Nicholas Rankin – Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler (Faber and Faber, 2017)
There are times when the exchange of a single syllable for another would have resulted in an entirely different history of the world. On 23rd October 1940, Hitler asked Franco for permission to move his Panzer divisions through Spain in order to attack Gibraltar. Franco said “no”.
The simple exchange of a “no” for a “yes”, Nicholas Rankin argues in his new book, would have had profound consequences.
Standing at a whopping 650+ pages, Defending the Rock is a magisterial defense of Gibraltar’s importance during the second world war. He combines individual stories with tactical analyses, cultural insights with empirical data. It’s meticulously researched and pleasingly written. I read the book over my Christmas break and barely put it down to carve the turkey.
Rankin traces the peninsula’s contested history prior to the war, the better to situate us once the war begins. And by “before the war”, I mean long before. We begin with the peninsula’s geological origins.
During the Zanclean flood, when the Mediterranean first filled with water, the power of the inundation turned the Rock on its side. The resulting peak, known to the Greeks as one of the two Pillars of Hercules, proved militarily impregnable for a whole host of inhabitants, from the Moors to pirates to, in the seventeenth century, the British.
The British Empire is an essential element of the Gibraltar story. Why else would anyone want to hold on to such a tiny piece of limestone sticking out into the sea? The Spaniards never wanted it, nor, really, did the Moors; that’s how a gang of drunken British sailors were able to take the Mountain of Tariq in the first place. “Jabal Tariq” became “Jabaltar” then “Gibraltar” through rum-soaked Anglophone repetition. The peninsula found its purpose as a place to park boats on their way down to Africa, or heading round the Horn to the Raj.
After the opening of Suez, Gibraltar became even more important. Many Empires have laid claim to the Mediterranean over the years – the Romans called it “our sea”, as did Mussolini – but it was the British Navy, stationed at Gibraltar, Suez and Malta, who could really claim to rule those warm and war-tossed waves.
The Napoleonic Wars brought cannons and sappers, and the first closing of of the border to La Linea, the Spanish town next door. The Battle of Trafalgar was mere miles away and Gibraltar, underestimated as always, played a critical role.
As we cut to the second world war itself Rankin’s history appears to move between three historical levels. Firstly, the grand tactical maneuvers of the fighting forces. Secondly, the politics, internecine struggles and ultimate resilience of the Gibraltarian people. And finally, the surprising number of cultural figures who passed through the base at wartime and the ways it impacted their lives.
The Spanish Civil War, for example, brought famous spies and freedom fighters to Gibraltar, hoping to sneak over the border and join the fighting. Hitler and Mussolini first began their surreptitious campaign against the base using their support for Franco as a cover, and, in spite of many working class Gibraltarians supporting the Republicans, the peninsula became a haven for right wing royalists and Syndicalists cast out during the Falangist coup.
Rankin, whose other works include Churchill’s Wizards and Ian Fleming’s Commandos, two excellent books on wartime intelligence, combines a nuanced understanding of spycraft with an eye for a great story. My favourite of the many sneaky shenanigans depicted in the book was that of Mussolini’s frogmen, who drove two-man-operated self-propelled torpedoes across the bay from La Linea into the Naval Base.
Some mis-steered, others blew themselves up and some, perhaps more sensible, abandoned their torpedoes after guards began shooting into the water at them – only to then return the next week with new ones.
The man tasked with checking for mines beneath British ships, we are told, could barely swim. He was the only one mad enough to do the job, and it won him a George Cross.
Gibraltar was also the staging post for the controversial attacks on Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar. Rankin tells the unfortunate story of Churchill deciding the bombard the French fleet (turning the French against us but, he argues, securing the support of the Eastern Empire) through the sailors who had shared port facilities in Gibraltar only months before.
Before the war, it is worth recalling, Gibraltar was a staging post for all kinds of vessels. Hitler visited in the mid-1930s, and the mole was hung with swastikas in greeting.
Evelyn Waugh passed through on his way to a defeat at Dakar. The story of bureaucratic ineptitude, tactical folly and humiliating flight would provide the raw material for his masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy.
He was not the only figure to flee to Gibraltar after a humiliating defeat. The Emperor Haile Selassie, ruler of Ethiopia and God Incarnate of the Rastafari, fled his nation after the invasion of Mussolini’s forces in 1935. No major power was willing to help independent Ethiopia in repelling Mussolini’s illegal invasion, and as Selassie abandoned his country the League of Nations was shown to be a paper tiger.
Only when setting foot on British soil in Gibraltar did the Emperor feel secure again. The British gave him a royal welcome, despite his now dethroned status. Respecting his deposed government would also set a precedent for our wartime relations with Free French, Free Polish and other governments-in-exile.
The everyday lives of Gibraltans and of their neighbours in La Linea are depicted with tremendous sympathy and understanding by Rankin. Although, comparable to other bases like Malta, the rock escaped the war relatively unscathed, he perfectly captures the tremendous tension that the war brought. Countless times the island was saved, sometimes by the heroism of its defenders, sometimes by the incompetence of the Axis, who were so obsessed with panzers and stukas that they left the theatre-defining control of the waves to the Brits.
It was the fear of the British Navy which lay behind Franco’s “no”. It was also his country’s tremendous poverty, which superseded his ideological commitments, and that a British/American blockade would exacerbate. It was also the advice of his generals, a number of whom, Rankin points out, were on the British payroll.
Vast sums were spent on bribing these crooked generals. Britain also met with international condemnation for its willingness to accept the Franco government after the Civil War ended. Both, in Rankin’s narrative, are political sacrifices made in the name of keeping Gibraltar free.
So what would have happened if Franco had said “yes”? Well, as an immediate consequence, the Axis would have controlled the Med. Malta would have fallen, as would Suez. The battles in the Middle East and over El Alamein could never have taken place. The “Empire beyond the seas,” who Churchill boasted would never surrender, may have never even joined the conflict; the journey around the Horn of Africa being too dangerous. Britain could have fallen before America even entered the war.
These are some dramatic “what ifs”. To live with such a daily threat above your head must have been chilling. To take their minds off things, the Gibraltans built tennis courts and erected a library between bomb craters.
Anthony Burgess, a favourite of ours here at the MRB, crops up towards the end of the book. He was stationed on Gibraltar near the end of the war. The fighting, by his arrival 1943, had reached mainland Europe. Burgess spent his time in the Educational Corps teaching the British Way and Purpose to hungover squaddies, visiting brothels in La Linea, making notes for his novel A Vision of Battlements, and debating the merits of Gibraltan independence.
Burgess, as he would in Malaya and Brunei, learned the language the better to immerse himself in local culture and, more importantly, to avoid spending time with British officials. He would later brag that, unlike James Joyce, he could speak the language of Molly Bloom: herself a Gibraltan by birth.
Defending the Rock is a tremendous book, one that turns a relatively obscure subject into the stuff of epic drama. It is compulsively readable, and justifies its length by combining multiple complex narratives into a satisfying, almost novelistic structure. It combines touching human stories and literary allusions in such a way that pacifistic readers like me will be hooked, while also containing plenty of wartime action for those of a militaristic bent. It’d also make a cracking present for dad.
Inspired by the subject matter, my review too has become rather long. Reduced to a single syllable, I’d say “yes” to this book.
– Joe Darlington