May 29, 1937

The Bombing of the "Deutschland" - Ibiza

The Bombing of the "Deutschland" - Ibiza

Side view of the cruiser "Canarias"
Side view of the cruiser "Canarias"

The Republican government had warned Italy and Germany that the port of Palma de Mallorca was not open to visits by ships of foreign powers which used such visits for the offloading of weapons and other war materiel.

On 24th May the cruiser "Barletta", anchored in Palma, was attacked by Republican aircraft, suffering six casualties. On 26th the Nazi patrol vessel Albatross was attacked in the same port but was not hit.

And on 29th May 1937 an operation was mounted from the Los Alcazares air base in pursuit of the Nationalist squadron which was operating in the Mediterranean. A special effort was made to pursue the cruiser Canarias using the Tupolev SB-2 high-speed bombers, nicknamed "Katiuskas".

Side view of the battleship"Deutschland" in the period when she was bombed
Side view of the battleship"Deutschland" in the period when she was bombed

According to the then Col Lacalle a group of these bombers flown by all-Soviet crews took off from Los Alcazares and set course for the Balearic Islands. The chief of the Republican Air Force, Hidalgo de Cisneros, and Lacalle himself who happened to be there at the time witnessed the departure. Some time later two aircraft returned.

One of them made a pass at very low level, waggling his wings in a marked manner. Everyone went out onto the field to meet them. The expectant Lacalle drove up to the aircraft in his car. The Russian crews, alone with Lacalle, told him that they had hit the "Canarias". Sceptical of their claim, he got them to go through the sortie in detail. Apparently the two aircraft discovered the alleged "Canarias" anchored in the approaches to Ibiza and saw her firing at them with her anti-aircraft guns. The first aircraft dropped its bombs, which hit the water off the starboard bow. The second aircraft made one dummy pass and hit her on a second, one of the bombs hitting home near the funnel and the other near the bow. (According to Hugh Thomas 31 crew were killed and 74 wounded ).

Lacalle says they revealed all these details only to him, drawing all the details of the operation on the ground with a twig. According to Thomas the bomb which caused most havoc among the ship's crew was dropped by the aircraft of which G.Livinski was observer, piloted according to other sources consulted by Nikolai Ostryakov. Lacalle's claim that the Russians confused the cruiser "Canarias" with the "Deutschland" surprises Azaa, who says that the Russians had strict orders from their commanders to avoid contact with German vessels. And it is extremely doubtful that they ignored such orders unless it was a case of mistaken identity of the ship.

The 'Deutschland was a sister ship to the 'Wilhelm Scheer', She was equipped with 6 28 cm Guns, 8 15 cm guns, 6 10.5 cm guns, and 2 torpedo tubes.

Her crew consisted of :

  • 33 Officers
  • 121 non-comissioned officers
  • 24 Tech officers
  • 10 Platoon commanders
  • 440 Sailors
  • TOTAL: 628

At the time of the attack her commander was Captain Paul Wenneker.

In November the Deutschland was renamed the LÜ orders from Hitler (aware of the propaganda value of a possible news headline like: "The Deutschland SUNK!")

At the time of the bombing vessels of the Republican fleet had been sighted by the German Panzerschiff, whose first reaction was that the attack had been carried out by the Republican destroyer flotilla. Prieto, minister of war, tried to defuse the situation by saying that the SB-2s were reconnaissance aircraft and that they had been fired on first by the battleship's anti-aircraft guns.This version was hardly credible, given that reconnaissance aircraft didn't carry bombs.

Panzerschiff 'Deutschland'-1937
Panzerschiff 'Deutschland'-1937

The ship was attacked by two Republican aircraft flown by Russian pilots.

Twelve bombs were dropped with two of them hitting the ship.

One went through the foredeck into the seaman's mess and the other hit the ships side causing little damage. The bomb which exploded in the seaman's mess caused a fire with 23 crew members being killed, 19 seriously injured and 64 slightly wounded.

The medical facilities on the ship were quickly found unable to cope and the ship sailed to Gibraltar. She arrived at 1900 hrs on 30th May 1937 and moored at 41 berth in the Dockyard.

53 of the wounded were taken to the Military Hospital.

Even here the number of injured were found too much for the staff to treat and an urgent request was signalled to England for more nursing staff to be flown out to help.

Staff from Codali's, the Undertakers, worked all night and most of the next day preparing coffins for the burial ceremony at the North Front Cemetery.

On 31 May at 11am the Deutschland sailed leaving her Chaplain and an Interpreter. During the night another sailor died from his wounds bringing the total of dead to 24.

At 5pm the funeral procession of the 24 German Naval ratings went through the Dockyard North Gate with the coffins draped with the Nazi German Flags and carried, two to a lorry, on motor vehicles provided by the Royal Army Service Corp. A Royal Naval Guard from HMS Arethusa escorted each lorry. At the rear followed detachments from all British ships in the Harbour, the Dutch Submarine O.13, the USS Kane and the Turkish destroyer Kocatepe. The Band of the Royal Marines played suitable music.

The funeral service was conducted in the presence of the Governor, Sir Charles Harington by the Dean of the Church of England Cathedral and the German Chaplain. The grave was closed with shots being fired by a detachment from HMS Despatch.

Two further seaman died on the 1st and 2nd June and were buried with full military honours. A further seaman died on the 6th June.

The attack on the Deutschland and the deaths caused a flurry of international political activity and on 11th June the ship returned to Gibraltar to pick up 20 sailors who were fit to travel and the bodies of those who had died and who had been disinterred. One more from the hospital had also died and three others had died on the ship bringing the death toll to 31.

The ship eventually arrived at Wilhelmshaven on the 16th June.

On 8th July the Admiral Graf Spee called at Gibraltar to collect 5 sailors, on the 24th July a further 17 were collected by the cruiser Koln.

On the 30th July the cruiser Nuremberg arrived to collect the remainder of the injured sailors as well as the Chaplain and the interpreter. Those killed in the Action or who died subsequently:

Buried on the 31 May 1937

  • Friedriche Gerhard
  • Reinhold Zimmermann
  • Walter Lolitz
  • Christain Gallus
  • Karl Schoellkopf
  • Felix Faltin
  • Heinrich Rolbers
  • Werner Fischer
  • Joseph Denno
  • Wilhelm Schmitz
  • Herman Bruckner
  • Rudolf Inglen
  • Josef Mils
  • George Woldwebber
  • Heinz Bismark
  • Oswald Sehn
  • Willi Buche
  • Otto Martens
  • Alfred Oelrich
  • Matias Bochem
  • Richard Martin
  • Kurk Manja
  • Johann Schubert
  • Heinz Maenning

Buried on 1st June 1937

  • Albert Steizer

Buried on 2nd June 1937

  • Albert Eckart

Died in the Military Hospital on 6th June but not buried at Gibraltar

  • Hermann Durr

One other sailor who died at the Military Hospital was taken direct to the ship.

Three died on board the Deutschland.

A far fuller account of this incident with many photos and a list of those awarded German Red Cross Decorations in Gibraltar can be found in issue 9 of the Gibraltar Heritage Journal of 2002. (See: Details produced by kind permission of the Editor Mr Paul Baker

The following day the German warship squadron, with the "Admiral Scheer", sister ship of the "Deutschland", leading shelled Almería in retaliation. Four destroyers accompanying the cruiser fired 200 shells, causing 19 deaths among civilians and destroying 35 buildings. Some days later the Government of the Republic made it known that serious damage had been inflicted on the German cruiser "Deutschland" by bombing carried out by... Jos Arcega Njera and Leocadio Mendiola. It is reasonable to suppose that the version listing Mendiola and Arcega as pilots of the two Katiuskas was promulgated so as not to compromise the Soviet government, which was not keen to engage in armed conflict with Nazi Germany at that time. That is to say, for strictly political reasons.

And so the "official version" remained for posterity. It can be found in many history books dealing with the subject. And the extent of Mendiola's and Arcega's participation in the affair is still unclear. Certainly Mendiola always maintained that he took a direct part in the bombing. The shelling of Almería - or its indirect consequences - could have brought about a radical change in the conduct of operations. At the next council of ministers of the Republican Government Indalecio Prieto asked his colleagues for authorisation to dispatch squadrons of bombers over German and Italian vessels sailing in the Mediterranean. Fear that such action might turn out to be politically unfavourable to the Republican cause resulted in the socialist leader's proposal being rejected. It remains for the historian to ask himself if the Republican Government was being excessively timid, if Prieto was acting under the influence of a fit of pique and, possibly something not taken into consideration that day, if the Republic had the assets to carry out such actions.