Close-up of Britain’s famous fortress. Franco wants it and Hitler may try to take it
FOUR HUNDRED years ago, one of the greatest queens in history—Isabella of Castile, for whom Columbus discovered the American world—made a will in which she ordered her people to "hold Gibraltar and to extend Spanish rule in African territory.”
The Kaiser, showing a Hitlerian disregard for other people’s territory, offered Portugal and Gibraltar to Alfonso the Fourteenth in return for his support in the last war. The Spanish King told me that he replied, ‘‘The first I do not want. The second I can take whenever I choose.”
Today it would not be so easy for an Axis host to take Gibraltar; but there is no doubt that both General Franco and his pro-Nazi brother-in-law, Señor Suner. do want the fortress, which is a key not only to the Mediterranean but to colonial North Africa.
The Rock is a key which does not completely
turn in the lock. For shipping can slip through the Straits beyond reach of Gibraltar’s guns if it hugs the Moroccan coast, protected by the forts of Ceuta in the Spanish zone.
For many years successive Governments in Madrid have been strengthening the defenses of their mosteffectiveAfrican stronghold, and the last time I saw Ceuta, in the summer of 1939, it appeared to be as "impregnable” as any modern harbor, with underground forts, big guns, antiaircraft defense and a network of supporting airdromes.
Ceuta, flat in design, offers no target to any enemy. The cone of Gibraltar is a perfect landmark. Our fortress could have no land support in case of attack and, like Hong Kong, it would be deprived of air protection unless aircraft carriers could venture within range. Malta would be its nearest supporting airdrome. In spite of protest and criticism, the harbor of Gibraltar was constructed on the landward side where it can be swept at close range by guns in Algeciras or in the range of hills commanding the flat neck which joins the Rock to the Spanish mainland.
It must be supposed that even the Axis, with its astounding capabilities for shock assaults, could not take Gibraltar by surprise. The defenders would inevitably be warned by the movement of German forces through Spain, and there should be time to empty the harbor of naval and merchant craft. Were that exposed basin, with its docks, sheds and repair shops shelled from the land it would only be a question of hours before everything visible would be blown to pieces. But Gibraltar
itself is prepared for a siege. It is more heavily armed and has a larger garrison than Hong Kong. The isthmus leading to the Spanish plains, across which in prewar years the garrison and their friendly neighbors ran a "fox hunt,” has been fortified and now possesses lines of tank traps. It would be a hard task even for Hitler’s shock troops to advance across that deadly open ground swept by the big guns of the Rock. But Gibraltar would have to face attack from at least three sides simultaneously and from the air.
So far as breaching the rock structure is concerned, the fortress should be impregnable to direct assault, and the defenses would have the benefit of the famous tunnels, beyond reach of b~mbs and shells, in which many gun emplacements have been sunk. But Gibraltar can be shelled from Spain and Spanish North Africa.
Under such cover, enemy troops could attempt (like the Japanese at Hong Kong) a landing in the low-lying town between rock and sea, while a heavily armored force attacked the isthmus.
The cone itself would be an admirable target for an Air Force based either in Morocco or in Spain. But a cloud generally hangs over the peak. This might prevent accurate bombing of the fortress, although the exposed town could be obliterated. But the cone also interferes with anti-aircraft defense.
Gibraltar is a dark reddish-brown peak, which, approached from the
east, seems to stand sheer out of the sea. With no vegetation visible, it appears to be completely barren. It is smaller than Hong Kong and goes up to a sharper summit. Gibraltar looks as if it were a. conical island of sheer rock, flattened toward the west. There the small town—a little larger than Banff but with narrow streets and the houses pressed closely together—clings to the edge of the harbor and ventures a little way up the cliff. In reality it is joined to Spain by a three mile wide stretch of flat land, completely empty.
Neither trees nor houses get in the way of the deep fortifications which have been recently created. Gibraltar’s defenders can look straight into Spain on the north side. A few trees and some tabloid gardens shut in by the high walls habitual
to Southern Spain and North Africa, break the monotony of the grey town. There is one main street onto which the small shops open. The storekeepers are of many races. Spanish and Arab blood, Jewish and Levantine has gone into the veins of today’s Gibraltans who consider themselves a separate race. Many languages are heard in the streets, with Scottish and English predominating on payday when soldiers throng the cafés. But today, the small, cramped town, more African-Spanish than British in appearance, has been emptied of its civilian population. The problem of Hong Kong will not
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be repeated in its entirety at Gibraltar. For there will be no hostile elements among terrified civilians, trapped between an enemy on the mainland and an enemy on the sea.
But the famous Rock gets its food from ships or from Spain. The dry goods sold in its old-fashioned emporiums are from every Midland town in England. Its fresh food used to come on donkey-back across the isthmus. In case of the siege which would presumably develop as a result of German attack, Gibraltar would have to be its own storehouse. For only rowboats and small launches could find a landing place. on the seaward sides of the Rock out of range of guns in Spain. The quays and harbors on which naval and merchant traffic have depended could be rendered untenable by enemy fire.
The Rock, honeycombed with underground galleries, scarred by gun emplacements, can be defended so long as water, food and ammunition hold out. How long it could hold out would presumably depend on what diversion could be made by the Mediterranean fleet. If it came to a siege, close-pressed Gibraltar would be faced with the same difficulties as Hong Kong, including a limited water supply, although everything possible has been done to increase the latter and to conserve it deep in the rock beyond reach of bombs.
But the town itself would be doomed. Already it is silent. There used always to be music behind its discreet walls. The gay shawls of women, the ribboned hats of gypsies, a flow'er in a lace scarf over blueblack hair added color to its streets. A dark-skinned, hot-blooded people with the sun in their hearts, mixture of every land and result of innumerable ancient wars, were quick to laugh or quarrel, avid of profit, voluble in their own mixed dialect. Now they have been evacuated from their cramped, small - windowed houses, from the stores which sold a little of every conceivable thing and not very much of anything except the local embroidery in very bright silks and cottons. Gibraltar waits for Hitler. She has made the sacrifice of all her ordinary life. God grant she is to the last grim detail prepared.
Link or Barrier
AS EARLY as 1893, when Joseph XTL Chamberlain shocked the British House of Commons by suggesting that “in case of a Mediterranean war, the British Navy would have to cut and run—if it could run” (a totally erroneous conclusion in view of the last two years’ magnificent record), strategists wondered whether island fortresses were likely to be assets or liabilities in a modern conflict.
In 1935 experts began to suggest that the Mediterranean was no longer an essential route, and that we might do better to concentrate on the Cape passage, improving port facilities in Sierra Leone (now vitally important in view of the Vichy-German occupation of Dakar) and at Simonstown. Five years ago this school of thought
insisted that in a totalitarian war, submarines and bombing planes could make the 1,900 miles between Gialtar and Port Said too dangerous for merchant shipping. They quoted the last war in which more than a third of our total losses by submarine action occurred in the Mediterranean They surely forgot that this “middle sea” must be either the link or the barrier between Hitler’s plans for a Nazi-forged European state and the African raw materials necessary for their materialization.
So far the Western Mediterranean has not really been important to Hitler. He has been able to reinforce North African resistance by two routes: either (with Vichy’s connivance) from Toulon to the fine French port of Bizerte in Tunisia, or down the toe of Italy and across the narrow strait, amply protected by Sicily and the tremendous fortifications of Pantelleria, into Tripolitania. When gallant Greece fell, another way was opened for Nazi penetration of North Africa.
Physically, Spain is in no condition to fight as she might have to do if she allowed passage of German troops for an assault on Gibraltar. Epidemics rage among her ill-fed population. There is little, if any, bread in the villages. Tobacco is unobtainable outside the towns. The mass of the people are bitterly discontented and it is said that the Government, knowing this, exaggerates the extent and violence of the prevalent diseases in order to discourage any form of German invasion.
The ordinary Spaniard certainly wants peace—and more food. But the conquest of Gibraltar might stimulate that prickly national pride which was the source of prodigious valor on both sides in the recent civil war. Just as China hankered for Hong Kong, which she considered part of her own soil, so Spain looks upon Gibraltar. When Franco’s colonial troops occupied the Moroccan International zone just across the Straits, in June, 1940, there was as much rejoicing in Madrid as if it had been an empire. And the words “Gibraltar next” were on every Falangist’s lips.
Beyond these two citadels lies, in the eyes of the colonial generals and totalitarian statesmen, an “easy road” to French Casablanca, the most important harbor on the African Atlantic; to Fez, and to Oran, the huge commercial city, fortress and dockyard of Algeria. These three places still belong in name to Petain’s France, but Hitler, who has already offered Spain a dominating influence in Morocco, may increase his metaphorical thirty pieces of silver as the price of betrayal. In “Mein Kampf” he has clearly stated that terms accorded to a defeated enemy have no permanent significance.
The richest provinces of North Africa, Morocco and Western Algeria, commanding the motor highway from Colomb-Béchar to Dakar and the new Trans-Saharan railway nearing completion by French and German experts, will be at the disposal of whichever Mediterranean country
offers the Fuehrer most help. Admiral Darían hopes to keep them by pledging support of the French fleet, Petain by holding out hopes of naval bases to supplement the assistance which French North Africa has already given to Italo-German armies in Tripolitania by means of transport, oil and food. But if Señor Suner, an ardent pro-Nazi and a wholehearted admirer of German efficiency, can prevail upon his brother-in-law, General Franco, to allow passage of German troops from the Pyrenees, where they are already encamped, to the hills commanding Gibraltar harbor, the map of Northwest Africa will be adjusted to German taste and perhaps to Spain’s benefit.
The excuse is ready. Goebbels’ best agents are working in Portugal. A suggestion flaring up in Lisbon, but dictated in Berlin, that Morocco was about to join De Gaulle would be the signal for another invasion. One thing that saves the Iberian peninsula at this moment is its utility as a line of communication with U.S.A. But this usefulness has diminished with the U.S.A.’s entry into the war, and Germany may decide that Portuguese ports are more valuable to her as bases for attack on British Atlantic trade than as possible loopholes in our blockade.
Should Madrid prove obdurate, as Sir Samuel Hoare predicts, the German drive might strike through the narrow Spanish corridor into Portugal. But the Falangist (SpanishNazi) influence is strong because it is based on success. Italy is exceedingly unpopular in Spain, but the Germans were excellent soldiers of enormous assistance to Franco in the civil war, and they are well-liked. Berlin has spent a great deal of money in the country, by means of frozen credits,
and has pursued her usual policy, so successful in Europe, of placing her own technicians in every vital plant and factory. The commercial reorganization of Spain is on a Teutonic pattern. There are thousands of Gestapo agents in Madrid, Barcelona and San Sebastian.
CGENERAL FRANCO, who is a T realist as well as a keen imperialist, must, of course, be influenced by (1) our alliance with the U.S.A., (2) the attitude of the twenty South and Central American republics, in which the majority of the people are opposed to Nazism, (3) Hitler’s failure to invade Britain, (4) the inefficiency of the Italian fleet, (5) the success of our Navy, and the starvation which would follow a British blockade, and (6) the physical exhaustion of his own country and its division into a number of violently hostile parties. For Catalonia is still vigorously Socialist and longs for autonomy. The Basques want complete independence and many of the miners and artisans are anarchists.
It would not be an easy task to bring a united Spain into any war. But the best bait would be Gibraltar, as logically a part of Spain as the Isle of Wight is of England. Yet, if General Franco dreams in the imperial manner of France’s great Marshall Lyautey, who created the modern Morocco without destroying the old, he will be faced with a difficulty which few in North America realize. For twenty million Spaniards abhor the name of Morocco. Beyond their coveted Gibraltar, whose possession with Ceuta and Tangier would make of the Straits a Spanish waterway, lie forty years of death,
disaster, disease and dishonesty. Nobody south of the Pyrenees has forgotten that 50,000 Spaniards died unnecessarily in the Riff wars, while Government officials and contractors made fortunes. Spanish women have already thrown themselves on the railway lines to prevent trains leaving for the “cemetery of Africa.”
So Señor Suner may well commit the irreparable mistake, if he persuades General Franco to force whatever is left of the people’s Spain into another Moroccan campaign.
So long as Hitler can control Vichy France, Spain’s neutrality is all he needs. For Dakar is his main objective. There, during the last eighteen months, German military, naval and engineering experts have been employed night and day in completing the strategic railway to the Mediterranean, mounting guns, constructing forts and airdrome defenses, improving the harbor and extending its facilities as a Headquarters for South Atlantic offensives. When all such work is completed, the Mediterranean—a weapon of offense in the hands of a naval power—may be of less importance to Berlin than an Atlantic route from Lisbon to Casablanca.
Above all things, Franco is a colonial general. This means that his ambitions may well he on the same scale as the Duce’s. Let us make no mistake about his inclinations. He expressed them clearly when he said, “It is necessary to make a nation in order to forge an empire . . . We are resting from the battle but it is not finished. Spain’s great past must be revived. Two million soldiers stand ready to support our imperial rights.” Solid in the way of those “rights” stands the Rock of Gibraltar.