U-Boats in Spain

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Kriegsmarine U-boats in Spain and Portugal during WW II

Millions watched the famous movie (6 Oscar nominations, 1 Golden Globe Award) by Wolfgang Petersen from 1981 “Das Boot” and saw the replenishment of U 96 by the German merchant vessel Weser in the Spanish port of Vigo at the end of 1941.

Deriving from that, many reports have come up another time, including several myths, about the use of Spanish or Portuguese ports and territorial waters by Kriegsmarine U-boats in World War II, either as a planned action or caused accidently due to the operational situation. Top myths are the stories about alleged even underground and underwater replenishment facilities for German U-boats established at the Spanish Islands of Mallorca and Fuerteventura.

The aim of this article is to delineate when, where and how Kriegsmarine U-boats actually have been in Spain, including the Baleares (as of October 1941 German U-boats also operated in the Mediterranean), the Canaries and the Spanish possessions in Northern Africa, as well as in Portugal, including Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verdes Islands.

The international law with regard to Spain and Portugal in WW II

Both, Spain under the regime of General Francesco Franco and Portugal under the government of António de Oliveira Salazar have declared their countries to be neutral in WW II, although with varying degrees of actual political behavior. On 04 September 1939 Spain declared its “strict neutrality”, which changed from being a pro-German “non-belligerant party” after the truce between Germany and France on 22 June 1940, to change again to executing “vigilant neutrality” but benevolent vis-á-vis the Allies at the latest in January 1944, when allied military successes became more and more frequent (starting with the allied landing “Operation Torch” in French Northern Africa on 08 November 1942).

On 16 September 1940 Spanish Foreign Minister Serrano Suñer travelled to Berlin and on 23 October 1940 there was even a meeting between Franco and Hitler at the village of Hendaye at the Franco-Spanish border. Both meeting did not lead to any progress convincing the Spanish to enter the war on the side of the Axis Powers. Until 1944 Spain remained with its standing of “selective cooperation”.

On 12/ 13 February 1941 Franco met Mussolini at Bordighera, which also did not achieve a general change of the position of Spain vis-á-vis the Axis Powers. The German Reich on the other side did not go beyond initial plans for marching into Spain, including the strategically important Canary Islands and Gibraltar. Thus, the replenishment of German warships, in particular U-boats, in Spanish ports during the first years of war demonstrated an open cooperation by the Franco regime, which became more and more restrictive, and, at the end of 1944, to eventually change to strict denial of any call by German U-boats in Spanish ports.

Portugal under Salazar declared itself to be neutral at the outbreak of WW II, including its Atlantic group of islands Madeira, Azores and Cape Verdes. Although showing a political nearness to the neighboring Spain under Franco Portugal never demonstrated any visible military support of German U-boat operations throughout WW II, not even forms of benevolent tolerance of replenishment maneuvers in Portuguese ports and water, as Spain did. Yet, the Cap Verdes and above all, the Azores, were of significant military-strategic importance at the same time for the Axis Powers as well as the Allies, namely to cut respectively maintain resupply and reinforcement traffic across the Atlantic Ocean.

Other than Spain, the initially strictly neutral position of Portugal soon changed to active support of the Allies, a remarkable example for that was the reception of some 2.000 evacuees from British Gibraltar at Madeira in 1940. Already in July 1941 the Portuguese Air Force executed long range maritime patrol flights with aircraft given by Britain from Lajes Air Base at the Azores to monitoring German U-boat activities against Allied shipping. And, negotiations led to agreements of 17 August 1943 and 28 November 1944 allowing British and US-American Air Force units to make use of two Air Bases and Allied warships to call as a routine at two ports at the Azores.

German Warplans

The Iberian peninsula and the overseas territories of its states gained greater attention among the political and military leadership of the German Reich only in connection with the conduct of the war at sea in the Atlantic, enhanced by the growing requirements for the support of the Axis-Partner Italy in the Mediterranean. With regard to Portugal the neutrality of the country was respected in principle, only its Atlantic islands received some interest, but did not go beyond initial ideas and have not seen any political and military activities. With regard to Spain things were different, since one thought to be able to build on the significant support provided for Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

This led to years of political endeavors to convince Franco to entry the war at the side of the Axis powers, at least to reach some degree of active military cooperation. As explained above, neither Hitler nor Mussolini ware able to induce Franco to enter the war. Consequently, the importance of the Iberian peninsula and some of the overseas territories of both states led to certain deliberations and initial plans, e.g. the “Fuehrer”-Directive No. 18 of 12th of November 1940, or the campaign

planning for “Operation Felix” and “Operation Isabella”, aiming at reaching some selected occupation by the German Armed Forces to support the conduct of war against the Allies in the Atlantic and Mediterranean region. However, this was given up in the Spring of 1941, when the focus of German political and military activities shifted to the conduct of war in the East.

Implemention by the U-boat High Command

Motorschiff "Max Albrecht" in Vigo
Motor vessel Max Albrecht at Vigo

The neutrality declared by Spain and Portugal has been underlined in Standing Orders and other directives of the B.d.U. explicitly at the outbreak of war. Notwithstanding, in the case of Spain there were clear expectations for logistic support in Spanish ports of U-boat operations given the special relations to the country after the massive support of Franco during the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. Therefore, already before the war certain negotiations had started, which eventually led to the establishment of a restricted system of depots with fuel and rations in the ports of El Ferrol, Vigo and Cadiz, however, considerable concerns with regard to the re-supply of these depots remained. To enable the support capacities envisaged in Spain during the early years of the war it was reached to station German merchant vessels as supply ship in those three Spanish ports, a similar arrangement was agreed later at Las Palmas at the Canary Islands. The B.d.U. took these supply facilities clearly into account for its operational planning of U-boat employments. In the case of Portugal no plans by the B.d.U. became known yet with regard to the supply of its U-boats in the country and its overseas territories.


The below overviews list in four categories (replenishments, emergency repairs, special missions, abandoning of U-boats by their crews and internment), when and under what circumstances Kriegsmarine U-boats actually have penetrated Spanish and Portuguese waters and ports.

Overview 1: Replenishments

Motorschiff "Bessel"
SS Bessel

The below overview shows that a number of regular replenishment maneuvers for U-boats have been carried out between 1940 and 1942 using German merchant vessels in Spanish ports (more exact: at anchorages). For this purpose a number of German merchant vessels were re-deployed to selected Spanish ports before the outbreak of war, among others the Thalia (1,122 GRT), Bessel (1,878 GRT), Max Albrecht (5,824 GRT), Corrientes (4,656 BRT) and for some time the Charlotte Schliemann (7,747 GRT).

In literature about U-boat replenishment in Spanish ports often the Corrientes (Codename= “Lima”) and Charlotte Schliemann (Codename= “Culebra”) are mixed up, as both vessels were in the port of Las Palmas for some time together. There are at least 23 cases of scheduled U-boat replenishment in Spanish ports documented. In contrast, only two cases of intentional penetration of Portuguese territorial waters at the Cape Verdes Islands are documented.

p153_1_01 p158_1_02 p153_1_03 p153_1_04 p153_1_05

If one evaluates the above overview before the political and military-strategic background, deliberate use of Spanish and Portuguese waters and ports by Kriegsmarine U-boats for replenishment purposes can be observed in Spain only, given its policy of tolerated cooperation, i.e. tolerating replenishments of U-boats by German merchant vessels in Spanish ports/ waters. However, this can be observed generally only up to the end of 1942. After all, the above overview lists a minimum of 23 of such replenishment maneuvers. Beyond that there were only a few cases of active support of German U-boats exclusively by Spanish authorities and facilities documented.

After 1942 there were only situation-related emergency penetrations of Spanish waters and ports up to scuttling of stricken U-boats by their crews in Spanish waters as a result of combat actions at sea. Concerning Portugal, no form of cooperation in support of German U-boat operation can be identified throughout WW II. However, there were few cases of circumstantial use of Portuguese waters by German U-boats. The replenishment maneuvers documented do also prove that the alleged support facilities at Fuerteventura and Mallorca are mere phantasy. In the case of Mallorca even simplest geographic calculations are sufficient enough to establish that neither logistically nor operationally any additional support facility for German U-boats besides the existing bases in the Mediterranean would have been necessary.

With that, the myths about secret or even open support of Kriegsmarine U-boats in WW II, at least for some time, in Spanish or Portuguese ports and waters can be answered rather definite. Moreover, those few cases of replenishment maneuvers documented in Spanish ports and waters were rather insignificant for the operational freedom of U-boats during the first years of the war at sea, and can be, therefore, neglected in the overall strategic assessment.


German U-boat Museum: War diaries of the B.d.U. and of U 29, U 30, U 43, U 66, U 67, U 68, U 77, U 96, U 105, U 106, U 109, U 123, U 124, U 204, U 331, U 434, U 573, U 574, U 575, U 760, U 617, U 652, U 1277, U 977.


Gröner, Erich, Jung Dieter: Die Deutschen Kriegsschiffe, Band 4, Handelsschiffe I, Werkstattschiffe, Tender, Begleitschiffe, Tanker und Versorger, Bernhard & Graefe Verlag, Koblenz 1986, ISB 3-763748032
Jung, Dieter, Maass, Martin and Wenzel, Berndt: Tanker und Versorger der deutschen Flotte 1900-1980e, Motorbuch-Verlag, Stuttgart 1995, ISBN 978-3879437801
Laforet, Jaime Rubin: Historia oculta de Canarias, published by lulu.com, Barcelona 1997, ISBN 978-84-604-4766-5
Mallmann-Showell, Jak: Nazi Uboats – Landings on Hostile Shores, Ian Allan Publishing, London 2000, ISBN 978-071102713
Rohwer, Jürgen and Hümmelchen, Gerhard: Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-1945, US Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 1992, ISBN 978-0711002777



Text: Peter Monte – Pictures: Deutsches U-Boot-Museum