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Operation Felix: Assault on Gibraltar
Following a number of detailed reconnaissance missions by officers wearing civilian clothing and studying the Rock from Spanish soil as well as seaward perspectives, the Wehrmacht in the summer and autumn of 1940 drew up detailed plans for Operation Felix, the assault on Gibraltar. Only failure at the highest levels of diplomacy prevented the operation from occurring at the beginning of 1941.
Under the overall command of Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, the German plan called for two corps to move into Spain in the middle of January 1941 with the consent of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. General Rudolf Schmidt's XXXIX Corps would cover the flank of the Gibraltar assault against any British intervention: the 16th Motorized Division would concentrate in the vicinity of Valladolid, the 16th Panzer Division around Caceres, and the SS Totenkopf Division at Sevilla.
General Ludwig Kuebler's XLIX Corps would control the actual attack on the Rock. The assault forces would comprise the Grossdeutschland Infantry Regiment, the 98th Regiment of the 1st Mountain Division, 26 medium and heavy artillery battalions, three observation battalions, three engineer battalions, two smoke battalions, a detachment of 150 Brandenburgers, and up to 150 radio-controlled midget tanks ("Goliaths") packed with high explosives.
Two additional divisions were earmarked to cross the Straits of Gibraltar and garrison Morocco after the successful completion of Felix.
Due to the limited capacity of the Spanish rail system (which was not of the standard European gauge), much of the German ground force would move by road to its objectives.
The Luftwaffe would contribute Ju 88As, Stukas, Messerschmitts, three light AA battalions, and three heavy AA battalions. The Kriegsmarine would cooperate by using U-boats to interfere with British naval movement and emplacing coastal batteries to further discourage the Royal Navy.
From staging areas on the Spanish border near Bayonne, the ground troops would cross the frontier simultaneously with an initial raid by Ju 88As flying from Bordeaux against British vessels in the Gibraltar anchorage. While the Ju 88As carried out their mission, Ju 87s and Me 109s would transfer to airbases at Sevilla and finish the job of sinking British ships or driving them away from Gibraltar.
With its flank protected by XXXIX Corps, XLIX Corps would move into position for the attack. A tremendous barrage was scheduled to knock out every known defensive emplacement in the Rock, followed by the arrival of the Luftwaffe for a succession of Stuka strikes against positions still firing when the assault troops began moving forward. German artillery fire would methodically demolish surviving casemates while smoke-generating units shrouded Grossdeutschland and the 98th Mountain Regiment. Due to the extremely limited frontage of the position, only those two regiments plus supporting engineers would be committed in the actual assault.
Meanwhile, the Brandenburgers -- disguised as sailors abandoning a sinking ship -- intended to land inside British defenses in small boats and clear the way for the assault troops.
Had Operation Felix taken place during January 1941 as planned, what opposition would the attackers have faced?
In September 1939 the garrison comprised two British battalions: 2nd The Kings Regiment and 2nd Somerset Light Infantry. 4th Devonshire arrived in May 1940 and 4th Black Watch in July 1940, so by January 1941 four infantry battalions were in place. (Later in the war this strength grew to 1st and 2nd Gibraltar Brigades with additional battalions.)
3rd Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery (previously "Gibraltar Coast Defenses" and later redesignated 3rd Coast Regiment) controlled 4th, 26th, and 27th Batteries with 8 x 9.2-inch guns, 7 x 6-inch guns, and 6 x twin 6-pounders. (Artillery strength also grew considerably later in the war.)
In September 1939 two AA batteries, the 9th and 19th, defended Gibraltar from air attack with 4 x 3-inch, 4 x 3.7-inch, and 2 x 40mm guns. HQ 10th AA Regiment was later formed to control the two batteries. The 82nd Heavy AA Regiment arrived in July 1940 with three batteries (156th, 193rd, and 256th) including 16 3.7-inch guns, 8 x 40mm Bofors guns, and the first radar sets. 3rd Searchlight Battery also arrived in July. Some shuffling of assets and re-numbering of units followed (including departure of HQ 10th AA Regiment, but no batteries); however, this AA strength was not further reinforced until March 1941.
Because there were no fighters based at Gibraltar during this time (and no facilities for supporting them), AA fire was the only defense against the bombing of Gibraltar (including Vichy French air raids in 1940, but that's another story).
Given free passage through Spain for their ground troops and air forces, German planners were confident an assault in January 1941 would yield victory. However, Franco's consent was not forthcoming and the operation was postponed, transformed, and ultimately abandoned.
With Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union) looming and units being transferred to the east, by 10 March 1941 Felix had been amended to become Operation Felix-Heinrich, for which German troops would be withdrawn from the USSR to capture Gibraltar when the approximate line Kiev-Smolensk-Opotschka was reached. Because the campaign in the Soviet Union did not succeed as planned, nor did Franco alter his position, even this amended version of the operation was not implemented.
Operation Isabella was conceived in April 1941, originally due to Hitler's fear of British landings on the Iberian peninsula. Rather than an Axis invasion of Spain, Isabella was designed as a measure by which German troops would advance into Spain to support the Franco regime and defeat the British expeditionary force.
In May 1942, with available resources shrinking, Isabella was replaced by the similar but less extravagant plan named Operation Ilona. Ilona was for security reasons renamed Operation Gisela in September 1942.
In June 1943 Gisela was replaced with Operation Nurnberg, a contingency plan which called for, in the event of an Allied landing in Portugal or Spain, a defensive strategy in the Pyrenees. This marked the end of planning for operations in Spanish territory. At this point the plan -- and German capabilities -- had been reduced to two reinforced regiments and "certain labor formations".
Bellis, Malcolm A. REGIMENTS OF THE BRITISH ARMY, 1939-1945: ARMOUR AND INFANTRY. London: Military Press International, 1994
Bellis, Malcolm A. REGIMENTS OF THE BRITISH ARMY, 1939-1945: ARTILLERY. London: Military Press International, 1995
Burdick, Charles. GERMANY'S MILITARY STRATEGY AND SPAIN IN WORLD WAR II. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968
Chant, Christopher. THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CODE NAMES OF WORLD WAR II. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986
Farndale, General Sir Martin. HISTORY OF THE ROYAL REGIMENT OF ARTILLERY: THE YEARS OF DEFEAT, 1939-41. London: Brassey's, 1996
Joslen, LtCol H.F. ORDERS OF BATTLE: SECOND WORLD WAR, 1939-1945. London: HMSO, 1960
Preston, Paul. FRANCO. New York: HarperCollins, 1994
Routledge, Brigadier N.W. HISTORY OF THE ROYAL REGIMENT OF ARTILLERY: ANTI-AIRCRAFT ARTILLERY, 1914-55. London: Brassey's, 1994
Toynbee, Arnold (ed). SURVEY OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, 1939-1946: WAR AND THE NEUTRALS. London: Oxford Press, 1956
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16:16 on 22 January 2017