‘We thank God and England…’
The little known story of the Gibraltar Evacuees by Gibraltar Resident Joe Gingell.
In May 1940 the women, children, elderly and infirm of the Gibraltar civilian population were evacuated on orders from the British Government. This documentary book consists of stories, anecdotes accompanied with more than 1,500 photographs related to the Gibraltar evacuees.
It also contains detailed references about their ordeal in French Morocco, their re-evacuation to the United Kingdom, Madeira, Jamaica and how they lived in these places then their subsequent repatriation including the prolonged stay and controversial repatriation of those evacuees who were sent to the camps in Northern Ireland.
When the Low Countries were overrun in May 1940 and Italy entered the war on the German side in June 1940, it became clear that the war scenario in Gibraltar was going to be very much different to that of the First World War. Given this, the British Government ordered the evacuation of women, children, the elderly and infirm to French Morocco – the nearest then Allied country. The main reason for this was that Gibraltar had to be converted in a fully-fledged fortress, which Hitler was planning to capture with Spain’s assistance.
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 who was by then fighting the war alone. The evacuation of Gibraltar evacuees to French Morocco was discontinued and those who were already in French Morocco were de facto living in enemy territory.
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 who had given up the fight against Germany were arriving at Casablanca on British cargo ships from the UK. The French authorities in Casablanca threatened to impound these ships unless they took away the Gibraltarian 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 sun 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 the 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 to 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 air forces were already bombing Gibraltar. Eventually attempts were made to make the ships holds habitable, but the 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 assisted by the evacuees themselves. For some elderly people for which the strain must have been too much, died in the journey and had to be buried at sea.
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, it could have resulted in one of the worst disaster in maritime history. The ultimate destination of the Gibraltar evacuees was London at the time of the Blitz and when the Battle of Britain was in full swing.
About 13,000 Gibraltar evacuees lived in London during the war enduring all the four years of bombing, including witnessing the V1 attacks with Gibraltarian casualties. Other Gibraltar evacuees totaling 1,500 and 2,000 were taken to Jamaica and Madeira respectively.
All proceeds from this book go to Charity. At the moment, the only place where copies can be obtained is from the Gibraltar House,150 Strand, London, WC2R 1JA.