Papa Spy

(Non-fiction biography/history)

Jimmy Burns on his upcoming new book.

You could call this a true story of love, betrayal, and deception in wartime Spain.

This is really a book about what my Dad did in WW2 and never really talked about much. I’ve spent over five years or so probing family papers, personal interviews, classified government documents, and other previously undiscovered archives, and discovered that he was at the heart of the Allies’ intelligence  and propaganda operations in Madrid, with responsibility that extended to Lisbon, Gibraltar, and Tangiers.

When Tom Burns died in 1995, prominent obituaries in the British media described him as a leading Catholic publisher, who signed up the early works of some of the key literary figures of the 20th century, like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Little mention was made of his wartime activities beyond stating that at some point he had worked as a press attaché in Madrid.

Only as a result of a subsequent detailed investigation has it been possible to unravel my father’s biggest secret: the use of his post as a convenient cover for a range of covert activities which Churchill believed critical in ensuring an Allied victory over Hitler.

I have tried to reconstruct my father’s  early encounters  with Spain during its bloody Civil War, both as a volunteer ambulance driver and propagandist of the right-wing forces fighting against the left-wing Republican government, and how he was faced with  the anti-Catholic bias of the British intellectual and political establishment.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, and Britain declared war on Germany, my father’s was nevertheless courted by some of Churchill’s most senior officials because of his communication skills and extensive contacts. He was recruited initially by the government’s secretive propaganda arm –The Ministry of Information- , before being posted to Madrid. There my father found himself increasing drawn into the intelligence game, playing at the same time a key diplomatic role as one of his ambassador’s most trusted advisers.
This book identifies for the first time my father’s  involvement in a top secret campaign of  bribery and corruption  that, with Churchill’s blessing, kept Franco in power as the necessary price for securing Spanish neutrality, and furthering Allied strategic interests in southern Europe and North Africa. I have also discovered that he was involved in some of the more colourful episodes of WW2, including the entrapment of German agents, the thwarting of a Nazi attempt to ‘kidnap’ the duke of Windsor in Spain, and the recruitment of several unusual British agents such as the romantic Hollywood actor Leslie Howard, and the drunken South African poet Roy Campbell.

In a Spain struggling to deal with the bitter legacy of a bloody civil war, my father found not only a sense of professional mission, countering Nazi propaganda and espionage, but also the real love of his life, my Spanish mother Mabel. A Civil War refugee, she was the pretty and much sought after youngest daughter of one of Spain’s most eminent personalities, the physician, writer , and influential liberal politician Gregorio Maranon. Through Mabel and Gregorio, my father managed to gain unrivalled access to key areas of Spain’s political and social life that were sympathetic to the Allied cause -from bullfighters and artists to friendly informants at the highest level of the Franco regime.

My father was a controversial character- his virulent anti-communism and unorthodox methods of operation made him enemies among some his own colleagues and he narrowly escaped a plot to destroy his reputation hatched by senior intelligence officers.

This has been the most challenging book I have to write so far- trying to strike right balance between the natural empathy a son may feel for his father while trying to ensure scrupulous objectivity in exposing the extent to which his activities reflected the double standards and duplicity of Allied wartime operations.

Related Links:

Was my father a British spy?

My father’s royal affair


  1. Michael Penilla says:

    I enjoyed your book very much. Even though I live in California, which has a strong Hispanic history and tradition, I maintain strong family relations with my family (Santander) and since my wife is from Santander as well, all her family. We visit [home] frequently. I have a personal library in which I specialize in Spanish history, Hispanic American history, history of the (Hispanic) American South-West – California in particular. So your book fills in a time in Spanish (and in this case also British) history which adds much detail to this period. I noted with great pleasure the accuracy and information not reflected in other books written about this time period in Madrid and Spain in general. I also know only to well the attitude of some Brits – then and now – regarding Spain, Franco and the Catholic church. So it was refreshing to see you write about your fathers difficulties in those areas. Is your mother still living? She sounds like an amazing woman. The only negative comment I can say about this great book is about THE TITLE! I risked purchasing the book because I was not sure about the quality of the content based on the title (my opinion). I am soo happy that my gamble payed off. Your manner of writting made for easy and comfortable reading. It “hooked me”. I see that you have written other books, so I will have to review the list. I, like soo many in the past, also supported Franco because I truely believe that he did save Spain from a disaster and continued caos. Plus, the escape from the Communist intervention. El Caudillo basically saved us from “un futuro Rojo”. I only wish I had the opportunity to meet your father either in the UK or in España. Sr. Burns, I must tell you that you are one of the very few authors who has moved me enough to contact. However, the biography of your father was too compelling not to acknowledge. By the way, your biography notes that you are married with two daughters. Is your wife Spanish? How many grandchildren do you have? I will think of you when we return to Madrid in a few months (no durante este frío). Should you have the opportunity to visit California please allow me to take you and your family to dinner. It would be a pleasure to meet you and have a chat. Keep up the good work!

    Un Abrazo, Miguel Penilla Guerra

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