Alongside Hitler

Most of the prisoners who worked on the works to fortify the Straits came from the north of Spain. The Franco regime therefore isolated them in two ways: from their families and their closest social contacts. This was an extra cruelty on top of the dreadful conditions in which they were living. Suffering from malnutrition and weakened by illnesses, many of them died. And all to satisfy another of Franco’s ambitions: to enter the Second World War alongside Hitler, invade Gibraltar, control the Straits and take over the French colonies in North Africa. That was the real objective of the works which began in May 1939, months before Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.

Franco’s initial objective was to attack the British base of Gibraltar and close the Straits to maritime traffic. This military operation, as we have seen, started to take shape several months before September 1939, which was when Germany invaded Poland and World War II officially began. It was also prior to the later operations to occupy the Rock of Gibraltar which were planned by the Italian-German axis, such as Operation Félix in July/August 1940, Operation Illona in 1942 and Operation Gisela in 1943.

All these Italian and German operations had a certain level of support from the Spanish authorities, otherwise they would not have been possible. What is unusual about the Spanish plan which began in August 1939 is on one hand the timing and, on the other, that it only involved the Spanish army.
In 1943, after the battle of Stalingrad and the Soviet advance towards Germany, it was evident that the Germans were not going to win the war. At that point the Franco government also took a different turn in its international policy and, among other things, said that the fortification works of the Straits were being carried out for defence purposes, to prevent a possible invasion by allied troops. That was what Franco’s government wanted the British and international opinion to think, although in reality, as can be seen from one of the secret reports from August 1939, the objective was actually different:
“(…) try to maintain the fiction that our fortification works are defensive, which does apply to the fortification, but obviously our plan for use of the artillery is offensive and aimed at getting the British out.”
The works continued until 1945 but with the official excuse that the only intention was to impede a possible invasion by the Allies on the coastline of the Straits. The Franco government continued to represent itself as neutral, but it did have plans so that if the German and Italian forces had managed to close the Suez canal, it is very possible that Spain would have closed the Straits and attacked Gibraltar.
Shortly after the civil war ended, in April 1939, Franco’s victorious army had 29 concentration camps in southern Spain, 26 in Andalucía and three in Extremadura, in which 74,489 people were being held. In Cádiz province there were only two, one in Rota and the other in Puerto Real. Most of these prisoners were soldiers and militia from the vanquished Republican army, plus citizens who had been detained as political prisoners because they were union members or affiliated with the Republic. However, from July 1939, things changed. The Franco high command decided that the areas which were considered most strategic on the peninsula, the Pyrenees and the Straits of Gibraltar, should be fortified and ordered large numbers of prisoners from the so-called ‘workers’ battalions’ to be moved.
About 30,000 prisoners came to live and work in the Campo de Gibraltar between 1939 and 1945. They carried out the hardest jobs: clearing and levelling the ground, building tracks, unloading and moving materials, etc. The more technical and specialised part of the works were done by engineers from the Franco army and qualified civilians, but the work carried out by the battalions was fundamental.