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. 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. Its 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 might co­oper­ate in expelling the British from their rock for­tress and close the 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 meeting on the Spanish-French bor­der at Hen­daye. With Madrid’s approval, so went Hitler’s proposal, special Ger­man units would storm the rock 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 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. 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 (1936–1939). 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

Hitler and Franco, Hendaye, October 23, 1940 (A)Hitler and Franco, Hendaye, October 23, 1940 (B)

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 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.

Hitler and Franco review German troops, Hendaye, October 23, 1940Franco and Hitler confer in the Fuehrer’s private railway car, Hendaye, October 23, 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 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 Atlantic possessions.

German Newsreel Footage of Hitler and Gen. Francisco Franco Conferring in Hendaye, France, October 23, 1940