Gibraltar was the only part of Britain or overseas territories that experienced the wholesale evacuation of civilians in World War II. By this time the German ‘blitzkrieg’ offensive was well underway and unstoppable; by early April 1940, Denmark had been overrun and in May the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg) had also been forced to surrender after just four short days of resistance. The lightning attack by German forces trapped almost the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Dunkirk and the military situation was desperate. However, the vast majority of BEF, almost 340,000 men, managed to escape and were miraculously evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches. It was hailed as a victory by the British press and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, undeterred, vowed to fight on. However, despite Churchill’s defiance, the reality was very different; at Dunkirk the British had left behind the majority of their tanks, vehicles and equipment. They had saved their army but had little to fight the might of the German army with.
SS Gibel Dersa.
Worse news was to follow. A few days later Norway surrendered. In the same month Italy entered the war, allies with Germany. In June Paris fell, forcing France to sign an armistice with Germany. The whole of Europe, with the exception of Britain, had capitulated within a few weeks of fighting. Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany believed, quite rightly, that Britain was too weak to fight on alone and would soon seek a conditional surrender. In just over two months the war seemed almost over with a German victory in mainland Europe inevitable.
Meanwhile, the Governor of Gibraltar, Sir Clive Liddell, had begun evacuating all the families of British servicemen home by sea. It was feared that Hitler, with the agreement of Spain’s General Franco, would soon launch an attack to capture the famous Rock, which now stood as the last remaining British outpost in continental Europe. It was therefore decided that the whole civilian population of the Rock were also to be evacuated. The Governor decreed that in the event of an attack ‘the fortress comes first’ and the civilian population were disrespectfully referred to as ‘useless mouths’ by the military authorities tasked with preparing the defence of the Rock. It was felt that the continued presence of civilians would only hamper the defence of the fortress should the expected German attack ever materialise. The Gibraltarian men, however, were to stay put as the Governor expected them to help defend their homeland from the expected German invasion. It was this decision that directly led to the formation of the Gibraltar Defence Force (GDF), the forerunner of the present Royal Gibraltar Regiment.
Italian War poster showing a bombing raid on Gibraltar (1942)
With Spain still recovering from the effects of a bitter civil war and with the country’s new Dictator General Franco, on friendly terms with the Axis Powers, being evacuated to Spain was not an option the civilian population would consider, even though Britain had tried to convince Franco to do so. The women and children were to be evacuated to Casablanca in French occupied Morocco, a British ally, instead. The first group left aboard Bland’s Gibel Dersa on the 22nd May 1940. An Egyptian ship, Mohamed Ali El Kebir, was hired to help. The evacuation was completed before the end of June. Just a few weeks later, the Mohamed Ali El Kebir was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sunk. With hindsight, the decision to evacuate the civilian population to Morocco would prove to be the wrong one, but few could have guessed it at the time. As the last evacuees arrived in Morocco, the French Government surrendered. Morocco was now under the control of the Vichy French Government which now answered to Nazi Germany. The 13,495 evacuees quickly found themselves in unfriendly territory and unfolding events elsewhere would soon put them in even greater danger than anyone could have ever imagined.
Evacuee articles or evacuation
Gibraltar Chronicle reporting families leaving for Morocco.