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Spain in World War II, under General Franco, was officially non-belligerent during the war. This status, although not recognised by international law, was intended to express the regime's sympathy and material support for the Axis Powers, to which the Spanish State offered considerable material, economic, and military assistance. Despite this ideological sympathy, Spain did not enter the war as a belligerent and, in fact, frustrated German designs on Gibraltar and stationed field armies at the Pyrenees to dissuade Germany from occupying the Iberian Peninsula. This apparent contradiction can be explained by Franco's pragmatism and his determination to act principally in Spanish interests, in the face of Allied economic pressure, Axis military demands, and Spain's geographic isolation.

Meanwhile, individual Spaniards and tens of thousands of exiled leftist Republicans contributed to the Allied war effort.


Post-Civil War

At the start of World War II, in September 1939, Spain had only recently come through its bitter civil war. With help from the Fascist Italian and Nazi German governments, the Nationalists under Generalísimo Francisco Franco had defeated the Soviet-assisted Republicans and were consolidating their power. Republican exiles had escaped to Mexico, France, or the Soviet Union.

Spain had been devastated. The economy had been ruined by the savage war; the government's gold reserves, squandered in the purchase of arms, filled the coffers of the Soviet Union and Mexico; at least half a million had died, with millions more fleeing the country as refugees. Despite the European war threatening to engulf Spain, Franco disbanded much of his military to fill in for workers and farmers to restore the wrecked economic machine, blunting Spain's military potency.

Domestic politics

During World War II Spain was governed by a military dictatorship, but despite Franco's own pro-Axis leanings and debt of gratitude to Mussolini, the government was divided between Germanophiles and Anglophiles. When the war started, Juan Beigbeder Atienza, an Anglophile, was the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The rapid German advance in Europe convinced Franco to substitute him with Ramón Serrano Súñer, his brother-in-law and a strong Germanophile (October 18, 1939). After the 1942 Allied victories in Eastern Europe and north Africa, Franco changed tracks again, appointing Francisco Gómez-Jordana Sousa, sympathetic to the British, as minister.


Memorial of the Blue Division at La Almudena Cemetery, Madrid.

The main part of Spain's involvement in the war was through volunteers. They fought for both sides, largely reflecting the allegiances of the civil war.

Spanish volunteers in Axis service

Although Spain remained non-belligerent throughout World War II, it was ideologically aligned with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. There was also a "debt" for the help that these regimes had given to the military uprising. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Franco, pressured by the Germans, offered Spanish manpower to help in civilian warwork and military volunteers to fight against the Soviets.

This was accepted by Hitler and, within two weeks, there were more than enough volunteers to form a division - the Blue Division or División Azul under Agustín Muñoz Grandes - including an air force squadron - the Blue Squadron. The Blue Division trained in Germany and served, with distinction, in the Siege of Leningrad, notably at the Battle of Krasny Bor, where General Infantes with 6,000 men threw back some 30,000 Soviet troops. In October 1943, under severe Allied diplomatic pressure, the Blue Division was ordered home leaving a token force until March 1944. In all, about 45,000 Spanish served on the Eastern Front, mostly committed volunteers, and 4,500 died. Joseph Stalin's understandable desire for revenge against Franco was frustrated at the Potsdam Conference of 1945, when his attempt to make an Allied invasion of Spain the conference's first order of business was rejected by Harry Truman and Winston Churchill.

About 100,000 Spanish civilian workers were sent to Germany to help maintain industrial production.

Spanish volunteers in Allied service

Memorial of the children of Spanish immigrants to Plaine Saint Denis, France, who fought in the Civil War and the French Resistance.
The Spanish anti-Fascist prisoners at Mauthausen deploy a banner to salute the allies.

After their defeat, several hundred thousand Republican veterans and civilians were exiled to France where they were interned by the French Republic in concentration camps, such as Camp Gurs, in southern France. So as to improve their conditions, many joined the French Foreign Legion at the start of the war, making up a sizeable proportion of it. Some sixty thousand joined the French Resistance, mostly as guerrillas while also continuing the fight against Francisco Franco. Several thousand more joined the Free French Forces, against the Axis Powers. Some 3,200 served in General Leclerc's Second French Division; with many from the former Durruti Column. The 9th Armoured Company, was formed almost entirely by battle-hardened Spanish veterans and was the first allied military unit to enter Paris upon its liberation in August, 1944, where they were met by a large number of Spanish maquis fighting alongside French resistance fighters.

On the Eastern Front, Spanish, formerly pro-Republican, Communist leaders and child evacuees from Communist families were received by the Soviet Union. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, many, such as General Enrique Líster, joined the Red Army.

Individual Spaniards, such as the double-agent Juan Pujol (alias Garbo), worked for the Allied cause.


Initially Spain favoured, or was pressured by, the then victorious Axis Powers. Apart from ideology, Spain had a debt to Germany of $212 million for supplies of matériel during the Civil War. Indeed, in June 1940, after the defeat of France, the Spanish Ambassador to Berlin had presented a memorandum in which Franco declared he was "ready under certain conditions to enter the war on the side of Germany and Italy".

At first, the German leader, Adolf Hitler, did not encourage Franco's offer, as the German leadership was convinced of eventual victory. Later on, in September, when Britain had demonstrated its resilience, Hitler was more receptive to Spanish approaches and promised help in return for its active intervention. This had become part of a strategy to forestall Allied intervention in north-west Africa. Hitler promised that "Germany would do everything in its power to help Spain" and would recognize Spanish claims to French territory in Morocco, in exchange for a share of Moroccan raw materials. Franco responded warmly, but without any firm commitment.

According to Franco's own autobiography, he also met with Italian leader Benito Mussolini in Bordighera (12 February 1941)[1], at Hitler's request in the hope that Mussolini could persuade him to enter the war. However, Mussolini was not interested due to the recent string of defeats his forces were facing in North Africa and the Balkans. At one point, Franco asked him, "Duce, if you could get out of this war, would you?" At that point Mussolini raised his arms and said, "If only I could."

Falangist media agitated for irredentism claiming for Spain the French Navarre, French Basque Country and Roussillon (French Catalonia) as well[2][3].

Hitler and Franco negotiated, at Hendaye on 23 October 1940 to fix the details of an alliance. By this time, the advantages had become less clear for either side. Franco asked for too much from Hitler, including heavy fortification of the Canary Islands and large quantities of grain, fuel, armed vehicles and aircraft. In response, Hitler threatened Franco with a possible annexation of Spanish territory to the Vichy France. At the end of the day there was no agreement, and later Hitler would famously tell Mussolini, I prefer to have three or four of my teeth pulled out than to speak to that man again. It is subject to historical debate whether Franco overplayed his hand demanding too much from Hitler for Spanish entry into the war, or if he deliberately stymied the German dictator by setting the price unrealistically high. Also, Abwehr chief Wilhelm Canaris, who secretly relayed information to Franco about the German plans, might have convinced Franco not to agree to Hitler's demands.

Spain relied upon oil supplies from the United States and the US had agreed to listen to British recommendations on this. As a result, the Spanish were told that supplies would be restricted, albeit with a ten week reserve. Any Spanish intervention would rely, inevitably, upon German ability to supply oil. Some of Germany's own activity relied upon captured French oil reserves, so additional needs from Spain were unhelpful.

From the German point of view, Vichy's active reaction to British and Free French attacks (Destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar) had been encouraging, so perhaps Spanish intervention was less vital. Also, in order to keep Vichy "on-side", the proposed territorial changes in Morocco became a potential embarrassment and were diluted. As a consequence of this, neither side would make sufficient compromises and after nine hours, the talks failed.

Searchlights from Gibraltar in 1940.

In December, Hitler returned to the issue of Gibraltar. He attempted to force Franco's hand with a blunt request for the passage of German troops to attack Gibraltar. Franco refused, citing the danger that Britain still presented to Spanish colonies and choosing to wait until Britain "was on the point of collapse". Hitler got tougher and offered grain and military supplies as an inducement. By this time, however, Italian troops were being chased from Cyrenaica and the Royal Navy had continued to show its freedom of action in Italian waters. Britain was clearly not finished. Franco responded "that the fact has left the circumstances of October far behind" and "the Protocol then agreed must now be considered outmoded".

Thus ended diplomatic efforts to persuade Spain to join the war or to allow free passage to the Axis.

Franco's regime led to a period of post-war isolation, with the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had assured Franco that Spain would not suffer consequences from the United Nations (a wartime term for those nations allied against Germany). However with new allied governments and the fact that the Soviet Union was one of the victors, a number of nations withdrew their ambassadors and Spain was not admitted to the United Nations until 1955.


Although it sought to avoid entering the war, Spain did make plans for defence of the country. Initially, the mass of the army was stationed in southern Spain in case of an Allied attack. However, Franco ordered the divisions to move slowly towards the French border after Hitler threatened him with invasion. By the time it became clear that the Allies were gaining the upper hand in the conflict, Franco had amassed all his troops on the French border and received personal assurances from leaders of Allied countries that they did not wish to invade Spain. Although German soldiers were well prepared and battle-hardened, the recent combat experience of the Spanish army and rugged terrain of northern Spain presented a significant obstacle to any Axis invasion.

Operation Felix

Before Hendaye, there had been Spanish-German planning for an attack, from Spain, upon the British territory of Gibraltar which was, and is, a British dependency and military base. At the time, Gibraltar was important for control of the western exit from the Mediterranean and the sea routes to the Suez Canal and Middle East, as well as Atlantic patrols.

The Germans also appreciated the strategic importance of north-west Africa for bases and as a route for any future American involvement. Therefore, the plans included the occupation of the region by substantial German forces, to forestall any future Allied invasion attempt.

The plan, Operation Felix, was in detailed form before the negotiations failed at Hendaye. By March 1941, military resources were being ear-marked for Barbarossa and the Soviet Union. Operation Felix-Heinrich was an amended form of Felix that would be invoked once certain objectives in Russia had been achieved. In the event, these conditions were not fulfilled and Franco still held back.[4]

After the war, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel said: "Instead of attacking Russia, we should have strangled the British Empire by closing the Mediterranean. The first step in the operation would have been the conquest of Gibraltar. That was another great opportunity we missed."[5] If that had succeeded, Hermann Göring proposed that Germany would "... offer Britain the right to resume peaceful traffic through the Mediterranean if she came to terms with Germany and joined us in a war against Russia"[4].

As the war progressed and the tide turned against the Axis, the Germans planned for the event of an Allied attack through Spain. There were three successive plans, progressively less aggressive as German capability waned:

Operation Isabella

This was planned in April 1941 as a reaction to a British landing on the Iberian peninsula. German troops would advance into Spain to support Franco and expel the British.

Operation Ilona or Gisella

Ilona was a scaled down version of Isabella, subsequently renamed Gisella. Devised in May 1942, to be invoked whether or not Spain stayed neutral. Ten divisions would advance to Barcelona and, if necessary towards Salamanca.

Operation Nurnberg

In June 1943, Nurnberg was purely a defensive operation in the Pyrenees in the event of Allied landings in the Iberian peninsula.

Churchill's bribe

According to a 2008 book, Winston Churchill authorised millions of dollars in bribes to Spanish generals in an effort to influence General Franco against entering the Second World War on the side of Germany.[6]

Resources & trade

Despite lacking cash, oil and other supplies, Francoist Spain was able to supply some essential materials to Germany. There were a series of secret war-time trade agreements between the two countries.

The principal resource was wolfram (or tungsten) ore from German-owned mines in Spain. Wolfram was essential to Germany for its advanced precision engineering and therefore for armament production. Despite Allied attempts to buy all available supplies, which rocketed in price, and diplomatic efforts to influence Spain, supplies to Germany continued until August 1944. Payment for wolfram was effectively set against the Spanish debt to Germany. Other minerals included iron ore, zinc, lead and mercury.

Spain also acted as a conduit for goods from South America, for example, industrial diamonds and platinum.

After the war, evidence was found of significant gold transactions between Germany and Spain, ceasing only in May 1945. It was believed that these were derived from Nazi looting of occupied lands, but attempts by the Allies to obtain control of the gold and return it were largely frustrated.

Espionage and sabotage

As long as Spain permitted it, the Abwehr, the German intelligence organisation, was able to operate in Spain and Spanish Morocco, often with cooperation of the Nationalist government.

Gibraltar's installations were a prime target for sabotage, using sympathetic anti-British Spanish workers. One such attack occurred in June 1943, when a bomb caused a fire and explosions in the dockyard. The British were generally more successful after this and managed to use turned agents and sympathetic anti-Fascist Spaniards to uncover subsequent attacks. A total of 43 sabotage attempts were prevented in this way. In January 1944, two Spanish workers, convicted of attempted sabotage, were hanged.

The Abwehr also maintained observation posts along both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar, reporting on shipping movements.

A German agent in Cádiz was the target of a successful Allied disinformation operation, Operation Mincemeat, prior to the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

In early 1944, the situation changed. The Allies were clearly gaining the advantage over Germany and one double agent had provided enough information for Britain to make a detailed protest to the Spanish government. As a result, the Spanish government declared its "strict neutrality". The Abwehr operation in southern Spain was consequently closed down.

The international station of Canfranc.

The rail station of Canfranc was the conduit for the smuggling of people and information from Vichy France to the British consulate in San Sebastián. The nearer border station of Irún could not be used as it bordered occupied France.

Jews and other refugees

During the war, Spain became an unlikely haven for several thousand Jews. They were mainly from Western Europe, fleeing deportation to concentration camps from occupied France, but also Sephardic Jews from Eastern Europe, especially in Hungary. Trudy Alexy refers to the "absurdity" and "paradox of refugees fleeing the Nazis' Final Solution to seek asylum in a country where no Jews had been allowed to live openly as Jews for over four centuries." [7]

Throughout World War II, Spanish diplomats of the Franco government, as well as diplomats from Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal and the Vatican, extended their protection to Eastern European Jews, especially in Hungary.

In the first years of the war, "Laws regulating their admittance were written and mostly ignored."[8] Once the tide of war began to turn, and Count Francisco Gómez-Jordana succeeded Franco's brother-in-law Serrano Súñer as Spain's foreign minister, Spanish diplomacy became "more sympathetic to Jews", although Franco himself "never said anything" about this.[8] Around that same time, a contingent of Spanish doctors traveling in Poland were fully informed of the Nazi extermination plans by the Gauleiter Frankel of Warsaw, who was under the misimpression that they would share his views about the matter; when they came home, they passed the story to Admiral Luís Carrero Blanco, who told Franco.[9]

Diplomats discussed the possibility of Spain as a route to a containment camp for Jewish refugees near Casablanca, but it came to naught due to lack of Free French and British support.[10] Nonetheless, control of the Spanish border with France relaxed somewhat at this time,[11] and thousands of Jews managed to cross into Spain (many by smugglers' routes). Almost all of these survived the war.[12] The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee operated openly in Barcelona.[13]

Shortly afterwards, Spain began giving citizenship to Sephardic Jews in Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania; many Ashkenazic Jews also managed to be included, as did some gentiles. The Spanish head of mission in Budapest, Ángel Sanz Briz, may have saved thousands of Ashkenazim in Hungary by granting them Spanish citizenship, placing them in safe houses, and teaching them minimal Spanish so they could pretend to be Sephardim, at least to someone who did not know Spanish. The Spanish diplomatic corps was performing a balancing act: Alexy conjectures that the number of Jews they took in was limited by how much German hostility they were willing to engender.[14]

Toward the war's end, Sanz Briz had to flee Budapest, leaving these Jews open to arrest and deportation. An Italian diplomat, Giorgio Perlasca, who was himself living under Spanish protection, used forged documents to persuade the Hungarian authorities that he was the new Spanish Ambassador. As such, he continued Spanish protection of Hungarian Jews until the Red Army arrived.[15]

Although Spain effectively undertook more to help Jews escape deportation to the concentration camps than many neutral (Switzerland, Turkey) and Allied countries did,[15][16] there has been debate about Spain's wartime attitude towards refugees. Francoist Spain, despite its aversion to Zionism and "Judeo"-Freemasonry, does not appear to have shared the rabid anti-Semitic ideology promoted by the Nazis. Certainly, about 25,000 to 35,000 refugees, mainly Jews, were allowed to transit through Spain to Portugal and beyond. About 5,000 Jews in occupied Europe benefitted from Spanish protection.

This agreed, however, while some historians argue that these facts demonstrate a humane attitude of Franco's regime, others point out that Spain only permitted transit and did not wish to increase its own small Jewish population. Refusal to admit refugees would also have further damaged its fragile relations with the Allies. After the war, Franco's regime was quite hospitable to those who had been responsible for the deportation of the Jews, notably Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Commissioner for Jewish Affairs (May 1942 – February 1944) under the Vichy Régime in France.[17]

See also


  • Payne, Stanley G (2008). Franco and Hitler. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12282-4.  
  • Shulman, Milton (1995 (first published 1947)). Defeat in the West. Chailey, East Sussex. ISBN 1-872947-03-4.  
  • Wilmot, Chester (1997). The Struggle for Europe. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions. ISBN 1-85326-677-9.  
  1. ^ (Italian) Quotation of Mussolini, Album di una vita by Mario Cervi at the Bordighera site. Accessed online 18 October 2006.
  2. ^ Serrano Suñer, tragedia personal y fascismo político, Javier Tusell, El País, 2 September 2003: "Serrano ante él [Hitler] llegó a sugerir que el Rosellón debia ser español, por catalán, y que Portugal no tenía sentido como unidad política independiente."
  3. ^ El último de los de Franco, Santiago Pérez Díaz, El País 7 September 2003
  4. ^ a b Shulman, pp.66-67
  5. ^ Shulman, p. 68
  6. ^ Keeley, Graham (16 October 2008). "Winston Churchill ‘bribed Franco’s generals to stay out of the war’". Aftermath News.  
  7. ^ Trudy Alexy, The Mezuzah in the Madonna's Foot, Simon and Schuster, 1993. ISBN 0-671-77816-1. p. 74.
  8. ^ a b Alexy, p. 77.
  9. ^ Alexy, p. 164–165.
  10. ^ Alexy, p. 77–78.
  11. ^ Alexy, p. 165.
  12. ^ Alexy, p. 79, passim.
  13. ^ Alexy, p. 154–155, passim.
  14. ^ Alexy, p. 165 et. seq.
  15. ^ a b "Giorgio Perlasca". The International Raoul Wallenberg foundation. Retrieved 2006-07-21.  
  16. ^ "Franco & the Jews". Hitler: Stopped by Franco. Retrieved 2006-07-21.  
  17. ^ Nicholas Fraser, "Toujours Vichy: a reckoning with disgrace", Harper's, October 2006, p. 86–94. The relevant statement about Spain sheltering him is on page 91.

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