On 11 July 1936, says Max Hastings in Bloomberg, an “adventurer-spook” called Major Hugh Pollard left Croydon Airport in a twin-engine Dragon Rapide biplane. Accompanied by “two pretty young women” to make the trip look like a holiday – his 18-year-old daughter and a friend – he flew to Tenerife, whereupon the pilot picked up General Francisco Franco and spirited him to Spain. The 43-year-old fascist leader had been dispatched to the Canary Islands because the leftist government feared he was a “plausible figurehead for a revolt”. Correctly, it turned out. When Franco arrived home, he assumed command of the rebel Nationalists and began “an even bloodier struggle than that currently ravaging Ukraine”: the Spanish Civil War.
While France and Britain chose not to intervene, the conflict quickly turned into a “proxy war”. Franco’s most important backers were Mussolini and Hitler, both of whom were “eager to see France acquire a fascist neighbour at its back door”. Also sympathetic to the fascists’ cause were American business leaders: Texaco sent them five tankers of oil; US carmakers provided 12,000 trucks. Spain’s Republicans, meanwhile, had backing from the Soviet Union, which supplied arms, tanks and planes, “along with thousands of advisers and spies”. The war was extraordinarily bloody: it left 500,000 dead and involved some “appalling atrocities”. (One Nationalist general promised a Republican: “On my word of honour as a gentleman, for every person that you kill, we will kill at least 10.”) And it was Franco’s side that eventually won, in March 1939. In stark contrast to Hitler and Mussolini, he proved “the great survivor among the fascist dictators, ruling until his death in 1975”.