A fine balance - Portugal in World War II

Lynne Booker


The Portuguese in World War II - With the outbreak of war in 1939, Salazar was confronted by two questions; firstly, how could he keep himself in power, and secondly, how could he ensure the survival of Portugal and her colonies?


Whilst not wanting to reject the Old Alliance with Great Britain, Salazar was influenced by the possibility of a new world order created by the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain. Ultimately, Salazar was a nationalist and sought the best solution for his country. 


Salazar’s Dilemma

President of the Council of Ministers, Salazar had to balance the risks: if he joined the Axis, there was a threat of invasion by Britain (and the US) of the Atlantic islands and the possible loss of the Portuguese Empire; if, on the other hand, he joined the Allies, he risked the possibility of invasion of metropolitan Portugal by Falangist Spain and Nazi Germany. In 1939 Portugal had only 32.600 troops and, as in 1914, the country was not ready (from a military aspect) for war. The obvious answer was to take a neutral stance, and fortunately there was no military advantage to the Allies of Iberian participation in the war and the Germans soon discovered that Hitler had different and bigger fish to fry.


Operation Felix

Hitler’s plan in Operation Felix was to target Gibraltar, Spain, Portugal, Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands. The planned date of his projected attack was January 10, 1941 and his aim was to close the Mediterranean to the Royal Navy, and North Africa (the eventual base for the Torch landings) to the Allies. In return for Spanish cooperation, Franco demanded the return of Gibraltar to Spanish sovereignty and an empire in Morocco. Franco eventually refused to go along with German plans because he would lose the valuable Allied imports (such as petrol and foodstuffs) which sustained his impoverished and war-weary country and he may also have deduced that there was no guarantee that a triumphant Germany would ever leave Spain. If Hitler would not guarantee to return Gibraltar to Spain, were his promises worth anything at all?  Hitler is reported to have said that rather than subject himself to another interview with Franco, he would prefer to visit the dentist. Operation Felix was suspended and shelved for use after Germany had conquered the USSR.


Balancing acts

From 1937 to 1939 Portuguese military volunteers (os viriatos) had fought for Franco’s nationalists and immediately after the Civil War, Franco and Salazar signed a mutual non-aggression pact. Salazar of course ensured the agreement of the Oldest Ally, Great Britain, before he signed. This Iberian Pact was the cornerstone of Portuguese foreign policy until the end of the war, since the two Iberian nations united in purpose were stronger than they were individually. From September 1939 to the summer of 1940, Portugal was neutral but ‘benevolent’ towards the Allies. From the summer of 1940 until the summer of 1941, with the balance of war swinging strongly towards the Axis, Portugal introduced ‘a neutralidade geométrica’, in other words, being a neutral country it treated both Great Britain and Germany equally. In late 1940, General Franco, having teetered on involvement with Germany, instead decided to reaffirm the Pacto Ibérico with Salazar. Hitler and Goering called this the most stupid decision of Franco’s life.


Salazar reaffirmed his alliance with Britain who agreed to use the Royal Navy to transfer the Portuguese government to the Azores should Portugal be attacked. With the entry of the US into the war in December 1941, Spain and Portugal became closer. As Germany became more embroiled in the USSR and Britain and US were still forming their plans, both sides wanted the Iberian states to remain neutral.



There had been emigration to the US from the Azores since the 18th Century and during World War I the US had naval bases in Horta and Ponta Delgada; as an official in the Navy Department, F D Roosevelt himself had been in the Azores in charge of dismantling the US bases immediately post-war. In 1933 a number of Azoreans approached President Roosevelt to ask him to annex the islands to the United States, and it is not therefore surprising that in 1940, Salazar was very apprehensive of US plans for occupation. Despite the fact that the islands are only just over 1.000 kilometres from Lisbon and well over 3.000 from New York, in 1940 Roosevelt considered including both the Azores and Cape Verde Islands under the Monroe Doctrine of 1825. During 1940-41 the US, Britain and Germany each had plans to occupy the islands and from early in the war, Britain even had troops stationed in Plymouth ready to occupy the archipelago at 48 hours’ notice; there were eventually 27 different British plans for such an occupation.


Roosevelt declared that German occupation of the Azores or the Cape Verde Islands would compromise US safety and the US also prepared an expeditionary force of 25.000 ready for a responsive attack. The President of Portugal, General Carmona, visited the Azores in July and August 1941 and his message was "Aqui é Portugal" (Portugal is here).


After the British occupation of Iceland (May 1940) and the German attack on Russia (June 1941), the Azores became less important for the transatlantic supply route to Britain but it was some time before the Allies realised that Germany would not and could not make a move for the islands. At the Atlantic Conference, held aboard battleships throughout three days in early August 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that the US should occupy the Azores and Britain the Cape Verde islands, although, officially, the US was still at this point a neutral nation. (Churchill even spoke of occupying the Canaries if Spain entered the war.)

Despite frequent British entreaties, Salazar blocked British use of the Azores and continued to sell wolfram to Germany, but, after spring 1943 the Allies were in the ascendancy and Portugal moved from neutralidade geométrica to neutralidade de colaboração (collaboration neutrality). With the Allied invasion of Sicily, the conflict zone moved away from Iberia and the possibility receded of German retaliation in Portugal. 


In 1942-3, as the Battle of the Atlantic became more intense, the Azores assumed greater importance as a possible anti-submarine naval base and as an air bridge for the supply of US troops in North Africa and in June 1943, Britain made a formal request for facilities in the Azores. Salazar intuited that the Allies were about to occupy the Azores in any case and he offered to open talks on concessions; he asked for a guarantee that all Allied troops would be withdrawn at the end of the war and that the Portuguese Empire would be safeguarded.

On August 18, 1943, having consulted his Iberian partner, Salazar agreed to the British use of Horta, Ponta Delgada (Royal Navy) and Lajes, Rabo de Peixe (Royal Air Force) as from October 8, 1943. He made the explicit proviso that the US was not included in this concession. Eventually in June 1944, Salazar conceded an airbase to the US on Santa Maria in the Azores in return for a promise that the Americans would allow Portuguese support in the liberation of East Timor. 


From June 1944 to May 1945, as the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt, Portugal ceased to supply wolfram to Germany and also stopped supplying the Allies. After the end of the war, it was the continued US presence in the Azores which guaranteed a place for Portugal in the anti-Soviet NATO alliance, founded in 1949.


East Timor and the Empire

In a pre-emptive strike, Dutch and Australian troops had invaded East Timor in December 1941 and Portugal immediately protested at the violation of her neutrality. Troops were dispatched from mainland Portugal but were still in the middle of the Indian Ocean when the Japanese invaded East Timor in January 1942. To stay on the right side of the Japanese, Portugal accepted an enlarged Japanese Legation in Lisbon (similar in size to the German Embassy). Roosevelt said in 1944 that after the war Portugal should sell off Timor and Macau to Australia - thereby demonstrating his failure to grasp the Portuguese mentality on Empire. At about the same time, Salazar reminded Britain of the promise to safeguard the integrity of the Empire in return for the loan of the Azores bases. It had been said in the US State Department (1942) that Portugal should be dispossessed of the Empire because it was morally depraved (moralmente debochado). Up to, and into, the 1960s the US attempted more than once to get Portugal to exchange her Empire for economic investment in Portugal by the US.


The weight of the economy

Portugal supplied wolfram, tin, sardines, grain and leather to the Axis in return for gold and traded wolfram to the Allies in return for petrol, iron, steel and fertilisers. The Allies blockaded Portugal in retaliation for the commercial links with Germany which Salazar retained in the name of even-handed neutrality. Salazar preferred to do business with the Axis because they paid in gold, whereas Britain paid with promissory notes and the value of the gold held by the Bank of Portugal increased more than ten-fold between 1939 and 1946. As much of this gold arrived in Portugal as payment for Portuguese exports to Germany, there was enough concern after the war about its provenance to cause the US to freeze Portuguese assets in US banks. This issue was not resolved until the 1990s. On the grounds that some of the gold in question had been stolen by the Germans from Jewish people, Portugal returned some of the gold to the Swiss bank through which it had been paid by Germany. Although Portugal’s economy grew by 2,9 per cent during the war, in 1945 a British diplomat was able to say that Portugal gave the depressing spectacle of a man with full pockets and an empty stomach.


Parties and spies

"A western oasis in the frightening desert" was how Rose Macaulay described Lisbon during her visit from January to March 1943. Refugees came to Portugal in their thousands. The rich partied with the famous and spies flourished in Lisbon and Estoril - the Germans operating out of the Hotel Parque and the British from the Hotel Palácio. Among those in or passing through Lisbon were: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, H G Wells, Charles Boyer, Joseph Kennedy, Tyrone Power, Noel Coward, Aleksandr Kerensky, the Windsors, Erich von Stroheim, Stephan Zweig and, of immense benefit to Portugal, the oil millionaire, Calouste Gulbenkian. About 30.000 refugees managed to enter into Portugal in the middle of 1940 solely through the rebellious kind-heartedness of one man, Dr Aristides de Sousa Mendes (see box and get real April 10, 2007).


The scales tip

With the concession of bases in the Azores to Britain and the US, and with the cessation of wolfram exports to Germany in 1944, Portugal emerged from the war on the ‘right’ side. At the Potsdam Conference (July 1945) Stalin criticised the Franco regime, imposed on the Spanish people with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, and for some years Spain became a kind of pariah among nations. Stalin "saved" Portugal and Salazar from this fate by neglecting to mention him. For Portugal, Salazar had mostly fulfilled the aims he had in 1939: to safeguard his own power; to maintain the Portuguese Empire; to safeguard the Portuguese political system from effete liberalism, democracy, and military totalitarianism; to avoid the expenditure required to prosecute a war; and to maintain metropolitan Portugal and the Atlantic Islands free from invasion. Only on this last point had Portugal had to modify its stance as the Allies were allowed military bases in the Azores.

On the other hand, during the war Portugal had suffered from a rise in infant mortality, inflation, wage stagnation, food shortages and major strikes. The five years of European war were followed by pro-democratic demonstrations throughout the country as Salazar himself promised "free elections, as free as in free England".

Culturally, the impact of exotic foreigners arriving in Lisbon brought new habits and experiences in a kaleidoscope of cultures. There were detective novels, swing music and new fashions - women could now be hatless, short haired and cross their legs as they sat alone in cafés; they could even smoke in public!  Many of these new customs ostensibly disappeared as Salazar’s less open society reasserted itself after 1945, but amongst sophisticated lisboetas, all kinds of seeds presenting new possibilities had been planted.