General Franco in the Canary Islands
The Civil War in Spain lasted from 18th July 1936 to 1st April 1939. It was a brutal conflict that can be seen as a preliminary to the Second World War. In the spring of 1936, the ‘Popular Front’ government of the Second Republic was in disarray, chaos in fact. Fighting was taking place in city streets between supporters of the right and left, while the left-wing government itself was riven between several factions with widely differing interests. But one thing of which the government was aware and wanted to defuse was a growing movement among the army and right wing politicians to remove the government by force. So the army was purged of potential conspirators and, as an additional safeguard, two prominent generals whose presence might be ‘inconvenient’ were sent away to remote army posts. One general, General Goded, was posted to the Balearics to take command there and the other general was posted to Tenerife in the Canary Islands; this man was General Francisco Franco.
Franco was a talented soldier who had won many battles and much respect with the Spanish Foreign Legion in North Africa. When he was promoted to general in 1926 at the age of 32, he was the youngest general not only in the Spanish army but in all of Europe. His ‘appointment’ to the Canary Islands was regarded as a form of exile where it was thought he would be unable to interfere, which was a naïve attitude of the government in the days of radio communication and air travel. Before Franco left the mainland a coded means of contact was arranged with the other ten generals of the conspiracy, so that while he was in Tenerife, even though his actions were continually monitored, his phone was tapped and his mail censored, Franco was always informed of activity at home.
During his time in on the island, Franco occupied himself by taking three one-hour English lessons every week and playing golf, a game with which he became obsessed. It was said that he had even planned a holiday in Scotland in July (the month of the uprising) to improve his game. But one has to ask whether this was a story made up later to make a show of his reluctance to join in the rebellion.
Despite the constant government surveillance, there was an attempt to kidnap Franco’s five year-old daughter Carmen, nicknamed ‘Nenuca’, and there were least three ‘Communist’ attempts on his life, one at a festival in La Laguna, another at the Flower Festival in Villa de Orotava, and finally, as late as 13th July, an attempt was made by would-be assassins who climbed over the garden walls of his residence but, after being shot at by guards, they ran off. With regard to the ‘Communist’ threat, there were actually intimidating hammer and sickle emblems daubed on the walls of buildings around Franco’s residence.
Meanwhile on the mainland, plans for the intended uprising were taking shape. Although Franco was fully in accord with the intentions of his colleagues there was doubt about whether or not he would actually join in an armed uprising. Franco was cautious by nature, he hesitated, he was coy and played ‘hard to get’, as a result of which he was nicknamed by his co-conspirators as ‘Miss Canary Islands 1936’. As late as the 11th July Franco had not committed himself and even on the 12th he believed that the time was not right. It was only on the 14th, after a pep talk from a newly-arrived Spanish diplomat, that he was persuaded.
Once Franco agreed to join the uprising there was then the question of how to spirit him away from Tenerife and into the action; then what should arrive on the scene to help him but a British aeroplane, backed by Spanish money, the connivance of British businessmen and the blessing of MI6.
In 1938, while the Civil War was being bitterly played out, at least two books were published in Britain giving the right-wing Nationalist, or rebel, point of view. One book, entitled ‘The Spanish Arena’, states in a single sentence that “Franco flew from the Canaries to Tetuan”, implying that Franco simply hopped on a plane and off he went. The other, ‘Francisco Franco’, a biography which told the world what a nice chap Franco was and how good he would be for Spain, dedicated a full chapter to the matter. An up-to-date and more thoroughly researched book, ‘Franco’s Friends’ by Peter Day tells the full story.
The operation to transport Franco to the army in North Africa had been planned in London earlier in the month on the assumption that he would join the rebellion. It was financed by Juan March, an incredibly rich Spanish wheeler-dealer without scruples, either political or moral. The arrangements were made between Spanish and British businessmen with right-wing political beliefs. Through their ‘old-boy’ contacts, MI6 was fully aware of what was going on and turned a blind eye.
The cover story for the plot which evolved was that an aeroplane, a ‘Dragon Rapide’, would be chartered by an English tourist by the name of Hugh Pollard, who just happened to be well-versed in spying, armaments and revolutions, who would be accompanied by two attractive young ladies, his daughter and a friend, on a flying tour that would include Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. At Las Palmas the ‘plane was to collect a ‘certain person’ and then fly across the Atlantic to North Africa while the ‘tourists’ came home by other means. The ‘tourists’ were to take a ferry from Las Palmas to Santa Cruz, where Hugh Pollard was to deliver secret documents, although as ‘tourists’, the three were supposedly travelling in total ignorance of what was really happening. The young women in fact probably were, although they were very much aware that something out of the ordinary was going on.
After flying over mainland Spain the ‘Dragon Rapide’ arrived on July 15th at Gaudo aerodrome in Gran Canaria, which was chosen in preference to Los Rodeos in Tenerife because of that airport’s frequent problems with bad weather, and it might be seen as suspiciously close to Franco. The ‘tourists’ then took a boat to Santa Cruz where they booked into the Hotel Pino de Oro. At this point the cloak-and-dagger world of coded greetings and mysterious coming and goings began in earnest for the ‘tourists’ and their pilot, Cecil Bebb. Pollard went to an optician’s shop, as appointed, and handed over papers to an agent who took them to Franco. In his hotel, Bebb was questioned by anonymous Spanish military figures arriving unannounced to sound him out. That the British government was fully aware and approved of the venture came on one occasion when Bebb was relaxing and the British consul of the Canary Islands popped in to offer help if needed and to make encouraging remarks about the mission.
But how was Franco to get from Tenerife to the ‘plane in Gran Canaria without arousing suspicion? By chance, conveniently for Franco, but unfortunately for the officer in question, General Amado Balmes, commander of troops on Gran Canaria, died on 16th July after apparently shooting himself by accident in the stomach at a shooting range. Permission to attend Balmes’ funeral gave Franco the ideal reason for leaving the island, so he sailed from Santa Cruz on 17th on board the ‘Viera y Clavijo’ of Las Palmas, a small inter-island ship of 880 tons. After the funeral the arrangements for Franco’s ultimate transfer commenced.
The uprising that started the Spanish Civil war took place in Morocco on the night of the 17th to the 18th July 1936. At quarter past two in the morning of the 18th, the day planned for his departure, the news reached Franco. At ten minutes past six he sent a message of congratulation with the war cry, “Blind Faith in Victory! Long live Spain with honour!” Next, Franco ordered the army of Gran Canaria, with the support of the Falangists (the Spanish Fascists), to besiege the legitimately-elected Republican government buildings until they surrendered.
Over on Tenerife, according to a letter sent to the ‘Times’ by ‘A Tenerifeno’, “On Saturday, 18th July, the Islanders woke up to find a State of War declared and the military authorities had taken over the local Government.”
Franco made sure that his wife and daughter were hustled off to safety in France then finally, in order to make his way safely through the streets, where shooting had already started, to join the ‘plane Franco took off his uniform, put on civilian clothes and glasses, and then, by way of further disguise, he shaved off his trademark moustache. General Quiepo de Llano, a natural cynic and fellow conspirator on the mainland, commented that that this was the only sacrifice that Franco made for the Nationalist cause.
Then, at ten past two on the afternoon of the 18th July, the British aeroplane took off from Gran Canaria, taking General Franco to North Africa to join, and soon to lead, the Nationalist rebellion.