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When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Spain was in ruins, the country had been devastated by the civil war that had ended only months before, and a purge of the defeated Socialist government with its supporters was being carried out, so, under Franco, Spain remained neutral.
But it was a curious sort of neutrality, Franco had received a lot of aid from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the Axis powers. He owed them a huge favour for which Hitler expected something in return, and certainly Franco’s sympathies were with his fellow dictators. Indeed, when he met Hitler at the French border town of Hendaye he offered to join the war on the side of Germany, but cleverly he asked an extremely high price for Spanish participation, de-manding huge amounts of food, and armaments, and a large chunk of North Africa for an empire.
Hitler wanted Gibraltar, possession of which would bring the Mediterranean and North Africa under Nazi control, but Franco insisted that as a matter of honour ‘the Rock’ should only be taken by Spanish troops. In the ensuing debate he outmanoeuvred Hitler so that Hitler found the negotiations extremely frustrating and Franco impossible to deal with, famously saying after their meeting that he would rather have three or four teeth pulled out than meet Franco again.
This brought Hitler’s ‘Operation Felix’ to the fore in 1940-41, by which German troops would ‘intervene’ by entering Spain across the Pyrenees to take Gibraltar, while the navy would take the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands, Spanish Morocco, Rio de Oro and the Canary Islands. By taking the Canaries this would more or less ensure that Britain would be easily cut off from her Empire. But Franco procrastinated for so long, especially after Hitler’s failure to invade England, followed by the failure to take Moscow, that ‘Operation Felix’ was shelved. In effect, Franco had saved Gibraltar for Britain. Then, as the war progressed and he saw which way the wind was blowing (in favour of the Allies), his biased neutrality shifted a little, but, even so, the Germans were permitted to construct submarine bases in the Canaries. Yet all the time, British and Allied prisoners of war who managed to escape reckoned they would be safe once they crossed the border from occupied France into Spain.
Britain also had her eyes on the Canary Islands, because possession of them, in addition to the rest of the Atlantic islands, would ensure complete British control of the Atlantic. Churchill devised ‘Operation Puma,’ the code name for this plan that later changed to ‘Operation Pilgrim’ to achieve this. But this plan, like Hitler’s, remained unfulfilled, especially after the Allied successes in North Africa and after the threat to Gibraltar had been removed.
The Canary Islands themselves were a hotbed of espionage during both world wars. Perhaps the most bizarre spy story from Tenerife is from the First World War, when a German anthropologist, Wolfgang Kohler, set up house and laboratory in Puerto de la Cruz in order to study the habits of primates. Now, ‘as any fule kno,’ there are no apes on the islands, so his cover-story was weak to say the least. And residents of Puerto reported signals from submarines out at sea being answered from Herr Kohler’s house. Nevertheless his study, published in 1917, of the nine chimpanzees that he imported became a classic of its kind.
During the Second World War, whoever the enemy might be, Tenerife had to protect itself and this meant constructing defences. The island became a fortress with, among other things, eleven heavily-armed coastal gun batteries. Where topogra-phical conditions allowed, the batteries consisted of three parts, the gun battery itself was at the lowest level, a search-light was at a middle level, and the observation and communication post was at a high level.
These systems became known to a certain English-man, who was taken one day into one the installa-tions, ‘somewhere in Tene-rife,’ and not too far from Santa Cruz. Led by his Anglophile informants, let’s call them ‘Miguel’ and ‘Carlos,’ after climbing up a steep track they descended a short way down a scree slope and around an outcrop of rock to an small doorway that led to a whole network of rooms and passages that had been hollowed out of the hill top and lined with concrete to create a large bunker. After going down a winding flight of steps with a guard room to one side, the passage led past a dormitory to a lobby with a telephone room and mess room off in one direc-tion and a small observation room in another. In the observation room, that had a central column on which to mount the telescope, from a slit that was almost invisible from the outside, a wide expanse of sea and air to the east could be watched so that anyone approaching, friend or foe, would be seen and reported. There was a rifle rack prominently situated that had places for up to seventeen rifles. The rifles would have come into use only as a last resort, as a desperate, almost suicidal measure, because if the enemy had penetrated the island so close to the bunker as to pose a threat, he would by that time have gained a very strong foothold on Tenerife, and the only hope for the seventeen men would be to retreat into the hills to carry on a guerrilla war.
The layout and details of the post were duly noted by the British agent, all ready to be reported back to England; but the knowledge came too late to be of use – by the time I was shown around the war had been over for seventy years.
(For a full description of the Second World War defences of Tenerife, see ‘Aportaciones al la historia de la defensa de Tenerife en la segunda Guerra Mundial’, by Emilio Abad Ripol and Juan Antonio Castro Martin, Ediciones Idea, 2013.)