When it had unloaded its precious cargo, the Marion Moller was transformed into a refugee rescue ship. Despite constant air-raids, Fowler began to take on groups of refugees in an orderly fashion. All was proceeding well, until around 1am in the morning when ‘the mob took charge’ and ‘the crowd surged forward and all count was lost.’ At 5.30am Fowler refused to take any more passengers and left port. A head count later revealed there were 1,883 people crammed on board the 3,800 ton cargo ship.
Fowler later told a reporter for the Evening Standard that embarkation was going smoothly until the crowd began to panic. Police could not hold them back and ‘the mob broke through the barriers’. Fowler demanded only women and children could board, though he took ‘a few men – crippled or blind’.
The Marion Moller finally slipped away under cover of darkness at 5am, ‘packed to capacity’. Much equipment was thrown overboard in the chaos. All Fowler had left was his precious log book.
As Spanish Relief Committee member Anne Caton described it;
The ship was without accommodation or supplies of food. Two and a half days were spent at sea in cold, wet weather with nothing but scanty tarpaulins to cover the refugees on deck. The plight of the children was more than the men could bear witness; the officers and crew gave up all the accommodation available including their own cabins to the refugees, as well as all the food they had on board, and were themselves without food or shelter until the port was reached.
Fowler’s trip was reported in The Times newspaper on 25 June;
The Marion Moller is normally engaged in the China trade, and she was forcibly impressed by 1,000 women and children on the waterfront. Her captain agreed to embark as many as possible for a day-light run of the 100-odd miles to St. Jean de Luz. Embarkation began at midnight and by 4 a.m. 2,000 persons were stowed in the holds and in every available space. Captain, officers, and crew, both European and Chinese, did fine work, embarking their passengers rapidly under difficult conditions, and the boatswain rescued a boy who had fallen into the water between the quay and the ship.
The refugees, according to a newspaper report had been ‘machine-gunned from aeroplanes’ on their escape to Santander. According to one of the vessel’s officers, ‘the recently wounded were left ashore in hospital, but we had on board several men who had lost legs.’ He continued;
We saw some frightful sights. These poor people dragged a few of their miserable belongings with them and there was terrible chaos on board. Some of them had ribs crushed in the run to get on the ship.
After being stopped by French naval authorities and refuting charges that the vessel was carrying militia, Fowler was shunted from port to port as there were already thousands of Spanish refugees crowding the southern French towns. After two exhausting days he finally embarked the hungry and desperate refugees near La Rochelle in France. The Daily Express reported they were a ‘most distressing cavalcade of human sorrow … women falling to their knees too weak to stand.’
Fowler disembarked his grateful 1,883 refugees and took the Marion Moller to Antwerp via London, expecting to make yet another trip to Spain. The Spanish Relief Committee were most grateful to Captain Fowler for his unexpected charity. They then approached him and asked to join his next journey to Spain with ‘with gifts of food from various societies’. Anne Caton herself sailed with Fowler on his next trip, this time from Antwerp in July 1937. The Marion Moller was officially carrying cargo that had been purchased by the Asturias government of 78 Ford motors and ‘the greatest assortment of cargo possible’ including flour, beans, cocoa, eggs, car tyres, lard and salted cod.’ This time, Fowler snuck through the blockade during a heavy fog.
However the ship’s owners, undoubtedly concerned with the increasing risks, then turned down the proposition put to Fowler by the Republican supporters to take another 1,000 refugees out of Gijon. The Marion Moller left port uneventfully and headed to Falmouth to load with a cargo for Shanghai.
Anne Caton pointed out the risks merchant blockade runners such as Fowler met. The captains were at once responsible to their owners ‘who order them to take no risks’ and to ‘the Spanish authorities who have purchased the cargo at great cost and are in desperate need of it.’ As Fowler himself noted in a letter to his father on the 28th of May, ‘I’m between the owners and the charterers and if anything goes wrong, it is the Master who carries the proverbial ‘”baby”‘.
But there were benefits to the courageous blockade runner, if not to his stalwart Chinese crew. Fowler was most excited to later find 250 pounds sterling had been lodged in his bank account as ‘credit for breaking the blockade’ and he was ‘very sorry to leave the Spanish trade when this money is circulating around.’
Fowler was not one of the Australians who went to Spain for ideological reasons. He was no communist and had no desire to join what many felt was a ‘great crusade’ against the threat of fascism. But from his letters home it is obvious Fowler developed an interest in the Basque people and their struggle against the Franco led forces. He noted in one letter how ‘things don’t look too good for the Basques now that Bilbao has fallen, and I’m really sorry as I like the Basque people very much.’
From one war to another
When Fowler took the Marion Moller back to China he went from one war to another, arriving in Shanghai just after the Japanese and Chinese forces had been fighting over the city at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in August 1937. Fowler noted the ‘Japs parading around’ and the ‘packed troopships pouring up the Yangste bound for Hankow.’
Fowler wanted to get back to Europe as he thought there would be a major war in the East and that ‘the Orient’ would ‘not be much good for any Europeans inside a few years – if not less.’ He ended up in Japan however, and after anchoring in a bay whilst sheltering from a storm was put under arrest for ‘entering a fortified zone.’ He was placed under a guard, tried for espionage, and not released until extensively interrogated a few weeks later.
Fowler then did several cargo trips between various ports in China, French Indo-China and Japan – on one trip he noted the ‘havoc and devastation’ near Shanghai, with ‘whole villages razed to the ground’. After ‘a long spell’ on the ‘old Marion’ – from January 1936 to April 1938 – Fowler had taken the Marion Moller into dry dock and was called up to take charge of the Rosalie Moller whose captain had been ‘taken ill.’
After a short stint on the Rosalie, Fowler’s reputation as a fine sea captain was growing and he was put in charge of the Moller line flagship Nils Moller. But in mid-1939 his career again took a strange twist. He suffered from a bout of typhoid and after a recovering was about to take over another Moller vessel when war was declared.
Fowler decided to volunteer for service in the Royal Navy. At Shanghai at the time, he continued to work on cargo vessel runs through late 1939 and early 1940 – again running a blockade, this time the Japanese blockade of Chinese ports. But he was desperate to join the war effort in Europe and hoped that Moller Line ships would be requisitioned by the British Navy.
In August 1940, nearly a year after World War II had broken out, Fowler got his wish and he was transferred to the Lillian Moller which had just been requisitioned by the British government. In Calcutta in September 1940 the vessel was fitted with a 4-inch anti-aircraft gun and the crew all trained in its use. The Chinese crew members according to Fowler ‘kicked up plenty of trouble’ at this, ‘wanting all sort of things, extra food, bonuses, etc.’ Fowler just wished for what he called a ‘reliable white crew’.
After taking on a cargo from Calcutta bound for Britain the Marion Moller joined a convoy at Cape Town in South Africa. Fowler’s vessel made front page news of the Natal Mercury newspaper. Under the headline ‘Insurgent Blockade Runner at Durban’, the paper described his ship as ‘a battered looking British tramp steamer, painted a dingy black’. It was a ship that had ‘nothing heroic about its appearance’, but ‘had been the heroine of two thrilling episodes in war-torn Spain.’
What was to be Fowler’s last letter home to his father was written on the 24th October 1940 from Freetown, Sierra Leone. On the 18th of November, the Lillian Moller had been dispersed from its convoy by enemy submarines when it was torpedoed and sunk by the Italian submarine Maggiore Baracca. There were no survivors. There were 42 Chinese crew members on board and 7 British officers. The names of the Chinese crew are not known. Fowler’s vessel was sunk by Italians, whom he had often derogatively labelled ‘dagos’ in his letters home.
William Fowler is included in the Australian War Memorial Commemorative Roll for his service on the Lillian Moller during World War II. William’s father kept his letters and a collection of material William had sent home during his years on the ‘China Coast’ and in the Atlantic. It included photographs of various vessels and ports visited, as well as postcards and letters written to his family during his merchant career in the 1920s and 1930s. There is also ‘A Diary of the Ship Claverden from Durban South Africa to Cette, France’. Fowler illustrated the front page with a crude drawing of the vessel.
Significantly, the poignant collection includes the telegram sent by the Minister of War Transport informing John Fowler that his son William ‘who was serving in the Merchant Navy as a Master has been drowned whilst on service with his ship.’ The letter is dated 28th September 1943. Fowler was 37 years old when he died.
Anne Caton’s pamphlet ‘The Martyrdom of the Basques’ was a treasured possession of William Fowler’s and also kept in his father’s collection of his son’s letters, photographs and various newspaper clippings of his short career. It must have been given to Fowler by Caton, as it has a ‘with compliments of the author’ slip tucked inside the cover. Fowler’s grieving father may well have underlined a section where Caton wrote;
An account has yet to be written about the courage and devotion of merchant seamen during the Spanish war.
William Fowler was very much of his times. Born during the period of a racist, exclusionist White Australia Policy, he was part of a system of cargo shipping run by European companies in colonies and ex-colonies around the world that used the cheap labour of the people they wanted to keep out of their home countries. Fowler was racist in his views of the Chinese and he was no Spanish Republican political sympathiser either. But in his letters home to his father we see in Fowler, a growing humanity towards refugees.
There has been little attention paid the actions of the merchant vessels that ran the blockade during the Spanish Civil War, and, until now, nothing widely known about the Australian sea captain and his Chinese crew that ran the blockade several times and rescued thousands of war refugees.
The exact number of Australians involved in the Spanish Civil War may never be known, largely because it was not sanctioned and records are incomplete. Some Spanish residents in Australia who had not been naturalised citizens may have joined the fighting. Further research may reveal other Australian merchant seamen’s involvement. Their service in many wars has often been neglected in official recognition and commemoration.
– Dr. Stephen Gapps, Curator ANMM
The text of the Spanish Civil War Memorial in Canberra, Australia: