Civil wars are always tragic affairs with brother turned against brother and a country ripped asunder over conflicting social, economic or political visions. The Spanish Civil War of 1936 – 1939 was especially tragic, though, as the country became a proxy battlefield for the two nastiest political philosophies of the 20th century – communism and national socialism. Units from the Soviet Union supported the Republicans while forces from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy operated in support of the Nationalists under Francisco Franco. All three outside actors used the conflict as an opportunity to hone the tactics they would employ in World War II, among them terrorizing civilian populations with airstrikes such as that of Guernica.
The largest naval battle of the war occurred on March 6, 1938 and flowed directly from international involvement in the conflict. Nationalist naval forces including heavy cruisers Baleares and Canarias were escorting a convoy of war material from Italy when they happened upon a Republican force of two light cruisers and five destroyers off the coast of Cartagena, Spain. At first it seemed as if a pitched battle would be avoided as the squadrons passed one another and made no serious effort to engage the other. The Republicans, though, later decided to pursue the Nationalist forces and around 2:15am the exchange of naval gunfire began.
Unbeknownst to the Nationalist force, the Republican squadron had detached its destroyer escort which launched a torpedo attack on the Nationalists’ heavy cruisers. Two or three torpedoes struck home on the Baleares and caused a catastrophic explosion in her forward magazine. The bow of the ship quickly sank, taking with her 765 crew and officers, while the stern remained afloat and sheltered her 441 remaining crewmen from death. The rest of the Nationalist force withdrew and two Royal Navy destroyers intervened to rescue the survivors.
Although not strategically significant, the battle, which came to be known as the Battle of Cape Palos, did serve as a propaganda victory for the waning Republican cause. During the 1970s, a second Baleares, a guided missile frigate, joined the Spanish Navy and was recently retired.