Gibraltar came under British rule during the War of the Spanish Succession, after many attempts to retake the rock were made, it remained the only British stronghold on mainland Europe.
From Madrid to Berlin, since 1704, Gibraltar occupied the minds of those who wished for Britain’s privileged position in the western Mediterranean.
Queen Anne was the British Sovereign when a tiny enclave in the western entrance to the Mediterranean came under the rule of the Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1713, Gibraltar was formally ceded by the Spanish Crown in perpetuity to the British Crown under the Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, also known as ‘Peace and Friendship Treaty of Utrecht between Spain and Great Britain’. Gibraltar was a significant addition to the British position in the Mediterranean as this possession enhanced the projection of Britain’s sea power.
However, Utrecht was just the formalisation of British ‘de facto rule’ of ‘the Rock’ initiated almost a decade before when the Kingdom of Great Britain was not even formed yet. The year was 1704, the third one of the conflict that would last more ten long years and would be known as the ‘War of the Spanish Succession’.
In 1704, the Grand Alliance against France and Bourbon Spain included the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Habsburg Spain and the Kingdom of England. The English and Dutch were looking for a safe harbour in the Iberian Peninsula. This port should fulfil two main strategic goals. Firstly, a harbour to control the Strait of Gibraltar and the entrance of the Mediterranean. Secondly, a safe base to ease the naval operations in the Western Mediterranean against the French fleet.
Two years earlier, in October 1702, the Anglo-Dutch forces failed to seize the important Spanish city-port of Cádiz. Nonetheless, that defeat was followed by a significant victory at the Battle of Vigo Bay (also known as Vigo Bay Raid or Battle of Rande) which consolidated the naval supremacy of England in the region and persuaded Portugal to ally itself with the Grand Alliance in 1703. Thereby, now with Portuguese harbours and naval primacy, the Dutch and English fleets could secure a new base on the Spanish coast and expand their activity in the western Mediterranean. The town of Gibraltar was chosen to be captured as the military leaders tried to compensate their lack of recent victories in the region.
The capture of Gibraltar was consolidated in four days. August 1704 initiated a period of interrupted British rule marked by Spanish attempts to retake the enclave and with it the control of the western entrance to the Mediterranean. The ‘Thirteenth Siege of Gibraltar’ was the first Spanish attempt to regain control after the 1714 Treaty, after a five-month siege with no successful assaults the Spanish troops withdrew on 23rd June 1727.
Fifty-two years later, on 24th June 1779, a new and more determined attempt to retake Gibraltar was put in practice by Spain with help from France. The ‘Great Siege of Gibraltar’ was part of the escalating conflict in the British Thirteen Colonies, the American War of Independence. The war soon involved rival powers such as France and Spain anxious for an opportunity to conquer Britain’s colonial possession, commercial wealth and prestige much enhanced by the Seven Years War. However, once again the British garrison proved capable of holding Gibraltar for more than three years and seven months. This was the last military siege of the Rock.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Gibraltar proved once again an important harbour for British naval engagements and blockade of French and Spanish ports. Its geostrategic position was widely used by the Royal Navy for offensive operations against Napoleonic France and, with vital importance, as a base for repairs and treatment of wounded sailors. Famous battles like Trafalgar and Saint Vincent were fought in nearby waters, signalling Gibraltar’s position as a main naval base and its use as a ‘spearhead’ to intercept enemy fleets.
The combination of military and naval power transformed the enclave into a base ready to face the various demands in the region for centuries. The greatest challenge after the Great Siege would be the materialisation of the prospect of a joint German-Spanish attack – ‘Operation Felix’ – on the Rock during the Second World War. Operation Felix never materialised due to General Franco’s worries about the vulnerability of Spain’s food supplies mainly imported from the Americas after years of Civil War that left the country unable to feed itself.
In May 1940, the civilian population was evacuated, and Gibraltar was quickly transformed into a genuine fortress. A programme of refortification and tunnelling was undertaken, and many locations in the territory received anti-aircraft batteries. The airfield built in 1933 was expanded so it could base bomber aircraft and support Allied operations and became an air bridge to aircraft being ferried to North Africa. The British Government also established the ‘Force H’, a powerful naval group to control the Straits, protect convoys and support Allied forces in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and North Africa.
Again, the Rock provided Britain with a foothold in a hostile region. Without it, the defence of Malta against Italy’s navy and Germany’s Luftwaffe would face greater logistical problems as Gibraltar based, amongst other forces, the already mentioned Royal Navy’s Force H, which protected convoys to the island. Moreover, during the Battle of the Atlantic, its role was central. The UK adopted the Ocean Convoy System after the fall of France with Gibraltar as one of the main assembly points for convoys. Two years later, in 1942, the Rock was the destination of the Central Atlantic Convoy route between the United States and the western Mediterranean in support of operations against the Italians and Germans in North Africa and later in Italy itself. The collapse of Italy in September 1943 reduced the pressure on Gibraltar, especially from frequent small Italian raids.
During the post-war, Gibraltar’s – and Britain’s – relationship with Spain was marked by an escalation of the centuries-long dispute over the territory’s sovereignty. Diplomatic tensions were frequent; disputes over the sea frontier between Gibraltar and Spain arose. Spain’s motivation to regain control was fuelled by the decolonisation process of the 1950s and 1960s; before this period, the United Nations adopted a ‘decolonisation agenda’ in 1946.
With that background in mind, General Franco calculated that Britain would be willing to give up Gibraltar. Franco’s thought turned out to be a misjudgement and lack of understanding of the relationship between Britain and Gibraltar. Gibraltarians opposed any move towards Spanish sovereignty, and a referendum was held in September 1967 in which 99.64% of voters decided to remain under British sovereignty. Similarly to the Argentine response to the 2013 Falkland Islands Referendum, Spain dismissed the outcome labelling Gibraltar’s inhabitants as ‘pseudo-Gibraltarians’ and that the ‘real Gibraltarians’ were only the descendants of the Spanish inhabitants who had moved elsewhere during the War of Spanish Succession, more than 250 years earlier.
In 1969, the approval of the Gibraltar Constitution Order reinforced British sovereignty stating in its preamble: “Her Majesty’s Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes”. The reaction from Madrid was quick. Franco ordered total closure of the frontier, telecommunications links through Spain were severed; the Spanish airspace to aircraft landing or taking off Gibraltar Airport had been closed since 1967 and the border was already closed to vehicles since 1966.
Franco’s death in 1975 opened the way for new diplomatic movements between Britain and Spain. When Madrid decided to join NATO and the European Economic Community, it was clear to the Spanish Government that the country would need to have better relations with the British in return for Britain’s support.
The result was the 1980 Lisbon Agreement, which was strongly opposed by Gibraltarians fearing that the British Government was willing to discuss the question of sovereignty as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher indicated in the House of Commons that sovereignty was not totally excluded from negotiations. However, the opposition from Gibraltarians and disagreements between Britain and Spain led to no co-operation on the border issue. A new agreement was reached in 1984 and the border was reopened in 1985. The British Government had excluded the discussion of sovereignty from talks.
Soon after the border was reopened, Britain initiated a reduction of her military presence in Gibraltar; the Royal Navy Dockyard was closed in the same year. In spite of that, the docks continued to be operated as a commercial facility, which provides maintenance capability. The British Army garrison, which had been present since the War of Spanish Succession, left the Rock in 1990-1991 due to defence cuts after the end of the Cold War. The same pattern was to strike the Royal Air Force; its presence was reduced and, eventually, military aircraft were no longer permanently based in RAF Gibraltar.
Despite the significant reduction, the British Forces Gibraltar has some military units under its auspices. These units are the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron, RAF Gibraltar and the civilian Gibraltar Defence Police. The Regiment recruits from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth and it is the territory’s light infantry battalion. The Navy’s Squadron consists of two Patrol Vessels, HMS Scimitar and her sister ship HMS Sabre, and three rigid-hulled inflatable boats.
In the 1990s and early 2000s the question of sovereignty was again raising concerns. By 2002, the UK and Spain had proposed a new agreement that would put Gibraltar under ‘shared sovereignty’. Gibraltar’s response was clear, the Government of Gibraltar held a referendum in November 2002 and 98.97% of voters reject the agreement. The British Government accepted that a compromise without the support of the inhabitants of Gibraltar was impossible. Four years later, tripartite talks between Britain, Gibraltar and Spain resulted in the Cordoba Agreement meant to make it easier to cross the ever-problematic border and improve communications links between the Rock and Spain.
In 2004, Gibraltar celebrated 300 hundred years of British rule. Three centuries that give Britain more time controlling the Rock than Spain, which lost the town 240 years after capturing it from the Moors. However, sovereignty was never a settled issue. After two referendums in favour of British rule, the Brexit negotiations display how Spanish claims can emerge and put British sovereignty under pressure.
Gibraltar witnessed many wars and proved to be a valuable asset in practically every major conflict that the UK was involved. The territory remained an important base for Britain and her allies even after the closure of HM Dockyard in 1984. During centuries it has been a stopover for British naval power. With a changing world order after the Second World War, Gibraltar became relevant for NATO as support for aircraft, submarines and surface vessels en route to and from deployments East of Suez or Africa.
The Kingdom of Great Britain was roughly seven years old when Gibraltar was ceded by Spain in 1714, so the relationship between the UK and Gibraltar goes back to the very beginning of the Union. Gibraltar is not just a valuable military asset; it is an extension of Britain in the Mediterranean. Therefore, every British Government should consider that Gibraltar is practically part of the Union for its contributions to the UK throughout three centuries are immense.