“Spain’s foreign minister,” we are told, “met [in Gibraltar] Tuesday with his British counterpart and with the head of Gibraltar’s local administration in the first visit by a Spanish Cabinet official to the British colony.”
Hardly the top of the news, you say — but it reminds me of how crisis points in the world wax and wane in importance. Gibraltar was a strategic fortress for Britain and the Allies during World War II — and Britain vowed to hold onto it forever, or at least, according to legend, as long as the Barbary apes remain on station.
Gibraltar is an outcropping of rock, a British territory roughly 1,093 miles south of London, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and attached to Spain by a neck of land. It was ceded to Britain in 1713. Spain wants it back, but don’t hold your breath.
News Item 2: “The Rock of Gibraltar is echoing to gunfire for the first time since the Spanish attacked Britain’s Mediterranean toehold nearly 300 years ago.”
British soldiers are training in Gibraltar’s maze of underground caves to seek and destroy al-Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan, previously believed to be impervious.
Sky News quoted Captain Charles Bonfante, of the British Army’s Royal Gibraltar Regiment, on the subject. “As a training area, this is unique…I did a tour in Afghanistan, around Musa Qala. One of our battles was fought in underground tunnels, just like this.”
Interesting, and Sky News doesn’t have it quite right. Gibraltar has heard gunfire in modern times. It had complex, secret gun emplacements during World War II, ready to fight off any invasion by Hilter, if he decided to speed to the Mediterranean coast. Several years ago, I interviewed Jean-Francois Nothomb, a prominent underground leader who snuck in and out of Gibraltar during World War II. Nothomb was a protagonist in my book, Freedom Line, which detailed the rescue of Allied pilots from Nazi territory.
He recalled going for a stroll one day in Gibraltar on a promontory overlooking the harbor. “What appeared to be a stony mound suddenly gave way to a sliding pedestal and he could hear the sound of gears and motors. Suddenly a two-man gun emplacement rose out of the earth, with two helmeted British gunners at the controls. This was no ordinary field. What had appeared to be a natural landscape was actually a stage set for antiaircraft guns.”
Hilter was diverted from his designs on Gibraltar by his overriding passion to focus on an invasion of Russia to the north instead. German presence in Gibraltar would have created a dominant position at the entrance to the Mediterranean. British and American analysts at the time went as far as to say that Hitler could have won the war if he took Gibraltar.
Fascinating to me that 70 years after playing a strategic role in World War II, Gibraltar is now a training site for soldiers seeking a latter-day enemy, Osama bin Laden.
I wouldn’t argue for or against the notion that this is the time for Britain to give up this last relic of the empire. But it sure has a colorful history. I’ll take the democratic line: Here’s a vote for self-determination of the 30,000 people of Gibraltar.
– Peter Eisner