French Air Attacks on Gibraltar during World War II
The strategic importance of Gibraltar during World War II cannot be overstated. Its location at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula provided a gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and was a crucial link between Britain and its colonies in Africa. While Gibraltar primarily faced threats from German and Italian forces, it also endured sporadic air attacks from Vichy French aircraft.
These attacks, though often overshadowed by larger events, are a significant yet relatively obscure aspect of the war. In this article, we explore the Vichy French air attacks on Gibraltar and shed light on their historical significance.
Background: The Fall of France and the Vichy Regime
Following the rapid defeat of France in June 1940, the country was divided into two zones. The northern and western regions came under direct German occupation, while the southern and eastern parts were governed by the traitors of the French Vichy regime, led by Marshal Philippe Pétain.
Under the Vichy government, France aimed to maintain independence while collaborating with Nazi Germany.
The Vichy French Air Force and the Attacks on Gibraltar
The Vichy French Air Force possessed a considerable number of aircraft, including bombers and fighters, stationed in North Africa. These aircraft presented a potential threat to British interests, particularly Gibraltar.
The first attack by the French occurred in retaliation for the British strike on the French at Mers-el-Kebir on 18th July 1940 but the majority of bombs were dropped short – little damage was caused but the first casualties occurred. However, a major Vichy French air attack on Gibraltar occurred on 24th September, 1940. Sixty French bombers, escorted by fighters, targeted the British naval base. The attack resulted in minor damage and no casualties. There was no Royal Air Force response.
The following day the French launched another attack, involving eighty three bombers. This time, the defences on The Rock were on alert and a LeO 451 bomber was shot down. The French dropped around sixty tons of bombs in this raid but damage appears to have been slight – a single armed trawler was sunk HMT Stella Sirius and several civilians killed.
There is no real consistency in terms of the reports of French aircraft damaged – the French themselves claimed thirteen were hit and the British that they shot down three.
There were no further air attacks by the French during World War II. However the Gibraltarians were to suffer air attacks from the Italian Regia Aeronautica with the last raid being on 6th June 1944.
Significance and Legacy
Despite the relative insignificance of the Vichy French air attacks on Gibraltar in comparison to the broader theatre of war, they still hold historical significance. Firstly, these attacks highlight the complex political landscape of World War II, where former allies found themselves on opposite sides and a reminder difficult history of French collaboration.
The Vichy French attacks underscore the challenges faced by the British in maintaining control over strategically vital regions with widely dispersed forces. This was to be a significant problem for the British in the initial years of the conflict. However the British determination to retain and reinforce The Rock is emblematic of the determination to win against all odds that characterised the attitude of the British during the war.
Finally, the Vichy French air attacks on Gibraltar serve as a reminder that the war was not limited to a few iconic battlefields. It reminds us of the numerous lesser-known engagements that occurred across various fronts, each contributing to the overall outcome of the conflict.