LEFT BEHIND – World War II: Gibraltar’s finest hour

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“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

These were the words of Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on 4th of June 1940 following the Allies’ declaration of war on the Nazis.

During the war, Gibraltar was a hive of activity and a pillar of strength from where to focus operations on the Allied Western Front. Its strategic position at the mouth of the Mediterranean served as a bottleneck controlled by the Allies where they effectively blocked any German naval reinforcements to the Med and prevented any attempts by the Italian navy to reach the Atlantic.

As from the early 1940s, practically the entire civilian population was evacuated, leaving essential staff and military men behind who were to be joined by tens of thousands of soldiers from across the British Empire and beyond over the course of the war. Ready to dig in and use the Rock as a giant fortress, the British established a permanent airfield and began an ambitious feat of engineering to extend Gibraltar’s seven miles of Great Siege tunnels to eighteen miles. Within the tunnels, a small military village was created, complete with barracks, ammunition storage, food storage and even a fully equipped modern hospital.

Needless to say, the Rock would prevail and, as the war developed, it became the Headquarters and staging area for Operation Torch, the Allied landings of Vichy French North Africa. The military personnel in Gibraltar would skyrocket from a garrison of 16,000 to over 100,000 troops. Over 400 aircraft were deployed, ranging from small fighters to transports. In November 1942, General Eisenhower arrived in Gibraltar and was the only non-British commander of the Rock. Three days later Allied troops landed in Morocco and Algeria to counter the advance made by the Nazis through the highly decorated military tactician, General Erwin Rommel.

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John Sciacaluga is 101-years-old but still has a mind as sharp as a steel trap. A hero by anyone’s standards, John is a local legend for having served on the Rock during World War II. Nowadays, he often heads down to the local Senior Citizens Club, sits in his favourite spot beside the entrance where there is a slight breeze and nurses a brandy as old friends gather to listen to his war stories. He was an anti-aircraft gunner at the former coastal fortifications of Napier of Magdala Battery on the south-western cliffs of the Rock where the 100-ton gun now lies, “The first thing that I thought when war was declared was how long would it last and how much would it extend around the world. What was the purpose of the war? Why did Germany invade Poland? What was the point of this?” he said before wetting his lips with his freshly poured golden brown brandy. “Because I was in Gibraltar, it did not affect me as much (the Rock saw little action during the war, but was not devoid of it), but I thought a lot about those (evacuated Gibraltarians) in London and those who needed to take shelter from the bombs. Luckily, England had a major Air Force that was able to counteract the Germans. It was very unjust of Germany to invade the whole of Europe in order to extend their territory.”

John and his fellow comrades were always fearful of a Nazi attack on the Rock, which never came, but plans were made at the highest level when Hitler personally commissioned ‘Operation Felix’ to overwhelm the defensive fortress. The German war machine suffered severe losses in ‘Operation Barbarosa’ in Russia, which, fortunately for those in Gibraltar, led to the abandonment of the plans.

Princess Anne's Battery
Princess Anne’s Battery

The Vichy French Air Force conducted several raids on the Rock with the first coming as a retaliation to the British fleet bombarding the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir, sinking one battleship and damaging several others. On July 14th 1940, the French Air Force attempted to bomb the ships in the port but most of them fell short and no damage was recorded, “We saw them coming, but we also had surveillance on the top of the Rock, so they were spotted early. They passed on the word to the anti-aircraft crews, including myself, that the planes were seen with French colours, not German. They sent around 100 planes to attack the Rock, but no bombs landed anywhere of significance because of the configuration of Gibraltar and the trajectory from which they came from Morocco. It was very difficult to hit the Rock coming from that side. Had they come the other way, it is likely that some could have landed on us, but as it turned out, they were unable to achieve anything from this attack.” John described the scene with sirens blaring calling the gunners to their stations and he could hear the sputtering of the aeroplane engines as they approached. The gunners were ready for them and were excellently well drilled in their station, comfortable in the knowledge

Searchlights on the Rock of Gibraltar, 1942
Searchlights on the Rock of Gibraltar, 1942

that there were anti-aircraft guns littered around the Rock supporting them, “We remained very calm as we were expecting a raid and were very well prepared. We had guns on the upper Rock and Napier Battery had four anti-aircraft guns waiting for them. All the guns we had were to attack low flying planes. We fired constant barrages of ammunition to take them down but they were too high up. In order to hit our battery, they would have needed to descend to our range. They decided not to, probably because it was too dangerous for them. We were ready for them.”

John described the relationship between Gibraltarians and the British military personnel as one where they ‘had to get along no matter what’. After all, this was for the defence of the Rock, a British colony at the time and an icon of importance. Who knows what kind of psychological effect losing Gibraltar to the Nazis would have had on the Allies, not to mention the opening of the gateway to the Mediterranean falling into Axis hands, “Naturally, we had to get along well together for the defence of the Rock. There was never any animosity, only friendship all throughout the war. We had to talk about something and each day we tried to keep it fresh. We talked about ourselves, education, the war, our condition, how long it would last and our families of course. We had no choice but to get along and work together. There were numerous false alarms where we still rushed to our posts and were ready for anything. These were terrifying times and a possible invasion from Spain by the Germans was always a risk. We were well aware of this and it was a very bad time.”

Nissen hut in World War II tunnels inside the Rock
Nissen hut in World War II tunnels inside the Rock

John and his fellow gunners were kept up to speed on operations taking place around the world through radio and television on a day to day basis. When the tide began to turn for the Allies and it was clear that the Nazis were on the run, the sense of optimism around the Rock became buoyant. “You cannot imagine the elation we felt. We knew that the war would be over soon and we were struck with immense confidence in ourselves and our allies. Best of all, we knew that soon all our families would return home from all corners of the British Empire. When the Japanese surrendered following the atom bomb strikes on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the wheels were in motion for peace, “We saw these reports live on television. It was quite a scene with all of us crowded around this little box and there were big cries of celebration as we embraced one another. It was the greatest of relief. It was natural to have a drink because the threat was finished with. Everything must come to the end and so did the war.”

It wasn’t too long before the evacuated population returned and, in John’s case, his mother and sister returned from sheltering in San Roque with other family members, “I was elated to see my family. My mother and sister were in San Roque because we had family there, so they went there during the war, but when it was over, they returned home. Everything is in the past now.”

Returning evacuees
Returning evacuees

John was awarded with a veteran’s medal for serving in Gibraltar during the war which he holds in the highest regard and acts as a stark reminder of the atrocities of war. Although he doesn’t consider himself a hero, far from it actually, John has earned the respect of his peers and the whole community for the sacrifice he and others made to defend their homeland.

“I am very proud of the medal and I wear it still on special occasions. Now, I spend a lot of time on my balcony. I have a glass of wine and a cigar as I look out over the bay of Gibraltar (no longer packed to the brim with military war ships apart from the odd one or two visiting for repairs or training operations) and it is very quiet and relaxing ‘eso es lo que hay’ (that’s how it is). Everything has passed now, thank God, and we are now at peace.”