Francisco Franco: The Rise of the Generalisimo

By Arnaldo TeodoraniToday’s protagonist is the Generalisimo Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975 with the title of ‘Caudillo’, leading one of  the longest running dictatorships in Europe. He is best remembered as the leader of the Nationalist faction, the military insurgency which opposed the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War. But how did he rise through the ranks and seized control of a movement that he had not initiated? How did he rule Spain after the war and how did he orchestrate the transition back to the Monarchy?


We are going to cover these and other aspects of Franco’s life in today’s Biographics.

Before we start, a disclaimer: an extensive account of Francisco Franco’s life implies telling the History of a complex conflict and of a whole nation for more than 40 years. So, we are going to skip some chunks in today’s article. If you think we have missed an important event, post your suggestions in the comments on Facebook or here on the website – make sure that you name the protagonist, or protagonists of these events, and we may consider future videos about them.

Bueno, ya he charlado demasiado. Empecemos con la historia del Caudillo!

The Small Cadet

Francisco Franco Bahamonde was born on the 4th of December 1892, in the town of El Ferrol, North Western Spain. He had two brothers and one sister, born into a family that for generations had served the once glorious Spanish Navy. Sister Pilar described him as a very quiet and serious boy, physically very thin. In his childhood Francisco had two obsessions: his studies and his mother, with whom he had a very tight relationship.

Franco as a child.

Francisco’s mother Maria del Pilar was an austere and devout woman, who imbued Francisco with a deep faith in religion and in the importance of the Church in Spanish society. His father was more interested in alcohol and extra-marital affairs, a life-style which Francisco perceived as debauched and actively avoided throughout his life.

In 1898 the once mighty Spanish Empire was reduced to a handful of colonies following the defeat in the Hispano-American war, which cost them Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The remnants of the defeated Spanish fleet returned to El Ferrol, marking a period of mourning for the whole community and especially for the six-year-old. This may have instilled in him a desire to restore the glory of the Empire.

The other effect of the destruction of the fleet was a decline in available spots for the Naval Academy for several years. The Navy would have been Francisco’s natural destination, but he had to settle for an Army career instead. In 1906, aged 14, Francisco enlisted in the Toledo Army academy. The new cadet was so small, his voice so shrill that he quickly became victim of the academy’s bullies. His frame was so frail that the instructors had to modify his training rifle to make it lighter to carry. Francisco made up for his physical shortcomings with determination and hard work, although he did not display particular leadership qualities. He graduated in 1910 with a modest 251st place out of 312 cadets.

The Spanish military was saturated with officers at that time and opportunities for career progression were scarce. In 1912 Francisco took the calculated move of volunteering for a post in Spanish Morocco, the last colony, as the only chance to progress in ranks. His experiences in Africa would be key in shaping his later life. He later declared:

“Without Africa, I could not explain who I am”

El Novio de la Muerte

The Kingdom of Spain was engaged in a brutal colonial war against the rebel tribes of the Rif mountain range. In this conflict Lieutenant Franco displayed qualities so far kept hidden: tenacity and physical courage.

Lieutenant Franco was in charge of a company of Moroccan colonial troops, loyal to the Spanish crown. He was able to maintain a ruthless discipline amongst his soldiers, even when under heavy enemy fire. On one occasion one of his troops refused to eat his rations and threw them at another officer. Franco had him executed by firing squad. It is alleged that he applied this ruthlessness also against civilians, using terror tactics to quell the rebellion.

Franco at age 30 (to the left).


The officers of the Spanish army in Africa at that time were nicknamed ‘Novios de la Muerte’, which can be translated as ‘the grooms (or boyfriends) of Lady Death’. This was because of the high casualty rates amongst their ranks. Franco apparently disregarded the fear of death, often leading from the front almost suicidal attacks against entrenched rebels.

In 1917 Franco had already been promoted Major and was ordered back to Spain to break a strike of coal miners in the northern region of Asturias. During his stay in Oviedo, the capital of the region, he got engaged with Carmen Polo, despite opposition from her family of wealthy merchants.

Back to Morocco in 1918, on the 28th of June he was shot in the stomach, an almost certain appointment with Lady Death. While bleeding out on a stretcher he called out to a doctor, but he was refused treatment. According to the doctor, it would have been futile. Franco then grabbed a rifle and pointed it at the doctor, threatening to shoot him if he was not treated. The medic changed his mind and had him evacuated to the field hospital. Against all odds, he fully recovered. The native troops followed him with blind loyalty afterwards.

In October of 1920 Franco was second-in-command of the Tercio de Extranjeros, the Spanish Foreign Legion recently founded by Lieutenant-Colonel Millan Astray. Millan introduced as such the credo of the Tercio:

“Death in combat is the greatest honour. You die only once. Death arrives without pain and is not so terrible as it seems. The most horrible thing is to live as a coward”

The Tercio became known for its effectiveness, courage and brutality. One of Franco’s soldiers, described as such their operations:

“When it attacked, the Tercio knew no limits to its vengeance. When it left a village, nothing remained but fires and the corpses of men, women and children”

In 1923 Franco became commander of the Tercio, shining for his strategic and administrative ability. On the 23rd of October he married Carmen in Oviedo, with a representative of King Alfonso XIII present at the wedding. They would have only one daughter, Carmencita, born the following year.

After 14 years of service in Morocco, the once mediocre Lieutenant had progressed so quickly that he returned to Spain a Brigadier General. Aged 33, he was the youngest General in Europe since Napoleon. He had also become something of a celebrity, frequenting elite circles and even starring as himself in the movie ‘La Malcasada’ of 1926.

This curious film, dealing with a real-life divorce case, featured many intellectuals, politicians and military leaders of the time. Starring alongside Franco can be seen his old commander Millan Astray, who would later become Nationalist propaganda chief during the Civil War. And even Miguel Primo de Rivera,  who was ruling Spain as a military dictator from 1923 with the blessing of the King.

Franco’s celebrity status and Carmen’s connections gave him access to the elitist world, but he did not enjoy their pleasures. He preferred to relish the traditional and austere values he had learned from his mother, which he imparted to his cadets at the new military academy in Zaragoza. But despite his best efforts for a return to tradition, Spanish society was changing around the young General.

End of an era

From the bottom up, Spanish society was shaken by the rise of leftist movements opposing the traditional pillars of the Monarchy, the Catholic Church and owners of large land estates. At the top, Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship was failing due to his ill-conceived economic policies resulting in high taxation, unsustainable public debt and raising inflation. He was forced to resign in January 1930.

In 1931 Alfonso XIII agreed to democratic elections, which saw the victory of the left. In April, the King abdicated. The Spanish Republic was founded and a new constitution ratified.

According to Franco’s niece, this was a personal catastrophe for him, as he did not believe in democracy nor in a multi-party system.

But the new Government was a fragile one and in November 1933 it was replaced by a conservative coalition, who appointed General Franco as Commander in chief of the Army.

The left continued to cause unrest, though: in 1934 it was launched another massive strike of coal miners in Asturias. Franco was tasked with restoring order in the area. He commanded the Tercio to take charge of the strikers. 2000 protesters were killed or wounded, many more deported to Morocco. But his actions had the unintended consequence of rallying the left wing parties into a strong coalition, called ‘Frente Popular’ or ‘People’s Front’.

In February 1936 new elections were convened. This time it was the leftist People’s Front to secure a victory. The new government ensured that conservative generals were not close to the seat of power. Franco was dispatched to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, 2000 km from Madrid. The Government kept close tabs on him, by wiretapping his phone and checking his mail.

In the meanwhile, unrest and violence were spiralling in the country. The supporters of the leftist government soon gave way to excesses, especially against Catholic institutions. Churches were being burned and priests murdered. Behind the scenes, a group of Generals was plotting a ‘golpe militar’ or military coup.

Franco did not get involved at this stage, coldly calculating the risks involved. The leaders of the plot were General Sanjurjo and General Mola.

Mola, the chief planner of the coup, had a scheme to involve Franco in the ‘Bando Nacional’, or Nationalist Forces. The plan involved dispatching a plane from London to the Canaries, to then smuggle Franco into Morocco, where he would lead the Tercio to join the insurrection.

While on the 11th of July the plane was flying to Gran Canaria, Franco sent an encrypted message to Mola, refusing to participate in the coup. But on the 13th, right wing politician José Calvo Sotelo was murdered by the Republican police, which gave to the insurgents the motivation to proceed with their plans at all costs.

Franco was finally convinced. On the 19th of July 1936 he travelled in civilian disguise to the Moroccan colony. The African Army, numbering 30,000, swore loyalty to Franco and to his cause. But how could he ferry such an army to Spain, when the Navy was loyal to the Republic and was patrolling the straits of Gibraltar?

This is when he secured help from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Italian and German air forces came to help Franco: by organising 800 flights they managed to ferry his forces to mainland Spain.

The hopes of the insurgents for a quick resolution of the coup did not materialise. What had just started was a long and bloody conflict, the Spanish Civil War. The insurgents also had a leadership problem: their commander General Sanjurjo had died in a plane crash on the 20th of July, being replaced by military Junta only formally led by the elder General Cabanellas.

In the meanwhile, Franco had reached Seville and quickly led his army northwards, facing only the resistance of civilians. His African Army soon reached Badajoz, near the Portuguese border. After conquering the city, Franco embarked in a political cleansing of the area. As witnessed by Portuguese journalist Mario Neves, hundreds of prisoners were rounded up in the local bull-fighting ring and executed by firing squad.

Franco continued his march towards Madrid, but in September he ordered a diversion to Toledo, south of the capital. In Toledo a small garrison of Nationalists was besieged by the Republican army inside the Alcazar, the castle which housed the very military academy in which young Francisco had graduated.

Franco’s army defeated the Republicans, but he only joined them the following day, 27th of September, in full view of the news cameras. He had realised that this was more of a PR event than a simple military victory. Toledo was not only home to the Military Academy, it was also the religious capital of Spain. By appearing as the liberator of Toledo Franco had portrayed himself as the defender of Spanish traditional institutions. 

Photo of a victory parade of Spanish national troops and the German Condor Legion in honor of General Francisco Franco in the festively decorated stre​ets of Ciudad de Leon, Castile and Leon on May 22, 1939. The soldiers are marching in two directions: on the left a unit of the Spanish Guardia Civil ​is parading, on the right, the Condor Legion. In the background, the triumphal arch in honor of the Condor Legion.

A coup within a coup

On the same evening, Franco traveled to the city of Caceres. Here, General Millan Astray and General Yague announced that now the whole Nationalist Army was under the sole command of General Franco.

So far Francisco had been leading only the African Army in the south, while General Mola was in command in the North. All the generals, except for the old Cabanellas, thought that a unified leadership would improve their war efforts. Franco was one of the candidates, but he was not sure about taking the mantle. It was thanks to the scheming of his own brother Nicolás that he eventually accepted.

Nicolás first pressured Yague into convincing Francisco to lead all armies. Yague issued a vague threat to Franco: if he didn’t accept the role, the Junta would appoint somebody else.

Nicolás also orchestrated a meeting of eight leading Generals, including Franco, in Salamanca, on the 28th of September 1936. The purpose of the meeting was whether to concentrate on one single person both military and political leadership of the Spanish State during the Civil War. Except for two Generals, everybody voted for Franco to be the leader of the Spanish State, a term which indicated the Nationalist controlled territory.

Franco now had become the Generalisimo of all armed forces and head of the Government. He took on the title of Caudillo, an ancient style for ‘Leader’. In theory, he only had a mandate for the duration of the war. But Nicolás cleverly redacted the Official Bulletin bearing the decision, so that this time limitation was omitted.

The Franco brothers had outsmarted the other generals, a real coup within a coup, which ensured total power for life to the once reluctant insurgent.

Continuing the War

By October 1936 Nationalist forces were in control of the roughly one third of Spanish territory, mainly in the West and North of the Country. But Madrid was still out of Franco’s reach, despite intensive air and artillery bombings. At this time, the Republican government secured support from Stalin. Now, every side of the conflict could rely on help from powerful dictatorships.

This War would not spare civilians, it was a total war in which many of the horrific tactics of WWII would be tested. 

Atrocities were perpetrated on a massive scale, on both sides. Franco and the other Generals enacted a policy of purging captured cities, following the example of Badajoz. The Republicans were also active in executing members of the clergy, Nationalist prisoners, Nationalist sympathisers and even themselves, as a result of infighting among disparate factions – most notably in Catalunya.

It is estimated that by the end of the war the Nationalists had executed 75,000 people, compared to 55,000 murdered by Republicans.

In February 1937, Franco attempted to take Madrid by frontal assault, in the Battle of the Jarama river, but was stopped by the International Brigades of foreign volunteers.

It is interesting to note that 5,000 Germans and 3,000 Italians fought against Franco, joining the International Brigades in support of the Republic. These brigades were 60,000 strong at their peak.

In March Franco approached the capital from North East, capturing Guadalajara first. An Italian Corps took the city and then moved quickly to Madrid, but was repelled by a Republican and Soviet tank counterattack.

Carmen Franco.

Operations progressed for the Nationalists in the north: In August 1937 they captured the Northern stronghold of Santander with help from Italian regular army and Blackshirts. This helped consolidate their territories in the North. In the meanwhile, the German Condor Legion and the Fascist Air Force had been perpetrating the first large carpet bombings of civilian targets over Durango, Barcelona, Madrid and most notably, Guernica, on the 26th of April 1937.

But all in all, despite decisive support from his allies, Franco’s progress was slow. German leadership was frustrated by this and suspected it was a calculated move on his side: Franco’s strategy was to firmly consolidate his own political power before advancing on new territories.

The situation for the Republicans became dire in the 2nd half of 1938. In July they engaged the Nationalists in a protracted battle on the river Ebro, in the North East. It lasted 113 days and claimed more than 13,000 casualties on both sides. The Nationalists, 600,000 strong, could take the hit, the Republicans, less so. In September of 1938 the International Brigades withdrew from Spain, while Mussolini sent even more aircraft and artillery to Franco.

On the 26th of January 1939, Barcelona fell to the Nationalists. The President of the Republic, Manuel Azaña, fled to France. On the 27th of February, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was the first European democratic leader to recognize Franco’s Government as legitimate. On the same day Azaña resigned and by the 1st of April all Republican forces had capitulated. It was the end of the war. Half a million people had died, 2% of the total Spanish population. But the death toll would not stop there.

As a sole ruler, dictator or Caudillo, of the Spanish State, Francisco Franco could not tolerate dissent. After the war had ended, he continued his policy of purging the country from enemies of his regime via executions ruled by military tribunals. Sources differ, but it is alleged that between 30,000 and 200,000 dissidents were executed by Franco’s regime.

The Caudillo and The Fuehrer

Following the beginning of WWII in Europe there was a debate as to whether Spain should join the Axis powers in their fight. On the 23rd of October 1940 Franco and Hitler met in Hendaye, in Southern France. Franco owed much to the Germans, but during that meeting he did not commit to an active participation in the war. This decision was considered a wise one, and defended by Francoist supporters over time. The Spanish military and industrial capabilities had been exhausted by the Civil War, and they were not in shape of joining another conflict.

However, a member of Von Ribbentrop’s staff …

Interviewed by the BBC reported that there had been a previous meeting in Berlin. Ribbentrop had met with Franco’s foreign affairs minister, Ramón Serrano Suñer. The minister proposed to join the Axis, in exchange for a large chunk of North African territory to rebuild the Spanish Empire, but at that time the Germans had not been impressed by the offer.

At the Hendaye meeting, again Franco offered his participation in the war, in exchange for all of French Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Hitler could not accept these demands and the negotiations did not progress. The Fuehrer was furious. This is when he famously said that he’d rather have four teeth pulled off than having another talk with Franco.

Later in the war Franco was astute enough to maintain an equidistant neutrality with both Axis and Allies. For example, on the one hand he allowed allied pilots downed over Spanish territory to re-join their countries, and he never made a move on Gibraltar. On the other hand, he allowed Italian Navy frogmen to launch raids on Gibraltar from Spanish ports. By 1941, he was maintaining good trade relations with the US and the UK, but in that summer he allowed a contingent of 47,000 volunteers to join Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union.

This contingent, known as ‘La Division Azúl’, or Blue Division, was recalled in October of 1943, when it was clear that the war on the Eastern front was a lost cause for the Axis. This marked Franco’s opportunistic shift towards the Allies in the latter part of the War.

A Gradual Transition

After the war Franco came under considerable pressure to restore the monarchy. In 1947 Franco announced a referendum to let the Spanish people decide. The vote confirmed a preference for the monarchy, however the ever-astute Franco, while accepting the decision, declared himself as lifetime regent, with the privilege of appointing a further regent, or a King, before his death.

Following the death of Alfonso XIII in 1941, the natural heir to the throne was his third son Don Juan of Bourbon, Count of Barcelona. Don Juan’s eldest brothers had both renounced the succession. Franco however was under pressure from two components of his power base: the Falangist and the Carlist movements. The Falangists were anti-monarchic, while the Carlist supported another branch of the Bourbons. Franco managed to placate both by selecting as future king the son of Don Juan, named Juan Carlos.

Reluctantly, Don Juan agreed and in 1949 the ten-year-old Juan Carlos travelled to Madrid to begin his studies and training as future Monarch.

While planning for his succession, Franco had to think about rebuilding his country, weakened by the war and internationally isolated. International community saw with suspicion his regime, a remnant of fascist dictatorships from before the war. In fact, Franco’s regime did offer sanctuary to many former Fascists and Nazis – a prime example being former SS Commando Otto Skorzeny, managing a thriving business in Madrid.

Franco embarked on a project to reconcile the opposing factions of the Civil War: the ‘Valle de los Caidos’, or Valley of the Fallen. This is a monumental shrine, built over 20 years, not far from Madrid. It is topped by a gigantic cross, taller than the Eiffel Tower and it houses the remains of 50,000 Nationalist and Republican soldiers.

Franco’s intention was to commemorate the fallen, heal the rift between enemies and lay a promise not to engage in further civil conflict. The intention was good, although some sources claim that it was built thanks to forced labour of Republican prisoners.   

Looking externally, Franco sought to re-establish ties with the West. His strong anti-Communism stance made him especially popular with the United States, and they backed Spain’s entry into the United Nations in 1950.

The relationship with the US was cemented in 1953: Franco and President Eisenhower signed an agreement that enabled the United States to establish four military bases in Spain. In return, Spain was allowed to join NATO.

In the same year, Franco got recognition by the smallest – but by no means powerless – State in the world: the Vatican. Pope Pius XII granted Franco the right to appoint Spanish bishops from a list of several candidates proposed by the Holy See.

In 1956 Morocco gained independence, after being a French protectorate. The Moroccan government demanded authority also over the Sidi-Ifni territory, one of the last remnants of Spanish possessions in North Africa. Franco denied this concession, as ever willing to preserve at least a slice of the Empire. Morocco reacted by creating a Moroccan Liberation Army, which engaged the Spanish garrison in a series of skirmishes, until the Generalisimo ordered the intervention of paratroopers from the motherland. The war – known as the ‘Spanish forgotten war’ – dragged on into 1958, with even the French Army and Air Force joining Franco in February. By April the Moroccans had been defeated, but Spain was pressured by the UN and the US to hand back the region of Tarfaya.

Spain retained control of Sidi-Ifni until 1969, when it returned the former colony to Morocco following a UN resolution.

In 1963 Franco had launched a program to soften his totalitarian regime, in a bid to further improve relationships with the West, and the US in particular. He terminated the activities of military tribunals and had them replaced with civilian courts. He also shut down the special courts created to trial Communists and Freemasons. Other reforms included laws supporting a partial freedom of the press and freedom of worship.

Until then, the regime had actively suppressed the activities of all opposition: left wing parties, trade unions and regional separatists, who were very vocal especially in the Basque country and Catalunya. Franco’s reforms and ouvertures to the West had succeeded in stabilising the country and the economy. Repression of dissenters was toned down, but the Generalisimo still maintained a tough stance against separatism.  

In August of 1965 President Johnson asked for Spain’s participation in the Vietnam War. The Caudillo rejected the invitation, logically wary of engaging in guerrilla warfare in a far-away jungle. But he did order for a team of field medics to join the war.  

Meanwhile, Franco, his advisor Luis Carrero Blanco and prince Juan Carlos, were planning the succession. Their plan was to formally reveal the Bourbon prince as future king in January 1969, but this was delayed due to a series of terrorist attacks from ETA, the Basque separatist.

Finally in July Franco formally announced that Juan Carlos of Bourbon would succeed him as head of State and King of Spain. In a televised ceremony, the prince swore an oath of loyalty to the Caudillo and to the Nationalist Movement.

By 1973 Franco was 81 and not able to handle the day to day administration of the Government. He appointed Carrero Blanco as his Prime Minister, maintaining an active role in some foreign policy matters. Carrero Blanco’s office was short lived: on the 20th of December his car was blown up by ETA, in an explosion so violent that the car flew over a church and landed on a 2nd floor terrace.

A macabre joke started to circulate in Spain:

Arriba España, Arriba Franco … más alto que Carrero Blanco!’

Arriba meaning ‘long live’ but also ‘up with’. So, it can be translated as

‘Up with Spain, Up with Franco … even higher than Carrero Blanco!”

The subsequent crackdown on ETA led to five terrorists being sentenced to death and executed in September of 1975. These death penalties caused massive demonstrations in Madrid, Lisbon and the Basque city of San Sebastian, as well as international condemnation. Franco had firmly backed these, and future executions.

The dissent, the demonstrations, even the jokes … all these were clear signs that times had definitely changed since the totalitarian days of the 1940s and 1950s. The regime, regardless of the Caudillo’s age, was nearing its end.    


Last Words

Generalisimo Francisco Franco Bahamonde had been a reluctant leader who had gained control on the back of his brother’s schemes. He had been a nostalgic of the Empire, ready to bargain his country’s entry in WWII to regain North Africa. He had been the ruthless Caudillo who could not tolerate opposition. And finally, the astute politician who had sought to bring stability to a divided nation. Francisco Franco died on the 20th November of 1975, of natural causes.

BigSus – own work, CC BY 2.5

His last words were reported as

“I ask pardon of all my enemies, as I pardon with all my heart all those who declared themselves my enemy, although I did not consider them to be so”

In his last conversation with Prime Minister Navarro, he asked for the Spanish people to rally around their new King Juan Carlos and ‘to keep the lands of Spain united’.

The Spanish did give their support to Juan Carlos, who successfully led the transition to a full democracy.

I am aware that Francisco Franco and the Civil War remain a divisive topic to this day in Spain, so before I leave I will kindly ask you not to turn the comments section into a rhetoric battle. Why don’t you use the comments instead to suggest another character from the Civil War, maybe on the Republican side?

That’s it from me, I hope you enjoyed this video and as usual … thank you for watching!









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