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World War II: Hitler and Spain

Updated on April 12, 2014

Spain's Dictator

Francisco Franco was a Spanish general who helped destroy the Spanish Second Republic in 1939. He remained in power until his death in 1975.
Francisco Franco was a Spanish general who helped destroy the Spanish Second Republic in 1939. He remained in power until his death in 1975. | Source


Spain was one of the great enigmas of the Second World War. Despite the fact the technically Spanish dictator General Franco was a natural ally to Hitler, they actually had a rather low opinion of each other. Hitler likened the Spanish leader to a ‘fat sergeant’ while Franco retorted by calling Hitler a ‘stage actor’ after a conference held in a railway carriage at Hendaye, France in October 1940. You could be forgiven for thinking that such insults would seriously tarnish relations between the two countries, but in reality it mattered not. Hitler and Franco were only allies in principle and thus weren’t closely involved with each other at all. Franco wasn’t interested in adjoining himself to the Axis, but he wanted what he could get out of Hitler’s war, namely modern day Morocco- owned by the French at the time. But Hitler wasn’t interested in doing any heavy lifting on Franco’s behalf, and there was very little chance that Franco himself would take on the challenge as his country was recovering from an exhausting and ravaging Civil War.

Operation Felix- The Invasion of Gibraltar

However, despite Franco’s reluctance to plunge his country into open warfare, he was already working together with Hitler, and had been for several months. Both men recognised the strategic importance of Gibraltar which despite being a mere speck on the map, was of huge strategic importance, due to its position. Basically, whoever controlled the famous rock was able to control traffic in and out of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Hendaye Conference provided Hitler with the opportunity to formally ask Franco for his permission to mount an attack through Spain. Hitler vowed that once victory over the Allies was sealed he would hand Gibraltar over to Spain. Franco was tempted by the idea, but remained noncommittal. Hitler remained determined to pursue the project and in November 1940, a month after the Hendaye Conference he issued Fuhrer Directive No. 18, otherwise known as Operation Felix. The plan involved General Ludwig Kubler leading an army corps across the Pyrenees and down through Spain. A Panzer force led by Rudolf Schmidt would provide protection in the rear and the Luftwaffe would support from the air flying from Spanish airfields.

The Location of Gibraltar

The Most Famous Rock in Europe

Gibraltar is one of the last bastions of British colonialism. To this day ownership of the territory is disputed between Spain and Britain.
Gibraltar is one of the last bastions of British colonialism. To this day ownership of the territory is disputed between Spain and Britain. | Source

Defeating the Last Enemy

By this time Hitler had already experienced his first defeat of the war. The RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain had prevented any sort of victory through conquest. Now, the terms of victory had changed, if Britain couldn't be defeated through conquest, then victory needed to be achieved by submission, in other words by putting Britain to siege.

The German Navy were already hard at work attempting to isolate Britain from the rest of the world. The U-Boats were wreaking havoc on transatlantic shipping, but now Hitler intended to turn the screw. Contrary to popular thinking the fighting in North Africa was not totally about oil, it’s important to note that the countries along the southern shore of the Mediterranean control the approaches to the Suez Canal. The Italians had already established a presence in the region and now the Germans had seized control of Morocco and Algeria from the French. With the capture of Gibraltar, the Axis would have been able to totally isolate Britain from its eastern empire.

A Memorial to Fallen Spanish Heroes

The Cementerio de la Almudena near Madrid- the location of the Blue Division Memorial.
The Cementerio de la Almudena near Madrid- the location of the Blue Division Memorial. | Source

Franco and Hitler- Allies or Enemies?

Was Franco tempted by the idea of cutting Britain off from its eastern empire and reclaiming Gibraltar for Spain? Definitely! But he cast cold water on any sort of concrete plan; the simple fact of the matter was that the majority of the population at the time were living below the poverty line; therefore Spain couldn’t possibly sustain a major military offensive. Franco’s scepticism revealed itself when he asked Hitler in a rather insulting fashion, how could he be sure that he would ever be in a position to give him Gibraltar? He was one of the few men at the time that remained unconvinced that the Germans would win the war.

Weeks rolled by, very little progress was made, due mostly to the fact that Franco repeatedly brushed off a barrage of requests by both Germany and Italy alike. Hitler however, was not the kind of man who would take no for an answer, and was ready and primed to proceed without permission. He intended to seize Gibraltar and also take Spain’s North African colonies to use as bases for his U-Boats. But the plans strangely never came to pass.

Franco was probably the less well known of Europe’s dictators. It seems rather strange that he never sided with Hitler, especially considering the fact that Hitler actively aided the Spanish dictator during the brutal Civil War by sending men, tanks and planes to Spain. Franco was also an enemy of communism and its associated works which makes the lack of union between Spain and Germany even more baffling. Franco however, for all authoritarianism had little patience for the world changing and totalitarian philosophies of Italy or Germany. Franco was more of an ultra conservative than a world changer; ideologically, he was rather a simple soul who supported old institutions such as the Church and state.

It’s important to remember for all his reluctance to aid the Axis, Franco was still a monster to his own people, and he ruled with an iron fist and kept his population barely above the poverty line. He also prevented and suppressed those people who identified themselves as Basque or Catalonian, as far as he was concerned everyone in his country was Spanish. But still, he was nobody’s fool and definitely nobody’s puppet. Hence Hitler’s exasperation and eventual anger; Franco, remember was a seasoned soldier and was sceptical about Hitler’s ability to achieve all of his aspirations, going as far to believing that he might lose the war. Spain had a lot to lose, particularly the Canary Islands. The British Royal Navy would make short work of seizing them. So you can understand why the Spanish dictator was hesitant of openly allying himself to the Axis and also why at times he regarded the Fuhrer with the utmost contempt.

In the end, Spain’s only real serious contribution was the service of several thousand volunteers who signed up to fight for the Germans against the Soviets. They formed their own division- the Blue Division, but unfortunately none got the chance to return to Spain, as they all perished on the Russian Front. But Franco was in truth, a frustrating partner; despite the occasional warm words he offered, and general sympathy for the German cause, he thought only of himself and Spain. He never gave the Fuhrer his wholehearted support, which Hitler believed was his right.

Did Spain Really Matter?

To a certain extent, it didn't really matter where Franco’s loyalties lay. It was centuries since Spain had been a superpower, and now the country had been left broken and battered by three ferocious years of intense civil war. The starving populace had no fight left in them; the economy was totally shattered. Hitler himself had been wary of acquiring an ally who would cost him much more in assistance than it could conceivably supply him in support. This is something that he would later come to discover about Mussolini’s Italy, it’s now widely known that Hitler had intended to originally attack Russia in the spring of 1941, but had to wait until June because he was still clearing up Mussolini’s Balkan disaster. He had also had to come to his aid in North Africa after the British had succeeded in driving the Italians out of both modern Ethiopia and Libya.

Spain though, still mattered to Hitler, and it wasn’t just the prospect of controlling Gibraltar- the gateway of the Mediterranean. Hitler had already entertained the possibility that the Allies might launch an invasion to liberate Europe. Spain offered a chance for the Allies to invade France via Gibraltar and Spain. The Germans didn’t just think offensively in terms of strategy, they were also conscious of defensive dangers and Spain certainly was that, at least in the mind of Hitler.

Operation Isabella

So from the German point of view then, Spain wasn’t as peripheral as Franco had chosen to believe. The Spanish leader’s stark reluctance to endorse Operation Felix infuriated Hitler who decided to take matters into his own hands. He drew up another plan called Operation Isabella in June 1941. It was really more of a back of an envelope type of plan, not much more than a rough outline. Although Hitler tended to believe that even the roughest of sketches could be transformed into law. He did however, appreciate that the imminent war with Russia meant that Isabella would have to wait.

So, as Hitler’s gaze turned eastwards towards his most hated enemy, Stalin and Communist Russia, Operation Isabella was put on the back shelf. As Operation Barbarossa, firstly steamrolled, then flagged and then ultimately failed, the plan to invade Gibraltar via Spain never came to pass and was probably never even considered by the Fuhrer again.


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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello JK. Well researched and written. Let me do you a favour by return:

      The information Jools refers to is 'Operation Mincemeat', dreamed up by RN Lt. Cmdr Ewen Montagu and RAF Fl Lt Charles Cholmondeley ('it's pronounced Chumley', he would tell whoever he met) in order to divert German military 'muscle' from Sicily and Italy to save lives in the Allied invasion of Sicily, 'Operation Husky'.

      See Walter Schellenberg's book 'The Man Who Never Was', about a Welsh tramp who, out of loneliness and desperation, swallowed rat poison in a deserted London warehouse. His body was dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marine Major and thus was 'born' Major William Martin. 'Wallet litter' was added (theatre ticket stubs, love letter from a girlfriend, an unpaid mess bill and a stern letter from his bank manager over an un-arranged overdraft), and a briefcase was handcuffed to one wrist with 'highly secret military documents', signed by the commander of British forces in Egypt.

      The corpse was taken by submarine HMS 'Seraph' to the western Mediterranean and left on the surface for the Spaniards to find. The plan nearly didn't work, the Spanish police held on to the documents until after the post mortem on the body. Finally German Abwehr agents were allowed access to the documents, photographed them and sent copies to Berlin. The High Command swallowed the ruse, armour and troop divisions were diverted to prevent an Allied Invasion of Greece.

      Glyndwr Michael was afforded full military honours after the war, a memorial giving his real name set up on his grave. Two separate programmes were screened on the Yesterday Channel in 2013-2014, one based on the book. They might well be repeated again, although 2013 was the 70th anniversary.

    • traveleze profile image

      Lee John 

      6 years ago from Preston

      very interesting, Thanks for the article!

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi ata, indeed he was, and a good thing too, because there was no way that Spain could fight a war, not after the devastation that was the Spanish Civil War. Even though Franco was a monster to his own people, I do admire the fact that he didn't allow Hitler to bully him into fighting. Shame Mussolini couldn't do the same. Thanks for popping by.

    • ata1515 profile image


      9 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Great hub. Franco really seems like he was on the fence in WWII. Siding with the Axis powers could have allowed for glory, but would have resulted in utter defeat. It's difficult to understand that while the Fascists were united in their goal to dominate the world, they all wanted to be the one dominating it. The Allies did not suffer that problem because they simply wanted to stop the Fascists, which allowed for greater cooperation. Voted up and shared.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Thomas, I'd never considered that Spanish memories of Napoleon may have led to distrust of Hitler- I think you're absolutely right. At the time, the whole Peninsular war was just 140 years distant- a mere four generations or so. When you think about it- its no wonder that Franco stayed out of the Axis- pity Mussolini didn't do the same. Thanks for popping by.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      9 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      um...typo there...brilliant dictator should read brutal dictator.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      9 years ago from Reno, Nevada


      You are correct of course, Franco was indeed a brilliant dictator but I always admired the way he kept the Axis at arms length once World War II started. He must have been bolstered by the historical memory of Napoleon's ill advised Peninsular campaign.

      I came across Operation Felix while doing research about Admiral Canairis who threw a great deal of the Abwehr's resources into planning the groundwork for a Nazi invasion of the Rock.

      Your material here is very concise and well put together!

      Thanks for giving me my history fix this afternoon.


    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks noenhulk, glad you liked it.

    • noenhulk profile image


      9 years ago

      A piece of history about Franco during world war it is really a great read. Voted up.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Paul, I haven't really read much of Hemingway's work to be honest, but 'For Whom The Bell Tolls,' sounds really interesting. I must admit that I didn't delve too much into the relationship between Hitler and Franco. The best source material I used for this was a book called 'World War II: The Plans That Never Happened' by Michael Kerrigan. It offers an amazing insight into a whole load of both known and secret plans that could've have changed the course of the war, had they been implemented. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks jainismus, glad you liked it.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi, Old Albion, yes I've been to Gibraltar too and it's a wonderful place. My granddad always used to jokingly refer to it as the most civilised part of Spain. Thanks for popping by.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      9 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is a very interesting and useful piece of history which I never learned when I was younger. I have recently finished reading "For Whom The Bell Tolls“ by Hemingway which started giving me insights into the Spanish Civil War during the 30s. Can you recommend any books fiction or nonfiction on Spain's relationship with Germany during World War II and the 1930s? Voted up and sharing.

    • jainismus profile image

      Mahaveer Sanglikar 

      9 years ago from Pune, India

      Most of the information you have shared is new to me. Thanks for writing such a great hub.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 

      9 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi JK. A most exhaustive read. Your research is brilliant and I admit that I had not heard of the Blue Division. Great stuff. We visited Gibraltar this summer, believe me it is a bit of Old England it really is how things used to be here in the UK.

      Voted up and all.


    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow Jools that's really interesting. Shame I haven't got the History Channel, because that sounds like a really interesting program. To be honest, the more and more I read about Franco and his relationship with Hitler the more complicated and confusing it became. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      9 years ago from North-East UK

      James, great hub and very interesting. I was watching a TV show on History Channel the other night which touched upon the relationship between Hitler and Franco and mentioned their possible duping over the invasion of Sicily. A body was deliberately washed ashore in Spain with supposed instructions for the invasion of Sardinia. It had been planted there by the Allies but Franco passed the info onto Hitler believing it was real. Hitler sent the troops to Sardinia and Sicily was taken by the Allies. Franco sounds like a complicated man - not sure he'd be someone you would want on your side.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Harald, yes Spain was indeed an enigma, Franco definitely sympathised with Hitler to an extent, but he only ever thought of himself and Spain. Both Hitler and Mussolini were just two radical for him. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Gypsy, very glad you liked it. Thanks for the pass on.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      9 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      What a great article, jkenny. I used to wonder, every time I looked at a map of occupied europe, why wasn't the Swastika over Spain? Your overview is excellent and very easy to read-- always a great plus in my opinion. Hitler weighed things up and perhaps decided a neutral Spain would deter an Allied invasion better than a few thousand more miles of the Atlantic Wall? I never thought of this until reading your hub.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      9 years ago from Daytona Beach, Florida

      Voted up and interesting. Thanks for sharing this very informative hub. A fascinating read for sure. A bit of history I wasn't aware of. Passing this on.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Suzette, I just re-read the article and realised I made a mistake in calling Franco a Fascist. It's weird that I did that, because I even put later on that he was more of an ultra conservative. Oh well, I shall go and change that- don't want people getting confused.

      Anyway, thanks for the history lesson. I might write a hub about the Spanish Civil War, I don't know much about it, so it would be fun to research it. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      That's right Chris; also, as someone who has been to Gibraltar twice. I have to say its one of the nicer British outposts, especially if you're a birdwatcher like me. So it would have been a great shame if Britain had lost it. Thanks, as always my friend.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Deb. Thanks for stopping by.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Nate, really glad you liked it.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      9 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      It's just as well that they didn't get together. If Hitler got Gibraltar, it could have been "curtains" for Britain.

      Thanks James. That was a very interesting article.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      9 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Wow, you sure took a lot of information and condensed it nicely

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      9 years ago from Taos, NM

      JKenny: The Spanish Civil War is a complicated war that had a lot of fractious parties and componets to it. Franco, as you said, was only interested in Franco. Franco, however, was not a fascist. That is too simplistic. He sided with the Falangists of the Civil War only because it helped his cause and the cause of the Nationalists. The Falangists were closely associated with Italian fascism and Mussolini - not Hitler. But, Franco was not a true Falangist or Fascist. As soon as the Civil War was over, he got rid of the Falangist party and took over total control of Spain. The Falangists, hence the fascists, went by the wayside. He wanted help from Hitler and many believe Franco made his requests of HItler so huge because he did not want to enter WWII and knew Hitler would say no to his requests. Officially, Spain was neutral during WWII, however, Franco did send Spanish soldiers to the Russian Front to aid the German soldiers there. Franco was not fascist and did not want the fascists in Spain, as he had just gotten rid of them. Hence, the reason for not jumping into the war on Hitler's side. I studied all this in Barcelona one summer. Franco was the dictator of Spain and no other parties were permitted or allowed.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 

      9 years ago from California, United States of America

      Very interesting information, always kind of fascinating to learn of Hitler's maneuvers and also the personality differences between the Fascist dictators. I never ceased to be fascinated by what I learn about World War Two, Hitler, and the other actors involved. Good stuff.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Mike- I'd always wondered why Franco had never sided with the Axis, given the fact that Hitler helped him win the Spanish Civil War, but you're right he used Spain as a training ground for his army and air force. In a strange way I actually admire him for not submitting to Hitler in the same way Mussolini did.

      I was just reading a little bit about Franco and apparently in Nov. 1941 he had a private meeting with Mussolini in which he asked him: 'Duce, if you could get out of this war, would you?' To which Mussolini replied: 'If I only I could!' That's what Franco's autobiography says anyway; fascinating stuff.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Bill, very nice to hear from you again. Really appreciate it.

    • charmike4 profile image

      Michael Kromwyk 

      9 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      Thanks jkenny for a really interesting aspect on Spain and WWII. Hilter used Spain duing the Spanish Civil War to test strategies and equipment for the future WWII, so it was always an enigma to me why Franco didn't back him during the I know. Cheers Michael

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      9 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating read; great job of detailing the events and raising a whole bunch of questions. Well done James!


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