Graham Keeley in Barcelona
Winston Churchill authorised millions of dollars in bribes to stop General Franco from entering the Second World War on the side of Germany, a new book claims.
The British wartime leader persuaded Juan March, a Spanish banker, to act as a secret agent, organising payments of millions of dollars to the generals. In return the generals persuaded Franco not to side with Hitler.
The plot was revealed by the historian Pere Ferrer in Juan March: The Most Mysterious Man in the World, after researching papers in British and US archives.
In the summer of 1940 Churchill was convinced that Spain would enter the war on the side of Hitler after receiving reports that Franco and the Germans were planning to invade Gibraltar. Ferrer has claimed that a British officer, Alan Hillgarth, came up with a plan to bribe the generals, believing that Franco’s high command was corrupt and, because they were not paid much, would be open to bribery.
A letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Solborg, a US agent in Portugal, to J. Donovan, the head of strategic services, read: “The Spaniard selected to be the main internal instrument to acquire the political favours of these generals was the rich financier Juan March.”
March, who earned a fortune during the First World War dealing in contraband tobacco, seemed an unlikely ally because during the Spanish Civil War he sided with Franco.
Ferrer said that questions remained as to whether March was a double agent. He claimed that documents suggested March may have stayed in the pay of the Germans while working for the British. When he was approached by the British in 1940, however, March accepted the role. He approached 30 generals who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Though their sympathies had been with the Nazis they switched sides.
The $10 million bribe money was deposited in a bank account in New York in 1940 but the plot nearly fell apart a year later when the US Treasury thought that March was using the money to support Hitler.
The British Ambassador in Washington convinced President Roosevelt that British military interests depended on the account being unfrozen. The Americans relented and in 1942 alone the generals received between $3 million and $5 million.
The book said that some generals were not simply bought off by bribes – many loathed Franco. In a reference to Franco, General Alfredo Kindelan wrote in his memoirs: “You could sense vertigo in him above all else because, like climbers who go higher than they are able, he felt dizzy from having reached such heights with limited abilities.”
After the Second World War March returned to the sedate life of finance, dying in 1962 aged 82.
Franco and Hitler
— General Franco’s rise to power, leading the Nationalist armies to victory against the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, was supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy during the 1930s
— Franco’s only meeting with Hitler took place in October 1940. Hitler refused to offer Franco French colonial possessions in return for Spain’s support in the war. After their meeting, Hitler remarked that he would “as soon have three or four teeth pulled out” as barter with Franco again
— Franco did allow Hitler to use Spanish naval bases during the Second World War. German U-boats were resupplied at its ports and Italian bombers refuelled at its airfields, while Spain helped to build observation posts around Gibraltar for German spies
— Spain declared complete neutrality in 1943, allowing Franco, right, to retain power until 1975, when he died in his bed