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  1. Newstatesman Gibraltar
2 September 2015updated 05 Oct 2023 8:33am

Evacuation Commemoration Day: a concert and a background

On Monday 7th September Gibraltar has a bank holiday to commemorate the evacuation during the war. There have been other celebrations during the year.

By Guy Clapperton

As readers in the UK dry out their possessions after a positively drenched bank holiday, they’re gearing up for another one in Gibraltar. The best guess says the weather is likely to be better but more importantly the focus will be more precise. This Bank Holiday is in commemoration of the wartime evacuation, and in this, the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and the 75th anniversary of the evacuation itself, there will be a concert with music of the period and a free invitation to 700 former evacuees.

This is far from the only event that has happened on the Rock, however, to commemorate the evacuation. The theme has been running throughout the year.

Evacuation began 75 years ago on Monday when the first ship of evacuees on the official evacuation left for French Morocco. Women, children, the elderly and infirm were sent to safer places; in total some 13,495 people were displaced during the period. France fell to the Nazis so they moved back to Gibraltar and then on to Madeira, Jamaica, London and Northern Ireland.

The memorial events started with a memorial event at Casemates, the country’s biggest square, attended by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo. He used the event to announce the new bank holiday and predicted that on the day itself: “We will enjoy an event which will fittingly record the sacrifice of your forced evacuation and celebrate the success of what your triumphant return has represented.”

Other events followed. In May, for example, there was a film shown initially to a selected audience and later a wider group of people. In the same month there followed an exhibition of photography and images at the John Mackintosh Hall; this was successful enough for the government to make it available online here, so that anyone in the world who is interested and has a connection can view it anytime.

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It’s important to understand the effect the evacuation had on the development of Gibraltar. Quoted on the Gibraltar National Archive site, minister Dr. Joseph Garcia says: “The Evacuation of the people of Gibraltar was a landmark in the political development of our country. It was a traumatic event for those involved. Almost overnight, women, children, the elderly and the infirm were sent away from Gibraltar first to French Morocco and then onwards to Madeira, Jamaica, London and Northern Ireland.

“The experiences that the evacuees underwent and the sense of helplessness on the part of the men left behind on the Rock accounted in large measure for the demands for greater self-government that followed the War.”

There have been smaller events as well, which have been no less evocative to people who are becoming elderly now but who were among the bewildered children being sent to different countries at the time. Just under a month ago the Gibraltar Chronicle reported on the Care Agency’s Waterport Terraces Day Centre for the elderly’s celebration of the events, in which users of the centre sang songs appropriate to the time, looked at the photos taken and shared their memories. The photo exhibition moved to the centre for a while so that it could be shared with those who were actually there at the time.

The songs and background music are important. The concert on Monday will focus on hits by Dame Vera Lynn and the Andrews Sisters as might be expected, but the day centre also had music from Madeira and Jamaica with which evacuees became familiar during the war. All of this has added to the cultural makeup of Gibraltar as it stands today.

Quoted in the Chronicle, minister for social services Samantha Sacramento said: “It was clearly a very emotional day for many, but there was also much enjoyment as everyone recollected and shared memories as a group. Reminiscence work with elderly people is an important element at the Centre, and it was clear that everyone loved sharing stories, and even memorabilia that some still had with the rest of the group, staff and the team from the [Government] Archives Department.”

Monday’s concert will be the culmination of a lot of work by Dr. Garcia and his team. It will kick off with a performance from the Military Wives, visiting for the occasion, starts at 8pm and will have local performers as well. Entry will be free.