Monday, December 21, 2015

On The Trail Of Winston Churchill

In the 13 December 1935 edition of "La Vanguardia", the newspaper included a small item at the foot of its page devoted to news from "the regions". In the Balearics section it reported that the ex-Conservative minister, Winston Churchill, had arrived with his wife on board the "Ciudad de Palma", which had crossed from Barcelona to the Mallorcan capital. He was met by the (English) Vice-Consul and then headed for Formentor, where he was planning on spending some time.

Churchill would not have found Mallorca at its warmest. Above mention of his arrival, the paper said that the whole of the northern mountain area was covered in snow and that the temperature was a mere four degrees. There was another reason for a certain frostiness, not one mentioned on that page of the paper: the cold fears and anxieties of conflict.

It was the Hotel Formentor where Winston and Clementine stayed. This hotel, grand then as it still is, had not enjoyed the greatest of fortunes since its completion. Or at least the person behind it had not. Adan Diehl, the Argentinian poet, had by then left Mallorca along with his wife. It had been mostly her fortune which had been sunk into Diehl's hotel. They returned to Argentina all but penniless, grateful to the locals of Pollensa who had helped pay for their voyage: they, in turn, grateful to Diehl for having created this splendid hotel.

But why was Churchill in Mallorca eighty years ago this month? Another newspaper, "ABC", reported that he was planning on writing and painting. It also reported that he showed an interest in Spain's political situation, asking if it was true that the country was threatened by a "wave of leftism" (an even greater wave than there already was). While he asked about this, he declined to answer questions about international events.

In November that year, the Conservatives had won the general election. Churchill, who had been hoping for the post as First Lord of the Admiralty, was not given it, Baldwin preferring to "keep him fresh to be prime minister" in the event of war. He took himself off, therefore, for a Mediterranean break. His main intention, including getting some sun, was to work on the third volume of "Marlborough: His Life and Times". If he had intended spending longer in Mallorca, this wasn't to prove to be the case. By Christmas Eve, "ABC" was carrying a photo of him and Clementine back in Barcelona. He then went to Morocco, and she returned to England.

But Churchill would have been all too aware of the political situation when he had arrived, and though he might not have been in the cabinet, he remained immensely influential and important. His status was such that the Vice-Consul who had greeted him in Palma had ensured that ample quantities of food and drink were laid on when Churchill visited him. The Vice-Consul was to become someone in whom Churchill placed a great deal of trust: his spy chief in Spain, Alan Hillgarth.

Not long before Churchill had arrived in Mallorca, a British resident of the island was asked by the authorities about a road. This resident was Robert Graves, and the road in question was the main road from Cala Deya. Graves was already aware, in November of that year, of a German who had been accused of spying in Soller, the evidence for which was that he owned a radio. As for the road, rumours were abounding that it was to be used by a landing force. Nothing came of the need for Graves to have to speak to the authorities, but the fact was that in Mallorca in late 1935 there was a great deal of anxiety, one that Hillgarth shared for two reasons: possible war with Italy and what was indeed a "wave of leftism", to which Robert Graves was to refer in a letter, noting the alarm that the "Daily Mail" had spread with a report of "Red Riots".

Given Mallorca's geographical situation and the tensions, pre-Civil War, with Italy, it was understandable that there would have been anxieties and all sorts of rumours. And this again raises the question as to why Churchill was in Mallorca in late 1935. Was it solely for a writing and painting holiday? Maybe it was, but that period spent on the island was to prove to be highly significant. Hillgarth it was who was to eventually be involved with the plan to bribe Franco to keep out of the Second World War, and crucial to that plan was the banker (and Franco's banker) Joan March, described in September 1935 by the "Chicago Tribune" as the "boss of the Balearics". March was one of Hillgarth's key informants.

In the Hotel Formentor, the grand hotel overlooking the bay of Pollensa, did Churchill meet Joan March in December 1935?

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