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 it had been British for more than two hundred years, this large chunk of Jurassic limestone—three miles long and 1,400 feet high at its tallest—that the Treaty of Utrecht had transferred to Britain from Spain as part of the settlement in the War of the Spanish Succession. Spain was keen to have it back. Starting in 1779, in what became known as “The Great Siege” (thirteen smaller ones had preceded it), a British garrison of 7,500 military men and 3,000 civilians resisted a force of at least 35,000 French and Spanish troops in a blockade that lasted for nearly four years.

In Britain, Gibraltar began to acquire its reputation as an impregnable fortress that symbolized British heroism and resolve: “this great blunderbuss,” as the novelist William Thackeray was to call it. Like many colonies it combined the exotic with the familiar. On the exotic side, it had the only wild monkeys in Europe, the so-called Barbary apes, which had been shipped long ago from North Africa. (A legend grew that as long as the monkeys remained so would the British, and when their numbers shrank to dangerously low levels in 1942, Winston Churchill is said to have ordered them to be replenished.) On the familiar side, that English institution, the foxhunt, soon got going, pursuing its quarry across the scrub and stone of the Upper Rock, and when that terrain became too limiting rode north across the sandy isthmus and into the pine woods and valleys of Andalusia.

Even the climate had—and has—this division. The summer’s prevailing easterly wind and “the Levanter,” a cloud that wraps itself around the Rock and puts the town in the shade, give Gibraltar a microclimate, so that while the sun beats down from an uninterrupted blue sky on the Spanish border only a mile away, Gibraltar can feel like a muggy version of Brighton.

What did such a place offer Britain? As Rankin writes, its position “where two huge continental land masses almost meet and where two great bodies of water do not quite mingle” made it a crucial maritime choke point between Europe and Africa and the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The Strait (Estrecho) of Gibraltar was familiar to the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans (who knew the promontories on either side as “the Pillars of the Hercules”), as well as to the Barbary corsairs and the transoceanic sailors of Spain and Portugal. But it was after the age of empire dawned in the eighteenth century, when the British navy began its rise to world supremacy, that the strait’s usefulness enormously increased. Powerful steam engines, a specialty of British technology, had begun to replace sails by the mid-nineteenth century, and when the Suez Canal opened in 1869 it cut thousands of miles off the old route via the Cape of Good Hope to India as well to Britain’s other colonies in both Asia and East Africa. Voyages were now quicker, safer, and more frequent along what became the greatest seaway of the British Empire.


By the end of the nineteenth century, British merchant ships carried 60 percent of the world’s trade and sailed under the protection of the world’s largest navy. In the 1880s between fifteen and twenty vessels a day were stopping at Gibraltar to refuel from the colony’s large stocks of imported Welsh coal, which was shoveled aboard by coal heavers recruited in Malta. Troop transports were prominent among the ships that called: Rankin records that between 1815 and 1904 the British army fought thirty-three overseas campaigns, including, in his phrase, “violently pacifying” the Maoris, Tibetans, and Zulus.

Gibraltar—increasingly known as “the Rock”—became familiar to generations of ordinary British people whose idea of “abroad” was governed by service in the military, the imperial bureaucracy, and the merchant navy, or who went to work in far-flung plantations, mines, farms, and mills. “As safe [or solid] as the Rock of Gibraltar” became a saying, though the romantic nomenclature of imperialism also knew it as “the Gate,” “the Key,” “the Lock,” “the Keeper,” “the Watchdog,” “the Guardian,” and finally “the Sentinel of the Mediterranean.” It appeared under these various guises on souvenirs such as tea towels, tin trays, and china plates.

The Rock exemplified Victorian ingenuity. It seemed impossible that such a crowded spur of land could hold more buildings and people, and yet every year its population grew as new bastions sprouted and more tunnels were dug into its limestone. The undersea telegraph cable reached Gibraltar on its way from Cornwall to India in 1870, and a telephone exchange began to operate in 1886, only seven years after London’s. Three hundred acres of Gibraltar Bay were transformed into a new harbor and dockyard, with cranes, workshops, forges, and three dry docks big enough to fit the Royal Navy’s largest battleships.

Such a bustling and forward-looking place offered better opportunities than its rural hinterland could offer: Andalusia in 1936, says Rankin, was as economically unequal as Ireland a hundred years earlier, with a tiny number of landlords in some provinces owning three quarters of the agricultural wealth. But as well as dock workers from Spain and coal heavers from Malta, Gibraltar drew migrants from all around the Mediterranean. Genoese entrepreneurs, fleeing the Peninsular War, arrived early in the nineteenth century to join a population that already included, as Mark Twain noticed in 1867, “veiled Moorish beauties (I suppose they are beauties)” as well as turbaned merchants from Fez and Jews in gabardine, skullcaps, and slippers.

Indian banias, or traders, were the last group to arrive, sailing from Bombay to ports where they might set up stores selling Oriental curios, Kashmir shawls, and brass knickknacks to passing liner passengers and homeward-bound troops. By 1938, Indians ran twenty-six shops along Main Street. Rankin tells us how the family who owned one of these shops, Bulchand & Sons, had a baby boy, Krishna, who was officially recorded as the first Indian child to be born in Gibraltar. From this beginning Rankin builds one of his book’s finest chapters: the story of how the eight-year-old Krishna and a family servant, Barsati Karya, got away from Gibraltar when civilians were evacuated in June 1940. As they sailed nearly to Burma and back again, their first ship was sunk by a German raider and their second ship by British torpedoes. Krishna’s mother and father and five siblings drowned, but Barsati pulled Krishna onto a life raft:

How was Barsati Karya to let the boy know his whole family were drowned? The cook found the answer in an imaginative lie. He pointed:

“Look! They are all on that aeroplane, and they are flying straight to India.”

The eight-year-old believed what he was told and simply began to worry about his missing sandal.

Krishna and Barsati reappear briefly in a later chapter as figures in postwar Gibraltar. Their story is beautifully drawn, but the effect on the book is confusing as well as enriching: inside the historian is a novelist struggling to get out.



In July 1940, a month after the last shipload of evacuees left port, Gibraltar faced four potential enemies: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Vichy France, and Falangist Spain. It was the third of these that mounted the first attack, which came in retaliation for the infamous destruction by the English of a French naval squadron anchored in the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kébir. A bitter Anglophobia ran high in France, and bombers mounted raids on Gibraltar from airfields in Algeria and Morocco, which were then under Vichy control. But the raids stopped at the end of the summer and never resumed. Italy then took a turn, flying sporadic sorties from bases in Sardinia and sending frogmen and manned torpedoes to sink English freighters in Gibraltar’s bay.

People died, and much-needed food and arms went to the bottom, but what worried the colony far more was the latent threat posed by Spain and the pro-German leanings of the regime led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco. On June 13, 1940, three days after Italy joined the war on Germany’s side, Spain announced that it would now be a “nonbelligerent” rather than a “neutral” state, a change that Spain’s ambassador in London (Franco’s older brother, Nicolás) assured the British government had been made purely to please the Axis powers and their more extreme supporters in Madrid. Nonetheless, it looked ominous, and even more so when, in a grand speech to his party on July 17, Franco staked Spain’s claim to Gibraltar, boasting that “two million warriors” stood ready to “make a nation, to forge an empire.” Thousands of his supporters marched through Madrid in a “victory parade” the next day.

But as Rankin writes, such things belonged to the “open-air theatre of politics.” Privately, Britain and Franco had a more ambivalent and less hostile relationship. The British may not have rushed to help the military uprising against the Republican government that Franco and his fellow officers began in Spanish Morocco in 1936. On the other hand, they did very little to hinder it. A plague on both their houses was the official line, embodied, in finer words, in the title of the International Supervisory Committee of Non-Intervention that was set up by Britain and France.

At the same time, sympathies created by class and tradition showed through. Gibraltar’s foxhunters, for example, expressed their gratitude to Franco for continuing to allow the chase to cross into Spanish territory—for which, wrote the colony’s governor, Sir Charles Harington, the generalissimo “will ever be gratefully remembered in Gibraltar.”

“Malevolent neutrality” was how detractors saw British policy toward the civil war. Britain strictly enforced an emergency embargo on sending arms to either side, but such a restriction couldn’t help but further the Francoists, who already had most of the arms and were soon to get more from Mussolini and Hitler. Rankin quotes the writer J.B. Priestley’s opinion of his fellow countrymen at that time: “What the rest of the world often fails to realise is that we are a nation of idealistic simpletons frequently governed and manipulated by cynics.”

When the Spanish civil war ended with the Republicans’ unconditional surrender in April 1939, nobody could have doubted the contribution the Axis powers had made to Franco’s victory—notably the participation of German and Italian planes in the bombing of Guernica. According to the Spanish air force general Alfredo Kindelán, the aircraft of Spain and Italy had made the Mediterranean “into a lake which cannot be traversed by the enemy,” and there now seemed little doubt about who that enemy would be. German-made artillery pointed at Gibraltar from newly built gun emplacements only a few miles across the bay, and Madrid had no less influential a foreign visitor than Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the hispanophile head of German military intelligence, the Abwehr. By late June 1940, the German army had reached France’s boundary with Spain on the Bidasoa River.

How was Britain to keep Germany out of Spain and prevent Spain’s alliance with the Axis? The crudest, most cynical method was bribery. British intelligence cooked up a ploy, the “Spanish Neutrality Scheme,” intended to minimize the influence of the most militant pro-Axis voices inside Franco’s government. Via banks in New York and Switzerland and the account of Juan March, a rich Mallorcan, huge sums of money left the Bank of England to be distributed by March among some of the most prominent members of the Spanish regime. The chief beneficiaries, including Franco’s brother Nicolás, got two million dollars each and lesser ones as much as one million each under an arrangement that ran from June 1940 to May 1941 and reached a total expenditure of $14 million, which left the British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, in his words, “rather aghast.”

Rankin offers no details of the effect of this largesse, and the many other influences on Franco make its importance hard to judge. One of those influences was the newly appointed British ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, who as minister for air in Neville Chamberlain’s government had been a leading advocate of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler and Mussolini—a policy immediately discredited at the outbreak of war. Known as “Slimy Sam” by his critics, Hoare was a well-connected Anglo-Catholic monarchist, as well as an elegant ice skater and tango dancer, and well qualified to butter up Madrid’s military and social aristocracy in his attempt to dampen their infatuation with Hitler. He had little early success. According to Hoare’s memoirs, Franco asked him at their first meeting in June 1940: “Why don’t you end the war now? You can never win it. All that will happen if the war is allowed to continue, will be the destruction of European civilisation.” The truth was that Spain, wrecked by its civil war, was half-starving. A month later, soon after Franco laid claim to Gibraltar, Spain signed a three-way agreement with Britain and Portugal that gave it access to 100,000 tons of wheat.

There were other blandishments, including a suggestion from the British Foreign Office to the Spanish ambassador in London that if Spain were to remain neutral, then Britain would be happy to discuss its claim to Gibraltar at the end of the war.

Franco began to tell both sides what they wanted to hear. As German bombers made the first raids on London in September 1940, he told Germany’s emissary, General Wolfram von Richthofen, that in his view Britain wouldn’t hold out for more than three weeks. But Franco told his own generals that Britain would go on fighting and would eventually persuade the US to join in. According to his biographer George Hills, he told them that “Germany has not won the war.” And however unintentionally, his subsequent behavior helped to make sure that it didn’t.

Germany wanted to take Gibraltar urgently—“as a means of dislocating the British imperial system,” in the words of Hitler’s chief of staff, General Wilhelm Keitel. But the speed at which the German army had raced through France alarmed Franco. “How could the Spanish deal with the hulking bully at the door?,” writes Rankin. “Coquettishly. They flattered and appeased, they squirmed and flirted, and they made promises they never intended to keep.” Franco said that the honor of taking Gibraltar had to be reserved for the Spanish army: what he wanted from Germany was guns, fuel, and food. The Wehrmacht, on the other hand, wanted a quick advance through Spain; Hitler had warmed to the idea of his admirals that a German-occupied Gibraltar would so radically alter the balance of power in the Atlantic that Britain would surrender without a cross-Channel invasion from France.

Now Germany began to finalize its plans, which involved 65,000 troops traveling 750 miles on newly strengthened roads and railways from Irun, at the French border, to Algeciras, just five miles across the bay from Gibraltar, taking with them 165 medium and heavy guns, 13,179 tons of ammunition, 9,000 tons of oil and gasoline, and 1,094 horses. The column would be protected on its flanks by a Panzer division and from the air by the Luftwaffe’s observation planes, fighters, and dive bombers. By early November the artillerymen were already practicing in the French Jura mountains with special shells that could shatter caves and casemates, while mountain troops

festooned with ropes, carabiners and grappling hooks, bricked up the ground-floor doors and windows of their barracks to make every entrance and exit an athletic scramble. There was endless rehearsal of co-ordination and co-operation: artillery with aircraft, artillery with infantry, engineers with signals and riflemen, all preparing to fight squashed together over the no-man’s-land of the peninsula’s narrow sandy neck.

Waves of bombers would drive the British fleet to sea where U-boats waited to torpedo every ship as dive bombers picked off targets on the Rock. This terrible assault was code-named Operation Felix. On December 5 Hitler held a final briefing with his senior generals. General Franz Halder jotted some notes: “Every inch of English territory must be pulverized…. Unlimited expenditure of ammunition.”


And what of the citadel? By the end of the war, ceaseless shifts of Welsh and Canadian miners had more than tripled the extent of its defensive tunnels from seven to twenty-five miles, adding new gun positions and carving out spacious chambers to provide troop accommodations and ammunition stores. But in 1940, the work had barely begun. The defenses were under constant surveillance from the border that crossed the isthmus only a mile from the town or, for a more complete view, from Algeciras. And given that between 8,000 and 10,000 Spanish workers commuted to the colony every day—wartime Gibraltar needed manpower—secrecy could never be more than an ambition. True, identity cards were usually inspected, but two British intelligence operatives posing as the Spanish workmen “A. Hitler” and “B. Mussolini” found they could penetrate to the heart of the fortress without any difficulty.

German intelligence estimated that 10,000 troops defended Gibraltar. The military governor of Algeciras, a hardened veteran of the wars in Morocco and Spain, reckoned that with decent artillery and aircraft support the forces under his command could capture the Rock within twenty minutes. His opposite number in Gibraltar, General Noel Mason-MacFarlane, was hardly more optimistic when he decided it might hold out for twenty hours. One of its defenders, Second Lieutenant Anthony Quayle of the Royal Artillery (later knighted as a fine Shakespearean actor), wrote in his autobiography that in the summer of 1940, Gibraltar was as “impregnable as a poached egg.” Its big guns pointed the wrong way—out to sea rather than toward the heavy Spanish artillery that ringed it to the north—and it had no pillboxes, no bomb-proof hospital accommodations, and only two battalions of infantry. “The Spanish could have walked in with a troop of Boy Scouts.”

And yet they didn’t and neither did the Germans. By November 27, Operation Felix stood ready to go, but Hitler by then had become entangled in Franco’s prevarication and importunacy, which a meeting of the two men—their first and last—had done nothing to resolve. No full or reliable account exists of their conference on October 23 at Hendaye, on the French side of the Spanish border, but in the words of Hitler’s interpreter, Paul Schmidt, “we thought that getting Franco’s consent for the attack on Gibraltar would be a matter of one afternoon…but it wasn’t.” Franco not only wanted wheat and arms, but also to enlarge Spain’s North African colonies at the expense of Vichy France (Spain thought of Morocco as its Lebensraum). As before, he insisted that the job of taking Gibraltar must be left to Spanish troops as a matter of national pride. The protocol that emerged from nine hours of talks promised little more than that Spain would intervene in the war against Britain once the Axis powers had provided sufficient military and economic aid.

When Hitler met Mussolini some days later, he remarked that rather than go through a nine-hour conversation with Franco again he “would prefer to have three or four teeth taken out.” But he persisted by other means. A Spanish and Italian delegation was summoned to Berchtesgaden; at a later meeting in Madrid, the Abwehr chief Admiral Canaris told Franco that Germany wanted to march into Spain on January 10, 1941, and finish the whole business in early February; Mussolini met Franco and, at Hitler’s request, also tried to persuade him to authorize the attack.

Nothing worked. Franco remained an infuriating mixture of perplexing caution and high-handed demand, always fearful of ending up on the wrong side. By the early part of 1941, other arenas of the war (present and future) were making demands on the German army. A week before Christmas in 1940, Hitler had issued Führer Directive 21, outlining Operation Barbarossa and its plans to “crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign,” with the invasion date set for the following May (later delayed until June). Troops committed to the capture of Gibraltar would soon be packing the trains going east, toward Germany’s much graver strategic mistake.

Rankin has subtitled his book “How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler,” but his text tells a different story. Gibraltar was saved from capture not by gallantry, resolve, or feats of arms—the qualities it symbolized to the British—but for the simple reason that it was never seriously attacked. It was bribery, appeasement, and the self-preserving instincts of a cruel military dictator that saved the poached egg.