The Spanish Civil War is widely considered a prelude to the Second World War.
All the central powers were peripherally involved, and Spain owed a debt of $212 million for supplies given by Nazi Germany to General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists.
As such, there was a fear that Spain might come out on the side of Germany or Italy. In June 1940, the Spanish Ambassador to Berlin explicitly said that Franco was “ready under certain conditions to enter the war on the side of Germany and Italy.”
By historically divine coincidence, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on the same day Adolf Hitler attacked the Low Countries of Europe on May 10, 1940.
British officer Alan Hillgarth came up with the plan to bribe key Spanish military, political and business figures to ensure Spanish neutrality.
The British ambassador in Madrid, Sir Samuel Hoare, warned that the money had to be paid to stave off support for Germany. In June 1940, he demanded $1m for the effort: “I personally urge authority be granted without delay, and that if you have doubts, the prime minister be consulted.”
Although Britain was cash-strapped for the war effort, Churchill authorised MI6 to send millions of pounds via New York. He also persuaded Spanish banker Juan March to act as a secret agent. March orchestrated payments to Franco’s generals, and even his brother, on the understanding they would persuade him not to side with Hitler.
When the Nazi leader and Franco met in October at the Hendaye train station, Hitler was annoyed by Franco’s demands for joining Germany in the war, famously saying he would “rather have three or four teeth pulled” than meet him again.
Spain, however, remained a real threat, particularly after the Battle of the Britain stopped the Nazis, and they became increasingly desperate for support.
Hoare claimed that British money led to the arrest of those planning to convince Franco to join the war effort in aid of Germany. And while Spain never formally did, Franco did pass information over to the Nazis and allowed Spanish volunteers to join the Nazis on the proviso they would only fight Soviet forces.
The story is documented by Pere Ferrer in his book Juan March: The Most Mysterious Man in the World and Ángel Viñas, author of Bribes: How Churchill and March Bought Franco’s Generals.
While the machinations of El Caudillo, Der Führer and Il Duce have all faded into dust, Churchill’s secrets continue to reveal themselves 77 years after he saved civilisation.