Peter Day’s Franco’s Friends is a lively tale of the often implausible collection of British and Spanish characters who helped bring General Franco to power in Spain and then keep Spain out of the Second World War. The British who feature in the story vary from the disreputable right-wingers who were keen on Franco, dictatorship and extremism through to honourable pragmatists who were willing to pay large sums in bribes to help ensure Spain’s neutrality whilst Britain was busy fighting Hitler. All often read like figures out of espionage fiction, especially the British spy caught dressed as a woman who promptly claimed he was simply taking clothes to a female friend in a convenient way.
Many are also larger than life characters with a mix of secret or even murky personal connections that suggest a large web of intrigue. Yet the conspiracies – such as the secret flight using a British plane and crew to bring Franco to the scene of the start of the coup that took him to power – are clearly true. True also is the fact that much was done to direct money into the hands of influential Spanish to persuade them to keep Spain neutral once the Second World War had started.
It is not always clear quite how true the boasts some people subsequently made about their adventurers really were, and there is always a risk at viewing a close network of entwined personal acquaintances, friendships and work colleagues as also meaning a close network of conspiracy (people can know each other without conspiring together). To his credit Peter Day does not assume there is always conspiracy where there is friendship and truth where there are memoirs in the way that low-grade sensational histories do.
The book never quite directly addresses how important the events it chronicles were. For example, the flight that took Franco from the Canaries to Morocco was dramatic, but how important was it to Franco’s coup succeeding? Certainly the events in the book seem to fall short of the book flap’s claims of how Britain’s involvement in the flight and related events meant that Franco’s coup was “orchestrated” by the British secret services.
What the book does bring out clearly is not only the often difficult moral choices faced in foreign policy (is bribing nasty extremists with cash acceptable if the outcome is one less wartime enemy?) and also the long history of close links between England and Spain, now often forgotten in Britain at least. It also does so while being a lively, enjoyable read, with the narrative only slipping slightly into obscurity over the details of Franco’s trip.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.