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France Navigation: the shipping company that supplied the Spanish Republic

This extract is about a shipping company that was formed in France to transport essential supplies to Spain during the civil war, in defiance of French non-intervention policy. It is reproduced from the book ‘De Spaanse hemel spreidt zijn sterren’ [The Spanish sky spreads its stars] (2018) by Rien Dijkstra. It has been translated from the original Dutch by Friends and Family of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades contributor Nancy Phillip.

‘Compagnie France Navigation’, Algiers 1938. (Photo: Alice Méné Ghalila)


During the Spanish Civil War, Spanish gold in the amount of millions of French francs was transferred to the French Communist Party (PCF) by order of Juan Negrín, Minister of Finance and then Prime Minister. With this money the maritime organisation France Navigation was founded in mid 1937 in the form of a limited company with shares of 1000 francs, and with capital of 1 million francs. These amounts were added to by the Soviet Union; in August 1937 capital was increased to 5 million francs and in October 1938 capital was increased to 25 million francs with shares totalling 30 million francs.

Directing France Navigation for the French Communist Party were Giulio Ceretti, an Italian emigrant member of the Central Committee from 1932 to 1945, and Georges Gosnat, a communist trade unionist.  Under the pseudonym Paul Allard, Ceretti had played an important role in the Comintern as well as head of France Navigation.   

The idea came from the Spanish ambassador to France, Luis Araquistáin, who envisioned a shipping company that would provide safe transport for ammunition and other supplies to the Republic. Previously, materials had been delivered by Moscow and transported by Soviet ships from the Black Sea and Murmansk.

France Navigation was organized to ship food, ammunition, weapons and military vehicles to Spain. This was in fact clandestine because France subscribed to the Non-Intervention Pact. The ships departed from ports in northwestern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. Then, weapons purchased in Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland or elsewhere were loaded on board in ports such as Gdynia, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo or Hamburg. This cargo was described as destined for fictitious destinations such as in Greece or the Middle East. The ships then sailed under the flags of other countries to various ports in Spain.  

The crew members were carefully recruited and the documents might state, for example, that the cargos were ‘agricultural equipment’ while they were actually grenades, as in the case of the SS Guilvinec that visited the port of Bordeaux in December 1937. The first freighter (SS Lucie Delmas) was bought for 1,800,000 francs. This amount was borrowed from L'Humanité and the PCF, while the Spanish Republic agreed to pay for freight and insurance.

France Navigation succeeded, thanks to strict management, in buying 24 ships, so that there was almost no interruption in the supply of all kinds of weapons to Republican Spain. In addition, its cargo ships evacuated children from Bilbao in 1937, and in 1939 evacuated Republican soldiers and political leaders who had been trapped in the last pockets of the resistance.

The company France Navigation was headed by a five-member board chaired by Joseph Fritsch, a Parisian communist activist. The Dutch and Belgians also played an important role in the organization, including the brothers Daniel and Mozes Wolf, owners of a business empire in Europe and involved in arms transport.

Also involved in France Navigation was the Belgian ship trader Armand Kratly from Antwerp, a business partner of Daniel Wolf; the sons-in-law of Daniel Wolf, Joseph Liebman and Jacobus Smith; and Jan Maurits Elias van Castricum and Adrianus Heesterman of the shipping company Ruys. Felix Raphael Pierot from Rotterdam was a broker in ships, and a member of the family firm Jacq. Pierot Jr. & Sons.

Édouard Daladier became the French Prime Minister again on 10 April 1938 and revoked the obligation to defend Czechoslovakia against Nazi Germany.  Unlike Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, Daladier had no illusions about Hitler's ultimate goals and on 30 September 1938 the Treaty of Munich was signed by Daladier, Chamberlain, Hitler and Mussolini.  The French communist delegates voted unanimously against the agreements.

Tensions in the French government and parliament then increased, as did the pressure on France Navigation.  On 7 March 1939, the French Minister of Merchant Navy, Louis-Marc-Michel Chappedelaine, refused to attend the inauguration of the new buildings of France Navigation. On 23 August 1939, in Moscow, the Soviet Union, represented by Molotov, and Nazi-Germany, represented by Ribbentrop, signed a non-aggression treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union, known as the Mototov-Ribbentrop Pact.

In September 1939 an extremely tumultuous phase in the history of France Navigation began against this background. The French government turned against France Navigation and it was more or less forced to go underground. The activities and management of France Navigation were investigated by the French government and then five of its leaders were arrested: Fritsch, chairman of the board, Legrand, general manager, another officer and two Dutchmen: Ian Maurits Elias van Castricum and Adrianus Heesterman, who ran the company through another company. Despite French laws prohibiting the sale of ships under foreign flags in times of war, the Dutch intermediaries had tried to sell this fleet to foreign shipowners.

The ships of France Navigation were sold by the French government to French companies in Marseille on 12 October 1939. The prisoners went to the maritime prison on the island of Domegues and were later transferred to Toulon. 

‘Compagnie France Navigation’ appeared to be bankrupt and the receivers, Maitre Mauger, 144 Rue de Rivoli, Paris, and Maitre Coutant, 29 Rue de Buci, Paris, closed the case.

The company broker Felix Pierot of Felix Pierot Jr. and Son, from Rotterdam, was also arrested. He too was imprisoned in the maritime prison of Toulon and interrogated about France Navigation. Pierot stated that he had acted in good faith and was unaware of France Navigation’s ownership. Ultimately, Felix Peirot was released and returned to Rotterdam. On 22 August 1940, the case against France Navigation was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Pierot and his family then fled to America.  Daniel Wolf was in Brussels on 9 May 1940  (the day before Belgium was invaded by Nazi Germany) and escaped the war; he travelled to Brittany and from there to England. Wolf's personal and business possessions were taken over in the Netherlands on 1 November 1940 by the Reichskommisar for the occupied Netherlands. Wolf then fled to New York City in 1941. His wife and daughter Henriette Jeanette stayed in the Netherlands but did not manage to escape and ended up in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp but ultimately survived the war.

 

Posted on 12 August 2021.