In June 1943 the film star Leslie Howard was mysteriously killed when his plane was shot down by the Luftwaffe on a return flight from Spain. This was an unprovoked attack on a commercial airliner, and there seemed to be no motive for it. British intelligence circulated rumours that the Germans had hoped to kill Churchill, whom they mistakenly thought was travelling on the plane. In fact, it now seems that the Germans’ target was Leslie Howard himself. He was returning from a celebrity tour of Spain, following the success of Gone with the Wind, in which he starred as Ashley Wilkes. Howard had been sent to Spain as part of a propaganda campaign to win Spanish support for the British. The man who arranged the tour was the press attaché at the British Embassy in Madrid, Tom Burns.
Tom Burns, the subject of this book, was the father of Jimmy Burns. Burns senior kept very quiet about what he did in the war, and it has taken Jimmy five years to research the story. A devout Roman Catholic, Tom Burns worked before the war as editor of the Catholic Tablet, and he was both friend and publisher of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. He had an intense relationship with Anne Bowes-Lyon, a posh and passionate Catholic poet who was a cousin of the Queen Mother. In 1940 Burns was sent to Madrid by the Ministry of Information. Working under the British ambassador Samuel Hoare, his brief was to keep Spain neutral and prevent it from joining the war on the side of Hitler by supporting General Franco.
Franco was a pro-Nazi dictator, but Tom Burns had no pangs of conscience about supporting the regime. As a pupil of the Jesuits at Stonyhurst, his first loyalty was always to the Catholic Church. During the Spanish Civil War he had supported the pro-Catholic Franco against the secularist Republic, and he believed that Catholics had a moral duty to fight Hitler by backing Franco, however nasty his regime.
If Burns felt twinges of guilt, it was because he spent the war hedonistically drinking Rioja and eating chorizo in peaceful Madrid tavernas, while his friends in London endured the Blitz. Anne Bowes-Lyon worked in a military hospital nursing wounded soldiers, and their relationship fell apart. Burns had no training as a spy, and he was not a member of M15 or M16, but he got on with Sam Hoare, the ambassador. Soon he found himself in a world of smoke and mirrors, of secret plots and double agents and Spanish aristocrats headed by the Duke of Alba, Spain’s magnificently grand ambassador in London.
In London, Burns was undermined by the Soviet agent Kim Philby, who was the Head of the Iberian Section of MI6. Philby worked secretly to destabilise Franco and prepare for a Soviet takeover in Spain. He saw the pro-Franco Burns as an enemy, and he tried hard to get him sacked. Burns was kept under surveillance, and Philby tried unsuccessfully to identify him as a security risk, a secret agent working for the Nazis.
The Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 made it more crucial than ever to keep Franco out of the war. The espionage was stepped up. MI5 organised stunts such as The Man Who Never Was, which involved faking the body of a major in the British army carrying false military intelligence, who was planted in the sea having apparently been shot down by the Germans. The body, which was carefully prepared in London as part of a hush-hush job codenamed Operation Mincemeat, actually belonged to a homeless alcoholic Welshman.
It all sounds astonishingly amateurish, a combination of James Bond and public- school heroics, but for Tom Burns it ended happily. Not only did he find himself on the right side of history, his support for Franco vindicated by the Cold War, but he also found a young and beautiful Spanish wife.
Jimmy Burns has not written a conventional biography, but he has used his father’s story as the peg on which to hang an account of secret intelligence in wartime Spain. Spy stories are confusing at the best of times, and some of the double bluffs lost me, as did many of the minor characters who pop up and then disappear. But this is a story that needed to be told, and Jimmy Burns tells it well.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 24, 2009Tags: History, Non-fiction, Spain, World War 2