Archives For Spanish Shipwrecks

Robert Holland

Robert Holland’s Blue-Water Empire is a phenomenal history of British engagement in the Mediterranean world from 1800 to the present. Holland takes the reader around the entire circumference of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Malta to the Ionian Islands to Cyprus to Suez and leaves the reader struck by the influence the United Kingdom exerted in places many could not even locate on a map. Instead of focusing explicitly on social, political, military, diplomatic or economic history, Blue-Water Empire masterfully weaves them all together to present a comprehensive account of Great Britain’s strategy (or lack thereof) in colonizing and policing the Mediterranean over the course of three centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how Great Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean continue to echo today. For example, Holland carefully analyzes the trajectory of Cyprus under British rule and the air fields retained by the United Kingdom after her political withdrawal from the island. Those same air fields at Akrotiri and Dhekelia have been used as staging grounds for any action against Syria in 2013 or 2014. Also addressed in the book is the perennial question of how best to deal with the flood of refugees that accompanies unrest in North Africa or the Middle/Near East. Not only has the Arab Spring resulted in the destabilization of the region, but it also has driven refugees to seek asylum in places like Malta and Italy. Tragically, many of those refugees have died en route as their vessels are overcroweded and unseaworthy and subsequently sink.

Overall, Blue-Water Empire will not only entertain the casual reader, but will also inform the curious as to some of the origins of today’s headlines.

Battle of Cape Espartel

September 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

CC Image Courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Center on Flickr

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 found many of the troops loyal to the Nationalists not in Spain proper, but across the Strait of Gibraltar in Spanish held Morocco. Hoping to bottle up these forces and pave the way for an easy Republican victory, Republican naval forces established a blockade off the Moroccan coast. Realizing the importance of breaking this blockade, the Nationalists dispatched two cruisers, the Almirante Cervera and Canarias to sink or drive off the Republican forces.

On September 29, 1936, the Nationalist cruisers encountered two Republican destroyers, Almirante Ferrandiz and Gravina in the western end of the Strait. Over the course of a running gun battle, the Canarias sank the Almirante Ferrandiz and the Gravina was forced to retreat after being damaged. The quick and sharp action opened the straits for Nationalist forces to make their way across the Strait and reinforce the ailing Nationalist forces.

Both the Canarias and the Almirante Cervera would go on to fight for the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War including the Battle of Cape Palos. The Almirante Cervera would eventually be scrapped in 1966 while the Canarias followed her to the breakers in 1977.

Battle of Majorca

August 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

CC Image Courtesy of D J Petty on Flickr

The largest island in Spain’s Mediterranean Balearic island chain, modern day Majorca is a popular tourist destination; however, for several weeks in 1936 the island was the site of fierce fighting between Nationalist and Republican forces. On August 16th, 1936, a Republican naval squadron landed a force of 8,000 accompanied by heavy artillery at Punta Amer and Porto Cristo on the island. Over a period of 10 days, the Republicans forced their way 12km inland and vastly outnumbered the small ~2,000 man Nationalist garrison. Italian reinforcements arrived to bolster the faltering Nationalist forces and soon the Republican forces were in full retreat. By September 12th, the last Republican troops had abandoned the island and no further attempts would be made to retake the island. Majorca would remain firmly in Nationalist hands until the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Cartagena Coastline

Coast off Cartagena, Spain
CC Image Courtesy of Begona Martinez on Flickr

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.

Nationalist Heavy Cruiser BalearesPhoto: Wrecksite

Nationalist Heavy Cruiser Baleares
Photo: Wrecksite

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.


Today, Venice is best known for its graceful gondolas and idyllic streets of water, however, for several centuries it was a powerful city-state which exerted economic and political control over a large swath of northern Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Perhaps the Republic of Venice’s greatest accomplishment was on October 7, 1571 when naval forces led by Venice’s Doge Sebastiano Venier defeated Ottoman forces at the Battle of Lepanto.

For nearly a hundred years the Ottomans had waged an off and on war against various Italian city-states and the Kingdom of Spain. Prompted by the capture of a Venetian colony on the island of Cyprus, the Venetians and their Christian allies assembled a force of 212 galleys and galleasses to launch a punitive expedition against the Ottomans and free the imprisoned colonists. The Christian and Ottoman fleets encountered one another in the Gulf of Patras on October 7th and immediately engaged in combat. Although outnumbering the Christian fleet by nearly 40 ships, the Ottoman forces were decimated by the superior guns and seamanship of the Christian fleet. The Christians captured approximately 130 ships and destroyed another 80 while losing only 50 of their own with 1 captured by the Ottomans. Additionally, the Ottomans suffered 20,000 casualties to the 7,500 lost by the Christian fleet and more than 10,000 imprisoned Christian rowers were freed from slavery.

The battle was one of the most significant naval victories in history and marked the high-water mark of the Ottoman Navy. No longer would Venice or any of her sister Italian city-states be existentially threatened by the Ottoman Empire. Venice reasserted her economic dominance of the region, however, changes in technology and trading routes eventually led to the city’s graceful dive into impotence. The city lost her independence in 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte captured the city and she became a pawn in European geopolitics for the next 80 years until her incorporation into the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. Today though, there are growing calls for Venetian independence amidst the Eurozone crisis and continuing Italian austerity.

The Battle of Lepanto has been honored by the naming of two ships in the Italian Navy after the battle. The Genoese commander of one wing of the Christian fleet, Admiral Andrea Doria, became one of Italy’s most famous naval heroes and is perhaps most associated with the wreck of his namesake, the Italian liner Andrea Doria, which sank after colliding with the Swedish ship Stockholm in 1956.