The Americans in Lisbon, 1940-45
During the Second World War, Lisbon must have been a fascinating, yet frightening and desperate place. As Hitler’s armies of occupation swept across Europe, neutral (or supposedly neutral) Portugal became one of the Continent’s last escape routes. In an iconic image that many will recall, Lisbon was the transit point for Bergman’s Ilsa when she was waved off by Bogart’s Rick in the classic movie Casablanca, made in 1942.
When Ilsa arrived, like Alva Barton in The Alliance, she would have found Lisbon a confusing city of dubious trades, conspiracy and deception – and a hub of espionage. The Atlantic port was flooded with a million refugees, including Jews and Allied POWs who needed berths on passenger ships heading west. The American Export Lines shipping office was besieged. But there were also considerable numbers of foreigners coming to Lisbon with the intention of staying for various nefarious purposes – including large numbers of Nazi personnel.
Despite the tensions, however, contemporary accounts of arriving in Portugal at that time by American and British writers describe a place of light and colour and flowers, friendliness and generosity from the ordinary people – and profound normality after the horrors many had witnessed. The Portuguese welcomed the refugees with extraordinarily good grace.
In July 1940, the New York Times Lisbon correspondent Alva E Gaymon wrote vivid accounts of the swelling international population in a city that still retained the lights and luxuries of pre-war Paris. In the same month, Lilian Mowrer, the wife of notable US foreign correspondent Edgar Ansel Mowrer, who had been based in Paris, wrote of the city: “Lisbon, the port of good hope, from which they could escape from the Germans by Clipper, or ocean liner, or freighter, or tramp ship – anything that would take them away from a Europe that was rapidly becoming a prison.”
The River Tagus glittered. The grand avenues and lovely neo-classical buildings made Lisbon a cosmopolitan city of light and superficial joviality. Fisherwomen walked barefoot carrying their baskets on their heads. Jazz bands played in nightclubs and fado singers captured a mournful mood. But all felt the unease of living in an authoritarian regime. Salazar’s Estado Novo – the New State – was watched over by a Gestapo-like secret police and a censored press. If the locals also seemed to sway with the winds of war, favouring the side that seemed to be winning, and welcomed the hard currency these people brought, who would blame them?
Even before the United States joined the war, American nationals had been arriving in a steady stream to work with Lisbon’s embassies and news agencies, working closely with the British in many cases. It soon became obvious that not all these hundreds of new staff were engaged in normal diplomatic work. Military and naval attachés gathered as much information as they could. Press officers crowded in. Teams of expert coders and decoders worked on sending and receiving communications around the clock. False identities and spies were two a penny. In a show of strength, US battleships put in to harbour – their crews were said to be the happiest foreigners in Lisbon as they were the only ones certain of a passage out.
As the guns of war raged elsewhere, the Allies and the Nazis faced each other every day in the squares and streets, cafés and restaurants of Lisbon. Passenger planes flew in from New York: the famous Pan Am clipper service, a luxurious flying boat that landed on the Tagus river. Noel Coward, traveling on propaganda work, called the aircraft: “a well-appointed bus that had become somehow embedded in the sky”. Meanwhile, on nearby Portella airfield, black-painted converted Nazi bombers were bringing in passengers from Berlin alongside scheduled flights from London.
Lisbon, with its swirling sea mists and rumours, its mixture of grand architecture and twisting medieval streets, was a place of brittle glamour. Famous names passing through, helped on their way by well-wishers, or using their fame to promote the Allied cause, or in the process of making their names, included Antoine Saint-Exupéry, Marc Chagall, Arthur Koestler, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), Lord Mountbatten, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and scores of minor European royalty. Gone with the Wind star Leslie Howard was killed in 1943 when the airliner he was traveling in was shot down over the Bay of Biscay.
On the coast, the enemies sunbathed within earshot of each other and gambled together at the casino at Estoril, where the cream of European society, including royalty, was sitting out the war in sunshine and relative comfort. Across the roulette tables, under glittering chandeliers, as in the boulevards of Lisbon, Allied intelligence agents pitted their wits against the German Abwehr and Gestapo, each side trying to infiltrate and disrupt each other’s business by any means possible. Legendary secret agents like Garbo, real name Juan Pujol García, who played a double game for the British while apparently spying for the Nazis, made Lisbon their centre of operations.
The Hotel Palacio in Estoril (below)
For Hitler’s Germany had a pressing reason for sending agents to Portugal: the acquisition of the mineral tungsten. Tungsten, or wolfram, was a vital component in the manufacture of armour-piercing munitions, and the nearest deposits were mined in Portugal. The Nazis needed to cut deals with the Portuguese. But they were at an historic disadvantage, thanks to England’s status as Portugal’s oldest ally. These two countries had supported each other for 800 years and had the trade links to prove it, in port wine …and tungsten mining. Naturally, the Allies were equally determined to frustrate any Nazi bid for an element needed for arms manufacture.
But the Portuguese, led by Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar were playing a dangerous game, walking the tightrope of neutrality. An intellectual economist, Salazar was known as The Plainclothes Dictator and had more in common ideologically with Hitler than with the Allies. The gold the Nazis offered in payment for tungsten was hard to resist for a poor country that was vulnerable to invasion either from Germany or Franco’s Spain – and Salazar did not resist taking it. Both sides put pressure on him, and made their deals, politically as well as economically.
Even before the United States joined the war, Americans were involved in humanitarian organizations in Lisbon. An early presence was the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker endeavour working for peace and the relief of suffering. The Lisbon office director was Philip Conrad, and his assistant Howard Wriggins would go on to become a distinguished US diplomat and academic.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – known to most in Lisbon simply as “The Joint” – worked tirelessly from the start, too. Its head was a rabbi with a doctorate from Yale, Joseph J Schwartz, who had been in Europe when the war began. He set up headquarters in the city in June 1940 and set about finding food and shelter for the desperate and displaced in the first instance, and paperwork and transport across the Atlantic in the second.
In October 1942, a group of thirty American women, all officially involved in child welfare, arrived in Lisbon on a Portuguese liner with the purpose of escorting one thousand French children to America and safety in the care of temporary foster families. But the invasion of North Africa and the occupation of the former free zone of the South of France meant that the children’s escape route was blocked. In a further tragedy, one of the women, Hazel Helen Mackay, of the Children’s Welfare Foundation in New York, disappeared from the dangerous sea cliff of Boca do Inferno – the Mouth of Hell – near Cascais. Only her shoes and handbag remained.
On the offensive, newspaper reporters from all countries were engaged in a ruthless game of black propaganda as well as information gathering. Disinformation games began, with British newspapers made up for sale in Lisbon carrying stories that would unsettle the Nazis and feed false leads.
Voice of America and the popular radio commentator Elmer Davis entered the fray in June 1942. Hollywood led the way in challenging for hearts and minds in more subtle ways by providing many of the movies that played in the cinemas.
Journalist Marya Mannes was a later arrival. She had been an editor for Vogue magazine in her native New York before moving to Italy in the 1930s with her husband. In the teeth of war, the couple had returned to the United States. He was soon a navy pilot and she used her editorial skills to gather information about the situation across Europe from the refugees who had made it across the Atlantic. From this, she moved into intelligence work, being trained as a spy for the Secret Intelligence Branch of the OSS. She was sent to the Lisbon station just before the D-Day landings in June 1944. Her cover was that she was working as a reporter for The New Yorker, and indeed she did produce several Letters from Lisbon, but her brief was to mingle in the city, keeping alert for any promising information and swapping gossip with the other foreign correspondents. So credible was she simply as a glamorous magazine writer – she was tall, blonde and beautiful – that she would even tell men who asked what she was doing in Portugal, “I’m an international spy, of course!”