- - Tuesday, May 15, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

GIBRALTAR: THE GREATEST SIEGE IN BRITISH HISTORY

By Roy Adkins and Lesley Adkins

Viking, $30, 449 pages

Without wishing to detract from the many merits of Roy and Lesley Adkins’ gripping, dramatically paced and thoroughly researched history of the dogged defense of Gibraltar, I do have one bone to pick. It’s the book’s subtitle. The 1779-83 struggle between the beleaguered British garrison and its French and Spanish besiegers was, indeed, an epic struggle. But it definitely was not the “greatest siege in British history.”

That distinction would come more than a century-and-a-half later when, after the evacuation of Dunkirk (May 26, 1940) and the fall of France, Great Britain itself was isolated and besieged, single-handedly fighting for its survival.

While the heroic performance of the Royal Air Force would destroy Germany’s superiority in the air by late October 1940, aerial bombardment by plane and rocket would continue and German U Boats would hinder the flow of food, supplies and reinforcements, keeping the island nation on rations and living under siege conditions until the end of the war in Europe (VE Day) on May 8, 1945, nearly five years after Dunkirk. This, without a doubt, was the “greatest siege in British history.”

Although centuries apart and vastly different in scale, both sieges did share a common trait. Both demonstrated that very British, very bloody-minded determination to fight on even against seemingly impossible odds: To stare defeat in the face and, ultimately, to stare it down. What made this determination so formidable — both in the 18th-century siege of Gibraltar and the 20th-century siege of Britain itself — was that it bridged many bitter divisions of class and rank and mobilized a dogged fighting spirit shared by soldiers and civilians, rank-and-file and high command.

Gibraltar, a small, rocky projection from the southern coast of Spain, only two-and-a-half miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, had been captured by British forces in 1704. Much to the chagrin of Spain, it has been a British possession ever since and the local population of “Gibraltarians” — a very mixed bag ethnically, but more British than the British in their loyalty to the Union Jack — have voted overwhelmingly to remain British in two modern plebiscites.

Gibraltar became a factor in America’s independence struggle when France (and later Spain) entered the war on the side of the colonies. What had been a localized family feud then became a world war between super powers. This because Spain joined the alliance in return for a joint Franco-Spanish expedition to regain Gibraltar.

If Winston Churchill symbolized determination at the top in World War II, the equivalent role at Gibraltar a century-and-a-half earlier was played by its governor, Lt. Gen. George Augustus Elliott (afterward, Lord Heathfield). Shortly after he assumed command in 1777, one of his subordinates, in a letter home to his wife, described Elliott’s reputation “of being a remarkabl[y] strict Commanding Officer,” who “appears polite and affable to all while at the same time he expects a very particular attention” from his subordinates.

In the ensuing siege, Elliott lived up to his reputation as a stern but resourceful and humane commander. It would be hard to imagine a man more ideally suited to his monumental task. Besides his soldierly skills, Elliott’s greatest achievement was inspiring his own spirit of defiance in ordinary soldiers and sailors, and much of the motley civilian population of Jews, Levantines and half-castes who braved bombardment and starvation alongside Gibraltar’s garrison. Elliott went home to glory and a peerage. Most of “The Rock’s” humbler defenders were soon forgotten, their fate bewailed by the wife of a junior officers in poem a year later:

“If a maim’d soldier meets thy wand’ring eye,

“Ne’er turn disgusted, but his wants supply …

“Could there be found on earth a soul so poor

“To turn the crippled vet’ran from his door;

“Or think a tear of gratitude too much,

“I’d blush that armies ever bled for such.”

One of the most important side-effects of the siege was the diversion of British naval forces from blockading French ports to going to the relief of Gibraltar. This allowed bottled-up French warships to sail to American waters. The resultant temporary French naval superiority in the American theater made possible the Franco-American victory at Yorktown, making American independence all but inevitable.

George III lost the war, his 13 American colonies (and eventually, partially due to the strain of defeat, his mind). But the successful defense of Gibraltar — a bright moment in a dark hour — would become part of British folklore, an embodiment of “Bulldog Breed” tenacity, and inspiring the expression, “Strong as the Rock of Gibraltar.”

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.


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