That day was a hell worthy of the movie “U-571”; although it happened in Spanish waters, and not in the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean. After fierce surface combat (for some, near-suicidal) against a dozen Francoist ships, the submersible C-5 was wounded by a depth charge and plummeted onto the seabed. As in Hollywood, the systems failed and there was only oxygen for a few hours; and, also as in the American factory, some of the sailors had to be arrested when they drew their regulation pistols ready to blow their heads off to avoid the drama of drowning. There was no way out. Or so it seemed. But that September 3, 1936, not two months after the troops of Francisco Franco and company rose against the Second Republic, something also typical of the movies happened. And if you doubt, you just have to enjoy the mythical “Das Boot” (both the feature film and the series), the old “Duel in the Atlantic” or the more modern “The hunt for Red October.
The commander of the ship, Lieutenant Commander Lara, reassured the crew, organized the dewatering and repair of the damaged systems and, finally, ordered that no one spoke or moved more than they should so as not to deplete the oxygen from the failed C-5.
After the repairs, the anguish, and the piecework, those men had their prize. A moment that the specialist sailor Ramon Cayuelas Robles remembers well, then in the guts of the submersible, in his memoirs. When, at last, we felt that the submarine was detaching from the bottom and beginning to rise, a burst of spontaneous joy pushed us to hug the commander. Because at that moment we understood that we were coming back to life ». And, if you allow me the expression: red bunting, the movie is over. Or so they believed, since, although everything ended well that agonizing day, months later the ship disappeared under strange circumstances. But that, as they say, is another story.
The C-5 remains loyal.
The history of this episode dates back to July 17, 1936, the day of the Africanist uprising against the government of the Second Republic. In those days the C-5 submarine, one of the most modern that the government had, was in Cartagena for repairs. And it was precisely at this base that the crew learned of the coup. On the 18th, chaos broke out. The news came from both sides of the support of the higher-ranking officers for the uprising, but also many others in which it was confirmed that the sailors had refused to follow orders and had arrested their superiors. The C-5 was no exception and the commander of the ship, Lieutenant Commander Antonio Amusategui Rodriguez, was arrested. Hours later, hundreds of trade unionists and armed militiamen entered the base and arrested without trial how many sailors they wanted and recruited volunteers at their discretion to fight on the Albacete front. Chaos raged on the levees.
The confusion that reigned in those principles to find commands, after those who had murdered or imprisoned, is imaginable, it was not known from one day to the next which submarine had a commander and which did not, which led to orders being issued of boarding that were never completed and others that were doubled in the short term, “adds the sailor in his memoirs,The following weeks were no better. The government of the Republic needed all its submarines at sea to destroy the transport ships that carried rebel troops and supplies to the Peninsula. But despite the rush, the C-5 did not have a captain and had yet to complete its repairs. It was not until August 22, with the revisions approved, when the ship went to sea under the provisional commands of boatswain Jacinto Núñez. On the 23rd they arrived in Malaga, where, despite the reluctance of the political committee aboard the submersible (in charge of supervising possible undercover rebels), Lieutenant Commander Jose Maria de Lara y Dorda was put at the head. His appointment caused great controversy, as Cayuelas confirms.
In the end, the committee imposed its conditions, since Commander Lara did not have first-hand access to any of the orders received on board, he did not even have control at the periscope when an enemy was supposed to be in sight. We knew of the lack of zeal of the commanders to attack the nationalist ships, but we could not do without them, otherwise, we would have had to tie the submarines in port, which should be known to the Republican high command, but nothing was done to attract them. In my opinion, Lara was a smart commander and I think the others did the same: weather the storm. Bout of madness, But let’s go to the point of the question. A couple of incidents later, in the early morning of September 3, 1936, the C-5 emerged north of Luarca, in the Bay of Biscay. He did it out of necessity, more than to take the cool, because it was urgent to charge the batteries that allowed the submersible to stalk, like a sniper of the sea, its enemies under the waters. The men were dejected after having failed in their attack on the cruiser “Almirante Cervera.” Despite this, the outlook was peaceful and calm.
On the bridge were the commander and two other sailors; all on guard and asking between tongues to the top not to run into any enemy before gathering energy. They had no fortune. At around three o’clock in the morning, the amberjack spotted the enemy when the lookouts were about to deliver a cup of hot coffee. “My commander, we have two boys to the bow, to the port side.” He was referring to civilian vessels (the most common were fishing vessels) armed to protect merchants. Instantly, the president of the ship’s political committee, a certain Porto, was informed de facto to prevent Lara’s alleged betrayal. They painted coarse, as torpedoes could not be used against these ships due to their shallow draft and immersion was impossible. One could only prepare the 76mm deck gun and pray what it was worth that they did not notice the presence of the C-5.
President Porto acted as commander, while the latter remained on the bridge without saying a word. He was by my side and I did not lose any detail of his gestures. I read in his face that this maneuver seemed crazy to him. Lara thought so, but Porto had another idea: to deliver justice with bullets. Without saying a word, he claimed the right to play zafarrancho and ordered the sailors to prepare to fight on the surface, where they were an easy target. This is how Cayuelas remembers the moment.
President Porto acted as commander, while the latter remained on the bridge without saying a word. He was by my side and I did not lose any detail of his gestures. I read in his face that this maneuver seemed crazy to him: in front of the armed boys, we could only use the cannon, Since they had not seen us yet, the most logical thing would have been to dive in and change areas to continue charging batteries. But the president hadn’t completely shaken off his pent-up fury that night, and he felt combative. I am convinced, on the contrary, that Commander Lara would never have faced the armed boys had he been able to avoid it.
The C-5 opened fire; first with the barrel and then with a smaller caliber machine gun. But the fog caused none of them to hit their mark. At that point, the advantage vanished and the revenge of the Francoist ships arrived. They responded to the shots and, based on the lack of visibility, threw themselves face-first into the submersible to corner him. To add insult to injury (indeed, the situation can always get worse) the 76 mm gun jammed, and many other vessels joined the Republican pursuit. In total, as specified in the report of the National side, six “boys”, the destroyer “Velasco” and the S-19 hydroplane, in charge of dropping dead from the skies.
The combat, now persecution, lasted for ten hours until one-thirty in the afternoon. During this long period, Porto collapsed and, knowing that it was eating Franco’s pride or a bullet, offered him the command back. The saddest thing in these cases – if you can count it – are the mistakes that are made due to the misunderstanding between the political and military power. In the end, it happens that the political committee, profane in the office, is forced to turn to the commander and beg him to take charge of the situation. This odyssey represented a humiliation for the president of the committee, Mr. Porto, who almost cost us our lives and the loss of a submarine, “the sailor completed in his memoirs.
What was expected happened: Lara ordered a dive despite not having charged batteries. The submarine went into a deep dive as we had never known before. Beneath our feet, the ground took a chilling incline, so that each of us held on as best we could to keep from falling. We reached a depth of fifty meters in a few seconds, Cayuelas explains. The commander ordered silence to try to escape the enemy. Even Porto, hunched back on his cot with his hands covering his face, was silent. But it was too late to escape fate and the depth charges from the “Velasco” hit the C-5 squarely. The first did not explode very close to us, but it did shake the whole ship violently. We lost some stability and the commander ordered the ballast to be lightened. This was not the best option in such circumstances, but it was necessary to correct the descent. Half a minute later the second charge exploded and the immediate order was to blow the ballasts more forcefully.
That’s where we were when the third shock came with the brutal power of an earthquake. Men and objects rolled on the ground amid great confusion in the greatest darkness. The load had left us without power, so we lacked light and propulsion. We noticed that the ship was beginning to slowly fall. That time, we all thought the end had come. Specifically, I resigned myself to dying. I just hoped it didn’t hurt too much. Amid that madness, Lara’s only obsession was that the fall should stop before 80 meters, the limit depth of class C submarines so as not to explode like an egg when squeezed by a firm fist. He looked at the pressure gauge, and it confirmed that they kept going down and down. Shortly before the needle stopped the glass dome of the apparatus exploded due to pressure. A thud against the background revealed what they expected. “We have hit bottom 85 meters deep!” The commander shouted. It was when everyone expected death. A few seconds of breathing later, the boss reacted and put everyone to work.
«In the light of the lanterns and with a clumsy step by the list of the ship, each one moved in its destination following orders. Once the lighting was restored, the breakdowns that the impact with the bottom had produced in the compressors could be seen. The leveling and bilge pumps were not working. In accumulator chamber # 2, the elements of which were on main ballasts 3 and 4, the wedges had been flooded. The blow against the bottom might have opened a waterway. It was necessary and urgent to find out if the water in the wedges was due to this or if it was a consequence of the inclination in which we were. But the most urgent of all was, for the moment, to prevent the entry of saltwater into the batteries, with the consequent formation of chlorine.
Lara did not hesitate: those with orders could walk the submarine at their ease, the rest, those who had nothing to do, had to lie down on the bunk beds so as not to use up more oxygen than they should. Any communication should also be done by signs or in writing. Two teams were formed. The first, in charge of draining water from the wedges (necessary to emerge) and transporting it, in buckets and employing a human chain, to the bow. The second, made up of technicians, with orders to bring the motors and electrical system back to life. All this, while the enemy propellers resounded from the surface and many men suffered depressive attacks knowing that they could die by drowning.
Jose Noceda, a man of small stature and strong character, suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to commit suicide with his regulation pistol, As the hours passed the work became more difficult. The shortage of oxygen accentuated our fatigue and slowed down our movements. I remember hearing the cook, a strong little boy, complain that the buckets of water that he carried to the camera were too heavy for him.In the NCO’s chamber, Mr. Jose Noceda, a man of small stature and strong character, suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted to commit suicide with his service pistol. Due to the slowness of his movements caused by the lack of oxygen, our commander had time to intervene to snatch the weapon from his hand. The second machinist, Mr. Miguel Guillen, stared off into space. His thought must be far away, perhaps with his two young children whose photograph he had at the head of his bunk.
No less than forty-four hours after the C-5 landed on the seabed, Lara reported that everything was ready to return to the surface. I didn’t know if it would work, but they die, as Julius Caesar would say, was already cast. “On that occasion, even the most atheist prayed,” Cayuelas confirmed. Soon the tanks were blown to start the ascent And everyone gave a shout of joy when, indeed, the submarine rose and, shortly after, they were able to breathe the air of freedom.