A Mystery Basque Plane called Negus…

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The Mystery of an Ethiopian and Basque Aeroplane

By Richard Pankhurst

The Spanish Civil War, one of the most painful events between the First and Second World Wars – don’t forget Gernika! – partially coincided, it will be recalled, with the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia.

An important event of that time in Spain in those days was the rise of a short-lived Basque Republic – to whose tragic story – remember Gernika!- we must turn our attention this week.

The Basques, and their Republic, were then the allies of the Spanish Republic, which was under attack by the rebel General Franco, who had the support, it will be recalled, of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Britain and France, on the principle of “Non-Intervention”, refused to supply either the Spanish or Basque Governments with aid – thus in effect assuring a Falangist victory. The Western Democracies, it will be recalled, had almost had only a year two earlier similarly applied the principle of “Neutrality” to the Italo-Ethiopian conflict – refusing to provide arms to either invader or invaded, totally ignoring the fact that Italy manufactured its own weapons, while Ethiopia was entirely dependent on arms imports – and thus making an Italian Fascist victory almost inevitable.

The Basque Republic, we must recall, had its capital in Bilbao, where a popular government headed by a President, Dr José Antonio de Aguirre (who died in 1960), had been installed. Unable to halt the Falangist, or pro-Fascist forces, Aguirre and his colleagues fled, in 1937, to Santander, where they attempted to continue their government.

The Falangists, thanks to their Nazi German and Italian Fascist support, however, continued to advance – and it soon became apparent that that Basque government has come to an end – and that further resistance was impossible.

Antonio de Aguirre

Antonio de Aguirre recaptures the spirit of the time in his autobiographical work, which was translated into English as Escape via Berlin (University of Nevada Press, 1991). In this study, on which much of this article relies, he recalls that “all defence means were exhausted; there was no army, and personal security had disappeared”.

That morning General Gamir Ullibarri, who was an old Basque military leader and the head of the Northern Loyalist Army, came to Santander, and offered to save Aguirre – by taking him out in a submarine, to Asturias.

The Basque President proudly refused the offer.

A few hours later, at mid-day, the leaders of the Basque National Party likewise arrived at Santander, and declared:

“We came here to beg and, if need be, to order that the President leave immediately. Our forces are surrounded without possible outlet, and Santander may fall in a few hours. The fifth column [the Falangists] practically owns the city”.

“I thank you for your visit”, the poor President replied. “I know all this well enough. I had not hoped to see you again. We spent all last night in the garden with our pistols ready, expecting trouble any moment. But how do you think I can leave?”.

What followed is, for more than one reason, of no small Ethiopian interest.

“Won’t the Negus arrive today?”

The representatives of the Basque National Party thereupon asked: “Won’t the Negus arrive today?”

To which the President replied:

“You know the plane always comes at dusk. Today it comes at eight. It may be too late…”

“Well [they replied], departure is necessary, urgent. A way must be found”.

Antonio de Aguirre replied:

“General Gamir Ullibarri has proposed my departure in a submarine to Asturias. I have not accepted it… What am I to do away from my troops?”

“Your departure is necessary”, the deputation replied, “because the Basque fight for freedom must be continued from abroad, and you are the President”.

“Only God knew”

“We all remained thoughtful”, Aguirre continues, What was there to do? Only God knew the end that awaited us”.

“A Small Dot”

“At that very moment”, Aguirre’s narrative continues, “a small dot appeared on the horizon that got bigger and bigger. It was a plane. An enemy plane? No – it was the Negus.

It landed as best it could between the gaps of the aviation field. Lebaud [the aeroplane’s young French pilot] reached our house panting. He said quickly:

“Mr. President, there is not an instant to lose. The firing has already started, and the airport could be totally destroyed if not occupied by the enemy within a few hours”.

Aguirre then asked why the pilot had come so early in the day. Lebaud replied that he had realized that that day was “the last day for Santander” – and that’s why he came at one o’clock instead of eight”.

Immediate departure was thereupon agreed upon. Two bottles of Champagne were opened – though many who remained knew that they might soon be facing a Falangist firing squad, and Lebaud, as it transpired, was soon to die in the German invasion of France.

Rushed to the Aeroplane

But to return to Aguirre: Falangist bombing from the air had by then broken out.

The Basque President was, however, rushed to the aeroplane, for, as he says: “we feared losing our only plane”. So, “we all pushed the Negus, and through the only passage left on the field, we tore off at sudden speed”.

Thus the aeroplane Negus began its historic journey – and only an hour later it was in Biarritz, in peaceful and free France, where Antonio de Aguirre was united with his wife and their little daughter Aintzane…

A Beechcraft

This brings us the our topic for today: the Mystery of the Aeroplane Negus, as the Basques called it.

Why in fact was it so called?

The ‘plane, a Beechcraft B.17, was known as the ‘plane of the Negus, i.e. the King – or Emperor, of Ethiopia, Haile Sellassie, because it had been in Ethiopian service prior to the Italian Fascist invasion. It was apparently the Beechcraft B 17 mentioned by Professor Bahru Zewde in his important study Bringing Africa Together (Addis Ababa, 1988), and was a single-engined cream-coloured machine, with three granite-coloured seats. It bore the Spanish registration number Air F-A.P.F.D. 4906.

“The Only One We Had”

Testimony to the ‘plane’s Ethiopian history is provide by none other than Antonio de Aguirre himself. Recalling, in his above-mentioned book, that this aircraft was “the only one we [i.e. the Basques] had”, he writes:

“This audacious plane had its history. It had belonged to Haile Selassie during the Abyssinian War. The Basque Government had acquired it for five thousand pounds. It was a pursuit plane, Curtiss type, fitted out for rapid trips, and without armament. It had its back painted with coats of arms and emblems of the countries where it had served. I recall those of several of the states of the U.S.A., the Lion of Judah, and finally the coat of arms of Euzkadi [i.e. the Basque Republic]…

The plane was baptized by the people with the name of ‘The Negus’ and as ‘The Negus’ we all knew it”.

And the ‘plane was used for other, more routine missions for the Basque Republic’ detailed in Aguirre’s book.

It would thus appear that while Hitler and Mussolini were supplying the Falangists with vast quantities of military supplies of all kinds, as well as so-called “volunteers”, and while the Liberal Democracies were denying aid to the legitimate Government of Spain, the Emperor provided the Basques – in a very modest way – with their only aeroplane – the so-called Aeroplane of the Negus: an aircraft which enabled another leader, Antonio de Aguirre, to escape into exile.

The story as I present it is, however, far from complete, and contains an element of mystery.

When, we would like to know, did the Emperor (who left Addis Ababa in May 1936) dispose of the ‘plane – and when did the short-lived Basque Republic (whose leader, Aguirre, was elected its President three months later in October) acquire it?

AND: Who negotiated the sale on the Ethiopian and Basque sides?

AND AGAIN: If the ‘plane had been in Ethiopia, as Antonio de Aguirre suggests, at the time of the Italian Fascist invasion of 1935-6, how was it taken out of the country in the ensuing debacle?

These are questions which require further probing – and to which we may return.

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5 thoughts on “A Mystery Basque Plane called Negus…”

  1. drop a line and i will give you the full story of Le Negus : actually a BEECHCRAFT B-17L.
    I live in biarritz, fly as a private pilot in Biarritz and have been president for the two fling clubs for years.

    1. Hi,
      I am researching the fall of Santander and the ensuing exile of Spanish nationals in France and elsewhere. One of the escapes involves the use of Le Negus. Is there any information relating to this aircraft that might confirm flights, dates, people carried, etc.?
      I intend to be in Bayonne possibly in May. Would you be around for a chat?
      David Walls.

  2. My grand father was René Drouillet who once was aviation adviser to the negus.
    He was involved in the ethiopian war and owned a beechcraft for a while.
    By the time he was known in france as the “Negus’s pilot”.
    Perhaps he did help the negus escape to england with this plane.
    As far as I know he left france to ethiopia on the 22 april 1936 and returned on the 9 may (i’ve read the negus arrived in england by the 2 may)
    Could it be the same beechcraft ?
    I know my grand dad was also involved in the spanish war. He was saved there from execution at the last minute by Malraux.
    Could he be the missing link in this story ?
    All i know of my grand father (who died in 1973) was told to me by my mum and there are a lot of mysteries about him (I was told he was also captain in Chiang Kai-shek’s army during the chinese civil war).
    I’m currently trying to assemble some pieces of this strange puzzle

  3. hi i just found a book of rene denat la pensee universelle le pilote du diable 1987 that speaks about rene drouillet the negus ethiopia and other travels

  4. Does anyone know something about the place/building/hotel -I once heard the expression “summer residence” – where the negus stayed at that time and can tell me, where this place is situated?
    Thanks a lot.

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