It was getting dark on August 18, 1947, and the steamship Plus Ultra was sailing offshore after having set sail from Cádiz shortly before. It was already a mile and a half from the coast when the crew heard a colossal explosion, followed by a shake of the ship and rain on the stern deck of a series of iron fragments that caused various damages to the structure.

This incident was also perceived in other places with an intensity proportional to the distance, but it reached places as far away as Portugal, where the earth tremor caused some fear that it might be an earthquake, reminiscent of the one in Lisbon in 1755 (whose effects were also felt in the Andalusian city). What had actually happened was the accidental explosion of the Spanish Navy’s powder magazine in the port of Cádiz.

Specifically, in the area between the walls and La Cortadura, where the Submarine Defense Base was located. In 1943, two warehouses were set up there to house a batch of heavy ammunition left over from the Civil War that had been transported that same year from the port of Cartagena. There were torpedoes, depth charges, and, above all, mines, totaling more than one and a half thousand explosive charges.

Dangerous material in itself, but in this case, it was even more so as it had been detected during its transport that it was in poor condition, with exudation (liquid loss) and decomposition of nitrocellulose.

In such conditions, the scorching heat of the Andalusian summer was an additional risk factor, and, in fact, the high temperatures caused the explosion of most of what was stored: 1,109 charges that, as we mentioned at the beginning, not only shook the Bay of Cádiz but also had an impact in distant places such as Huelva, Seville, or even across the Strait in Ceuta, where a sinister mushroom-shaped cloud was observed. That was, at least, the hypothesis underlying the Francoist government, which preferred to spread the possibility of sabotage rather than admit negligence. It should be noted that the years between 1945 and 1947 inclusive were the peak of activity for the Maquis. Ironically, the accident occurred just as the National Radio broadcast was about to begin, at 9:45 p.m.

However, despite the limited data on the incident, it is now believed that it was indeed an accident. To be precise, it resulted from the degradation of the nitrocellulose of about fifty German-made WBD depth charges, outdated since they were acquired during World War II out of fear that the Allies would intervene in Spain due to its relationship with the Nazi regime. Later, with the change in policy as the conflict unfolded and once it ended, they languished in the warehouses, deteriorating progressively.

Thus, ignoring a report signed by Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Bescós in July 1943 warning of the danger of the situation, that material exploded, causing almost instantly the majority of what was stored to explode as well. The rest, what remained intact, would be taken the following year to other magazines that the Navy had in Punta Cantera, San Fernando, and later transferred for deactivation to the Cueva del Civil, in the Cuevas-Canteras of the Sierra de San Cristóbal. It could have been worse because the coast guard Finisterre was anchored in the port, carrying a cargo of gunpowder on board, and, in fact, initially, it was believed to be the origin of the disaster, as was also suspected of the destroyer Méndez Núñez. But then it was seen that both ships were still there; although their first impulse was to weigh anchor, just in case, in the end, they stayed to help by illuminating with their spotlights.

The explosion was brutal, immediately destroying the surrounding buildings and sweeping through much of the city, from the San Severiano neighborhood and the Barriada España to the Echevarrieta and Larrinaga shipyard (where there were also less severe explosions). The Mirandilla Sports Field, the Madre de Dios Sanatorium, the roofs and the right wing of the Casa Cuna or Home of the Baby Jesus (where twenty-six children under four years old, nuns, and staff slept) collapsed. The chalets of Bahía Blanca also collapsed (including General Varela’s). It was the “national catastrophe” that Lieutenant Colonel Bescós had foretold with fateful accuracy.

The number of fatalities is estimated at around a hundred and fifty, in addition to more than five thousand injured. These are official figures, as it is suspected that the actual numbers were higher. And still, there was luck, since the historic center, where the majority of the population lived, emerged unscathed thanks to a fortified stone redoubt that served as its entrance, the Puerta de Tierra, along with the sturdy eighteenth-century ancient wall, served as a containment for the shock wave. But it is not difficult to imagine the nightmarish scene outside the walls, with half the city in ruins, the cries of people trapped under the rubble or simply panic-stricken, the fire that turned the night red and could be seen – as mentioned before – from Ceuta, the disfigured corpses scattered on the ground, the anguish of wondering what happened to family and friends…

Various buildings, two thousand in total, suffered damage of varying degrees, with fifty of them collapsing while others farther away only had minor damage. For example, the doors of the Plaza de Toros bullring were torn off their hinges, while those of the cathedral were violently thrown inward and bent.

The industrial port facilities fared very badly. This was the case of the aforementioned shipyard, where twenty-five workers died working the night shift, or Gas Lebón, which had already experienced a serious explosion in 1891. Likewise, Cádiz was plunged into darkness because electricity poles flew off, as did telephone poles, water pipes burst causing floods, and the rails of the railway section that crossed the base were destroyed.

In practice, the people of Cádiz were only connected to the rest of Spain by road, delaying the arrival of aid. Thanks to the SOS signals broadcast on the radio, troops began to arrive from Jerez and San Fernando, joining other military and police forces, as well as thousands of civilians, to collaborate in the debris removal and rescue operations, willing but uncoordinated. It was then that some acts of heroism occurred, such as that of Corvette Captain Pascual Pery Junquera, who led a group of replacement sailors to extinguish a fire in the second warehouse that threatened to detonate the 98,000 kilos of TNT from the fifty mines it stored (they also carried out the action using only sand and debris). Or Lieutenant Francisco Aragón Ruiz, who, to demonstrate that there was no longer a risk of explosion, and showing unprecedented composure, sat on a mine and lit a cigarette by rubbing a match on it.

There were also less exemplary cases, such as many thieves who took advantage of the situation to loot houses. Meanwhile, amid the chaos, the population was asked to leave their homes and take refuge on the beaches, safe from falling debris. And yet, there was no shortage of experience in such accidents. The poverty of the country, resulting from both three years of the Civil War and the international economic-political isolation imposed on the Francoist dictatorship (hence the so-called – and failed – Autarchy), greatly hindered reconstruction and produced evident precariousness in terms of facilities and safety, leading to other incidents throughout the forties, the most notable being the explosion of an Army powder magazine in Pinar de Antequera in 1940 (one hundred and sixteen dead), the Santander fire in 1941 (one dead and one hundred and fifteen injured), and the El Bierzo train collision in 1944 (hundreds dead and seventy-five injured).

However, knowledge of all these events, to which the sinking of the C-4 submarine with its entire crew after being rammed by the destroyer Lepanto during maneuvers could be added, was limited due to the filter of censorship, aimed at downplaying their dimensions and the number of victims. It is significant that barely three weeks after what happened in Cádiz, the tragedy was repeated: on September 6, the Alcalá de Henares powder magazines exploded, causing twenty-four deaths, which were not more due to the fact that said magazines were somewhat isolated, on top of the Viso hill. Although it was for similar reasons to those in Cádiz, the regime officially attributed it to “Marxist terrorism” and prosecuted twenty-four members of the JSU (Unified Socialist Youth), executing eight of them the following year.

In that same vein, those affected by the Cádiz catastrophe were defenseless. In addition to the tragedy of losing loved ones and being left homeless – they had to be accommodated in tents first and then in barracks, cared for by Social Aid – they added the impossibility of compensation or explanations, as the government attributed the responsibility to a possible attack.

The event was silenced as much as possible, and although it could not be hidden due to its magnitude, certain details were kept secret (reporters were prohibited from taking photos, for example). Consequently, the subsequent military trial, held in 1950, ended inconclusively, without determining the causes or, therefore, finding those responsible.

The city, however, was included in the National Service of Devastated Regions and Repairs, an organization created in 1938 to direct and inspect, in collaboration with the General Directorate of Architecture, the reconstruction of the country in the areas most severely damaged by the Civil War (it remained active until 1957), and the Ministry of Finance issued an order “for the granting of loans to the owners of affected properties”; a national collection organized by the Pro-Victims Committee of the Catastrophe also helped. The site of the explosion, where a huge crater several meters deep remained, is now occupied by the Hydrographic Institute of the Navy.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on July 31, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La colosal explosión del polvorín de la Armada de Cádiz en 1947, que hizo temblar la tierra hasta en Portugal


José Antonio Aparicio Florido, La explosión de Cádiz de 1947 | Miguel Ángel López Moreno, La Hipótesis Nc | José Antonio Aparicio Florido, 1947: Cádiz, la gran explosión | La Explosión de Cádiz | Wikipedia

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