The British Empire Library

Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler

by Nicholas Rankin

Although the title would suggest that this book is focussed on the Second World War, in reality this book goes into so much more depth both before and after the war. It certainly does explain the strategic importance of the Rock to the unfolding strategic concerns of World War Two, but as the author demonstrates, the Rock's strategic and historical importance needs much further context and explanation. The book goes all the way back to its origins as a British colony in the Spanish War of Succession (and in fact a lot earlier still) but I found one of the most fascinating parts of the book was the role it played in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The British authorities had long relied on casual labour from Spain to provide much of its workforce but there were also sympathies for both sides of the Civil War emanating out of the small, largely Catholic, community in the colony itself. The involvement of Gibraltarians in aiding or undermining the respective protagonists was fascinating. The author provides a glimpse of the sympathies for officials in the Colonial Administration who tended to be more sympathetic to the Nationalists than to the Republicans - even though those Nationalists were supported by German and Italian Fascists who they would soon be fighting. Although technically Neutral in the Civil War, the British authorities seemed to instinctively be hostile to any perceived 'Red Threat' especially after the Soviets began to provide support to the Republicans. At heart though, Gibraltar provided a relative oasis in a very active war zone indeed with Spain on one side and her major colony, from which the Nationalists drew much of their support from, on the other side of the narrow Straits. Furthermore, Gibraltar was the focus of the League of Nations' blockade to stop arms flowing to either side. She was slap bang in the centre of this convulsion which so rocked the World in the 1930s. Although many Britons volunteered to fight for the Republicans against the Fascists, the British official position of neutrality plus hostility to Communists possibly paid off longer term dividends in not antagonising the victor Franco. This would ultimately be rewarded handsomely in the Second World War.

Although this review might make it sound like the author is providing a straightforward narrative, it should be said that his organisation is far more fluid in design. He flits around from individual to individual, from place to place, from event to event to build up a comprehensive overview of Gibraltar's huge role in the Second World War... and also the centre point of the careers of so many important decision makers as well as many fascinating but far less important people from or connected to Gibraltar. He really does a sterling job at representing the views of so many people from the top of society to the bottom and from myriad ethnic minorities, nationalities and a whole diversity of backgrounds. He really has done a good job at making this history as inclusive as possible. He should be commended for this approach.

Looking at a map, it is tempting to see Gibraltar as being a tiny dot on the edge of the European Continent and so could not possibly have been so key in a World War. However, t it really was the nexus of so many important theatres of war and was certainly coveted by so many strategic planners. It was the base from which the British launched an attack on the French Fleet in Mers el Kebir when the French nation state surrendered to Hitler. It was the choke point for U-boats coming in and out of the Mediterranean. It divided the Italian Navy from the German Kriegsmarine. It was the base used to supply Malta which itself was an enormous thorn in Axis plans to conquer North Africa. Gibraltar was the launchpad for attacking (and being attacked from) Vichy colonies in North and West Africa. It is very clear that Hitler wanted to take Gibraltar and that this may well have been crucial to the ultimate outcome of the War. The Germans practiced assaulting the Rock with specialist Alpine, glider and paratroopers. Both Mussolini and Hitler spent hours trying to convince Franco to let their troops move through Spain to take the Rock with its vital dockyard and growing airbase. Franco's deft refusals provides plenty of argument for historians. Why did this Fascist deny his fellow Fascists, who had provided so much to him in the Civil War just a few years earlier, permission to invade and seize Gibraltar? The author offers many intriguing and thoughtful explanations, many of which I confess I had not considered previously. Most importantly of all, he believes that Spain was physically exhausted after years of Civil War. Worse than that, they were on the verge of famine with disrupted trade patterns due to the war and the U-boat and Royal Naval blockades in the Atlantic. It is clear that Franco wanted the British to allow supplies of grain from Canada and Argentina to reach Spain in order to prop up his regime and ensure that there was no re-ignition of war revolving around hunger and famine. That Britain nodded these ships through shows that they understood the importance of keeping Franco onside. There was also unprecedented levels of bribery being offered to key Nationalist decision makers. The author explains the fascinating clash of British espionage tactics over whether to have an active and hostile Intelligence Operatives working within Spain, or a more passive but sympathetic to the regime's aims Intelligence Operatives working there. In the end, the idea of catching more bees with honey than vinegar won through. This does not mean that the Germans and Italians did not have elaborate intelligence and sabotage activities of their own operating through Gibraltar's ever porous border with Spain. They did and even managed some marked successes. But what is more surprising is just how well the British did in undermining and ultimately turning or defeating these efforts. It was perhaps events on the other side of the Mediterranean that finally saved Gibraltar from assault. The German assault through the Balkans and in particular the airborne assault on Crete used many of the troops who had been training to assault Gibraltar. The losses they endured seemed to have knocked Hitler's confidence in these high profile smash and grab raids. Indeed, they were never employed large scale from the air again. Additionally, these troops would soon be needed to fight the Soviet Union - the window of opportunity to knock out Gibraltar and close off the Mediterranean to British reinforcements and perhaps keep Vichy France onside had been lost. As it was, Gibraltar would play an important role in Eisenhower's blooding of the American Army with their Torch landings in Vichy France's North African colonies, which are also explained clearly and concisely by the author.

The story certainly continues for Gibraltar, but the Sword of Damocles of a possible invasion had been removed from above their heads. As the war moved to Italy and Normandy, Gibraltar retreated into its staging post and communications role. Churchill was always thankful to Franco for not allowing Hitler to march through to take Gibraltar and perhaps paid the Fascist Franco regime the ultimate compliment by refusing to back any plans to invade Spain and remove Fascism from Europe in the wake of Hitler and Mussolini's defeat, however tempting the prospect seemed to some. Franco would live on for another 30 years and although Gibraltar and Spain had their ups and downs in that time, there was no question that either would invade the other.

This review really is only scratching the surface of what is included in this book. I have to say that this was my stand out read of the year. The author is both authoritative and approachable. This is a very hard combination to pull off. I learned so much but never felt lectured to by the tone of the book. It was never a chore to read, indeed I could not wait to get back to it if I had to break for any reason. I wish more history books were as engaging as this one.

British Empire Book
Nicholas Rankin
Faber & Faber


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