A History of the Chipulina Family
Margaretha Ericson - Neville's Ghost

1940 Gibraltar was coping but the rest of Europe was getting nervous. Spain was no exception. She began to build machine-gun posts, a landing strip and gun emplacements, all within 20 miles of the Rock. They were supposedly defensive in character, but they were understandably viewed as thoroughly offensive by the Gibraltarians. Nevertheless, by the military standards of the day, they were not particularly threatening.

The German onslaught in Flanders and the Low Countries, however, did shake the Gibraltarians out of their complacency. If the German panzers ever reached the Pyrenees, there would only be Spain between them and Gibraltar.

The German Army entering Rotterdam in May 1940. The tank in the front is a Panzer Kpfw III.

Meanwhile Eric was busy building himself an armada made up of some of the most powerful warships of the British Navy. He had been dabbling in modelling replicas of ships for some time. Many of these were based on photographs from an old edition of Jane's Fighting Ships which his father had given to him as a Christmas present.

He used two basic approaches to make these miniature works of art. One was to carve out the various pieces such as the hull, guns, superstructure and so forth from a very light wood such as balsa. The other was based on layers of thin, stiff cardboard stuck together and trimmed to shape.

By cutting out small sections of the top two layers, recesses were provided for the secondary guns which the older 'dreadnoughts' often had on their sides. Decapitated pins were used for gun barrels and masts. The cardboard method was the more interesting but was also more difficult and required a lot of patience. It was particularly suitable for warships as these usually lay lower in the water than liners or cargo ships and therefore required fewer layers. A final coat of paint sealed the joints and made the model look as if it had been made out of a single piece.

A battered old edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships very similar to the one Eric used to make his models.

Eric's interest in modelling warships eventually petered out, but the aesthetic appeal which ships of all kinds had for him did not. As a young teenager he never thought of warships as instruments of death and destruction. Yes, he was interested in whether the ships had 6 or 8 inch guns, but the reality behind this never really registered in his mind. Anybody who has ever seen the ships of the old Mediterranean Fleet entering Gibraltar Harbour, their pale-grey hulls catching the early morning sun, would easily understand Eric's fascination with warships. Besides he was equally fascinated by merchant ships, especially ocean going liners, many of which used Gibraltar as a port of call in those days.

1940 By the beginning of that summer, German intelligence agents were already installed in houses along the seafront roads between Algeciras and La Linea: to such an extent that the area was dubbed 'Spy Row' by those in the know. Suddenly there was a sense of foreboding. At lunch one day, Pepe announced that he had bad news. A close friend of the family, Guy Carboni, who had recently qualified as a doctor and had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, had been killed while travelling in an ambulance. The phrase he used was 'blown to bits.' It was the first real whiff of the realities of war.

At the time, of course, Neville was happily oblivious of the momentous events which were taking place elsewhere and was far more interested in the wonderful new experience of being able to move around under his own steam. His parents had bought him a playpen. Eventually like most other children, he was soon dragging the thing along with him all over the place. To avoid accidents, little wooden gates were installed at the head of the staircase at 256. He would not be using his playpen for long.

On the 10th of May, Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister. Meanwhile that same day, in a more peaceful part of the world, Siv Margaretha Ericson was born in Torsby, a small town in the province of Värmland in Sweden. She grew up to detest her first name and always insisted on being called Margaretha. When Neville met her many years later he called her May. Apart from her family, it was the name by which most people knew her.

Margaretha Ericson one year old.

On the 21st of May the s.s. Gibel Dersa, a vessel normally employed in the Gibraltar-Tangier ferry service, set out from Gibraltar to Casablanca. The evacuation from the Rock of women, children and men not engaged in essential occupations, had begun. A few wealthy individuals with houses in Tangier made their own arrangements. The majority were taken to French Morocco as were the Chipulina family who were evacuated to Casablanca aboard the s.s.Mohamed-Ali-Kebir, an Egyptian vessel chartered by the British Government.

The s.s.Mohamed-Ali-Kebir. This is the ship that took the Chipulina family to Casablanca

The unfortunate phrase 'useless mouths' was often used in official documents to describe the evacuees. In Casablanca, the family stayed temporarily at the Hotel Excelsior in the Place de France while they looked around for a flat.

Casablanca.. A contemporary photo showing the Hotel Excelsior in the Place de France where the Chipulina family stayed temporarily.

They eventually found one in the Boulevard de la Liberté, an area where most of the shops were owned by Italians. It was in this flat, according to my mother, that an unusual experience took place.

Apparently Neville, who was nearly two years old at the time, was given to standing in the middle of a particular room of the house gazing into the middle distance. There he would stay for a while with an angelic smile on his face, murmuring the words,
'Nene . . . nene.' Lina later discovered that a little French girl had died in the room in question under mysterious circumstances. She put two and two together and came to the conclusion that Neville was having a conversation with the little girl's ghost. Although Lina (1.2) often retold the tale, the rest of the family remained singularly unimpressed by Neville's psychic powers.

In July, an evacuation order laid down that all women, other than those working for the forces, and all males under 17 or over 45 were to be evacuated. However, those men within the age group 17 to 45 who were not in essential services were allowed to leave if they so wished. A number of Gibraltarians took up the offer, By now the Mohamed-Ali-Kebir had made its last trip and the evacuation was complete. In total more than 13 000 people left their homes and about 4 000 stayed behind. By the 29th of August, having at last more or less dealt with all those 'useless mouths', the authorities proceeded to militarise the remaining useful ones. All those in the 18 to 41 age range became subject to compulsory military service. There was no general call-up since most of them were there because they were doing something that was even more essential than soldiering.

The Special Constabulary and the Auxiliary Fire Service became part of the Gibraltar Defence Force. This gave them military status and ensured that they would have to remain on the Rock. A number of part-time auxiliaries were trained in the use of Bofors and other types of guns. ARP and fire-watching was more or less on a voluntary basis. Top men in the public services were given nominal military rank, so that they would automatically come under military command if the situation became critical.

'Essential' par excellence were the skilled Dockyard men, not to mention the tug masters, pilots and drivers. In fact there were not enough of them to go round and as the war progressed, additional staff had to be brought in from the U.K. These were known as 'Agreement Workers' and could be identified a mile away as they went about off-duty with open collars spread out over jacket lapels in true proletarian style.

My father was one of those who stayed behind. For unknown reasons he sold or wound up his newsagents shop and took a job in the Manpower Office. Perhaps he reckoned that with a depleted population the business would not be worth the trouble. Curiously his cousin Antonio Sacarello thought otherwise and kept his shop open throughout the war. Perhaps the fact that he was so close to the 45 age limit bothered him. My father would surely have wanted to stay in Gibraltar; most of his friends were there. He also needed the money. The Manpower Office was definitely a wartime 'essential' department. By joining he overcame the 45 years rule. Whatever their reasons or their line of work most of the people who stayed on the Rock were ordinary folk facing a difficult situation as best they could. The worst thing they had to cope with was being separated from their families.

Among some of the more exotic characters who stayed behind was a gentleman called Brufal. He was the son of a Marquis who was said to be one of the many bastard sons of Alfonso XII.

Alfonso XII King of Spain. The son of one of his many bastard children was one of the more exotic characters that stayed behind in Gibraltar during the war. He looked like his grandfather.

Brufal served in the GDF and was reputed to have been the most unmilitary soldier in history. He was known locally as el tio Gora. Another was Mike Durante, a man obsessed with physical prowess. He joined the Canadian Tunnellers at the time when blasting was in full swing inside the Rock and was attributed with some incredibly barbaric feats of strength.

The real-life comedy duo of Cassar and Viotto also remained behind. Cassar was an animal of a man, the antithesis of Viotto who was tiny. The latter enjoyed nothing better than to sidle up to some unsuspecting British serviceman in a bar to take the Mickey. When the man eventually got aggressive he would immediately summon Cassar to deal with him.

1940 On the 10th of June Mussolini finally decided that there was little risk involved in attacking France, a country which was already virtually defeated, and the Chipulinas were treated to a series of nasty demonstrations outside the Italian shops of the Boulevard de la Liberte. A very French and very charming Madame la Concierge who lived on the ground floor of their apartment was disgusted by the attitude of the mob. There were also sporadic air raids and when the warning sirens began to wail the family had to scramble down to the basement below their flat for safety.

In Gibraltar the Italians attempted to scuttle six of their ships in the Bay of Gibraltar. Thanks to the efforts of the local tugs most of them were successfully beached and there was a minimum of disruption. On the 24th of June, France finally capitulated to the Germans. The Armistice, signed by Marshal Petain, left the French in nominal control of the south of the country and its colonies, including French Morocco. The French Government was established at Vichy and the evacuees in Morocco found themselves in a serious predicament. Yesterday's friends had suddenly become rather hostile neutrals.

Vichy France propaganda poster.

On the 3rd of July French warships at Alexandria and other British ports joined Britain. At Oran, however, where the main units of the fleet lay at anchor, there was indecision. The British, fearing that this powerful force might fall into German hands, despatched a squadron under Admiral Somerville to lie in wait off Mers-el-kebir. This battle group, which was known as Force H, was made up of some of the most powerful ships in the British Navy, including the battleships Valiant and Resolution, the battle cruiser HMS Hood, and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal.

Force H at anchor in Gibraltar Harbour. This impressive task force consisted of over 50 warships of varying sizes, including the battleships Hood, Resolution, Valiant and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal.

Somerville's ultimatum, join us or be fired upon, was refused by the French Admiral and the British Navy attacked. Among other casualties, the French battleship Bretagne blew up and 1 300 French sailors were killed. Whereas previously the evacuees had been looked upon merely with suspicion, they were now exposed to open hostility. The children were warned not to go out unnecessarily. One day when Eric was sent to the local baker to buy some bread he was embarrassed to find himself face to face with a huge propaganda poster which read: 'N'oubliez pas Oran!

Two days later Gibraltar had its first direct taste of war. It experienced three air raids within the space of twenty four hours. For the next few days several unidentified aircraft were spotted and the anti-aircraft batteries fired their first shots in anger. The Vichy Government claimed responsibility. It was, they said, a reprisal for the cowardly attacks on the French Navy. There were no casualties as all the bombs fell into the sea.

'N'oubliez pas Oran! The destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, Oran, Algeria. The above is an unknown artist’s impression of the event. One of those ships is the Bretagne. It blew up and 1300 French sailors were killed.

In Casablanca the French authorities were no longer prepared to tolerate British subjects as their guests. They ordered the evacuees to leave. That same day the Governor of Gibraltar informed London of the situation. The evacuees would have to be moved elsewhere but he was insistent that under no circumstances should the 'elsewhere' be Gibraltar. The War Cabinet, on the other hand, was equally adamant that it should not be the UK.

It was while these events and communications were taking place that some 13000 French servicemen were in the process of being repatriated from England. After Dunkirk, most of the French troops taken off the beaches had responded favourably to Charles De Gaulle's rallying speech to continue their resistance against Germany. The 13000 troops who were being repatriated were those who had chosen to toe the line of the Vichy Government. Obviously they could not be taken directly to France since her ports were either controlled by the Germans or within reach of her bombers. The nearest place to get rid of them was Casablanca.

Meanwhile the War Cabinet were still absolutely set against allowing the Gibraltarians to come to the UK. They ordered the Admiralty to ensure that the ships carrying the troops into Casablanca did so one at a time. No ship would be allowed into the harbour until the previous one had come out empty.

On the 9th of July, however, all 15 freighters carrying the troops entered the port in Casablanca. Commodore Creighton, the officer in overall command of the convoy, had been more or less forced to disobey the Admiralty's instructions by French naval vessels in the area. He was almost immediately informed by the Vichy Admiral in charge of the port that his ships were under arrest and would remain so until each had embarked 1000 of the evacuees.

Postcard of the Port of Casablanca