Gibraltar. There was an old Sherman tank to the rear of our crumbling block of flats. It served as the centre piece of a children’s play area. It was wonderful. Of course the tank’s open hatches had been welded immovable, and you couldn’t swivel the turret, or raise, or god forbid, fire the guns. But you could easily imagine the hatches closed, imagine the turret swivelling to its target, and imagine that the gun fired, and time and time again we soldier’s children would sit in the tank, passing radio messages to each other and bumping off passing vehicles and especially blasting to pieces the old ramshackle school bus as it trundled up the Europa Road
Around the rock there were dozens of old army store rooms and empty gun forts to explore and to play upon. On one occasion we discovered a subterranean store room full of Second World War steel helmets, hundreds of them. We raided it one Sunday afternoon, armed with mum’s shopping bags and lengths of washing line rope. We filled the bags with tin helmets, hauled them up from the subterranean buildings and took them off to our secret caves set in the rocks above the Europa road. There we fought pitched battles with imaginary Germans until we were called in for tea. The helmets would be carefully hidden in the caves for battles yet to be fought, next week perhaps, or after tea.
School was the Bishop Fitzgerald’s set on the edge of the town walls close to a cemetery which we were constantly told, held the bones of Admiral Nelson’s men. The school playground was on the roof and we ran wild and free under the Mediterranean sun, with the most stupendous views of the Navy yards and the great Royal Navy ships. Christian brothers ran the school with a rod of iron or more accurately, with straps of leather, which they applied generously to over exuberant boys.
Often, sitting in class on a drowsy morning, an ape would appear on a wall near by. It was so common that we hardly looked up from our books and if we did then the leather strap would be cracked across a desk to ensure it was but a glance we would steal. School finished at midday and we would rush off to the Nuffield Pool or Catalan Bay for a swim, making our way to the bay through long wet tunnels and climbing carefully down rickety steps.
They were always making films in those days and the bays seemed full of film stars dressed as sailors. They would throw explosives into the bay and we would swim out and collect the dead fish that always came up after the blast and which the film stars, or more probably the extras, would cook on the beach. Occasionally, in fact quite often, the whole school would be marched off to the Navy cinema to see one the films that had been made, The River Plate, The seas shall not have them, the Man with no name, I was Monty’s double, Sink the Bismarck, all black and white and terribly patriotic.
There was a regiment of Scottish soldiers on the rock at that time. Each year they held their annual games down at the sports ground near the Europa lighthouse. There would be Scottish sword dancing, tossing the caber, bagpipes and kilts. Running, leaping and lots of Scottish shortbread.
Occasionally we would go to La Linea in Spain. Perhaps to the Easter fair when there was roundabouts, neon lights and candyfloss, sometimes to a bullfight. The Spanish children were even poorer than we were, many barefoot and raggedy.
We were materially very poor, living in a terrible block of flats that served as married quarters, but which had the most wonderful views across the Gibraltar bay towards Spain. There was No T.V. but we grew to love the radio. In fact we had quite a large radio which was combined with a record player and set into a cocktail cabinet. Oh yes, we would often listen to the Goon show or the Navy Lark, drinking cocktails and eating our bread and dripping. But mostly we were out and about running free across the rock. Once, on a cool dusky Gibraltar evening, we raided, with my big brother Peter, the storeroom of an army cookhouse. We found great olive coloured tins containing dozens of packets of army hardtack biscuits and we moved them, unseen by adults or parents, to our secret Europa road caves.
The caves were dotted all over the rock and proved the most perfect playground for adventurous boys. There were no girls in those days. We would light them with candles stolen from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Often we would sit outside our caves, wearing our Second World War steel helmets, feasting on our hardtack biscuits and just watch the ships sailing into and out of the bay of Gibraltar. There was always an aircraft carrier or a destroyer or a submarine or a troopship retuning from the East and stopping off to pick up more troops and families before leaving for England. We would sit for hours watching in utter peace. It was during those times that I fell so deeply in love with Gibraltar, my dulcet rock. One day I shall go back. I know I shall be disappointed but I must, someday, return.
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