February 27, 2015

Finest Hour 161, Winter 2013-14

Page 53

By Fred Glueckstein


In October 2012, my wife and I visited Gibraltar, the famous rock at the entrance to the Mediterranean, British since 1713. We looked forward to seeing the legendary Gibraltar apes, about which I had read so much. Seeing the monkeys up close on a sunny autumn day was a magnificent experience. The handsome macaques were on the rocks overlooking the strait that separates Gibraltar from Morocco in Africa. We were impressed that they were friendly and cute. The macaques were inquisitive and liked food, as witnessed by one jumping and grabbing a bag of popcorn from a tourist. Another one had no reservations about climbing inside a tour bus, presumably also foraging. Most impressive was their large, prospering population, which would have been a relief to Winston Churchill.

On 2 September 1944, the Prime Minister sent a directive to the Colonial Secretary: “The establishment of the apes on Gibraltar should be twenty-four, and every effort should be made to reach this number as soon as possible and maintain it thereafter.”1 Churchill’s apprehension about Gibraltar’s monkeys in the midst of the war is a fascinating story, stemming from British legend.

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Admiral George Rooke took Gibraltar for England in 1704, when he led an Anglo-Dutch force in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 ceded Gibraltar to the British Crown in perpetuity. An important Royal Navy base, Gibraltar is on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance to the Mediterranean.

What are commonly called Barbary apes live on the upper Rock. However, they are not apes but macaques (Macaca sylvanus), or tailless monkeys. Where the original Gibraltar macaques came from has been a longtime mystery. Some scientists think they were brought from Algeria and Morocco as pets by the Moors, who occupied Spain between 711 and 1492. Others believe they were a remnant of macaques that lived throughout Southern Europe 5.5 million years ago and as recently as the 1800s in Spain.2 Some believe that the colony, also called “rock monkeys,” goes back to the animals introduced by the British in 1740 for shooting practice.

After Britain took control of the Rock, a belief emerged that Gibraltar would remain under British rule for as long as the Barbary apes were still there: when the apes leave the Rock, so too will the British. In the 20th Century, concern about the legend was witnessed in 1913 when the apes had dwindled to only ten. The governor of Gibraltar, Sir Alexander Godley, quickly brought eight young female apes from North Africa.3

That same year saw the apes incorporated in the Gibraltar fortress’s military establishment, which was given responsibility for their feeding and care. The army accounted for apes in military fashion, and the records contain rather amusing entries:

Fortress Orders (Restricted) No. 225-reference Fortress Order No. 216 Rock Apes, birth: “The sex of the apelet has now been ascertained as male. He has been given the name Roy. (FHQ-GIB/313/A).”4

The Army appointed a non-commissioned officer from the Gibraltar Regiment as officer-in-charge of the Apes, to supervise their welfare and a food allowance of fruit, vegetables and nuts, all carefully included in the budget. Much of his duties and responsibilities is known from Sgt. Alfred Holmes, who held the position for over thirty-eight years.5 Holmes knew all of them by the names he had given them, mostly taken after governors, brigadiers, and high-ranking officers as well as their children. If any young monkeys were orphaned he would take them to his wife to rear them at home. Sick or injured monkeys he took to the Royal Naval Hospital where they would receive the same level of care as enlisted soldiers.6

Churchill, who had visited Gibraltar, was keenly aware of the legend. During the early days of the Second World War, learning that the ape population was down to seven, he gave instructions to have five females brought in quickly from Morocco, named Daisy, Beatrice, Jane, Kathleen, and Madeline.7 In September 1944, Churchill followed up with a directive to maintain the population at twenty-four. To carry out his instructions, a troop transport was dispatched to North Africa and additional apes were brought to Gibraltar.

Churchill’s determination to prevent the apes from disappearing from the Rock was not altogether superstitious. He knew that the apes had become symbolically important to British morale; their disappearance might demoralize the populace, many of whom had been evacuated with possibility of an attack by Germany.8 Certainly also, Churchill’s love of animals played a part.

In later years, Churchill’s interest in the apes received frequent attention by officials in Gibraltar and even in Parliament. In a letter dated 30 October 1952 the governor, Lieutenant-General Sir Gordon M.A. Macmillan, wrote to his brother-in-law, Lt. Col. Michael Hughes-Young: “Shortly after I arrived here in May 1952, the Prime Minister was attacked in the House of Commons on the grounds that the army was being extravagant in employing no less than six soldiers to ‘look after Monkeys.’ This, of course, was monstrously untrue and I was able to refute the accusation completely in a letter which I sent to the Adjutant-General on the 28th May 1952.”9

Macmillan added that ape population had reached forty-nine, “greater than is desirable because if they are too numerous they are liable to stray into town and become a nuisance. I am therefore in the process of offering a few to zoos and private individuals who might like them.”10 It must be assumed that Churchill was informed by the governor that the ape population was being reduced for this reason. On 6 November 1952, Hughes-Young sent Jo Sturdee, Churchill’s private secretary, photographs from his brother-in-law the governor: “I think you are the right person to deal with this, and if it is not a matter of interest, perhaps you would return the correspondence and photographs to me.” Churchill wrote on the letter to Sturdee: “Write a nice letter which I will sign. I am most interested.”11

In 1954, H.M. the Queen visited Gibraltar. Time magazine reported that the Ape pack numbered forty, and that “one among them, an amiable grey coated fellow named Winston, was easily the most popular ape….proud Winston was granted an official audience with Prince Charles and Princess Anne.”12

Alas, in early December 1955, Winston, who was never late for meals, failed to come to eat. A search party was organized to comb every crevice and called for him loudly by name. Winston was not found. In late January, officials issued a sad bulletin: “Rock ape Winston has been missing since ninth December and must now be presumed dead. He is, accordingly, struck off the strength of the fortress from that date.”13 It is not known if Winston’s fate was confided to the Royal Family or the recently retired prime minister. In 1960, Churchill, on a Mediterranean cruise with his friend Aristotle Onassis, stopped in Gibraltar to visit the apes.

Seven years later, according to documents released at the National Archives in Kew, the ape population was again declining, and there was an imbalance of males and females: the Middle Hill clan had too few males and the Queen’s Gate group too few females. During a time of political concern with Spain over their claim to Gibraltar, Saville Garner, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Commonwealth Relations Office, swiftly sent Gibraltar’s Governor, Sir Gerald Lathbury, a telegram:

We’re a little bit perturbed about the apes,
After studying their sizes and their shapes.
As we see it, at first glance
There seems at least some chance
Of lesbianism, or sodomy, or rapes.
Nine girls of Middle Hill may well decide
They can’t by five mere males be satisfied.
While the Queen’s Gate lads, one fears,
May become a bunch of queers
If by sex imbalance nature is denied.
So can you plan migration? Or get up
A party for the apes who feel Het up.
A welfare state for apes has been decreed
Where each of them is mated (and de-flead)
Then let Franco rage in vain,
Your immunity from Spain
Is by simian eugenics Guaranteed.

Sir Gerald calmed Sir Saville’s fears by replying in like fashion:

So long as we have Joe
(Born at Queen’s Gate in fifty-eight)
No female ape need pine
Or lesbian-ate.
And of course there’s Harold too,
And Hercules of Middle Hill
Though comparatively new
He knows a thing or two.14

Sir Gerald proved right: “A few years later, the Queens Gate group had heard pitter patter of tiny monkey feet and welcomed Jimmy, Roger and Bob to the clan. Middle Hill put out the pink bunting for Sybil, Olga, Marie-Claire and Rosemary, named after the wife of the new governor, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Varyl Begg.”15

British military authorities cared for the apes until July 1992, when the government took over their care. The monkeys are currently managed by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society. In 2005, the mystery of where the apes Churchill had ordered to Gibraltar came from was finally solved. According to research detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers had analyzed the Gibraltar monkeys’ DNA and learned that they were descended from macaques in both Algeria and Morocco.16

Today, the famous Barbary Macaque population in Gibraltar is the only one on the whole of the European continent. Churchill would be pleased to know that the apes still thrive. They are greatly enjoyed by visitors whom they freely approach and sometimes climb onto. Most importantly Sir Winston would be pleased at their numbers: some 230 to 240 live in six packs ranging between 25 and 70 animals.17 Certainly, Churchill would approve of such a number, ensuring that the Gibraltar’s loss is still not in prospect—as long as the apes have anything to do with it.

Mr. Glueckstein is a frequent FH contributor. This article expands on our first story about the Gibraltar Macaques in Finest Hour 125, Winter 2004-05.


1. Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (London: Cassell, 1954), 607.

2. Robert Roy Britt, “Mystery of Churchill’s WWII Monkeys Solved,” Live Science, 25 April 2005, http://xrl.us/bpywaa.

3. Richard Mowrer, “Britain Heeds Gibraltar Legend,” The Christian Science Monitor, 30 September 1967, 5.

4. Ibid.

5. Alfred Holmes (1931-1994), a Gibraltar-born sergeant in the Gibraltar Regiment, held the position of Officer-in Charge of the Apes from 1954 to 1992. His knowledge and experience was invaluable to researchers. Without his attention the 250-year tradition would be far more obscure.

6. Ibid.

7. Wikipedia, http://bit.ly/1arKD4Y/.

8. Mowrer, op. cit.

9. On 24 August 1940, Hitler approved Operation Felix for seizing Gibraltar. It never progressed beyond staff study stage, primarily because of Franco’s reluctance to commit Spain to join the Axis. See Jesse Russell and Ronald Cohn, Operation Felix (Edinburgh: Bookvika Publishing, 2012).

10. Macmillan to Lt. Col. HughesYoung, Churchill Archives, CHUR 2/188.

11. Ibid.

12. Lt. Col. M.H. Hughes-Young to Jo Sturdee, Churchill Archives, CHUR 2/188.

13. “Gibraltar: Where’s Winston?,” Time, 30 January 1956.

14. Ibid.

15. Dominic Casciani, “Poets Aped in Gibraltar Monkey Business,” BBC News Online, published 22 July 2004.

16. Britt, op. cit; Finest Hour 127: 17.

17. Pocket Guide to Gibraltar, Seventh Edition, 2010, Discover Pocket Guide Gibraltar Ltd., www.discover.gi.

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