Recent films about Dunkirk and Churchill have brought the early days of World War II back into the public eye, but how many know that the Canary Islands was on the verge of a British invasion in 1941?
In 1940, Hitler met with Franco’s foreign minister Serrano Suñer to discuss a planned invasion of Gibraltar on 10th June 1941, and German and Spanish troops were ordered to train for the attack.
Gibraltar was essential to Britain’s war effort. Churchill later wrote “Spain held the key to all British enterprises in the Mediterranean,” which included the island of Malta and Egypt. The very real possibility of losing “the Rock” forced the British government to make alternative plans.
One of those projects was Operation Pilgrim, the British plan to invade the Canary Islands. According to Spanish historian Victor Morales Lezcano, Churchill wrote “If we are forced from Gibraltar, we must take the Canaries immediately, allowing us to control the western entry to the Mediterranean.”
The invasion was planned to begin at Puerto de la Luz, Gran Canaria’s main port, with a landing by two infantry battalions from troop carriers with air support provided by an aircraft carrier. Gran Canaria’s airport at Gando would then be seized with the help of a rearguard invasion from the bay of Ariñaga, and Gran Canaria would then be used as the base for a further attack on Tenerife.
In 1994, Austin Baillon, a Tenerife-born operative with the SOE (Special Operations Executive) told Canarian press sources that he had formed part of a 30-strong squadron of commandos who trained to parachute onto Tenerife and conduct sabotage operations to facilitate the British invasion of the island.
Hitler got wind of the plan and recommended the placement of anti-aircraft guns and Stukas in the Canaries, whose defences were hopelessly out of date. Only two military ships were stationed on the islands, many of the islands’ artillery pieces dated from the Cuban War of 1898, air defences consisted of 25 old Fiat biplanes, and supplies were frequently moved by camel.
Spanish military officials on the islands requested armaments, but Franco responded by sending concrete, and several bunker systems were built to defend the coast. Many of these still exist today, with the most complex systems being found in El Pulpito at Tenerife and Tamaraceite in Gran Canaria.
Churchill even warned the US that a Canarian invasion would take place in September 1941, but events soon overtook the plan. Germany focused on its eastern front and the immense Operation Barbarossa, while increasing distrust between Hitler and Franco, as well as British intelligence work, meant that Gibraltar remained British.