Gibraltar was 'the only British colony which was part of the mainland of Europe; it
was a tiny peninsula on the southern tip of Spain. In area it was less than two square
miles, but it had a good harbour and it commanded the narrow channel, only 20 miles wide,
connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. By 1918 the 20,000 inhabitants, of mixed British, Spanish and Maltese blood were happy with their political condition. The Gibraltarians made a good living out of the British garrison, the Royal Navy and merchant shipping. Spain however persistently
insisted that Gibraltar was really Spanish territory and from time to time demanded that
the British should give it up. The Gibraltar question formed a minor but lasting problem
in European diplomacy and meant that Britain and Spain were suspicious of one another for long periods of time. The
Spaniards could do little to enforce their demands and were incapable of challenging the
Empire at its peak. Nonetheless the British took care to keep Gibraltar well-garrisoned.
The Rock of Gibraltar, honeycombed with fortifications and with monkeys scrambling over it,
was one of the prime symbols of the British Empire.
With the outbreak of the Second World War Gibraltar became a major naval refuelling and
supply port. However, following the German occupation of France, a real threat arose that
Hitler might, with the co-operation of General Franco, attack and take over Gibraltar. This was no idle threat as Vichy planes from North Africa bombed the colony in 1940 after the Royal Navy had sunk much of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria.
Gibraltar was put onto a full war footing: all local wives and families were evacuated and
substantial military units were moved in. The existing tunnels within the Rock were greatly
extended and developed so as to provide safe accomodation for Service personnel, hospitals
for the wounded, storage of weapons and ammunition, and HQ and signal facilities for all.
The extension of the tunnel network finally led to some additional 50 miles of tunnelling being provided
much of it accessible to vehicles. At the same time a massive airfield was built adjacent
to the Spanish frontier and extending into the sea on the western side, with rock excavated
from the tunnel network being used for reclamation. The airfield became an important
R.A.F. base in addition to its crucial naval role.
The Germans discussed with General Franco the possibility of Nazi troops seizing Gibraltar and returning it to Spain. However, Franco did not wish to be dragged into the war and also was suspicious of the motives of the Third Reich. He did not want to give the Germans an excuse to march through Spain and so resisted the temptation. There were in fact rumours that the British hinted that they would return it to Spain in return for Franco's neutrality, although this has never been confirmed.
Gibraltar played a key role in prosecuting the Atlantic War and in helping keep the strategically important island of Malta resupplied. With the Americans joining the Allied war effort, Gibraltar became an important base for Operation Torch, the US invasion of North Africa in November 1942. General Eisenhower had his headquarters in one of the tunnel complexes. By this time, it was clear that the Axis threat to Gibraltar was no longer a reality.
With the end of W.W.II considerable housing developments took place, as the evacuees
returned to Gibraltar, and various old military barracks were made over for civilian use. As World War gave way to Cold War it became necessary
for a considerable naval, military and air presence to be maintained. The NATO HQ for the
Mediterranean area was set up in the Rock tunnels, and a permanent British Regiment was
stationed at Gibraltar. Naval facilities were maintained and included a sound surveillance
system over the Straits. Likewise the R.A.F. base remained and included, in co-operation
with the Cyprus base, radar and communications surveillance over the Mediterranean.
However, it was to be the Cold War that gave the greatest threat to the British presence in Gibraltar. The US was looking for its own version of a Gibraltar port for its Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. The anti-Communist credentials of Franco could not be faulted and a joint US/Spanish port and airbase was constructed at Rota some 60 miles North West of Gibraltar in the 1950s and a series of pacts and trade deals were signed between the US and Spain.
Queen Elizabeth II travelled to Gibraltar for its 250th anniversary in 1954. Franco, emboldened by his new acceptance by America, felt confident enough to up the pressure on Britain. He used the visit as an excuse to close its consulate in Gibraltar and introduced border restrictions.
Britain was having to come to terms with its own dimunition of power. This would be confirmed by the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956 which severely dented Britain's military and diplomatic credibility in the Mediterranean. Franco took his claim on Gibraltar to the United Nations which agreed to back its claim in the General Assembly.
Britain's response was to empower the Gibraltarians by giving them a constitutional veto on the issue of its return to Spain. This was technically an amendment to the original Treaty of Utrecht. Originally, Britain had sole control over the sovereignty of the Rock but now it had joint sovereignty with the population of the Rock.
This granting of a veto further infuriated Franco who responded by colosing the border and severing all communications links between Spain and Gibraltar. This would last for 13 long years.