Three days after Argentina’s ruling military junta seized the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic (April 1982), the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called for an “urgent assessment” of Britain’s ability to defend Gibraltar, prompted in part by the “jubilant reaction” to the invasion in the Spanish press.
A joint FCO and Ministry of Defence note on the situation sought to reassure the Prime Minister. But Mrs Thatcher was seemingly unimpressed and laid out her fears in a handwritten annotation: “This is suspiciously like the Falkland Islands assessment before invasion. 1,000 soldiers with a land boundary, no air cover etc.”
Military chiefs found no evidence of an increased threat but could not rule out the possibility that “extremist right wing elements” within the Spanish military might attempt to “demonstrate patriotism by some provocation”.
However they argued that “powerful political constraints” - including Spain’s on-going application to join NATO and the EEC - would prevent a move against Gibraltar.
“Given the small size of the territory…British forces in place are in a good position to make an armed assault a military hazardous undertaking,” they wrote.
“Although the territory could no doubt eventually be overwhelmed by vastly superior forces, the defenders could put up effective resistance…The likelihood of civilian resistance and casualties would also give an aggressor pause”.
However the Prime Minister remained nervous and asked for further reassurance on 7 April 1982 that all necessary precautions were being taken against a possible military attempt on Gibraltar, according to papers released to The National Archives under the 30 year rule.
“I understand that out military capability on Gibraltar is being reviewed – urgently. We must take precautions…May I have an appreciation of our position quickly?” wrote Mrs Thatcher.
The political situation was complicated by Spain’s commitment to reopening the land border with Gibraltar under the terms of the Lisbon Agreement.
Gibraltar’s crucial role in supporting the Navy task force sent to recover the Falklands and the trial of right-wing conspirators who had attempted a coup against the Spanish government in 1981 also served to increase tensions.
This led F.N Richards of the FCO to write on 8 April: “If we are to get the Spaniards to stick to the agreement to open the frontier in June it is in our interests not to inflame Spanish attitudes. From this point of view, we should avoid seeking, and indeed, do what we can to avoid publicity about Gibraltar’s role in support of the task force.”
He went on: “If reinforcements are considered necessary, it’s important…to ensure that the operation is carried out as inconspicuously as possible”.
An assessment by the Chiefs of Staff for the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) on 19 April concluded that Spain did possess the “military capability to attack Gibraltar at short notice” and could not rule out the possibility of some “unauthorised small scale action by individual elements of the Spanish armed forces.”
“Plans have existed for some time against the possible need to repel a military assault from Spain and against the background of recent-events these plans have been reviewed and the Governor has asked for certain precautionary measures to be taken”.
“In making these enhancements to the defensive capability of Gibraltar we have done this in a low-key, using routine movements of ships and aircraft to avoid attracting undue publicity which could inflame Spanish nationalist sentiment”.
The Governor at the time, Sir William Jackson, requested additional manpower and military equipment as well as food, medical supplies and explosives.
Fears of an attack were not wholly unwarranted. At the beginning of June, as the battle in the Falklands was reaching a decisive stage, the FCO received a message from Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Pedro Perez-Llorca y Rodrigo, warning of the “possible danger of action against Gibraltar by pro-Argentine elements”.
Nor did the tense atmosphere end with the surrender of Argentina in June 1982. Later that year, a proposed ministerial visit to Gibraltar led the FCO to warn that there was “an outside chance” it could provoke pressure for a military strike against Gibraltar.
“We are sure that [Spanish Prime Minister] Calvo Sotelo and Perez Llorca would do their level best to prevent this but as the Foreign Minister warned me at the time of the Falklands’ crisis, the government might lack the power to restrain hot-heads”, wrote Sir Anthony Parsons, Mrs Thatcher’s special advisor on foreign affairs.
This prompted Mrs Thatcher to write: “Are we READY should such an invasion occur?”
In secret evidence to the Franks inquiry into the Falklands crisis in October 1982, which has been declassified, Mrs Thatcher admitted that the threat to Gibraltar had left her living “on a knife edge”.
Despite a delay, caused by the Falklands crisis, the land border with Spain was opened to pedestrians on 15 December, 1982.
After Franco died November 20 1975 Spain worked towards democratic government and Britain tried to encourage the opening of the border by offering discussions on Gibraltar issues, including allowing sovereignty to be raised, through the Lisbon Agreement in 1980. When Spain joined NATO in 1981 it aspired to have use of military facilities on the Rock, but the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falklands saw negotiations suspended. (Gibraltar Chronicle)