It happened today - June 16, 2016

On this date in 1779, June 16, Spain didn’t capture Gibraltar. As it didn’t on many other days from the time the British bagged it in 1704 down to current petty harassment. But also for more than 1300 consecutive days after June 16 1779 and not for want of trying. Thank goodness.

If you’re wondering why Britain, which is off the north coast of France, owns Gibraltar which is off the south coast of Spain, the answer goes back in part to the War of the Spanish Succession and in part to the dog-eat-whatever nature of geopolitics. It was actually captured by an Anglo-Dutch force on behalf of a Hapsburg claimant to the Spanish throne, the Archduke Charles. But in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht ending that war Charles did not get the throne and Britain decided to keep Gibraltar just in case.

It was a very wise decision in retrospect and indeed at the time. British control over the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean was vital to the stability and security of the free world for centuries and never more so than during the darkest days of World War II, when Gibraltar in the hands of Franco not Churchill might have changed the outcome disastrously.

Grabbing it back in 1704 was certainly opportunistic. But hey, you never know. Including when a genocidally anti-Semitic madman will take over a major power and try to conquer the world. I know it sounds unlikely. But it could happen. And the rulers of Spain at that point were on their own rampage; at stake in the War of the Spanish Succession was control of both France and Spain by a single monarch

The actual siege of Gibraltar was a messy business featuring the usual slaughter, starvation, scurvy and misery. But also remarkable resilience on the part of the garrison, of the same sort that the British would exhibit in the trenches of World War I and between 1939 and 1945. And the decision of the French and Spanish to try to grab Gibraltar back while the British were busy with their American revolt, and possibly invade England while they were at it, was at least as opportunistic as the original British move to take Gibraltar and in service of despotism rather than liberty.

The Spanish are still annoyingly trying to get it back, despite the manifest and repeatedly expressed desire of the inhabitants to be independent in domestic matters and subject to Britain in foreign ones and the fact that Spain has never been as well-governed as Britain and often appallingly worse.

The garrison who withstood the siege from June 24 1779 to February 7 1783, including the “Grand Assault” on September 18, 1782, may sometimes have wondered what it was all about. But they never flagged in their devotion to duty and, looking back, we can be extraordinarily grateful that they didn’t given how improbably high the stakes were later revealed to be.

Incidentally at one point partial relief was brought to the garrison by ships under the command of Admiral George Rodney, a brilliantly innovative tactician though evidently quite an obnoxious man; in the critical stage of World War II the aging British battleship Rodney named for him played an important role in Britain’s great stand including the hunt for Bismarck, during which Rodney became the only battleship in history to torpedo another battleship for what that’s worth. And before I stop digressing, Rodney was one of the Nelson-class battleships nicknamed the “Queen Anne’s Mansions” for a block of flats in London or the “Cherry Tree Class” because they were meant to be bigger but were “cut down” by the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. I think that particular sense of humour has always been part of British resilience for which we should all, again, be grateful.