Britain’s Wartime Plan to Invade the Canary Islands

Long Live Free Canary Islands says the graffiti in San Cristóbal de La Laguna, Tenerife,

During the current worrying developments in the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia, many forget that some years ago there was a large and vociferous movement demonstrating for independence for the Canary Islands. Although there are some on the islands that still share this long-term view, much of the debate is currently centred towards peaceful coexistence as a fully functioning autonomous community within Spain.

Some may see Spain’s constitution and its wisdom in promoting and allowing autonomous communities to develop and flourish in a manner that reflects the individual and unique culture of its many diverse regions and complicated history as a success.

Spain has come a long way in the years since the repression during the time of the dictator Franco. Despite its problems, Spain has developed rapidly into a modern, welcoming and thriving democracy, currently in the lead with a gross domestic product that beats most other European countries, albeit with a high proportion of its prosperity generated within Catalonia.

For many Spaniards, there is puzzlement over the Catalonia issue; after all, recent studies show that as far as autonomy and self-determination go, Catalonia’s rights and freedoms within Spain are far in excess of those allowed in Canada’s Quebec and in Scotland as a constituent part of the United Kingdom.

Fighting, the ‘grab for land’ and the desire for self-determination has always been part of the human psyche. Over the years, history shows us how this destructive aspect of human nature can manifest itself in violence, repression and war.  Let us hope that common sense prevails in the current dispute and that talking, negotiation and compromise can reunite during these troubled times.

The British have always loved the Canary Islands, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. A brief wander around Las Palmas will reveal British businessmen honoured in the names of some of its streets, a thriving fruit and vegetable export business originally started by the British, and even a traditional British church for the early businessmen to worship in. 

Did you know that the British planned to occupy the Canary Islands, and Gran Canaria in particular, during the Second World War? A current exhibition organised by the Government of Gran Canaria reflects upon the crucial role of the Canary Islands during this period. It is a little known fact that heads of British military operations were convinced that the Canary Islands were a key factor in the strategic development of the war.

British military planners saw Gran Canaria as a serious alternative should Gibraltar be lost, given the islands’ strategic position in the Atlantic. ‘Operation Pilgrim’ was a military initiative in which the British considered bombing the main infrastructures within the island’s capital, Las Palmas, in circumstances when the enemy took Gibraltar, which thankfully never happened.

Moving on to present times, many feel uncomfortable with the name that refers to a popular beach in the south of Gran Canaria, which is currently called ‘Playa del Ingles’ (The English Beach). For many, it smacks far too much of the British Empire and is a reminder of the negativity and excesses that the Empire stood for. So, how about the locals and the government of the island coming up with a name that truly reflects this beautiful Canarian beach?

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© Barrie Mahoney



  1. As Canary Islander I do wished we had been part of the British Empire and not of Franco’s Spain.


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