DEFENDING THE ROCK: GIBRALTAR AND THE SECOND WORLD WAR

Reviewed by: Bill Evershed

I noticed this book in my local bookshop and bought it on the basis that my final RN appointment had been in Gib. I’m so glad that I did so. What do most sailors know about Gib? Probably just the bars in Main Street, the apes, and the ‘Top of the Rock’ Race. And what do officers know? Much the same but probably a run ashore to La Linea and a little history, the Trafalgar Cemetery, WW2’s destruction of the French Fleet, the ‘Admiral North Incident’, Malta Convoys, Operation TORCH, Force H, ‘Monty’s Double’, the Italian frogmen’s attack, the death of Sikorski, and, more recently, the ‘Falklands’ and NATO exercises.

There is of course much, much more to the Rock, which has remained as a British Colony for over 300 years. This book, a Times Book of the Year, and even the paperback is quite weighty, with its 580 pages plus Notes and comprehensive Index, is quite some tome, but well worth the read, especially for those who have known Gib and have an interest in military history. I wish it had been available prior to or during my own rather unchallenging appointment there as it would have put this in so much better a perspective and made Gib so much more interesting. Certainly some of my predecessors and one of my successors met some tough challenges.

Most UK histories of WW2 are, for obvious reasons, London-orientated. But this book looks at the whole European War from Europe’s south-west corner and this provides a very refreshing and certainly an illuminating novel viewpoint. We start in the lotus-eating pre-War ‘Raj’ type days preceding the Abyssinian crisis, then through the Spanish Civil War when Germany and Italy used Spain as a training ground, the breaking out of WW2 and, of course, all the major events which I mentioned above. But through its pages and the author’s brilliant scholarship and painstaking research, we live in Gib throughout all these years, we experience the privations, the real threat in the early years of a German, or Spanish, attack, the tunnelling, the almost overwhelming security problems, intelligence gathering and probing, escaping PoWs, the problems of logistic support for RN and later USN ships and aircraft, all overlaid by the political duplicities and difficulties involving Spain, Portugal, Vichy and Free France, Italy and Germany: a quagmire of intrigue.

The book’s final pages record the almost anti-climax of VE Day and then add a coda about Gib’s value in the Falklands War and the Argentine attack on the Rock frustrated by Spain. This is a rock breaking book. Essential reading for anyone, Service or civilian, taking up a senior or Intelligence appointment in Gib, and equally for those appointed as attaches in Madrid, Portugal, France and Berlin as it so well captures the ‘psyche’ of these nations. A fine read too for anyone who, like so many of us, knows Gib and has an affection for it. As usual open any book at page 59 to taste its flavour and, if you want to know whether a German thrust through neutral Spain could have succeeded and would thereby have altered the entire course of the European War, turn to page 344.