I joined the WRNS in the 1950’s and amongst other things served in Gibraltar on a number of NATO exercises.
Gibraltar this year is celebrating 300 years of British Rule following the capture of the ‘rock’ by British and Dutch forces in 1704. One of my WRNS newsletters said that the government of Gibraltar were proposing to invite ‘veterans’ who served on the rock to join their celebration of this event. I applied and was lucky enough to get two places and took Jan King, from Clacton Royal Naval Association, who had also served in Gibraltar. Apart from getting to and from Luton Airport everything was paid for courtesy Government House Gibraltar.
Monarch Airlines delivered us to Gibraltar on Sunday, where the airstrip is constructed to cross the two kilometres wide peninsular, from sea on one side to sea on the other! The whole of Gibraltar is only 3 miles long! We were met by a press photo call, our party consisting of 6 Chelsea Pensioners, 46 former soldiers and 4 WRNS. We were then driven to the ‘Retreat Centre’, our home for the week. The afternoons each day were to be for personal leisure.
That evening there was a Memorial Service at the Cross Of Sacrifice attended by the Royal British Legion. Afterwards dinner at the Chez Nous Restaurant and back to the Retreat Centre for 10.30 p.m. Here endeth the first day!
The rest of the week went in like fashion, a tour of the rock was organised including the main tourist sites such as the Jew’s Gate, St. Michael’s Cave, with its stalagmites and stalactites. A visit to the 100-ton gun, which made one glad not to be on the receiving end of its output! The Tercentenary Exhibition of 300 years of ‘Images of Gibraltar’ at the Casemates Exhibition Halls.
We went on a visit to the Trafalgar Cemetery where the Royal Naval Maritime Data Centre and the Gibraltar Community Service are refurbishing it as their Tercentenary project, to do real justice to those service men and women buried there.
From the Ferry Terminal we went on a Dolphin watching excursion by boat. Unfortunately though we were told that it is usual for parties to see dozens of Dolphins, we only saw one – and that part submerged!
This was followed by a visit to the Gibraltar Museum, where much of the history of the rock is displayed from past invaders: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Moorish, Spanish and British. Lunch as usual was an event in its own right. We ate at the ‘Ministers Restaurant’, the meal being hosted by the Gibraltar Regiment Association, who like everybody we met made us most welcome.
We had a guided tour of the Gibraltar Botanical Gardens. It is worth noting the almost tropical nature of plant growing in the open, which in Britain can only be described as greenhouse plants. They have the advantage of a mist that hangs over the rock, the Levante, which provides moisture to natural vegetation.
Afterwards we were guided to a Cable Car, then up the 1,400-foot high rock. When I served there, the only way up was to walk – how pleased I was to get in a cable car! For about two hours we walked some of the 32 miles of tunnels honeycombing it, added to during World War II.
The Barbary Apes, first introduced by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries are still resident; they are regularly culled to keep the numbers manageable.
One evening we watched re-enactment of the ‘Ceremony of the Keys’ performed by an organisation called ‘History Alive’. I have seen the ceremony at our Tower of London several times and there are distinct similarities. Later that evening the History Alive members had their dinner with us. Another event was a Ceremonial Guard Mount with the Royal Marine Band in attendance.
On the Saturday we all marched through the main street led by the Gibraltar Guards with the Chelsea Pensioners heading the column of veterans. We had union flags waving all along the route – it was very nostalgic.
Sunday was our last day, I just cannot believe a week could pass so quickly, but at least we had an evening flight! Attendance at various Church Services was catered for with transport to the Church of your choice. The Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned (RC), originally built as a Mosque in the 11th century and converted to Roman Catholic in 1462. The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (CoE), St Andrews Church of Scotland and the Wesley Methodist Church. It was typical of the courtesy extended to our party that thought was give to Sunday service, without attendance being part of any programme.
During the visit we must have eaten in every quality place on the rock. Over the week we 4 WRNS had made friends with 52 men and some of them were real comedians who had a joke for every occasion. I suppose they treated us with kid gloves but quite honestly we were with 52 real gentlemen! At one meal, just making conversation I asked one soldier what part of Britain do you come from? He answered St Osyth in Essex! I thought to myself – yes, I bet! Assuming he has found out where I live and was having a go at me, so I made some facetious remark, but he was serious! He did live in St Osyth and when I said Jan and I came from the same village he said straight away – I have got my car at Luton, I’ll give you a lift home!!
We had a Dinner at the Elliot Hotel hosted by a Government Minister who wholeheartedly welcomed all present and on another night were entertained with a Civic Reception at City Hall hosted by his worship the Mayor. This was an eventful evening with the fire alarm going off twice and the building being cleared twice, however we all had plenty to eat and drink!
What can I say to sum up the trip? The wholehearted welcome from Gibraltar’s population, who recognised us as the veteran visitors and treated us like royalty.
Of course underlying this celebration is the ongoing problem with Spain; a country that from time to time harasses people on the rock with embargoes of one sort or another. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity, but the treaty is a bit vague in places, but when you realise that at that time, America was still a British colony, you wonder just how far back the Spanish want to go! Could the Danes, the Huns and the Romans establish a claim, based on history, to have Britain returned to them!