October 2019 marks the 80th Anniversary of the establishment of the RAF in Gibraltar.
In 1939 upon the declaration of war, the RAF sent the first of a number of flying boat squadrons to Gibraltar to protect British shipping from German U Boats under the command of the famous Admiral Donitz. By October that year, the U Boats had already sunk three merchant ships.
On the 27th of October 1939, orders were given to build an airfield at North Front, which is now the site of Gibraltar International Airport. This airfield proved indispensable in the allied invasion of North Africa, which eventually contributed to the conquest of Italy and ultimately the collapse of the German-led Axis.
Every year since 1949, the Royal Air Force in Gibraltar has commemorated its most significant victory, that of the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 with an open day. The Battle of Britain saw an outnumbered RAF initially resist and finally fend off a massive attack from the Luftwaffe, which was to be the prelude of Hitler’s invasion of Great Britain (Operation Sea Lion).
Scant airborne resources had to be redeployed from the protection of the retreating British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk to protect the British Isles from a threat of Nazi conquest which seemed almost a certainty at the time. This was achieved at a huge sacrifice of young British pilots, and it is therefore right that, even today, they should be commemorated.
The events this year included a “Battle of Britain Weekend” held at RAF Gibraltar, which included official dinners and a display by the Band and Corps of Drums of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment and a sunset ceremony conducted by members of the Gibraltar Air Training Corps. There was also a church service at the King’s Chapel.
Gibraltarians in the Skies
The contribution of Gibraltarians to the Royal Air Force is significant. The earliest Gibraltarian officer in the RAF was the enigmatic Salvador Gomez-Beare who was studying medicine at the University of Philadelphia in the USA on the declaration of World War I.
He travelled back to England to join the Devonshire Regiment, whose emblem was the Gibraltar coat of arms. Gomez was gassed in the trenches, and upon return to the front, joined the Royal Flying Corps which then became the RAF. In the Second World War he was commissioned to the Royal Navy as naval attaché to Madrid, and so is the only person ever to have been commissioned in all three British Armed Services.
Other Gibraltarians to have served in the RAF during the Second World War were the onetime Leader of the Gibraltar Bar Sam Benady, who flew missions in the “Battle of the Atlantic” and reconnaissance over enemy territory. 21-year-old Joseph Calamaro-Finlayson of Squadron 59 was killed in action.
Another barrister, Alfred Coll was a Squadron Leader. Sgt. Peter Buttigieg was captured and interned into a German prisoner of war camp; he wrote a book “We Weep No More” (1997). Other Gibraltarians who served the RAF during the war included Humbert Astengo, Frederick Bado, Richard Perera, Isobel Hall and Violet Peak of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Squadron Leader Gerald Rooney, Julio Andrew, Edward Ballester, Earnest Barea, Vincent Borge, Charles Danino, Pepe Rugeroni-Hope and John Zammit.