It may be that only geological erosion, expected to occur sometime over the next ten million years, will finally remove Gibraltar as a source of friction between Britain and Spain. In the meantime, with a poll showing that nearly two thirds of Spaniards support their government’s current tough line on the territory, David Cameron has again reassured the Rock’s chief minister Fabian Picardo that Britain will always stand up for Gibraltar and safeguard the interests of its people.

But while the tension is real and enduring, there is no suggestion on either side that the situation might be resolved by force. Seventy-three years ago, in the autumn of 1940, the mood was very different. The threat to British sovereignty was real and imminent. France had fallen; the British Expeditionary Force had retreated from Dunkirk; the Luftwaffe was engaged in a battle with the RAF over the skies of southern England that was intended to clear the way for a full-scale amphibious invasion.

In Spain, Generalísimo Francisco Franco, indebted to Hitler and Mussolini for the success of his Fascist forces in the recent civil war, was in negotiation with Berlin about joining the Axis powers and permitting Germany’s armed forces to assault Gibraltar, thus closing off the Mediterranean to the Royal Navy and effectively forcing Britain out of the war.

It was an almost irresistible temptation. Britain looked to be finished, and the prize – not only Gibraltar, but a slice of France’s North African Empire – was precisely what El Caudillo wanted as a mark of Spain’s return to Europe’s top table.

On the face of it, it didn’t look to be that much of a gamble. The Wehrmacht high command had produced a plan, Operation Felix, that allowed for the arrival in Spain of a formidable assault force, backed by heavy artillery and squadrons of Stuka dive-bombers, in which Spanish involvement, though more than symbolic, would be secondary. In all probability, the fighting would have been concluded inside of a week, almost certainly preceded by the withdrawal of Force H, the powerful British naval squadron, which would have fled either to British home waters or else to Alexandria, a thousand miles to the east.

The Battle of Taranto, in which the Italian fleet was destroyed, would almost certainly not have occurred. Instead, U-boats would have been a constant menace to British surface ships. The Eighth Army could not have been supplied or reinforced, except through Suez. Rommel’s Afrika Korps would have increased remorselessly in numbers and equipment, meaning that the Battle of Alamein, if it was ever fought, would have resulted in a German victory.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is what Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, told his American interrogators in Nuremberg in 1946:

“In 1940 we had a plan to seize all North Africa from Dakar to Alexandria, and with it the Atlantic islands for U-boat bases. This would have cut off many of Britain’s shipping lanes. At the same time, any resistance movement in North Africa could be crushed. [Afterwards], nobody could have interfered in the Mediterranean.”

“The attack on Gibraltar was so methodically prepared by the Luftwaffe that, according to all human expectations, there could be no failure …There was only one unprotected airfield on the Rock. In 24 hours the Royal Air Force would have been forced off … and we could have battered it to pieces. This was a real task and we were eager to accomplish it.”

‘I urged [Hitler] to put these decisive considerations into the foreground and only after the conclusion of [the] undertaking to examine further the military and political situation with regard to Russia. For, if these conditions were brought about, we would be in a favourable position in the event of an intervention by the United States … Failure to carry out the plan was one of the major mistakes of the war.’ 

But don’t just take Göring’s word for it. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, a key architect of Hitler’s war strategy, said much the same to his interrogators:

‘Instead of attacking Russia, we should have strangled the British Empire by closing the Mediterranean. The first step in the operation would have been the conquest of Gibraltar. That was another great opportunity we missed.’ 

And – if we can forgive him his unfortunate endorsement of the Hitler Diaries – here is what the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) had to say:

‘That the German army could have taken Gibraltar from Spanish soil is agreed by all: the experience of Crete [in 1941] would prove it. With Gibraltar, the Axis would have obtained control of the whole Mediterranean, cut off the British army in the Middle East, and closed a whole future theatre of war. What hope of ultimate victory could even Churchill then have held out?’ 

Talk about Götterdämmerung! Yet it didn’t happen. Why not?

The conventional wisdom holds that Churchill, acting in concert with his specially appointed ambassador to Madrid, Sir Samuel Hoare, sent sackfuls of money to Spain’s generals, requiring them to counsel against the Axis temptation while pointing out that, somehow or other, Britain always ended up on the winning side.

In fact, as I explore in my newly published thriller Franco’s Map, there was a lot more to it than that. The not-so-great dictator, stuck at the bottom of the Fascist food chain, was worried that Britain would blockade his country and cut off much-needed supplies of oil and grain. Accordingly, he demanded that Germany should replace what would be lost. Hitler was ready to discuss this, but was also impatient. How could the comical little Spaniard talk about food and fuel when history was being made?

Equally, if not more important was the matter of the Spanish empire. Franco was obsessed with North Africa, from which he had launched his Fascist takeover. He felt that Spain should control not only its existing strip of Morocco, but French Morocco as well, plus the western province of Algeria, centred on Oran. Not only that, he also had his eyes on Gabon, which he regarded as the natural hinterland of Spanish Equatorial Africa.

The trouble was, all of these territories were part of the French empire, then run from Vichy by Hitler’s uncomfortable, but stalwart ally, Marshal Philippe Pétain. Pétain was as obsessed with his honour, and the honour of France, as Franco was with Spanish aggrandisement. The Führer thought he could play one side off against the other, promising Franco that after the war there would be a ‘readjustment’, while assuring Pétain’s egregious number two, Pierre Laval, that French interests would be respected.

At a series of summits, the first with Laval, at Montoire-sur-le-Loir, on October 22, 1940, the second, the following day, with Franco, at Hendaye, and the third, with Pétain, back at Montoire, on the 24th, the entire plan to capture Gibraltar fell apart like a house of cards. Hitler lied to everybody, which was his normal means of discourse. But, as his week progressed, he came to realise that if he gave chunks of French Africa to Spain, the French empire would re-enter the war (no small matter) and Germany would then have to flood France with an additional 100,000 occupation troops. Equally, if he didn’t give Franco what he wanted in Africa, plus Gibraltar, plus valuable supplies of oil and grain, Spain would remain closed to him and he would be obliged either to invade or else – as actually transpired – to maintain the momentum of his war effort by bringing forward his invasion of the Soviet Union.

How much Laval and Franco knew of the other’s intentions is far from clear. But both had spies in place and each was convinced of the other’s perfidy. Hitler did not give up straight away. He and his generals continued to devise plans for the great assault on Gibraltar, which they periodically put up to the Generalísimo. But to no avail. Franco, cunning as a fox, was impressed by Britain’s performance in the Battle of Britain and, while contributing “volunteers” to the Eastern Front, came gradually to believe that Germany would lose the war. He may also have imagined that Churchill would reward him for remaining non-belligerent by handing back Gibraltar. If so, he was mistaken.

The British leader was nothing if not pragmatic. While showering Madrid with bribes, and rhetorically offering to help Spain at some future date ‘take its rightful place as a great Mediterranean power,’ he also kept a naval expeditionary force on station, comprised of 24 vessels, that, in the event Gibraltar fell, would invade the Canaries and establish a new forward base in the Atlantic.

In a speech in the Commons after the war, Churchill generously praised Franco for never having turned the key against Britain in the Mediterranean. But, lest there be any misunderstanding, he also sent a letter to the Pardo Palace in which he reminded the Spanish leader that on several occasions he had said the defeat of Britain by Nazi Germany was both ‘desirable and unavoidable’. Never, Churchill went on, would he allow Fascist Spain to be admitted to the soon-to-be-formed United Nations. There was no mention of Gibraltar.

History matters. But it is also disposable. In 1993, Britain declared that it had ‘no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ – a crucial contribution to the then ongoing peace process, suggesting that historical connections are often accidental, with built-in expiry dates. It is possible to imagine a similar declaration in respect of Gibraltar (or the Falklands), especially now that the Royal Navy is a shrunken thing, the global role of which is increasingly a chimera. Yet so long as the people of Gibraltar continue, overwhelmingly, to proclaim their Britishness, it is hard to see how London’s hand can let go of the tiller any time soon.

Franco would be appalled.

Walter Ellis’s thriller Franco’s Map is available on Kindle.

Tags: Adolf Hitler, Fiction, Gibraltar, historical fiction, History, Winston Churchill, WW2