Operation Felix

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Operation Felix was the codename for a proposed German seizure of Gibraltar during World War II. It never got beyond the staff study stage, even though planning continued into 1944,[1] primarily because of the reluctance of Spanish ruler Francisco Franco to commit Spain to enter the war on the Axis side.

Background[edit]

Following the Fall of France in June 1940, Hermann Göring advised Adolf Hitler to occupy Spain and North Africa rather than invade the UK. As early as June 1940, before the armistice with France had been signed, General Heinz Guderian also argued for seizing Britain's strategically important naval base of Gibraltar. Guderian even urged Hitler to postpone the armistice so that he could rush on through Spain with two Panzer divisions, take Gibraltar, and then invade French North Africa. General Alfred Jodl, chief of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) operations, presented Hitler with a formal plan to cut off Britain from its eastern empire by invading Spain, Gibraltar, North Africa, and the Suez Canal instead of invading the British Isles.

On 12 July 1940, the OKW set up a special group for the necessary planning. On 22 July, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr and an acknowledged expert on Spain, travelled with several other German officers to Madrid, Spain, where they held talks with Spanish ruler General Francisco Franco and General Juan Vigón, his Minister of War. They then travelled on to Algeciras, where they stayed some days to reconnoitre the approaches to Gibraltar, and returned to Germany with the conclusion that Franco's regime was reluctant to enter the war. However, it has since become known that Canaris was disloyal to Hitler and actually encouraged Franco not to join the Axis.[2] Canaris' team did however determine that Gibraltar might be seized through an air-supported ground assault by at least two infantry regiments, three engineer battalions, and 12 artillery regiments. Canaris declared that without 380 mm (15 in) heavy assault cannon—which he knew were unavailable—Gibraltar could not be taken. When he reported to Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, he gave his personal opinion that even if Germany were able, with the cooperation of Spain, to seize Gibraltar, the British would land in Morocco and French West Africa.[2]

On 18 July, Franco claimed Gibraltar. He did not expect the British to accede to the claim and made it to keep Germany from attempting to take it[citation needed].

In August, Canaris met with Franco's brother-in-law, Ramón Serrano Súñer, who was about to become Spain's Foreign Minister. Canaris urged Serrano Súñer to do what he could to convince Franco to stay out of the war. Soon after, Franco dispatched Serrano Súñer to Berlin to get an idea of Hitler's attitude, since Canaris had assured him that Germany would not forcibly intervene in Spain. When Serrano Súñer met Hitler on 16 September, Hitler did not press very hard for Spanish involvement in the war, perhaps because he planned to meet Franco himself very soon.[2]

Canaris met with Franco around the same time and warned him that if Spain joined the Axis, the Spanish islands—even mainland Spain itself—would be at risk from a British attack. Knowing that Franco feared a hostile German invasion of Spain if he refused to cooperate, Canaris informed him that Hitler had no such intention due to the planned invasion of Russia. Canaris also surprised Franco by admitting that he was convinced Germany could not win the war.

On 8 August, made confident by the secret talks with Canaris, Franco presented extravagant terms for his cooperation to the German Ambassador to Spain, Eberhard von Stohrer; he said that he would only join Hitler if Spain were promised Gibraltar and French Morocco. Germany must also promise military and economic assistance in the form of wheat and oil to help Spain's faltering economy. Additionally, German forces must first land on the British mainland in a full-scale invasion.

This provoked Hitler to send Canaris to Spain again in an effort to convince Franco to join the Axis and soften his "outrageous" demands. To the contrary, Canaris once more reminded Franco that it would be foolish to join the side that was doomed to lose the war.

On 24 August, Hitler approved a general plan for seizing Gibraltar. On 23 October, he personally met with Franco at Hendaye, France, and proposed that Spain enter the war on the Axis side as early as January 1941; Gibraltar would be taken by special Wehrmacht units and turned over to Spain. Franco however refused the offer, emphasizing Spain's need for large-scale military and economic assistance. Hitler took offence when Franco expressed doubts about the possibility of a German victory in fighting the UK on its home territory. Franco also pointed out that even if the British Isles were invaded and conquered, the British government, as well as most of the British Army and vastly powerful Royal Navy, would probably retreat to Canada and continue the Battle of the Atlantic, with U.S. support.

A meaningless memorandum of understanding was signed at Hendaye by Franco and Hitler, neither side getting what it wanted. Some days later, Hitler was reported to have told Benito Mussolini, "I would rather have four of my own teeth pulled out than go through another meeting with that man again!"[3]

Operation planning[edit]

Despite these problems, German military leaders proceeded to prepare for a large-scale operation against Gibraltar. Codenamed Operation Felix, the plan called for two German army corps to enter Spain across the Pyrenees. One corps, under General Ludwig Kübler, was to cross Spain and assault Gibraltar, while the other, commanded by General Rudolf Schmidt, was to secure its flanks. Air support would need one fighter and two dive-bomber wings[clarification needed]. Overall command of Felix was to be assigned to Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau. The plan also made provisions for occupying Spanish possessions in North Africa: Spanish Morocco, Río de Oro, and the Canary Islands, whose ports could then be used as bases for German U-boats.[4]

Proposed German order of battle[edit]

Expeditionary Corps (forming the covering force); General Rudolf Schmidt

49 Gebirgsarmeekorps or Army Mountain Corps (forming the assault force); General Ludwig Kübler

[5]

Diplomatic issues[edit]

On 12 November, Hitler issued Führer Directive No. 18,[6] which stated that "political measures to induce the prompt entry of Spain into the war have been initiated" and that "The aim of German intervention in the Iberian Peninsula (code name Felix) will be to drive the English out of the Western Mediterranean." It also mentioned the potential invasion of Portugal if the British gained a foothold and requested that the occupation of Madeira and of the Azores be investigated.[7]

On 5 December 1940, Hitler met with the German High Command and decided to request permission from Franco for German troops to cross the Spanish border on 10 January 1941. It was planned that General Jodl would go to Spain to make preparations for the attack on Gibraltar as soon as Canaris had obtained Franco's agreement. Canaris accordingly met with Franco on 7 December and put to Franco the need for Spain's immediate entry into the war. Franco responded that Spain was simply not capable of supporting the German army, due to shortages of food and the crippled infrastructure and nature of the country still recovering from its recent civil war. He also expressed his fear that German seizure of Gibraltar would lead to the loss of the Canary Islands and Spain's other overseas possessions by a British counter-invasion.

On receiving Canaris' report, Hitler decided that Operation Felix should be cancelled. His disappointment was reflected in a later letter to Mussolini in which he said, "I fear that Franco is committing here the greatest mistake of his life".[8]

In the opening weeks of 1941, unsuccessful efforts were made by both ambassadors in Berlin and Rome to encourage the Spanish government to change their stance. Franco answered negatively to another request from Hitler to join the war, received on 6 February, using as a pretext the precarious state of Spain's economy and army due to its brutal civil war. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Germany's Foreign Minister, told Hitler that, in his opinion, "Franco has no intention of ever joining the war."

In February 1941, the OKW advised the naval high command that Operation Felix was out of the question for the time being, since the troops earmarked for it would soon be needed elsewhere.

British countermeasures[edit]

The British were well aware of Gibraltar's strategic value and its vulnerability to attack from the Spanish mainland. On the outbreak of war with Italy, most of the civilian population were evacuated to the United Kingdom and other parts of the Empire, except for those in vital jobs in the dockyard, or who were members of the Gibraltar Defence Force. The garrison was more than doubled and the anti-aircraft defences were greatly improved. Work started on a programme of improvements to Gibraltar's fortifications, including a new network of tunnels deep inside the Rock and a system of strong points and minefields covering the land border.[9]

The British garrison: Spring 1941[edit]

A further countermeasure was the creation of a group of specialist army and navy officers known as the 128th Liaison Delegation Party, which would be activated in the event of the German Army moving into Spain. It had two alternative roles; the initial role would be to provide support to General Franco should he decide to resist the Germans and to provide liaison for any British force sent to support the Spanish forces. The second role, in the event of Franco colluding with the Germans, was to demolish Spanish ports and infrastructure and to organize resistance and sabotage with the participation of the Special Operations Executive. This role became pre-eminent later in the war when the group was renamed the Joint Intelligence Centre.[12]

Felix-Heinrich[edit]

On Hitler's insistence, the OKW developed a revised plan for the capture of Gibraltar, which might be implemented once the German invasion of the Soviet Union had been completed. Codenamed Felix-Heinrich, the plan was submitted to General Franz Halder on 10 March 1941. It proposed that as soon as the invading forces in the Soviet Union reached a line between Kiev and Smolensk, hopefully by 15 July, units could then be withdrawn to prepare for the Gibraltar operation, which it was thought could begin on 15 October. Felix-Heinrich would broadly follow the original plan, with the same forces, but with new supporting units.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Burdick, Charles (1968). German Military Strategy and Spain in World War II. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press. pp. 50–52. 
  2. ^ a b c Waller, John H. (1996). The Unseen War in Europe. I.B. Tauris. pp. 155–156. ISBN 1-86064-092-3. 
  3. ^ Ciano, Galeazzo; Malcolm Muggeridge (ed.) (1948). Ciano's Diplomatic Papers. Odhams Press. 
  4. ^ Zabecki, David T. (1999). World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 1481. ISBN 0-8240-7029-1. 
  5. ^ Escuadra, Alfonso and others,Operation Felix (Section: The German assault plan), www.discovergibraltar.com
  6. ^ Directive No. 18, www.alternatewars.com
  7. ^ Escuadra (Section:Spanish co-operation)
  8. ^ Preston, Paul (1995). The Politics of Revenge: Fascism and the Military in Twentieth-century Spain. Routledge. pp. 69–70. ISBN 0-415-12000-4. 
  9. ^ Escuadra (Section:Gibraltar's fortifications and plans)
  10. ^ Escuadra (Section:Gibraltar Garrison and Defences)
  11. ^ Stacey, C P, Colonel (1955), Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War: Volume I SIX YEARS OF WAR: The Army in Canada, Britain and the Pacific, Queen's Printer, Ottawa (p.299)
  12. ^ Schembri, Andrew and Vallejo, Tito Joint Intelligence Centre, www.discovergibraltar.com