Gibraltar to honour WW2 naval hero

The people of Gibraltar are to honour a wartime naval leader who defied orders to save thousands of the Rock’s inhabitants.

Commodore Kenelm Creighton brought more than 13,000 civilians back to Britain’s Mediterranean fortress in July 1940 – when they were stranded in a hostile land, their fate was uncertain and the Admiralty forbade their evacuation.

The veteran officer ignored instructions from London and Gibraltar, loaded the evacuees aboard the convoy he commanded – and ferried them home.

Eight decades later, the Government of Gibraltar has deemed his actions worthy of posthumous recognition with the Gibraltar Medallion of Honour, to be presented to his descendants.

The long road to honouring the veteran naval officer began in May and June 1940 when the authorities evacuated over 13,000 women, children and elderly citizens from Gibraltar to French Morocco to bolster the Rock with extra service personnel and shore up the British Empire’s position in the western Mediterranean.

In a matter of weeks, France was overrun, its colonies run by the Vichy regime, sympathetic to the Nazis, and the Royal Navy had attacked the French fleet at its North African base of Mers el Kebir to prevent major warships falling into the German hands and used against Britain in its showdown with Hitler.

All of which made the position of the Gibraltar evacuees in French Morocco untenable – as Kenelm Creighton found when he arrived in Casablanca with 15 battered freighters to repatriate 15,000 French soldiers, rescued from France before the country fell.

After the troops had disembarked, the senior French naval officer demanded Creighton take back the Gibraltar evacuees.

The Briton refused – his ships were in no fit state to take the Gibraltarians, especially the elderly and infirm.

The French admiral threatened to arrest Creighton and impound his convoy, and eventually forced the evacuees aboard the 15 ships at gun- and bayonet-point.

Now the commodore faced orders from his superiors to sail directly to Britain. He ignored those and sailed for Gibraltar instead.

It takes a brave man to stand up to authority in this way and there is no better time to mark his courageous actions for the benefit of our people

Dr Joseph Garcia, Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar

Even when the convoy arrived at the Rock, local authorities were reluctant to allow the evacuees ashore – fearing they would not be able to evacuate them a second time. Public demonstrations by Gibraltarians persuaded them otherwise.

In the coming weeks, the evacuees would be sent away again – this time to Britain, Madeira and Jamaica.

Had they been left in Casablanca, they would almost certainly have been interned in a prison camp in much worse conditions.

A memorial to Gibraltar’s evacuees stands on the Rock’s Waterport roundabout. A plaque acknowledging the naval officer’s role will be added to the monument, bearing the inscription: In gratitude – Rear Admiral Sir Kenelm Creighton KBE CVO (1883-1963) who in July 1940 assisted the people of Gibraltar in their hour of need.

Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia said it was the right time for Gibraltar to show the naval officer “the recognition that his actions deserve”.

He continued: “He stood up for and sympathised with the plight of the people of Gibraltar to the degree that he had to be threatened with arrest by the French and he had no hesitation in defying orders when he judged that following them would have put our people at risk.

“It takes a brave man to stand up to authority in this way and there is no better time to mark his courageous actions for the benefit of our people.”

The government had intended to honour Creighton, who served with distinction throughout World War 2, surviving the sinking of his ship on a convoy run to Gibraltar in September 1941 at the age of 58, last year to mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation, but the pandemic delayed plans.