Military History of Gibraltar During World War II - Abwehr Saboteurs From Spain

Abwehr Saboteurs From Spain

Lesser known than the Italian actions were the sabotage operations and limpet-mine attacks carried out by Spanish and Gibraltarian agents recruited in the Campo de Gibraltar by the Germans. The Abwehr contacted a Spanish staff officer from Campo de Gibraltar, Lieutenant Colonel Eleuterio Sánchez Rubio, a Spanish officer, member of the Falange and coordinator of the intelligence operations in the Campo, to establish a network of saboteurs with access to Gibraltar. Sánchez Rubio designated Emilio Plazas Tejera, also a member of Falange, as operations chief of the organisation. The most of the recruits for the sabotage operations were Spaniards from the Campo. A combination of financial reward, ideological commitment and some threats and intimidation were used to gather a significant number of agents. According to the British intelligence, there were at least 183 Spaniards and Gibraltarians involved in the espionage and sabotage operations against Gibraltar.

Sabotage operations were ordered from Berlin in the late autumn of 1940, but actual work did not start until early 1941. The first operations were unsuccessful. A first attempt to smuggle a bomb into Gibraltar was aborted, as the timing device was faulty. In February there was a large explosion in the North Tunnel, and in April a bomb blew up near the airfield. In June 1941, however, the British intelligence foiled a new attempt, by a German agent, to attach a mine alongside an Allied cargo ship. Another attempt failed when Plazas placed a bomb inside an ammunition store but was not able to bring the explosive. It was not until 1942 that the operations begun to succeed. In January 1942, two Spanish agents manage to destroy two aircraft at the North Front landing strip.

Financed, trained and equipped by the Germans, the saboteurs sank the armed trawler HMT Erin, and destroyed the auxiliary minesweeper HMT Honju, which resulted in the deaths of six British seamen on 18 January 1942. Plazas was assisted by the Spanish naval commander of Puente Mayorga, Manuel Romero Hume, who allowed him to beach a rowboat there. The British intelligence was able however to counteract the sabotage operations. In March 1942, a Gibraltarian, José Key, one of the most prominent agents working for the Germans, responsible for the collection of information on military movements for the Abwehr was arrested and executed in Wandsworth Prison in late 1942. By September 1942, Plazas, whose activities were closely monitored by the British at that time, resigned and left Carlos Calvo, his second in command, in charge of the operations. In late 1942, the German headquarters in Berlin ordered the sabotage operations being expanded. In early 1943, the arrival of an experienced head of Abwehr operations in Spain improved the outreach of the operations.

In March 1943 an ammunition dump was blown up by Calvo's agents. The British, growing suspicious of some of the saboteurs, banned them from entering Gibraltar. This forced the Abwehr to ask Calvo for new personnel. A Spaniard working on the Rock, José Martín Muñoz, was responsible for the explosion and fire at a large fuel tank at Coaling Island on 30 June 1943; this mission, however, would be the first and the last for Muñoz, because he was cornered and arrested by British authorities in August, when he tried to smuggle a bomb into a weapons magazine inside Ragged Staff Tunnel. After being sentenced to death, he was hanged on 11 January 1944 in Gibraltar by British executioner Albert Pierrepoint. A member of an unrelated Abwehr sabotage network, Luis López Cordón-Cuenca (also arrested in 1943) was executed by Pierrepoint on the same day. Calvo himself was put under arrest by the Spanish police and neutralized. He would be a free man again in December, when he rejoined the Abwehr in Madrid, under direct orders of Wolfgang Blaum, aka Baumann, head of the sabotage section in Spain. After a Falangist attempt against the life of pro-allied General José Enrique Varela, perpetrated by Sánchez Rubio network's agent Juan José Domínguez and a meeting between Anthony Eden and the Spanish ambassador at London, Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, Abwehr activities around Gibraltar came to an end.

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