The People of Gibraltar
1911 - The D’Amatos - Café Universal - Gibraltar - Part 2

Gibraltar at war

The Spanish Civil War was over, the warm summer was there to be enjoyed, and those who could, tried hard to return to the good old pre-war days. For many a Gibraltarian family that meant spending as much time as possible beside the sea. For mine it was an almost daily visit to “el mardelevante” or Eastern Beach.

The calm before the storm - a family and friends gathering at Eastern Beach
Second from right is my father Pepe and just behind him is my sister Maruja - The boy standing first right is my brother Eric. Family friend Harry Cardona sits in the middle behind a rather plump lady    (1939)

Harry Cardona was a lovely man with a single defect - he was a compulsive name-dropper. As consul for Liberia he was often invited to official functions where he met many of the dignitaries whose names he dropped. It soon became a stock joke with the Eastern Beach crowd to enquire politely - if with considerable political incorrectness - whether he was required to go in national costume - by which they inferred top hat and loin cloth. 

As a baby I was apparently a great favourite of Harry because I was much given to gurgling. Apparently it sounded like “liddle, liddel, liddle, liddle” - or very much like the name of the brand new Governor of Gibraltar.

Sir Clive Gerard Liddell took over from Sir Edmund Ironside who as far as I can make out lasted less than a year without ever over exerting himself. He did order the building of several large shelters which the majority of Gibraltarians paid for but never had the chance to use as the authorities decided just after Ironside had left that a large chunk of the civilian population of Gibraltar were to be evacuated for the duration of the war. 

On the 28th of September 1939 a relatively innocuous meeting took place at the Convent between Liddell and his opposite number in Spain - General Francisco Martín Moreno who had also very recently been appointed military governor of the Campo area with headquarters in Algeciras - 

General Francisco Martín Moreno giving a fascist salute in front of the entrance to the Convent   (1939)

The two Governors availed themselves of some proper English tea in the small but pleasant drawing room of the Convent while they presumably discussed the rapidly changing international situation. The British were struggling to come to terms with World War II. The U.S.A. had declared itself neutral, Russia and Germany had carved up Poland and the Battle of the Atlantic was not going their way. 
Spain was also feeling the strain - Moreno and his Nationalist friends may have won the Civil War but the majority of the Spanish population were hungry - there simple wasn’t enough food to go round. Things, one might say, were not looking too good for anybody. 

As far as I know the minutes of their meeting have never been published, but just a few months later, in June 1940. Martín Moreno wrote a letter to his good friend and boss, General José Enrique Varela, who was Franco's Minister of War at the time. 

Copy of a letter from General Francisco Martín Moreno to José Enrique Varela ( 1940)
The following is a transcript. 
Excmo. Sr. José Enrique Varela. Mi querido general y amigo;
El Marqués de Vallecerato, jefe de mi secretaría diplomática, habló ayer con el gobernador de Gibraltar General Liddell, y este le dijo que va a proponer a su gobierno que se nos entregue Gibraltar con todo lo que contiene, incluso con su artillería, a cambio de que España les ceda un pequeño territorio en Marruecos que comprenda Casablanca y Rabat para establecer en la costa del Atlántico una base naval desde la que Inglaterra pueda controlar en caso necesario los barcos que entren en el estrecho hacia el Mediterráneo y los que salgan de él hacia el Atlántico.  
Me parece conveniente que conozca usted el propósito del General Liddell y este es el único objeto de esta carta. Valdecerrato se lo va a decir también a Beigbeder.  
Siempre es suyo afectuosamente, subordinado y buen amigo. 

General José Enrique Varela

The letter was neither acknowledged nor answered by anybody on the Spanish side and if Liddell ever revealed to his bosses in London that he had made such an offer to his Spanish counterpart - or if it was they who had in fact instructed him to test the waters on the possibilities of such an exchange - I have never come across it in any history of Gibraltar.

Knowledge of the contents of this letter would certainly have made for unpleasant reading for Gibraltarians at the time - and would probably still do so even today. But regardless of personal opinions, the truth is that political pragmatism has always been the norm for countries at war. In other words it is not what the letter suggests that is in any way surprising - it is the fact that nobody ever answered it - or did anything about it. Both Liddell and Moreno remained in their posts long after the date of the letter.

My own attempt in trying to understand why there was absolutely no reaction either by the British or the Spanish has led me to the conclusion that this was not a conspiracy of silence. It was simply the consequence of a series of connected historical events that made the offer irrelevant

Unexplained incidents such as this one were a commonplace during WWII. In so far as they affected Gibraltar some of them were of enormous geopolitical importance - others simply impinged on the lives of local individuals and were and still are generally treated as unimportant and with indifference - other than, of course, by those affected by them. The problems encountered by the D’Amato brothers during WW II and after are certainly a case in point.

In May 1942 twenty five year old Desmond Bristow, a wartime intelligence officer working for MI 6, arrived in Gibraltar. His main claim to fame in the annals of British intelligence is that he was closely involved in running a Catalan double agent called Garbo - real name Juan Pujol García - together with his boss and friend Kim Philby.

Desmond Bristow and his boss Kim Philby

Juan Pujol García - In December 1944 the Nazis awarded him the Iron Cross - his second medal - the British had already awarded him the MBE in June

Gibraltar in 1942 was unrecognisable from the place that a large chunk of the civilian population had left behind a couple of years previously. After the end of the" phoney war" it had been arranged that all women, children and men below 17 and over 45 - all of them unpleasantly classified by Governor Liddell as “useless mouths”- would be evacuated to French Morocco. As far as I can make out there was little or no consultation with local leaders. We went because we were told to do so.

Shortly after arrival in Morocco, the fall of France and the Royal Navy attack on the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in Oran meant we were no longer welcome in French Morocco. 

It took a long, long time for the French to forget what happened in Mers-el-Kébi - It was not pleasant to be British just after the attack by the Royal Navy - and the Gibraltarians were of course British

The evacuees were sent back to Gibraltar and very reluctantly readmitted by the British Authorities. The "re-evacuation" began a few days later. Most people ended up in London, another lot in Jamaica and a few people who were able to support themselves, to Madeira. Around 4 000 locals who were designated as indispensible to the war effort were allowed to stay. Biagio and Angelo D’Amato were among these.

Gibraltarians evacuees in London - and a caption guaranteed to raise the hackles in most Gibraltarians - They are of the opinion that being a refugee implies that the leaver has little chance of ever going back home, whereas  an evacuee has abetter chance of doing so one day

It has been said that whatever Gibraltar might have had to do without during the War years there was certainly no lack of bars selling just about any alcoholic drink you fancied. I am certain the D’Amatos would have been well served by all this - their two bars - the Café Universal and the Embassy Club were still open - in fact I doubt whether they were ever shut. Their pre-war contacts as drink importers must have come in handy. 

Their establishment also happened to be in a particularly accessible address in the middle of Main Street and the fact that there were so many males trapped on a Rock where females were few and far between must have been an added bonus. Army Garrison numbers had increased radically as had those of the Royal Navy - a powerful naval formation known as Force H was based in Gibraltar. Whenever the British Mediterranean fleet also happened to be in town - which was quite often - it would not have been just the Universal and the Embassy that would have been packed to the rafters.

Units of Force H spreading themselves out over the Bay and Harbour of Gibraltar

Main Street being taken over by the Navy in the 1950s - it was much worse during the War

Rare sighting of a woman in Main Street, Gibraltar       (1943)

By 1942 Gibraltar was also bursting at the seams as regards British military intelligence organisations from MI 3 to MI 19. I have come across MI 5 - counter-espionage - and MI 6 - often referred to as SIS in those days and responsible for foreign security. But I can’t imagine too many people being au fait with departments such as MI 3 and MI 19.

One of Desmond Bristow’s most important remits seems to have been security and the detection of people aiding the enemy. It was something that was hideously difficult to carry out effectively. On average some 10 000 Spaniards from the Campo area entered the Rock every day to work in its dockyard and other military and naval establishments. It was impossible to keep a check on everybody.

The rush across the airstrip as Spaniards from La Línea try to get to work in time in the 1950s - If anything, even more workers entered Gibraltar daily during the entire duration of WW II

Gibraltar was also literally surrounded by a theoretically neutral Spain which in reality fully collaborated with anti-British intelligence services - in particular the German Military agency known as the Abwehr. Many of these enemy agents set up shop on the opposite side of the Bay in various rather pleasant houses with pleasant peacetime names such as Villa Juan, Villa Carmela, Villa Isabel, Villa Leon, Villa Lourdes and Villa Angel. But perhaps the most well known home base for these spies was the Hotel Reina Cristina in Algeciras.

Gibraltar - well within reach of a powerful set of military Zeiss binoculars

Bristow’s second remit was the recruitment of suitable spies - which in comparison to his other remit was a much simpler task. As a man who obviously enjoyed his drinks as much as many another intelligence officer, he was a regular customer of both the Universal and the Embassy and was soon on very friendly terms with the D’Amato brothers. Angelo had by now probably added the ability to write to that of reading and looked after most of the paperwork required by the business while Biagio was invariably the man behind the bar. 

He knew everybody on the Rock - British, Gibraltarian or Spanish - and his frequent visits to his properties in La Línea made him very well-known in the Campo area as well. It was pretty obvious that it was well worth Bristow’s time to cultivate Biagio’s friendship and make him one of his agents. Owners of popular bars who also enjoyed work as their own barmen were certainly much more aware of what was going on than most. 

I am not sure when Bristow decided to recruit Biagio as one of his “agents” but I would be willing to bet that it was in the autumn of 1942 shortly after his arrival in Gibraltar. He would certainly have been additionally swayed by knowing that the D’Amato’s had not only made a life for themselves in Gibraltar but were still very much attached to Malta.

The two brothers were very conscious that the civilian population of their island was being subjected to an unpleasantly long blockade and that they had received a collective George Cross medal for their bravery. A small number of those who had received the award were relatives who were still living there.

Kingsway Street, Valetta   (1942 - IWM)

Throughout the war merchant ships would rendezvous in Gibraltar periodically in order to form huge convoys that would then transport men or supplies - or both - to all four corners of the earth. There was safety in numbers. It didn’t take long for Bristow to realise that every time these ships gathered in the Bay Biagio was always on tenterhooks - he was desperate to know whether they were on route to supply and reinforce his beloved Malta - which they very often were.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence but one of Biagio’s first really useful bits of intelligence was his discovery of a German monitoring system that was allowing them to check on all shipping entering and leaving the harbour. He had in effect discovered the reason why the enemy had been so successful at intercepting and disrupting - not to say destroying - a disproportionate number of convoys leaving Gibraltar. He had even managed to identify a house high up on the hills about ten miles from Algeciras with clear views of the Straits of Gibraltar.

A very similar German system in Tangiers had recently been put out of action by the British and it would have been a simple matter to get somebody to simply blow up the place. Biagio was ecstatic. In his eyes the chance of future convoys making a successful run to Malta would have gone up considerably.

He was in for a disappointment. The Foreign Office vetoed any thoughts of blowing up the place. Spain was a neutral country and despite its friendliness towards the Axis, Britain was loath to rock the boat at that particular moment in time. Plans for Operation Torch - the invasion of North Africa - were well underway and disturbing the status quo with neutral Spain was not an option.

I doubt whether Biagio ever found out why nobody had responded positively to his marvellous bit intelligence. But he must have noticed that the information was being allowed to go to waste and his mood would almost certainly have changed to one of despondency. Shades of Moreno’s letter to Varela in which nobody responded to what was in effect very good intelligence. 

In Biagio’s case, the overall effect of the decision towards inaction meant that many more convoys were sunk and a lot more people killed so as not to prejudice what was considered to be the greater good. 

Convoy leaving Gibraltar Harbour    (1940s - Roland Vivian Pitchforth)

Not long afterwards the plans for Operation Torch were put into practice and preparations were made in Gibraltar for what was in fact a very risky invasion of French North Africa by troops led by the American General Ike Eisenhower. Over a period of weeks the airstrip in Gibraltar rapidly filled up with aircraft in preparation for the appointed day of the landings. 

Spitfires and other warplanes double parked on a seemingly inadequate Gibraltar airstrip but ready to take part in Operation Torch

For Bristow a visit to the Universal was always a pleasant release from the tensions involved in being part of a major operation such as this one and Biagio certainly knew how to make his favourite tipple - the popular John Collins. London Gin was in good supply, sugar perhaps less so, but the lemons Biagio used must have been from nearby Estepona - they were considered to be the best in Spain. 

It must have been on one of these occasions while he was relaxing on the terrace of the Embassy that Biagio managed to ruin his day. He had found out from his La Línea contacts that the Spanish authorities were replacing the men employed by their police organisations with newcomers from the north of Spain. The official reason was that the relationship between the local Spanish police and those in Gibraltar had become far too cosy. They were prone to corruption and far too lenient towards smuggling.

Seven customs officers and seven people going through the old Spanish Aduana at La Línea

Bristow’s first reaction was to worry about the effect this would have on Operation Musson which was run by British intelligence to infiltrate British agents into Spain. At the time the organisation was making use of the services of the Serruya Brothers, well-off Gibraltar merchants. They were asked to import large quantities of a type of tobacco popular in Spain called "picadura" which they then sold to friendly smugglers who would take the stuff into Spain. 

On each trip the smugglers would be accompanied by several infiltrating agents. It was a system that depended on - among other things - the bribing of a variety of Spanish customs officials and policemen. Biagio’s intelligence was not good news for those who were running Operation Musson.


But it was his second reaction which made him realise that Biagio’s information was actually far more important than he had at first thought. Bristow had been stressed for quite some time. Operation Torch was the most important event he had been involved in so far during his career in MI 6 - What if this change of personnel was the prelude of an attempt by German or Spanish forces - or both - to attack Gibraltar? Franco had so far refused to give up Spain’s stance as a neutral nation or even to allow German troops access to the south and Gibraltar despite repeated attempts by Hitler to make him change his mind.

But one never knew whether el Caudillo would suddenly decide to change his mind. Operation Torch was imminent. Eisenhower had set up his headquarters in a grubby little room in the middle of the Rock, and it was all systems go. The last thing anybody wanted was a major conflict involving the Rock. 

Hitler’s meeting with Franco at Hendaye - the only time he ever met him

Contemporary artist’s impression of a possible attack on Gibraltar

Bristow took himself over the border - it was too important to leave to anybody else. He needed to find out for himself whether Biagio’s intelligence was correct or not. Bristow talked to everybody who was prepared to talk, including a policeman in San Roque riding a brand new BMW. Incredibly the fellow came from Valverde del Camino in Huelva not even 6 kilometres from Sotiel Coronada where Bristow had been brought up - the policeman’s father had worked for Bristow’s before the Civil War. 

And the answer as to whether Biagio had interpreted what he had heard correctly was a resounding yes - the official version was the correct one - Franco had no intention of either letting the Germans through to capture Gibraltar or taking the job on himself. Back home in Gibraltar Bristow was taken aback to notice that within a very short while the new set of police adjusted to their new environment. Bribing northerners was apparently neither more difficult nor more expensive than for people of the south.

A short while later Bristow was back at the Embassy sitting comfortably well away from the mass of noisy service personnel who were drinking beer at the bar. Without even being asked Biagio came over with a fresh John Collins for Bristow and one for himself.  He had not been resting on his laurels - a Spanish friend had informed him that an important German intelligence operative would soon be visiting Algeciras.

Bristow was intrigued. He guessed that Biagio had got his information directly from the horse’s mouth - in other words the head of Spanish security in the Campo area - Commander Ignacio Molina Perez de Vargas. According to recently released National Archive documents Molina acted as a sort of unofficial liaison officer with the British in Gibraltar throughout the War - although everybody knew that he was actually a German agent. We are not told who he liaised with - could it have been Biagio?

Ignacio Molina - Head of Spanish security in the Campo area during WWII

No doubt Biagio’s Nationalist friends made during the Spanish Civil War were now paying off handsomely. Bristow was intrigued and asked his friend to investigate further.

Another meeting, a few more John Collins and the identity of the German visitor was revealed - his name was “Canario”. He would be staying that very week-end at the Hotel Reina Cristina. Bristow almost left without saying goodbye as he rushed back to telegraph Philby as to whether it might be a good idea to capture the man - Canario, he guessed, was no other than Admiral Wilhelm Canaris the head of the Abwehr.

Admiral Canaris - Head of the Abwehr

Philby - or somebody higher up the pecking order - vetoed the idea for the very good reason that if they did, the Abwehr would immediately change their message codes. The German army had been sending these using an electro-mechanical cipher machine which made the code virtually uncrackable - or so they thought. British intelligence with a little help from their Polish allies had actually managed to do so.

Crucial intelligence offered by the interception of the code was used sparingly and was identified as ultra-secret and what little information the powers that be decided to release was known as ULTRA. Bristow was the only person in Gibraltar who knew about ULTRA.

Top - Bletchley Park where the German Enigma codes were deciphered - Bottom - The German battleship Deutschland in front of Gibraltar’s Admiralty Tower during the Spanish Civil War where ULTRA intelligence during WW II was sent from the UK for Bristow’s eyes only

In January 1943, Bristow left Gibraltar for Algiers. Among his many counter-espionage agents was a French Air Force officer - a double agent who was given the code name of “Gilbert”. Not long after having been introduced to him Bristow received a message from ULTRA that Gilbert’s loyalty was suspect. Bristow’s faith in Gilbert was such that he immediately confronted him with the accusation which the Frenchman denied.

More importantly he realised that it should have been impossible for British intelligence to have even known about Gilbert’s double dealing with the Abwehr unless they had managed to crack the German code. It was a massive mistake by Bristow which could have led to German awareness of ULTRA - something that might even have changed the course of the War. The blunder never led to any repercussions as Gilbert kept his mouth firmly shut and remained faithful to British intelligence.

Bristow returned to Gibraltar soon after. He was keen to   renew his contact with Biagio and arranged a surprise visit to the Embassy Club. Biagio, behind the bar as usual was unfazed by Bristow’s unannounced return, immediately mixed the usual John Collins for both of them and asked him how things were going in North Africa. For some reason Biagio knew that Bristow was not just there to ask him to keep his ears and eyes open for any general news from Spain. This time it would be something a bit more important. He was right. Bristow wanted him to spread some crucial disinformation to the enemy.

These were the days of Operation Mincemeat when deception was of the utmost importance. In 1943 the Allies had made the decision to invade Europe from North Africa and were keen to make sure that the Germans would not get to know exactly where the invasion would take place - which happened to be via Sicily.

Allied invasion of Italy   (July 1943

Intuitively realising that what he was being asked to do was considerably more dangerous than anything else he had been involved in previously in his role as an agent Biagio asked Bristow to give him something in writing, some sort of proof that he was working for British intelligence. Bristow promised to give him a laissez-passer but he either forgot to tell his secretary Dom O’Shagar. . . . . or O’Shagar never bothered to comply. Biagio nevertheless did what he had been asked to do but the omission of written proof would prove a bad mistake.

Shortly after his meeting with Bristow, Biagio and his brother found themselves in trouble. They were arrested by security officers and accused of having passed on information to enemy agents in Spain - in particular details of a proposed Allied landing in the South of France in April 1943. 

The Café Universal and the Embassy were temporarily closed and the two brothers were held and interrogated the local military Detention Barracks. Biagio defended himself by telling them the truth - he had been asked by MI 6 to do what they were accusing them of. Unfortunately Bristow was no longer around to confirm this and the authorities refused to believe that Biagio and Angelo were telling them the truth. 

Detention Barracks - Windmill Hill - middle right

Formally arrested in July 1943 the D’Amatos were tried in front of a hastily put together tribunal made up of three local worthies - Edward Baglietto Cottrell, Major Joseph Patron and James Joseph Russo. Despite being defended by an expensive British KC - Gerard Osborne Slade - they were found guilty. Three months later they were flown to Hendon Airport and then straight to Brixton Prison in Lambert. They were then finally transferred to a prison in the Isle of Man for the rest of their sentence. 

In May 1945, the Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. In Europe at any rate World War II was over and the D’Amato brothers were released. The joy of freedom and the expectation of returning home were almost immediately destroyed. Attempting to get back to their family and friends they discovered that the British authorities had decided not to allow them to set foot in Gibraltar. In fact they would be unable to do so until May 1950.