POSTCARDS FROM SPAIN (3) – Shields Man Who Ran Blockade in Spanish Civil War

Unfortunately due to the Coronavirus pandemic the Local History library is closed so confirming details about the South Shields resident featured in this post has proven a bit more difficult.

If a relative is out there please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We are looking at a Captain C.W. Dick who was in command of a ship that ran a blockade during the Spanish Civil War.

The Hansard revealed questions were asked in the House of Commons about the Civil War and the role of British Merchant ships. First Lord Admiralty, Sir Samuel Hoare said.

’The instructions to His Majesty’s ships have, since the beginning of the civil war in Spain, been to the effect that if it comes to the knowledge of a British man-of-war that a British merchant ship is being interfered with on the high seas by a Spanish warship, the British ship is to be afforded protection’.

I came across a newspaper report in The Shields Gazette, April 28th 1937 that featured Capt. C.W. Dick and the Olavus, a ship built in South Shields in 1920 at the Chas Rennoldson & Co. yard.

EXPECTED BATTLE ANY MINUTE (Headline)

Shields Man Who Ran Blockade

The Hull steamer Olavus under the command of Capt. C.W.Dick of South Shields which recently ran the blockade of Bilbao is expected to make a further effort next week.

It is understood she will sail from Liverpool for Barcelona or Valencia with a cargo of foodstuffs. The crew however, have intimated to owners, the Ohlson Steam Shipping Company from Hull, that they will not sail again for Spain under any circumstances.

The crew consists of British engineers and Dutch seamen who were signed on at Rotterdam after the original Shields crew had refused to sign on again for Spain.

For the past day or two Capt. Dick, whose home is in Ravenbourne Terrace, has been in Rotterdam awaiting instructions from the owners. At one time it was thought the Olavus would sail again from Holland, but the crew intimated that they did not wish to sail on any conditions.

Captain Dick’s last voyage to Bilbao was an exciting one. In letters to his wife he describes how the Olavus and the Thorpehall, were at one time surrounded by six battleships representing the insurgents.

‘Thank goodness it is all over and we are out of danger. It has been a great responsibility with all these men’s lives’. He explained that the reported mutiny on board the Olavus was pure fiction.

There was no trouble with the crew when she left Nantes. The only trouble we had was at the French port, where the crew of Dutchmen, learning they were to sail for Bilbao, asked to be paid off’.

Captain Dick pointed out that he could not do this and the crew approached their consul, who told them that nothing could be done, and that they would have to sail.

Thirty hours out from Nantes, they were inspected by a rebel cruiser, but no action was taken until two hours later when a shot was fired over the Olavus.

He carried on at full speed for about five minutes, then the guns of the harbour fortress began to speak.

Capt. Dick was almost blinded by the second shot, which fell 40 feet astern the Olavus and thinking that the fortress had mistaken him for a rebel gunboat or did not want him to enter until daylight, he put about.

HMS Hood.

In running for the open sea again, the Olavus went through the supposed minefields. The crew by this time were terrified stated Capt. Dick. Describing the holding up of the Thorpehall, Capt. Dick said that Spanish, German and British ships had cleared their decks for action.

‘I expected a battle to start any minute’ he stated in a letter. ‘I was waiting for the rebel cruiser to start, but he slunk away followed by one of our fellows’.

After leaving Bilbao, the Olavus was stopped by a rebel cruiser and the German battleship Von Spree. The German ordered Capt. Dick to alter course and head for land. Unable to offer resistance and confident that the Olavus was about to be interned, the captain did so.

A few minutes later however HMS Hood arrived on the scene and the rebel and German gunboats steamed away. The Hood signalled to the Olavus ‘Good night and good voyage’.

A search reveals that the Thorpehall was attacked and eventually sunk near Valencia on 25th May 1938. HMS Hood was sunk during the Battle of the Denmark Strait in the Second World War, May 1941.

But what happened after 1937 for Captain C.W.Dick ? There is a record of a British Prisoner of War held in Japan on 15th Feb 1942. Is that him ? Hopefully more information can be found to confirm the story.

More research will be done when the Local History libraries open but for now in Postcards from Spain, the search goes on for North East stories from the Spanish Civil War. If you have any information please get in touch at garyalikivi@yahoo.com

Gary Alikivi  April  2020.

Sources: Ancestry, Hansard and The Shields Gazette.

POSTCARDS FROM SPAIN (2) -Eileen, Orwell & the Spanish Civil War

First came across the Spanish Civil War in 2012 when I was researching South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who was married to writer George Orwell.

The couple spent some time in Barcelona during the civil war. Orwell went ahead earlier than Eileen to write a story, but ended up joining the militia in their fight against fascism – you could say he replaced his pen for a gun.

Below is a photograph taken on the front line of the war, with Orwell the largest figure at the back and his wife Eileen crouching behind the machine gun. In an earlier post I talked about a documentary that I made (Wildflower 2014), and when I first saw this photograph how it was the catalyst in making the film.

In the documentary I wanted to include this part of their life together, so contacted Alan Warren. Alan was living in Barcelona, and with the organisation Porta de la Historia, they have researched the Spanish Civil War and Orwell.

I took a flight out to Barcelona and stayed for a few days in a hotel in the Gothic area of the city. We met up in a café on Las Ramblas and talked about how we could tell this part of Eileen’s story.

Los Carocoles restaurant.

Next day Alan guided me to the locations Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia, an account of his personal experiences during the civil war. Through research we came across letters written by Eileen when she was in Barcelona.

She mentioned going to a restaurant, Los Caracoles, just off Las Ramblas. We went there and after some negotiation in Spanish by Alan, with owner Aurora Bofarull, I filmed a short sequence to include in the documentary – we also got a free meal of eggs and peppers.

Alan told me about the group he is working with …..Porta de la Historia (PdlH) is a group of historians and enthusiasts based in Spain and Catalonia who are interested in the hidden history of the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, and the 35,000 men and women from 52 different countries who came to support the Spanish Republic, many of whom served in the International Brigades.

For over ten years PdlH has conducted extensive Field Research and study of the many first hand accounts to allow the hidden landscape, of not just the battles, but also places in the rear guard and hospitals, to come alive.

Standing at the same spot described by an International brigader over eighty years ago is an experience to be treasured. In addition, the use of cameras during the War, by the likes of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro has allowed many locations to be identified.

More importantly, local contacts and knowledge allows visitors to see parts of Spain that are rarely visited by tourists. It is, to a certain extent, the real Spain.

Apart from many bespoke tours for one to four people, larger school trips are also offered. In addition, film and documentary work is common, as well as editorial advice for historians.

The Field of Research is large. It is said that more books have been written about the Spanish Civil War than World War Two. It has been called ‘The Last Crusade’ and ‘The first Battle of World War Two’.

The passion, romanticism, beliefs and idealism of both sides is also full of violence, hate and bloody revenge. A polarising event of such tragedy that even now many families will not talk about it.

However, Porta de la Historia is slowly allowing this subject to be addressed more openly. And hopefully the distance between now and then, as well as some government support, is allowing grandchildren and great grandchildren to try and understand the conflict that tore Spain apart. A nation that forgets it’s history is condemned to repeat it.

This work is a pleasure and a responsibility. Having known many International brigaders in later life, it is important to explain and try to understand this period objectively and factually. And there is still so much more to explore and discover in some beautiful parts of Spain.

For more information contact the organisation at:  pdlhistoria@gmail.com or
www.pdlhistoria.wordpress.com

If you have any information about the North East men and women who were in any way involved in the Spanish Civil War please get in touch at garyalikivi@yahoo.com

 Gary Alikivi   April 2020.