On this day in 1940, Adolf Hitler tells Spanish Foreign Minister Serano Suner to make good on an agreement for Spain to attack Gibraltar, a British-controlled region. This would seal off the Mediterranean and trap British troops in North Africa.
Spain had just emerged from a three-year (1936-39) civil war, leaving Gen. Francisco Franco in dictatorial control of the nation. Although Franco had accepted aid for his Nationalist forces from the fascist governments of Germany and Italy during his war against the left-wing Republicans, he had maintained a posture of “neutrality” once the Second World War broke out. Two factors led the Caudillo, or chief of state, to reconsider this stance: (1) the fact that early Italian victories in Africa and German victories in Europe made a fascist victory more than just a possibility, and (2) his own desire to regain control of Gibraltar, a tiny peninsula south of Spain and a British colony. Toward this end, Franco began manipulating his own people to the point of exercising frenzied mobs to demand war against England to retake Gibraltar, which Spain lost during the War of Spanish Succession in 1704.
Gibraltar was a key strategic region, the only point of access to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean and long a significant air and naval base for the United Kingdom. If Spain could occupy Gibraltar, it would cut Britain off from its own troops in North Africa and frustrate plans to drive back Rommel and his Afrika Korps, as well as stop any British plans to invade Italy. Hitler was keen on pushing Spain in this direction. But when the Fuhrer emphasized the need to move quickly, the Spanish foreign minister, on orders from Franco, insisted that Spain would need 400,000 tons of grain before it could wage war against Britain. Hitler knew this was merely a delaying tactic; Franco did not want to commit his country to the war, even as he allowed German subs to refuel in Spanish ports and German spies to keep tabs on British naval forces in Gibraltar.
But as the war began to turn against the Axis powers, so did Franco, who saw a future of negotiating trade deals with the Western democracies. The Caudillo began to cooperate with the Allies in a variety of ways, including allowing Free French forces to cross Spain from Vichy France to Resistance bases in North Africa. But the Allies saw Franco as a mere opportunist, and Spain was not allowed into the United Nations until 1955.