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Defending the Rock: Gibraltar and the Second World War

Nicholas Rankin

This thrilling new history reveals how a lone outpost of the British Empire, riddled with secret tunnels, fought off attacks by land, sea and air to help win the war.

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Two months before he shot himself, Adolf Hitler saw where it had all gone wrong. By failing to seize Gibraltar in the summer of 1940, he had lost the war.

The Rock of Gibraltar, a pillar of British seapower since 1704, looked formidable but was extraordinarily vulnerable. Menaced on all sides by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Vichy France and Francoist Spain, Gibraltar also had to let thousands of foreigners across its frontier to work every day. Among them came spies and saboteurs, eager to blow up the Rock’s twenty five miles of secret tunnels.

Nicholas Rankin’s revelatory book, whose cast of characters includes Haile Selassie, Anthony Burgess and General Sikorski, sets Gibraltar in the wider context of the struggle against Fascism, from Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, through the Spanish Civil War, to the end of the Second World War.

Critic Reviews

Rankin is a wonderful storyteller … Hitler hinted that his failure to take Gibraltar in the summer of 1940 was his gravest mistake during the war. Historians aren’t supposed to indulge in counterfactuals but it does make you think.

The Times
Critic Reviews

This meticulously researched book is well timed, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of Gibraltar’s 1967 referendum, which yielded a 99.6 per cent vote in favour of continued British sovereignty.

BBC History Magazine
Critic Reviews

Highly readable … The Rock hosted an array of remarkable characters, whose foibles, fantasies and fears are handled with a keen eye … Rankin has chosen an unusual vantage point to view the wider war, and told his story well.

Richard Overy, Guardian
Critic Reviews

[A] much needed history ... Rankin has researched his theme thoroughly, and his book goes far beyond military history to take in the active spy war fought in the Rock's shadows, along with the colourful characters who peopled Gibraltar in the war years.

Nigel Jones, Times Literary Supplement
Critic Reviews

'Hitler once suggested that his failure to take Gibraltar in 1940 was his gravest mistake of the war. The garrison, many felt, could have been overrun by a troop of Boy Scouts. What if Gibraltar had fallen? The counterfactuals are intriguing. This is a big book about a little place. Nicholas Rankin discusses Oswald Mosley, Belisha beacons, Neanderthals, Haile Selassie, the Atlantic Charter, mines shaped like mule dung, rancid venison stew and the weird sexual habits of Buster Crabbe. Oh, and the war. The title is misleading, but the possibilities do make you think.'

The Times, Books of the Year: History

Nicholas Rankin worked 20 years for BBC World Service, winning two UN awards and ending up as Chief Producer. His previous books include biographies of Robert Louis Stevenson and the war-correspondent George Steer, Churchill’s Wizards, a study of camouflage, deception and black propaganda in both world wars, and Ian Fleming’s Commandos, the history of a WW2 naval intelligence unit. He…

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