“There Gibraltar surprisingly was, grand and grey in the dimmest north-east distance. . . we had been smelling the land-breezes of Portugal, . . . we had Cape St. Vincent in view through the periscope, . . . and all night Cadiz Bay had been invisible but somehow palpable on our port hand. Now . . . at daybreak we had Cape Trafalgar and the Spanish coast in sight to the north of us, and to starboard the mountains of Africa thrusting away to southward behind Cape Spartel. All these names were an incantation to raise the immortal past, and the spirit of Nelson moved about the ruffled face of the water.”
So wrote Edward Young, a World War II English submarine captain, evoking the immortal memory upon seeing that unforgettable rock profile. I have always linked Gibraltar more to World War II than Nelson — Force H, convoys to Malta, and Britain barely holding on when the dark days of late December 1941 made the Mediterranean nearly an Axis lake. Gibraltar has been British since 1708 and remains British to this day, in law and in spirit. It was a bit of a disappointment to me after Malta and Menorca. Present-day Gibraltar has tried to preserve its historic past, but it is short on space and the high-rises and touristy bric-a-brac make its naval heritage more difficult to discern.
Nelson undoubtedly anchored in Gibraltar on more than one occasion, and he may well have come ashore during his life but I could find no indication of it. Questions also remain as to whether his body came ashore after Trafalgar or not, although HMS Victory spent some time there after the battle undergoing repairs before sailing home with Nelson’s body preserved in a cask of wine or spirits.
The Gibraltar Heritage Trust also has taken pains to connect itself with Trafalgar, which is about 40 miles away as the crow flies. The Trafalgar cemetery, just outside the city walls, was renamed after the battle and holds the graves of several officers who died of their Trafalgar wounds. The cemetery also contains a 1992 memorial to Trafalgar, with Collingwood’s victory dispatch. Just outside is a Nelson statue erected on Trafalgar’s 200th anniversary.
The remains of fortress Gibraltar and its topography remain its major attraction, although the Gibraltar Apes vie for attention in many spots. I found walking the Upper Rock Nature Preserve trails the most rewarding part of my brief stay in Gibraltar, with unparalleled views. My overwhelming impression was how much closer Africa and Algeciras were than I had ever imagined, and how compact a space Gibraltar Harbor and the city occupy.
The timing of my visit to Gibraltar was auspicious, for HMS Ocean, the largest surface ship in the Royal Navy, was docked at Gibraltar after undergoing exercises with a French Squadron (small irony there). Her presence throughout my visit gave me a small taste of what the Gibraltar Mole must have looked like with dozens of grey warships present, as would have been the case for many years of Gibraltar’s history.