by RAY FLEMING “I'm sure that we will gain nothing by offering to address the matter of Gibraltar at the end of the war. The Spaniards know that if we win, the conversations will have no fruit at all, and if we lose they won't be necessary.” The words were those of Winston Churchill in a memorandum dated June 26, 1940, one of a number of fascinating documents on Gibraltar that have been declassified by the UK National Archive under the 50-year-rule. The documents were brought together in August 1953 by a Foreign Office official, following a request on behalf of Churchill from No 10 Downing Street which read: “The prime minister would be very grateful if you could send him a short note. What did we tell Franco about Gibraltar during the war?” The request was made because the British Embassy in Madrid reported that on August 4, 1953, editorials in three Spanish newspapers had printed a strong attack on Britain for its occupation of Gibraltar, apparently based on an interview with General Franco who had implied that “hopes for the restitution of Gibraltar” had been given to Spain during the war. Considering the strategic importance of Gibraltar during the Second World War it seems unlikely that any such “hopes” would been encouraged in 1940 without Churchill's specific knowledge but by making his enquiry thirteen years later he presumably wanted to be sure that no one had spoken without proper authority.

The Foreign Office summary sent to Downing Street later in August first refers to a meeting of the War Cabinet on June, 1940, which agreed that Britain could tell Spain that “we are free after the war to discuss any matter of interest to Spain and to us” but that any such statement should omit specific reference to Gibraltar. The summary then explains that the position was made less clear when the British Ambassador to Spain, Sir Samuel Hoare, expressed the view that he should be free to say to the Spanish that Gibraltar could be among the topics to be discussed after the war. Oddly, Churchill appears to have agreed that the matter should be left to the ambassador's discretion.

Apparently no record exists of whether Sir Samuel Hoare actually let the word Gibraltar fall from his lips in any meeting he might have had with Franco or his representatives. The Foreign Office summary therefore concludes with this observation: “As far as formal records are concerned, up until now, and in the light of a lack of any concrete evidence to the contrary, we can maintain the position of the War Cabinet of June 18, 1940. However, at one point a discretional measure was authorised: this, together with the fact that we can't be sure that we have all the evidence does not make it advisable to get into a controversy about the matter.” About one year later further attacks on Britain over Gibraltar were mounted in the Spanish press and a release from the Spanish Foreign Office said that between 1940 and 1942 the British government “offered to negotiate with Spain the restitution of Gibraltar when the war was over if Spain stayed neutral.” In May 1950 Churchill told the House of Commons that during the Second World War “no promises” were made to return Gibraltar to Spain.

So: What did Britain tell Franco about Gibraltar during the war? It seems that in the absence of any written evidence (might this still be classified?) no one knows whether Sir Samuel Hoare at any time gave Franco reason to believe that Gibraltar could be on the agenda in post-war talks. Did Churchill give Hoare discretion to make this offer if he found it necessary in order to persuade Franco not to allow the German army access to Gibraltar through Spain?