On the 18th of July 1936, General Francisco Franco left the Canary Islands on a plane bound for Tetuan, Morocco. From North Africa, the future Caudillo launched a military rebellion that ignited the Spanish Civil War and, ultimately, toppled democracy to inaugurate 36 years of brutal dictatorship. Were it not for the assistance of two Englishmen, Franco may never have made it to Morocco.
Major Hugh Pollard and Captain Cecil Bebb orchestrated Franco’s covert flight from Tenerife, where he had been exiled since February. Bebb, the plane’s pilot, was a former RAF Officer. Pollard was a British intelligence Officer who had cut his teeth in Dublin Castle alongside the Black and Tans in the 1920s. Franco deemed the men’s role in his eventual victory so influential that he honored them with the ‘The Imperial Order of the Yoke and Arrows’. They knew and sympathised with Franco’s intentions: as Pollard put it, communists “are better put down than anything.” Their efforts did not go unnoticed and Bebb later recalled that the local British Consul ‘passed very favorable comments on the mission.’ This episode, however, was only the beginning of Britain’s tacit support for Franco’s Nationalists throughout the civil war.
In February, Spain’s leftist Frente Popular won the parliamentary elections. Convening socialists, communists, and liberal republicans, the new government offered amnesties to political prisoners, sought to break Spain’s land monopoly, taxed the aristocracy, and restored regional autonomy restricted by their predecessors. Spain’s ruling class, who longed for the halcyon days of the monarchy, refused to swallow the reforms and plotted the government’s overthrow.
Across the country, citizens and trade unions fought Franco’s coup. Where the pro-Franco nationalist rebels were defeated, social revolution erupted and the workers took control. Barcelona was transformed in a matter of days. “Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black,” wrote George Orwell of the Catalonian capital in the throes of revolution. “In outward appearance, it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist.”
News of this transformational, proletarian change quickly sounded alarm bells in London. Spain’s under-industrialized economy had long been dependent on British imperialism. During the interwar period, British capital made up 40% of Spain’s foreign investment (some 13% of Britain’s foreign investment in Europe at the time). The British mining corporation Rio Tinto, which operated the world’s largest open pit copper mine near Seville, had begun to divest from Spain in anticipation of a ‘communistic phase’ following the King’s resignation in 1931. Three years later, these fears materialized when the corporation had to lobby the Governor of Gibraltar to threaten the deployment of British soldiers to protect their property from striking workers. Already on edge following the February elections, reports of revolutionary upheaval as Franco’s coup began led Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to insist that “on no account must Britain be brought into the fight on the side of the Republic.”
Officially, Britain agreed to abstain “from all interference, direct or indirect, in the internal affairs of Spain.” This position, in practice, was unsustainable. The British establishment’s fear of communist revolution in Europe was enormous. For the Archbishop of Westminster, the Civil War was “in essence a contest between Christ and Antichrist.” Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey was equally blunt. “In the present stage of Europe, with France and Spain menaced by Bolshevism, it is not inconceivable that we may soon find it advisable to unite with Germany and Italy,” he told the Cabinet. There was no ambivalence. The British wanted the Nationalists to win the war.
More than 20 other nations joined Britain in committing to non-intervention in September 1936, including Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. The British hoped this would prevent the war from spreading beyond national boundaries, serving their policy of appeasement toward European fascism. The Non-Intervention pact thus became a vital instrument in Britain’s attempts to conceal its true sympathies, providing diplomatic cover for its lack of support for Spain’s legitimate government.
British hostility to the Spanish Republic moved into the shadows. While Germany and Italy continually broke non-intervention to send vital aerial support, weapons, and around 100,000 soldiers to Franco’s armies, the British imposed an arms embargo on the Popular Front government. Under the guise of non-intervention, the British starved the Spanish Republic of the rights granted to any other legitimate government under international law. Even Republican attempts to buy weapons from other countries were obstructed through British banks, while Nationalist efforts were waved through. The Bank of England suspended relations with the Bank of Spain. Credit requests were continually denied and British trade in Spain was conducted overwhelmingly in the Nationalist-controlled zones.
Meanwhile, the British ruling class built relationships with Franco’s representatives in London. In October 1936, Winston Churchill ‘had an interview’ with the Marquis del Moral, ‘the informal representative of the insurgents.’ For Churchill, the “anti-reds” were the “lesser of two evils”. In the Spring of 1937, mere months before the Nazi firebombing of Guernica, representatives of the British Board of Trade met Nicolas Franco, the Generalissimo’s brother. The encounter sought to address the concerns of Rio Tinto, who had been deprived of profit by German forces’ seizure of resources in Spain. The British quickly concluded that they could not protect their investments without diplomatic representation in Spain. In September, Sir Robert Hodgson was sent as a British agent to the Nationalist-controlled zones while the Duke of Alba arrived in London to represent Franco. By offering effective formal diplomatic recognition to Nationalist emissaries, the British Government offered General Franco invaluable legitimacy – all in an effort to secure corporate profit.
The British remained undeterred despite growing evidence of atrocities in Nationalist-controlled areas. Franco’s forces murdered 150,000 people throughout the civil war in what historian Paul Preston describes as the “Spanish Holocaust.” To Foreign Office officials, however, these massacres were only “counter reprisals” to the Republicans’ “savage brutality”.
While the ruling class aided the forces of reaction, 4,000 British and Irish workers fought fascism in the International Brigades. As Spanish Communist Dolores Ibárruri (‘La Pasionaria’) explained in 1938, the International Brigades “gave us everything — their youth or their maturity; their science or their experience; their blood and their lives; their hopes and aspirations — and they asked us for nothing. But yes, it must be said, they did want a post in battle, they aspired to the honor of dying for us.” The contrast between the motivations of British men and women who joined the brigades and those of their government could not have been sharper.
In February 1939, just one month after Franco captured Barcelona, Britain offered formal recognition to his fascist regime. In the years following the civil war, the regime’s ‘crusade’ against communism led to the execution of an estimated 50,000 Republicans. By 1940, upward of 280,000 people had been imprisoned. Spain became a bulwark of anti-communism during the 1950s and the US opened military bases on Spanish soil as the Caudillo’s dictatorship took its natural place in the Cold War era world order.
While Britain’s workers said No Pasarán!, the establishment worked hand in glove with the fascists to usher in more than three decades of misery for the Spanish people. For Eric Hobsbawm, the most immediate lesson of the Spanish Civil War was that ‘non-intervention’ served one side: the victors.