Gibraltar has more history, geography, geology and culture packed into its 6.8 square kilometres than any other place on earth. Officially Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance of the Mediterranean and shares its northern border with the Province of Cádiz in Andalucia, Spain.
Throughout history people have had something to say about Gibraltar.
Homer (c 850 BCE) – ‘A small rock holds back a great wave’.
Abd-ad-Mummin (1159) in a letter to his son, Abu Said Utman, the Governor of Granada – The sovereign informs his correspondents that, although he is engaged on the jihad in the east of North Africa, he has not forgotten about the problems of al-Andalus, and that he has decided to build a city on Gebal-Tariq, which is situated in the junction between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and is central for both sides of the Straits; he proposes to endow this foundation with all kinds of advantages and to make it invulnerable.
Isabell of Castile (1504) – ‘I ask and require of the Kings, my successors, that they hold and retain the said city (Gibraltar) for themselves and in their own possession’.
George Augustus Elliot (1781) – ‘Look round my boys and view how beautiful the Rock appears by the light of the glorious fire.’
Jebediah Tucker (1838) (Lord St. Vincent’s biographer) – Gibraltar is a place which Englishmen ought to know and to revere. It affords at once a monument of her past deeds and proof of her present power.’
Richard H. Davis (1864 – 1916) – ‘I am now in Gibraltar. It is a large place and there does not seem to be room in this letter, in which to express my feelings about Moors in bare legs and six thousand Red-coats and to hear Englishmen speak again.’
Channing Pollock (1880 – 1946) – “Each generation produces its squad of ‘moderns’ with peashooters to attack Gibraltar”
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1942) – ‘Britain’s Gibraltar made possible the invasion of North West Africa. Without it the vital air cover would not have been quickly established on the North African fields’
Queen Elizabeth II (1954) – ‘We shall go forward in the future partnership and in amity for the good Government and sure safe keeping of Gibraltar’.
Nigel Short (Chess Player) – Well, Gibraltar is a place which you either love or hate. I quite like it. It’s a rock, that is essentially what it is. It’s a British colony.
Field Marshal Sir John Chapple (Governor of Gibraltar 1993 – 1995) – ‘probably the most fought over and most densely fortified place in Europe, and probably, therefore, in the world’
Michael Ancram (2004) – ‘This is a very important moment in Gibraltar’s history, 300 years of being British, which is rather longer than it was ever Spanish’.
And what a history it has had. It has been occupied by Neanderthals, Iberians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Spanish and the British. It has suffered fourteen recorded sieges and one separate peacetime blockade (1969 – 1985). Its population has been totally evacuated once, during the Second World War. On two occasions the majority of the population has been expelled or encouraged to leave. In 1476 (the Jewish component were expelled by the Spanish) and in 1704 (the Spanish population were encouraged to leave by the occupying British forces). To their credit, although it caused the Spanish to claim, as they still do, that the British had abrogated the Treaty of Utrecht, the British ignored a clause in the treaty, ‘ Her Britannic Majesty (Queen Anne), at the request of the Catholic King (Philip V), does consent and agree that no leave shall be given, under any pretext whatsoever, either to Jews or Moors to reside or have their dwellings in the said town of Gibraltar.’ As a result Gibraltar's economy is booming thanks in no small part to the businesses operated by those same Jews and Moors.
Each event has left an indelible mark on Gibraltar expressed in its architecture and culture. One event, the Great Siege, was even responsible for the invention of a depressing gun carriage. In 1782, Lieutenant George Frederick Koehler designed the carriage to solve a particular problem. Gunners high on the Rock had the advantage of height and therefore range but they could not depress the guns far enough to shoot at attackers close in to the rock. The depressing gun carriage allowed this in a practical and innovative way. The gun itself was fixed to a sliding carriage which allowed the gun to recoil upwards whilst the carriage itself remained fixed. Koehler’s second innovation was to attach the sliding bed to the carriage with a vertical spindle. This allowed the bed to rotate to the side to allow the gunners to reload without being exposed to enemy fire. One of Koehler’s guns has been restored and is now mounted in Casemate’s Square.
Its street and place names echo Gibraltar’s time as a garrison town, Line Wall Road, Castle Street, Rock Gun Road, Flat Bastion Road, Casemates Square, and the period of Moorish occupation, Tarik Passage. Prominent features could have been named by Arthur Ransome, Windmill Hill, Spy Glass Hill, Signal Hill, Camp Bay and Sandy Bay.
There is only one road in and out of Gibraltar, Winston Churchill Avenue, and the Rock itself is fairly distinctive, being a 426 metres high lump of limestone sticking up at the end of a low lying isthmus, so it is hard to miss although in February 2002 a party of Royal Marines from the helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, practising a dawn assault, stormed ashore on the San Felipe beach at La Linea from a landing craft with 60 mm mortars and SA80 assault rifles. They took up defensive positions on the beach ready to face a force of fellow British soldiers pretending to be the enemy. Startled local fishermen called the police. Two uniformed officers from La Linea’s municipal police force duly arrived and informed the detachment that they were not, as they had thought, in Gibraltar. Before they could be asked for passports the marines beat a hasty retreat and went off the find the proper beach.
We are going to enter Gibraltar in a more conventional manner by showing our passports and crossing the frontier. It is impossible to point out all the highlights in a short article, books have been written about Gibraltar, you really must visit.
The first feature you will notice is the airfield. It is one of a few in the world with a main road crossing it controlled by traffic lights and barriers a la railway level crossings. Its second unique selling point is the vertical north face of Gibraltar that actually borders the airfield and its third is its extremely short runway, 1680 metres with sea views at both ends. It regularly appears in lists of the top ten scariest runways in the world. It was built during World War II on the site of the Gibraltar racecourse. At the same time tunnels were being excavated in the Rock to provide a hospital, munitions dump, water and fuel reservoirs, and radio communications posts together with road communication between various military points. This was done in secret, the spoil from the tunnels was brought out at night and used to extend the runway. You can visit the wartime tunnels, it is an unforgettable experience.
If you look up at the Rock whilst crossing the runway you will see a number of apertures in the cliff face. During the Great Siege, (1779 – 1783) a tunnel was dug by hand into the Rock and the ventilation holes became very useful gun ports. You can visit the Great Siege Tunnels.
Still looking up you will notice a stone tower with the Union Flag proudly flying from a mast on the top. This is the Homage Tower and dates back to the Moorish occupation. The scars in its walls are as a result of missiles thrown at it during succeeding sieges, first stones thrown by siege catapults, then stones emitted by gunpowder fuelled cannon and finally metal cannonballs and mortars. You can visit the Homage Tower.