1940 Operation Gray

Planned Operations Against the Atlantic Islands in WW2

Early in WW2 Adolf Hitler conceived plans known as Operation Felix to seize Gibraltar and the Azores, Canary and Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic, but fortunately was dissuaded from this by his Naval Staff who quickly realised that while Germany might be able to take the Islands, she did not have the necessary naval strength to supply and hold them.

The German advances across Europe and the possibility of these attacks forced the British, and later the Americans, to formulate plans in 1940 to occupy these islands themselves. It was also unclear at the time whether the Spanish General Franco would join the War on the side of the Axis and also what part Salazar of Portugal would play as although the country was neutral, there were Fascist trappings within it.

The original concept became known as Operation Puma but as time and priorities moved on, this was changed to Op Pilgrim and then further sub-divided into different Operational aspects such as Accordion, Brisk, Challenge, Gray, Sackbut, Springboard, Thruster and Tonic. During the planning period and until the whole thing was stood down in February 1942, 5 different RFA’s were placed on alert to participate, these being RFA’s ABBEYDALE, DENBYDALE, DEWDALE (1), ENNERDALE (1) and OLWEN (1).

Following the Fall of France in June 1940, the danger arose of a German invasion of Portugal and at the time the Azores were only lightly defended. The Portuguese Government expanded the small runway there and sent additional troops and equipment to Lajes which included Gladiator aircraft supplied by Britain. In July 1941 Portugal declared the base there capable of effective air defence and they began Gladiator missions which provided air cover to Allied Convoys, reconnaissance missions and meteorological flights. When the Americans entered the War in December 1941 the importance of the Azores became paramount and both them and the British pressed Portugal to provide access to the Azores, the British even using the 600 year old Treaty of Peace between Portugal and Britain as a lever! German reverses in the East and North Africa persuaded Salazar to move towards the Allies and the British were given use of the ports of Horta on Faisal and Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel plus the airfields of Lageus Field on Terceira Isl and Santana Field on Sao Miguel. The Cape Verde Islands were used to shelter British survivors from ships sunk by U-boats.

With regard to the Canary Islands, their fall into Axis hands would have disrupted sea commerce with the Dominions which provided critical supplies to Britain and even if they were not taken, their use by U-boats for resupply and refuelling would provide important support. However, Franco denied the Germans access to Gibraltar via Spain and also denied the use of the Canary Islands to the Kriegsmarine and changed the status of Spain from non-belligerency to neutral which the Allies decided to respect.