I was two years old when we were evacuated, and most of what I know about my family’s experience about the evacuation is from what my mother told me, and from my research. My family, like many others, was evacuated to French Morocco. In Casablanca we were accommodated in a shabby place called Luna Park. After a few days we managed to find better accommodation. When we were about to buy some household goods, the news got around that the Gibraltar evacuees had to leave French Morocco within twenty four hours.
A couple of weeks after returning to Gibraltar from French Morocco, we were evacuated to the UK. Being two years old entitled me to sail on the liner Athlone Castle, which was much larger than any of the cargo ships which sailed in convoys. However, for the sake of travelling in the same ship as my aunt and my three cousins, my mother and I opted to travel with them on a cargo ship.
We left for the UK on Tuesday 30th July 1940. Our cargo boat was the Brittany, and we were carried like the proverbial tinned sardines. Some of the evacuees said the cargo ships were more ready for the scrap yard than for anything else. The food on-board was revolting and my mother was seasick throughout the 16-day journey to Liverpool. As described in my book We Thank God and England, all the ports were under attack.
After landing, we went through a cleaning and disinfecting process and then placed in trains to take us to London. As soon as we arrived in London, I was diagnosed with measles and was immediately taken to a hospital. My mother had to look after my two brothers and couldn’t accompany me in the ambulance. It was quite a trauma for my mum!
The unfamiliar environment, the air raids, the climate and the separation between loved ones made it very difficult for the evacuees to settle down in London. On one occasion, when rushing to down the escalators in the underground, the blankets with which my mother was carrying me became entangled in the electric steps and we rolled all the way down. Luckily we didn’t get hurt.
After about a month in London the evacuation centre where we were accommodated – the Reglan Hotel, near Russell Square – was bombed. It wasn’t completely destroyed, but it was rendered unsafe and we had to be transferred to the National Hotel next door. As a result of the transfer, the National Hotel became overcrowded and some evacuees had to be sent to other centres. We were sent to Lancaster Gate where there were many anti-aircraft guns mounted. My mother used to say that the firing of these guns was unbearable. We stayed there for a very short period and then transferred to Whitelands College in Putney.
Shortly after arriving at Whitelands in May 1941, the bombing started to ease. By then many of the evacuees began to do their best to adapt to the new situation. Even then there was still the anxiety of not knowing how long the separation would last, and what would be the outcome of the war itself.
People helped each other and there was an atmosphere of companionship in case of difficulties. Shopping was mostly done in groups in order to make it easier to find goods, which were scarce. If any of the evacuees knew where to find these items they would tell other evacuees in the centres. There were also the bus routes to learn. On one occasion, my mother along with another evacuee got lost in the smog, but were soon directed by a policeman to the nearest bus stop from where they were able to get to Whitelands.
The Whitelands College was a beautiful place surrounded by open fields. Within the campus there were many apple and chestnut trees. Around the perimeter fences there were plenty of mulberries and strawberries. I remember getting all my clothes stained with the mulberries. There was a football ground where many evacuees from different evacuation centres played football. By then I was already three years old and remember attending the nursery and then my first years at school within the building. From my bedroom window, I recall watching the open fields where there were horses and people working in a nearby farm.
During air raids my mum never took us to the shelter. We sat in the corridor away from the windows. I remember that during the air raids, the window panes vibrated with the sound of the explosion of the bombs and shelling from the antiaircraft guns.
The shelter at Whitelands was underneath the tennis court, where if you stood right underneath, you could hear people playing. It was perhaps for this reason that my mother considered that the Whitelands’ main building offered better protection than the roof of the shelter. The other reason for not going to the shelter was that there was an elderly lady who was wheelchair-bound who lived with her daughter in a room opposite ours. My mother said that she felt sorry to leave this elderly lady alone with her daughter in the corridor when the rest of the evacuees had gone to the shelter.
On the 19th February 1944 in the early hours of the morning, Whitelands was hit by incendiary bombs. It was very cold as it was snowing slightly. I was nearly six when we learnt that the building had been hit. I remember that the corridor was very badly lit and there was a lot of smoke, but it didn’t take long to get out of the building. My mother covered me with blankets and placed me near a tree a good distance from the burning building. I distinctly remember that from the spot where my mother placed me, I could see the flames behind the bare branches protruding from the roof and some of the windows. In the meantime, my mother and my two older brothers went to salvage some of our belongings in the two rooms allocated to us.
After a very long while, an army type lorry arrived and took us away. I discovered from my research that many other evacuation centres had also been bombed during that same night. Fortunately, there were no casualties in any of the bombing incidents affecting the evacuation centres.
We were taken to a monastery at Lancaster Gate where we were given some hot drinks and then slept for the rest of the night. The next day we were taken to a place called the Camberwell Institute for the destitute in Peckham Rye. I recall that the building consisted of two large rooms with two rows of beds in each of the rooms, similar to a hospital ward in the old days. The rooms were lit with very small gas lamps fitted on the wall above the beds. I remember that out of curiosity, I touched the lit gauze in the lamp. The gauze was so fragile that it disintegrated completely. I also remember that my mother used to tell me that the bombing at Peckham was so intense that representations were made to the Ministry of Health to take us somewhere else.
We left Peckham Rye and were then transferred to the York Hotel just off Oxford Street. One afternoon when we are about to have tea, there was suddenly a huge explosion. All the windows were shattered and we found ourselves lying on the floor and the room full of dust. My mother, who had just gone out to get something to eat with the tea, came rushing back. During my research, I found out that the flying bomb had hit Goodge Street Station in Tottenham Court Road, killing one of the evacuees living at the York Hotel, Mrs Laura Fernadez (nee Sodi). Shortly after this flying bomb incident, our name came up on the notice board for repatriation.
I think it was about the end of June 1944 when we left London from Euston Station. We were waiting for the train when the air raid siren was sounded; we quickly took shelter in the nearby underground. After what seemed to me like an endless train journey, we arrived at Euxton, a village near Chorley in Lancashire. We alighted from the train and walked across a field to the huts where we were going to be lodged. The place consisted of rows of some sort of bungalows on the outskirts of the town not very far from the railway lines. Some of the evacuees, such as my mother, managed to travel to Preston for the shopping goods that could not be obtained in the village. We stayed there for a few weeks.
About mid-July 1944 we left Chorley by train bound for Glasgow. On arrival we were taken by bus to Greenock. Before boarding the ship, we were given something to eat in a place that looked to me like a hanger. I recall I had porridge with salt instead of sugar, as we normally have it. I must have been very hungry because I ate it all. We then embarked on the Stirling Castle when, well into the open sea, I remember seeing camouflaged war ships in the distance sailing in the same direction as our ship. I found from my research that the warships were the cruiser HMS Argonaut and the destroyers, HMS Wakeful and Wager.
Along the journey, a submarine suddenly emerged out of the water creating a lot of panic among the passengers. However, very soon the passengers were put at ease when it was known that the submarine was friendly. During the journey, there were the occasional drills to prepare for any eventuality that required the abandoning of the ship. Fortunately, the real need for this drill never materialised.
The Stirling Castle arrived in Gibraltar on Tuesday, 1st August 1944 berthing in the Dockyard alongside the three-legged crane. We remained on board until the next day. It was very hot that night and many of the passengers remained on the upper deck for most of it. Many of the children also remained on the upper deck, playing until very late.
After disembarking, the passengers were taken to their respective place of abode in army lorries. When the army lorry arrived at Main Street by the Cecil Hotel, there were a few men waiting for their families. One of these men came and lifted me from the lorry. I looked at my mum, who immediately exclaimed: “He’s your dad!”.
When we settled down in the hotel with our luggage, father took us to the Grand Hotel where he had ordered a special lunch for us. The dining table was dressed with a bowl of grapes and a sugar melon – ready sliced – capturing my attention, as I had never seen these fruits before!
From the special lunch at the Grand Hotel, I remember being visited at the Cecil Hotel by very close friends of my family. This family, just like my family, had also been repatriated earlier than other groups of evacuees when the war was still going on, and remember that there were lots of sailors and soldiers everywhere along Main Street.
Purchase Joe’s book We Thank God and England by contacting him on +350 54034345 or at [email protected] All proceeds are being donated to the Gibraltar Alzheimer’s and Dementia Society and the Gibraltar Mental Welfare Society.