Commemorating wartime sacrifices
By Chief Minister Fabian Picardo
Today, 8th May 2020 the world is fighting the new common enemy, Covid-19. Today, on a warm Bank Holiday in Gibraltar, we are confronting the difficulties of Lockdown, the inability to enjoy our beaches, the loss of the ability to drive to lunch in at our favourite restaurant in Gib or Spain, and the grandparents’ inability to hug their grandchildren… Hard. Sure.
But I ask you to consider what life was like on the Rock just 75 years ago.
The 8th May 1945 was Victory in Europe Day. VE Day as it is known. It has remained a lifelong memory for all those who were there and witnessed it.
My parents and my maternal grandmother told me the stories of it.
VE Day meant an end to nearly six years of a war that had cost the lives of millions; a war that had destroyed homes, families, and cities; and had brought huge suffering and privations to the populations of entire countries.
For us, it had been five years of evacuation. It had made our non-enlisted people displaced. Almost refugees. In the London. In Northern Ireland. In Jamaica. In Madeira. A diaspora that might never have returned.
Across Europe, millions of people rejoiced in the news that Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered. A continent relieved that the intense strain of total war was finally over.
In towns and cities across the world, people marked the victory with street parties, dancing and singing.
In the Spring of 1945, a Gibraltarian man of working age probably hadn’t seen his parents, or his wife or his children for the last 4 or 5 years.
It had been in 1940 that our young nation’s elderly, women and children had all been sent away from the Rock by ship, across waters patrolled by German U boats, possibly to London, arriving there at the height of the Blitz. Within months, moved off again to Northern Ireland to live in tin huts – just at a time that the province was experiencing some of the coldest winters in its history.
The only contact with them in 3 or 4 years would have been an occasional letter. Young children had probably forgotten what their fathers looked like. In those days there was no WhatsApp, Zoom or Facetime. And what no-one knew at the time was that it could still be a few years before they would all be allowed home again.
I remember the stories told to me by my relatives of those cold winters in Northern Ireland. Of my grandmother organising a collective of women to produce and sell crochet, travelling through a city to streets and markets she could hardly pronounce the names of to try to earn a little something.
The story of the bomb that fell on hospital the night after my uncle Henry had left after a broken leg. Stories of every Gibraltarian family.
Meanwhile, back on the Rock, Gibraltar’s menfolk would probably have spent those 4 or 5 years working alongside British servicemen. They would all have been fearful of a possible Nazi invasion via Spain or from bombing raids from Axis airfields in France or Italy, from Italian frogmen targeting warships in the harbour and even from bombs planted in Gibraltar by Spanish saboteurs.
But, despite these threats, Gibraltar contributed hugely to Britain’s war effort and the Rock can be immensely proud of the way in which it influenced the final outcome of the war.
Gibraltar served a vital role in both the Atlantic Theatre and the Mediterranean Theatre, controlling virtually all naval traffic into and out of the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean.
In addition to its commanding position, Gibraltar provided a strongly defended, deep water harbour from which ships could operate in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Naval Force H was based in Gibraltar and it had the task of maintaining naval superiority and providing a strong escort for convoys to and from the besieged island of Malta.
Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, was coordinated from the Rock.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who went on to become a two term President of the United States, was given command of the operation, lived in the Convent and set up his headquarters inside the Rock during the planning phases of the operation.
Following the successful completion of the North African campaign and the surrender of Italy in 1943, Gibraltar's role shifted from a forward operating base to a rear-area supply position. The harbour continued to operate dry docks and supply depots for the convoy routes through the Mediterranean right up to V-E Day in 1945.
John Sciacaluga served throughout the war as an anti-aircraft gunner. In 2016 he described the days leading up to VE Day.
“You cannot imagine the elation we felt. We knew that the war would be over soon and we were struck with immense confidence in ourselves and our allies. Best of all, we knew that soon all our families would return home from all corners of the British Empire.
When the Japanese surrendered following the atom bomb strikes on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the wheels were in motion for peace. We heard these reports live on radio.
It was quite a scene with all of us crowded around this little box and there were big cries of celebration as we embraced one another. It was the greatest of relief. It was natural to have a drink because the threat was finished with. Everything must come to the end and so did the war.”
VE Day, 8 May 1945 marked the end of the War in Europe – although it would be another few months before the Japanese surrendered and, for some, another few years before some of our evacuated families would return home. For many, the resumption of normality was a very slow process.
Today, there are very few left who can remember Victory in Europe day and so it is up to us to reflect on their sacrifices.
As a result of Covid-19, we have recently experienced five or six weeks’ lockdown and separation from our friends and family.
The Evacuation generation endured five or six years of separation – separation across huge distances with little or no means of communication available to link the Gibraltarian families.
As well as separation, they endured the threat of enemy action and the strict rationing of food and clothes. We can only imagine the huge sense of relief and the outpouring of joy felt by everyone when the Germans finally surrendered in May 1945.
Many of us have seen the photographs of wild celebrations in the streets of London but Gibraltarians had every bit as much to celebrate as the people of London.
Today we commemorate the sacrifices made by those wartime Gibraltarians. They all played their part – perhaps much more than their part – in the Allied victory that was celebrated on VE Day 1945.
On the 8th May 2020, the 75th anniversary of VE Day, we salute everyone who was part of Gibraltar’s Evacuation Generation. We remember them and we salute them.