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The darkest chapter

Families gathered at the John Mackintosh Square to protest at not allowing evacuees to land in Gibraltar after being expelled from Vichy French Morocco.

By Joe Gingell

During this time of the year, 83 years ago, the people of Gibraltar were to experience the darkest chapter in the history of Gibraltar.

Prior to the start of the war, it was considered that the main theatre of conflict, as in the First World War, would take place in north west Europe and therefore Gibraltar would not be in the front line.

Nevertheless, a scheme was prepared to evacuate the civilian population which would only necessitate to execute in the event that Spain became hostile.

After the period known as the “phoney war,” Germany began to advance rapidly forcing the Allied forces to retreat. By the 16 May 1940, France had already accepted it had lost the war. The War Cabinet was then considering the war scenario after the fall of France where Italy allied to Germany would strive to overthrow Britain’s key positions in the Mediterranean and how Gibraltar could be defended until Spain became hostile. On the 21 May 1940, the Gibraltar Colonial Government was then instructed by the War Cabinet to order the compulsory evacuation of all children, women, the elderly and the infirm.

All of a sudden, a very closed knitted community, the majority of whom had never travelled much further than Algeciras, San Roque or Estepona, were hastily embarked to French Morocco. One shudders to think of the anxiety that must have been felt by families when they saw that they were being separated from their loved without knowing whether they would meet again. Many children were crying when they were taken away from their father’s arms to be embarked.

I don’t think that anyone would had ever thought, in their wildest dreams, that they would have had to cross the Atlantic. That expecting mother would have to give birth on board ships, in French Morocco, Madeira, the UK or Jamaica. That some would have to suffer the grim experience of having to bury their loved ones at sea or in distant places.

The war took a turn for the worse when on the 10 June 1940 Italy declared war on Britain and France. On that same day Spain had also occupied the International Zone of Tangier and the Italian navy tried to scuttle their ships in the Bay of Gibraltar. By then, the war had certainly come home!

Despite the concerns of the appalling living conditions being experienced in French Morocco by the evacuees, the evacuation continued regardless. The evacuation was halted when France capitulated on 24 June 1940. By then 13,500 civilians had already been evacuated to French Morocco.

The armistice arrangements agreed between France and Germany, made the presence of the Gibraltar evacuees unsustainable. Some evacuees said that the places where they were living were pelted and had to stay indoors. Other evacuees said that some French nationals were giving them a cold shoulder. By then there were rumours that the evacuees could not stay much longer in Vichy French Morocco. On the 30th June 1940 amidst these happenings a Free French aircraft attempted to make an emergency landing at Gibraltar. It was shot down by machine gun fire from the Spanish frontier making the aircraft to crash and killing the four crew. Other aircraft who made similar attempts also crashed when seeking political asylum for their disagreement with the Vichy French Government.

The most serious happening occurred when the Royal Navy attacked the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir killing many French sailors. The Vichy French air force in retaliation bombed Gibraltar and broke diplomatic relations with Britain. The Gibraltar evacuees in French Morocco were naturally very concerned on hearing about the incident. The French nationals who felt humiliated turned their hate on the Gibraltar evacuees. Since the evacuees were given 24 hours’ notice to leave French Morocco, they made their way to the Port of Casablanca to await any further orders.

A few days after the Oran incident,15,000 French Troops, who Commodore Creighton detested for not having the courage to fight against the Nazis, arrived at Casablanca onboard British merchant ships.
In the midst of these happenings, the War Cabinet agreed that it was undesirable that Gibraltar evacuees should be taken to the UK. In order to prevent this, the Admiralty gave orders for only one or two of the ships carrying the French troops to enter Casablanca at a time, and that, until these ships had come out empty, the other ships carrying troops should not be allowed to enter the harbour. But the French authorities demanded that the ships, which were arriving at Casablanca with the French troops would remain under arrests until all the 13,500 evacuees had been embarked and taken away.

The ships with their stinking odour were obviously not fit to take evacuees who were mainly consisted of children, women, elderly and the infirm. Commodore Creighton pleaded for the ships to be cleaned and replenished before embarking the evacuees but his request was flatly refused. As a result of the long wait without food or water many elderly people collapsed. Mothers tried to shield their babies from the burning sun. In the meanwhile, they were hurdled into the ships, and in some cases, pushed with the rifle butts as they climbed up the gangways. There were inevitably many scenes of panic among the evacuees as they boarded the ships.

Faced with such dilemma, Commodore Creighton signalled Admiral North at Gibraltar to tell him that he intended to sail to Gibraltar with the evacuees but Admiral North disapproved the suggestion. Commodore Creighton, ignored Admiral’s North instructions and set sail for Gibraltar. In view of the stinking state of the ships the evacuees were advised to remain on the upper decks throughout the whole journey. The situation was worsened when the Governor of Gibraltar issued a communiqué saying that the evacuees would not be allowed to land at Gibraltar. Families soon gathered at the John Mackintosh Square to protest. City Councillors addressed the protesters to tell them that they would be requesting the Governor to allow the evacuees to land and join with their families in Gibraltar. Admitting that the ships had to be made ready for what was going to be a very long journey, the evacuees were finally allowed to spend a few days of grace with their families.

In the re-evacuation process, the British Government agreed very reluctantly to take 11,500 evacuees in the UK and also arranged with the Portuguese Government for 2,000 evacuees to be accommodated in island of Madeira.

As if to vindicate the military authorities’ views of impending attacks and the need to evacuate the civilian population, Gibraltar suffered the first casualties of the war on the 18 July 1940 when three civilians and a soldier were killed. Further bombings by the Italian and Vichy French air forces were carried. In three months, 12 civilians were killed. This was more than the total number of evacuees killed in London during four years of bombing.

For the 11,500 evacuees who were going to be taken to UK, it meant embarking on a long and perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean with very little or no protection from possible attacks by enemy submarines. At that time the British merchant navy was suffering very heavy losses of men and ships in the Atlantic and thus threatening Britain’s lifeline. Commodore Creighton, who was in charge of the largest convoy carrying 5,000 evacuees to the UK, with just a very small escort, said that if that convoy had been attacked would have resulted in one of the worst disasters in maritime history.

The evacuees arrived in the UK at the hight of the Battle of Britain when major cities, ports and military airfields were being heavily bombed in preparation for the invasion of Britain. The Blitz which started soon after the arrival of the evacuees, claimed its first Gibraltar victim on 14 September 1940 on the 14 months old Mario Massetti when at the St. Mary’s Abbott Hospital.

As soon as the evacuees arrived in London, the British Government was making arrangements to transfer them Jamaica where it was argued that they would live safer and under similar conditions to Gibraltar without enemy actions, free from the damp cold winter and limited accommodation. Fearing of crossing the Atlantic once again, the evacuees opposed the whole idea. Many meetings were held at all the evacuation centres and letters exchanged between the evacuees, their representatives and the officials concerned.

Gibraltarian Archbishop Amigo supported the evacuees not to be transferred and accused UK officials of proposing to separate the evacuees further from their families and that they did not wish to cross the Atlantic again except to go home. The fears of the evacuees were, unfortunately, vindicated when the City of Bernares was sunk on 18 September with the loss of many lives, including 77 British children who had been evacuated to Canada.

Considering the transfer of Gibraltar evacuees to the West Indies, the Secretary for the Colonies and the Minister of Health stated, “We are literally, between the devil and the deep blue sea. If Gibraltarians (compulsorily evacuated from Gibraltar) stayed here, they may suffer heavily from bombing or winter illnesses; but if they are now compelled to undertake the voyage to safety in the West Indies, they might be drowned on the way. Faced with that choice we feel on balance, unable, in view of the peoples' own mood to recommend recourse to compulsory re-evacuation.” 
The evacuees in London were faced with the hard choice of whether to endure the intense bombing or risk being drowned in the Atlantic.

Given the difficulties that had arisen, the Minister of Health decided to abandon the plans to transfer the Gibraltar evacuees to Jamaica. In the case of the 1,500 surplus civilians in Gibraltar, the Governor in Gibraltar gave immediate instructions to evacuate them to Jamaica.

By early 1944 it was considered safe for the evacuees to repatriated. When first group of evacuees were being repatriated, London was suffering a spate of very intense bombing affecting many buildings. Due to the shortage of accommodation in London, the second group of evacuees deemed to be repatriated were transferred to transit centres in Lancashire and Scotland to await their eventual repatriation. In June 1944, when the flying bombs started to hi London there were still about 10,000 evacuees waiting to be repatriated. By July 1944 half of the evacuees in London were repatriated to Gibraltar and the other half, owing to the acute shortage of accommodation in Gibraltar were transferred to Northern Ireland. By then the bulk of the evacuees in Madeira had been repatriated and those in Jamaica repatriated in October 1944.

The repatriation of evacuees from Northern Ireland lasted from 1944 till late 1951. Throughout all this time many meetings and demonstrations were held to bring pressure upon the pertinent authorities to expedite their repatriation. The Colonial Government insisted all along that the repatriation would take a long time due to the shortage of accommodation, the inadequate schooling, medical and hygiene standards in Gibraltar. There was also the question of arranging shipping to bring back evacuees and the phasing out of part of the military garrison to make room for the repatriates.

The grievances affecting the evacuees in Northern Ireland ranged from the lack of employment, the non-entitlement to social benefits, the conditions of the camps, the extreme cold weather and not knowing when they could return to Gibraltar. Throughout the whole period there were conflicting views emanating from those in the camps, the officials, and those who were demanding their return. The officials usually maintained that the conditions of the evacuees were fairly adequate given the circumstances of the war, which forced the authorities concerned to take the evacuees to Northern Ireland. The views of those making the complaints described the conditions at the camp as appalling.
When the camps closed in July 1948, there were still 2,200 who due to the still acute shortage of accommodation in Gibraltar had to return to London. The prospect of knowing they were going to live in Nissen huts or transit centres in Gibraltar discouraged many evacuees from wanting to be repatriated.
In the end, it took six years to repatriate all the over 6,000 evacuees sent to Northern Ireland in 1944 with nearly 2,000 settling in London.

During their stay in London the Gibraltar many evacuees formed committees in their respective evacuation centres for the purpose of meeting regularly with Government officials to deal with issues, like food, accommodation, education, employment and leisure facilities. With the knowledge and experienced they gained from these meetings, many of them formed political parties and became trade unionists to seek greater say in Governmental matters which then paved the way towards the first stages for Gibraltar to achieve legislative power.

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