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Did MI6 start the Spanish Civil War?
05 June 2020 @ 16:08

Upon the death of King Ferdinand VII in 1833, Spain was plunged into civil war, and over the next 60 years suffered twelve successive coups, which destroyed the economy and reduced it to agriculture alone. What made matters worse was that all the farmlands were controlled by a few very rich and powerful landowners.  Catalonia was one of the poorest areas, but was the centre of a nascent trade union movement, with 53 different unions in Barcelona alone.

The breaking point came in 1909 when tribesmen in the Rif attacked mines in Melilla, which were being run by rich Spanish owners. General José Marina Vega, military commander of Melilla, asked Madrid for reinforcements to protect the mines and the Minister of War called up the active and reserve units in Catalonia.  The reserve units were comprised of men who had completed active duty, and were not expecting to have to serve again.  They were the only breadwinners for their families, and they were being forced to fight against other workers who were being exploited by wealthy mine-owners. Their unrest resulted in the union, Solidaridad Obrera - directed by a committee of anarchists and socialists, calling a general strike for Monday 26 July 1909.

Although the civil governor, Ángel Ossorio y Gallardo, had received ample warning of the growing discontent, acts of vandalism were provoked by elements called the jóvenes bárbaros (Young Barbarians), who were associated with the Radical Republican Party (Partido Republicano Radical) By Tuesday, workers had occupied much of central Barcelona, halting troop trains and overturning trams. By Thursday, there was street fighting, with a general eruption of riots, strikes, and the burnings of convents. Many of the rioters were antimilitarist, anticolonial and anticlerical. The rioters considered the Roman Catholic Church a part of the corrupt middle and upper class whose sons did not have to go to war, and much public opinion had been turned against the Church by anarchist elements within the city. Convents were burned, and of 112 buildings set fire during the disturbances, 80 were church-owned or associated with the church. The cemeteries and crypts were broken open and rioters brought the mummies out of their tombs and paraded them through the city in a scene that was pure Buñuel. The mob marched from the convents to the Ramblas and then on to the mayor’s office in the Plaza de San Jaime.  Finally, they reached the palace of the Marques de Comillas, the owner of the African mines which the drafted reservists were due to defend.

Barcelona during the "Tragic week"

Following the disturbances in the suburbs of Barcelona, civil guards and police fired on the demonstrators in Las Ramblas, resulting in the construction of barricades in the streets and the proclamation of martial law. The government declared a state of war and ordered troops to end the revolt. Working class conscripts recruited from Barcelona and already stationed in the city, were considered unreliable under the circumstances. Accordingly, other army units were brought in from Valencia, Zaragoza, Pamplona and Burgos. These reinforcements ended the revolt, resulting in eight dead soldiers and over a hundred civilian deaths. In Spanish history, this week is known as the “Tragic Week.”

The First World War raged across Europe, whilst Spain remained neutral, but after the war the working classes joined with the military in an effort to rid themselves of a corrupt central government. They were largely unsuccessful until a coup put Miguel Primo de Rivera in power as a dictator. He resigned in 1930 and was followed by a succession of dictators.  

King Alfonso XIII realised that there was no support for a monarchy, and he called for municipal elections in 1931. The Socialists, Republicans and Liberals won almost all the seats, and established the Second Spanish Republic. King Alfonso left the country knowing that Spain no longer wanted a king.

After anti-clerical violence in Madrid and the south west, which was brutally put down by the army and the police,  the workers union (CNT) called several strikes, leading to confrontations with the Guardia Civil in the streets of Seville, threatening to bring down the government. The elections of 1931 saw gains by the Republicans and Socialists which strained the political climate further.

When the Great Depression arrived in 1931 the Spanish government gave parcels of land to the rural populations so that they could feed themselves and brought in an eight hour working day. In December of that same year, Liberalists revised the constitution to make the country secular, closing many of the Church-run schools and charities and angering the Catholics.

Five years of unrest followed, with open violence in the streets, and elections that brought in radical governments which destroyed whatever policies the previous ones had made. In 1936 the then Prime Minister, Santiago Casares Quiroga, received word that the military generals were considering a coup.

The military had suffered cutbacks to their ranks, and many of the younger officers realised that there was no promotion likely in the near future. Also, their pay had been capped or reduced, with the ever present prospect of redundancy. In fact, plans for a coup had been discussed in private amongst the top echelons of the army, and the men who would take command were already in place and in contact with each other.

In an effort to defuse the dissent, the Prime MInister moved the army commanders to remote postings.  Francisco Franco to the Canaries, Manuel Goded Llopis to the Balearic Islands and Emilio Mola was moved to Pamplona. José Antonio Primo de Rivera was put in prison in mid-March in order to restrict the Falange (Facist) party.

Francisco franco

Mola immediately began planning the coup from Pamplona, and Franco sent a cryptic message to Casares hinting that the army was disloyal, but rebellion could be avoided if he were made commander of all the armed forces. Caseres ignored it. Cracks were already appearing in the plans of the plotters.

Franco had the respect of the army, especially the African Army known as the Legion, who were the most feared, fanatical soldiers in Spain’s fighting forces. He had been their commanding officer for years, and they were devoted to him. But Franco was in the Canaries, nearly a thousand miles away. The Prime Minister’s plan had worked. He had defused the coup by scattering its planners.

It was at this point that the fulcrum upon which Spain’s future balanced moved to Simpsons restaurant in the Strand, where Luis Bolín, the London correspondent for the right-wing Spanish newspaper ABC, was having lunch with Douglas Francis Jerrold, who was also a devout Catholic and the editor of the English Review, a very prestigious London magazine, with many of the greatest authors and thinkers of the day contributing to its pages. The conversation turned to the situation in Spain, and they both agreed that Franco should be brought back from the Canaries to Tetuan in Africa and reunited with his troops.

Simpsons restaurant

Over the next few days, they recruited a Catholic officer called Major Hugh Pollard, who had been a press officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary during the uprising in 1919 and had produced string of “fake news” periodicals, including a bogus Irish Bulletin, the news-sheet for the Irish Republicans. He was teamed with Cecil Bebb, a qualified and experienced pilot, and to finance the operation, the two were presented with a blank cheque signed by Juan March, the owner of ABC.

Major Hugh Bertie Campbell Pollard

 Douglas Francis Jerrold, as well as being an editor, was also a British intelligence officer, and Cecil Bebb was an ex-MI6 operative.

Dragon Rapide aircraft. The one which carried Franco is displayed at the military aviation museum in Madrid.

Together they hired a Dragon Rapide aircraft at Croyden airport, and at Jerrold’s suggestion they took along Pollard’s daughter and friend as “cover.”  Bebb piloted the aircraft to Teneriffe, where they landed on the 11 of July 1936. They had been given the name of a doctor to contact who would pass a coded message to Franco. By the 12th the aircraft was in Casablanca with Franco on board. Franco sent a cable to Mola saying that he thought that there was insufficient support for the coup. Mola, who was in the last stages of organising the coup, threw the letter on the floor in rage. Bebb flew Franco to Gran Canaria, seemingly to attend a funeral, but his real mission was to install General Orgas, another conspirator, as military leader of the Canaries. Franco was still doubtful of support, but any incident could lead to uncontrollable war and the spark was provided by the murder of a police officer by Falangists in Madrid on the 14th. A wave of reprisal killings started and the government did nothing to stop the slaughter or arrest the killers. As soon as Franco learned of the reaction in Spain, he realised that the killings had given him all the support he needed and cabled Mola in Pamplona to tell him that he was committed to the overthrow of the government.

Franco kissed his wife and daughter goodbye, and joined Bebb and Pollard who flew him to Tetuan where he was reunited with his troops and immediately began preparations for a coup on the mainland. When they landed at six in the morning, Franco was ecstatic and told the two Englishmen that “One day people will know what you have done. Today I have no words to express my gratitude.” 

Meanwhile, Luis Bolín flew to Rome, to request the loan of twelve bombers with a sufficient number of bombs. Mussolini had promised to help Mola to overthrow the government 1934, but he had no proof that Bolín represented Mola and refused. It was only when Mussolini contacted Mola direct that he realised that he was genuine. On July 25, he gave his permission, and the bombers took off for Morocco with Bolín aboard one of them. The bombers were necessary to break the blockade of the Moroccan waters by loyal Spanish war ships and enable Franco's troops to reach the mainland. Only nine bombers reached Morocco. Two planes crashed, and one made a forced landing in French Morocco, but Bolín was on one of the planes that landed safely in Tetuan.

 In return for his assistance, Bolín was appointed by Franco honorary Captain of the Spanish Foreign Legion. He also became Franco's chief press officer,

It has never been established whether Bebb and Pollard were acting with British government’s approval, but Pollard became MI6 station chief at the British Embassy in Madrid for the duration of the Spanish Civil War and Second World War.  



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