By Dr Benjamin Coombs and Dr Christine Guluzian
During World War I, when the Allied forces were entrenched in an epically dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with torpedo-bearing Axis submarines burrowed down in the Mediterranean waters off of Gibraltar, a U.S. Naval Commander, Vice Admiral Albert P. Niblack, was stationed in Gibraltar with his service personnel. Together with the British command, a great Allied operation took place which Niblack would later retrace on paper in a collection of memoirs, Putting Cargoes Through: The U.S. Navy at Gibraltar During the First World War 1917-1919, only recently collected in a book by former U.S. Navy officer, Professor John B. Hattendorf, and published by the Gibraltar’s Calpe Press.
What this previously unseen collection of written notes by Niblack points out is the undisputable strategic importance of Gibraltar’s location, which Gibraltar’s history has attested to time and time again, with its link to the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and connections beyond via the Suez Canal. The harsh reality during WWI was that a new type of enemy tactic was being utilised off Gibraltar’s shores – unrestricted submarine warfare – intent on constantly prowling and sinking merchant ships transporting goods and troops to and from the Mediterranean in support of the Allied cause. Thus, a great gathering of international naval boats eventually made their way to Gibraltar to protect these crucial merchant ships. Naval ships, and even private yachts fitted out for military action, crossed the Atlantic to reach Gibraltar from shores as far away as Brazil and California. Italian and French naval forces assisted the military effort as well. However, only the US and British commands were based in Gibraltar itself. Thus, the Commander of the US Naval forces, Niblack, had a first-hand account of Gibraltar during this hugely important time in her history.
Gibraltar became the principal convoy port of the world, with about one quarter of all the Allied tonnage touching there
When Niblack first arrived to Gibraltar, the severity of the situation was obvious: the entire area of the Mediterranean was designated a submarine “danger zone”, with frequent attacks taking place on every second or third convoy of merchant ships. Relatively few troop ships were operating in the Mediterranean and cargo traffic was particularly heavy, thus turning the Mediterranean into a “peculiar happy hunting-ground” of enemy submarines. Also, the narrowness of the Mediterranean meant that a navy-escorted convoy system was less effective here than it was in the Atlantic. Therefore, merchant ships carrying precious cargo for the Allied war effort were left relatively unprotected. Circumstances were dire and, through simple arithmetic, Niblack worked out that “the sinkings of merchant ships by enemy submarines would eventually defeat the Allies”.
Gibraltar is perfectly placed at the mouth of the Mediterranean to act as guardian over the sea traffic that traverses into and out of the region. Its strategic placement has been used by navies as a stopping-off point for connections worldwide. This significance was put into practice during World War I when, as noted by Niblack, most of the supply to Allied forces in the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. To overcome this danger, a great amount of offensive work was necessary around the Straits to deal with the submarine threat. So much so that “Gibraltar became the principal convoy port of the world, with about one quarter of all the Allied tonnage touching there to be formed up into convoys in every direction”.
Considering the urgency of the situation, the United States quickly mustered its naval forces to Gibraltar and swiftly set up its base of operations. Remarkably, the Venetia journeyed from San Francisco via the Panama Canal and New York whilst escorting six submarine chasers across the Atlantic and reported ready for escort duty within twenty-four hours of arrival into Gibraltar. Similarly, onshore, Niblack wasted no time in setting up his administrative headquarters, along with barracks, carpenter shops, store rooms, sick quarters, and repair and fuelling facilities on the waterfront of the dockyard, all “with characteristic American hustle”. This hurried style was quite new and different to the “old world” atmosphere of the Rock. The American forces also brought with them their national sports, which proved popular in Gibraltar:
“Every ship in our forces entered a baseball team in a series of league games, and gave our friends an opportunity to see our great national pastime … Basketball and soccer teams were also organized in a series of league games. Foreign officers and men witnessed all of the games in considerable numbers. An effort was made to include the foreign enlisted man in all privileges possible.”
Despite the readiness of the U.S. Navy, the lack of a Supreme Allied Naval Commander to oversee Allied operations in the region presented a challenge. Instead, in order to coordinate no less than five navies operating in the Mediterranean, regular meetings of allied officers were set up to determine how to target enemy submarines and protect trade routes. As a result, a multinational convoy system was set up to escort cargo ships and thwart submarine attacks.
Niblack issued an order from the start to set out the common goal: “We are here to put all possible pressure on the common enemy, to co-operate fully and freely, and to do not only more than our share, but more than anyone has any right to expect of us”. After the war, Niblack noted that “the system worked harmoniously, silently and without recriminations”. In fact, Niblack was proud of the cooperative spirit generated from the multinational forces working together in Gibraltar, which helped set a precedent for harmonious relations between the allies after World War I. He would later in 1918 confide to William Sims, President of the U.S. Naval War College, that he was very happy to participate in a multinational command arrangement: “Nothing … could have exceeded the friendly spirit of co-operation and helpfulness of the British naval and military authorities, and all our relations with the allied forces were free from friction or ‘holding back’ from cordial cooperation.”
Multinational cooperation was in full force while the convoy system was in effect. One key route between Gibraltar and Genoa saw convoys sailing every four days escorted by British, American and Italian escort vessels, with an Italian naval officer as commodore. The positions of enemy submarines were transmitted to Gibraltar from London, Malta and Paris. The sinking of HMS Britannia by an enemy submarine in the Straits resulted in two enemy submarines being targeted and sunk in response; one by an American submarine chaser and the other by the British patrol. HMS Britannia was the last ship to be sunk in the war.
Following the end of the war, Gibraltar remained an important port of call for the Allied nations. Overall, Niblack highlights that the British merchant service lost 3,147 merchant ships, 7,819,240 gross tons of shipping with the loss of 14,000 men killed. The US Navy operating from Gibraltar assisted in the escort of 5,120 ships in the Mediterranean alone. For his service during the war, Niblack earned the Distinguished Service Medal for “exceptionally meritorious service in a duty of great responsibility as Commander of the U.S. Naval Base at Gibraltar, and of the U.S. Naval Forces in the Western Mediterranean”. Hattendorf cites that the Secretary of the Navy recognised that Gibraltar was “‘the gateway through which passed one-fourth of all shipping of the Allies’ and Niblack, with his ‘fine judgement and ability’ was a ‘tower of strength in that region.’”
The role and sacrifice of American involvement during World War I and during later conflicts has not been forgotten in Gibraltar. At last November’s centenary commemorations marking the end of World War I, representatives of Gibraltar’s government laid wreaths at the very impressive American war memorial which towers over the steps from Reclamation Road to Line Wall Road. As a testament to Niblack’s legacy and the importance of the U.S. Naval forces’ contributions to the war, Professor Hattendorf himself was in attendance to pay tribute to those who fought and gave their lives in the service of the common goal of the Allied nations [Fig. 1]. With the 70th anniversary of the creation of NATO taking place on the 4th of April, marking the close cooperation, common purpose and mutual defence agreed between allies by treaty, Hattendorf’s collection of Niblack’s memoirs reminds us that many of those same allies continue to work together with similar support and teamwork many decades later.
So this summer in Gibraltar, whilst taking in the pleasures of the Med, perhaps consider for a moment all of the epic stories which the Mediterranean holds and has to tell. For, as Niblack noted, the story of how allies came together in Gibraltar to turn the tide of the Mediterranean from a “danger zone” into an arena for allied cooperation is a story “well worth telling.”