Ballymena landscape: Gibraltar evacuation WWII. Photo Credit: Danny Joyce Photography
Northern Ireland

Gibraltar: How Northern Ireland Took In Evacuees From The Rock In World War Two

World War Two evacuation camps: Some evacuees married in them. Some children were born in them.

Ballymena landscape: Gibraltar evacuation WWII. Photo Credit: Danny Joyce Photography

When plans were made by the military to turn Gibraltar into a fortress in the 1940’s, thousands of civilians were relocated from the Rock to different parts of the world.

Some were sent to Jamaica and some went to Madeira but the majority ended up in makeshift camps in Northern Ireland.

Gibraltar was not only considered a gateway to the Mediterranean for operations by the Allied Armed Forces, particularly the Royal Navy, but there were fears that German-leaning Francisco Franco would allow German forces to invade The Rock via Spain.

Almost the entire population of the British Overseas Territory were uprooted and relocated during the evacuation to ensure their safety and to make way for the Armed Forces.

Some were sent to Jamaica and some went to Madeira but the majority ended up in makeshift camps in Northern Ireland.

Many evacuees made new lives and forged new relationships during their time in Northern Ireland.

Some found love and married in the camps.

Some were born there.

The encampments were situated in rural areas and the location population are said to have been supportive to their new refugee neighbours.

The camps housed Nissen huts and red brick buildings that had been constructed earlier in the war by American GI’s, who arrived in Northern Ireland in 1941 for training ahead of the North African campaign and the D-Day landings.

By 1944, many of their camps were empty or underused so it was decided that these bases would be used to house the civilians from Gibraltar who had initially been evacuated to London but who later found themselves at risk from V1 Flying Bombs as the German bombardment hit the capital.

The camps in Northern Ireland were cold, damp and poorly equipped - especially for winter living.

They were only meant to be a temporary measure - but many Gibraltarians were still living in the Ballymena area as late as 1949.

Some didn’t make it home. Maria Sheriff had been evacuated from Gibraltar to London early in the 1940’s, but as the bombs rained down on London it was considered unsafe and she was moved on to a camp in Northern Ireland in 1944.

Maria died of a heart attack in 1945 and she was buried in a Ballymena cemetery.

Her grave was unmarked and remained that way until 2018 when her granddaughter located the plot with some local help from the Ballymena Lions Club.

The remains of some of the camps can still be seen to this day, especially what’s left of “Camp #8” also known as Dunaird, near Broughshane in the Ballymena area of County Antrim.

Scott Edgar, editor of digital magazine WartimeNI which tells stories of Northern Ireland in the Second World War, said: “Gibraltar was evacuated in 1944 by the British military who wanted to take it over as a base, somewhere central in Europe where they could easily fly in and out of.”

Speaking to Tony Rodgers, of BFBS Northern Ireland, Mr Edgar added: “So they basically put everyone who lived on the rock into ships and dispersed them throughout the world.

“A lot of them went first to London but with the Germans bombing London quite heavily still in 1944, it was decided to move them out around the UK and other places to somewhere more rural.

“One of the places that they chose was Broughshane just outside Ballymena.”

The aftermath of the evacuations not only had an impact on the people who were uprooted but also on their families in the following generations.

Elizabeth Carroll is one of those people for whom the story of the Gibraltar evacuation is a particularly powerful meaning.

Her parents Angela (nee Sene) and Ernest Lara met in the camps after arriving in 1944.

A year later they were married, with parish records and local newspapers of the time recording the marriage.

Those records delighted Elizabeth and her family when they contacted the Ballymena Parish in 2007 to help furnish them with information as they planned a celebration for their mother’s 80th birthday with a visit to Ballymena that year.

Breda Waterson, who works for Ballymena Parish, recalled how she had helped trace some of the family’s history after Elizabeth reached out to her – a story now on the Ballymena Parish website.

Breda said: “She told me that both her parents had been in the camps.

“They were from Gibraltar and they had been in camps here, and she asked me, ‘did I know anything about them?’

“I’d never heard of them before, so then I did a wee bit of research and I contacted the council, they said ‘yes, there had been camps here and they had put plaques up I think in 1997, but they didn’t know where they were.”

Breda discovered details of the wedding in the parish records, including details of how the couple’s wedding bouquet, delivered to the couple on the morning of their marriage, was provided by County Antrim dignitary Lady Sylvia O’Neill.

She then took a camera out to explore more about the areas where the camps had been.

Gibraltar evacuation. Slemish, a local mountain which dominates the landscape where the Ballymena evacuation camps were located. Photo Credit: Danny Joyce Photography
Slemish, a local mountain which dominates the landscape near to where the Ballymena evacuation camps were located. Photo: Danny Joyce Photography

She said: “I went out and drove around Broughshane to find the plaques and did some detective work to find where the camps were.

“It turned out it was going to be her mummy’s 80th birthday, Elizabeth’s mother, and she had been Angela Lara in the camp and she met her husband Ernest Sene and they got married in the camp and they were the first wedding in the camp.

“So I went to the library and did a lot of research and discovered that Lady O’Neill had provided her wedding bouquet.

“So I also went to the library and I got the original papers of the day and this picture of the wedding.”

Elizabeth, recalling the visit 13 years ago, said: “I said ‘mummy we’re going away for a few days but it’s a surprise and we’re not telling you where we are going.

“She was very excited. When we were settled in the plane and the air hostess said ‘and now our flight to Belfast’ she said ‘where are we going, are we going to Ballymena?’

“We said, ‘yes’ and she just burst into tears.

“It was a very emotional journey.

“She showed us the place where our father bought his suit for the wedding.

“Obviously the shop doesn’t exist but she remembered the place.

“Breda was wonderful, she had planned so many things for us.

“We went to the library, we read up on the old newspapers, we went to the camps.

“To see my mother’s face and my mother is 93 years old now, she’s in hospital and she’s not very well, but to see my mother’s face during that time we were there, it was just wonderful.”

Remains of one of the Gibraltar evacuation camps in Ballymena Northern Ireland
Remains of one of the Gibraltar evacuation camps in Ballymena Northern Ireland

Albert Poggio OBE, a Gibraltarian businessman and political consultant, was born in an evacuee camp in Ballymena in 1945 and he told of how he made a return visit to his birthplace 70 years later in 2015.

Speaking from the BFBS Studio in Gibraltar he told how his parents, like many evacuees, had a difficult time adjusting to their new life during wartime but that the people of Ballymena made that experience more bearable.

He said: “The Gibraltar population were evacuated to make space for the Armed Forces and they were taken to London.

“So I’m told, when the flying bombs arrived in London, they were dispersed again.

“Some of the Gibraltarians were sent as far afield as Jamaica, some went to Madeira but the majority went to Northern Ireland.

“They accepted the life as it was.

“I mean they found the climate obviously to be a problem for them after coming from Gibraltar but they found it very pleasant, they thought the people were very, very friendly – I remember them telling me that.

“People were very friendly and very helpful. They clubbed together to make the evacuees as comfortable as possible.”

More than 15 camps sprang up around the Ballymena and Broughshane areas of County Antrim, County Londonderry and County Down – forging a lasting bond between the people of Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.

To cement that bond further, the Borough of Ballymena and the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar were officially twinned in 2006.