Soviet Aid for the Spanish Republic
Here is the lecture on Soviet Aid for the Spanish Republic, delivered at the International Seafarers Club as part of the 5th Anti-Fascist Harbour Event “Wolf Hoffmann”
in Hamburg 2015.
Soviet Support for the Spanish Republic
As already announced on the 4th Antifa-Hafentagen last year – in the 70th year after the liberation from fascism – we want to report in detail about the support by the U.S.S.R. to the Spanish Republic and want to pay tribute to it.
On the one hand we want to bring into focus direct military support and its organization by shipping, on the other hand on the transfer of a part of the Spanish gold reserves to the U.S.S.R. and thirdly report about the fates of Soviet sailors taken prisoner in Spain by the fascists.
In addition to direct supply by U.S.S.R. a disguised net of trading agencies outside of U.S.S.R. was set up. They had to transact arms purchases and ship them with foreign vessels. Such as arms purchases from Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia.
The support from U.S.S.R. was very substantial and involved as well unselfish humanitarian aid – which is not in focus of this paper – as well as military support by arms supply and military advisers.
More than 2000 soviet volunteers fought in Spain, amongst them 772 pilots, 351 tank soldiers and officers, 222 military advisers and instructors, 77 naval officers and sailors, 100 artilleryman, 52 other military specialists, 130 aircraft engineers and technicians, 156 radio operators and 204 translators.
157 volunteers lost their lives and are buried in Spanish soil.
The Gold of the Spanish Republic
It is frequently argued that the U.S.S.R. imposed the condition of transferring the Spanish gold reserves for the supply of arms and other relief supplies, to look on the support as commercial transaction. This is not true.
Already in August 1936 military advisers and in September 1936 the first ships loaded with tanks, bombers and ammunition headed for Spain.
Directly after the meeting of the committee for non-intervention on September 9th 1936 in London, the U.S.S.R. began the logistical planning for the military support of the Republic. The Soviet government had no illusions at all in regards to the fascist putsch and further interventions of German and Italian fascists, which substantiated in the aftermath.
On September 29th, in the meeting of the politburo of the People ́s Commissariat for military and naval affairs of the U.S.S.R. a discussion took place and the decision was made to implement the covert operation “X” – the bestowal of active military support for Republican Spain.
As already at the end of September the Spanish vessel “CAMPECHE” loaded with arms had left the port of Feodossia heading for Cartagena, the first Soviet vessel the “KOMSOMOL” loaded with arms started on October 4th 1936 from the same port and reached Cartagena on October 12th.
All this has happened before only a single gram of gold of the Spanish gold reserve was transferred to the U.S.S.R., not to mention, that the Spanish government had not made a decision about this.
The decision, to transfer parts of the gold reserves of the Bank of Spain to the U.S.S.R. was taken by the Prime Minister Caballero and Minister of Finance Negrin in the most dangerous moment – as the capture of Madrid by the fascists was looming. The Spanish government decided on September 13th 1936 to evacuate the gold reserve of 635t and the silver reserve, which were still stored in the Madrilenian bank. At the same time 726t of gold was stored in France in behalf of the Spanish Republic. Additional 174t of the gold reserve from Madrid, stored in Cartagena later, were transferred in September to France for arms sales.
Over 500t of gold were transferred into the caves of Cartagena mid-September 1936. However, Cartagena was no save place. Because of this, the Spanish government dispatched a request to the Soviet government asking them for being allowed to transport the Spanish gold into the U.S.S.R. After consultation, the Soviet government declared to agree to the substance of the request.
The declaration of consent arrived at Madrid by October 20th 1936.
It read : ”Comrade Rosenberg is mandated to inform the Spanish government that we are willing to accept the safe-keeping of the gold reserve and that we accept the transport of the gold with our ships returning from the Spanish ports under the condition that the gold will be accompanied by a representative of the Spanish government or the Ministry of Finance and that the responsibility for the intactness of the gold starts with its delivery to the people ́s commissariat of Finance of the U.S.S.R. in our ports”. Rosenberg was the soviet ambassador in Spain.
After that about 510t of gold and other objects of value, were evacuated via the port of Cartagena by four soviet vessels to the Black Sea port of Odessa.
The first two transports (KIM and WOLGOLES) arrived in Odessa by November 2nd 1936, the two others (KUBAN and NEWA) by November 4th.
Not only with regards to aspects of security was the operation carried out by utmost secrecy. For the Spanish Central Bank the gold reserves served as coverage for the money supply. Every indiscretion would have had fatal consequences internal as well as external.
These reserves of gold were used up for arms purchases mid-1938.
At the request of the Spanish government the U.S.S.R still gave a loan in December 1938 amounting to US $100 Mio.
The history on this:
In the first third of November 1938 Negrin wrote a letter to Stalin and asked for the delivery of more arms in great scale. This letter was handed over to the Soviet leadership in Moscow end of November/ beginning of December 1938 by Cisneros, supreme commander of the Republican Air Force.
The scale of the requested arms was immense, including 600 anti-tank guns, 10.000 light and heavy machine guns, 200 fighter planes, 90 bombers, 250 tanks, 6 vessels for coastal defense, 12 torpedo boats etc.
Kiddingly Cisneros was asked by the soviet Minister of Defense Woroschilow: “Do you want to leave us without arms”. However Stalin and Woroschilow accepted the wish list without limitations and agreed to grant a loan by the Soviet government to the Spanish Republic covering the amount of value of the arms (over a hundred million $).
A guarantee for repayment and collateral for the U.S.S.R. did not exist – there was only the signature of Cisneros under this agreement.
From December 15th 1938 till February 15th 1939 arms and military technology had been shipped from Murmansk to France.
Cisneros remembers himself: “The arms were loaded on seven Soviet vessels entering French ports. The first two vessels arrived in Bordeaux, when our army still had enough time to use the delivered material. But the French government conceived diverse excuses to delay the transport through France. When the arms arrived in Catalonia it was already too late. We had no airports where the aircraft assembly could have been accomplished, no territory for defending ourselves. Only if the French government would have allowed delivering the arms to the Republic after the arrival of the Soviet vessels straightaway, the fate of Catalonia could have been different. If we would have been able to use this equipment, we would have had the chance to resist some additional months. And taking into account the situation developing in Europe it would have approved as the collapse of the disastrous realization of the fascist plans.”
At December 6th 1938 Germany and France had signed a declaration of friendship and as a consequence only a small amount of arms could be transported over the French border. An essential part of the arms had to be sent back and some got destroyed. Early in February 1939 the information that a great deal of the Soviet arms has been fallen into fascist hands reached the Soviet Union. After that the following resolution was issued to the Minister of Defense of the U.S.S.R.: “Comrade Woroschilow. The delivery of arms has to be abandoned. Stalin.”
Dear friends, there would be a good deal of backgrounds to enumerate, such as that the Red Army was engaged in heavy battles in July/August 1938 with the Japanese at Lake Chassan just some months before Cisneros arrival. It is also to remember that there was no heavy industry till 1930 in the young Soviet Union just arisen out of an underdeveloped agrarian state. Thus, only from 1932 on tanks and planes could be produced in series. Some were partly deficient, in the production expert staff was lacking.
Practically there was no well-engineered war production and additionally the danger of war was looming in the east.
Having regard to this points the support of the Soviet Union cannot be valued high enough and I believe personally that it was selfless.
So much in a nutshell about the “gold question”. Now we are going to deal with the Soviet blockade runners and the arms supply for the Republic.
What was the LOGISTICS of the transports?
Like mentioned in the beginning, the elaboration of the planning of the military support started at the beginning of September 1936. Involved was the staff of the departments of the Soviet military and political reconnaissance. By September 29th the plan was presented to the People ́s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs, Kliment Jefremowitsch Woroschilow. In it Spain was administrated under the label “X”, a department “X” was created and the whole operation of military support was named “X”. For the boat trips with military equipment the label “Y” was chosen.
In Moscow, there was no doubt that the German und the Italian secret services were active on the Pyrenean Peninsula and the English secret service was able to intervene in the Spanish events.
In total, there were deliveries of arms and personal in six intervals. The literature enumerates 71 boat trips.
What sort of work had this operation amongst others to tackle? On the one hand was the question who was to be sent to Spain.
The best and most experienced cadres of military intelligence were sent. Their head was Jan Bersin, in Spain his task was to be the main military advisor of the Republic, in Spain his code name was “General Grischin”.
Another not easy task came up with the selection of the port of shipment. On the one hand it should be not too big, to guarantee secrecy and to shield the loading of military technique from foreign agents and strangers. On the other hand it had to have sufficient depth, port storage capacity and shipping facilities. After some considerations the Black Sea port FEODOSSIA on the eastern side of the Crimean Island was chosen.
However, during the first embarkations it proved to be insufficient concerning shielding and storage capacities. Then the transports were to be shipped from the port of SEWASTOPOL on the western side of the Crimea. But also here there was not enough depth on the pier for larger vessels and more often ships had to be loaded in the roadsteads.
A third challenge existed in the suitability of the ships to transport heavy military technology. Many navy vessels had been sunk during the years of the civil war. Therefore, at the beginning ships had to be used, which were just available. Amongst them was the Spanish tanker CAMPECHE which departed from the Soviet Union by September 26th 1936 being”Y1” or the timber carrier STARY BOLSCHEWIK (“Y3”).
For the earliest delivery of arms old foreign army surplus was loaded as camouflage. However, the amount of old arms in the total volume of all deliveries was small; only about 60.000 of the 650.000 infantry rifles delivered in 1936 had been produced before 1917.
The delivery of the military equipment to the Soviet ports of shipment took place in camouflaged wagons marked “Wladiwostok”, whereby they became officially declared for the news agencies as transports to the Far East. No own brand labeling of Soviet factories could be found on the tanks, on the airplanes there were only a few devices with Soviet labeling.
The boxes with arms got addresses for shipment with fictive recipients in France, Italy, Germany and Belgium. They were stored deep down in the shipping space. They were covered with tarpaulin and coverings of timber and on top of this, camouflage loadings of iron ore, grain or coal were poured. Quick discovery via representatives of the committee for non-intervention or via inspections by fascist warships should be prevented by that. The loadings were duly insured and so the ships embarked on a completely “official” journey.
The highest number of shipments to Spain took place till December 1936. The Black Sea command mobilized during that period 19 vessels having a capacity of 3.000 tons to 10.000 tons.
Shipping from the Black Sea ports of Odessa and Sevastopol made for the Spanish Mediterranean ports of Cartagena, Alicante, Valencia, and Barcelona.
From the Baltic Sea the vessels sailed to the Biscayan ports of Santander and Bilbao. Touch at the ports took place in fixed order and distance. The vessels did not sail in convoy; near the Spanish coast they kept a distance of 80 to 100 kilometer and sailed under the screen of night to the port of destination which they tried to reach till sun rise. Identifications of the vessels and flags for navigation were concealed.
Dangerous maritime areas, patrolled by the fascists, were sailed through by night, lights were switched out. Bow, stern, port and starboard was always staffed with guards, searching the horizon for enemy ships. Estimating, that the situation was not dangerous the ships veered for the Spanish coast and came into the Republican ports. Then a general rule was
the unloading of the vessels from sunset till sunrise by the crew. The cargo of arms was normally loaded directly on standing by goods wagons and left the port to the heartland without interim storage.
Opposite to that, “official” loadings, like delivery of food, were carried out by Spanish Dockers in the daytime.
During the cruise there was a diel radio contact between fleet command and the vessels. The exchange of information took place twice a day by a short wave radio transmitter and consisted of short predefined signals. As soon as Soviet vessels (merchant or military transport ships) spotted fascist vessels they passed on their coordinates via radio to the headquarters without delay. After that the military transport ships were informed immediately and changed route. The ordinary merchant vessels then faked an escape drawing the attention of enemy vessels on themselves. In many cases by this the battle ships were tempt far away from the military transport ships.
When a normal merchant ship was captured by the fascists and was piloted into a rebel port e.g. to Ceuta or Palma the Soviet ship transmitted an information immediately about the respective battle ships and their coordinates to all ships in the Mediterranean, Biscayan and in the Strait of Gibraltar and gave information about the port they were taken to themselves.
From September 26th 1936 until March 13th 1937 (Series of delivery 1, 2 and 3) 27 sailings took place, including 20 from the Black Sea to Cartagena and two from Leningrad to the northern ports of Spain. From Murmansk one ship sailed to France and from other countries there were four ships.
There were 11 Soviet, 11 Spanish and three foreign steamships. Probably on all foreign vessels was a Soviet radioman. This is proven for the Spanish vessel CABO PALOS.
The 4th series of delivery took place from April 21st until August 10th 1937 having 12 sailings. The 5th series was carried out having 14 sailings; in the course of that i.a. 9 vessels of the company “France Navigation” were used. This company had been founded on April 15th 1937 by the Communist Party of France. It has to be noticed that from the 2nd series of delivery onwards mainly Spanish and French vessels were in the line of duty.
Because of the reasons mentioned before, the last delivery of arms did not arrive at the Republic any more.
During the five series of delivery before that, the following items of military large equipment were delivered:
686 fighter planes, 335 tanks, 30 torpedo boats, 723 cannons, 508 artillery pieces and 4.162.200 rifles (machine guns and ordinary rifles).
The sailings of the “KOMSOMOL” and the fate of the sailors
As promised last year, I will deal now with the sailings of the vessel “KOMSOMOL” and the fate of its sailors.
The KOMSOMOL had been built in 1932 in Leningrad; it was a child of the first five-year plan of the Soviet Union and was up to standard of its time. 1936 Georgij Afanasjewitsch Mesenzew became its commander. The vessel had been committed to the Black Sea Shipping Company and sailed between Odessa and Leningrad.
In autumn 1936 the KOMSOMOL was loading wheat in the port of Odessa. The crew prepared the vessel for the sailing.
Surprisingly, the fleet commander came on board and asked Commander Mesenzew to cancel the loading immediately, to unload the wheat and to sail to Feodossia straight away. There, he was to take “delivery” of a loading of the “People’s Commissariat for Military Affairs”. Arriving in Feodossia the loading of the vessel began: There were trucks, tanks, aero-planes, ammunition, petrol, food and medicines. The crews of the tanks boarded too.
The instructions for commander Mesenzew were:
– Strict and utmost secrecy
– The vessel sails without military escort
– Officially the vessel sails to Mexico, but turns to the Spanish coast before reaching Gibraltar
– Accompanying documents for the loading are not issued – Destination port is Cartagena
A representative of the People ́s Commissariat addressed the crew and left it up to all sailors to stay ashore without justification. But nobody stayed ashore.
On October 2nd 1936 the vessel put out to sea; now it was part of the secret operation “X” and was labeled “Y2”.
(You may remember; the so-called “gold question” had not been an issue between Spain and the U.S.S.R. yet).
Off the Spanish coast they detected the cruising, camouflaged warships of the German Navy; the “ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE” and the “LÜTZOW”.
When the KOMSOMOL landed in Cartagena Nikolai Gerassimowitsch Kusnezow (code name in Spain was Nikolas; 1936 he had been sent to Spain as naval attaché) came on board and the unloading started at once. Even though the unloaded tanks were parked behind a high wall of bricks the whole town was talking about nothing but this event. The population was jubilating when the tanks appeared in the streets of Cartagena and they shouted: ”Viva Russia!” and they were tossing their berets high into the air. Many thousands had shown up to welcome the ship bringing arms to the Republic. Those tanks took part when the fascists were fought back in front of Madrid and they were driven by Soviet tank drivers into battle.
Of course, the message about this sailing, including its special loading, reached the fascists too, and evidently after this, they wanted to settle a score at all costs with the KOMSOMOL, wherever, whenever and howsoever.
KOMSOMOL ́s return journey to Odessa proceeded without incident.
At the port, a new loading for Alicante and Valencia was taken over: cars, petrol, medicines, food and presents from the Russian people. On this occasion the destination port was Valencia.
Also on this occasion, the reception for the vessel in Spain was overwhelming. Ten thousands where at the pier and cheered the crew. Almost without exception every Spaniard held a bunch of roses in hand to throw it to the crew. From villages far away, peasants visited the ship and brought boxes with mandarins and oranges as presents. The crew tried to say no, it did not help.
After that, the Soviet sailors were invited for a soccer match against a team from Valencia. 80.000 people filled the ranks. After the symbolic goal kick had been made by Commander Georgi Afanasjewitsch Mesenzew the whole stadium was shouting in unison: “Viva Russia”!
At December 5th 1936 a further sailing of the “KOMSOMOL” took place, after she had loaded manganese ore in the Soviet port of Poti. Port of destination was Gent in Belgium. A peaceful loading to a neutral country …
This should be her last sailing.
What happened? In the evening of December 13th 1936 on the main a warship approached the KOMSOMOL. The warship gave no identification, but asked what loading was on board and what the port of destination was. After that it sailed away. This approach caused a deep distrust by commander Mesenzew.
And indeed, when his ship was sailing the following day off Algiers the fascist cruiser “CANARIS” approached.
The fascists demanded: “Bring engines to a stop!”
They captured the ship, confiscated the ships papers and the passports of the sailors. The crew was called to abandon the vessel and told that KOMSOMOL would be sunk.
36 crew members, including two women, abandoned ship in their own life boats, just to witness the sinking of their ship soon after. The crew of KOMSOMOL was ordered on board of CANARIS and was imprisoned there. The crew of KOMSOMOL was very young. Only five members were over 36, the commander himself was just 33 years of age.
Only by December 20th 1936, six days after the sinking, the Soviet News Agency TASS was able to report: “On the December 14th a pirate cruiser of the Spanish fascists had set KOMSOMOL on fire and had sunk the ship. The destiny of the crew is unclear…”
The fate of the crew was martyrdom.
After spending 8 days in the steel casemates of cruiser CANARIS they were taken to the medieval prison of Puerto Del Santa-Maria in Cadiz at the South coast of Spain. The prison cells were dark, full of rats and vermin.
The time following was characterized by incredible deprivations, cold, hunger, brutal and violent interrogations, indignities.
But they could not been broken. They learned to communicate by Morse signals via the cell walls.
The fascist sentenced the sailors to death and put them into death chambers. A few times they were brought to the prison yard and executions by firing squads were orchestrated. At a later time the fascists red out a declaration to them that the death penalty sentenced was displaced by a jail sentence of 30 years, thanks to the “mercy” of Franco.
It took months until the first sailor got free. After long lasting and tough negotiations by the Soviet government and the International Red Cross it came off that eleven sailors got freed which reached Paris after ten month by October 3rd 1937.
One month later another 18 members of the crew got freed. Three of them asked to stay as volunteers in Spain when they arrived with another transport of relief supplies in Valencia. They fought in the XII. International Brigade. Their names were: Wassilij Titarenko, Wladimir Podgorezki and Wladimir Fomin.
The last 7 sailors of KOMSOMOL ́s crew had to hold out for two years and eight months in total in the fascist torture chambers.
The Soviet government succeeded to get them freed in exchange with imprisoned Italians.
The cruiser CANARIS torpedoed and sank apart from KOMSOMOL the Soviet merchant vessel BLAGOJEW and the Italian destroyer “TURBINE” sank the Soviet merchant vessel TIMIRJASEW.
Many Soviet merchant vessels were captured by the fascists, as the SMIDONOWITSCH, the LENSOVET, the POSTYSCHEW, the ZJURUPA, the MAXIM GORKI, the MAX HOELTZ and the KATAYAMA to name only a few.
It is known from the Soviet merchant vessel SMIDONOWITSCH that commander Michail Konoschenko and his crew were sentenced by a fascist court to 13 years in jail. He served six month in the prison of San Sebastian near Santander and another 19 month in the prison of Toulouse.
Not until July 1938 the crew could be exchanged for captured fascists.
Further additional and more detailed information for the issue of Soviet support can be learned from the brochure (only in German) which is on display.
Hamburg, June 2015 – Hamburger Freundinnen und Freunde der XI. Internationalen Brigade, translated into English by Ernst H. from Ireland
The brochure based on following sources:
- Розин Александр / Советские моряки в Гражданской войне в Испании в 1936-1939гг. 2. Н.Г. Кузнецов / мемуары «Накануне» (1966) militera.lib.ru/memo/russian/kuznetsov-1/
- Олег Булович / Легендарные рейсы “Комсомола” и о дальнейшей судьбе моряков, http://portsukraine.com/node/3442
- ПЕЛЕВИН Владимир Александрович. http://vladimir-pelevin.blogspot.de/2011/12/75-canarias.html
- К.Е. Балдин „ Интердом – моя планета, Verlag „Referent“, Stadt Iwanowo, 2008, ISBN 978-5-902022-20-6
- „Die Völker an der Seite der spanischen Republik -1936-1939“, Verlag Progress Moskau 1975
- „Die UdSSR im Kampf für den Frieden gegen die Aggression 1933-1941“, I. K. Kobljakow, Verlag Progress Moskau, 1977
- Виктор ГАВРИЛОВ, Юрий РЫБАЛКИН, http://www.vpk-news.ru/articles/4604
- Reibert.info «Граждане СССР в Испании. «Добровольцы»
- Soviet Shipping in the Spanish Civil War, Research Program on the U.S.S.R., New York City 1954
– Kapitän G. A. Mesenzew is the writer of „Die letzter Fahrt der „Komsomol” and “Unter der
Flagge der Spanischen Republik“.
– In 1958 the wellknown movie „ЧП – Чрезвычайное происшествие“ was made in the film-
studio „Alexander Dowtschenko”.
– „Das spanische Gold während des Bürgerkrieges“, written by Angel Vinas. The Spanish Foreign
Ministry banned without notice for any reason a publication (as matters stand 1977).