This year marks the 50th
anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill. (see my blog In Memoriam Sir Winston Churchill
March 2015). Next year marks the 100th
anniversary of the BritishSpanish Society. As members of the Anglo-Chilean Society, of which my wife is Vice Chairman, we have reciprocal membership of the BritishSpanish Society. Its Chairman Jimmy Burns has connected the two anniversaries by curating an exhibition of Churchill’s connections with the Spanish-speaking world. Jimmy’s father was the first secretary at the British Embassy in Madrid during the Second World War and played a key role in securing friends in the Franco regime with a view to keeping Spain out of the war. But more of that later.
I recently attended an event to launch the exhibition with speeches by Sir Winston’s great-grandson Randolph Churchill, who was born just two days before the great man died, and Dr Peter Martland of The Cambridge Security Initiative. A fascinating story emerged of Churchill’s many connections with Spain. He drew from his deep sense of history to hold Spain in huge respect as the heir to a great European empire – “one of the oldest branches in the tree of European nations”. Winston’s great ancestor John Churchill, the 1st
Duke of Marlborough, for whom he had high admiration, made his fortune and reputation in the War of Spanish Succession, much of which took place in Spain. He was also related to one of Spain’s best known and most enduring hereditary titles – the House of Alba and was friends with King Alfonso XIII. But it was in the struggle of the Spanish people, allied with Wellington’s army, to expel Napoleon from the Iberian Peninsula that Churchill identified with: its deep-felt sense of honour, bravery and quixotic spirit.
His own personal experience of the violence of Spanish professional soldiers and ideologically driven rebels in the last days of the Spanish empire in Cuba was to influence his non-interventionist attitude towards the later Spanish Civil War. Spanish neutrality became one of Churchill’s key strategic and diplomatic aims in World War II, and an important contribution to the ultimate allied victory. Churchill’s ties with Spain continued after WWII through personal friendships with anglophile Spaniards, and in his twilight years he liked to visit Spain as a private citizen.
In January 1895, Churchill, aged 20, joined the elite British cavalry regiment, the 4th
Hussars as a captain, determined to gain experience of active service. He had to wait a few months before transfer to India and so impatient for action he looked around the world to see where it might be found. Much of the world had been at peace for some time but the one conflict was in Cuba between the Spanish colonial army and Cuban independence rebels. With a letter of introduction from his father’s close friend Sir Henry Wolff, the British ambassador to Madrid, Churchill was temporarily seconded to the Spanish arm as a military observer and war reporter. He saw limited action in which according to My Early Life
“Spanish honour and our own curiosity (was) satisfied”.[i]
But he also acqured a life-time taste for Havana cigars.
Churchill met the anglophile King Alfonso XIII and his consort the English Queen Victoria Eugenia or Edna, as she was more popularly known, during a visit to Spain in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. This developed into a strong personal relationship as King Alfonso visited the UK several times after the Great War. In his book Great Contemporaries
Churchill expressed great admiration for King Alfonso XIII while sympathetic about the personal failings and sheer weight of history that led to the monarch’s fall from rule in 1931 in favour of a Republican government.
The first Sir Winston was the father of John Churchill, the 1st
Duke of Marlborough, who received from a nation grateful for his victories in Europe Blenheim Palace in which Winston was later to be born. Sir Winston also fathered a daughter Arabella, who became the mistress of King James II. She gave birth to James Fitz James, the 1st
Duke of Berwick, from whom the current Duke of Alba is descended. Churchill first befriended his cousin Jimmy Alba, as he was familiarly known, at a country shoot in England.
In July 1936, a military uprising backed by conservative elements within the country took place against the Republican government of Spain amidst growing political and social tension. This coincided with Churchill’s so-called ‘wilderness years’, when he was out of government although far from silent. He warned of the growing militarisation of Nazi Germany while supporting the military uprising in Spain which he viewed through a distinctly anti-communist lens and an enduring sympathy for the fallen King Alfonso XIII, encouraged by his ‘cousin’ the Duke of Alba, the Nationalists’ representative in London. In October 1936, Churchill declared: “The hideous series of nightly butcheries have robbed the Madrid (Republican) government of the lineaments of civilised power.” On being presented to the Republican government’s ambassador to London, Pablo de Azcarate, Churchill reportedly turned red with anger when asked if he could get the UK to intervene against the Nationalist forces. He muttered the words, ‘Blood, Blood, Blood,’ and refused the Spaniard’s outstretched hand.
The truth about the Spanish civil war is that there was much blood on the hands of both sides. Stalin gave strong support to the Republicans and British and American romantics who joined up to fight for this cause were soon appalled by the savagery they witnessed from the communists. Similarly Hitler used the Nationalist cause as useful practice for his armed forces, notoriously with the bombing of Guernica by the Luftwaffe.
Churchill’s views were influenced by partisan reports about the summary executions of Franco sympathisers which reached him from within the Foreign Office (notably the British ambassador Sir Henry Clinton), influential English Catholic hispanists, and most particularly Captain Alan Hillgarth, the British consul in Mallorca. Churchill befriended Hillgarth when he and his wife Clementine visited the island in the late autumn 1935. Hillgarth was later promoted to the post of naval attaché in the British embassy in WWII from where he reported direct to Churchill on secret intelligence and special operations.
Once the German troops had penetrated France a key British objective was to secure Spanish neutrality after Franco had rejected Hitler’s request at Hendaye to allow German troops to cross the border and take Gibraltar. On the 24th
May 1940, just two weeks after Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, he appointed a former intelligence officer and one of Britain’s most experienced politicians Samuel Hoare as ‘ambassador on special mission’ in Madrid, with the aim of countering German influence on the nascent Franco regime. Hoare built up his embassy to play an important role in diplomacy, bribery of Spanish army officers and officials, secret intelligence, special operations, propaganda, and support for the escape lines of Allied prisoners of war and Jews escaping from Nazi occupied Europe to freedom via Spain and Portugal. The head of MI6’s Iberian section was Kim Philby, later discovered to be a Soviet spy.
The Allied landing in North Africa in November 1942, Operation Torch, using the naval and airport facilities of Gibraltar, was a turning point in the war and marked a defining moment in the wartime relationship between Churchill and Spain. A skilled diplomatic strategy involving the British and US embassies in Madrid ensured that Franco, advised by the Anglophile Spanish foreign minister Count Jordana, did not oppose the landings nor allow the Germans to counter them.
In London Churchill often visited the Spanish embassy residence in Belgrave Square not least for its culinary delights. The Spanish ambassador, the Duke of Alba was his distant cousin and had a fine cellar of vintage wines and employed a quality French chef. Meanwhile the intelligence services secretly kept under surveillance other Spanish diplomatic staff and visitors to the embassy, some of whom were suspected of working for Nazi Germany.
Near the end of the war the British embassy in Madrid received an extraordinary approach from a Spanish bull breeder called Jose Escobar. The Spaniard said he had a gift he wanted to give Churchill to thank him for his wartime leadership and for saving Spain and Europe from Nazism. The gift was the head of a bull that had been killed by the famous matador Manolete. The animal had been born with black skin, but with part of his forehead white-haired and in the shape of a ‘V’. Escobar described the gift as a ‘symbol’ of his appreciation for the ‘V’ sign which Churchill always used as a sign of defiance and ultimate victory. The bull’s head was accepted and smuggled out of Spain by ship. After the war, Churchill wrote to Manolete thanking him. When Manolete was killed in the bullring of Linares, Churchill sent a personal letter of condolence to Manolete’s mother in Cordoba. It was delivered by hand by the Duke of Alba.
In September 1958, no longer in frontline politics, Churchill visited Sevilla with his wife Clementine and the following year Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands on board the Christina, the private yacht of his friend, the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. These visits, though private, generated much publicity from the State-controlled media. While the two never met, Franco was delighted to have Churchill, who had refused to intervene to overthrow him, visiting his country as a celebrity tourist - the first of many to come to Spain in search of good weather and relaxation. Churchill would not give interviews but concentrated on good food and wine, reading and writing, painting and smoking cigars made especially for him by the Cuban firm ‘J. Cuesta.’
Churchill died in London on January 24th
, 1965 aged 90. He told his doctor he would die on the same date as his father, and though he had been in a coma for two days following a massive stroke it was indeed on the same day. His state funeral was the first to be given to a non-royal since the death of the Duke of Wellington more than a century earlier. Both men left their mark on Spanish history.