- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010


By Jimmy Burns

Walker & Co., $26, 396 pages


By Thomas Leo Briggs

Rosebank Press, $28.95, 311 pages


One of the many worries facing Great Britain’s leadership in the opening months of World War II was whether Hitler-friendly Francisco Franco, the strongman leader of Spain, would eschew his declared neutrality and enter the war on Germany’s side or, as a lesser evil, open his borders to the German military. In either event, the British could lose their naval facility at Gibraltar, vital to protecting access to the western Mediterranean. It is no exaggeration that the outcome of the war depended on keeping Franco neutral.

One of the silent players in this struggle was a one-time British publisher named Tom Burns, who went to Madrid ostensibly as a “press attache” in the embassy, working for the Ministry of Information, the propaganda arm of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. In any event, such was the story that he consistently told his family, including son Jimmy, the author of the book at hand. But the younger Mr. Burns was a suspicious sort, a natural byproduct of his years as an award-winning journalist for the Financial Times. Why, he asked himself, did his father’s best friends tend to be old spooks who had retired from MI6 and other intelligence agencies? And what was a “press attache” doing with the miniature Minox camera found in his effects, a gadget long favored by British spies?

After Tom Burns’ death in 1995, his son set about addressing the mystery. One must applaud not only his diligence for reporting, but his keen understanding of the overlap of espionage, diplomacy and propaganda, each of which the Britons employed skillfully during the war. He found people who worked with his father in Madrid - from embassy secretaries to now-aged street urchins who acted as couriers - as well as others who told him, politely but firmly, that their wartime work was still covered by the Official Secrets Act.

Given those latter strictures, his story is necessarily incomplete. But he does detail how British diplomats - often holding their noses - managed to keep Franco from flipping to the German side at a time when Adolf Hitler’s military was sweeping through Europe. One weapon employed was euphemistically called the Knights of St. George, derived from the image of St. George on the face of the British gold sovereign - in actuality, a slush fund of $10 million used to bribe senior Spanish military officers from siding with the Axis.

Burns opinion, in his very first intelligence report, was that Franco’s patriotism was of a nature that would resist any attempt by Hitler “to absorb Spain into his empire.” Ambassador Samuel Hoare was dubious, scrawling “I wonder” on a draft of the message before it went to the code room for dispatch to London. But as the son writes, “Burns’s judgment has ultimately stood the test of time.”

The Germans, with their own diplomatic (and intelligence) presence in Madrid, were distrustful of Burns role from the outset. A Spanish police file, using information from the Gestapo, went so far as to identify him (incorrectly) as the head of the MI6 station. Ironically, Burns‘ had equally vicious enemies within his own embassy. A strong Catholic, during the prewar years he publicly decried the persecution of his churchmen by the communists fighting Franco for control of Spain. H.R. “Kim” Philby, who worked on Spanish affairs for MI6 - later unmasked as a Soviet spy - used these writings to attempt to discredit Burns as a “Franco toady.” He failed.

In the end, Franco decided that his best interests dictated continued neutrality, so Gibraltar remained in Allied hands. Jimmy Burns documents how his decision was heavily influenced by British intelligence, making his book a five-cloak/five-dagger read.

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