Lillian Pitaluga: Experiencing the Second World War from a Gibraltarian perspective

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After they had already left the Rock to find refuge in Morocco, with the Second World War expanding towards North Africa the British government had to evacuate most Gibraltarians to the UK – as well as in Jamaica and Madeira. As she was taken to England when she was still a kid, Lillian Pitaluga remembers the time away from the Rock as a safe and happy period of her life. Yet, when the war was over and Lilian as well as the other evacuees could finally return to Gibraltar, they found that life there had changed: suddenly, the streets of Gibraltar were full of noisy and drunk soldiers and sailors.

 

Audio interview (24-03-2015):

 

TRANSCRIPTION

LP: And I remember coming back from Casablanca… I can’t remember how long we were here. A couple of days or something. I can’t remember. And then we went to the UK. And then that’s when I really remember… I remember getting into a train. It must have been a longish journey from Liverpool to London. And then we were evacuated to the Grafton Hotel in Tottenham Court Road, which was bombed. And we were very lucky to be, not to be hurt at all…. And then, we went to the KPM – Kensington Palace Mansion – for a while, with a lot of evacuees, which was nice. And when we were there, we went to the Sacred Heart Convent in Hammersmith… And then, of course, we went to school. We went to a boarding school. When we were there at the beginning, we went to the Sacred Heart Convent in Hammersmith where a lot of other girls… And, you know, we used to go from Kensington to Hammersmith, and the convent was lovely…. And we would go on the bus, you know, quite safely.
IN: Was that a happy time for you? The evacuation? Were you… I know there were bombs falling on you, but…
LP: The bombs falling, I remember there…
IN: In between the bombs, was it…
LP: [The thing is] that we were… It was very… My parents, we went to Watford. We lived in Watford. We left the hotel and we had a house in Watford. Because ‘Saccone and Speed’ had a house for some of its employees in Watford as well. And we had a house nearby. And my father would travel into London every day. He was very involved with the evacuees in… I think, in fact, that’s why I think he went to London because he was involved with the, with the evacuation committee and so on.
IN: Right
LP: And he was very keen on football. And I remember there was a football team based, I think, in Lancaster Gate or somewhere. I don’t know…. And then we went to a boarding school where I was for ’42 to ’49, seven years.
IN: So which boarding school was that?
LP: St. Bernard’s Convent in Slough.
IN: In Slough
LP: Near Windsor…. We stayed in boarding school. It was safer to be outside London. And from our windows, dormitory windows, we could see…
IN: The Blitz?
LP: Windsor Castle. So we knew the princess… If the princesses were there, we would be all right… We could see Windsor Castle. We would walk through… To go to Windsor we would walk through Eton, Eton College and see all the boys wearing their uniforms. With the rationing, they were… They were getting shorter and shorter.
IN: Right
LP: And, no, it was… But I was very happy in boarding school. Extremely happy. And then I learned to behave myself: I was a good student. I was a goody-goody. I got very involved in sports. I used to play a lot of tennis. I played for the school.
IN: [Did you]?
LP: I played hockey for the school. Broke a lot of window panes practicing against the wall. The nuns is a French order. It’s a Bernardine – St. Bernard’s. It’s a French order. And there was one Spanish nun. They used to be called Madam, Madam. Her name was Madam Alfons. Then they changed it to Mother. I suppose Madam could be… Became a word that wasn’t particularly… Good for nuns to be called Madams.
IN: Yeah, probably not.
LP: To be called Madams. And she never, ever, ever spoke to us in Spanish. Never. Which was, I think a good thing because, you know, make sure that we, we didn’t run to her for, you know. So obviously, you know, we really had to learn to speak English properly. And so I played a lot of games. We had a couple of nasty experiences with the doodlebugs.
IN: Hmm.
LP: Because it’s little thing in the dormitories. The nuns had made a sort of little mattresses and we would all go down every night with our mattresses and our blankets and sleep in the corridors, which for us was great fun… A novelty.
IN: So what happens next? You…
LP: Well, I…
IN: You were there until the end of the war?
LP: Yeah. After that, because people came back to Gibraltar in ’45, ’46.
IN: Yeah. And you [came back…].
LP: [I didn’t] come back until 1949.
IN: Oh ’49.
LP: Because the education system in Gibraltar
IN: So what do you..? What do you remember? Do you remember when the war ended?
LP: I remember when the war… I remember the… When the landings in, in France…
IN: Hmm.
LP: D-Day. All that, we were told in assembly. We were told, yeah. You know, the war is about to, to end. And, yeah, yes. Yes.
IN: What do you remember of the war? I mean what were you told was happening? Were you very informed?
LP: I also remember seeing the sort of, the fires over at St. Paul, from the hotel. I also spent some time in Lancashire.
IN: Hmm. Why Lancashire?
LP: Because my father had a cousin who had worked in… Ah, what’s this… American company, car company – what’s it called? General Motors in Spain.
IN: Right.
LP: And then, he was transferred to the UK from General Motors because of the Civil War and so on. So we used to spend some of our holidays there as well.
IN: What do you remember about the war in terms of why it was being fought, what was happening?
LP: Not really.
IN: [You don’t really].
LP: [I don’t] think, no. Well, we had a lot of French nuns.
IN: Yeah.
LP: And we had some Belgium girls, who had come over from… From Belgium, when Belgium was occupied. But I don’t think we really… I don’t know. Oh, we had lovely prisoners of war, we were all in love with them, with all the German prisoners of war and we were in love with the only altar boy.
IN: Wait, wait, wait, tell me about the German prisoners of war. [What were they doing in Lancashire]?
LP: [Yeah, they used to work, they used to work] because… They had very extensive gardens, the convent. They had… And they had a farm. You know, we had fresh milk from the, from the farm. And sort of poultry and, and, and we used to grow vegetables – oh yes. In the, in the evenings, when we finished our studies, we would go and help pick the red currants and the gooseberries and it was lovely. It was lovely. What I remember is the good bits.
IN: What about these Germans? They were working on the farm.
LP: The Germans… They used to come in daily. About four or five of them.
IN: And did you speak to them ever?
LP: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I think we spoke to them, yeah. They were rather nice.
IN: And what did you? Yeah? They were rather nice. They were friendly.
LP: Yeah, they’re very friendly. They’re very friendly. Young. Young men. They were probably 14, 15.
IN: Yeah.
LP: And I remember this: every time they cut the grass, we had spinach for dinner. “Oh, tonight we’ve got spinach”. The smell of the, it all… It was all like… It was like a film. We’d go into the study. When there was nice summer weather, we would go and study out in the open and we used to go to… Once a year, they would take… We would go to ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’. The town had a theatre. And once a year, they had an operetta – ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’. And with the senior ones, we used to go to that. When we came back, there’s always chocolate waiting: hot chocolate waiting for us served in aluminium jugs. I always remember.
IN: (Chuckles)
LP: And the rationing – the sweet rationing. The nuns were very good about that. We each had our little tuck boxes with the rationing and they would put up two sweets and a bit of chocolate every day, in one of the rooms outside the dining room. We didn’t talk at breakfast. We had lovely stories read to us while we were having breakfast. And every Sunday of my six or seven years there, every Sunday, what we had for supper was ham and a tomato, and whatever vegetables. But there’s always ham on it.
IN: A very light supper then?
LP: Very light, yeah. And Sunday very light supper.
IN: So, you finished school and… So, you had a very, very nice war, [it sounds about as nice a war as you can get].
LP: [Honestly…] We were very lucky.
IN: [So when you finished school], then you came back to Gibraltar?
LP: When I finished school, I came back to Gibraltar.
IN: But what was it like in Gibraltar? What were the streets like? Who was here? Was it full of soldiers? Were they?
LP: [Well, the streets…] Soldiers and sailors and you… You can’t go out today because the fleet is in; you can’t go out, you know. You’d walk up and down Main Street.
IN: And what would happen if you went out? What was the [fear]?
LP: [Well], you know, especially if they’re Americans because your father wouldn’t let you out. Or he’d say… Because they used to work until 7:00, I think, in those days. They used to work, I think, the offices 6:00 or 7:00 or whatever. “You’d be here at 7:00… We can go home together”… That sort of thing. No, there was… I remember going a couple of times to the Amer… To the Italian training ship, which was lovely. All the young cadets and so on.
IN: Hmm.
LP: But Gibraltar, I think was very leisurely. It was very… You know. I went to the cinema. There wasn’t an awful lot, really… We would meet up, about six or seven of us we would meet up practically every Sunday in London. But Gibraltar was very, very, very quiet.
IN: Unless the fleet was in.
LP: Hmm?
IN: Unless the fleet was in.
LP: Unless the fleets were in.
IN: So what did happen when the fleet was in?
LP: I didn’t know. They seemed to get drunk all the time. There was those… Los café de… De… De entertainment… What they’re called? Cabaret.
IN: Hmm
LP: Cabaret. Cabaret. And you wanted to peek through where they put the shutters up. You wanted to peek through, see what you could see.

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On 27/07/2016
By Andrew Canessa

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