Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
Leading Churchill Myths (16)
“Leslie Howard Kept Spain Out of the War” (Or: “The Brain in Spain was Mainly Off the Plane”)
On 6 October the Daily Telegraph (London) reported that British actor Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind, Berkeley Square, Scarlet Pimpernel, Never the Twain Shall Meet), whose plane was shot down returning to Britain from Spain via Portugal in June 1943, was returning from a secret mission on behalf of Churchill, to prevent Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from joining the Axis powers (http://xrl.us/ot49n).
Spanish author José Rey-Ximena has published a book claiming that Leslie Howard, with the help of his former lover, Conchita Montenegro, secretly met with Franco. He interviewed Montenegro before her death in 2007 at the age of 96. She claimed she had had an affair with Howard after the pair starred together in the 1931 film Never the Twain Shall Meet. She later married a senior member of the far-right Falangist party and, using his influence, arranged the meeting. But Howard was unable to report back when his plane was shot down by the Luftwaffe. “He has never been recognised as either a spy or as a hero,” said Rey-Ximena.
This reminded us of the recent story about Churchill’s “secret peace offers to Mussolini,” which alas are in letters at the bottom of Lake Como, where nobody can read them. To be sure, we asked the opinion of two oracles.
David Stafford, the leading scholar of Churchill and Intelligence, replied: “I myself would never trust an aging ‘luvvie,’ however glamorous and seductive a past she enjoyed, as an independent historical source. Besides, by 1943 Franco needed no persuading not to join Hitler; the Allies had landed in North Africa in November 1942 and the wily Franco could see the way the pendulum was swinging. I think this is complete fantasy.” (Professor Stafford’s view is shared by John Grigg in 1943 and by Richard Lamb in Churchill as War Leader, who note that the concerns about Franco bolting in 1943 were mainly those of the Americans.)
Sir Martin Gilbert replied: “It is the year that is wrong. In Volume I of my Churchill War Papers (page 161, footnote 2), I identify Juan March, in a note from Churchill to Admirals Phillips and Godfrey, as capable of playing an important role “in bringing about friendly relations with Spain….” The note anticipated Churchill’s meeting with Juan March at 5pm that afternoon. But the date was 26 September 1939! Churchill’s main man in Spain was Hillgarth.” (See page 7.)
Captain Alan Hillgarth, Naval Attaché in Madrid 1939-43 and Chief of British Naval Intelligence, Eastern Theatre, 1944-46, has several index entries in the War Papers, Volume III. On 29 April 1941 Churchill minuted Eden: “The basis of Captain Hillgarth’s policy is of the most secret character, and cannot possibly be mentioned.” Gilbert’s footnote explains that “Hillgarth had been personally charged by Churchill, at the end of May1940, with the task of keeping Spain out of the war. To this end Churchill had allocated $10 million…for the necessary payments to Spanish officials, primarily senior army officers” (569). The Hillgarth references clearly show that Churchill’s concern about Spain joining Hitler peaked in 1939-41, and was virtually nonexistent by 1943.
Rey-Ximena’s theory doesn’t even pass the logic test. Given the ongoing role of Hillgarth, if Churchill wanted someone to pry Franco loose from an unexpected lurch to the Axis in 1943, why would he send a film actor?
The implication that Howard’s aircraft was shot down because the Germans had somehow caught onto his spy mission is as absurd as the notion that it was downed because the Germans mistook Howard’s bodyguard, Chenhalls, for Churchill—or the claims of Linda Stokes, Churchill’s bodyguard’s great-niece, that Howard and Chenhalls, were “doubles,” used to throw the Germans off Churchill’s movements (he was returning from North Africa at the time; see FH 131:6).
In the letters column of Finest Hour 133, Professor M.R.D. Foot, the Oxford author of SOE: An Outline History, offered “a more banal but more plausible” reason for the destruction of Leslie Howard’s aircraft: “Another of the passengers in Howard’s plane, also killed, was Wilfred Israel, the Jewish owner of a large department store in prewar Berlin, who happened to have a British as well as a German passport, and had so escaped from Germany. He had been in Lisbon, pursuing work to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis’ clutches. He had long been on the Gestapo’s black list. German secret service officers watched all departures from Lisbon airport from the airport cafe, which overlooked the boarding point. It is not hard to assume that one of them recognised Israel and rang up a friend in the Luftwaffe.”
Churchill himself summarized the Franco worry of 1940 in a speech in the Commons on 24 May 1944: “When our present Ambassador to Spain, the Rt. Hon. Gentleman the Member for Chelsea [Sir Samuel Hoare], went to Madrid almost exactly four years ago to a month, we arranged to keep his airplane waiting on the airfield, as it seemed almost certain that Spain, whose dominant party were under the influence of Germany because Germany had helped them so vigorously in the recently-ended civil war, would follow the example of Italy and join the victorious Germans in the war against Great Britain. Indeed, at that time the Germans proposed to the Spanish Government that triumphal marches of German troops should be held in the principal Spanish cities, and I have no doubt that they suggested to them that the Germans would undertake, in return for the virtual occupation of their country, the seizure of Gibraltar, which would then be handed back to a Germanized Spain. This last would have been easier said than done.
“There is no doubt that if Spain had yielded to German blandishments and pressure at that juncture our burden would have been much heavier. The Straits of Gibraltar would have been closed, and all access to Malta would have been cut off from the West. All the Spanish coast would have become the nesting-place of German U-boats. I certainly did not feel at the time that I should like to see any of those things happen, and none of them did happen. Our Ambassador deserves credit for the influence he rapidly acquired and which continually grew….But the main credit is undoubtedly due to the Spanish resolve to keep out of the war. They had had enough of war, and they wished to keep out of it.”*
*Robert Rhodes James., ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches (New York: Bowker, 1974), 8 vols., VII: 6035.