Reader George Harris recently wrote to us asking if we could explain a structure that resembled a military pillbox on top of a cliff in Playa Blanca. The answer goes back more than 80 years, to a time when the islands were teetering on the brink of involvement in World War II.
Lanzarote’s coast is studded with the remains of military defences that were built in 1940 and 1941. Many of them are within sight of beaches and hotels where thousands of British tourists holiday each year, but their original purpose was to keep Britain and its allies at bay with guns and cannons.
In 1940, Hitler’s generals started to plan Operation Felix, the military invasion of the British naval base of Gibraltar by Wehrmacht forces. Having received intelligence of the plan, and fully aware of the strategic threat that such an operation offered, British High Command hatched Operation Pilgrim – the invasion of the Canary Islands.
This, in turn, prompted General Franco to authorize the construction of military defences on the Canaries, while Hitler offered to help defend the islands with aircraft and munitions. Intelligence was notoriously leaky on the islands, where British consular officials and merchants regularly kept their government updated, and many of these building projects were placed off-limits, with trespassers risking arrest.
The result was hundreds of bunkers, pillbox style machine gun nests and smaller constructions, mainly on the four largest of the Canary Islands. Historian Juan José Díaz Benítez estimates that around 75 defence points were constructed on Lanzarote.
They included the bunker next to Mirador del Río, which had existed since the Spanish-American War of 1895, but was reinforced, and a new bunker at Punta Limones in Playa Blanca.
A pillbox from the Punta Limones battery can still be seen on the rise next to Playa Flamingo, although the rest of the battery has been demolished or built over. This, along with a parallel battery in Fuerteventura, would be the main means of defence of the Strait of Bocaina.
But pillboxes were built all around the island’s coasts, from Puerto del Carmen and Arrecife to Famara and Punta Mujeres – anywhere where a military landing might be possible. Many have been demolished, but several still exist- often used as refuges by hunters.
In the end, Franco – worried that Spain’s neutrality would be terminated by an overt act of Nazi support – failed to authorise the invasion of Gibraltar. This, in turn, mean that no attack on the Canaries ever took place.
Further reading: Juan Jose Díaz Benítez. Fortificaciones construidas en Fuerteventura y Lanzarote durante la II Guerra Mundial (2009).
G. Tomezzoli. The Pillboxes of Lanzarote, (2019)
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