Meeting at Hendaye

The small far south westerly French town of Hendaye is the last stop on the Franco-Spanish railway line from Paris-Madrid before the border. Its palm tree lined waterfront lapped by Atlantic rollers to the west and to the east tower the mountains of the Pyrenees. St. Jean-de-Luz and Biarritz a few miles north are better known, more up-market seaside resorts. On 23 October 1940 the town or at least the station was host to the only meeting of Adolf Hitler Fuhrer of Germany, by then at the height of his prestige, with Francisco Franco the Caudillo leader of Spain. This meeting seldom gets a footnote in histories of World War II, yet it was a significant turning point of that conflict that should rank alongside the more dramatic and bloody Battle of Britain, El Alamein, and Stalingrad. Where the route to the Nazi’s thousand year Reich was stemmed, turned back and destroyed. Hitler wanted to end the neutrality of Spain, capture Gibraltar, use the Spanish possessions in Africa to make the Mediterranean an Axis lake, and use her Atlantic Islands to extend the U-boat campaign against Britain.

Britain's Bastion Of  Gibraltar
Britain’s Bastion of Gibraltar

   Franco arrived late, which annoyed Hitler it was not a deliberate ploy rather a result of the terrible state of the Spanish railways. Hitler expected an easy meeting with Franco ratifying an understanding he had reached with Serrano Suner, the Spanish Foreign Minister and brother-in-law of Franco, the month before in Berlin. But he misjudged Franco.

Hitler and Franco meet at Hendaye

   The Caudillo was not cut from the same cloth as Hitler, and Mussolini; he was a practical man and no fanatic. He had reached the conclusion that Spain was in no condition to enter the war being exhausted by the civil war. Near 800,000 people had been killed in the war or executed by death squads, or had left the country after the nationalist victory. He told Hitler agriculture in Spain lay in ruins the country faced starvation, Britain controlled their essential supplies from the United States and Argentina.

   Hitler dismissed these concerns, Britain’s position was hopeless it was only a matter of time. He tried to browbeat Franco with a constant flow of language with which he usually overwhelmed his victim. But the Caudillo was tough and resilient and infuriated Hitler by insisting on his siesta after lunch, returning an hour later. As they parted the Fuhrer demanded an answer, all Franco would say was he would think about it and write to him. This rebuff was the first serious reversal for Hitler, and Franco’s refusal dangerously strengthened the Fuhrer’s determination to attack the Soviet Union

   When visiting the Duce Benito Mussolini in Florence Hitler told him; ‘I would rather have four teeth out….’ than go through another meeting with Franco. It was not the end of the attempts by Hitler to convince Franco to enter the war.

   The British knew little about the Hendaye meeting Juan Beigbeder, at the time the recently replaced Spanish Foreign Minister, warned Sir Samuel Hoare British Ambassador in Madrid a few days before it was about to take place. Hoare advised his government to put their main effort behind the economic weapon to dissuade Franco from joining the Axis.

   It was not the end of Axis attempts to convince the Spanish to enter the war. Mussolini met with Franco at Bordighera on the Italian Riviera on 12 February 1941. Franco travelled to Italy by road, during the civil war two of his generals had died in a plane crash and since then he refused to fly. Mussolini was no more successful than Hitler. Ten days later Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, telegraphed the German Ambassador in Madrid advising him to take no further action ‘in the question of Spanish entry into the war.’

   Hitler continued to try and entice Franco to join the Axis, often using Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr German Military Intelligence, as his emissary seen then as the German’s expert on Spain and a friend of Franco, but in secret Canaris undermined Hitler and the Nazis position. Advising Franco strongly against joining Hitler as Germany would lose the war. He was instrumental in organising internal resistance in Germany against Hitler which in the end would cost him his life.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris

   British diplomats and intelligence agents were not idle at this time, putting their efforts behind bribing high ranking Spanish government members and military officers. And laying plans for Operation Golden Eye a stay behind scheme of sabotage against transport links and vital infra structure, this was sub divided into Operation Sprinkler to assist the Spanish if they resisted a Nazi invasion and Operation Sconce if Spain cooperated with German plans. These were designed by British Naval Intelligence, the main architects being Alan Hillgarth naval attaché in Madrid and Ian Fleming later creator of James Bond working for Admiral John Godfrey the Director of Naval Intelligence in London.