Portugal during World War II

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During World War II, the Portuguese Republic was an authoritarian political regime under António de Oliveira Salazar and the Estado Novo, often regarded as pro-fascist. Portugal was officially a neutral country; it exported goods to the Allies as well as Germany and other neutral countries.[1] The most exported goods were sugar, tobacco, and tungsten.



The Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 between Portugal and England, is the oldest alliance in the world that is still in force. Salazar chose not to break the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance.

On March 17, 1939, Portugal signed a treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Francoist Spain, known as the Iberian Pact (Pacto Ibérico). In April 1939, Portugal refused the invitation of the Italian Ambassador to join the Anti-Comintern Pact, an alliance between Germany, Italy, and Japan.

On July 29, 1940, Spain and Portugal signed an additional protocol to the Treaty of Friendship and Non-Aggression also known as the Iberian Pact. This protocol was protested against by Hitler.

Operation Felix

The Germans had planned an attack, codenamed Operation Felix, which was never initiated.

Führer Directive No. 18

On November 12, 1940 Hitler issued Führer Directive No. 18. which outlined the plan to invade Portugal if British forces were to gain a footing there. "I also request that the problem of occupying Madeira and the Azores should be considered, together with the advantages and disadvantages which this would entail for our sea and air warfare.The results of these investigations are to be submitted to me as soon as possible.", Hitler added.[2]

Operation Isabella

In June 1941, Operation Isabella was a Nazi German plan to be put into effect after the collapse of the Soviet Union to secure bases in Spain and Portugal for the continuation of the strangulation of Great Britain. This concept was laid out by Hitler but was never executed.

Operation Alacrity

Operation Alacrity was the codename for a proposed Allied seizure of Azores during World War II. The islands were of enormous strategic value regarding the defeat of the German u-boats. Portugal was too weak to defend the Azores, its large colonial empire, or its homeland and tried to stay neutral in the war. Salazar was especially worried about a possible German invasion through Spain and did not want to provoke Hitler nor did he want to give Spain an excuse to take side with the Axis and invade Portugal due to the strategic importance of the Canary Islands. Great Britain and the United States devised plans to set up air bases regardless of Portugal's disapproval. The plans were never put into operation. Instead in 1943 Britain requested, and Portugal agreed, to allow Britain to set up bases there. Operation Alacrity was preceded by War Plan Gray.[3]

Portuguese colonies

In 1941, fearing a Japanese occupation of the island, Portuguese Timor (now East Timor) was briefly occupied by Australian and Dutch forces. On the night of February 19, 1942, the Japanese attacked Portuguese Timor with a force of around 20,000 men, and occupied the capital, Dili before spreading out across the rest of the colony. On September 26, 1945, control of the island was officially returned to Portugal by the Japanese. (See the Battle of Timor).

Military cooperation

With Axis powers

In July 1942, the first Portuguese Junkers Ju 52 aircraft arrived to fly cargo missions.

With Allied Powers

Upon the declaration of war, the Portuguese government announced that the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance remained intact, but since the British did not seek Portuguese assistance, Portugal would remain neutral. In an aide-memoire of September 5, 1939, the British government confirmed the understanding. From the British perspective, Portuguese non-belligerence was essential to keep Spain from entering the war on the side of the Axis."[4]

May 15, 1940, Salazar`s important role in the war was recognized by the British. Douglas Veale, Registrar of the University of Oxford informed Salazar that the University’s Hebdomadal Council had “unanimously decided at its meeting last Monday, to invite you [Salazar] to accept the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Civil Law”.

July 1940 Salazar's decision to stick with the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance allowed the Portuguese Island of Madeira to come to the aid of the Allies, and in July 1940 around 2,500 evacuees from Gibraltar were shipped to Madeira.

September 1940, Winston Churchill wrote to Salazar congratulating him on his ability to keep Portugal out of the war, asserting that “as so often before during the many centuries of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance, British and Portuguese interests are identical on this vital question.”

In 1942 Lajes Field on the Azores was assigned the name Air Base No. 5 and the Portuguese government expanded the runway and sent troops and equipment to Lajes, including Gloster Gladiator fighters. Military activity in the Azores grew as the Gladiators' role progressed into flying cover for Allied convoys, reconnaissance missions, and meteorological flights.

In 1943, the British and American armed forces were allowed basing rights in the Azores; the Royal Air Force called Lajes RAF Lages. The Azores permitted British and American aircraft to protect Allied shipping in the mid-Atlantic.[5]

November 1943, Sir Ronald Campbell, the British ambassador in Lisbon, wrote that "strict neutrality was the price the allies paid for strategic benefits accruing from Portugal's neutrality and that if her neutrality instead of being strict had been more benevolent in allies' favour Spain would inevitably have thrown herself body and soul into the arms of Germany. If this had happened the peninsula would have been occupied and then North Africa, with the result that the whole course of the war would have been altered to the advantage of the Axis."[4]

A similar opinion is shared by Carlton Hayes, the American Ambassador in Spain during World War II, who writes of Salazar in his book, Wartime Mission in Spain : Salazar "didn't look like a regular dictator. Rather, he appeared a modest, quiet, and highly intelligent gentleman and scholar...literally dragged from a professorial chair of political economy in the venerable University of Coimbra a dozen years previously in order to straighten out Portugal's finances, and that his almost miraculous success in this respect had led to the thrusting upon him of other major functions, including those of foreign minister and constitution-maker." Hayes is very appreciative of Portugal’s constant endeavors to draw Spain with Portugal into a genuinely neutral peninsular bloc, an immeasurable contribution, at a time when the British and the United States had much less influence, toward counteracting the propaganda and pleas of the Axis.

In June 1943, a commercial airliner carrying the actor Leslie Howard was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by the Luftwaffe after taking off from Lisbon, possibly because German spies in Lisbon believed that prime minister Winston Churchill was aboard.

In August 1939, Portugal signed a military co-operation agreement with Britain, accepting direct British support in the rearmament and modernization of the Portuguese Armed Forces. The agreement, however, was not implemented until September 1943. In August 1943, Portugal signed the Luso-British agreement, which leased bases in the Azores to the British. The occupation of these facilities until October 12, 1943 was codenamed Operation Alacrity by the Allies.[6] This was a key turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic, allowing the Allies to provide aerial coverage in the Mid-Atlantic gap; helping them to hunt U-boats and protect convoys. Churchill surprised members of parliament (MPs) when he said he would use a 14th-century treaty; many MPs had not known that Portugal and England had the oldest operational alliance in the world, the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373.

On December 1, 1943, British and U.S. military representatives at RAF Lages signed a joint agreement outlining the roles and responsibilities for the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and United States Navy (USN) at Lages Field. The agreement established guidelines and limitations for the US to ferry and transport aircraft to Europe via Lages Field. In return, the US agreed to assist the British in improving and extending existing facilities at Lages. Air Transport Command transport planes began landing at Lages Field immediately after the agreement was signed.

In 1944, Portugal signed an agreement with the United States allowing the use of military facilities in the Azores. American forces constructed a small and short-lived air base on Santa Maria Island.

On May 28, 1944 the first repatriation party left Madeira for Gibraltar and by the end of 1944 only 520 non-priority evacuees remained on the island.[7]

By the end of June 1944, more than 1,900 American aircraft had passed through Lajes Air Base. Using Lajes, the flying time relative to the usual transatlantic route between Brazil and West Africa was cut nearly in half from 70 to 40 hours.

Lajes also served as one of two main stopover and refueling bases for the first transatlantic crossing of non-rigid airships (blimps) in 1944. The USN sent six Goodyear-built K-ships from Naval Air Station South Weymouth in Massachusetts to their first stopover base at Naval Station Argentia, Newfoundland and then on to Lages Field in the Azores before flying to their final destination at Port Lyautey, French Morocco.[8] From their base with Fleet Air Wing 15 at Port Lyautey, the blimps of USN Blimp Squadron ZP-14 (Blimpron 14) conducted nighttime anti-submarine warfare (ASW), surveillance of German U-boats around the Straits of Gibraltar using magnetic anomaly detection (MAD). In 1945, two ZP-14 replacement blimps were sent from Weeksville, North Carolina to the Bermudas and Lajes Air Base before going on to Port Lyautey.[9]

In 1945, a new air base was constructed in the Azores on the island of Terceira and is currently known as Lajes Field. This base is in an area called Lajes, a broad, flat sea terrace that had been a farm. Lajes Field is a plateau rising out of the sea on the northeast corner of the island. This Air Force base is a joint American and Portuguese venture. Lajes Field continues to support United States and Portuguese military operations. During the Cold War, the United States Navy P-3 Orion anti-submarine squadrons patrolled the North Atlantic for Soviet submarines and surface spy vessels.


Several American reports called Lisbon "The Capital of Espionage". However, the PVDE (Portuguese secret police) always maintained a neutral stance towards foreign espionage activity, as long as no one intervened in Portuguese internal policies. Writers such as Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond) were based there,[10] while other prominent people such as the Duke of Windsor and the Spanish royal family were exiled in Estoril. German spies attempted to buy information on trans-Atlantic shipping to help their submarines fight the Battle of the Atlantic. The Spaniard Juan Pujol Garcia, better known as Codename Garbo, passed on misinformation to the Germans, hoping it would hasten the end of the Franco regime; he was recruited by the British as a double agent while in Lisbon. Conversely, William Colepaugh, an American traitor, was recruited as an agent by the Germans while his ship was in port in Lisbon - he was subsequently landed by U-boat U-1230 in Maine before being captured.

Jews and other refugees

The number of refugees that has escaped through Portugal during the war has estimates that range from one hundred thousand to one million. An impressive number considering the size of the country’s population at that time (circa 6 million).[11] "In 1940 Lisbon, happiness was staged so that God could believe it still existed," wrote the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery.[12] The Portuguese capital became a symbol of hope for many refugees. Even Isla and Rick, the star-crossed lovers in the film Casablanca, sought a ticket to that "great embarkation point." Thousands had flooded the city, trying to obtain the documents necessary to escape to the United States or Palestine. Not all found their way.

The number of visas issued by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portuguese consul in Paris, cannot be determined. Yehuda Bauer says that the number of visas must have been close to 10,000[13] and that is the number of refugees who actually reached Portugal in the summer of 1940. But then he adds that of these 10,000 “not all of them received visas from Mendes, but a very high proportion must have”. To reach a more accurate figure one would need to count the visas granted by the Portuguese consulates at: Rotterdam, Den Hague, Antwerp, Paris, Toulouse, Berlin, Geneva, etc. and according to Yad Vashem historian Avraham Milgram in a study from 1999 published by the Shoah Resource Center, International School for Holocaust Studies,[14] a slight analysis of the list of visas granted by Sousa Mendes to Jews and non-Jews in May and June 1940, shows — without diminishing the greatness of his attitude — that the number of visas granted by the consul was lower than the numbers mentioned in the literature, raising a series of questions relative to Portugal and to the entry of Jewish refugees. Milgram concludes that the discrepancy between the reality and the myth of the number of visas granted by Sousa Mendes is great.

More recently, in 2011, Milgram published a densely researched book, “Portugal Salazar and the Jews” where he challenges again the long-established but fuzzy numbers of the Sousa Mendes disobedience episode. To make his point on the exaggeration of the numbers Milgram also cross checks the Bordeaux numbers with those of the HICEM reports. According to HICEM reports, only 1,538 Jews who came to Portugal as refugees without visas to other countries sailed from Lisbon in the second half of 1940, and an additional 4,908 Jews, with the help of HICEM, sailed during 1941. To this number one should add approximately 2,000 Jews who came directly from Italy, Germany, and countries annexed by the Germans armed with American visas. In total, in the eighteen months from July 1940 to December 1941, the HICEM took care of the sea transport of 8,346 Jews who left Lisbon for trans-Atlantic countries.

Because of his heroic efforts in opening up a refugee escape route, Sousa Mendes has been honored by Israel as one of the Righteous Among The Nations. The escape route remained active throughout the war allowing an estimated million refugees to escape from the Nazis through Portugal during World War II.[15]

Sousa Mendes never lost his title as he kept on being listed in the Portuguese Diplomatic Yearbook until 1954, he ended up never retiring and kept on receiving his full Consul salary, 1,593 Portuguese Escudos,[16][17] until the day he died.[18] This was a customary procedure in the Portuguese foreign office, known as “disponibilidade” (meaning “on-call”), diplomats and consuls never retired so they could keep on receiving their full salary. Rui Afonso, a Sousa Mendes biographer, also cites the monthly 1,593 Portuguese Escudos and remarks: "although it was not a salary of a prince, one should not forget that at that time, in Portugal, the salary of a school teacher was only 500 Escudos. Sousa Mendes was therefore receiving a salary that was three times the salary of a school teacher.[19]

Sousa Mendes' actions were not unique. Issuing visas in contravention of instructions was widespread at Portuguese consulates all over Europe.[20]

On 26 June 1940, four days after France's capitulation to Germany, Salazar authorized the main Office of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society ( HIAS-HICEM) in Paris to be transferred to Lisbon. According to the Lisbon Jewish community, Salazar held Moisés Bensabat Amzalak, the leader of the Lisbon Jewish community in high esteem, allowing Amzalak to play an important role in getting Salazar’s permission for the transfer.[21][22]

Historian Carlton Hayes, American Ambassador in Spain during the war, writes of a "prodigious number of refugees",[23] who began pouring into Spain in November and December 1942. Most were Frenchmen, half starved, without money or clothes and Hayes writes of the decisive intervention of the Ambassador Pedro Teotónio Pereira in favour of 16,000 refugees[24] of French military refugees who were trying in 1943 to get from Spain to North Africa in order there to join the Allied forces. In that group were also include Polish, Dutch and Belgian most of whom were soldiers or would-be soldiers. According to Hayes the Poles in particular were destined to perform brilliant feats in the later Italian campaign.[24]

Several other cases were supported by Salazar. The Portuguese Ambassador in Budapest, Carlos Sampaio Garrido and the Chargé d'Affaires Carlos de Liz-Texeira Branquinho helped an estimated 1,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944. They rented houses and apartments in the outskirts of Budapest to shelter and protect refugees from deportation and murder. On April 28, 1944 the Hungarian secret police (counterparts to the Gestapo) raided the Ambassador's home arresting his guests, the Ambassador physically resisted the police, was also arrested, but managed to have his guests released on the grounds of ex-territorially of diplomatic legations. In 2010 Sampaio Garrido was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Other Portuguese who deserve further credit for saving Jews during the war are Professor Francisco Paula Leite Pinto and Moisés Bensabat Amzalak. A devoted Jew, and a Salazar supporter, Amzalak headed the Lisbon Jewish community for more than fifty years (from 1926 until 1978).


Memorial commemorating Gibraltarian evacuees in Madeira

Salazar's decision to stick with the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance allowed Madeira to help the Allies and between 21 July and 13 August 1940, 2,500 of Gibraltar’s civilian population was evacuated, mostly women and children. The Gibraltarian[25] evacuees were shipped to Madeira; this was due to the high risk of Gibraltar being attacked by either Spain or Germany. The Gibraltarians are fondly remembered on the island where they were called Gibraltinos. Some married Madeirans and stayed after the war was over, most remained there until the end of the war.[26]

In 2010 a monument was commissioned in Gibraltar and shipped to Madeira where it was erected next to a small chapel at Santa Catarina park, Funchal. The monument was a gift and a symbol of ever-lasting appreciation from the people of Gibraltar to the people of Madeira.[27]

See also



  1. http://lisboasos.blogspot.com/2010/04/lisboa-dos-espioes.html (Portuguese)
  2. Directive No. 18 (accessed 14 December 2010)
  3. Herz, Norman (2004). Operation Alacrity: The Azores and the War in the Atlantic. Naval Institute Press, 2004. ISBN 9781591143642. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Leite, Joaquim da Costa. "Neutrality by Agreement: Portugal and the British Alliance in World War II." American University International Law Review 14, no. 1 (1998): 185-199
  5. "Factsheets: Lajes Field History - The U.S. Enters the Azores". United States Air Force. Retrieved 2010-08-03. 
  6. http://www.rafweb.org/Biographies/Bromet.htm
  7. Garcia, pp. 20
  8. http://www.naval-airships.org/resources/documents/NAN_vol93_no2_KShips_feature.pdf
  9. www.warwingsart.com (accessed 23 December 2010)
  10. www.dailymail.co.uk (accessed 23 December 2010)
  11. Neil Lochery estimates a high end number of one million - Lochery, Neill - "Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939–45", Public Affairs; 1 edition (November 1, 2011), ISBN 1586488791
  12. Saint-Exupery escaped from France to Portugal and ended up in Lisbon, waiting for a visa to go to America
  13. American Jewry and the Holocaust: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1939–1945, p. 44, ISBN 0-8143-1672-7
  14. Portugal, the Consuls, and the Jewish Refugees, 1938–1941 • Avraham Milgram, Shoah Resource Center, International School for Holocaust Studies
  15. See [1], "The Jews Of Portugal: Contemporary Sites And Events Aristides de Sousa Mendes: A Moral Model For The World" published on the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation website
  16. Documents from Arquivo Digital Ministerio das Financas ACMF/Arquivo/DGCP/07/005/003
  17. http://badigital.sgmf.pt/Arquivo-DGCP--07---005---003/1/
  18. Several other sources also mention the monthly allowance that Sousa Mendes received until his death in 1954: A letter that Sousa Mendes wrote to the Portuguese Bar Association, Ordem dos Advogados - Secretaria do Conselho Geral, Lisboa, Cota - Processo nº 10/1931 Date 1946.04.29 where he says that he is receiving a monthly salary of 1,593 Portuguese Escudos. Other source: Wheeler, Douglas L., "And Who Is My Neighbor? A World War II Hero of Conscience for Portugal," Luso-Brazilian Review 26:1 (Summer, 1989): 119-39.
  19. Afonso, Rui - Um Homem Bom, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, O "Wallenberg" Portugues, Ed Caminho, pag 257
  20. Milgram, Avraham. "Portugal, Salazar, and the Jews", translated by Naftali Greenwood. Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, 2011, (page 89) ISBN 978-965-308-387-5
  21. Levy, Samuel. "Moses Bensabat Amzalak" (in Portuguese). Israeli Community in Lisbon. Retrieved 6 August 2014. 
  22. Goldstein, Israel (1984). My World as a Jew: The Memoirs of Israel Goldstein. Associated University Presses. p. 413. ISBN 9780845347805. 
  23. Hayes 1945, p. 113.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Hayes 1945, p. 119.
  25. Cadiz News (accessed 13 December 2010)
  26. Mascarenhas, Alice (9 January 2013). "Madeira Gold Medal of Merit for Louis". Gibraltar Chronicle The Independent Daily. Retrieved 17 April 2014. 
  27. www.love-madeira.com (accessed 13 December 2010)

Further reading

  • Macintyre, Ben (2013). Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. Broadway Books. ISBN 978-0307888778.