The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936 after a rebellion by a group of right-wing generals against the centre-left Republican Government and its supporters. The military arm of the rebel coup was led by the soon to become infamous General Franco.
Franco’s forces received the support of Nazi Germany and the Kingdom of Italy, as well as neighbouring Portugal, while the Soviet Union intervened in support of the Republican government. The other major European powers and the United States remained neutral – to the regret of many anti-Fascists who saw it an opportunity to limit the rise and influence of Nazi Germany.
While governments shied away from joining the conflict, around 50,000 people from around the world came to Spain to help the Republican forces. Around seventy Australian men and women such as Joe Carter, a Port Kembla wharf labourer, and several nurses went to Spain between 1936 and 1939. Many were communists or trade unionists.
The civil war became notable for the passion and political division it inspired. Tens of thousands of civilians on both sides were killed for their political or religious views. It also became a testing ground for Adolf Hitler’s German airforce, which most notably —and controversially— carpet-bombed the non-military target of the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937, killing hundreds of civilians.
The Spanish Republican forces were seriously hampered by the policy of non-intervention proclaimed by France and the United Kingdom. Although France in particular turned a blind eye, the importation of food and materials into Spain became a clandestine affair of running the Fascist naval and air blockade of the three-mile Spanish territorial limit.
Fowler was at first not at all politically motivated to assist the Spanish republicans and was aware of the danger in running the blockade. But he saw an opportunity. As he put it;
…one can’t have everything and it is better than returning to the Orient as was first hinted and where I would most likely have been relieved by some senior Master and had to go back to Mate.
As the Marion Moller was from Hong Kong, all the loading of cargo was performed by the 42 Chinese crew. Fowler also had six other British petty officers. Fowler was correct that their next destination was to be Spain. He wrote to his father on the 18th of May describing how the Marion Moller left Antwerp with a cargo of foodstuffs, mostly grain. They stopped at Dover to take an observer on board. All shipping near Spanish waters had to have an observer on board to at least ostensibly see that the ‘3 mile limit’ was kept.
The Marion Moller – described by a news reporter as ‘a battered looking British tramp steamer, painted a dingy black’. ANMM Collection: ANMS1397I063I.
While the British did not intervene militarily, they assisted the blockade runners. The Marion Moller was escorted by HMS Shropshire right up to the three-mile limit. On his first run to northern Spain Fowler was lucky. The weather was hazy and there were no vessels in sight, so he took the Marion Moller in to the port of Musel near Gijon in northern Spain. His first contact with the people there may well have influenced his later decisions. Fowler was shocked at the poor condition of the people, who were quite near the front line of the war. After quickly unloading, Fowler headed back to England – he suspected for another run of food for northern Spain.
Fowler was correct again – the Marion Moller was sent back to Spain. At Gijon they took on a cargo and headed for Santander. On 28 June he noted in a letter to his father that it was;
just at this time that Bilbao fell and Santander was rapidly filling up with refugees – who were machine gunned by planes when fleeing to Santander.
When the Marion Moller arrived off the Asturian coast, the fascist blockade had become more intense and Fowler was ‘unable to break the blockade of insurgent cruisers’. He joined the throng of various French and British merchant ships waiting at the edge of Spanish territorial limits for a chance to sneak through. Fowler witnessed one British ship that tried their luck but was fired upon and captured. Even outside the three mile limit, the Marion Moller was fired on at one point, but a nearby patrolling British destroyer came to its rescue.
After two weeks of attempts, Fowler had almost given up hope when ‘a break occurred’. A Spanish Republican sea and air counter-attack on the Fascists created an opportunity to run into port and the Marion Moller followed another British vessel into Santander. The first vessel was bombed from the air and damaged, but made it in to port. With engines at full steam in what Fowler described as the longest 24 minutes of his life, the Marion Moller raced in whilst being peppered all round by fire from a distant ship, to the great joy of crowds of Spanish refugees on the wharves.