Krishna Khubchand Daswani: The dramatic evacuation to nowhere

Ethnicity, Evacuation, Indian Community, Language, WWII Comments Off on Krishna Khubchand Daswani: The dramatic evacuation to nowhere

Most Gibraltarians were first evacuated to Madeira, the UK or Jamaica during WW II. At the start of the War there were very few Indian families living in Gibraltar but the 30 Indians were evacuated to India, via Rangoon, rather than the other destinations. The Kemmendine, a passenger liner, was drafted for this purpose. The Kemmendine, to avoid Italian submarines had to go all the way round Africa, stopping at Cape Town.  It never made it to India because, before arriving, it was intercepted by the Atlantis, a German cruiser. Krishna Khubchand Daswani (1932) was just 8 years old, but he remembers how dramatic that voyage was.


Audio Interview (19 June 2014):



IN: I wonder, I wonder if we could get back to when you were a small child.

KU: Yeah.

IN: And I asked you what it was like being one of very few Indian children in [Gibraltar].

KU: Well, I’ll tell you…I went to Mrs Silva’s school in Bomb House Lane.

IN: Yeah.

KU: After that, I left that place and joined the Hebrew school for a few weeks in the same Bomb House Lane.

IN: The Hebrew school?

KU: Hebrew school.

IN: So why did you join the [Hebrew school]?  (Laughs)

KU: [I don’t know why.]  Yeah, because it was near. My father was just probably there.  And then we went to Sacred Heart.

IN: Yeah.

KU: Teacher Requena that time.  Requena was the…

MX: Teacher.

KU: …teacher.  And then the war started in Gibraltar. And when the war started, we had to wear the mask. We had to have the mask, gas masks.  And they had to be carried on our shoulder like a bag, always a mask with us.

IN: Mm-hmm.

KU: We couldn’t go out anywhere without the mask.  The mask was compulsory, the gas mask.  That’s what I can remember in Gibraltar.

IN: But what about the other children in your school?  You went to school with Jewish children and [Christian children].

KU: [Yeah.]  No Jewish. It was mostly Catholic children.

IN: Yeah.

KU: And, but I was quite acceptable there.

IN: Yeah.

KU: Yeah.  Only my house, my family was…my mother, my father were so busy with themselves and we are so many children in the family that we were taken care of Spanish maids.

IN: Right.

KU: We learned more Spanish than we know Sindhi language…

IN: Then, I have another question for you that interests me very much.  In those days, what were the kind of differences between Gibraltarians…

KU: Yeah.

IN: …and Spanish people?  How did you know one was one by their…in those days, everyone in Gibraltar spoke Spanish, didn’t they?

KU: Yeah. But, my father engaged some people. I remember the names of some of the maids like Rufina was working at the Barquero and… María Luisa was working also with us and Paca used to be the kitchen [person].

IN: [Yeah.]

KU: And, you know, we got an Indian cook as a present from my auntie…

IN: (Giggles)

KU:…that time, 1932.  My auntie gave a present of a human being.

IN: A cook?

KU: 12-year-old.

IN: 12-year-old?

KU: She said, “I’ll give you this “chotu”, this young boy…

MX: …young boy.

KU: …who will take care of you and so on.”  That boy was the one who actually saved me…he was a communist.

IN: Yeah

KU: He was for “Arriba la República” y todo singing en el Bull and Bush. It’s the thing I remember in the Bull and Bush bar in Irish Town…Anyway

IN: So what was the Bull and Busha center of communism in Gibraltar or?

KU: They used to sing a song, La Republica.  Arriba La Republica.

IN: I think.

KU: Arriba la Internacional.  Qué mueran…no… Qué mueran todos los fascistas del Peñón de Gibraltar.  See?  This is the song they used to sing.


KU: Then there was evacuation. One thing I remember also, I didn’t have a vaccine for…polio vaccine we used to have.

IN: [Mm.]

KU: They used to force you to have it.  I didn’t want to, an injection.  I thought it was an injection.  So I said, “I don’t want to have it before boarding the ship”. This was the Kemmendine, which left on the 8th of June 1940. That was the last ship in Gibraltar for the evacuees.

IN: Ah.

KU: And we had to go to Rangoon and then go to India.”  I said, “Look, sorry…”

IN: Rangoon?

KU: Rangoon, Burma.

IN: But I don’t understand. The ship, but how did you end up in France if you’re going to Rangoon?

KU: I’ll tell you. We were three months at sea.

IN: Yes.

KU: We went on SS Kemmendine. According to me, we went straight.  But, according to another Indian in Gibraltar, he told me that we’re first going to Mediterranean to go via Suez Canal.

IN: Yeah.

KU: Because of the Mediterranean was full of Italian submarines…

IN: Right.

KU:…they had to trans… They had to move towards Cape Town.  So we went to Cape Town.  We had our drilling… Cape Town then to Indian Ocean to Rangoon.  Two days before reaching Rangoon, a very friendly ship, supposed to be a friendly ship, came nearly by and made us stop. And we said: “What’s happening?” We all came out early in the morning to find out exactly what was happening. And they said: “Well, practice, practice it’s only practice, they’re doing practice” That was what Indian waiters and so on said. “Don’t worry!”. After some time, we went to abandon ship because the Germans, it was a German raider [Atlantis], who said “Put the boats outside the Atlantis.” I got the story written by Spanish author.

IN: Oh yeah?

KU: Oh the Atlantis, That was the captain on the ship.  And the name of the ship.  And they came near and said, “Abandon ship.”  We had to abandon ship.  We went in a boat. And then with the megaphone –they had another boat going around– they said: “Come over.”  “Those who want to come, they can come to the German raider, German ship”. So, our boat went to the German ship.  I was a bit seasick and my brother, younger brother also.  And we went to that side.  And a German sailor picked me up and took me upstairs, took my brother, my family, sister, and so on.  My mother was pregnant… for a child and they had to make, a special stretcher for her to lift her up to the ship.  And the Germans were very nice in those days.  And they had a big tinajas tin of orange juice, orange squash, and lemon squash.  And each… each one came was brought up. We were… And they gave us very luxurious cabins on the corridor, on the same floor.  Fantastic! The other crew members were put into the holds.  But we were just perfect.  And they became very friendly.  And the captain of the ship apologised to my father as leader of the community, and to.. to other people also.  And this is “we apologise to interrupt your journey in a British ship and we are at war with Britain”.  So, but they were very nice to us. Sailors used to tell us stories that at night time when we’d come out.  They couldn’t even smoke a cigarette.  There were always afraid of someone coming at them.

IN: [Mm.]

KU: So, we stayed there about three weeks.  And each time they had another ship to sink, they would lock us up in our cabins. Don’t come out.  And there, put… what do you call this…?

MX: Latch?

KU: …These windows.

IN: Portholes.

KU: Portholes, they were…close the portholes also.  We had to close the port holes.  And we couldn’t see what’s going on the ship whether they were fighting another ship.  They sank three ships.  The fourth one or maybe the third one was a cargo ship.  And then we have been three weeks there and we were becoming too full up, too many prisoners of war. So they transferred us, many of us families and a few children and so on, and a few people transferred to the Norwegian ship because it had a valuable cargo.

IN: Norwegian?

KU: Norwegian. The name was Tirranna. So on that ship, they transferred us.  And from there, the.. we had to go to France.  So: Kemmendine, Atlantis and Tirranna. We went around the Cape again to France. Every night, we used to have our life vests on, hoping that a British submarine doesn’t sink us because we were under the German flag.  And we reached the French coast. Happy! “Oh, we have reached!” In the morning, nine o’clock approximately, we were watching the coast and getting there. We were all ready to go to the next port. So we went to the next port and the British submarine saw us.  In three minutes, there was nothing left.

IN: Mm.

KU: My whole family was there in that boat and I was upstairs playing with a train which an English boy had given me as a present that same morning or that same day or same week.  And I was playing with the train, pulling the train after having lunch.  I went upstairs to play with him with the train on the deck.  And then when this thing happened, I dropped the train and held the bar.  I would have gone down with that Tirranna ship. Then my cook asked me to come down the steps, leave the thing, come down slowly here, take me out and put me on the raft.  That’s the third ship, no?  The third ship.  Then the fourth cruiser came and picked us up.  Later on about six or seven o’clock, after 3 or 4 hours at sea and picked us up and took us to port to Royan.  And then they made, it was a dark already, they, we were transported by lorries to all our destinations.

IN: So that ship that left Gibraltar, was it-  Who was on the ship?

KU: Huh?

IN: The ship that left Gibraltar on its way to Rangoon…

KU: [That’s right.]

IN: …[was] full of?

KU: There were 30.  There were about 30 from Gibraltar.

IN: [But there were I-]

KU: [I’ve got a photograph of.]

IN: [But there were Indian Gibraltarians?]

KU: [Thirty Indians] yeah.

IN: So why were the Indian Gibraltarians sent to Rangoon and everybody else sent to London…?

KU: [That’s because] people decided to go away sooner but we wait up to the last minute.  That was wrong anyway.

IN: Yeah.

KU: And… we left Gibraltar all hoping to get back to IndiaMy family passed away and a few others…

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On 01/06/2016
By Andrew Canessa

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