Winston’s Derring do

There are not many “trustworthy” novels written about Spain during or after the Civil War as most of them tend to vilify one side or the other, often resorting to wild exaggerations to make the hated side look even worse. So it was a pleasant surprise to come across one that, by and large, sticks to historical fact: G.J. Sansom’s “Winter in Madrid”. Basically the story is how the MI5 ropes in a young university lecturer to find out what an old school chum of his is doing in Madrid in the winter of 1940. The chum appears to have discovered what could turn out to be a rich gold mine and the British government was worried that this new-found wealth would make Franco less dependent on British and American handouts and more inclined to enter WWII on Hitler’s side, which would lead to the loss of Gibraltar. However, the gold mine turns out to be a scam. Meanwhile the reluctant inexperienced young spy discovers that his best friend from school who had fought on the Republican side and been declared missing believed dead after the Battle of the Ebro, had in fact survived the war and was interned in one of Franco’s work camps near Cuenca. This facet of the plot allows the author to explore the country’s political situation, as well as to faithfully portray the miseries of the people living in Madrid, where the Republicans held out against Franco till the bitter end, and took a terrible pounding in the process. But the real gold mine is the sub-plot which tells the story of British ambassador Sir Samuel Hoare’s bribery of several pro-Monarchist generals to get them to convince the dictator to stay out of the war. These traditional conservatives hated the fascists who had created the Falange, which had supported Franco during the Civil War and became the backbone of Spain’s only political party after the war, known as the Movement. The Falangists were totally averse to restoring the Monarchy and all for entering the European war on Hitler’s side. These opposing factions gave Franco a lot of headaches. He couldn’t ignore the generals who had fought by his side in the war, nor could he ignore the Falangists who were contributing so much to making the dictatorship work after the war. As usual he played one side off against the other and ended up sitting on the fence throughout the war. Now a recently published book by the Mallorcan writer Pere Ferrer Guasp tells how the British government enlisted Juan March to help them keep Franco out of the war. March was a rich Spanish banker who had used a large chunk of his fortune to fund Franco during the Civil War. In 1940, he became a secret British agent and opened an account in a bank in New York with ten million dollars to be funnelled to the generals who, despite their loyalty to Franco, were poorly paid and not unwilling to receive a little help from the British. The scheme nearly came to an abrupt end when the US Treasury, aware of March’s involvement with Franco, tried to block the account, believing that March was sending the money to Hitler. Fortunately the British ambassador in Washington was able to convince President Roosevelt that the money was playing an important part in Britain’s war efforts and he called off the Treasury. Meanwhile in Madrid, Sir Samuel Hoare, who had been a Cabinet minister since 1931 and a leading appeaser, was being treated very shabbily by Franco, who never seemed to have time to receive him – while the German ambassador could reach Franco at any time of the day or night. However, Hoare managed to establish good contacts with the pro-Monarchist generals and, through them, with the Monarchists in general, obtaining valuable information from them about what was going on behind the scenes in Spain at the time. His attitude was to collaborate with Franco because his was the established government, although by the end of his tour of duty in 1944 he opposed leaving Franco in power after the war, proposing a programme of propaganda and economic sanctions against him. Meanwhile the opposite happened in Churchill’s case. He had viewed the dictator with distaste in the beginning but by the end of WWII he believed Franco was a bulwark against Communism and should be left alone. In this, as in many other things, Churchill anticipated American thinking by several years. They were all for doing everything possible to undermine Franco after WWII, until they realised that Spain was the perfect site for US military bases to protect the Western world and the Mediterranean against the Russians.


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