Leah Manning and the women who helped rescue 4000 children during the Spanish Civil War

Just before the lockdown shutters came clanging down last spring, I went on holiday to northern Spain, visiting the coastal towns of Santander and Bilbao, and also Guernica, historic ancient capital of the Basques. In Bilbao I strolled into a quiet square, fringed with tall plane trees, their leaves just starting to emerge into the Spanish sunshine. The name of the square intrigued me: Plaza de Mrs Leah Manning and I wondered why the people of Bilbao had named this leafy square, surrounded by schools, after an Englishwoman.

It turned out there was a pretty big reason: in the spring of 1937, while the Spanish Civil War was raging, and as General Franco’s troops were bombing towns up and down the Basque coast, Mrs Leah Manning helped 4,000 Spanish children escape on a ship, the Habana, to England. The night of their departure, May 21, General Franco’s bombers attacked Portugalete, Bilbao’s harbour where the children were being loaded. They almost didn’t make it at all.

When I started to investigate Leah, I discovered that she was far from the only British woman who tried to help the Basques in the spring of 1937. Many women joined the Aid Spain movement, raising money to help send clothes and food, and also to try and help rescue the Spanish, whose worlds were being bombed to smithereens by the fascist coup that was taking place in the country.

This is the story of just three of those women.

Florence Roberts

(Source - Daily Mail)

In March 1937, Florence Roberts, aged just 20, was helping her widowed father, merchant seaman William Roberts take his Cardiff-registered Seven Seas Spray to Barcelona, to pick up a cargo of olive oil, almonds and barrels of cognac. Once the valuable cargo of sun-drenched Spanish goods was loaded, the ships’ orders changed and Florence and her father changed direction for Bilbao. The residents of Bilbao were starving – General Franco had blockaded the harbour, and the roads into the town, so no food could get in. People were eating their dogs and cats.

French and British merchant vessels were trying to run the blockade to deliver food to the Basques, but none had so far managed to get past the Italian cruisers guarding the port – Mussolini had sent his navy to help Franco. On the night of April 19, the Seven Seas Spray left the French port of St Jean de Luz. With her navigation lights off, she passed, unseen, close by an Italian cruiser shortly after leaving France, but after that, had an uneventful voyage. After ten hours’ sailing the Seven Seas Spray’s arrival in Bilbao was feted by the Basque authorities.

(Source - Daily Mail)

English newspapers celebrated the ‘pretty, 20-years-old’ captain’s daughter sporting a jaunty sailor’s cap. Florence briefly became a journalist and she reported, in her first despatch for the News Chronicle: “I have seen children and even women run after lorries leaving one ship with loads of salt and snatch a handful of it. Hordes of children gather round the food shops from early morning till dusk pleading for food. What they prize most are pieces of white bread…despite their hardships they would rather starve than surrender.”

Florence and her father ran the blockade all through the spring and summer of 1937, taking in food, and taking out refugees then in August, while in Santona, the Seven Seas Spray as boarded by Italian soldiers and Florence, William and the crew spent the next two months as prisoners. While Florence and her father were secretly making food deliveries in small ports along the coast, it soon became clear that a larger operation was needed. Guernica had been bombed – causing international scandal – killing hundreds of people. It was clear that Bilbao would be next, and the citizens had only days, but while a French ship had succeeded in evacuating some children, Britain’s Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, had been unwilling to offer help, for fear of looking like Britain was taking sides.

Leah Manning

Leah Manning had arrived in Bilbao on April 24. She drove straight to the British Consulate to ask for help in persuading the British Government to approve the evacuation. She was seen, she later wrote as “an officious busy-body”. But Manning wasn’t to be dissuaded. Briefly a Labour MP in 1931, she had been a teacher since left school and her whole life was dedicated to helping children. On 17 May, while the British consul was away from Bilbao, Manning sent a telegram to London, from the consulate, more or less claiming that the evacuation of the children was so well underway, it would be impossible to stop.

While the British government thought her a busy body, Manning had public opinion on her side, and the large amounts of money now raised by the Aid Spain Committee for the children’s upkeep meant that Whitehall objections over the cost of caring for the children were neutralised. On May 21 the yacht Habana, with a capacity of 800, began loading the young passengers, with the help of two British doctors, Audrey Russell and Richard Ellis, and nurse Aileen Moore.

Aileen Moore

Aileen Moore, a young British nurse, volunteered to help the evacuation because she could speak Spanish. When she flew from Biarritz into the Spanish war zone, it was the first time she had ever flown in her life. She wrote up her experiences in the Nursing Mirror and Midwives’ Journal: “The little monoplane was perched, glittering, in a field of clover and daisies against a background of blue, snow-covered Pyrenean peaks. Her weight was 25 kilos…Up, up, up, so high that the rolling Atlantic seemed only a corrugated gleaming blue surface, broken by deep patches of shadow… far down, miniature destroyers rode on the white specked blue sheet of sea.”

(The ‘Habana’ Steamship arriving at Southampton on 23rd May 1937

Pic Source – Basque Children Association)

Waiting for final embarkation orders, she ate rice, beans, cat and donkey steak, and dodging German air raids as she escorted distraught children away from their weeping mothers. Before the Habana was fully loaded, the nationalist air raids on the port had become so intense that the ship left without all of the children on board. Apart from severe bouts of seasickness (“for two dreadful days and nights Richard, Audrey and I slipped and slithered from one pool of vomit and diarrhoea to another”) they arrived safely in Southampton on May 23.

Two weeks later, Bilbao fell and many of the children’s parents were killed. Leah Manning had literally snatched the nearly 4,000 boys and girls out from underneath Franco’s nose. Once they arrived and had been put in temporary tents outside Southampton, Manning did not give up fighting to find them homes and schools. The children, when adults either returned to Spain or settled in Britain, remembered her fondly. One woman, Esta Nickson, who had been on the Habana wrote in 1991: “I remember her very well, we all loved her, she always had a smile and a cuddle for all of us.”

Leah, Florence and Aileen’s stories tell us how compassion for children in danger can turn even ‘ordinary’ women – a nurse, a teacher and a merchant sailor’s daughter – into selfless heroes.

Leah, Florence and Aileen’s stories can be read in my book Rebel Women Between the Wars: Fearless Writers and Adventurers (MUP 2020)

Written by Sarah Lonsdale

Twitter @SarahJLonsdale

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