When the war broke out in September 1939 it was thought by military experts and politicians that Gibraltar, like in the case during the First World War, was not going to be in the font line of hostilities. However, by May 1940 when Italy entered the war on the German side, it became clear that the war scenario was going to be very different to that of the First World War and that Gibraltar would have to play a major role. Given this, the British Government ordered the evacuation of women, children, the elderly and infirm to French Morocco. The main reason for this was that Gibraltar had to be converted in a fully-fledged fortress, which Hitler was planning to capture with Spanish assistance and if he had succeeded it would have changed completely the outcome of the Second World War.
Soon after the arrival of the evacuees in French Morocco, France capitulated and obviously the war had taken a turn for the worse for Britain fighting the war alone. The evacuation was discontinued when France capitulated on the 24th June 1940. As a result of this and the destruction of the French Fleet at Oran by the Royal Navy, the Gibraltar evacuees were ordered to leave French Morocco within 24 hours. Coinciding with the expulsion of the Gibraltar evacuees, 15,000 French troops arrived at Casablanca on British cargo ships from the UK. The French authorities in Casablanca threatened to impound these ships unless they took away the Gibraltar evacuees. The officer in charge of these ships, Commodore Creighton, pleaded with the French authorities for time to clean and replenish the ships with food and water. The request was flatly refused and the evacuees who were mainly women, children, elderly and infirm were forced on board with rifle butts by French troops standing along on the quayside There were many dramatic scenes with reports of women carrying babies and fainting in the heat of the with no food or water for about 24 hours.
Notwithstanding this, the British Government who had ordered the evacuation, did not want the evacuees to return to Gibraltar. At that point they had become effectively unwanted evacuees. However, Commodore Creighton ignored the instructions from the Admiralty and sailed to Gibraltar with all the evacuees. On arrival at Gibraltar the evacuees were not allowed to disembark. Again Commodore Creighton insisted that the ships had be cleaned and replenished with food and water for what was going to be a very long journey across the Atlantic. By then both the Italian and Vichy French forces were already bombing Gibraltar.
Eventually attempts were made to make the ships holds habitable, but facilities provided were extremely rudimentary with no medical facilities at all and with hardly any life saving equipment. They sailed out into the Atlantic, trying to avoid the U-boats, with just one escort ship. The main problem for all those onboard these ships was that of hygiene, many were seasick and water was strictly rationed. After six days it was discovered that all the provisions were inedible, due to poor storage conditions. Some babies were born and some died in the journey. To avoid the menace of the German U-boats, the ships had to circumnavigate across the Atlantic taking 16 days to reach the UK. Commodore Creighton who was in charge of this convoy stated in his book 'Convoy Commodore' that “If this convoy had been attacked, and it had only one very small escort, it could have resulted in one of the worst maritime disaster in history. Fortunately, there was no attack!”
Their ultimate destination was London at the time of the Blitz and when the Battle of Britain was in full swing. Other Gibraltar evacuees totaling 1500 and 2000 were taken to Jamaica and Madeira respectively. Those who stayed in London endured all the four years of bombing, including witnessing the V1 attacks with Gibraltar casualties. I was one of the many children who still have some memories of those terrible years in London.
At the end of the war half of total number of evacuees returned to Gibraltar to join their families. The remaining other half were to live for four years in Nissen huts in Northern Ireland to await their gradual repatriation. Many of these evacuees had to wait for as much as ten years since the beginning of the war to rejoin their families in Gibraltar. One thing that still not very clear to me is why were the Gibraltar evacuees taken to London when most of the British children were being evacuated to other places? The official answer given to this is that London was the only place where the British Government could provide facilities and cope with the administration of large group of people of the same culture.
During the war Gibraltar became extremely vital for the Allied forces particularly during Operation Torch. In a strictly fortress scenario there was no place for non-combatant people, which the military authorities came to categorized as “useless mouths” but co-operated fully in order to allow Gibraltar be occupied by Allied troops. Despite this the story is hardly mentioned in the books of history about the Second World War.
By Joe Gingell
I have been researching for the last six years the subject of the evacuation of the Gibraltar civilian population. Apparently very little is known about the plight of the 16,000 evacuees who were forced to leave their homes and face the separation of their loved ones. I would also like to take this opportunity to ask whether anyone can provide any photographs, which are not affected by copyright restrictions, about Mers-El-Kebir to enhance the presentation of my book and its historical value. Any photographs that anyone can provide will of course be credited and will count as a donation to this charitable project. I am a lay person and my research is being carried in conjunction with the local branch of Cancer Research UK and therefore of non-commercial nature. The aim is to publish a book for historical and cultural reasons in order to raise money towards cancer research charities. (Joe Gingell)