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 â€“ donâ€™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 â€“ to whose tragic story â€“ 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 â€œNon-Interventionâ€, refused to supply either the Spanish or Basque Governments with aid â€“ 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 â€œNeutralityâ€ to the Italo-Ethiopian conflict â€“ 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 â€“ 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 JosÃ© 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 â€“ and it soon became apparent that that Basque government has come to an end â€“ 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 â€œall defence means were exhausted; there was no army, and personal security had disappearedâ€.
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:
â€œWe 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 cityâ€.
â€œI thank you for your visitâ€, the poor President replied. â€œI 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?â€.
What followed is, for more than one reason, of no small Ethiopian interest.
â€œWonâ€™t the Negus arrive today?â€
The representatives of the Basque National Party thereupon asked: â€œWonâ€™t the Negus arrive today?â€
To which the President replied:
â€œYou know the plane always comes at dusk. Today it comes at eight. It may be too lateâ€¦â€
â€œWell [they replied], departure is necessary, urgent. A way must be foundâ€.
Antonio de Aguirre replied:
â€œGeneral Gamir Ullibarri has proposed my departure in a submarine to Asturias. I have not accepted itâ€¦ What am I to do away from my troops?â€
â€œYour departure is necessaryâ€, the deputation replied, â€œbecause the Basque fight for freedom must be continued from abroad, and you are the Presidentâ€.
â€œOnly God knewâ€
â€œWe all remained thoughtfulâ€, Aguirre continues, What was there to do? Only God knew the end that awaited usâ€.
â€œA Small Dotâ€
â€œAt that very momentâ€, Aguirreâ€™s narrative continues, â€œa small dot appeared on the horizon that got bigger and bigger. It was a plane. An enemy plane? No â€“ it was the Negus.
It landed as best it could between the gaps of the aviation field. Lebaud [the aeroplaneâ€™s young French pilot] reached our house panting. He said quickly:
â€œMr. 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 hoursâ€.
Aguirre then asked why the pilot had come so early in the day. Lebaud replied that he had realized that that day was â€œthe last day for Santanderâ€ â€“ and thatâ€™s why he came at one oâ€™clock instead of eightâ€.
Immediate departure was thereupon agreed upon. Two bottles of Champagne were opened â€“ 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: â€œwe feared losing our only planeâ€. So, â€œwe all pushed the Negus, and through the only passage left on the field, we tore off at sudden speedâ€.
Thus the aeroplane Negus began its historic journey â€“ 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 Aintzaneâ€¦
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 â€˜plane, a Beechcraft B.17, was known as the â€˜plane of the Negus, i.e. the King â€“ 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.
â€œThe Only One We Hadâ€
Testimony to the â€˜planeâ€™s Ethiopian history is provide by none other than Antonio de Aguirre himself. Recalling, in his above-mentioned book, that this aircraft was â€œthe only one we [i.e. the Basques] hadâ€, he writes:
â€œThis 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]â€¦
The plane was baptized by the people with the name of â€˜The Negusâ€™ and as â€˜The Negusâ€™ we all knew itâ€.
And the â€˜plane was used for other, more routine missions for the Basque Republicâ€™ detailed in Aguirreâ€™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 â€œvolunteersâ€, and while the Liberal Democracies were denying aid to the legitimate Government of Spain, the Emperor provided the Basques â€“ in a very modest way â€“ 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 â€˜plane â€“ 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 â€˜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.