This week, on the Vaguely Interesting Podcast, we go back to the 1930s and visit the Croydon Airport to meet the Englishman who started the Spanish Civil War.
Just after seven o’clock in the morning on 11 July 1936, Captain Cecil Bebb prepared his plane for take-off.
At a quarter past seven, Captain Bebb, along with his navigator Major Hugh Pollard and two female friends, launched into the air from London’s Croydon Airport.
Bebb’s de Havilland Dragon Rapide biplane headed south by southwest. This wasn’t an idle pleasure trip. Bebb’s flight would play an important part in the start of the Spanish Civil War.
Captain Bebb was a freelance pilot. His usual work involved shuttling travellers on short cross channel hops. A quick hop to Le Touquet or Le Bourget would transport the well heeled to the continent in less time than it took most to get into the West End of London.
But, on that Saturday in July, Captain Bebb’s mission was far more exotic. And it would have consequences that the pilot could not even begin to imagine.
His journey would take him to the Canary Islands and then on to Spanish Morocco. On arrival in the Canary Islands, he was to pick up a passenger, General Francisco Franco, and take him to Africa. With the future Caudillo on board, the flight would become one of the incendiary sparks of the Spanish Civil War.
In 1936, the Canary Islands were the furthest outpost of a severely truncated Spanish state. 40 years before, Spain still had the remnants of a trans-Atlantic empire. It still ruled the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico along with a clutch of Pacific islands.
These remnants were a far cry from the continent-spanning empire of Philip II, but they were enough to bolster Spain’s claims to imperial importance. But even this shrunken empire would not last into the 20th century.
In 1898, the United States fought and defeated Spain. Within two years of that war, Spain had withdrawn from the Pacific and the Americas. Four centuries of imperial power had unraveled. Spanish imperialists were now forced to focus on a tiny spread of possessions much closer to home.
By the 1930s, the last remaining traces of the Spanish Empire were in or off the coast of Africa. Other European countries had carved vast empires in the scramble for Africa. Spain clung on to Morocco, the Canary Islands and Spanish Guinea. Spanish Morocco included Western Sahara and the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla.
In the same four decades, political turmoil and revolution shook Spain. A shaky republican democracy had replaced a staid and out of touch monarchy. By 1936, left-wing parties were in the ascendent. Together, they formed a Popular Front. Its aim was to overcome infighting on the left and defeat the right wing parties.
The Popular Front won a narrow victory in that year’s general election. This was followed by attacks on the church, the army and the landowning class. The election result brought tensions between left and right to a head.
The republic’s leaders knew they had a problem with the army. They suspected that many senior figures were disloyal and could rebel. One solution was to send the most suspect and dangerous as far away from the main cities as possible. Franco’s destierro (banishment) to the Canary Islands moved him as far away as possible.
Franco was a key figure in right-wing plots to mount a coup against the republican government in Madrid. It was vital that he was brought closer to the mainland and put in control of the Army of Africa in Morocco. His July flight would take him from banishment and put him back at the centre of Spanish politics and, ultimately, civil war.
Coincidentally, it was another plane ride that would put Franco in charge of the uprising. General José Sanjurjo had been designated as the leader of the rightish forces. Just nine days after Franco’s flight, General Sanjurjo also took a flight. His journey, however, ended in tragedy when his plane crashed and the general died.
Did Captain Bebb know what he was getting involved in? Some sources claim that Bebb was an agent for Britain’s MI6. Others suggest that only Major Pollard was a spy and that he got Bebb involved as a trusted friend.
Major Pollard was a devout Roman Catholic who supported the Spanish Nationalists. Was the flight plotted by Douglas Francis Jerrold, the conservative Roman Catholic editor of the English Review?
Jerrold is reputed to have met with Luis Bolín, the London correspondent of the conservative ABC Newspaper. Bolín would later serve as Franco’s senior press advisor. According to this narrative, Jerrold then persuaded Pollard to organise the flight. Pollard, in turn, recruited Bebb as pilot, and then used his daughter Diana, and a friend, as cover for the mission.
In 1983, Granada TV interviewed Bebb for its documentary series on the Spanish Civil War. He recalls his role as little more than a ripping yarn from a spiffing romp.
“A gentleman from Spain … asked me if I was prepared to go to the Canary Islands to get a Rif leader to start an insurrection in Spanish Morocco. I thought ‘what a delightful idea, what a great adventure'”.
The resulting conflict was a brutal prelude to the clash of ideologies of the Second World War. Half a million Spaniards are estimated to have lost their lives. The country would live under the Franco dictatorship for the following 40 years.