Hitler’s missed opportunity: failing to smash the rock of Gibraltar

3 September 2013

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.

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  • Paul J

    I hope your book mentions the extrordianary role played by Admiral Cannaris, head of Germany’s Abwher. He told Franco to make industrial and economic demands which he himself knew Hitler would choose not to fulfill.

    The single largest reason Hitler never went for Gibraltar is because Cannaris was a secret opponent of Hitler from the start of the war.

  • Lawrenceofeurabia

    Just a note to say that Franco was always cynical about Britain returning Gibraltar. There is a running annectodote about Jordana coming to Franco after a meeting with the promise of having Gibraltar returned in exchange for Spain’s neutrality to which Franco answered: ‘I would not believe that even if signed by Chruchill’

  • Lawrenceofeurabia

    Frankly, qualifying Franco as ‘Fascist’ betrays utter historical ignorance. Never heard of the author before, but if you want to learn about Franco or the Spanish civil war, you better read someone who can find Spain on a map.

    • Walter Ellis

      What a rude response. I have to say, Mr Lawrenceofeurabia, I had never heard of you either – and given that you use a pseudonym, I still haven’t.

      However, the Falange, which Franco led, was a dyed-in-the-wool Fascist party. Franco, though primarily a military dictator, only distanced himself from the nomenclature towards the end of the war, after Mussolini had been overthrown and it was clear that Germany was losing the war. But he retained 90 per cent of the ideology. This is well known.

      Your remark about finding Spain on a map is meaningless.

      • MikeF

        Not quite. The Falange was founded and initially led by Jose Primo de Rivera, but afer he was in effect judicially murdered by the Republican government it was forcibly assimilated into the larger Francoist movement, which unlike the Falange had a traditionalist rather than revolutionary character. The problem with describing anything as ‘fascist’ is that the word is now debased and has come to mean little more than unpleasant, intolerant, authoritarian and violent – traits which are hallmarks of the extreme ‘left’ as much as they are of the extreme ‘right’. Franco was probably all those things, but whether he was a fascist in any meaningful sense of the word is debatable. By the way the Italian fleet was not destroyed at Taranto – it lost one battleship for the duration of the war and two others for extended repairs – and it remained a threat to the Royal Navy.

      • Lawrenceofeurabia

        Apologies if my answer caused you any offence, -and sorry to put it so bluntly- but you make very fundamental mistakes in your article that makes clear that you are no expert on Spanish History. And one of them is mistaking Falange with the much wider heterogeneous nationalist movement.

        The nationalists were an amalgam of Catholics, Conservatives, Traditionalists, Carlists and Falangists, of which the latter were a minority. Since Jose Antonio’s execution, the regime was wary of Falange’s strong ideological identity, and aimed to dilute them creating an oxymoronic contraption named Falange Tradicionalista y de las JONS, where other kept the folklore and paraphernalia, but left them devoid of any ideology. 

        The outcome of this was that at the outset of WWII, the regime was divided into Germanophiles -mostly Falangists- and Anglophiles, led by Count Jordana, and favoured by Franco. This was providential for Britain, as a Fascist Spain -no doubt- would have joined Hitler and Gibraltar would have been an easy conquest for the Wehrmacht leaving the Empire in a very difficult predicament.

        • Walter Ellis

          Apology accepted.

          So we’re agreed on the potential outcome, just not on the definition of what counts as Fascism. Franco was a brutal dictator and close colleague of Hitler and Mussolini, whose careers (in 1940) he both admired and envied. Though not notably anti-semitic (rather like the Duce), he slaughtered his enemies without trial and, for several years, turned his
          country into a vast concentration camp, believing himself answerable only to God and history. He thought very seriously about joining the Axis and, in consequence, expanding the Spanish empire. He sent 100,000
          “volunteers” to the Eastern Front and kept a signed photograph of Hitler on his desk until 1945. In my book, that makes him a Fascist. But we all have our different views.

          • Lawrenceofeurabia

            I beg to differ. In your book that may make Franco a Fascist, but for an Historian, a Fascist is someone who professes certain totalitarian ideology tran seeks social transformation, and Franco, a traditionalist catholic, was very different from that.

            Leaving aside subjective qualifications of the regime, here are some facts about remarks:

            – Franco was a sincere friend of Mussolini, but it is far from clear that he befriended Hitler. After the notorious interview at Hendaye, Count Ciano recalls Hitler saying that ‘he rather visit his dentist than meeting Franco again’.
            – The Blue Division was not 100000 men but 18000 men strong, with 42000 volunteers along three years, made mostly of Falangists -a good way to get rid of trouble-making fascist sympathisers, by the way.
            – Indeed Franco was not anti-Semitic. his government actively saved the lives of thousands of Jews; however, he refused to recognise the Israeli state and frequently used ludicrous anti-Semitic rhetoric.
            – It is debatable whether Franco, an experienced and competent general, coveted an imperial chimera, or, more likely, wanted Hilter off his hump -don’t forget Franco was a friend of Petain.
            – The executions after the war, 28000 to be precise, were virtually all after trial, under a process named Causa General. The strategy used by the regime was to apply the anti-rebelion military law to civilians -which lacks human rights guarantees but does not mean absence of trial.
            – Finally, regarding ‘concentration camps’ and as a matter of curiosity, in 1975, at the end of the regime, the prison population in Spain was 8000 -of 37 million inhabitants. Compare that to Britain’s 100000 inmates today.

          • Lawrenceofeurabia

            Finally, just a line to mention that at the root of our disagreement is the common tendence amidst The Anglo Saxon public of mixing the events in Spain with the fascist movement and WWII developments. The reality is that the Spanish Civil war was a fundamentally Spanish phenomenon, shaped not by European politics, but by Spanish history since the Peninsular war.

            That’s the only way to explain how Franco was able to raise the support of half the Spanish population and turn a failed military coup into a successful military campaign.

      • Horacio M. Ganau

        I’m afraid that Lawrenceofeurabia comment about the general knowledge (or lack thereof) of the author is rather poor. Did he know any better, he would have known that General Franco decreed the unification of Falange (right, a Fascist-styled party) with Traditionalists (non-Fascist by any stretch of the imagination) into one single party.

        In short, General Franco had no time nor sympathies for any political ideology whatsoever.

  • davidshort10

    It was all right for the British in 1993 to say it did not have any ‘strategic interest’ in Northern Ireland because the USSR had recently fallen so there was no real need for the Royal Navy as part of Nato to have unfettered access to sea lanes In that area. Similarly, the establishment is not really that bothered about Scotland going its own way. It was the same in South Africa. Would the ANC have been allowed to take control in 1994 if the Soviet Union, which had trained many ANC as well as south west African rebels, and was keen on holding sway in much of Africa, had still existed?
    On Gibraltar, I seem to remember there was a British plan to leave behind a strong force, sealed in for life, which would have commanded the Straits and bombarded passing ships at will.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    The near destruction of the Royal Navy by Blair, Brown and now Cameron is something that we shall come to regret most bitterly.

  • MikeF

    Hmmm…my previous comments seem to hav disappeared into the nirvana of moderation so I’ll hazard them again. Firstly Marshal Petain was hardly an ‘ally’ of Hitler – the Vichy regime never entered the war as a co-belligerent of the Nazis and that had the hugely important consequence that the French navy did not give the Axis a large surface force in the western Mediterranean. If it had then the task facing the Royal Navy would have been immensely more difficult. Secondly the Germans missed another opportunity in the autumn of 1940 – that of bypassing Gibraltar altogether and sending a significant land force to North Africa. They did not do so because Mussolini thought the Italians could fight the British Empire forces unaided – which, of course, they could not. Had there been an Afrika Korps in 1940 rather than 1941 then again the situation might have turned out differently. Finally the Italian fleet was not destroyed at the Battle of Taranto or at least not in the physical sense – their losses were three cruisers and two destroyers – what was shattered was the morale and will-to-fight of the Italian navy.

  • The Red Bladder

    Well there’s a fascinating and informative read. I trust that Mr Ellis’s book will soon be available in the printed form, once it is I shall be among the first in the queue.

    • ryeats

      Well said: a brilliant article. I shall certainly read Mr Ellis’s book. A question for the Spectator: why wasn’t this article published in the magazine? It is first class and deserves the prestige of appearing in the magazine.

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