When I were a lad in Gibraltar….

shackelton over gibraltarWhen I were but a lad in Gibraltar the RAF had a squadron of Shackleton bombers. Quite big beasts that resembled the old Lancaster bombers of WWII and which had a deep throaty roar as they flew over the rock out to sea.
Down at Europa Point alongside the lighthouse there was a kind of ledge and from time to time the military, probably the Royal Artillery, would set up a line of anti-aircraft guns, six of seven of them, probably a whole battery of guns although I’m not sure how may guns are in a battery. We would watch them, had a grandstand view only a few yards from the ledge. They would practice drills for hours, loading, unloading, traversing, and cleaning gun barrels and running around with boxes of ammunition. In the afternoon one of the Shackleton bombers would appear far out to sea, flying high, North to South and towing behind it, on an enormously long rope, an orange target. And now the guns would open fire and there was a great cacophony of noise with men in tin hats running about with shells, loading the firing guns, more tin hats, moulded to the gun seats spinning little brass wheels and tracking the target,t and more tin hats with binoculars watching the target and shouting instructions. The poor orange target didn’t stand a chance and there was acrid smoke from the guns and it was really really exciting. Afterwards would come a NAAFI tea van, or maybe it was the WRVS and serve the soldiers large mugs of tea and huge white sandwiches, “wads” they called them and the soldiers would chat to us and give us a sip of tea


The Pleasures of Facebook – A photograph from WWII

I belong to this group on Facebook, Gibraltar Old photos 2 it’s called. It a nostalgia group whose members, mostly from Gibraltar,  post old photographs of life on and around and about the Rock. I lived there once and have many happy and treasured memories upon which I once contributed a piece to the site, some years ago, about being a boy in 1950’s Gibraltar. You can read it here. I still contribute to the site now and then, and to that purpose I was searching google for a film poster of a movie, made in Gibraltar in the early ‘60’s, staring Terry Thomas and called “Operation Snatch”. You need to be a bit careful what you type into google at times!

In my search I stumbled across this lovely old photograph the caption of which read “Gibraltar families returning to Gibraltar in 1945 after five years of evacuation during WWII”

I thought it quite an exciting find and duly posted it on the site. I was a little skeptical but the image came from an article by Neville Chipulina, a rather noted Gibraltar historian.

One of the endearing features of the Gibraltar old photos 2 site is that if you post any image of any person in any circumstances at any time over the past one hundred years or so then someone on the sit will know who they are, who their uncles and aunties are and the names of their children and what schools they went to and perhaps even the name of their godmother. It’s a small community on Gib!   So I was anticipating that the families in the photograph would quickly be identified.
Up popped Maurice Valentino who questioned the whole thing saying they don’t look like Gibraltarians at all!  Far too fair in completion. Someone else, Maruchi Golt, suggested they were obviously English families. And no one, no one at all, could identify anyone in the photograph, anyone at all.
Then come Earnest Falquero, one of the stalwarts of the site who referred us all to a post by one Alex Parnay who in turn, confirmed doubts that they were families from Gibraltar and confirmed too that the caption accompanying the photograph was completely wrong. And he disclosed to us the quite astonishing story behind the photograph. They were English families, survivors from a passenger ship torpedoed by German U-Boats!
laconiaresized1RMS Laconica was originally commissioned as an ocean-going luxury passenger ship for the Cunard line. With the outbreak of WWII she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and fitted with eight six inch guns and two three inch guns. She was put to duties as an armed merchant escort ship. Later still she became a troopship and was well known as such in both commercial and military shipping circles. She was deployed ferrying troops to the middle east and carrying prisoners of war back to Blighty. It is quite important to note that. Her military role, unlike that of the Lusitania, made her a completely legitimate target for the U-boats now awaiting her in the Atlantic ocean.
She left the port of Suez loaded with Italian prisoners of war, their Polish guards and many British service families. She steamed down the East coast of Africa, stopping at Durban where more British service families were taken on board, these being families who had escaped from Singapore as the Japanese defeated, overwhelmed and expelled the British from all their colonial possessions in the Far East. She then steamed out into the Atlantic and hundreds of miles to the west she turned North towards the equator and set course for England. She was doing 20 knots and taking a zig zag path to minimise the risk from German submarines.
She was now carrying 463 officers and crew, 80 civilians, 286 British soldiers, 1,793 Italian prisoners and 103 Polish soldiers acting as guards of the prisoners.

It was her smoke that first attracted the attention of U-boat 156.

It was to be a surface attack. In the darkness of the tropical night, at about 10 pm Captain Hartenstein, commander of the U-boat made his calculations as to distance and the time it would take for a torpedo to reach the ship which was now steaming fast and zig zagging at random. He unleashed a torpedo sometime after 10 pm and it struck the Laconia at 10.22. He immediately dived to avoid any possible counter attack. He would have watched from his periscope the explosion as the torpedo found its target below the ship’s waterline. There was no counter attack and he surfaced again and unleashed a second torpedo, this time hitting the forward starboard of the badly listing ship.. It was a successful attack on a known legitimate target and the Captain and his crew celebrated and watched the ship burn and sink. Then they heard the screams of the survivors and became alarmed for they were the screams of women and children.
He dived again and it is clear that for several hours there was a continuous and urgent exchange of signal traffic with Germany, probably on the enigma machines that each U-boat carried. Berlin advised that the Laconia was carrying Italian prisoners of war and ordered that they should attempt to rescue their allies. Hartenstein went well beyond his Berlin Orders. Or the laws of war at sea.

When he again surfaced, his crew began to rescue the civilians as well as the Italians. He took over a hundred survivors into the already crowded submarine, and another hundred or so on the top of the submarine. He collected together some four lifeboats and began to tow them in his wake, passing food and water to the survivors therein. He told Berlin what he was doing and his actions were not only approved by Admiral Donitz, he went further and ordered other submarines to assist Hartenstein in the rescue. And Vichy French forces in North Africa dispatched surface ships to meet the submarines at sea and transfer the survivors.

Red Cross flags were draped on the submarine decks and open signal traffic exchanged with the other boats making clear this was a rescue operation. Open Signals were sent to the British to the same effect, but were ignored, quite deliberately ignored by British forces available in the area and from British bases on the West coast of Africa. Hartenstein rendezvoused with another German Submarine and an Italian submarine and some of his survivors were transferred.laconia-2
He then continued to slowly steam towards another rendezvous with the Vichy French surface ships, his crew’s quarters packed with the civilian survivors, his deck full of even more and still towing four life-boats.

Then came the Americans. They had a secret airbase established on Ascension Ireland and a B-24 bomber was sent out to search for the now missing and lost RMS Laconica. They saw Hartenstein’s submarine, with its red cross flag and its life-boats in tow. And they attacked. Five passes, five bombs.bombing-of-the-laconia They killed over a 100 of the survivors in the lifeboats and Hartenstein was forced to clear the submarine of all remaining survivors and put them in the remaining lifeboats. He cut the tow lines and dived for safety. He kept on board some of the rescued military officers as prisoners of war.
The survivors were now, again, adrift in the Atlantic. But the Vichy French ships were coming and were searching for them and they were rescued again. This time they were taken to Casablanca and interned by the Vichy French who intended to hand them over to the Germans and have them transferred to Germany.
And now history threw its dice again. The survivors had been in internment by the Vichy French for some two months when, in November 1942 the Allies launched Operation Torch. The operation was commanded by General Eisenhower who set up his headquarters in Fortress Gibraltar. Sixty-five thousand Allied troops invaded French north Africa. They were to crush the Vichy French and to expel German influence from the Mediterranean area and advance toward Tunisia.
And the survivors were liberated!
The sources say they were taken by ship to America, for the Americans had provided the main invasion force of North Africa and some of her ships, now empty, had brought the invading troops directly from the American East Coast.
But this group, which Maruchi Golt on the Gibraltar Old Photos 2 site, described as looking “so happy” clearly came to Gibraltar from Casablanca.
They are pictured outside St. Bernard’s Hospital and it is reasonable to assume they had been for a check-up before being transported onwards to England. And of course, as Maruchi Glolt notes, they look so happy! They had survived the Japanese, survived being torpedoed, survived the sea, survived the Americans, survived the sea again and then, capture and internment. They had been rescued twice, once by the very U-boat that had sank their ship. And now they were safe. And on British soil! On Gibraltar. On the Rock. And sure, we can share in their joy and their happiness. Especially can Gibraltarians.
Of course, Facebook did not discover this story. There is nothing original here. The rescue is one of the most famous stories of World War II. There are several books on the incident and documentaries too. And the BBC ran a two-part television film dramatizing the story, written by the legendary Alan Bleasdale. So no one is claiming any Facebook credit for this story. No. What Facebook does, can do, is to bring such stories alive again; to refresh them, recall them, tell them to a new generation. Spark new interest, spread the word. It is one of the great pleasures of Facebook.

Some of those in the photograph are probably still alive. The infant in arms will be in his or her 80’s now. And perhaps some of the younger children still breath. It is certain that the children and the child survivors will be alive. They may even be on Facebook…….

Note: 1113 survivors were rescued. 1619 perished in the torpedo attack, most of them Italian prisoners of war, still locked in the hold as the ship was struck.

Note:  Capt Hartenstein’s submarine U-156,  some six months later was attacked by American aircraft and sank.  there were no survivors.

On being a boy in 1950’s Gibraltar

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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