This page was inspired by the letter printed below that I received from Trevor Gould, Benalmádena, Málaga, Spain. It formed part of one of my Gibraltar Viewpoint columns to which Mr Gould again responded as too did other readers. The picture on the left is of María's Picasso family in an evacuee's camp in Northern Ireland, María is on the right.
"Dear Mr Eade, My wife, María, is Gibraltarian, her mother was Spanish. The family was evacuated from the Rock at the start of the war, spent time in a camp in Northern Ireland and later moved to Central London. At the end of the war they were not allowed to return to the Rock but given one hundred pounds compensation for the loss of their homes and business in Gib. So it was 64 years since she had left Gib and she had never lived in Spain. We love it – and particularly enjoy your Gib column. Best wishes, Trevor Gould."
I was fascinated about his tale of his wife, Maria, being evacuated from the Rock during World War II and whilst I knew that it had happened it was only after reading up on it again that I discovered was a harrowing experience it must have been.
Gibraltar was the only part of Britain or its then overseas territories that experienced wholesale evacuation with the complete separation of civilians in World War II. In happened in the first summer of the war after the eight months of the so-called 'phoney war'. The German offensive was underway. On April 8 Denmark was overrun then on May 10 the Low Countries were invaded and after four days the Netherlands surrendered. On May 24 the German forces arrived outside Dunkirk and Belgium fell three days later. The Dunkirk evacuations went on until June 4 and a few days later Norway surrendered. In the same month Italy entered the war on the side of Germany, Paris fell on June 14 and France signed an armistice with Germany on June 22. Hence, Europe with the exception of Britain had seemingly collapsed in just a matter of weeks.
Whilst all this was going on the Governor of Gibraltar, Sir Clive Liddell, sent all the families of British servicemen home by sea on May 21 and 22. It was feared that Hitler, with the agreement of Spain's General Franco, would launch an attack to capture the Rock. It was therefore decided to evacuate Gibraltarian women and children along with the old and infirm whilst the Rock was turned in to a fortress. The Gibraltarian men stayed put as the governor intended them to help defend their homeland. The women and children were evacuated to Morocco on the day the Germans crossed the river Meuse in to France.
When the French signed the armistice on June 22 France was divided in to two. One zone covering northern and western France as well as the Atlantic coast would be German occupied. The French government, under the 84-year-old First World War veteran, Marshall Pétain, would run the rest from Vichy.
Their accommodation between German and France meant that Britain had to review its attitude towards the French. France still had a large, modern navy and its main squadron was based on the coast of Morocco at Mers-el-Kébir near Otan. Britain was determined that the French fleet should not fall in to German hands so the Royal Navy's Force H Commander, Sir James Somerville, ordered the French forces at Mers-el-Kébir to surrender and scuttle their ships. The alternative was that they would be attacked and as after hours of negotiations no agreement was reached the British fleet opened fire on July 3. A French battleship was sunk, two were badly damaged and more than 1,000 French sailors were killed. Three days later HMS Ark Royal arrived on the scene. She sank the French battleship 'Dunkerque' with a heavy death toll. British aircraft also attacked Mers-el-Kébir.
You will not be surprised when I tell you that these events seriously embittered Anglo-French relations. Following the armistice Morocco fell within Vichy France and both Vichy French and French Moroccan attitudes towards Britain took a turn for the worse. The French Moroccan authorities demanded the immediate removal within 24 hours of all Gibraltarian evacuees who had only been there a matter of days. At the same time Gibraltar was bombed by the air forces of both Germany and France.
By lucky coincidence Rear-Admiral Sir Kenelm Creighton had just arrived in Casablanca with 15 cargo vessels containing 15,000 French soldiers and sailors who had been rescued from Dunkirk and wished to join the Vichy government. Creighton sent a signal to Vice-Admiral Sir Dudley North in Gibraltar advising him that there were 15,000 Gibraltarians who needed to be shipped out and he would get the civilians to Gibraltar as quickly as he could.
Amazingly the vice-admiral replied by telegram refusing to accept the Gibraltarian women and children back stating: "we have had enough trouble getting them out." Faced with the alternative of abandoning the Gibraltarians in Morocco to the enemy or ignoring the signal Creighton took the refugees on board and sailed for Gibraltar. Governor Sir Clive Liddell did not want the Gibraltarians to disembark but after the Gibraltarian men on shore decided to strike he agreed to allow them to land as long as they returned when other ships arrived to take them away from the Rock.
It was on July 30 when 24 ships finally sailed from Gibraltar with the evacuees on board. They were all bound for the United Kingdom and from their they were dispersed with some going to Madeira, others to Jamaica but the majority stayed within the UK in Kensington, Fulham, Barking and Northern Ireland.
According to figures I have seen the total number of evacuees was 16,700, of which 12,500 went to the UK, 3,272 to Madeira and Jamaica whilst others independently sought refuge in Tangiers and Spain. They started their return in 1944 but due to lack of accommodation it was not completed till 1951. The treatment of Gibraltarians in those war years proved to be a great impetus for them to seek better civil and political rights in the decades that followed.
Following the above column Mr Gould wrote to me again: "As you discovered, women and children including my wife, her mother, two sisters and her brother were first taken to Morocco, Rabat in their case, were thrown out, arrived in London and then on to refugee camps in Northern Ireland. Later they were moved back to hotels in Exhibition Road in Kensington, London. Others were sent to the West Indies, Canada and Australia.
"The men stayed on the Rock but after the unrest you mentioned (when the women and children were returned to Gibraltar after being expelled from Morocco and then sent to the UK) the authorities became concerned about morale. It was decided to evacuate many of the 'non-essential' Gibraltarian men who joined their families.
"The evacuees had been allowed to take a few of their most treasured possessions with them. When they reached the UK it was decided that these things should be stored in Alexandra Palace in North London until the war was over. In 1945 they were invited to reclaim them only to find that everything of value had been looted and long gone.
"My father-in-law, Alfredo Picasso, knew that repatriations had started in 1944 but had to wait until 1950 before he received a visit from Michael Foot (no less!) who told him he and his family were amongst those who would not be returning to the Rock. He was given one hundred pounds in compensation and offered a place on the council house waiting list in Watford. He chose to stay in London. Although history tells us that the repatriation of Gibraltarians was 'completed' in the early 1950's there were many like them who were never allowed or able to return to Gibraltar.
"Alfredo was of Genoese descent. His ancestor Domenico Picasso left Genoa with his family in 1751 to escape Austrian oppression and for job opportunities working for the Brits on building projects – the Picasso's were renowned as stone masons in Genoa, a family name from that locality and where there are still many about. By the end of the 18th century the Genoese were the largest group of people on the Rock. In an exchange of correspondence on the letters page of a UK newspaper about whether there was such a thing as a Gibraltarian someone pointed out that 'there were Gibraltarians before there were Americans and no one doubts the legitimacy of Americans'. In a similar way some Genoese people were Gibraltarians before the Genoese became Italian."
Having read all the above Mrs Victoria Bacon then emailed me to say:
"Hi David, My Mother, father and three brothers were evacuated from Gibraltar to England where I was born in 1943. My mother told me about the Germans torpedoing the boat they were sailing in. She was so scared! My family, from what I can remember and being told. One of my brothers said when I was 2 years old, we were sent to Ireland. I don't know how long we were there, but eventually, we were sent to Putney. Again I don't know how long we were there, but we were then sent to Brompton Hospital, which I can remember. We then moved to 1, Onslow Gardens, South Kensington which was a hotel. I remember a lot of Spanish refugees were all around us. I was 7 years old when we were given a house in Wandsworth where I more or less grew up.
My parents did not speak English at all, so my first language was Spanish. I leant English only when I went to school. Our surname is Sedeño, but my parents and the boys were brought over to England using her maiden name. So my parents and brothers were known as Pereras, but because I was born in England, I could use my father's name.
I still have my ID Card. My father fought against Franco. He worked for the Gibraltarian government making the holes for the cannons. My father owned a lot of properties, which he left in the hands of his family, for when the war was over, he would return to claim it all back. But when I was 10, my father died and a year before Franco died, my mother died.
I have tried to find my family over here and I have come so close, but doors close when I mention my father's surname. I was not taught to read or write in Spanish but can speak it and feel so sad that my parents never made it back. My mother used to tell me all about Spain. I am now living out here as my roots are here. I have come home. I hope you find this as interesting as I did your article about evacuees. I have a lot more to tell, but would take a lot of time up. Yours Faithfully, Mrs Victoria Bacon."
All of which prompted this email from Peter Keys, Rojales, Alicante:
"In the mid fifties I was with the RAF on 224 Squadron and lived in Turnbulls Lane with a Señor y Señora Santos. Our landlady was a very elegant Spanish lady who claimed to have danced with Franco before the civil war, I believed her! That is bye the bye as my point is that she and her family were evacuees and followed the same route as the Picasso family until returning home. I know this because a daughter married one of my best friends and we are still in touch so when you started the evacuee thing I passed it to them. They then copied it to other ex-Llanitos around London. They have now discovered a videotape of people who were involved at the time including interviews, it seems that there are only a few copies and I have asked them to speak to the owners and get more details. Perhaps you may be interested? Finally, one story from my mate's wife Marie Carmen, her dad had two taxis and at the beginning of the war they were confiscated for five pounds each and dumped in the sea! Runway foundations?"
Finally, for now at least, I received the following email from Peter Hewlett with some interesting information for those wishing to make contact with the evacuees association.
"Hi there, very interested to read what you have on your site and also saw an article in the Costa Brava News. I thought you would be interested to know, and to pass on to your readership, that there is an Evacuees Reunion Association who are a registered charity and who have a regular magazine and organise lots of events, and also act as a clearing house for information on the evacuation and its effects. Their contact details are: +44 1777 816166, http://www.evacuees.org.ukand their address is The Mill Business Centre, Mill Hill, Gringley on the Hill, Notts DN10 4RA. thought you might find this of interest."