In 2002, a unit of 30 British Marines in a landing craft from the Royal Navy’s amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean, armed to the teeth, stormed onto a beach belonging to the Spanish town of La Linea, instead of Gibraltar. Oops!
Situated on a peninsular on the Southern coast of Spain, Gibraltar is a 6.5 square kilometre British overseas territory and dependency with a population of 29,000 people. It borders the Spanish municipality of la Linea, and a crossing point controls movements of people and vehicles to and from Spain.
Gibraltar is of significant strategic importance, situated as it is on the eight-mile-wide Straits of Gibraltar, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Currently, Britain maintains a light infantry battalion, a Royal Naval squadron, and a military airfield in Gibraltar. There is also a civilian police force, responsible for maintaining law and order.
Gibraltar originally came under British control in 1704, following an Anglo-Dutch invasion. Subsequently, the 1716 Treaty of Utrecht gave Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity. Sixty-three years later, a Spanish attempt to reclaim the territory by siege failed and Gibraltar was finally declared a British colony in 1830. General Franco, the Spanish Dictator, made a further attempt to claim Gibraltar during the 1950s.
A referendum was held in 1967, the result of which was an overwhelming vote by the citizens for Gibraltar to remain a British dependency. All citizens were granted British citizenship in 1981. In 2002, a Spanish proposal for shared sovereignty between Britain and Spain was overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum.
Relationships between Gibraltar and Spain are mainly cordial, but there is an underlying tension, borne of the history surrounding Gibraltar. For that reason, the governments of both countries are at pains to avoid direct confrontation on trivial issues, something that a 2002 incident brought sharply into focus.
On 16th February, armed with 60mm mortars and assault rifles, the royal marines charged up the Spanish beach and proceeded to take up defensive situations in the sand, much to the consternation of local fishermen. When the local police turned up, the awful truth dawned.
The Marines were taking part in an exercise, and they had landed on the wrong beach – they thought they were in Gibraltar, but they missed their target beach by a few hundred yards.
It was all very embarrassing, but no harm was done, and the Spanish authorities accepted that a map-reading mistake had occurred. According to the BBC, instead of making an official complaint to the British Foreign Office they decided to take no action.
The British Ministry of Defence said it was a situation it would “rather not have taken place”.
“Two landing craft from HMS Ocean accidentally entered Spanish territorial waters and in bad weather one landing craft landed on the beach a few yards over the Spanish side of the border,” a spokesman explained.
“About 20 Royal Marines disembarked for about five minutes and then the error was recognised and they all withdrew.“