Frontline Gibraltar: The Evacuation of the Rock
Gibraltar is a thriving British Overseas Territory, situated at the gateway to the Mediterranean. The local population is a multicultural blend of Maltese, British, Moroccan, Genoese, Jewish and Spanish cultures who can be heard speaking a distinctive Anglo-Spanish dialect known as Llanito. Gibraltar enjoys one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the world, with the local economy supported by bunkering and a booming online gambling industry. Students study at universities, primarily within the UK, for free, with most living expenses subsidised by the local government. An extensive government housing programme means very few Gibraltarians are homeless.
The importance of individual and community rights within Gibraltarian culture can be traced directly to the Second World War, when the territory was almost entirely depopulated by the British to make way for military fortification. The experiences of the evacuated population, who were ferried between three continents throughout the conflict, form the bedrock of modern Gibraltarian culture and politics.
Having been invaded by the Moors in the fourteenth century, surrendered to the British in 1704, and besieged by the Spanish and French in 1782, Gibraltar is no stranger to military conflict. In each of these instances the civilian population endured, with the siege of 1782 on record as the longest in British military history. Gibraltarians were relatively unaffected during the First World War, but the all-encompassing nature of the Second World War did not overlook La Roca.
The involvement of fascist Italy in the conflict meant that the Mediterranean, and control of it, was a key aspect of British strategic policy. This was exacerbated following the Italian invasion of British territory in North Africa. The need for a military staging post in the area led to a declaration by the British in June 1940 that all women, children and elderly people in Gibraltar were to be evacuated to French Morocco. The British assessed that the presence of a civilian population would impede the productivity of the base, which was to be expanded for use by the RAF and Royal Navy. Therefore, without significant deliberation, 13,500 Gibraltarians were escorted onto boats away from their homeland.
The situation in Morocco soon became untenable. The capitulation of France, following which French territories in North Africa were governed by the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime, saw the evacuated Gibraltarians living in enemy territory. This situation turned to hostility following an incident at Mers-el-Kebir, in which the British attacked the French Fleet to prevent its use by Axis powers. The evacuees were forced out of Casablanca as a result, and were herded by rifle-wielding French soldiers onto ill-equipped British ships. Return to Gibraltar was impossible as fortification of the territory was in full swing. Indeed, an airfield had been constructed, and the Rock of Gibraltar itself had been extensively fortified with miles of tunnels, hospitals, power stations and barracks. A return of the civilian population would risk compromising these extensive strategic developments.
As such, despite protests from the fatigued evacuees, the transport ships navigated the Atlantic warzone to Britain. Had the transports been attacked, one British Admiral claimed it would have been the worst maritime disaster in history. Most evacuated Gibraltarians remained in London throughout the war, where they would endure the worst of The Blitz.
Exposure to the English language and the western world would profoundly impact the evacuees. Pre-war, the Spanish language was used both in education and within the most popular newspaper of the day – ‘El Capense’. Western exposure, as well as participation in Britain’s war, led to a distinct anglicisation of Gibraltarian culture.
The success of the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa, in which Gibraltar had played a key role, negated any realistic possibility of invasion or attack of the territory. This prompted calls for repatriation, but the civilian population were still regarded as a potential nuisance by the British. Gibraltar retained its strategic importance, and Britain hoped that dominance of Mediterranean commerce and the associated Suez Canal zone could help it cling on to great power status post-war. Moreover, many homes had been demolished to facilitate militarisation, and an extensive homelessness crisis was feared should the evacuees return too soon. As such, the return was delayed. Many were moved to camps outside of Belfast, within which conditions were said to be appalling. Over 6,000 evacuees remained within camps such as these by the war’s end, with the last Gibraltarian returning home in 1951.
Having been denied basic human rights and exiled from their homeland, Gibraltarians developed a shared social consciousness. Along this vein, the Association for Advancement of Civil Rights (AACR) was established by Joshua Hassan and Albert Risso. The AACR called for improved working conditions and access to healthcare under the slogan ‘with Britain, not under Britain’. It is no coincidence that the AACR’s rise to prominence coincided with the rise of Attlee’s Labour Party in Britain, who were elected on a manifesto broadly comparable to that proposed for Gibraltar. Gibraltarians returning from London had been exposed to the grievances of the British working class and could see these issues reflected within their own society.
Demands for access to free education, healthcare and government continue to form the basis of modern Gibraltarian politics. This focus on Gibraltarian rights forms one of two key components of Gibraltarian culture, alongside the commitment to partnership with Britain. Both were undoubtedly shaped by the experiences of those evacuated from their homes during the Second World War.
- Constantine, S., Community and Identity: The Making of Modern Gibraltar Since 1704
- Finlayson, T.J., Gibraltar and the Spanish Shadow
- Finlayson, T.J., The Fortress Came First: The Story of the Civilian Population of Gibraltar during the Second World War
- Gingell, J., ed Beiso, D, We Thank God and England
- Jackson, W.G.F., and Cantos, F.J., From Fortress to Democracy: The Political Biography of Sir Joshua Hassan
- Photos; Cover Photo: www.gbc.gi/news/75th-anniversary-wwii-evacuation-be-commemorated-next-month; The Rock Image: WikiCommons