Cold War Spain

Leon Degrelle


When the Second World War was in its final stages many former Nazis fled Germany before it was overrun by the Allies, but no escape was more spectacular than that of Leon Degrelle. Leon was a Belgian who had joined the Walloon legion of the Wehrmacht created in 1941 to fight against the Soviet Union on the Eastern front. Having no previous military experience he joined as a private, but was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class in March 1942. After a meteoric rise through the ranks, he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class later that same month.     

The Walloon regiment was absorbed into the Waffen-SS, and in early 1944 was tasked with defending the Eastern Front around the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket. The Germans lost the battle, and Degrelle led the regiment in a withdrawal under heavy fire.  Of the 2,000 men in the brigade, only 632 survived. For his bravery and skill in battle, Leon was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by Hitler personally in February 1944 and promoted to major. Leon later confided to colleagues that Hitler said that if he had a son he would want him to be like Degrelle. Less than six months later, Degrelle was awarded the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves.

His favour with the Germans had not gone unnoticed. In In July 1944 in his home town of Bouillon, his brother Edouard, who was a pharmacist, was killed by resistance fighters. Later, three civilian hostages, who were known enemies of Degrelle, were rounded up and  executed seemingly on Degrelle’s orders.

After leading his regiment against the Russians in the defense of Estonia in May 1945 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, then later to full colonel.


But the war was lost for Germany, and before the surrender of Berlin on May 2 1945 Degrelle ordered his worn-out and demoralised troops to the Baltic port of Lubeck to surrender to the British.  He continued to Denmark and then to Norway, where according to some sources, Albert Speer provided a Heinkel111 for Degrelle to escape. If he surrendered to the British, they would have sent him back to Holland to face execution. He still had a family and his own children somewhere in Germany, and fighter that he was, he chose a near-suicidal option; he would take the bomber to Spain.

The skies above Europe were controlled by the allied air forces, but Degrelle flew 1,500 miles to crash land on the beach at San Sebastian. He was gravely injured in the crash and was hospitalised for over a year, but once recovered, Degrelle contacted friends who began combing the records in Germany and Belgium for his family, and one-by-one they were found and reunited with him. He would often appear at social events in a white uniform wearing all his German decorations and showing not the slightest of regrets over the war except that Germany lost. Over the decades, the Belgian authorities repeatedly made attempts to have Degrelle handed back for trial, but Spain always thwarted them.    

To give him some legitimate standing in Spain and to conceal his past, he was granted Spanish citizenship with the new name of José León Ramírez Reina, and Franco made him director of a construction company that frequently handled military contracts. It was as a Spanish businessman that Leon became directly involved in the Cold War.


The USS George Washington, one of the US Polaris fleet.


In 1953 Franco was visited by the American ambassador carrying a proposition from the newly elected President Eisenhower. The US wanted bases closer to the Soviet block and they were willing to pay top dollar to get them. At this time, Spain’s economy was in tatters and Franco was only too happy to take the money. However, the deal came with a few caveats. Firstly, within the bases themselves, US laws ruled. No US serviceman or civilian could be arrested and tried by Spanish authorities even for a crime committed off base. The most significant clause was that the US could use the bases to store and train aircrew with nuclear weapons and that they could install defensive weapons around the runways and fly armed aircraft in and out of the bases across Spanish airspace. Franco agreed, and introduced José León Ramírez Reina (AKA Leon Degrelle) to the Americans to negotiate construction contracts.

Three bases were rented by the US and converted to the high security levels that the Americans required. The first, and most important, was Rota on the north side of the bay of Cadiz. Rota was one of Spain’s most important naval bases and the Americans wanted to use a part of the port facilities there to service their warships. The naval base would be commanded by a Spanish rear-Admiral, but fully funded by the US. The other two bases were airfields at Zaragoza in the northeast of Spain and Morón near Seville.

At first, the US Navy used the naval base at Rota to service their nuclear patrol submarines carrying Polaris missiles. The plan was to have a repair and maintenance facility in the Atlantic, but close to the entrance to the Mediterranean. Things went well, and over the years, the US Navy converted their nuclear subs to carry Poseidon missiles which were based in Rota.

It was in 1966 during exercise Chrome Dome that one of the potentially most dangerous accidents involving nuclear weapons happened. 

A B52 bomber piloted by Major Larry G. Messinger took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina in the early hours of the 17 January. It was tasked to fly east across the Atlantic and rendezvous with two KC135 tankers over the Mediterranean. Its mission then was to fly toward to the Russian boarder in a simulated attack. Everything was conducted as though the bomber would continue as if to strike targets inside Russia, but at the last minute turn back. To train crews and test procedures, the aircraft had been loaded with four live Mk28 hydrogen bombs.  

The B52 is a huge aircraft, and dwarfs its Boing 707 derivative KC135 tankers based at Morón. Relative speeds between the two aircraft must be equalised exactly before it is safe to connect the two with the refuelling probe.

At around 10:30 am, the two crews began jockeying their aircraft into position at 31,000ft. Normally, the boom operator in the tail of the KC135 watches the approach of the aircraft to be refuelled and is in constant radio contact with its pilot. If the trailing aircraft is coming in a little too fast he calls “Break away” and the B52 would throttle back and fall away.


Major Messinger and his crew heard no request to break away and continued to hold station. Meanwhile on the tanker, the boom operator had missed the refuelling nozzle with the boom and the B52 crept forward beneath the tanker.  The B52 lifted slightly in the slipstream and the boom punched into the wing root of the bomber severing the port main wing spar. The wing of the bomber folded up and broke off, and the fuel in the boom ignited carrying the fire back to the tanker which exploded, killing all four of the crew instantly. Another B52 flying about a mile away saw the tanker disappear in a ball of flames whilst the crippled B52 cartwheeled down, breaking up as it fell. The four Hydrogen bombs broke free from their mountings and were thrown from the spinning wreckage. 

Wreckage of the B52 scattered around the village of Palomares.


Of the seven crew members on the B52, four parachuted to safety, three of them landing in the sea. The fourth was suffering from burns and could not separate himself from his ejection seat, but he landed safely on land.

Manalo Gonzales was in the street near to his house when he heard the explosion and saw the burning wreckage of the two aircraft falling towards his village. His wife was teaching at the local primary school and he watched in horror a part of the B52 fell close to the school. He jumped on his scooter and raced across town, but the wreckage had missed the school. By a miracle, nobody on the ground had been injured by the accident.  

Other residents had seen the explosion and watched the aircraft fall. Several spotted the lone parachute slowly descending and drove to where it landed. They cut the injured airman from his ejection seat and carried him to their village clinic. Two of the other three airmen who landed in the sea were picked up by local fishermen on their boat, the Dorita. The last to be picked up spent 45 minutes in the water before being spotted by Paco Simó Orts, on his boat, the Agustin y Rosa.

Broken Arrow is the call sign for a downed aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon, and the signal flashed throughout all US forces in the area. There was already a contingency plan in place and Moron and Rota were rapidly mobilised. Helicopters were dispatched carrying emergency teams while specially trained and equipped troops were loaded onto transport aircraft and flown to the crash site. Within 24 hours, the area was sealed off and the little town of Palomares was crawling with soldiers searching for the bombs and assessing the radioactivity. It did not take long to find the bombs, but the news was not good. Two of the warheads had detonated their conventional explosive triggering charges upon impact, scattering highly toxic radioactive Plutonium 239 over the area. When the bomb experts gave their first estimate, the military were horrified to realize that around 3 Kilos of weapon grade Plutonium had been scattered around the village.

The third bomb was found intact in a riverbed and was returned to Morón with the remains of the other warheads sealed in lead cases. Of the forth bomb there was no trace, but the missing bomb’s parachute tail plate was found, leading the searchers to the conclusion that the retarding parachute had opened as it fell, and it had been carried out to sea.

Meanwhile, the world’s press had been shut out. The Air Force denied that there had been an accident and even General Franco would not comment. With three of the nukes accounted for, everybody focused on the missing one. The Air Force put in a request for the US Navy to assist in the search. The Navy began scouring through its files for people with the right training and experience for to recover the bomb, and they were flown out to Rota to assist. US navy ships steamed to the area where they thought the bomb had fallen. 

Two submersibles, the Alvin and the Aluminaut were shipped to the scene. Both could operate at great depths and had remotely operated arms to handle objects with. For a while, the area was searched by without results. A mathematician was brought in to help with the search and he drew a grid and assigned probabilities to individual map grid squares and updating them as the search progressed. For about three miles offshore the sea is around 600m deep, but the depth quickly falls away to 1,000m and enters the Palomares trench which is over 2,000m deep. It was a very difficult underwater terrain to search for a small bomb.

The Bayesian search theory produced no results, and after weeks of futile searching, Francisco Simó Orts, the fisherman who had picked up the last crewmember from the B52, contacted the Air Force. He had actually seen the bomb fall into the sea. By this time he was known in his village as "Paco el de la bomba" a name that stuck with him until his death. At last, the Navy now had a good idea where to look.

Meanwhile, on the surface, the Russians had got wind of the accident and Radio Moscow broadcast that the entire area was drenched in “lethal radioactivity.” An Australian newspaper wrote of a “death rain” falling from a broken H bomb. By March 2, with still no sign of the missing weapon, the United States finally admitted to the world that it was hunting for a lost hydrogen bomb. The press were given updates on the search and the clean-up operation, and to silence the wild stories of radioactivity U.S.

Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke along with the Spanish minister of tourism Manuel Fraga, held much-publicized “swimming party” on the beach at Palomares on March 8. Meanwhile, the world’s press had been shut out. The Air Force denied that there had been an accident and even General Franco would not comment. With three of the nukes accounted for, everybody focused on the missing one. The Air Force put in a request for the US Navy to assist in the search. The Navy began searching through its personnel for people with the right training and experience for to recover the bomb and they were flown out to Rota to assist. US navy ships steamed to the area most likely to be where the bomb had fallen. 

A week later, the Alvin found the bomb. It was five miles off the coast in only 870m of water. Bringing it to the surface turned out to be no easy operation. The bomb was on its way to the surface when the cable lifting it snapped and it was another week before the Alvin could find it again. Finally, on April 7, 1966—nearly three months after the B-52 crash, the bomb was hoisted aboard the USS Petrel. Reporters were allowed to photograph it the following day. According to the New York Times, it was the first time the U.S. military had displayed a nuclear weapon to the public.


With the death of Franco in 1975, the Spanish government re-negotiated the treaties for the American bases and wanted the nuclear submarines and their missiles out of Spanish waters. The repair yards for the Subs were moved back to the US at King’s Bay in Georgia.  At its peak in the 80’s, Rota was the home to 16,000 sailors and their families. Now it has been reduced to just 4,000.

The US air bases remained active with the base at Rota used as a staging post for any Middle East or Southern European exercises. It was used as a base for tanker aircraft to refuel Strategic Air Command bombers which still  regularly carried nuclear weapons.

At the end of the Cold War, all the Spanish bases were downgraded and their manning levels reduced dramatically. Morón became inactive as a military base for a while, though in the 80’s, because of its long runway, the base became an alternative emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. Special navigation and landing aids were installed, and Spanish personnel were trained to recover the Shuttle after an emergency landing. In addition, during Shuttle launching periods, the Air Force deployed airmen to Morón to help provide onsite weather reporting.

The rise in Middle Eastern tensions caused Morón to be brought to readiness as a refueling base for NATO or coalition forces. In 2011, the base once again proved its strategic importance as it served as the main tanker base for KC-10A and KC-135R aircraft during the liberation of Lybia.  In 2013, Marine Corps temporarily based 550 Marines as part of a rapid reaction force in Morón, in support of U.S. Africa Command. This unit was outfitted with Bell Boeing MV-22B Ospreys and Lockheed Martin KC-130J aerial refueling /cargo aircraft. Meanwhile, the US navy base at Rota is set to become the largest in the Mediterranean area. In May 2015 the Spanish government approved an agreement granting the U.S. military a permanent presence on the base. Under the agreement, up to 3,000 American troops and civilians of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Africa can be stationed there, while the number of aircraft can be increased to 40 from the previous limit of 14.


The radioactive beach at Palomares which is still fenced off today.


As a sweetener for the deal, the US government agreed to further clean up the residual radioactivity at Paomares. Radiation in the area has been monitored since the accident and tests revealed high levels of Americium, a decay product of plutonium. The discovery meant that 50,000 cubic metres of earth were still contaminated and needed removing. The Spanish government bought the land in the land in 2003 and fenced it off to prevent it being used. In a joint press conference in Madrid with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the process would begin soon, but gave no details.

Kerry has also shown concern over the future direction of Spain’s politics, fearing that all this investment in Spanish bases could be jeopardised by a change in Spanish government. When the King of Spain visited Washington, Barack Obama stressed that he hoped there would be no changes to endanger bilateral relations. Kerry refused to comment on the outcome of Spanish elections but supported “a strong and united Spain” a clear reference to the Catalan region’s aspiration to break away and become independent.

Rota today is home to more than 12,000 US and NATO personnel, but the Ayuntamiento de Rota are not happy. Because the base is virtually a piece of the US grafted into Spain complete with its own laws and shops, the Roteña population feels that it is missing out on a lot of taxes that it could normally claim from its inhabitants. They believe that they are owed “historic payment” for the land it occupies. Local household taxes or vehicle taxes cannot be collected from the base, and worst of all the military personnel would rather spend their dollars on the base than in the town.

The Spanish government have no such complaint. In 2015 they received 3.5 million Euros annual rental from the US for the Rota base. Morón and Torrejón would donate something similar, bringing something like 10 million Euros a year into the Spanish economy. 

Spain's Cold War Spies

Otto Skorzeny after the Mussolini rescue. Photo,  Bundesarchiv, Bild  Toni Schneiders 


Leon Degrelle became an adviser to Franco during the creation of the bases, but he also had another role in his adopted country. From the end of the Second World War onward, Franco realised that he was the only fascist leader left in Europe, and to guard against any uprisings against him, he cultivated an old guard of fascists around him. During WW2 a Spanish division had fought with German troops on the Eastern Front where Degrelle had fought. They were composed entirely of volunteers dedicated to Nazi ideology. The “Blue Shirts” as they were called, fought alongside regular German divisions and took part in the siege of Leningrad. The Germans had a poor opinion of the Spanish troops and considered them to be undisciplined and indolent.  However, by the end of the war, they had won a measure of respect from the Wehrmacht.

These veterans had returned home to Spain in dribs and drabs and formed into a neo-Nazi group around Franco. Leon Degrelle played a large part in its formation along with Otto Skorzeny.


Otto Skorzeny before his rescue, awaiting trial.


Otto Skorzeny had earned the respect of Hitler by freeing Benito Mussolini in a daring raid high in the Apennine Mountains using gliders.  He had pioneered the use of unconventional forces working outside the normal army, much as the SAS or American Special Forces do today. It was Skorzeny who led the infiltration of German troops into allied lines during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. All English speaking, and dressed in allied uniforms, they were subsequently captured and all 23 were executed as spies; only Skorzeny escaped. It was Skorzeny who was ordered to destroy the last remaining bridge over the Rhine at Remargen to stop the Allies entering Germany. 

At the end of the war Skorzeny hid in Bavaria for 18 months, but was discovered and held in a camp that traced their captive’s war records. He escaped with the help of three ex-SS officers dressed as US military police and was eventually recruited into the Gahlen Organisation, named after former General Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Nazi secret service. The CIA wanted spies behind the Iron Curtain, and ex Nazis trapped in East Germany provided an excellent recruiting ground. 

With the help of a Nansen Passport provided by Spain, Skorzeny moved to Madrid and set up a small engineering company. Skorzeny always maintained that it was the CIA who backed his escape. The Gahlen Organisation, or Org, as it became known, was funded by the CIA and was for a while the only source of information on events behind the Iron Curtain. The Org interviewed every returning POW between 1947 and 1955 and obtained comprehensive intelligence on rail, air and shipping movements and the organisation of Soviet forces. Many of the spies that they operated wanted nothing more than to get the Bolsheviks out of Germany. One of the Org’s successes was uncovering the Russian assassination group called SMERSH, but much of the Org’s secrecy was lost when Kim Philby defected and gave the Soviets details of the British operations, including association with the Org.

When the press told the world about using Nazi’s to help the CIA, the Org became an embarrassment and was run down. Richard Gahlen later admitted that using people who he knew were a part of the Holocaust caused him some disquiet. He told one newspaper that “There is no doubt that the CIA got carried away with recruiting some pretty bad people.”

Otto Scorzeny at his home in Madrid. Photo: Aangirfan.


Otto Skorzeny was not finished yet. From his base in Madrid, he was operating a clandestine recruitment agency for ex-Nazis advisors for hire, and his biggest customer was the CIA. In 1952 Egypt was taken over by General Mohammed Naguib, and Skorzeny was asked to put together a team to train the Egyptian army. His choice of staff included former Wehrmacht generals Wilhelm Fahrmbacher and Oskar Munzel. Leopold Gleim the head of the Gestapo Department for Jewish Affairs in Poland; and Joachim Daemling, former chief of the Gestapo in Düsseldorf.

They trained a small number of Arabs as commandos to fight against the British who were holding the Suez Canal, and during their stay, they trained several Palestinians and helped them plan raids into Israel from the Gaza Strip. One of the Palestinians was Yasser Arafat.

During this time he was commuting between his home in Madrid and Argentina, where he was adviser to Juan Perón and sometimes bodyguard for his wife Eva.

Skorzeny stayed on to advise Colonel Nasser when he took power in Egypt, and was targeted by Mossad for elimination. However, Mossad decided that he would be more use to them alive than dead. In 1963 they sent operatives to his home in Madrid and asked him to obtain information on German rocket scientists who were working for Egypt on missiles targeted on Israel. Knowing that he was on the Simon Rosenthal list of Nazi criminals, Skozany asked that his name be removed before agreeing to work for them. Rosenthal declined, and realising that he was in a no-win situation he agreed to work for them.

Though the facts are uncertain now, it seems that he supplied the Israelis with names and addresses of German scientists working with the Egyptians and the names of companies who were supplying them with military hardware.

While all this was going on, he found time to set up the Paladin group in Alicante, which specialised in the use of paramilitary personnel who could operate in the no-man’s land between overt uniformed special-forces soldiers and covert political intelligence operatives.  They recruited and trained men to fight as guerrillas, and some of them were later recruited by the Spanish Interior Ministry to combat ETA. 

It is rumoured that Skorzeny set up a very secret organisation called Die Spinne, (the spider,) to spirit away something like 600 ex-Nazis of the Third Rich to Spain, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, and other countries.  Skorzeny was also a founder and adviser to the leadership of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE established in 1966, whose ultimate aim was to set up the Fourth Reich in Latin America where they had established enormous influence.

Otto Skorzeny died in his home in Madrid on the 5 July 1975 aged 67, roughly four months before Franco died.