Churchill Archive Platform - Britain Churchill and Spain in WWII

In November 1940 the Prime Minister complained in a letter to the Archbishop of Westminster of the Spanish blocking British propaganda intended to encourage Spain to stay out of the war. He hoped that the appointment of a new Press Attaché, Tom Burns, a Catholic, would change things. Tied to British intelligence, Burns had a team of over 120 people working to suffuse Spain with pro-British, anti-war and anti-Fascist propaganda. This mission typified the British endeavour in Spain. Playing a central part in these efforts, Churchill dispatched both Sir Samuel Hoare as Ambassador on a ‘special mission’ and Alan Hillgarth to oversee British intelligence operations in the country. He communicated directly with both Hoare and Hillgarth on numerous occasions, and thus personally guided British policy towards Franco’s Spain.

Churchill’s main goal was to shift Spain’s politics and foreign policy away from the Nazis and ultimately keep them from joining the war. With this goal in mind, British intelligence had been bribing Spanish Army Generals as early as 1940 in order to separate them from the more fascist factions in their government who wanted to join the Axis. At one point Churchill himself intervened directly with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to stop the American bank accounts of these generals, where the bribery payments were being made, being frozen. Allied military officials also drew up plans in 1941 to seize the Canary Islands from Spain in the event that they joined the Axis.

Once the United States joined the war in December 1941, and especially after American troops entered the conflict with the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, Churchill and Roosevelt worked together to coordinate their policy towards Spain. In May 1944 the allies negotiated an agreement with Spain to limit Spanish material supplies to Germany and round up some German espionage agents based in Spain, in exchange for regular oil shipments. This deal was intended to stop Spain selling wolfram, or tungsten, a metal essential in the production of military weapons, to Germany. That these negotiations so occupied both Churchill and Roosevelt, despite Spain’s official status as a neutral country, indicates how important Spain was for the Allied war effort in Europe.

This ability to negotiate with Spain, rather than attack it, allowed Churchill to make a more direct appeal to the Franco regime to repair its relationship with the Allied powers before the war ended. In a speech in the House of Commons in May 1944 Churchill declared himself willing to work with Franco after the war, in part because of the connections and relationships that had been forged during the conflict. Churchill was critical of Spain’s closeness to Germany, and the continued fascist elements of Franco’s regime, but nonetheless he welcomed Spain’s efforts to engage with Britain and the rest of Western Europe on a different footing. While Spain had never technically entered the war, the reputation of Franco and his government had not emerged unscathed from its association with Nazi Germany. That Churchill was willing to extend an olive branch to the regime was only possible because of the negotiations that had taken place since the war began in 1939. The Spanish regime was not a democracy, but was certainly anti-Communist, which became increasingly important as Europe entered the Cold War. This openness to Franco, which had developed during the Second World War and its aftermath, remained the basis of British friendship with Spain until Franco’s death in 1975.

Where to find documents in the Churchill Archives

The CHAR collections provide a vast array of materials relating to the Second World War. In connection to international relations, there are large sections that deal specifically with Britain’s relationship with Asian countries, especially China, and also a large section that deals specifically with Britain’s relationship with America, focusing particularly on Churchill’s involvement in these talks, together with a wide collection of his private papers. What follows is by no means a complete list, and a targeted keyword search would likely return more specific results, but what follows would be a useful starting point for anyone undertaking research in these areas of interest.

  • CHAR 20/42A/34, Churchill to Roosevelt, 28 August 194: A telegram from Churchill to Roosevelt informing him of a delay in Operation Pilgrim, the proposed invasion of the Canary Islands, unless Spain acted provocatively and attacked the British possession of Gibraltar.
  • CHAR 20/157/21-22, Roosevelt to Churchill, 15 February 1944: Telegram from Sir Horace Seymour [British Ambassador to China] to WSC marked "Most Immediate" reporting on the unexpected Japanese attack at Chuanhsien (in China – modern Quanxian and stating that the Japanese will not encounter any obstacles if they decided to march on to Kweilin [modern Guilin] and commenting on the effects of this stating that the Japanese could be "complete masters of South East China".
  • CHAR 20/138B/227-232, Churchill to Franco, 20 December 1944: A lengthy letter from Churchill of the dictator of Spain General Francisco Franco, outlining Churchill’s concerns with Spain’s past relations with Nazi Germany and the continued presence of fascism inside Spain, but also opening an avenue for future Anglo-Spanish relations on more positive terms.
  • CHUR 2/115A-B, Hillgarth to Churchill, November 1950: A letter from Alan Hillgarth, former intelligence officer in Spain, to Churchill, reflecting on the wartime policy the two pursued in Spain and Spain’s current international position at the time of writing, November 1950.