SS Cantabria (1919)

SS Cantabria (1919)

For other uses, see SS Cantabria.
The sinking of SS Cantabria as seen from the Nationalist raider Nadir
Career (Spanish)
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
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 n.h.p.
Speed: 8-10 knots
Crew: Captain, 32 crew

The 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 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 of Santander in 1919 and renamed Alfonso Pérez. She was used as 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 the Cantabria was used again as prison ship by Republican authorities.[5] 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. 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

The Nadir was a 1,132 tn auxiliary cruiser of General Franco's Spanish Nationalist forces armed with a 120 mm main gun, two 105 mm and other two 47 mm AA. She was actually the 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 the 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 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. 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 mast of the Nadir. At the same time the raider's guns were unmasked and she ordered the Cantabria to ‘Heave to or I fire’. It was now the afternoon of the 2 November when the Nadir began to riddle the Republican freighter with gunfire.[7]

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 struck the bridge, destroying it. The Nadir circled the Cantabria firing round after round 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.[8]


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.[9] The 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.[10] Another British Merchant Vessel, the Pattersonian appeared on the horizon, responding to the SOS sent from the Cantabria.[11] 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.[12] 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 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. 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.[9]


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.[12]

SS Cantabria
Rescued Persons[13]
By Cromer Lifeboat H.F. Bailey By the Pattersonian Captured by the Nadir
Capt. Manuel Argüelles José López (English speaking) 24 crew
Trinidad Argüelles Pedro García Eduardo Collade (wireless operator)
Ramón Argüelles (aged 6) Francisco Pou The wife of Eduardo Collade
Begoña Argüelles (aged 8) Francisco García 2 children of Eduardo Collade
Joaquín Vallego Fernando Manciro
Rafael Leou
Hilaro Trilear
Santiago Glorente
Román 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[15] In effect, Nadir and her sister ship Ciudad de Alicante used the German town of Lunden on the Eider river in Schleswig-Holstein, as a resupply base.[16]

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,[17] 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, Ramón Argüelles along with his sister Begoña made a visit to pay tribute to Henry Blogg and his crew.


Coordinates: 53°1′58″N 1°31′57″E / 53.03278°N 1.53250°E / 53.03278; 1.53250