situation. The Republic's government lacked resolve. In addition, it had no organised military force. Assisted by the fascist states Franco gained strength. The Republic hoped that France would aid it. But French aid was no more than lip service which could not replace guns and aircraft. The Soviet Union alone displayed warm sympathy from the start. Our country was sending ships with food and clothing to Spain. The Soviet Government frankly declared its readiness to assist the government of the Republic with all means available. But a mere look at the map showed that it was difficult to do so.
B.P. Sveshnikov, newly-appointed air attache to Spain, arrived by plane in Paris on the following day. So both of us were waiting for an opportunity to proceed to Madrid. I no longer felt lonely. It seemed to me that Sveshnikov would arrange our flight in less time. He had a better command of French than I and could sooner find a common language with the fliers.
At last a Spanish military Douglas transport plane arrived. The fliers were willing to take us, if we did not ask for special comfort. We were glad to find a place among the crates with spares.
Upon arrival in Madrid it took us some time to obtain the address of the Soviet Embassy. The point is that it was opened a short time before. At long last we were told it was at the Al-fonso Hotel. Was it named after the king that was dethroned only five years before? Jose Lopez from the Ministry of Finance, who happened to be at the airfield kindly offered to take us in his car. Neither he nor I could imagine that several months later I would escort him to the Soviet transport vessel Neva which would take him to the Soviet Union on an important government mission.
Hardly had I made myself comfortable in my hotel room, when Sveshnikov knocked at the door. We were to pay our respects to the ambassador.
This was the first time I met Marsel Izrailyevich Rosenberg. His office was in a spacious room in the hotel. A shortish man with a friendly face and somewhat sad dark eyes was sitting behind a big desk. Our first interview was brief because Marsel Izrailyevich was in a hurry to leave. He briefly reviewed the political and military situation in the country. He said he needed our help to get a clear idea about the Republic's Air Force and Navy.
M.I. Rosenberg gave a detailed account of the attitude the different European countries displayed towards the civil war in Spain. He quoted facts which showed that the fascist states were overtly and arrogantly aiding the insurgents.
"What would Great Britain do? What line will Neville Chamberlain's government pursue?" we asked.
"Britain will, apparently, try to avoid intervention. It will wait and see who the winner will be. Then it will support the stronger side. This is the traditional British policy," he replied.
Despite everything, Rosenberg was optimistic. He hoped that France would adopt a favourable policy towards the Republican government and live up to its obligations with respect to weapon supplies.
About six months later M.I. Rosenberg and I made a trip to Albacete, where international brigades were being formed. It was already clear that just like the British Government the French Government would pursue a policy of "non-intervention" which actually helped the fascists to strangle the Spanish Republic.
Once M.I. Rosenberg suggested I should go with him to the Naval Ministry. The Ambassador's car stopped at the front door of a stately mansion. My comrades had already told me that all the Spanish ministries were ostentatiously furnished, the military ministries particularly. A naval officer met us at the door and escorted us to the first floor. In the entrance hall there were many pictures, rugs and luxurious furniture. The future minister Indalecio Prieto was sitting in a huge room which was more like a Spanish princess's boudoir than an office.
Prieto had already met Rosenberg. He welcomed us warmly. "Though I am not a minister yet and cannot take decisions, I shall introduce you to a person who will help you. He is a member of the Naval Central Committee. I shall not object, if you go with him to Cartagena or Malaga."
Prieto introduced me to a sailor named Pedro Prados. He took an active part in suppressing the mutiny in the ships. When the fascists were routed in the Navy he was elected to the Central Committee. This body exercised actual authority over the Republican fleet. There was nobody in Madrid who actually effected control over the Navy.
Prados knew French. This made it easier for both of us. It turned out that he was, perhaps, the only Communist in the body that controlled the Navy. In those days the Republicans and Socialists were mainly fighting for influence on the Navy. Prieto who soon became minister spared no pains to place his supportersRight-wing Socialistsin key positions. He appointed Alonzo Bruno special commissar and endowed him with broad powers. Bruno kept an eye on all the actions of the Communists and of Soviet volunteers at the same time.
In such conditions it was not easy for Prados, but he commanded tremendous prestige among the seamen. He was a tall lean man, a chain smoker who spoke quickly swallowing some of the syllables like all southerners in Spain.
Prados was pleased to meet me. He wanted to give me a comprehensive idea of all the developments in the ships, and of the struggle against the insurgents. But we had very little time. We agreed to depart in a day to Cartagena, a Republican naval base.
Prados arrived at the appointed hour. The train was leaving Madrid late in the afternoon to arrive in Cartagena in the following morning, so we had enough time to talk things out. A map showing the battlefronts both on land and the sea helped us understand one another.
It was only this talk that gave me a clear idea of the events that took place in the Navy during the last few months.
All the officers in many of the ships and garrisons were involved in the conspiracy. This was not surprising because, over a period of many centuries, naval officers came from aristocratic families and court circles. Information on the conspiracy leaked out practically at the last moment. Franco's supporters managed to seize power only in Morocco and some of the northern and southern districts in the country. They were in a critical situation.
An even more powerful rebuff was administered on the fascists aboard the ships. The unusual activities of the officers aroused the suspicions of the seamen. They felt something was wrong. The officers tried to isolate the crews from the people, they would not grant the seamen shore leave. These actions made them more mistrustful and set them against the officers. The radio operators who transmitted the messages of the conspirators confirmed the seamen's apprehensions. They also disclosed the date of the revolt to the seamen.
On July 18, the insurgents issued the signal on the beginning of the revolt: "A clear sky over Spain." The officers and men were engaged in real battles aboard the ships at sea. Out of the entire serviceable fleet the fascists were able to seize only one destroyerthe Velazco.
The ships in El Ferrol de Caudillo shared a tragic fate. In the yard there were two Canarias class cruisers that were not yet completed, the battleship Espana was in dock and the cruiser Cervera was in port undergoing routine repairs. The lower decks of these ships remained faithful to the Republic. The ships being unable to sail, the seamen took over the base, the ordnance depot and the yard. But the town was in the hands of the rebels. After bloody battles the fascists captured the base and the ships.
The fleet remained faithful to the Republic, though most of the officers committed high treason. Out of the 19 admirals only two refused to side with Franco, out of 31 captains only two remained faithful to the Republic, out of 65 commandersonly seven, out of 128 lieutenant commanders13. Only ten per cent of the officers were loyal to the government. But even among them there were unexposed traitors who were only waiting for a suitable moment to desert to the fascists.
The ships at sea first did not know where to go, because the situation ashore was not clear. But gradually they began to assemble at Cartagena. Thus, spontaneously Cartagena became the main base of the Republican fleet and continued to perform this role throughout the war. Pedro Prados and I proceeded to Cartagena.
Thus, the Republican fleet established its base at Cartagena. At the same time its limited port facilities had to handle large quantities of cargoes, including military equipment and food supplies.
When I arrived, there were several destroyers in the inner harbour, known as the Arsenal. They had just returned from an operation in proximity of the Strait of Gibraltar and were taking ammunition aboard. The ships were a bit dirty. This could be due to a long time at sea. But on the upper deck there was a noisy crush which indicated total lack of order. Though the seamen worked with enthusiasm, there was no evidence of discipline.
The picture was more or less the same in other places too. Though the people worked selflessly, there was lack of organisation and order.
The old system had crumbled and it took time to replace it with a new system. A lot depended on the command personnel. The officers that remained loyal to the Republic were unable to cope with the tasks they faced in a new, revolutionary, way. In addition, Spanish officers were accustomed to a carefree and idle life and did not wish to change their customs and habits, though the Republic was in a tragic situation. Nothing in the world could possibly prevent them from enjoying an endless comida, for instance. It would last for hours on end. The Spaniards love to relish their food and drink, and engage in a joyful conversation at the table. Everybody wants to hear what the others have to say and in turn to sparkle with wit.
I recall Antonio Ruiz, a Spanish officer. I was introduced to Don Antonio as soon as I arrived in Cartagena. He was the base commanding officer and I frequently met him on business. A tall handsome brunet he was friendly and well-mannered, a pleasant interlocutor and hospitable host. Ruiz regarded himself as a Republican, even Socialist to a small degree. He was a supporter of Prieto. As base commanding officer he was more of an observer of developments rather than a man who controlled them. He did not like daily routine work. Some time later transport vessels with bombs and aircraft began to arrive in Cartagena. But Don Antonio was unwilling to take charge of the unloading operations. He would always look for someone else to accomplish this unpleasant mission. It was only when explosives began to accumulate in large quantities on the docks that he would get a bit nervous and would display unusual energy to get the dangerous cargo out of the way.
Of course, not all the officers were the same. I knew R. Verdia, submarine flotilla commanding officer. He was a brave and resolute man. As commanding officer of the S-5 submarine he was the only officer aboard that was not involved in the conspiracy. R. Verdia was able to act as leader of the crew, because he had complete confidence of the men. The conspirators were soon vanquished. Thanks to R. Verdia not only the S-5, but also all the other submarines remained on the side of the Republican government.
Cruise to the North
After spending several days in Cartagena I returned to Madrid. It was my duty to report the situation in the fleet to the Ambassador and to obtain permission for a longer stay there.
Our car was speeding along a highway lying close to the sea. We were heading for Alicante. On the airfields at Los Alcazares and San Javier there were several bombers. I spotted them as we passed.
"They are French Potez planes," one of my companions said.
They were obsolescent machines which were hardly fit for flying combat missions. We did not know yet that in a few months new Soviet fighters and bombers would be assembled on these airfields.
I arrived in Madrid when one government was being replaced by another. Francisco Largo Caballero's cabinet included six Socialists, three Republicans of different hues, two Communists, one Catalonian and one Basque Nationalist. Though the new government were stronger than the previous one, they
acquired a heavy heritage from the latter. The situation on the battlefronts had grown worse.
Prieto was now minister. He received me in his luxurious office. He said to me:
"It has been decided to send the fleet to the north, to the Bay of Biscay. I would suggest that you take part in this operation."
This was the first time that I heard about the mission and wanted to know its purpose. But Prieto did not go beyond generalities. He added:
"If you want to take part in it, I shall instruct Miguel Buiza, the new fleet commander, accordingly." "Of course, I do," I replied.
But what was the purpose of the operation? Prieto said that the fleet was to assist the Basques and Asturians. After the insurgents took San Sebastian and lrun, Asturias and Biscay were cut off from France. They were not receiving either food supplies or ammunition from there. But how could the fleet change the situation? The cruise to the north was a risk. But the main point was that, if the Republican fleet left the Mediterranean, it could no longer enforce a blockade on the ports of Gibraltar and thus prevent the insurgents from moving troops from Africa to Spain.
During the first few months after the revolt Franco's ships would not venture out to sea. It was only the Italian airUft that helped the insurgents bring troops from Africa. Perhaps, joining hands with the land forces the Republican fleet could attempt to seize the ports of Gibraltar. This would have affected the entire course of the war. But, alas... the fleet sailed to the north.
Another point. It should be borne in mind that for a very long time the north was the stronghold of the Spanish Socialists. Prieto was elected to parliament from Bilbao. That was why he had so many supporters in the north. By sending the fleet to the north Don Indalecio wished to demonstrate his regard for those who supported him. He was not at all worried about the effect of the operation on the general course of the war. Nor did he realise the consequences.
The fleet received the sailing orders in the middle of September. The crews of the ships started to discuss them. The sailing plans were worked out by the Fleet Central Committee with the participation of the commanding officers. Special attention was paid to the formations, courses and the time that was most suitable for passage through the Strait of Gibraltar.
By September 20 the fleet assembled at Malagathe southernmost Republican port in the Mediterranean. The morale of the crews was high. It was further heightened, when the cruiser Mendez Nunez joined the fleet on the roads. When the revolt broke out the Mendez Nunez was at Rio de Oro in Africa. But she managed to force her way into the Mediterranean in order to Fight on the side of the Republic.
The brave crew of the Mendez Nunez was welcomed with a hearty hurrah and "Viva la Republica" cries coming from all ships. Ten big ships were moored on the roads. They were ready to sail at short notice. Among them were the battleship Jaime I with her impressive 12-inch guns, the cruisers Libertad and Cervantes, and six destroyers.
We departed from Malaga in the evening of September 21 in order to approach the Strait of Gibraltar in darkness. Soon a German cruiser was sighted on the horizon. She was pursuing a course parallel to that of the Republican fleet. The German cruiser was obviously shadowing the fleet.
When the ships approached the narrowest part of the strait between Ceuta and Algedras a tense silence set in on the bridge of the Libertad. This was the decisive moment. Intelligence said that the insurgents had installed large calibre batteries on both sides of the strait. The course had been plotted as far away as possible from Ceuta and as closely as possible to the British coast of Gibraltar so that the fleet should pass Algeciras at maximum distance which was limited by the width of the strait. Nobody knew the range of the new fascist batteries.
Miguel Buiza, fleet commander, nervously walked on the bridge. He watched the fleet with anxiety. He was a brave man. Fighting a battle aboard his own ship even with a far superior enemy would not have daunted him. But now he felt the responsibility for the whole fleet weigh heavily on his shoulders.
We passed Ceuta. Then the British Gibraltar powerfully illuminated by thousands of lights was left astern too. The ships swung port to get farther away from Algeciras. Everybody felt relief. The whole of the Atlantic was lying ahead. When the fleet appeared off Cadiz many of the men appeared on deck and looked at the city in silence. Only a short while ago this was their base. They would normally return to Cadiz after a cruise. Their families and friends lived there. And now this area was in the hands of the insurgents. What was happening there? The next day was a quiet day for the fleet which was steaming far from the shore and from the busy sea routes. The ships rolled on the swell. The battleship Jaime I was in the center of the formation. She frequently released dense clouds of black smoke. The huge ship carrying heavy guns was a formidable sight.
But few people realised that this slow obsolescent ship was a poor fighter. In the event of an encounter she would only interfere with the maneuvers of the fast cruisers and destroyers. She would have been a burden to them. Some sober-minded people proposed to leave the Jaime I at Cartagena. But the proposal was flatly rejected, particularly by the Anarchists. There were quite a few of them in her crew.
The atmosphere grew tense again as the fleet drew near El Ferrol, the main naval base of the insurgents. This was the most probable place for an encounter with the enemy. But as we had assumed, the insurgents did not dare venture out to sea to engage us. They already had enough ships, but were not sure of the crews. That was how the afternoon passed. As evening approached a signalman cried out: "Aircraft!"
The ships sounded action stations. The antiaircraft guns nervously searched for a target. But all we could see was only one reconnaissance plane. It crossed the course steered by the fleet in an attempt to find out where we were heading for.
We did not know what would follow. It was noisy on the bridge of the Libertad which was carrying the Fleet Central Committee.
In those days the Central Committee was the supreme naval control body. Its meetings were stormy. Anything could spark off a heated argument. Everybody had the right to speak and nobody could stop a speaker. When it was necessary to take quick decisions such discussions seriously inhibited control of the fleet. Miguel Buiza, fleet commander, spoke least of all. Once in a while he would make a curt remark.
An air attack could occur at any time. The fleet's antiaircraft defence was inadequate, whereas we heard that the insurgents had received many new Caproni aircraft from Italy. A fascist air attack could seriously damage the fleet. But for some unknown reason the rebels did not launch an attack on us.
We were now outside the dangerous zone. At long last we sighted the high mountains of Asturias. The fleet was steering for Gijon.
The fleet could hardly moor in the small harbour. What we saw was a town that appeared rather bleak even on a sunny day in September. The gray houses were austere and somewhat monotonous. There were no tall buildings or bright colors. The jetties were crowded with people who had come to welcome the fleet. The inhabitants joyfully cheered the seamen, though their joy was not as stormy as in the southern ports. The northerners were more reserved.
You would observe strange things in Spain at the time. While blood was being shed on the battlefronts, the defenders of the Republic sometimes displayed surprising complacency. For instance, the crew of the cruiser Mendez Nunez bravely fought their way out into the Mediterranean to join the fleet that remained loyal to the government, but at the same time allowed the insurgent officers to go ashore in Rio de Oro. The officers went straight to Franco. The authorities of Santander were well aware of the fact that the town was swarming with monarchists. But the aristocrats and moneybags were issued passports to depart in foreign ships for some other country or for the insurgent camp.
In that town there were plenty of people who were enemies of the Republic. Soon we learnt this from our own experience. My companion Jativa, member of the Fleet Central Committee, and myself had to spend the night in Santander on our way to Bilbao. The driver complained that the car had developed trouble. We stopped at a hotel. The receptionist was rather reluctant in providing us with rooms.
In the morning we left for Bilbao, capital of Biscay. The frontline was only 60 kilometres away. The Basques were determined to fight for their freedom, but lacked weapons. A member of the government of the Basque country said that his country badly needed weapons and food. He complained:
"France has refused to supply us with what we need most of all, while the Germans and Italians are overtly helping Franco. Their planes supported the insurgent attacks on lrun and San Sebastian. It was not the insurgents, but actually the foreign interventionists that captured these towns."
In the port of Bilbao we saw many Spanish ships laid up. They feared to venture out to sea. Only French and British ships carrying Basque ore continued to run regularly. They would return to Bilbao empty. The money obtained for the merchandise would be deposited in banks in Paris and London.
"Ys" Are Coming
I was the First Soviet representative to visit the north of Spain. And now I had to leave at the first opportunity to get to Madrid and report the situation to my comrades. I returned to Santander, where a Madrid-bound plane was to pick me up. The flight was a difficult one which involved risk. But I had no choice.
We were flying over territory held by insurgents. Several submachine guns sticking out of the plane's portholes were to defend our passenger Douglas against enemy fighters. Of course, we were aware that the defence was inadequate.
When I left Bilbao, I hoped to return soon. But circumstances ruled otherwise.
The military attache V.Y. Gorev informed me that at the request of the Republican government the Soviet Union was sending transport vessels with weapons and that they were to arrive at Cartagena or some other Mediterranean port in the immediate future. My job, he said, was to organise the receipt of their cargoes.
"And what about the fleet?" I asked the Ambassador whom I regarded as my immediate superior.
"You must meet the first transport vessel. This is, perhaps, the most important thing for the time being. The fleet will be leaving Bilbao in a day or two."
And indeed the squadron faced unforeseeable difficulties as soon as it arrived at that northern port. Fuel was in short supply. The service facilities at the bases were inadequate. The enemy air force was conducting more frequent raids, whereas there was no air defence. Nor was there fighter cover. The insurgent air force could launch attacks without difficulty in broad daylight or in darkness and threaten the fleet. Late in September insurgent cruisers from El Ferrol appeared in the Mediterranean. They were a menace to the sea routes of the Republic. It was then that everybody saw that sending the fleet to the north was a mistake. Without accomplishing any serious mission the ships were forced to return.
The first Soviet transport vessel Komsomol was already being loaded at Sevastopol. There was no need to discuss where she should berth to discharge her cargo. Cartagena was the only port that afforded some protection both from the air and the sea.
I had another talk with Prieto at his apartment and prepared for my journey.
I left Madrid by plane the day the Republican fleet departed from the north for its main base. My friendsSpanish sailorsand I proceeded to Cartagena by different routes.
I was thinking about Cartagena and what expected me there, the role the Republican fleet was to play in the protracted war.
Sometimes in war the fleet has to perform a seemingly insignificant, but arduous, task whose fulfilment assures success on the land fronts. A casual observer might think that the fleet is not engaged in the struggle at all.
The main job of the Republican fleet was now escort duty, i. e. protection of transport vessels with cargoes against enemy attacks so that they could deliver war supplies and foodstuffs. This was not an easy job (far from it) and not at all free from risk. In accomplishing this mission the fleet was at sea in all weather conditions round the clock. The ships would expose themselves to enemy attacks and even invite them to divert the evemy from the transport vessels. But very few people knew about these operations. They were kept secret and were not mentioned in the dispatches. There were even complaints and inquiries about the fleet's contribution to the war effort.
The further developments in Spain largely depended on war supplies to the Republic. They were brought to Cartagena by sea. The warships had to maintain a condition of readiness for action against the insurgents' naval and air forces. When I arrived in Cartagena the Republican fleet was not yet there. The absence of ships made the harbour appear unfamiliar.
In choosing a dock for mooring transport vessels with weapons we favoured the inner harbourArsenal. It was enclosed in a tall brick wall which concealed it from unwanted eyes. It was impossible to keep everything secret. When the Komsomol brought the first tanks the whole town was discussing the news, though they were still behind the wall. The people were overjoyed. When the tanks appeared in the streets of Cartagena on the way to Murcia and farther on to Archena the inhabitants came out to cheer them. They cried out: "Viva Rusa!" and threw their berets into the air.
The Komsomol was followed by other vessels. We referred to them as "Ys" as if to emphasise the need for strict secrecy. However, secrets often leaked out. And high standing officials were mostly to blame for such leakages. In those days Indalecio Prieto would frequently call me over
the phone from Madrid. He had already begun to realise that the fleet's main mission was to protect the shipping. The Republic practically got no war supplies from anywhere else and its own production was negligible. He would ask me:
"Don Nicolas, kindly inform me on the discharge of vital materials."
Then he would plead with me to expedite the work and would always markedly emphasise the need for these materials. It did not take much to guess what they were needed for.
Late in October 1936, the Soviet transport vessel Kursk arrived in Cartagena with a load of fighter planes, bombs and aviation spirit. Don Indalecio expressed special concern about this cargo and demanded that it be discharged without delay. The decisive battles for Madrid could start any time now. Other transport vessels were waiting to be unloaded at Cartagena. So it was decided to handle the Kursk's cargo at Alicante, a small port which had no antiaircraft protection. We were running a risk, and the undertaking nearly ended in disaster. On the second day of the operation the fascists launched an air attack. Quite unexpectedly the situation was saved by an Argentinean cruiser that was moored on the roads. When a few bombs fell near her the cruiser opened fire and chased the aircraft away.
The fighter planes which arrived aboard the Kursk soon took part in air combat. The commander was S. Tarkhov. Our fliers fought gallantly.
Tarkhov fought the last engagement over Madrid. Thousands of inhabitants observed with admiration how our "snub-nosed" fighters drove the fascists Junkers away. When the enemy fled several fighters pursued them, while the others engaged the Heinkels which covered the bombers. Tarkhov ordered the younger fliers to deal with the bombers, while he himself and two more experienced fliers attacked the Heinkels to deprive the former of protection. He had calculated right, because the insurgents lost six machines. Tarkhov shot down one and his comrades five more.
At the moment of highest tension six more Heinkels dived out of the clouds. They all attacked Tarkhov's plane and damaged it. The plane being no longer controllable (Tarkhov tried to level the machine, but it plunged into a spin), he baled out.
A southern wind was carrying Tarkhov to the fascists. Being aware of this Tarkhov decided a delayed jump would be safer. He opened the parachute practically at ground level. Republican infantrymen mistook him for a fascist pilot and opened fire at him.
The doctors extracted four bullets. The flier's iron constitution stubbornly fought death. Until the last minute Tarkhov spoke of his boys and inquired about the outcome of the engagement. He pleaded with those who visited him not to tell the boys that he was wounded by friendly bullets.
"They should not know this, because this might dampen their morale," he repeated.
More weapons were arriving at Cartagena. Unloading every "Y" was not an easy task. It was particularly difficult in the beginning. We insisted that the transport vessels should be discharged as quickly as possible, but the Anarchist trade union would not reckon with the realities. When the dockers were needed most of all the trade union leaders would open a meeting and take the workers away. All work would be stopped.
I saw boxes and crates with ammunition form hills on the docks. Tanks and guns would be left there for a long time too. Sometimes the port would be left unguarded. Nor was there any order at the railway terminal. Hundreds of freight cars loaded with war supplies would accumulate at the station before they were dispatched. The reason was that there were not enough locomotives.
I was chief naval advisor and my position was rather complicated. Though I had to deal with all sorts of naval matters, I had no right to order anybody. I could only offer recommendations, exercise an influence on the fleet commander and see to it that the plans we had jointly worked out should be meticulously executed.
In war accuracy is of decisive importance. To meet a transport vessel at a rendezvous point off the African coast and to escort it to Cartagena, the escort ships should leave harbour at the appointed hour.
My superiors in Moscow demanded that I should submit plans for providing protection to "Y" convoys. Having drawn up a plan I could make it known to Miguel Buiza, the fleet commander, only at the last moment. Fortunately we had established friendly relations, and Miguel Buiza willingly complied with my requests. He would not even ask what was behind them. He, apparently, realised that it was in his interests too to observe strict secrecy.
In November 1936, two Soviet naval volunteers arrived in Spain. They were S.S. Ramishvili and V.P. Drozd. I knew both of them and assigned them jobs with account of their characters and capabilities.
Semyon Spiridonovich Ramishvili was appointed advisor to the base commanding officer at Cartagena. In addition to being a splendid linguist, he was a gifted organiser. From dawn to sunset Ramishvili would tour the docks in his tiny FIAT with his driver and friend Jose at the wheel. He managed to solve all the difficulties very well.
Semyon Ramishvili, alias Capitan de Fragata Juan Garcia as they used to call him in Spain, was actually the base commanding officer. Don Antonio Ruiz, who held that post officially, hated to overload himself with work and was always pleased to find someone else to do it for him.
Valentin Petrovich Drozd was an experienced sailor, a man of untiring energy who was most useful as advisor to a destroyer flotilla commander. The destroyer flotilla commanding officer was Vicente Ramirez, an Andalusian, a man of a noisy and unbalanced character. When Don Vicente was on the bridge you could hear only his voice and nobody else's. He spoke loudly and verbosely, constantly interspersing his speech with sharp navalese. Even when he attended meetings conducted by the fleet commander his voice would jam everybody else's. When the fascist revolt broke out Vicente Ramirez was a junior officer. Perhaps, he would have made a good flotilla commanding officer, if he were less noisy.
Valentin Drozd, alias Don Ramon, ingeniously managed to neutralise Don Vicente's weaknesses, to cool his excessive ardour, when necessary, and give him a piece of intelligent advice at the right moment. Ramirez respected Drozd and became attached to him. I remember them returning to the base exhausted. The destroyers had plenty of work to do at sea. They would come to me or the base commanding officer, they would always be together like inseparable friends.
Speaking of Don Ramon Don Vicente would tell me that he was a highly intelligent person. Don Vicente admired Drozd's courage and competence in action.
Delivery of armaments was playing a decisive role. Germany and Italy were sending to the insurgents formations of aircraft, tanks and infantry. Italian ships were overtly flying
their national flag in action against the Republican fleet. Franco's Navy was being reinforced with destroyers and submarines provided by the fascist states.
The Republic's army continued to get arms mainly through Cartagena. We spent the whole winter doing dull work meeting the "Ys", discharging the cargoes and sending war supplies to the battlefront. Several dozen Soviet volunteers were serving aboard the Republic's ships. Under their influence the sailors began to understand that to secure victory enthusiasm alone was not enough. What they needed was sound knowledge which they had to obtain in the course of the war. Though unwillingly, the commanding officers would take the ships out to sea to conduct gunnery practice and execute joint manoeuvres. The fleet received several bombers. A fighter unit defended the base against enemy air raids.
Once in a while I would have to go to Valencia. The seat of the Republican government was moved there in November 1936. The Soviet Embassy and the chief military advisor were there too. It was my duty to report the situation to Indalecio Prieto, Minister of the Navy. I also had meetings with comrades from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Spain to inform them about our work. However, my immediate superior was now the chief military advisor. In the beginning this post was occupied by Y.A. Berzin. Then he was replaced by G.M. Shtern who was known as Grigorovich in Spain. It was then that I gained the friendship of this distinguished man.
Long before the next transport vessel was due to arrive in Cartagena our senior comrades would badger us about the cargoes they were waiting for. General D.G. Pavlov, senior tank advisor, would call me over the phone to ask when his equipment would be available and in what quantity. Colonel VolterN.N.Voronovwould inquire if the "bridegroom" had met his "bride". He wanted to know about artillery pieces.
Such words as "bridegroom" and "bride" could hardly deceive anybody. Pavlov hated to use even such code words. Reference to tanks as turtles would hurt his feelings. Fearing leakage I sometimes gave my friends inaccurate information. Now I can admit this.
I would say that the "bridegroom" had met his "bride" and all was well, though in actual fact the transport vessels were still far away at sea. In Spain I met Pavel lvanovich Batov, alias Pablo Fritz. He came asking me to ship his tanks as quickly as possible. The meeting was brief and business-like, but very warm and unforgettable. General of the Army Pavel lvanovich Batov distinguished himself in the Great Patriotic War. The title of Hero of the Soviet Union was twice conferred on him.
The most frequent visitors to Cartagena were Soviet volunteer fliers. General DouglasYakov Vladimirovich Smush-kevichin particular. When a Soviet transport vessel arrived not only the Spanish dockers, but also Soviet volunteers unloaded it. Ranks and posts did not matter here. Everybody would carry the boxes and crates, including majors, lieutenants, fliers, tankmen, artillerymen and sailors. Tanks and artillery pieces were handled in no time. But huge boxes with fuselages were a source of trouble and concern. Sometimes dozens of Soviet fliers and air mechanics and engineers would come to receive their cargo. Fortunately, the planes were assembled at airfields near Cartagena. When our friends Soviet fliershad a day off, they would come to Cartagena to spend an evening together with a cup of tea or a cup of coffee with brandy.
In contrast to this we, sailors, did not establish close cooperation with the infantrymen, tankmen or artillerymen. We seldom saw these comrades after they left Cartagena with their equipment. But we worked closely with the fliers. Though the scale of naval operations off the shores of the Pyrenean Peninsula was not great, we learnt that without an air arm it was not possible to conduct significant operations on the seas. Unless you have air supremacy, you cannot gain supremacy on the sea.
The war also taught us that antiaircraft artillery alone cannot assure reliable defence of the ships and the base and that fighter cover was essential for the purpose. The fleet needed a fighter force of its own, which would function in cooperation with antiaircraft artillery. To put it in a nutshell we established firm and inviolable friendship with the fliers in Spain.
Heavy fighting was going on near Madrid. The Republic needed more arms. Yakov Smushkevich, chief air advisor, said this to me. He voiced concern about the early discharge of aircraft. I explained to him:
"The Santo Augustin which is carrying your aircraft is still in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. It will be necessary to escort her from Bizerta to Cartagena. This is the most difficult leg of the route."
Smushkevich laughed in response. He said: "You've done that before, so you can do it again.' "How many fighters and bombers will the fleet get for this?" I joked.
He tried to laugh my question off. All the aircraft had been distributed in advance. There were not enough on the battle-fronts, he remarked.
"Transport vessels are continuing to come in. Getting them in without losses and unloading them is a formidable task. The fleet needs air cover," I insisted.
I knew that the Republic's ships Santo Tome, Magellanes and Mar Cantabrico were receiving cargoes at our Black Sea ports. It was then that the insurgents were launching massive air raids on Cartagena.
However, we reached agreement with Smushkevich. He would give us several aircraft from the first batch to provide air cover for Cartagena and the airfields. He was as good as his word. The fighters defended the port reliably.
The Soviet volunteer fliers from the air detachment that cooperated with the fleet were army pilots. They were brave and courageous fighters. They showed excellent performance when they bombed ports, railway junctions and other land targets. But they found flying sea missions more difficult that they had thought. The first difficulty was to identify an enemy ship from a high altitude and to close in without risk of being shot down. Soon the pilots learnt that it was difficult to score a hit on a fighting ship. One of them remarked:
"We dropped a bomb and thought we had hit the ship. But she continued to pursue her course. This means that we failed to damage her."
Later we learnt that it was hopeless for a single plane to attack a fast cruiser from horizontal flight. This was also confirmed by the experience of the Second World War.
Bombing ships in harbour was different. It was easier to score a hit there. For instance, the incident in the harbour of the island of Ibiza evoked serious repercussions.
But before going into it I would like to mention my meetings with N.N. Voronov, an artillery officer.
There were not many Soviet volunteer artillery officers in Spain. But they would come to me when transport vessels delivered artillery pieces, ammunition and rifles. So I would see N.N. Voronov quite often. As an advisor on artillery he spent a lot of time on the battlefronts. On May 31, 1937, the Republican fleet sailed to meet the
Magellanes. Our reconnaissance sighting fascist cruisers off the island of Mallorca, we decided to employ diversion. Our target was the harbour of the island of Ibiza. The fleet headed for the island to bombard it. But when darkness set in it was to swing around to the rendezvous point with a "Y".
When the fleet closed in with the island it sighted the German pocket battleship Deutschland in the harbour. To avoid international complications the fleet commander decided not to open fire. The main task of the operation, namely to draw away the enemy's attention, had been accomplished.
But the fliers who took off some time later were ignorant of the presence of the German pocket battleship in the harbour and of the fleet commander's decision. To make matters worse, as soon as the Republican planes were sighted over the island, the Deutschland opened fire at them. The pilots were sure that this was a rebel ship and dropped their load of bombs on her. The bombs hit the after part of the pocket battleship. The number of casualties aboard the Deutschland reached eighty.
As the Republican fleet was steaming to the rendezvous point with the "Y" all the Western radiostations announced the sensational news of an "attack" of Spanish aircraft on the German pocket battleship.
The Deutschland asked the British harbour authorities at Gibraltar to provide repair facilities and ordered coffins for those that were killed so that their bodies could be sent to Germany. The German ship then sailed to Gibraltar.
Other German ships were plotting something. They were exchanging messages the whole of the following day. When darkness set in the Republican fleet was returning home with the "Ys" it had met. It then encountered a formation of German ships comprising the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer and several destroyers. The Germans immediately hoisted their national flags and illuminated them with searchlights. But nobody intended to attack them. So both fleets parted.
The Nazis avenged themselves on the civilian population. On the following morning German ships approached Almeria and subjected it to brutal bombardment. Dozens of houses were destroyed. Many human lives were lost. Among the killed there were women and children.
By the end of 1937, the direct intervention of the Germans and Italians sharply changed the balance of forces on the sea. It was no longer possible to use the routes in the Mediterranean. The ships with war materiel had to use another route
from the Baltic to the French ports Le Havre and Cherbourg. The supplies were then carried to their destination by rail through France. Although this route was safe for the ships carrying weapons from the USSR, it was not very reliable. The transit of cargoes wholly depended on the whims of the French cabinets which succeeded one another after short intervals. The arms delivered to Le Havre or Cherbourg would be shipped further or held up. They were held up more frequently.
The barriers France put up to the passage of war supplies played a fatal role in the Republic's destiny during the last stage of the war. At the tightest point of the battle for Catalonia (in December 1938-February 1939) large stockpiles of aircraft, artillery pieces, tanks and motor torpedo boats were formed on the French-Spanish frontier. Had the Republican forces received them on time, the entire course of the battle would have been different. Defying the requests of the Republican government the French cabinet refused to open the frontier. This brought closer the defeat of the Republican army in Catalonia and in turn helped Franco and his fascist sponsors secure final victory.
The Santo Tome, a big Spanish transport vessel, arrived in Cartagena. She delivered from the USSR a lot of weapons, bombers and motor torpedo boats. She was berthed at the main long jetty. The warships that escorted her were drawing in, when she started to discharge her cargo. We knew that, when a transport vessel arrived, Heinkels and FIATs would conduct a raid. It was important to unload as much of the cargo as possible before darkness set in.
The quay cranes were removing the heavy pieces from the upper deck. The dock workers were unloading the holds. The huge boxes were placed on trucks with trailers and on flatcars that had been brought to the ship's side.
This time General Ignacio Hidalgo de Cisneros, Republican air force commander, arrived by plane to meet the ship. He was concerned about the transportation of the bulky bomber fuselages and about adequate air cover for the port, and the Los Alcazares and San Javier air fields. Many volunteer fliers arrived too to help unload the equipment. General Douglas Yakov Smushkevichcame to meet the comrades that had arrived aboard the transport vessel. He also wanted to see the planes. The Republicans immediately recognised him and warmly cheered him with cries: "Viva Rusa! Viva!"
The Spaniards knew Smushkevich as a hero of Guadalajara. An Italian expeditionary corps had been concentrated in that sector to assure the taking of Madrid. The Italians were opposed by odd weak Republican units. The enemy thought that the way to the Spanish capital was open. But instead of performing a triumphant march, he suffered bitter defeat. Many people regarded it as a miracle. Here are a few details of the battle. The fascists were heading for Madrid in a dense column. The weather conditions were very bad. The insurgent air force did not fly any missions that day. The fascists were certain that the Republican fliers would not be able to take off either. But our comrades flew in all weather conditions. When they sighted the Italian columns on the march, they dropped bombs and strafed them. The highway was blocked with smashed burning vehicles. The air forces worked like a conveyor. As soon as one group of planes accomplished a strafing mission another appeared to do the same.
This went on for three days running. The Italian force suffered tremendous losses. Then the Republican land forces arrived to finish off the enemy. Those who could run fled.
The fascist ringleaders and foreign observers wondered where the Republic had obtained so many planes from. In actual fact the Republican air force was small. But it flew missions from dawn to sunset without giving the Italians a moment's respite. The planes would return to the airfield to refuel, to recharge their guns and to set out on another strafing mission.
Yakov Smushkevich, chief air advisor, was the brain that conceived this brilliantly organised operation.
Another group of naval volunteers arrived from the Soviet Union aboard the Santo Tome. I managed to locate my old mate V.A. Alafuzov on the upper deck. His job was to deliver this important cargo. En route he experienced quite a few anxious moments. It is always good to meet a fellow countryman far away from home. During the war we keenly felt this. In this case I met a friend I had spent several years with, while I studied and served in the Black Sea Fleet.
As I have pointed out above, in 1936-1937, the Republican fleet's most important mission was escorting ships from the USSR. But its operations were not limited to escort duty alone. It should be mentioned that in some cases escort duty would grow over into engagements with the fascist fleet which tried to intercept the transport vessels. In addition, the Republican fleet sought to engage the enemy at sea, would bombard shore targets and his bases.
All types of shipsboth surface units and submarines took part in combat operations against the fascists. Soviet volunteers served aboard many of the ships. As a rule, they acted as advisors. Since the Republican fleet had no experienced submarine officers our volunteers were commanding officers of submarines. Our comrades were confronted with serious difficulties. The trouble was that the submarines were worn out. They were outfitted with unfamiliar foreign equipment. In addition, the commanders had to issue orders through interpreters.
Spain began to acquire submarines after the first world war. First submarines were built with Italian aid. But when the Spanish monarchy was overthrown the relations with Italy deteriorated. The British took over the country's shipbuilding yards. When the civil war broke out the fleet could not count on getting equipment for submarines from Italy. Great Britain would not supply armament or mechanisms either. That was why the Republican submarine fleet was so weak. Despite this, the submarine crews fought in the war. In the beginning of August 1937, I was summoned to Moscow.
On the eve of my departure Soviet naval volunteers got together at our club. They wished me bon voyage and gave me many assignments. Miguel Buiza, the Republican fleet commander, came too. He said: "Come back as soon as possible."
But I was not fated to return to Spain. The Spanish events continued to haunt my mind for a long time.
I am sure that the overwhelming majority of the Spanish sailors were sincerely loyal to the Republic. They fought heroically against the insurgent fleet. The morale of the Republican fleet was beyond doubt superior to that of the enemy. The fleet's main contribution to the war effort was protection of the sea routes, above all those with the Soviet Union. If the Navy had not performed its duty, it would have been impossible to create a new Republican army and wage prolonged war on all battlefronts.
Could the Republican fleet have secured greater success? Yes, it could have. It could have displayed more determination in the conduct of operations, it could have dealt more effective blows at the fascists, particularly in the early period, when they were weak at sea. This depended not so much on the lower deck personnel, but rather on the fleet command and conduct of the war by the high command and government of the Republic.
Such factors as lack of experienced officers, shortage of fuel and ammunition, and disadvantageous geographical location of the only naval base at Cartagena, naturally, exercised a negative effect on the fleet's activities.
Another point. The Republic was receiving aircraft, tanks, guns and other military equipment. But the fleet retained only the units that remained faithful to the government, when the revolt broke out. In contrast to this the fascists were commissioning more and more fighting ships which were transferred to them by Germany and Italy.
For certain reasons the Soviet Union was unable to help the Republic with its surface ships and submarines. Taking into account the fleet's specific features it could not be supplied with weapons and equipment from other countries. Great Britain alone was in a position to supply what the Republican fleet needed. But it was unwilling to do so. That was why the Republican fleet lost the superiority it initially enjoyed over the fascist fleet.
During the war we, Soviet sailors, acquired valuable experience. We now knew the role the air force would play in any naval operation. It was necessary to provide air cover for the fleet at its bases. We saw the vital importance of the fleet air arm which was to form an organic component of the fleet. It should, therefore, be placed under the fleet commander and should be constantly trained to conduct operations at sea. We also witnessed the rapid rate of developments in modem warfare, particularly in the beginning, when a surprise attack may affect the entire course of the war. These factors prompted me to give serious thought to constant readiness of the Soviet fleets for action.
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