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 right-wing rebel 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

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

Left: Adolf 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.

Hitler and Franco review German troops, Hendaye, October 23, 1940 Franco 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—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.”

Adolf Hitler and Gen. Francisco Franco Confer in Hendaye, France, October 23, 1940 (in Spanish)