Berlin, Germany • September 15, 1940
On this date in 1940 Adolf Hitler wrote a letter to Gen. Francisco Franco, the Caudillo (political-military leader) of Spain, asking for naval bases for Germany in the Spanish Canary Islands off Africa’s west coast and in other places flying the flag of Spain. Hitler believed Franco owed him at least that much for allying himself with Italian despot Benito Mussolini in the Spanish Civl War (1936–1939), during which Hitler had dispatched German artillery, aircraft, and thousands of soldiers in support of Franco’s Nationalists against the Spanish Republic. Franco replied one week later, demanding enormous stockpiles of weapons, supplies, and part of French North Africa as compensation. Caving into Franco’s demands would have been disastrous for Germany’s relationship with Vichy, its new French vassal state (since June 1940), as well as giving the British Navy an excuse to occupy the poorly defended Canary Islands. Besides, Hitler believed he could find a way to bring Spain into a relationship with the Axis that would force British Prime Minister Winston Churchill into negotiations aimed at restoring peace between Great Britain and Nazi Germany. If that didn’t work, Hitler had the Gibraltar card up his sleeve.
Gibraltar was the strategic British enclave on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula opposite the Spanish-held enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, two port cities on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. Gibraltar’s presence on the Spanish landmass rankled Franco and Hitler knew it. Two months earlier Hitler had dispatched a team to Spain, consisting of German officers headed by Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German military intelligence, who in the 1930s had set up a German spy ring in Spain. The team’s objective was to find a way whereby Spain and Germany could cooperate in expelling the British from their rock fortress and close, in league with Spanish authorities in Ceuta near the Strait of Gibraltar, the entire Mediterranean basin to the Royal Navy. Canaris’ team determined that Gibraltar could possibly fall to an air-supported ground attack by at least 3 German engineer battalions, 2 infantry, and 12 artillery regiments.
The Fuehrer played the Gibraltar card the next month, on October 23, 1940, in a face-to-face, nine-hour meeting on the Spanish-French border at Hendaye. With Madrid’s approval, special German units would storm the rock—“a piece of land still in enemy hands”—on January 10, 1941, and deliver it to its “rightful owners.” Franco was already getting cold feet over Gibraltar thanks largely to the same Canaris, who painted a depressing picture of what could go wrong in a hostile Spanish takeover of the British-held peninsula; for example, the Royal Navy could easily seize the Canary Islands and other overseas territories and its forces attack the Spanish mainland.
Slyly, fully aware of its absurdity, Franco told Hitler that Spanish, not German, troops must carry out the historic mission to retake Gibraltar. Franco again appealed to Hitler’s generosity to supply his army with all the materiel, food, and border concessions to grease the Gibraltar mission. Added to Franco’s petition was Spain’s urgent need to obtain the wherewithal required to rebuild the country following the ruinous Spanish Civil War. It was all too much for Hitler to swallow, so he left Hendaye empty-handed.
Francisco Franco’s Arm’s Length Relationship with Adolf Hitler
Left: Hitler and Gen. Francisco Franco at Hendaye railway station, October 23, 1940, the only meeting between the two dictators. Months earlier, on June 10, 1940, the day Italy declared war on France and Great Britain, Franco hinted of his interest in joining fellow fascist Benito Mussolini in the war. Though Franco sympathized with the Axis powers throughout the European conflict, he nudged his country into staying mostly neutral. Nevertheless, in August 1941 he sent some 45,000 volunteers (the “Blue Division,” or División Azul) to fight alongside other Axis nations on the Soviet front. Franco also opened his ports to German U‑boats and invaded the internationally administered city of Tangier in French-administered Morocco after the fall of France in 1940.
Right: Gen. Franco (1892–1975) ruled over Spain from 1939 until his death on November 20, 1975. Hitler’s visit to Franco and Hendaye took him through Montoire, France, where he conferred with Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval. The Nazi collaborator arranged for a meeting between himself, Hitler, and Vichy Head of State Marshal Philippe Pétain at Montoire on Hitler’s return trip on October 24, 1940.
Left: Prior to entering bilateral discussions on October 23, 1940, Hitler and Franco reviewed German troops at the railway station at Hendaye, the German-occupied French Pyrenees town that bordered Spain.
Right: Franco and Hitler confer in the Fuehrer’s Sonderzug (private train) in Hendaye’s railway station. According to Franco’s daughter, her father was worried about the Germans possibly kidnapping him and forcing him to take Spain into the war on the Axis side. Franco supposedly appointed a senior general and two others to assume control of the country in the event he was detained. Throughout his discussions with Hitler, Franco—cool as a cucumber, unpertured and unswayed—toed the line Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, Hitler’s Abwehr spy chief who played a double game, had advised him to take; namely, forbid the passage of German troops through Spain for the purpose of capturing the British dependency of Gibraltar lest it unleash devastating repercussions for Spain and her overseas possessions. After his meeting with Franco, which ended at midnight, Hitler fumed to Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, “I’d rather have three of my teeth pulled than have another meeting like this one.”
Hitler and Gen. Francisco Franco Confer in Hendaye, France, October 23, 1940 (in Spanish)