The People of Gibraltar
1943 - Journey to Gibraltar - Robert Henry - The Rock Hotel


Southport Gates - Trafalgar Cemetery on the left, sunken garden on the right    (1940s postcard - detail)   
If you pass through South Port Gate you will find a sunken garden on your right, and the Trafalgar Cemetery on your left, which is the resting-place of the victims of the great yellow fever epidemic in 1804 many tombstones hearing the names of young officers in their very early twenties, and this is where the road forks, one branch leading down to the dockyard, and the other climbing up the Rock, past the Rock Hotel, built against its flank, above the Alameda Gardens and the barracks square, a reminder of the days when wealthy people visited Gibraltar for a night or two during luxury cruises on fine white liners.  
The Rock Hotel is one of the most beautiful in Europe, and seems a little out of place in a fortress, where austerity is synonymous with security. The hotel is a long three-storied building, with bays and a flat roof, and two sturdy white flagpoles. The facade is camouflaged with painted tree trunks, but it retains a natural lightness because of its verandas and green window shutter.
The Rock Hotel   (Lucien Roisin postcard)
It is reached from the road by steps or by a steep ramp, and mignonette and jasmine climb all over its terraces, and the gardens are filled with geraniums and roses and carnations. Idle chatter and feminine laughter have disappeared from its hall, and the springs of the chintz arm-chairs in the ladies’ salon have been broken by muscular officers who let the whole weight of their bodies sink into them to rest weary limbs after a hard climb up the road.  
It is an hotel where there is never an empty room, and where you must have authority from the right quarter to take up residence or even spend a night, and where a woman guest makes quite a sensation amongst its clientele of naval, air force, and military officers; but when one is lucky enough to admittance the atmosphere is almost club-like, and the view enchanting. Most of the rooms have balconies, on which you may sit after dinner watching the great ships in harbour, and the little ships fussing round them, and aeroplanes roaring over the mole while the sun is shining behind Algeciras. 
This scene is ever changing, and moves as rapidly as a film, and it is laid out for one’s benefit at the feet of the exotic Alameda Gardens, from which, in spite of dockyard smoke, comes the sweet perfume of mimosa.  You may see anything here - sometimes it is a battleship, or an aircraft carrier, or a submarine, or a transport that has just come from home; or all these wonders may be in harbour at the same time. As soon as it is dark Algeciras blazes like fairyland, and often you may see a dark red glow in the forests where woodmen are making charcoal.

Alameda Gardens with a view of the Humphries Buildings (L. Roisin - 1950’s postcard)
My room was small, but it had what the hoteliers like to call every modern comfort, and its cream-coloured walls and gay chintz curtains gave an illusion of coolness during the heat of the day. There was a little black and ochre table, which also made a writing desk, and on which the Spanish housekeeper each morning deposited a huge bowl of flowers she had herself cut in the gardens before breakfast. She brought them in with a gracious good morning, teaching me the names of these flowers I did not know, for, besides the mimosa and the jasmine, the roses and the carnations and the heliotrope and the wisteria, there were the pink or white oleanders, with dark green narrow-pointed leaves.  
There was the hibiscus, that looks like a dancing girl wearing a flaming red dress - a red that is so vivid, and yet se perfectly lovely that only nature can paint it, a red that makes you gasp in astonishment and admiration and envy that no satin can imitate it, and rising from the centre of the five large petals and surpassing them by nearly an inch is the body of the dancer, with her head and corsage of gold shimmering from unseen threads. There was the pomegranate also, that at this moment was in the process of turning from flower to fruit. The five tiny pink petals with a heart of gold grew out of a red bowl that seen turns brown, swells and becomes the fruit. These flowers made a garden of my room, but by evening they were dead, and it seemed as if the heat stifled them indoors. 
My bed was not one of these ugly things of iron, but a small divan, with a Basque linen cover and there were mirrors and cupboards in plenty, and the sight of the bay with its stupendous activity was the priceless picture in the room. There were noises it took time to get accustomed to - great explosions that were either gun-fire or blasting, I was never sure which, though they might have been due to both. There were the guns that fired at targets towed by aeroplanes, and there were aeroplanes that dropped shells in the sea, making little water-spouts where they exploded. There was the continual roar of heavy traffic up and down the mountain road. Occasionally one saw a couple of Tommies leading a donkey along to make a comic contrast with heavy six-wheel lorries.

Men from the local Gibraltar Defence Force manning a 3.7 in anti-aircraft gun    (IWM)
The whole hotel faced the bay, for it had its back to the Rock. From every angle one looked there were views of gardens and distant sweeps of water and mountain. The dining-room filled with sunshine, and the bar, that was perhaps the busiest spot in the hotel, opened out on the terrace, where people took their drinks in the evening, or moved into the library, where there were some leather arm-chairs, to listen to the news from London at six o’clock and at eight-fifteen.  
Sometimes a convoy, to which the announcer in London referred with such devastating caution, had been shepherded safely to its destination by some of the bearded men in white shorts, who sipped their iced drinks with a blasé look. The library was down to about thirty books, and was rather 1900, with novels about ladies in tight waists and hobble skirts, and some classics like Stevenson’s Travels with of Donkey. The Air Force officers read a lot, but several confided to me that they neither looked at the title nor at the name of the author, so that they frequently took out the same book twice, not knowing they had read it a week earlier. 
They had nothing but contempt for authors; an attitude which I was never able to reconcile with their voracious appetite for new books to read. There were no riotous evenings at the Rock Hotel. All would be quiet by 11 p.m. but in the morning when one looked out of the windows great warships might have glided quietly out of harbour or others come in. History might well have been written overnight.



Gibraltar Harbour
Sunshine streamed through the French windows of the drawing-room, where the arm-chairs and sofas were covered in cretonne, and where ferns in garden pots stood on wrought-iron stands of Spanish design. The heat was so great that the white stone balustrade on the terrace shimmered under the burning rays. A piano was emitting noisy guffaws, and from a window on the first floor came the sound of jazz from a gramophone. It was a few minutes before seven, on a Saturday evening. 
The drawing-room was empty except for a couple of officers in shorts and open-necked khaki shirts lolling in the arm-chairs. Through a break in the curtain that divided the drawing-room from the lounge the Spanish waiters could he seen clearing away the tea things and dusting the little round tables and wicker armchairs.  
Rumbo, the sleek-haired, stocky head porter, climbed the eight stairs that led from the hotel entrance to the foyer and surveyed the scene with a sheaf of papers in his hand, and apparently not finding the person he was looking for, turned left into the dining-room, where dinner would not be served for another half-hour.   
Saturday night was no ordinary night at the Rock Hotel. There were women guests at dinner, for the dance that took place later on the terrace. This feminine element that invaded the hotel once a week was mostly recruited from the W.R.N.S. and the nursing staff of the military hospital.
WRNS going to work inside their “tunnel offices” 1000 feet below the top of the Rock   (1941 - IWM)


The Military Hospital     (Prewar postcard)
They came in evening dresses of pale blue and pink satin. They carried their bead-covered handbags as if they had almost forgotten how to use them, and their necks and arms were very sunburned. The officers even entertained amongst themselves at the Rock Hotel on a Saturday evening. The more important executives from Government House occasionally looked in. The two officers rose from the cretonne-covered arm-chairs in the lounge, glanced at the clock above the ferns on the Spanish wrought-iron hands, and hurried across the thick carpet to the corridor to change for dinner.  
A low drone of voices could now be heard from the bar at the end of the corridor where Charles, the Gibraltarian barman, who had once worked at Seville, was dispensing gin and lime to his clients sitting up on the high stools. The first women guests arrived with ripples of feminine laughter. In a corner of the bar by the terrace sat a group of young RAF pilots, including one belonging to the Eagle Squadron from Malta. 

Members of the Eagle Squadron in front of one of their Supermarine Spitfires    (1942 - IWM)
Officers from some of the gun-posts up on the Rock had come down for a drink before dinner because it was Saturday night, and there were the American, French, and Belgian liaison officers with their staffs, and a Polish naval officer, whose boyish looks belied his toughness.

Barbed wire fence and anti-tank protection along the Spanish border  (1950s - Walter Carone)
By the clock that Charles the barman had fixed between the bottles of whisky, gin, and sherry on the shelves in the bar, it was now seven-twenty. From the adjoining ‘library,’ where the radio set was nailed to the wall, came a voice giving a talk from London. The sun still beat down mercilessly on the balustrade of the terrace where, in spite of the awning, it was still too hot to sit in comfort. 
A few naval officers came in with bandaged arms and an unquenchable desire for pink gin. Out in the harbour, powerful grey battleships were silhouetted against the mole. They had come to-day and would be gone tomorrow. But some of them had been in action, and the air was tense. 
Nobody talked about the battleships, or asked their names. Nobody passed any remarks about the commander’s limp or the lieutenant’s bandaged ann. Charles continued to he very busy serving gin, and the officers from a gun-site up on the Rock, who had fired a warning shot over the bows of a merchant vessel when she had come in too close in the bay that afternoon, wondered when they would get back to England for a spot of leave.  
The big hand of the clock behind Charles’s back approached the hour, and a few people filed into the ‘library’ neat door. It was a small room, with yellow painted walls, a leather sofa, half a dozen strangely assorted chairs, and two large doors leading out on the terrace, The loud-speaker was fastened to a wall, and an, RAF officer was writing a letter home at the only table. At the stroke of the hour half a dozen men came in from the bar with their glasses in their hands. The piano tuner was still at work in the adjoining room. 
When the announcer had read out the main items of news the company moved out into the corridor on its way to the dining-room. A stream of visitors was coming up the steps leading from the hotel entrance to the foyer, and Rumbo’s office had been turned into a cloak-room, and it was filled with officers’ caps and swagger-sticks. When officers left their caps in the lounge it was not unusual for them to disappear mysteriously. Some people said that the caps were smuggled into Spain, where German agents bought there for the classical coup of dressing Germans as Englishmen. 
Cars climbed the steep ramp leading to the hotel, deposited their passengers, and went off gingerly down the precipitous incline leading to the road. Visitors who had come up from the town on foot wiped the sweat front their brows as they reached the foyer. The sun was still ferociously hot. 
The foyer was now filled with people, and the manager, who was the only man in a black dinner-jacket (he wore a pink carnation with a green spray in his buttonhole), was aware that all the previous records for a Saturday night at the Rock Hotel would probably, indeed certainly, be beaten by the end of the night. Bottles of gin were being emptied at a prodigious speed, and every table in the restaurant was occupied. 
The manager had decorated the tables with bougainvillea, the only flower still to be found in the gardens, which were now drying up at the end of a long hot summer. The menu was rather more copious than usual, and ended with ices and melon, but the cold water was not rally more than tepid in the glasses because the refrigerators no longer functioned. But the bread was still white at the close of the third year of war 
After dinner, coffee was served in the foyer. The waiters brought large silver coffee pots and saucers and cups, and plenty of white sugar, and placed these things on a sideboard at the top of the stairs leading from the front entrance. Guests served themselves and then, holding their cups and saucers, formed groups sitting down in the wicker chairs round the glass-topped tables. 
The sailors who limped or whose arms were bandaged gathered together. Many of them were not correctly clothed according to naval regulations. People were rather wary of approaching them for fear of seeming indiscreet. The manager (in his black dinner-jacket with the carnation and the wisp of green) hurried down the stairs to welcome new arrivals. Rooms had been reserved for these men, who seemed to be led by a thickset man with a New Jersey accent, who wore black shoes, white stockings, shorts, and a lifebelt. The new guests had no luggage. The gramophone in the lounge was set in motion by Rumbo, and people made off in the direction of the terrace, where dancing would shortly begin.
The task of setting the gramophone going on a Saturday evening belonged exclusively to Rumbo, who was the most intelligent porter on the Rock, with knowledge of everything interesting on both sides of the frontier. Rumbo could conjure up Egyptian pounds at midnight, and tell you the name of every shop in La Linea de la Concepcion and at Algeciras. 
The electric gramophone seldom indulged in complicated tunes. It confined itself to foxtrots and an occasional waltz, probably because the dancers were not always very expert. As the evening wore on, however, and as the bar did increasing business, the dancers became more enthusiastic, if not more expert, and the terrace more crowded. The sun had now come to the end of its course, and was disappearing in u big ball of flame behind the mountains of Spain, where the charcoal burners were beginning their fires that by night would glow in the cork forests. 
An RAF officer in blue uniform hurried into the foyer, and this sight was sufficiently unusual for people to look up at him, for it showed that he was leaving the Rock. He carried a dispatch case under his arm, and whispered in my ear ‘If you would like to send a lemon and a banana back to your baby in London, I’ll see he gets it for lunch tomorrow.’ I picked my way out through the crowd to Rumbo, who was back in his office at the bottom of the stairs, and he went off into the kitchen to get the fruit. The foyer was becoming rather noisy, and now and one picked up a sentence in rich Virginian, in Belgian, in French, or in Dutch. It looked rather like the hall of the Regent Palace Hotel on a Saturday night.
A lorry climbed up the ramp, came to a noisy standstill at the front entrance of the hotel, a tall figure in air force blue ran down the stairs. He waved farewell, and was gone into the night. The terrace was quieter because it was too dark to dance, and there was a partial blackout. That is to say that our hotel was not supposed to shower its gaiety over the harbour. 
At the end of me terrace (its highest point, where the swings told of days when children stayed there) a naval surgeon and an army doctor were pacing up and down pulling thoughtfully at their pipes. 
The sight from the terrace was entrancing. The lights of Algeciras looked like some gigantic fun-fair because the Spaniards want enemy airmen to recognize their neutrality from as far away as possible. So Algeciras radiated light, casting shadows against the mountains behind it and the purple water of the bay in front of it. The lighthouses of Punta Carnero in Spain and of Malabata at the eminence of the Bay of Tangier in North Africa winked in the bright moonlight that floodlit the whole scene. 

Gibraltar from the lighthouse at Punta Carnero  (Postcard)
It was a night for romance and gentle voices. The great battleships in the bay seemed unreal and rather small. A light no larger than a star, sped across the bay. Was this the bomber bound for London?  No, the light disappeared; the aircraft banked and showed a red light. It was probably on patrol. Then another light shot across the bay, nearer Algeciras, and this time it sped over Punta Carnero. This was the aircraft I had been looking for. Good night, my pet, you’ll have dessert for lunch to-morrow.

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