The day the Spanish Civil War came to Cromer

The SS Cantabria as viewed from the Nadir, the Spanish nationalist cruiser which sunk it off the coast of Cromer. Picture:...

The SS Cantabria as viewed from the Nadir, the Spanish nationalist cruiser which sunk it off the coast of Cromer. Picture: submitted - Credit: Archant

It was a normal winter's day for the peaceful coastal community of Cromer when they woke on November 2, 1938.

EDP Sunday
Survivors of the Cantabria ship
for Steve Snelling

EDP Sunday Survivors of the Cantabria ship for Steve Snelling

But as the night drew in, the tranquillity was shattered when a shocking scene from the Spanish Civil War played out in the waters off their coastline.

The Spanish merchant ship Cantabria was attacked by the enemy vessel Nadir, part of general Franco's navy, as she chugged through the North Sea. Shells rained on to the Cantabria, destroying her bridge and paralysing her engine room.

But Cromer's lifeboatmen – led by legendary coxswain Henry Blogg – headed out to rescue those aboard the stricken Cantabria.

Now, 75 years on, the fierce raid is to be remembered and re-told during a special event in the town.

The RNLI's Henry Blogg Museum has teamed up with re-enactment group La Columna to mark the anniversary and tell the story of the people caught in the devastating attack.

Members of La Columna, a UK based re-enactment group commemorating the international volunteers who fought alongside the Spanish people, will tell the dramatic story of the crew and passengers saved alongside the very lifeboat which made the rescue in 1938.

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Jacqui Palmer, museum manager, said the attack rocked the town.

'This was quite a shocking incident. At that time nobody was used to gunfire actually off the coast and here was the Spanish war arriving on the British coast,' she added. 'Some of the accounts of it are quite horrendous.

'This incident could have provoked Britain to become engaged in the Spanish Civil War. The question was raised in parliament but it was not deemed a threat to Britain itself because it happened in international waters.'

The anniversary event will also mark the bravery of a trawler captain who, responding to the Cantabria's SOS call, put his ship between the under-attack vessel and the Nadir, to protect the stricken passengers and allow the lifeboat to get to them.

Between the trawler and the lifeboat, 12 crew members, the captain and his family were rescued and safely landed in England.

One man died and 27 people, including three children, were captured by the Nadir.

The Cantabria, destroyed by the shelling, sank.

Mrs Palmer said for some of the lifeboat crew heading out to sea with 'live ammunition flying all over the place', would have been like a return to the Great War. But she felt the normally unfazed Blogg was touched by this particular rescue.

'Most of the reports, when you hear about Henry Blogg and his crew, is that they just went on and got the job done,' she added. 'But when you see Henry in some of the newsreel footage he's obviously quite pleased with himself that he's managed to make this rescue.'

Among those saved by Blogg and his crew was brother and sister Ramón and Maria Begona Argúelles, who returned to Cromer to visit the museum in 2005.

Maria, who was eight when she was saved, was given a peg doll made by the people of Cromer and it is personal stories like these that Mrs Palmer is keen to remember on the anniversary.

She said: 'It's lovely to see the people rescued on film. These were real people in a horrific situation that managed to go on and have a full and happy life. It's the people that are so important in these rescues.'

Saturday's anniversary event begins at Cromer Museum at 10.30am with an Aid for Spain stall, a replica of those which appeared across Britain and raised awareness of the war. The story of the Cantabria will be told at the Henry Blogg Museum from 1.30pm to 3.30pm, where children can also make peg dolls. All activities are free.