Wartime stories of Gibraltar and its people
“Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler”, by Nicholas Rankin
In early July 1940, a Royal Navy task force operating from Gibraltar bombarded French battleships in the naval base of Mers-el-Kébir, in the Algerian port of Oran. The British wanted to stop the French ships from joining the Vichy administration aligned with Nazi Germany, but attempts at negotiation failed. It was “an absolutely bloody business”, Admiral James Somerville, the commander of Force H, would later write to his wife. Unintentionally, the incident also triggered a sequence of events that led to a key juncture in the birth of the modern Gibraltarian identity.
The attack, recorded in great detail by Nicholas Rankin in his latest book ‘Defending the Rock’, focused attention on Gibraltar as a gateway to the Mediterranean, placing it firmly on the enemy radar at the outbreak of World War II. Rankin’s reconstruction of the attack on Mers-el-Kébir is typical of his approach throughout this sweeping account of Gibraltar’s role in World War II. He pinpoints a moment in history, sets it into its broader context, then dives down deep into intimate detail. In doing so, he tells the story not just of wartime Gibraltar, but of its people caught up in a maelstrom over which they had no control.
The attack on Mers-el-Kébir had immediate repercussions for thousands of Gibraltarians - women, children, the elderly - who had been evacuated from the Rock to French North Africa as Britain prepared Gibraltar for war. Torn from their homes, they now faced the raging grief of French citizens outraged by what had transpired in Algeria. Ousted from Morocco after days on the dockside, the “hungry, thirsty, sunburned” Gibraltarian refugees were shipped in squalid conditions to Britain via Gibraltar. But on arrival at the Rock, the order was given not to allow them off the ships.
“It was a bad mistake to think that Gibraltarian workers would allow their exiled families to pass through the Rock without seeing them,” Rankin writes. ”The Gibraltarians were seen as colonial subjects completely at the disposal of the fortress, garrison and naval base; treated with cheerful racist contempt by generations of swaddies and matelots, they were expected to do what they were told. But this latest order touched family, the heart of Mediterranean civilisation. The day when the first cargo ships of refugees started arriving, Thursday 11 July 1940, is the day when the Gibraltarian people stood up for themselves, the day that the people dismissively termed ‘Rock Scorpions’ or ‘Scorps’ struck back.”
Rankin recounts these events through archive material and first-person testimonies, not just from key players like Admiral Somervile, but of people caught up in the events, like 13-year old Lourdes Pitaluga, an evacuee on the ship, or a young lawyer called Joshua Hassan who was in the crowd on shore clamouring for the refugees to be allowed ashore before continuing their journey. In doing so, he sets a milestone in Gibraltarian history into the wider global story.
For any Gibraltarian, the core premise of Rankin’s book is immediately seductive: had Hitler captured the Rock early in the 1940s, severing critical trade lines and sealing off the Mediterranean after Italy took up arms on the Axis side, then the outcome of the war may well have proved different.
Rankin starts his story well before the outbreak of WWII, tracing the relations between Gibraltar and its Spanish hinterland to the Abyssinnian crisis and the lead-up to the Spanish civil war. Understanding that build-up and the interaction between Britain, Germany and Spain offers a vital backdrop as to why, ultimately, the Spanish dictator General Franco held back from helping Hitler to capture the Rock.
In documenting that turbulent period, Rankin records how the tensions of the Spanish civil war crossed the border into Gibraltar, fuelled by divisions of caste, class and race. There were sympathisers from both camps on the Rock, and Rankin does not shy away from telling a story which at times makes for uncomfortable reading.
And all the while, Britain had failed to see the German elephant in the room.
Germany had used the Spanish civil war as a testing ground for new military equipment and tactics. After the outbreak of World War II, Hitler pressured Franco to join in militarily, pushing for an attack on the Rock. But while Franco’s version of neutrality was undoubtedly pro-German, he never went through with it, in large part because Britain was itself holding back from any military action on Spanish soil.
Britain instead chose to woo Spain with trade in vital commodities and clandestine bribes for top generals. Gibraltar is best known as a military fortress, but its fate during WWII was ultimately sealed by politicians, diplomats and spies. ”The promise of carrots rather than the threat of the big stick,” Rankin writes, “helped preserve Spanish neutrality and thus Gibraltar’s freedom.”
All of this is fertile ground for a skilful storyteller like Rankin, who combines a scholarly command of his subject with a reporter's eye for the small details that help tell a bigger story. This is a book filled with tales of military heroism and tragedy, of diplomatic wrangling, espionage and subterfuge, peopled with a cast of colourful characters, many Gibraltarians among them, whose stories are carefully crafted onto the page.
Rankin’s depth of knowledge shines effortlessly throughout the 600-plus pages of this formidable book. He offers the reader a bird's eye view of a global conflict, setting Gibraltar in the wider context of the war while moving effortlessly from panoramic oversight to microscopic detail, recounting wartime stories often told to him in first person by people who lived through these events.
‘Defending the Rock’ is ambitious in its reach and at times its scope can seem distracting. But Rankin’s skill is his ability to combine historical accuracy with colour and reportage. The book reads like a novel and is immediately accessible, oozing a sense of place and local knowledge garnered over four years of research on the ground in Gibraltar.
Rankin is a sympathetic writer who has worked his way under Gibraltar’s skin to understand the interlaced nature not just of Gibraltarian community, but also the way it interacts with both Britain and Spain. In doing that, he offers the insight of an outsider on issues that are relevant to this day.
This book is important and timely for another reason too.
In ‘Defending the Rock’, Rankin describes how Britain fortified Gibraltar in preparation for an assault that everyone thought was coming but which, in the event, never materialised. These WWII tunnels, fortifications and gun emplacements are evident everywhere around the Rock, often built on older defences dating back hundreds of years. But while Gibraltar’s military heritage surrounds us, it too often comes into conflict with the demands of a developing society.
Some months back, there was controversy surrounding a planning application which required the removal of a unique WWII glacis in the area of North Front. This would have been the frontline defence against any land assault on the Rock. While campaigners said the loss was significant, economic arguments won the day.
The rights or wrongs of that decision are not for this article, but one comment that arose during the debate in the Development and Planning Commission is worth recording. Faced with the heritage arguments, one official confessed he found it difficult to get excited about what he described as “a lump of concrete”.
I urge him to read ‘Defending the Rock’. He will find that in those concrete structures, and in the events that brought them about, lies an important part of the modern history not just of Gibraltar, but of its people.
And Rankin does a fine job of bringing both to life.