The German occupation of France meant that Britain had to review its attitude towards their old allies. France still had a large, modern navy and its main squadron was based on the coast of Morocco at Mers-el-Kébir, near Oran. Britain was determined that the French fleet should not fall into German hands. The Royal Navy’s Force H Commander, Sir James Somerville, gave the French forces at Mers-el-Kébir two options; either to surrender and scuttle (sink) their ships or join the British effort to defeat Nazi Germany. If they did not do so, the British threatened to attack and sink all the ships before they could be used by the Germans against them.
Crowds assembled at John Mackintosh Square on 11th July 1940.
When the French admiral refused to co-operate, the British fleet opened fire. A French battleship was sunk, two were badly damaged and more than 1,000 French sailors were killed. Three days later HMS Ark Royal arrived on the scene. She sank the French battleship ‘Dunkerque’, again inflicting a heavy death toll. British aircraft also attacked military facilities at Mers-el-Kébir.This incident enraged the Vichy French Government and the French Moroccan Air Force retaliated by bombing Gibraltar. One bomb landed on the Loreto Convent killing one of the nuns. Two other civilians were killed and eleven injured in other parts of the city. The French Government then demanded that all the Gibraltarian evacuees in Morocco should leave Casablanca at once.
Notice regarding accomodation in Casablanca.
This action led to a general protest strike and, as a result, shops were closed and workmen refused to
return to work. Mass crowds assembled in John Mackintosh Square (known then as the Piazza) and the tense situation threatened to turn ugly. A delegation led by City Councillors, Antonio Baldorino and Sam Benady, together with the president of the Exchange Committee (now Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce), Abraham Serfaty, went to plead with the Governor to allow the evacuees to disembark. They gave assurances that they would all return onboard once the ships were cleaned and properly refitted. Sir Clive accepted the assurances and allowed the evacuees off the ships thus diffusing a potentially explosive situation. The civilian population had survived a terrible ordeal, but for those who were to be evacuated to London, the nightmare had also just begun.
Destroyer Mogador running aground after having been hit by a 15-in round.
Nevertheless, even when safely aboard and returning home, the situation for the refugees did not get any better. With the first ships due to arrive, the Governor Sir Clive Liddell ordered that no evacuees would be allowed to disembark, fearing they would refuse to re-embark once the ships were cleaned properly. There were tense moments as Gibraltarian men rushed to the docks to try to get their loved ones out of the unsanitary ships, whilst British soldiers formed a picket line in order to prevent anyone disembarking.
Troop ship SS Thysville
Blackburn Skuas of No 800 Squadron Fleet Air Arm prepare to take off from HMS Ark Royal