Operation Felix: Hitler’s plan to capture Gibraltar

During the Second World War Gibraltar served a vital role in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, controlling virtually all naval traffic into and out of the Med. The Rock provided a strongly defended harbour in which the Allies could operate and later served as a staging ground for Operation Torch. Considering the importance of Gibraltar and Francoist Spain’s desire to take it ‘back’, it is perhaps a surprise that no invasion was launched.

Background

The entry of Italy into WWII pushed the European theatre southwards. While Hitler’s focus was on Western and Eastern Europe, the Italians sought expansion in the Mediterranean and North Africa.

While Hitler’s war machine bulldozed all in its path as the Nazis spread throughout Europe, the Italians failed to seize the Med, and the Royal Navy remained the region’s gatekeepers.

British power was demonstrated in July 1940, when the RAF sank the recently surrendered French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria.

The sinking of the French fleet was a signal to Hitler that British power in the Med would need to be overcome if the Axis were to win the war, bringing the Germans into the Southern European conflict.

Sir Samuel Hoare, appointed by Churchill as special ambassador to Spain in May, wrote in his memoirs “for centuries the naval command of the Mediterranean had been a fundamental principle of British policy. Indeed, without the unimpeded passage of British ships through the Mediterranean, the maintenance of the British Empire would have been impossible…and would the fortress of Gibraltar be of any value if the Naval and Air bases under the shadow of the Rock now become untenable? Would not Hitler seize this unique opportunity of pushing through Spain and Africa and creating himself an impregnable base from which to dominate the African continent and threaten the Atlantic highway? ”

There was a fear in Britain that Francoist Spain would join the Axis. There were reasons for this, Britain was on the back foot and the situation looking bleaker by the day. Britain’s neutrality in the Spanish civil war meant Franco owed nothing to the UK, as opposed to Hitler and Mussolini who came to his aid.

After the French Armistice on 27th June of that year, Hitler spoke to the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, about attacking the Rock.

Spanish foreign policy was curious, Spain did not wish for the Fascist powers to lose the war. However, Franco did not wish them to have an overwhelming victory as he wished to remain independent. He was also nervous that an Axis victory would allow Italy to solidify its hegemony in North Africa.

Furthermore, Franco wanted Spanish troops to take Gibraltar, contrary to German plans.

Plan of Attack

The Germans began preliminary plans by travelling to southern Spain to observe the Rock’s defences. Not only did the natural landscape of Gibraltar provide difficulties for German planners, but the Spanish infrastructure also was a hurdle they had to overcome. Spanish railroads were different from those in France and the desired route passed through Madrid, eliminating any chance of a surprise attack. Furthermore, Spanish roads were in a poor state.

Gibraltar from La linea

The Germans plan of attack was as follows: the assault force would consist of at least one mountain regiment, one engineer construction battalion and two combat engineer battalions. Furthermore, approximately 167 guns were needed to give a 3 to 1 advantage over British defences.

The artillery would begin the attack, softening up British defences and any part of the fleet left in the harbour. This would be followed by aerial attack by the famous German dive bombers on key locations and any ships that had survived the initial bombardment.

Artillery bombardments would continue while German forces operating from La Linea (just over the border in Spain) would advance over 1,500 meters of open ground. As firefighting continued, assault ships would cross the harbour and land on the Old Mole, further disrupting the defenders’ cohesion. German officers believed it would just take three days to take the Peninsular.

By mid-August, Hitler had approved the attack on Gibraltar and ordered the preparations to begin without delay. However, while German officials informed Franco of the plan the general himself remained undecided. Franco was concerned about losing the Canaries, it was also likely that Allied troops would land and occupy parts of southern Spain.

Spain’s experiences during the civil war also played a part. The Spanish population was still reeling from the conflict, and Spaniards in general were not in a hurry to have any foreign armies, even fascist ones, marching through their streets.

On the 19th September, 1940, Mussolini told Ribbentrop, the German foreign affairs minister, that the loss of Gibraltar would be a blow to the British and allow free passage for Italian vessels.

Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco at Hendaye.

Hitler was worried about Spanish ambitions. There was a fear that if the collaborationist Vichy French were to discover Spain’s colonial ambitions in North Africa, it could push the French colonies into the arms of de Gaulle.

Hitler agreed to meet Franco at the Franco-Spanish border to request granting of passage. In the Hendaya encounter, Franco presented Hitler with a long list of demands, including food, modern equipment and protection from retaliation.

Franco made no attempt to hide his desire for eventual control of Algeria and Morocco, and wanted concessions in those areas prior to entering the war, something Hitler refused. A few days after Hendaya, Hitler was reported to have told Benito Mussolini that he would: “Rather have four of my own teeth pulled out than go through another meeting with that man again!” Although the meetings proved inclusive, Hitler informed his staff that they should prepare to take Gibraltar with or without Franco.

On the 12th November, 1940, Hitler issued “Directive No. 18 Operation Felix- the capture of Gibraltar The troops would mass behind Spanish/French border without any prior knowledge of their mission. This was in hope that British intelligence would not discover the operation and disturb the preparations.

The Luftwaffe would launch from France to attack Gibraltar’s harbour, before motorised troops crossed the border. Hitler expected the British fleet to retreat into open waters, where German U-boats would be ready to engage.

Wartime Gibraltar

Britain was intending to fight to the bitter end. Construction of a city inside the Rock began, containing highways, water distillers, a hospital, barracks, telephone exchanges and even a bakery.

Fear of invasion was such that the civilian population was evacuated and would not fully return until 1954. Gibraltar was subject to various air raids in 1940, albeit with few casualties. Many of these raids were carried out by Vichy France.

A gun emplacement at Gibraltar  (image: Mark Simmons’ personal collection))

Churchill went on to inform French officials that while there was no complaints on the raids already carried out in retaliation against British actions at Mers-el-Kebir , if they were to bomb Gibraltar again, the UK would bomb Casablanca and sink their fleet stationed there.

Germany were soon briefly occupied by Italy’s blunderous Greece campaign, forcing Hitler to divert troops to help his ally. Despite Hitler’s initial desire to invade Gibraltar regardless of Franco’s stance, Hitler would become adamant on Spanish entry into the war,

Furthermore, plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union were beginning, and diverting troops for the operation and inevitable protection of their new ally was something Germany could not afford. There are many reasons for Spanish refusal to enter the war and while Franco remained open to the idea, the Spanish people were tried of fighting. Hitler would be forced to put his plans to invade Gibraltar on hold. High-ranking German officers believed this to be a grave mistake, and in 1945 Hitler himself admitted that his forces should have taken the Rock.

Fortunately for the Allies the invasion never came, and Gibraltar would be the staging ground for Operation Torch and serve as the Allied key to the Mediterranean.

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