Readers of The Times (of London) this month were surprised to read the headline “The British Heroes Honoured by Adolf Hitler.” Was some terrible, nationally-humiliating scandal breaking about Britons who were secretly working for the Nazis during World War Two? In fact. it was an interesting military history story that casts light on an often forgotten aspect of the Spanish Civil War: the naval side.
The Deutschland, a German heavy cruiser with neutral markings, was at anchor in Ibiza on May 29, 1937 when she was hit by two bombs from one of two Soviet-made Tupolev bombers piloted by Russian officers supporting the Republican Forces that were fighting against General Franco. Thirty-one German sailors were killed immediately and seventy-three wounded. The fifty-five most seriously wounded German servicemen were taken to the military hospital at British-owned Gibraltar in 1937, where the doctors and nurses managed to save the lives of all but five.
The honours mentioned in The Times’ headline were the German Red Cross medals, complete with swastikas and a certificate from Hitler, that the Führer awarded thirty-seven Britons, including twenty who received the Ladies version. Under British law, it requires the monarch’s permission to accept and wear foreign decorations, but this being a time of maximum British Government appeasement of the Nazis, royal approval was given. Indeed, the Governor of Gibraltar, General Charles Harington, wrote to German Admiral Rolf Carls, “I shall always treasure the fact that the last honour I can receive comes from the nation for which I have the most profound respect. I hope that you will express to Der Führer my deepest thanks for this great honour.”
The matron of the Gibraltar military hospital was Margaret Russell “Madge” Casswell, a formidable lady who had been mentioned in dispatches three times during the Great War. One of the citations bore the signature of Winston Churchill as War Minister, so she was one of the very few people to have been commended by both Hitler and Churchill.
Today several of the medals are to be found in museums. One is in the Museum of Military Medicine in Ash Vale, Surrey. Another is at the Royal Ulster Rifles Museum in Belfast and one is at the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society in Lincolnshire. They occasionally also come up for auction.
It was a shame that the two Russian pilots, Captain Anton Progrorin and Lieutenant Vassily Schmidt, had not sunk the Deutschland, since during World War II she sank the British merchant vessel Stonegate in the north Atlantic and, renamed the Lützow, took part in the invasion of Norway. She was eventually sunk by RAF Bombers in the Baltic in April 1945.