The Spanish liner Habana brought Basque refugee children to Southampton in May 1937.
In 1920 the Sociedad Española de Construcción Naval launched the liner Alfonso XIII at Sestao shipyard in Bilbao. Shortly after her launch in November 1920, she became the victim of an arson attack and was rebuilt, eventually making her maiden voyage in September 1923. Alfonso XIII was built for Compañia Transatlántica Española (CTE) for trans-Atlantic services. When Spain abolished the monarchy in April 1931, Alfonso XIII was renamed Habana.
In 1936 the Spanish civil war started broke out and in 1937 fighting centred on the Basque region. In response, the Basque government chartered Habana to evacuate children from the region. Under the command of Ricardo Fernandez, Habana made her first refugee sailing from Bilbao to France on 6th May 1937. On 21st May, Habana left Bilbao for Southampton escorted by the trawlers Bizcaya and Gipuzkoa and the Spanish destroyer Cisca. Five miles offshore she reached the protection of her Royal Navy escort; HMS Royal Oak and HMS Forrester. Habana arrived at Southampton on 23rd May 1937 having transported 3954 children, 214 teachers and volunteers and seven British medical staff.
For the remainder of the Civil War Habana remained laid up at Bordeaux. At the end of the war in June 1939, Habana returned to Bilbao to be refitted. In September 1939 she suffered a major fire which gutted most of her superstructure. Habana was rebuilt as a cargo vessel and resumed sailing in 1942. In 1947 Habana underwent a refit at Todd Shipbuilding, Brooklyn to make her compliant with modern safety standards and to have some passenger accommodation re-instated. Habana was retired by CTE in 1960. In 1962 she was purchased by Pescanova S.A. She was converted to a fish factory ship by Astano shipyards and renamed Galicia. In 1964 her conversion was completed and on 7th September she sailed to the South Atlantic. Galicia operated as a ‘mother-ship’ to a fleet of trawlers that landed their catch on Galicia. On board fish would be frozen, before being transferred to refrigerated cargo vessels for transport to Spain. In 1975 Galicia was withdrawn and in 1978 she was sold for scrap, being dismantled at Vigo.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Jordi Garcia of Maritime Museum Barcelona for permission to use photographs from the Museum’s collection.

Habana c 1937

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SS Habana in her original form as she would have been when she visited Southampton in 1937. - Copyright, Maritime Museum Barcelona

SS Habana 1950

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SS Habana in 1950 after her rebuilding in the early 1940's. - Copyright, Maritime Museum Barcelona

1.‘New liner destroyed’, Lancashire Evening Post, Monday 29th November 1920, p. 2.
2. ‘Shipping, Shipbuilding and Engineering’, Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday 25th August 1923, p. 16.
3. Sea and Ships: Compania Transatlantica Espanola
4. Lloyds Register of Shipping, 1930, (London: Lloyds Register, 1930), pp. 43, 1383.
5. ‘Refugee ships leave Bilbao’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Friday 7th May 1937, p. 12.
6. ‘Basque refugee children in Spanish Liner have armed escort’, Belfast Telegraph, Saturday 22nd May 1937, p 7.
7. ‘Bilbao Babes sleep in liner’s hold’, Daily Herald, Saturday 22nd May 1937, p. 1.
8. Activities of the Basque Auxiliary Navy
9. BBC Legacies: Britain’s Basque bastion (archived)
10. Newall, Peter, Ocean Liners: An illustrated history, (Barnsley: SeaForth, 2018).
11. ‘Todd yards are rebuilding Spanish liner’, New York Times, 9th February 1947, p. 8
12. ‘Habana will sail today’, New York Times, 15th April 1947, p. 51
13. Pescanova, the industrial fishing revolution.


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