The Ambassador in Spain (Hayes) to the Secretary of State
[Received March 9—10:20 a.m.]
546. I called on the Foreign Minister this morning to discuss the present status of the steadily increasing number of French refugees in Spain. I said I had understood that Spain had agreed to treat them as non-belligerents and allow their passage through the country. Colonel Malaise had arranged with the Foreign Office for the evacuation of some 1400 refugees who were to leave various places of concentration today for Cadiz and embark there onto French ships. On Saturday Malaise had suddenly been told that authorization had been canceled due to German pressure on the Foreign Office. I inquired what the present status of the refugees was and what the Foreign Office’s policy toward them was.
General Jordana assured me that there was no change in Spain’s basic policy. The Government was anxious to have these refugees leave Spain. It was a question of ways and means. There was no thought of returning them to camps or prisons or interning them. It was true that strenuous representations had been made and that he had given way because the Government figuratively did not have a leg to stand on. The non-belligerent status of Frenchmen was of [Page 264]course a fiction since they are on their way to a battle zone and many, perhaps a majority, will participate in the war. The Minister had hoped we would work fast enough so that at least this first contingent could get out before German pressure became too strong. However, representations had come sooner than he had expected.
The problem now was to find some other way to get them out. The Minister wished to return to his earlier suggestion that they leave via Portugal. He had called the Portuguese Ambassador on Saturday to request them to arrange this but he was out of town over the weekend. He would call him again and requested that I also see him.
I told the Foreign Minister that the delay in evacuating this first group took place principally in the Government Departments concerned. However, I did not want to embarrass the Spanish Government but rather wanted to continue to cooperate.
I appreciated his renewed assurances that the refugees could leave. I knew that the Portuguese Ambassador was away, but that he had now returned and I would endeavor also to see him.
Jordana expressed his appreciation and said that he thought arrangements could be made for the refugees to go to Lisbon from which port there was communication with Casablanca.
In explaining further why he had given way to pressure, Jordana said there had in fact been a threat to sink the refugee ships. He was fearful the threat would be carried out and that a dangerous incident might result. He feared for instance that the ships might be sunk in Spanish territorial waters or that some persons or countries might believe that they had been sunk with Spanish connivance. He referred also to the sinking on February 24th of the Spanish vessel Monte Igueldo off the coast of Brazil. He obviously had in mind the possibility the Germans might sink other Spanish ships.
I expressed the hope that there would be no further pressure, as for example, of a military nature from the same source. Jordana said there had been no other pressure to date and said, “I can assure you Spain will resist pressure in any case in which we are in the right”.
I thanked him for his reiterated assurance.
While the failure to evacuate this first large group through Cadiz is disappointing and annoying, I am hopeful that arrangements can be made to evacuate French refugees via Portugal as General Jordana suggested initially. If this proves not feasible, I shall explore other means.
Jordana was in excellent spirits this morning and his apparent determination to seek the means for evacuating the French refugees leads me to accept this statement that there is no other pressure on Spain at the present time, and to believe that Spain will resist any military pressure which Germany may exert in the future.[Page 265]
Meanwhile the British Embassy, at the instance of the military authorities at Gibraltar where the two French ships, Sidibrahim and Gouverneur General Lepine, have been waiting to proceed to Cadiz to embark the refugees, has expressed fear that the Axis might procure the legal arrest of these ships. The British Embassy said it was considered undesirable, therefore, that the ships should proceed to Cadiz unless the Spanish Government will guarantee that they will not be hindered by any means whatsoever, including legal process, from leaving again.
Whether this means the Gibraltar authorities would detain the French ships until such guarantees are obtained, I do not know. However, if arrangements are made to evacuate the refugees from Portugal by French steamer, the same problem will probably arise in that country. If the refugees are to leave by Portuguese steamer the problem should not arise.
Gibraltar has requested assurances also that adequate security examination will be held either in North Africa or in Gibraltar itself. I have assured the British Embassy that adequate security examinations being held in North Africa.
Repeated to Algiers and Lisbon; copy by mail to Tangier.