At 30 minutes to midnight on June 8th 50 years ago, as the heavy black iron gates marking the crossing of the Gibraltar-Spanish frontier clanged shut on the orders of dictator General Franco, the creaking of hinges unused for decades was drowned by the voices of some 700 Gibraltarians singing “We all live in a yellow submarine”. The Beatles hit followed a more formal and patriotic ‘God Save the Queen’ and reflected an optimistic bravado that proved unjustified – for the closure, which was to last for 13 years, hurt the populations of both the Rock and the Campo, separating families, costing thousands of jobs, and forcing many to flee the Campo, but also shaping what eventually would be a new and prosperous future for Gibraltar.

“The closure of the land frontier was an important moment in our evolution as a people,” a recent statement from the Chief Minister’s office points out. “It served to cement together our identity as Gibraltarians and to move us even closer to the United Kingdom.”

At the time, the closure and the events leading up to it were seen in a different light. The Governor Admiral Varyl Begg insisting that “Business as usual is the word”, while with jingoistic bluster befitting what was still regarded by Britain as a naval and military dominated ‘colonial possession’ – though not by Gibraltarians – on June 10th a front page report in the Gibraltar Chronicle argued that: “Spain’s latest kick at the Rock has left Franco with a sore toe, for the Spanish authorities’ moves against men who have earned their living by coming to the Gibraltar must surely fester.”

Franco saw Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Rock in May 1954 as an insult to Spain.

And fester it did, for some 4,730 Spaniards crossed the border daily, providing the majority of the Rock’s less skilled work force, as well as providing the sole income for thousands of families and keeping La Linea’s economy afloat – and, arguably, Franco’s move hit the inhabitants of the Campo with greater severity than it did on Gibraltar. Driven by the resulting poverty, an estimated 7,000-8,000 people left the Campo to seek work –  mainly in Holland, Germany, France and the UK.

Franco’s promise to compensate for the job losses through work at the refinery and by building a large textile factory employing women, proved hollow. The refinery could only employ 200 men, and the textile factory failed to materialise… before it could be built the director disappeared with all the funds.

It is widely accepted that Franco initiated the lengthy economic and social siege in response to the May 1969 adoption of  the Gibraltar Constitution Order, which had become effective a week before the gates creaked shut and confirmed Gibraltar’s determination to remain British.* However, local historian Tito Vallejo believes it had roots more than a decade earlier; that Franco saw Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Rock in May 1954 as an insult to Spain, and that his relationship with Gibraltar began to sour after that,

“It was from then on that Gibraltar began to suffer a string of restrictions,” says Vallejo. “It was threatened that property in Spain belonging to Gibraltarians would be confiscated. (As a result, my grandmother quickly sold her villa in Campamento).”

By the 1960s Spain had begun its UN campaign for the recovery of Gibraltar, he adds. The campaign was headed by Spain’s Foreign Minister Fernando Maria Castiella, “who presented the United Nations with his infamous ‘Red Book’, a  publication of documents which, according to Spain, evidenced that Gibraltar was rightfully Spanish”.

“Spain next began to intensify the restrictions on French nationals who were going back to France from Morocco via Gibraltar’s ferry,” Vallejo says. “They were often kept in the sun for hours in a queue before they were allowed to cross. The next move was to make every Gibraltarian who wanted to cross into Spain apply for a special pass; the British Gibraltar Passport was no longer recognised.

Streams of tearful relatives poured through to be reunited.

“Very few applied for the pass and those who did only because they needed to… living across the border and commuting to Gibraltar for work. When the UN rejected Spain’s claim to the territory, the Spanish government warned all Spanish workers in Gibraltar that they would close the border with Gibraltar. After that, there would be no way for them to go home.

“Even before the closure, women from La Linea were already being denied access to Gibraltar by the Spanish authorities,” Vallejo adds.

Gibraltar is a survivor. Where La Linea and other parts of the Campo suffered and continued to struggle with poverty and unemployment until the border re-opened, the Rock found in Morocco an alternative source of cheap labour and fresh produce – though tinned goods also began to find their way onto kitchen shelves in the better-off homes.

Above – Gonzalo Arias, pacifist and regular fence-jumper. He was arrested every time. – With thanks to Luis Photos

And there were illogical anomalies – among them the fact that, twice a week, BEA’s Trident flights en route from Gibraltar to London stopped at Madrid.

Hopes that Franco’s death in 1975 might cut short the siege proved empty. But Spain’s ambitions to become a member of the European Union faced a British government that it was inconceivable that the frontier should remain closed in an enlarged European Community.

By January 1981, hopes were growing that Madrid could persuade the Spanish electorate there was a case for opening the frontier; and early in 1982 protracted negotiations between Margaret Thatcher and a new socialist government in Madrid led to a partial reopening of the border. At midnight, ten days before Christmas in a Spanish ‘gesture of goodwill’, watched by 1,000-strong crowds on both sides of the frontier, a Spanish civil guard unceremoniously unlocked the gates. Streams of tearful relatives poured through to be reunited – some for the first time in 13 years. However, neither vehicles, tourists nor businessmen of any other nationality were allowed to cross.

It was another two years before the border was fully opened and the first cars and tourists passed through the open gates.

Fittingly, the siege, whose start was marked by song, ended on a similar choral note. The cars and tourists were greeted by members of a visiting Welsh Male Voice Choir singing ‘Guide Me Through, O Great Jehovah’ [better known to rugby fans as ‘Bread of Heaven’].

*The 1969 Constitution was sparked by the outcome of the 1967 sovereignty referendum, in which 99.19% of Gibraltarians voted against passing into Spanish sovereignty.