Good Old Gib

Royal Air Force/IWM/Getty Images
A British airplane silhouetted by searchlights on the Rock of Gibraltar as it prepared for a flight to the United Kingdom, circa 1943


In his final days, trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong, Adolf Hitler decided that his failure to expel the British from Gibraltar had been a turning point in the war. The so-called Hitler-Bormann Documents, the Bunkergespräche, record his regrets. “Taking advantage of the enthusiasm we had aroused in Spain and the shock to which we had subjected Britain, we ought to have attacked Gibraltar in the summer of 1940, immediately after the defeat of France,” he allegedly told his secretary, Martin Bormann, on February 20, 1945.

The authenticity of this source is questionable: the Hitler-Bormann Documents were first published in French in 1959 by the Swiss lawyer and Hitler enthusiast François Genoud, and no German version has ever been found. But other, more reliable evidence suggests that the same belief was widely shared among the Nazi hierarchy. Soon after the Allies arrested him in May 1945, Field Marshal Hermann Göring told a sequence of British and American interrogators that the Nazi occupation of Gibraltar would have been the first step toward the occupation of the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands, and the Canary Islands, and the building of U-boat bases in Portugal and North Africa—developments that, by enabling the Germans to inflict more damage on the Allies’ transatlantic supply lines, would in Göring’s opinion have led to Britain’s surrender. The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, speculating about the eastern rather than western consequences of Gibraltar’s fall, later concluded that “the Mediterranean Sea would have been closed to Britain and a whole potential theatre of future war and victory would have been shut off.”

A terrible prospect—what prevented its realization? The question lies at the center of Nicholas Rankin’s sprawling book, Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler, which spreads itself far and wide in trying to reconcile the details of Gibraltar’s own peculiar history with the world events in which it was frequently caught up. Describing the bloody progress of World War II from the vantage point of a tiny British colony is like trying to watch a battle from a badly placed rabbit hole, and to get closer to the action, Rankin often has to park his local narrative and make long detours to places such as Abyssinia and Berchtesgaden. The book frequently seems out of control. And yet for all its waywardness—not least in its deceitful subtitle—Rankin’s account is rewardingly informative and often delightful in the telling.

“Gibraltar is a strange place, and so English,” observed the Daily Telegraph correspondent Harry Buckley in 1935. “Tea rooms everywhere. Steak-and-kidney pudding, with the temperature at ninety in the shade…. There is nothing Spanish about Gibraltar; it is just a small transplanted bit of England.” By then…

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