*This article was submitted in the Prize Essay Contest, 1937.
To the “man in the street” the name Gibraltar suggests strength. It calls to mind the huge resources of modern life insurance and visions of an impregnable refuge. To be sure, in such visions "the Rock" is usually pointing the wrong way with the high cliff jutting out to sea instead of overlooking the "neutral ground" separating it from Spain. Perhaps this misorientation is not the only popular fallacy concerning Gibraltar. A legendary aura surrounds the imposing fortress. The average newspaper reader Probably noticed with surprise, if not With incredulity, a press dispatch from London1 giving an account of a public dinner at which the speaker of the evening was a British Vice Admiral and former Director of Naval Intelligence. "In the event of a war against Spain," said that officer, "siege guns could subject the Rock of Gibraltar to a continuous bombardment and airplanes could bombard it from Algeria and Morocco. The Rock is untenable in a war against Spain and would be exceedingly unpleasant to live on in the event of a war with France. To my mind, nothing could be happier, once Spain has settled down again, than that we should offer to exchange Gibraltar for Ceuta."
1See dispatch of Jack Beall in the New York Herald Tribune of December 23, 1936.
It must have been news of a most disrobing sort to hear from so authoritative a source that the blood and treasure expended for so many years on the famous stronghold may serve no present purpose, although to well-informed Frenchmen such a statement will not come as a surprise. It is now fully thirty years since Rene Pinon pointed out the weakness of Gibraltar as compared to Bizerta.2 A mere tourist cannot fail to be impressed by the fact that a town dependent upon rain for its water supply and upon country which it does not control for its daily supply of fresh food, some of which actually comes from Tangiers, leaves much to be desired as a strategic base.
The suggestion to exchange the European Pillar of Hercules for its African counterpart would therefore seem to rest on some very cogent reasons. Ceuta resembles Gibraltar in physical conformation and is adaptable to fortification. If for good measure a surrounding zone could be included to form the “hinterland” the British Admiralty apparently longs for, the needs of defense would be greatly facilitated. The immediate threat of bombardment by siege guns would be removed. Of course the danger from air raiders would remain but they, like the poor, we must expect to have with us always. The exposed position of Gibraltar, in view of the ever increasing range of heavy artillery, has been well known to French military experts for many years. The equipment of the fortress is said to include mountain batteries, obviously intended for use in seizing adjacent Spanish peaks should the neutrality of that country ever become doubtful. How effective such methods would be today may well be questioned. On their home grounds the Spaniards are hard to beat. In order to safeguard her base from a land attack it would seem as if England must either pay Spain her price for neutrality or list her as an enemy, neither of which contingencies is an element of strength.
The very fact that the exchange of Gibraltar for Ceuta is being mooted serves to emphasize one fact that is frequently overlooked. There must be more than one possible position “commanding” the straits. More than one? They are as numerous as the “keys” to the Caribbean or the “strategic outposts” of the Pacific! With the increased radius of action of modern warships and the great autonomy of movement they now enjoy since steam has displaced sail, the advantages of Gibraltar over neighboring bases have largely disappeared.
Historically, Gibraltar is not the dean of the corps. That honor belongs to one of the most picturesque strongholds of Western Europe, the old Moorish town of Tarifa. That this fortress successfully dominated the Straits of Gibraltar for many centuries is fairly obvious from the fact that the word “tariff” is derived from the dues the Moors exacted from all who passed under the guns of Tarifa. Situated on the Atlantic side of the Straits about twenty miles west of Gibraltar, Tarifa was occupied by the Moors in the early part of the eighth century. King Sancho IV of Castille captured it in 1292. In 1812 the French paid Tarifa the compliment of a serious but unsuccessful attempt to wrest it from its British garrison. Lately Tarifa has been neglected for Cadiz, a stronger contender for the post of guardian of the Straits, for reasons which will become obvious presently. During the French intervention of 1823 the British are said to have offered to assist the rebellious Cortes of Cadiz but that body, fearing that England contemplated permanent occupation, patriotically decided to stand or fall on their own efforts, so the British cruisers Ringdove and Saracen went home empty handed and the Duke d’Angouleme captured the Trocadero. Crossing over to Africa we find the French firmly established at Oran. Although two hundred miles East of Gibraltar, Oran is well situated strategically since the Mediterranean does not begin to widen perceptibly until the Spanish coast takes its northward slant at Cartagena. Besides Ceuta the Spaniards have a potential “Rock” at Melilla, halfway between Ceuta and Oran, which they could either develop or dispose of. The Pillars of Hercules are becoming a colonnade! At this point it may be well to examine what are the qualities a naval base should possess nowadays to be of service to its owners.
In his Theories Strategiques (Vol. Ill, Chap. II) Admiral Castex enumerates three essential characteristics by which we can judge the value of a naval base.
The first is its geographic situation. This phase of the problem can be treated summarily as far as the Straits of Gibraltar are concerned. Together with Suez and Panama, Gibraltar constitutes an “obligatory point of passage” to any nation aspiring to world power.
“The second essential characteristic of a position,” again quoting Admiral Castex, “is its own inherent strength, its defensive autonomy, i.e., its ability to resist with its own means a serious attack. Artificial defenses being equal, this condition will be the better fulfilled to the extent that the position is incorporated in a larger, friendly territory which can contribute important forces to its protection.” Port Arthur had this precious quality to a marked degree although the fact is obscured by the failure of the Russians to make use of the advantages of their position. Home ports naturally possess defensive autonomy to a greater degree than insular or isolated bases. Bizerta and Dakar are stronger strategically than Malta, Gibraltar, or Singapore, as the French positions in question are situated in large areas under French control. A British base in Egypt, India, or Australia would be stronger than one in the Antilles for the same reason. Distance from home likewise affects the value and security of a base, as distant bases make continuous demands on the mobile force, especially if they are isolated. During the Algeciras Conference Sir Edward Grey recommended to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman that Germany be given some distant bases as they would only be so many hostages Great Britain could seize at any time. Subsequent events bore out the correctness of this contention.
The third essential characteristic of a naval position is its ability to furnish supplies to the naval forces and its ability to facilitate repairs. This factor usually goes hand in hand with the last mentioned characteristic. A base able to defend itself usually offers a fleet supplies and other facilities, and conversely. Isolated or insular bases usually lack facilities. As Admiral Castex facetiously remarks, some bases are called "supports" only "because the fleet supports them." Even though a nation may have command of the sea, keeping isolated bases in supplies is an obsessing worry which may periodically paralyze the freedom of action of the mobile forces. The case of Gibraltar during the War of American Independence has clearly proven this point." The celebrated “Great Siege," the fourteenth the fortress has been subjected to, be it said, lasted from 1779 to 1783 and may have mightily contributed to the cause of American independence! No wonder Admiral Castex concludes that the best thing to do with such bases is to avoid using them and to install others in more extensive possessions that can be supplied by land or through neutral territory. This may mean sacrificing an enormous investment. What is more, such bases today may be difficult to procure.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the value of a naval base varies to the extent it ceases to be “naval” and tends to be “basic.” In other words, bases not resting against a solid background of territory are very much “in the air.” The needs of defense require an ever increasing glacis around the citadel. The demands upon the resources of an arsenal today are so multiple and varied that nothing short of an industrial center can supply the wants of a fleet in war time. Bases to be secure should be largely self-supporting. It would seem as if we were about to close a cycle and that land is once more asserting its primacy. Never before have navies been so dependent on land. Many forms of naval activity are “amphibious” so to speak, mine laying and aviation are practiced by both branches of the service, and more than ever must all activities be directed from a common headquarters, in other words from shore.
It is a curious misinterpretation of history to assume that sea power is a sign of overabundant strength. History would indicate that the sea is resorted to frequently by those who have found the land route closed to them. Much has been written concerning the influence of sea power on history. Is it not time to examine the influence of history on sea power? The Dutch found it easier to conquer land from native princes than to wrest it from the North Sea. It was the frustration of her plans for a continental empire in Europe and the loss of the territory momentarily acquired during the Hundred Years’ War that ultimately drove England to seek an empire over the seas. Strangely enough Japan is attempting a similar experiment in Asia today. As no Joan of Arc seems to be forthcoming in China perhaps Japan will succeed, in which event Japan will gravitate landward. Could it be that Plantagenet England’s failure put Tudor England in much the same predicament Noah found himself? In both cases the supply of land was growing alarmingly scarce. Alexander the Great disbanded his navy as superfluous. Napoleon’s successes in spite of Trafalgar are too well known to require comment. Neither of these empire builders needed the sea in order to establish a vast continental domain. In at least two cases the attempt to take to the sea undid the work of previous empire builders. Two defeats at the hands of Japan (1274 and 1281) and some fruitless maritime ventures in Persia, India, and Indo-China were largely responsible for the ultimate dislocation of the empire of Genghis Khan. In our time Germany’s naval ambitions brought about a failure that might possibly have been avoided had Germany been content to hew her way to the Near East through Mittel- Europa. Although the foregoing remarks may seem to belittle the importance of sea power, in reality they merely raise the question as to whether some naval effort may not be misdirected.
What is it, in the last analysis, that a modern state expects in return for its naval expenditures? The hollow honor of an empire on which “the sun never sets”? Even when attainable the cost of such an empire may far exceed any tangible returns, especially in view of the keenness of modern commercial competition and the growing tendency of colonies to supply their own wants. An impressive chain of outposts encircling the globe? Assuming that such a chain is free from the usual “weak links,” does not a solid ingot of territory contain greater elements of strength? The writer would like to submit the following definition: Naval expenditures are made to enable a nation to carry out its national policies abroad with the minimum of risk to its safety at home. This definition will serve equally well for military expenditures although to the popular mind navies suggest foreign service whereas armies indicate defense of national territory. That this differentiation is an artificial one will become increasingly obvious as war tends to approach what the French call “la Guerre Totale.” Although national policies affect strategy they seldom have their origin in any strategical consideration. Nations desire certain results and then call upon the strategist to produce them. National policies vary with the age, the temperament of particular people, the special problem confronting a nation. Taken as a whole these factors affect the national attitude toward sea power to a far greater degree than the sea can affect those factors. Japan stood facing the sea for centuries before national policies launched her on that element. Russia, with no outlet to warm water, has striven for generations to reach the Seven Seas. The proximity of that element has had surprisingly little influence on the course nations have adopted. Illustrations could be adduced ad infinitum to prove that man took to the sea, the sea did not take man. The sea may produce a race of fishermen, or of pirates, the enterprise of a nation brings forth the oversea trader, the soul of a people forges a great admiral. Sea power is not a question of race, least of all one of Providence or Fate.
It would seem of late that the odds are growing in favor of David as against Goliath. The ability of a smaller foe to damage a larger one is out of all proportion to their sizes. The heavy sacrifice sea power entails is justified only to the extent that it promotes prosperity and security at home. It is quite possible that grandiose dreams of empire may have to yield to a scheme of things in which the protection of the homeland outranks in importance the search for distant Eldorados.