From 1967
 Part I

By Dominique Searle

A real concern that Spain would try and take over the airport and even of a possible full scale military invasion of Gibraltar coupled with a lack of international support, including from Commonwealth countries, were key factors that played in Britain's approach to Gibraltar in 1967.

Documents acquired by the Chronicle show London was pursuing its own bid to secure British interests here by seeking to make the 1967 referendum a full act of self-determination before the UN. This emerges clearly from previously secret Cabinet documents recently released.

The summer of 1967 saw London and Madrid in a political chess game where war experts believed Gibraltar might have to hold out against artillery and tanks attempting to take over the whole colony. But experts concluded we could only hold out about four days but devised to give Spain the impression of greater resistance.

The fact that Spain never did move militarily and that the base remained secured appears to have been the key factor in Britain taking no action against Spain even after frontier closure. In the early summer of that yearall focus was on Spain's bid to block air access to Gibraltar. The Chronicle covered the extensive exchanges before the UN Committee of 24 and Fourth Committee. Britain had announced its intention to hold a referendum and its was clear that what London hoped to achieve was UN recognition as an act of self-determination to formally decolonise the Rock.

Mr Shaw the British representative at the UN told the C24 on August 23 1967 that Gibraltarians would be given the choice between retaining the links with Britain or accept the Spanish proposals. He focused on self-determination and made the incisive point that in all events "integration with Spain would only constitute decolonisation if it took place demonstrably in accordance with the wishes of the people of the territory. To transfer Gibraltar to Spain against the wishes of the people would certainly not be decolonisation."

But Cabinet papers meanwhile showed that Britain had not felt that it would be able to secure international support even at the International Civil Aviation Organisation to debar Spain's plan to impose restrictions.

A minute of the Cabinet meeting states "it appeared we must, at least for the time being, abandon any hope of securing assistance in international organisations in dealing with the mounting Spanish campaign on our position in Gibraltar, since the discussions in the Committee of 24 had also failed to impose any restraint on the Spanish Government. In such circumstances it might be necessary to consider retaliation against Spanish interests. Later notes show that even the US was being unhelpful and Britain used its Washington Ambassador to press the US for support.

This was the build up to the Order for a referendum which was published on July 4. Just before this the Cabinet note states: "The Commonwealth Secretary said that the Minister of State for Commonwealth Affairs would make an announcement on the following day of our intention to carry out a referendum in Gibraltar on the choice between British and Spanish sovereignty. Its terms took account of the United Nations resolution on Gibraltar. The Spanish Government would be informed of the statement shortly before it was made but had not been consulted on the terms of reference of the referendum."

The talks with Spain on air space broke down, as the Cabinet had expected they would, and Britain consider whether or not it should take that matter to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. At this stage things were heating up in terms of military concerns. The Cabinet noted: "The Spanish Government had been informed of our intention to carry out a referendum in Gibraltar enabling the inhabitants to choose between British and Spanish sovereignty and our Permanent Representative at the United Nations Lord Caradon had informed the United Nations Secretary general U Thant, of our plans. So far there has been no reaction from the Spanish Government to the announcement of this referendum but they might well decide to take further action against Gibraltar; proposals would be brought before ministers in the near future indicating what retaliation would be open to us should they do so."

A secret military document notes a meeting of July 25 noted that the Governor Sir Gerald Lathbury had been invited to make a formal request for reinforcement of the Garrison. "to enable the garrison to counter Spanish aggression short of full scale attack and increase the credibility of its deterrent role." The previous year there was clear concern that the focus would be an attempted bloodless take-over of the airport. The note continues: "The Governor...had included the tasks of providing Naval gunfire support and interdicting enemy surface movement in the justification for naval reinforcements. Since the main danger was the capture of the airfield these tasks were not entirely appropriate to the weapon system of a frigate but would be better carried out by artillery or mortars."

It was decided that constant visits by ships would serve as a better deterrent than just basing one ship permanently stationed at Gibraltar.
Another observation at that meeting was that "Reinforcement of Gibraltar should not take place in the period immediately before the date of the Referendum September 10 1967, or for a few days thereafter since the interest of the world press would not have abated. There would however be merit in arranging the arrival of reinforcements before the Gibraltar problem was placed before the International Civil Aviation Organisation." August 15 say Chief Minister Sir Joshua Hassan and his deputy Peter Isola in London meeting Lord Shepherd the Commonwealth Affairs Minister to discuss the referendum.

Within a fortnight the C24 debate mentioned earlier began. The Cabinet noted that the C24 had passed a resolution saying that Britain's decision to hold a referendum contradicted they resolution of the previous year at the General Assembly of the UN which "implicitly supported the Spanish position."

On the eve of the referendum the Cabinet decided to play the referendum card the notes state: "On 6th September the Spanish Ambassador had delivered to the Foreign Office a Note proposing talks, but mentioning the referendum as an obstacle in the way. A reply would be sent when the referendum was over."

In fact the Chronicle records do not show this as public until a short surprise announcement in the issue of October 21 that British and Spanish officials were likely to meet at the end of that November. The Chronicle states that "The Foreign Secretary yesterday morning received the Spanish Ambassador in order to give him a reply to the Spanish note of September 6 suggesting that Anglo-Spanish negotiations on Gibraltar should continue."

Earlier Cabinet records showed that on September 18, two days after troop arrivals, the Foreign Secretary had informed the Spanish Ambassador that he was ready to meet his Spanish counterpart if a suitable place and time could be found. He also approved the fact that Stuart Christie who had been serving a 20 year sentence for taking explosives into Spain had now been released.

But in early September Gibraltar had burst into red, white and blue. Commonwealth Secretariat observers flew in on September 4 and on September 9 the Chronicle even had a poster sent to it from Switzerland from the "Catalan Liberation Forces" backing Gibraltar's desire to remain free against Franco's Government. Britain had no doubt what it was in for. The Cabinet:

"The referendum in Gibraltar on the choice between British and Spanish sovereignty had now taken place and as expected had resulted in an overwhelming vote in favour of continued association with the United Kingdom. There had been no reaction from the Spanish Government since the referendum. (The Foreign Secretary) proposed now to concert with the Commonwealth Secretary a reply to the Spanish Government's previous proposal for talks." But it added: "In discussion it was pointed out that the Commonwealth Governments represented in the United Nations Committee of 24 had played an unhelpful part in the Committee's recent discussions on Gibraltar, despite professions of support for the self-determination of peoples under colonial rule. It might be helpful to arrange for Gibraltarian representatives to visit certain Commonwealth countries as part of an attempt to seek a more helpful attitude towards our dispute with Spain on the part of the Governments concerned." The Cabinet agreed this should be considered.

The flurry of diplomatic activity came once Britain had seen the referendum through and troops had arrived to reinforce the Garrison. Whilst the diplomats sought to calm the storm, defence chiefs braced themselves for any possibility. Secret defence papers show that in this period Sir Gerald Lathbury, Governor "believes that a situation is fast developing where an error of judgement or a misunderstanding on either side might bring about a minor clash leading to loss of life or injury, sparking off a wave of emotional indignation. In these circumstances, provided the Spaniards thought that sympathy in the United nations would be favourable to them, they might well decide to seize the airfield." Sir Gerald believed this could be done quickly but still assessed the likelihood of a full scale attack entailing the use of artillery, air support or navalforces as "very unlikely".

British military assessment was that intelligence would be clear for a major assault but a quick assault on the airport would not have much warning. Spain had the ability with submarines to make reinforcement by sea difficult and Spain could use marines for Cadiz for effective raids.

The military chiefs noted that their advice was that "the main likelihood of Spain resorting to military action lies in her recognition that she is unable to achieve her aims by negotiation, and in her assessment that international opinion would support her in extreme measures, rather than in any local error of judgement."

In February the Foreign Office had already been advising the military chiefs that it was important to prolong resistance in order to give Britain the diplomatic advantage. In April that year it had been noted that the removal of 'dragon's teeth' meant tank assault was also now possible.

The military said that their premise was that Britain "whilst willing to seek a modus vivendi with Spain over Gibraltar short of surrendering sovereignty, will not be able to achieve this in the foreseeable future and will therefore have to maintain the status quo despite sharp criticism in the United Nations and increased hostility from Spain."

Meanwhile the debate continued. October 23 Britain made clear that integration would "present formidable difficulties" but the IWBP would take part in talks on the future constitution for Gibraltar. The C24 debates continued as did local debates on the future constitution. It was not until November 9 that Cabinet irritation at the Commonwealth countries emerged when, in a Chronicle report, it emerged that Sir Alec Douglas Home had criticised double standards at the Commonwealth.

The report states that: "He told the Royal Commonwealth Society here in London the words 'self-determination ' were on the lips of every Commonwealth Government, yet Asian and African members had rejected Gibraltar's almost unanimous decision to remain under British sovereignty."

One local voice had publicly urged a more radical approach. In a letter to The Times October 1) and later in the Chronicle Reggie Norton, then town clerk, had made the point that the referendum has not given Britain carte blanche to dispose even partially of her sovereignty over the Rock. Although Gibraltarians did not "at present" aspire to independence that right existed in spite of the Treaty of Utrecht. The premise, he declared, was that Gibraltar belongs to the Gibraltarians."

November 24 saw Sir Joshua reminding that Gibraltar wanted good relations with Spain. In December, Britain repeated that it had limited the referendum because of Utrecht. But challenged Spain with the question "Would Spain accept full self-determination and independence for Gibraltar if this was proposed by Britain?"

In the meantime the British Foreign Secretary and Castiella, his Spanish Counterpart had already held a "long and frank talk". The Cabinet papers show that it had been made "plain that there could be no question of our giving up sovereignty, and that on this basis we would be willing to resume talks with Spain."

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