This is above all, a love story. A true story of love in times of war. Of love for humanity, of love between fellow beings and – why not say so – a story of love between a newly wed Spanish couple: my parents, Eduardo and Ramona.
The setbacks they suffered during their wedding days escaping from the Gestapo in Spain due to their link with one of the greatest political secrets that covered the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar during WWII.
The clandestine organization of the escape routes zigzagging Spain north to south, east to west, to help the victims of Nazism. Those who had started their fleight in Warsaw, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam or Munich, to end up in Gibraltar, Lisbon or in our Summer house in Redondela, by the Bay of Vigo, in Galicia, from where the victims of the Nazi persecution could finally be evacuated, astonishingly avoiding the paraphernalia of Franco’s bureaucracy.
In spite of the difficulties and the intense anxieties of the participants, this is nevertheless the kind side of war. The side that regards life and hope. I’m referring then to one of the clandestine European MI6 humanitarian organizations that allowed thousands of victims to escape from persecution, humiliation, starvation, ill health – and death – outside the battle fields. To a unique team of women and men supervised from Whitehall and centralized in the British Embassy in Madrid between 1940 and 1945. A group of Spanish and English women and men, who after this heroic collaboration never mentioned it outside their most intimate circle of acquaintances. Aloof to the danger involved in their altruistic participatión in the operations that helped to escape thousands of people through the Iberian Peninsula.
Sixty years later, already in the year 2000, and guided by the oral testimonies of my mother, Ramona de Vicente, and by my father’s diary, Eduardo Martínez Alonso, – who had been closely involved with these events as doctor to the British Embassy in Madrid, and to the Spanish Red Cross simultaneously, – backed by several historical publications and documents registered at the Public Records Office in Surrey, and the Foreign Office in Madrid, I managed to gather enough information to form the backbone of these unknown adventures and publish them in ”Embassy y la Inteligencia de Mambrú” in 2003. Finally, I was able – and glad – to announce to the new generations that other positive events had happened behind the scenes of the barbaric past of their grandparents.
Ever since 1945, and for years to come, it was well known that Sweden and Switzerland as neutral countries had been fundamental escape routes for all sorts of war refugees. Countries traditionally concerned with the cause of humanitarian help, and not only since the Nazis took power in 1933, but more so after the open Jewish persecution, when the world began to discover that thousands of Jews disappeared mysteriously, with no justified cause. Until their executions became so obvious that by 1942 the news spread that a dramatic Holocaust was in process in parallel with the IIWW.
Those were the times too, when very few people understood the strategic geographical and political situation of Spain and its significant role in the whole humanitarian process during the war. Mainly because its organization was linked to the British Intelligence, the MI6, under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
With the advance of the Nazi invasion, after 1939 and in less than a year, Berne and Lisbon, traditionally the centers of wartime British Intelligence in the Continent, were forced to divert their porspects somewhere else. Politicians such as Lord Halifax or Chamberlain, and thereafter Winston Churchill, soon understood that due to its strategic situation, Madrid should substitute the former European capitals; it should remain in the limelight, but active in their secret activitis. The obsolete wartime Intelligence teams of WWI were renewed and the experts were sent to Spain. The German Gestapo was a serious threat. Too much would be at risk if drastic measures were not taken soon.
Spain was neutral and it had a conservative government, – certainly anti-Bolchevich,- in spite of the drawback of a totalitarian Head of State and his well-known sympathies with the Axis. And they were starving.
This meant exceptional triangular arrangements with either Portugal or Argentina could be made to alleviate their needs, by forcing their neutrality. There was not much choice either. Neutral Spain seemed safer for the Allied humanitarian purposes than any other European country already under the boot of Nazism. Geographically too, Spain was protected by the Pyrenees, it was a natural escape route to and from the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean and on the way to 2 vital ports: Lisbon and Gibraltar. According to Nigel West, 164 British agents and 22 consuls, supported by their active vice-consuls, were soon spread around the country to back several areas of Whitehall’s plans.
It may be a coincidence that the new ambassador, Samuel Hoare had formerly been chief of the Secret Service in Russia, but after 1940, from him down, a combination of Intelligence and politics at the Madrid Embassy ran all through WWII.
And here I quote Ambassador Hoare to explain in his own words what the situation was.
How can it be that such an important political and historial fact as the rescue of prisioners of war, and the diversion of 30,000 European refugees – Jews and gentile – through Spain, according to S.S. Hoare (pag. 238) – ( I myself think there were at least 100,000 more, off the record ) – under the heroic guidance of the staff at the British Embassy in Madrid has been ignored by historians and politicians for so long? It is striking that two generations later this aspect has not yet been studied in depth, in spite of Samuel Hoare’s explanations published in 1946, together with the further confirmatións of historians such as Nigel West or David Stafford.
I myself must admit that until I saw captain Allan Hillgarth’s photo in David Stafford’s ”Churchill & Secret Service” neither my mother nor I – who knew him for over 40 years -, knew either that he had been Wartime Intelligence Officer appointed to the British Embassy in Madrid. A post he combined with his ”official” job as Naval Attaché and coinciding with my father as house doctor in the 1940’s, a collaboration he had started after graduating in Madrid and Liverpool in the late 20’s.
This discovery was fundamental in encouraging me to continue investigating.
Why was there so much mystery and secrecy behind this extraordinary story for so long? Certainly because the British Secret Service was behind the Spanish escape routes. The real reason why we haven’ t been able to disentangle this interesting war project till now.
The reorganised team of the MI6, MI5, M21, M9, the SIS, of the 1940’s, worked extra hours behind the Spanish Government’s back, mainly since they alternated neutrality with non-belligerance in a pro-axís environemnt. This also ment that they were well trained and forced to keep secrets.
Although S. Hoare doesn’t mention of it specifically, in the explosive atmosphere of 1941 (to use his own words), the diplomats and the Allied experts in Madrid, with the strong collaboration of the British Consulate in Barcelona, inevitably had to trust discreet external collaborators besides their 164 agents, if they were to use the Iberian Peninsula as main support of the humanitarian agreements, ALWAYS keeping the secret. No wonder then that the small but patriotic British colony in Madrid were their main external supporters.
I have my personal doubts that any of these unofficial collaborators ever signed the Secret Service Act, while supporting the Allied cause, but a curious sociological reaction occured once the war was over. Margarita Kearney Taylor, Juan Bourgignon, Janet Logie, (formerly Hoyter), Marjorie Hill, matron at the Hospital Hispano-Inglés, (later the Anglo-American Hospital), Michael Thompson, Tom Harris, Jim Morrison, Michael Creswell, Clayton-Ray, Ben Wyatt, Walter Starkie, Eddie Knoblaugh,- press correspondent in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War – and doctors Fernando Rico, Alfonso Peña, Francisco Luque – director of the Red Cross Hospital in Madrid, -. Eduardo Martínez Alonso, with the help of his nurse Carmen Zafra in Madrid and his brother Bill in Vigo, and the discreet support of a certain Sr. Pan de Soraluce at the Foreign Ministry (mentioned by S.Hoare in passing) and few others, unanimously felt that their clandestine chores had been altogether too secret and dangerous to mention when it was all over. And no one spoke a word. Even the illiterate Galician sailors, Faustino Otero and his sons Faustino and Moncho who rowed many refugees in their modest rowing boat from our house in Redondela to the British Navy ships waiting at the Bay of Vigo, remained silent till their death. Those repressive Franco days lasted 40 years and by the time I decided to spread the news giving details and names, more than 60 years had passed and there weren’t many witnesses left to remember, or ready to speak as openly as my mother.
I agree with Ambassador Hoare that the British Embassy in Madrid wouldn’t have taken their own action in these rescue operations, if the Spanish Government hadn’t placed so many obstacles and delays on the way. But when he insisted that those without papers, the stateless anti-Nazis, the German, French, or European Jews were an insoluble problem if they were not allowed to cross Spain into Gibraltar or Lisbon, at least the Spanish Administration accepted their entrance on condition that the Allies undertook the responsibility of their evacuation. (S. Hoare, page 237). A crucial point in the whole of the humanitarian program where my father and his close firends participated so actively.
Both parties gave for granted then that the ”official” permission from the Spanish Government also ment most evacuations had to be clandestine. Both governments knew too, how strong the German interference was on the internal Ministerial matters and how well informed the Gestapo was of most activities, not to mention one as risky as the rescue of Jews through Spain.
All that responsibility centered in Spain would have been more relaxed, too, if the Allies and the Axis had followed more closely the 1907 Hague Convention. But the war enemies could not center themselves in the ambiguous art. 13 referring to the release or exchange of prisoners of war, the injured and the refugees, – aggravated by the Jewish underground persecution not contemplated anywhere. All this forced the Allies to take what we call in Spanish: ”el camino de en medio” (a middle road). Therefore the humanitarian cause, unfortunately considered much less important than other vital wartime activities, was dealt with: ”a la que te crió” – by improvisation – under the strenous supervision of a smart, professional British Intelligence team placed almost by chance at the corner of the Monte-Esquinza and Fernando el Santo streets in Madrid.
It was not until 1943 that 2,000 prisoners of war were exchanged simultaneously in the port of Barcelona. But many others had already crossed the Spanish borders behind the dictator’s back, and more still were to do so, through pathless routes.
When the Irish lady Margarita Taylor decided to settle in Spain and open her Tea-Room ”Embassy” (from where my book takes its title) in the most elegant street in Madrid, Pº de la Castellana, 12 on the corner with Ayala, in 1931, she chose to live in the most provincial European capital.Therefore, Margarita, a well known woman of the world, must have had other things in mind by then. Only two blocks away from the British Embassy and openly showing its name in English to the aristocrats living in the neighbourhood palaces, she deliverately wanted to gather the upper classes and the monarchist remains of these influential people in Spain’s social, economic and political spheres, around her, after royalty was sent into exile.
The last, exclusively Spanish romantic monarchists visited ”Embassy” in a kind of sentimental ritual to evoke, without mentioning, the British-Spanish queen Victoria Eugenia married to Alphonse XIII. Margarita’s intentión was to mix these aristocrats and elitist bourgeoisie of the Barrio Salamanca with the foreign diplomats from the American, Swiss, Belgian, Dutch or Norwegian embassies nearby. As well as the British businessmen arriving in Spain, attracted by the indirect benefits they could obtain out of the former Battemberg princess.
That happened about a hundred years ago.
These were the same group of people who later started the English Club, the Anglo Spanish Hospital, the Bank of London, the rubgy teams amongst university students, the first flying schools; they spread the railways across the country, exploited the Minas de Rio Tinto, founded the British Institute and most important of all: the Spanish Red Cross inaugurated and closely sustained by Queen Victoria-Eugenia since 1926.
It was a variety of conservative, upperclass people, both foreign and Spanish, who, like Margarita, were already well settled in Madrid by the 1940’s. THESE where precisely the ones who didn’t hesitate to join and help when the war started. And as soon as they found out that hands were needed they were ready to risk themselves and share their homes, money, clothes and rationed food, that is to say: they joined in solidarity to help as they could.
So the most frivolous madrileños and international snobs in town, therefore, the most unimaginable people for the Spanish Authorities, formed a small but close network of clandestine resistance, without hidding.Totally ignoring those Francoists whose distorted idea of Catholic charity, generosity, or compassion, meant almost the contrary to what it did to a Protestant. The culture of the majority of ”Embassy’s” clients.
This is how, thanks to the heroic, warm-hearted Margarita Taylor, her Tea Room became one of the main supports of the British Embassy among the Allied European centres, to attend the refugees – Jews, stateless people, soldiers and desertors of the European armies taken by Nazism and escaping from Barbarity.
Spanish neutrality could favour these unexpected cooperators, but due to their privileged social situation, they also knew how influential the Gestapo was in the Ministry of Interior,- the Spanish equivalent to the Home Office, – under the fierce, tight control of Serrano-Suñer, also closely scrutinized by Lazar, the obscure German activist in charge of spreading German propaganda in the Spanish media very well situated at the German Embassy in Madrid.
The discreet heroes gathered socially in el Pº de la Castellana, 12, paid no attention to such manipulations, while they occupied themselves in opening the way out to thousands upon thousands of victims escaping through different Spanish frontiers to Portugal or Gibraltar. Many of whom had crossed the Pyrenees illegally and were picked up from the Figueras prison, or the concentation camp in Miranda de Ebro, either in Spanish Red Cross ambulances, (sent by Dr. Francisco Luque from Madrid) under false medical pretenses signed by my father, or diplomatic cars flying small Union Jacks.
Other refugees were able to relax in a friendly atmosphere at Margarita’s home above her tea-room and would later to end up – perhaps – escaping through our Galician house in Faustino’s rowing boat towards the Bay of Vigo. All this after my father had signed their false death certificates at our kitchen table and Michael Creswell (in charge of MI9, Escape & Evasion Service) had handed them a new and ready-made identity, prepared by David Thompson at the Madrid British Embassy to avoid any possible further persecution.
I think it is convenient to clarify too that the rescue of Jews from 1940-42 through this particular escape route that I know of, was, as I said before, organized: ”a la que te crió”, mostly improvised and not well-organized for this particular purpose. In this first phase of war, the MI6 may have planned their Spanish escape routes for military prisoners of war, crashed airmen and stranded submarine sailors connected to the French resistance, BUT the aid to Jewish refugees was added due to Winston Churchill’s personal interest in helping the parallel victims of war, and the only way to do so was by disguising certain information.
This meant that the rescued people were treated as Poles, Czechs, Austrians or Germans. Their religion or race was avoided for extra protection. It would have been impossible to do so as Jews. We have to remember Israel did not exist as a country until 1948 and the only way to avoid their Jewish condition was to link them to their country of origin. Certainly a double risk for the rescuers, but it remains as a confusing matter amongst Jewish people today.
Most of these Anglo-Spanish WWII adventures had a happy ending thanks to the good will, sensibility, compassion and respect to their fellow beings – irrelevant to their ideology, origins or race – of these curious group of friends unoficially organized in Spain and who understood the importance of helping the needed in times of war. And how important it was too, to keep it in secret and to themselves. They all had lived long enough in Spain to understand that in those Franco days an indiscretion could cost many lives.
Although far from the dramas of the battle fields, they felt committed with this international war, more for humanitarian purposes than due to a specific political inclination.
God bless them all.
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