The People of Gibraltar
1911 - The D’Amatos - Café Universal - Gibraltar Part 3

The above appears in an illustrated essay - The History of the Security Intelligence Department of the Defence Security Office, Gibraltar 1939-1945 - It can be viewed in the National Archives based in Kew.

Mickey Cottrell was a good friend of mine when I was a schoolboy. In fact we were buddies and I was a frequent visitor to his house at the bottom of Library Street. He never came to mine which was less than a minute away at 256 Main Street. We may have lived close to each other but economically our families were several galaxies apart. His father, Edward Cottrell was the British vice-Consul in Algeciras.

Top shows Library Street looking east - Mickey Cottrell’s house was perhaps just off the photo on the right hand side - Bottom is Main Street looking South - 256 is the narrow three story building just to the right of the house with the fancy “cristalera” balcony - Library Street is just off the photo on the left

When Mr Cottrell got to know the date of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II - it was in June 1953 and Mickey and I were both 15 years old - he immediately cleared a large living room of furniture in his Library Street house.  He wanted his son to set out his immense collection of lead soldiers as an exact replica in lead of the entire coronation parade. It would be made up of thousands of different types of soldiers, horses and parade paraphernalia - and of course the coronation Gold State Coach with a miniature Queen inside.

A modern model of the Coronation Gold State Coach with miniature Queen removed for security reasons!

Many years later while watching an expert on 'The Antique Road Show' program on the BBC valuing lead soldiers such as these, I came to the conclusion that those toys we played with - perhaps not always as carefully as we should have - would one day become priceless. 

. . . . . . . . Almost exactly 11 years earlier Biagio and Angelo D’Amato had been arrested and imprisoned in Gibraltar’s Detention Barracks for more than two months during which time they were interrogated by . . .  whom? Whoever they were they must have been members of British intelligence given that they were arrested by security officers and that the charge was that of espionage - they were accused of passing on sensitive information to enemy agents in Spain.

Who were these security men? Gibraltar certainly had any number of different organisations dealing with intelligence but the people who were actually responsible for running each of the departments all knew each other - they were often good friends. 

The person who should have found it easy to vouch for the D’Amatos - and clear them of the charge - later claimed that he did not do so because he had left Gibraltar when they were arrested. This was Desmond Bristow the man who had chosen Biagio out of his portfolio of agents in Gibraltar as the one who would be the most effective at spreading stories to substantiate the kind of information other British agents elsewhere were feeding the Germans.

Desmond Bristow   MI 6

Bristow later claimed that his memory wasn’t good enough to remember exactly what disinformation he had asked Biagio to spread around.
I wish I could remember exactly what the stories were but time and training are working against me. It is of utmost importance when one is travelling around as a spy to forget the reasons why as soon as possible.
If anybody believes that they will believe anything. Bristow was one of the first intelligence officers to write an autobiography about their experiences in the Secret Service. He encountered all sorts of censorship problems and was forced to publish his book in Spanish. He only followed up with the English version after asking and receiving the protection of the European Court of Justice. One would have imagined that he would then have dared tell the real story as he knew it. But he didn’t. Instead he gave us this.
I do remember that Biagio was arrested by the British for passing on the information to his agents in his hotel. . . .  amazingly he was not very upset as the authorities released him when they realised their mistake.
All of which reveals at least three things - all of them wrong and all of them decidedly odd. By “the” information Bristow implied that this was the “disinformation” that he had asked Biagio to spread around - and which he unbelievably couldn’t remember.

Secondly this is the only reference anywhere that reveals that Biagio had his own agents in Spain. This seems so highly unlikely that it is almost certainly not true. Biagio was no secret agent. He was not the kind of person with the kind of know-how and intellectual commitment needed to set up a cloak and dagger network of spies.

What he did have was a huge number of well connected friends which he had cultivated during his interventions during the Spanish Civil War - many of these having ended up in positions of some power and much influence. It was from them that he obtained the kind of intelligence that he regularly passed on to Bristow. 

And finally it is very hard to believe that he never found out that the D’amatos were jailed from 1943 until the end of the war in 1945 - which is not exactly the same as being “set free”. Not only that, but the events that occurred after their imprisonment confirm not only that Biagio was anything but pleased but that he was furious at having been unjustly imprisoned.

But it was not only Bristow who failed to make known the fact that Biagio had indeed been acting as a British agent. There were plenty of others that could have done so and didn’t. Donald Darling who was theoretically the civilian assistant to the Governor on intelligence matters actually worked under Colonel John Codrington, the head of station for SIS - the Secret Intelligence Service which covered MI 6 an MI 9.  

Donald Darling working hard for MI 9

Darling’s main role was in the reception, supervision and interrogation of escaping allied personnel who arrived in Gibraltar as well as organising the infiltration of agents into Spain. In other words he and his sidekick Brian Morrison were basically in charge of all MI 9 activity on the Rock.

When Bristow first arrived on the Rock his “office” was in the same room as the one used by Donald and Brian - a house in Cloister Ramp just behind the police station in Irish Town . He also shared an apartment with these two in Cornwall’s Parade - which he curiously calls la Plaza de las Verduras - its old pre-1704 Spanish name.

House on the west side of Cornwall’s Parade - Bristow, Darling and Morrison shared one of its third floor flats

The day Biagio informed Bristow on the whereabouts of a house that the Germans were using to check shipping in the Bay he was ecstatic as he believed his intelligence would increase the likelihood of convoys making it safely to Malta. The next day he organised a small party for Bristow, Darling and Brian. I find it very, very, hard to believe that these three did not know that it was Biagio who was the source of this important information.

Biagio’s intelligence about the decision by the Spanish authorities to replace southern policemen with those from the north, and the results of Bristow’s further investigations on his own visit to the Campo area must have been shared with Donald as they affected his MI 9 work directly. It would have been unpardonable if he didn’t. Later when Bristow left Gibraltar for Algiers, a rather distressed Biagio organised a going-away party in which all three intelligence officers were invited. 

Quite frankly it is impossible to believe that Donald and Brian were unaware of Biagio’s usefulness and status as perhaps one of Bristow’s best agents in the Campo which in turn begs the question as to why they did not intervene when the D’Amatos were arrested.

And they were not the only ones - Colonel John Codrington as head of station and Donald Darling’s boss must have known - and if he didn’t he should have. 

And the same goes for Colonel H.G. Medlam who was the top MI 5 man and the Defence Security Officer on the Rock. The DSO was “affectionately” known as “Tiny” Medlam although my impression is that there was very little about Medlam that anybody could show affection for. But that is beside the point. As one of the top intelligence officers it was his job to know everything that was going on. And I am almost certain he did.

The third man from the left is Brian Morrison MI 6 and the fourth is Colonel Medlam MI 5

But nobody raised any objections to the arrest and three days in late September the authorities set up a tribunal in Gibraltar known as an “Advisory Committee”. They were to judge whether the D’Amatos were guilty or not. The lawyer for their defence was Gerald Osborne Slade KC.

I don’t know who was responsible for hiring him whether he was chosen by the authorities or whether somebody had advised the D’Amatos on the matter. If it was the first, it was a deliberate attempt to get a conviction - if it was the second whoever advised them didn’t do them any favours.

Osborne lacked any real experience as a defence lawyer- his appointment as KC had only taken place a few months previously. This was the man who would later be appointed to defend William Joyce - Lord Haw Haw - in 1945.  He was also chosen to defend John Amery - another notorious WW II traitor. These were the kind of cases that nobody worth their legal salt was anxious to take on.  Slade failed to get either acquitted. Both were convicted and executed. 

Gerald Osborne Slade became Judge of the High Court of Justice in 1948 - presumably for services rendered

The same goes for the kind of people chosen for the “Advisory Committee” - who were in effect both judge and jury. The three gentlemen in question were James Joseph Russo, Major Joseph Patron and  sadly for me, Mickey’s father, Edward Baglietto Cottrell. 

By the middle of the 20th century surnames such as those included in the tribunal were not just well known among members of Gibraltar’s high society - they were also instantly recognisable to most of the ordinary middle and working-class people of the Rock for what they seemed to be - rich influential families who had made and retained their fortunes by making sure that they were on the right side of the Colonial authorities. 

The reality was somewhat more complex. These astute business men knew how to bend with the wind - and get away with it - one moment taking on an interfering Governor and succeeding in having him recalled, then fawningly offering their services - for free - to another one at some cosy luncheon in the Convent. 

I am certain that these people - if and when they ever thought about such things - would have dismissed people like the D’Amatos as semi-illiterate Maltese ex-bum boat operators who ran a bar in Main Street. Biagio and Angelo were beyond the pale. The fact that the D’Amatos competed with some of them in the lucrative wine and spirit business didn’t help much either. 

Nor were Gibraltar’s civilian high society always squeaky clean in their loyalty to their colonial masters. In 1938 and according to the newspaper The Daily Herald, during the Spanish Civil War Joseph Patron attended a rally in Spain addressed by General Quiepo de Llano perhaps the most brutal Nationalist General under Franco at the time, flanked by German officers in Reichswehr uniform. According to the report:   
. . . . a number of Gibraltar fascists cheered frantically  during  the speech
A telegram from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Governor of the Rock, also reveals that among those cheering in the crowd was James Joseph Russo.

As regards Edward Baglietto Cottrell, trying to explain why he was chosen as a member of the Advisory Committee would be a delight to anybody given to conspiracy theories. Cottrell - later Sir Edward - spent most of the war years living in the Hotel Reina Cristina in Algeciras hob-knobbing with precisely the kind of people Biagio was accused of talking to. Ironically, many of the people in the Cristina were also German spies, Biagio’s contacts on the other hand were mostly Spanish Nationalists. 

To make matters even worse the reason why Cottrell had enough money to throw away on Mickey’s lead soldiers was because he was one of the principle directors of Saccone and Speed by far Gibraltar’s main importer of wines and spirits - and in direct competition with Biagio’s similar but rather more modest business. 

It was perhaps a dawning realisation that he had been had that led Biagio to commit a big mistake. He had been convinced from the very beginning that his arrest had been instigated by the local civilian upper class businessmen in order to destroy him and his business. In 1945 he took the three advisors to court. Hs claimed that they had framed him because he was damaging their businesses. He insisted that Cottrell had offered the DSO Colonel Medlam a bribe to ensure that the D’Amatos were found guilty. 

As a backup he produced three letters which he claimed had been written by Cottrell, Russo and Patron in which they denounced him to the authorities. The defendants denied having written the letters. Nor could the relevant authorities find any evidence of having received them. To make matters worse the letters themselves were full of spelling mistakes. 

It is pretty evident that Biagio had long despaired of obtaining any kind of justice from the British authorities and had decided to take the matter into his own hands. It was too late now to overturn the time they had spent in jail but he must have thought it possible to get some kind of revenge on the people who he was convinced were responsible for what had happened to him.

Every single source that has written about this episode insists that Biagio’s best defence was the truth - he was simply doing what Bristow had asked him to do and that this should have been his defence throughout. An astute but uneducated businessman had messed up his chances of clearing his name by using an unconvincing subterfuge.

It is a convincing argument but it fails to take into account how desperate he was to return to Gibraltar, to his family, his friends and his celebrated Café Universal. He may also have been an uneducated man but he was more than savvy enough to realise that the truth was never going to be enough if he couldn’t get anybody to confirm it. And that he knew by now was never going to happen.

It must have been annoying to realise that nobody had ever taken into account that he was patriotically British twice over - once because he had been born in Malta - the George Cross Island no less - and the other because as a long term resident on the Rock he had always supported the War effort - had he not donated no less than £2000 for the purchase of a Gibraltar Spitfire for the RAF and another large sum of money to the Royal Navy after the sinking of HMS Hood? As evidenced by the comments below the National Archive photo at the start of this essay the answer was that yes, they knew of his generosity but considered it a ruse. 

The end result was that the D’Amato’s case against the three posh gentlemen of the Advisory Committee failed. More seriously it meant that when the D’Amatos finally tried to return to Gibraltar in June 1945, they were denied entry and that their right to visit would be withheld until May 1950. 

This seemingly spiteful decision was taken by Colonel Philip Kirby-Green a member of MI 5 and the Defence Security Officer on the Rock in 1945. He had been deputy to Colonel H. G. Medlam who held the same position during the war. It means that Kirby-Green can be added to the growing list of people who must have known the truth. The reasons he gave for his decision was ludicrous - the D’Amatos might decide to become agents for the Spanish Falange - or even become spies for the Japanese.

Colonel Philip Kirby-Green

The D’Amatos were forced to settle for second best and set up shop across the border in La Línea. Excellent businessmen that they were they made use of every contact available and very quickly prospered. In fact my guess is that they became if anything more well off than they had been in Gibraltar. Their flagship was a splendid hotel - by far the best in La Línea - which they predictably called The Hotel Universal.

The Hotel Universal under construction 

The finished article

Work on the Universal began in October 1947 and the Hotel was ready for its first customers in July 1948. Its top floor rooms were categorised as 4 star and were much favoured by visiting bull fighters. The lower floors consisted of less expensive 3 star rooms. The penthouse which offered a view of the Rock was reserved for its owners.

Bottom right the art deco shape of the family home - the Chalet D’Amato in Calle Clavel - They kept a fountain with frogs in the garden - but best of all it had a very good view of the Rock from its top terrace  

Calle Clavel led directly to the Plaza de la Constitución and the Spanish Aduana  - Chalet D’Amato was a was a few minutes’ walk away from it

The Gibraltar frontier just after the war - a step too far for Biagio and Angelo     (1946)

Another view of the chalet D’Amato - the building on the right was the Cine Amaya - Straight ahead Calle Feria leading which lead to the area where the La Línea fairs were held every year - the photo was appropriately taken from the bullring as both brothers were “aficionados”.

Enjoying a corrida at the “tendido” of  the bullring La Línea - Biagio in the middle with a white jacket and Angelo on the extreme right  - The bull fighter was Paco Lara (1949)

Another day, another corrida - Sitting in “barrera” Angelo in the middle, Biagio on the extreme right  - One of the bull fighters was the well known Mexican Carlos Aruza (Mid 1951)

Biagio with Pedro Alfageme González “Alcalde” of La Línea from 1959 to 1970

From the foregoing it would seem that despite their WW II experiences the two D’Amatos may have - in the end - lived happily ever after. But that does not really save my essay from one final question - if British intelligence knew they was not guilty why did they prosecute? 

I am not sure but I suspect that the use of double agents by both sides during WW II had something to do with it. The trouble with double agents is that you never know who the hell the agent is actually working for. It leads to the absurd concept of the triple agent - one that I find great difficulty in understanding.

Military Intelligence must have come to the conclusion that it was impossible for Biagio to come up with some of the intelligence he brought back to Gibraltar without some sort of quid pro quo. He could hardly have been able to obtain any information from somebody as high up on the intelligence ladder as the head of Spanish security without somehow insinuating to him that he was on his side rather than the British and that he had something to offer. 

Perhaps as they did on other occasions the upper echelons of the intelligence service and perhaps even the Foreign Office decided that they wanted to make an example of somebody by accusing them of a non-specific crime regardless of the evidence. Biagio was expendable but his conviction whether he was innocent or not would be useful “pour encourager les autres”.  

Whether this true or not I am not sure, but what I really cannot understand is why all those intelligence officers who worked and drank with him in Gibraltar - you might even say they were his friends - never offered him any support. 

For that, I am afraid, I have no answer.