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Gibraltar - History

GibraltarGreat Britain has held Gibraltar (the Rock) since first taking it, in an assault from the sea, in 1704. With its sheer rock walls rising abruptly from the water and from the low and flat peninsula connecting it with the Spanish mainland, Gibraltar has long been considered an incomparable natural fortress. Internally, its primary vulnerabilities lie in its shortage of water and arable land. Because of this, a garrison at Gibraltar undergoing a long siege from a mainland attacker would require resupply by sea, or alternatively, in the 20th century, by air. The British, with their traditional command of the sea, have managed to perform this maritime resupply as necessary.

During the major siege of Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783, at the time of the American Revolution, there were two major successful resupply efforts in which the British Navy temporarily broke the combined French and Spanish blockade. These successful efforts at resupply by sea were critical to the survival of the defenders, who would have had to surrender eventually due to lack of supplies, even if their fortress could not be taken by storm.

In Europe the Spaniards, after their declaration of war on England in the summer of 1779, concentrated their efforts upon the reconquest of Gibraltar. They blockaded Gibraltar, whose strong works were successfully defended by the gallant garrison under the heroic Elliot . When the provisions in the town were entirely exhausted, Admiral Sir George Rodney came to its help. He completely defeated the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent (January, 1780), and took its admiral, Langara, prisoner, only four Spanish ships escaping. Gibraltar was again adequately provisioned.

A frightful bombardment of Gibraltar led to no result. Its brave governor, Elliot, undertook a sally by which he destroyed almost all the Spanish batteries. Finally the Duke of Crillon attacked Gibraltar, placing, however, most confidence in his floating batteries, by means of which he hoped to storm the fortress on its sea side. But the English red-hot balls caused all the costly vessels to go up in flames.

Based on the long-term strength of the British Navy, the dominant power position of Great Britain versus Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the natural defensive strength of the position, there have been few serious or even potential threats to the British hold on Gibraltar since 1783, either from Spain or from more powerful foes of British power.

The most serious potential threat in recent times came during the Second World War when Spain, considered to be a quasi-ally of Germany and Italy, was under German pressure to assault Gibraltar by itself or to permit the passage of German troops through its territory for such a purpose. Franco, the cautious Fascist leader of Spain, never choseto accept either option, and thus Gibraltar was never faced with a land assault during the war. Although Spaniards have wished to reclaim Gibraltar for more than two centuries, Franco's prudent desire to keep Spain out of the war must have been reinforced by Gibraltar's reputation as an impregnable position. The success of Gibraltar's defenses in this instance, however, was, in fact, due more to the deterrent value of its reputation than to its true strength.)

Throughout the early part of World War II, when Allied fortunes were at their lowest ebb, the British were greatly worried that their weak position at Gibraltar would fall to any reasonable attack force. They realized it was clearly vulnerable to any potential German attack, particularly the exposed airfield, a 20th century addition to Gibraltar's more level reaches, which assumed importance as a military target for the first time in the long history of the Rock. Even if the Rock itself had been able towithstand a long siege, it would have been without much value for the British. Gibraltar's value by the time of World War II came as much or more from its character as a base for aircraft patrolling the western Mediterranean and nearby Atlantic waters, as from its character as a naval base for refit and resupply. Artillery located on the adjacent Spanish mainland could easily have rendered the Gibraltar airfield unusable without the necessity of evercapturing the Rock itself.

In his memoirs of the Second World War, Great Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill relates a very telling illustration of the uncertain reliabilities of untested defenses, reliabilities which often cannot be verified until an attack occurs. When Churchill visited Gibraltar in 1943 in the company of US General George C. Marshall, the governor of Gibraltar proudly displayed the most recent and most impressively protected British artillery positions, which had been arduously excavated into the north (land-ward) facing side of Gibraltar. After this convincing demonstration of relative invulnerability which had suitably impressed Churchill, Marshall rather diffidently commented that the Japanese had quickly succeeded in neutralizing a similar American defensive design at Corregidor by shelling the rock face above the positions and burying the sites in fallen debris.

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Page last modified: 17-09-2018 15:24:40 ZULU