Just under 100 years ago and as the world was still embroiled in the horrors of WWI, Great Britain was considering a deal with Spain and France that would allow it to swap Gibraltar for Ceuta (Spanish territory in the north of Africa).
According to files released in Britain the Royal Navy and fears over British public opinion won the day arguing in favour of the Gibraltar facilities at the harbour.
A secret Foreign Office report by ‘Drogheda’ analysed the history of Gibraltar’s status and that of Ceuta. It also pondered the difficult problem of the international zone at Tangier.
It concluded that “the main difficulties in the way of arranging an exchange of Gibraltar and Ceuta, if such an exchange is desired by the naval and military authorities, will be firstly public opinion in England, and secondly, France”.
One of the factors that were thought to support the idea was the new long range of guns. But it suggested that if Britain were to support the Spanish aspirations over Tangier, Spain might find something to give France to wrap up the deal. But the report adds that UK would also have to acquire Melilla which had the advantage also of iron ore.
That report was dated April 1917 and a month later a ‘Gibraltar Ceuta Committee’ was already in place at the War Cabinet in London. A letter from LS Amery to Lord Curzon of May 10 1917 reports on the views of an informed Frenchman and argues that so long as relations are good with France territories like Ceuta would be defensible by Britain without massive forces.
There was then a significant exchange of views between British armed forces chiefs at that same Committee in December 1918.
A proposal from the Army Council to raise the matter at the Paris Peace Conference convened in January 1919 at Versailles just outside Paris was blocked. The Foreign Office said in reply that the then Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour felt that “the difficulty of negotiating such an exchange (of Gibraltar for Ceuta) would be great, and that to raise the question at the Peace Conference would, therefore, only be justified if the naval and military advisers of His Majesty’s Government were in complete accord on the subject”.
The purpose of the meeting in Paris was to establish the terms of the peace after World War I. Though nearly thirty nations participated, the representatives of Great Britain, France, the United States, and Italy became known as the ‘Big Four’.
The General Staff at the War Office saw the swap as, on balance, desirable depending on alliances and Spain’s neutrality. The Air Ministry was attracted to much greater airfield facilities possible in Ceuta. But the Admiralty was concerned not least because Morocco could house hostile forces.
“From the naval point of view the exchange of Gibraltar for Ceuta so far as can be seen at present would be a loss strategically and commercially.”
“The only naval justification for such an exchange would be the completion of a harbour on the African coast affording as safe and extensive an anchorage as Gibraltar and an undertaking from Spain not to fortify Gibraltar.”
But by June 1926 the idea had been well dropped but independently taken up by Spain itself. At a Cabinet meeting June 30 1926 chaired by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin the visit to London by King Alfonso of Spain later that day was discussed.
Sir Austen Chamberlain emphasised the importance of Spain remaining in the League of Nations. He said that King Alfonso raised the question of his desire for an exchange of Gibraltar for Ceuta “a matter on which King Alfonso had occasionally spoken to the military attaché.” Another issue was the desire that Tangier be handed to Spain. Sir Austen declared that “neither proposal was practicable”. (Gibraltar Chronicle).-