Thousands from the Campo de Gibraltar fled into exile

As Franco’s troops advanced, hundreds of people in nearly every town and village in the Campo de Gibraltar left. Many of them were union members, left-wing militants and republican sympathisers, who fled with their families to Málaga province. Many then went on to Almería, Valencia, Catalonia and France. More than 5,000 people saved their lives by entering Gibraltar, where they were housed in a refugee camp on the land where the airport stands today. Many went from there to North Africa, France, Britain or America.

Another of the more visible consequences of the war and the rebels’ repression of the civil population of the Campo de Gibraltar was the large number of people who left the towns and villages which were falling into the hands of the fascists. Tens of thousands of people left their homes, taking little more than the clothes they were wearing, and set off on journeys which took them in different directions.


They followed three main routes: through the mountains to Jimena, which was still in Republican hands and resisting Franco; along the coast to Málaga province; and to Gibraltar. The British colony has a long history of taking in those persecuted by Spanish politics, and in the 19th century it gave shelter to the liberals who were persecuted by the absolutist governments of Fernando VII and his successors. But the exodus which began on 19th July is unparalleled. About 10,000 people crossed the frontier to take refuge on the Rock, according to some historians, although the British government says there were about 4,000. In any case, old photographs show the tents on the land where the airport is today, between La Línea and Gibraltar, in which hundreds or thousands of people lived for months after fleeing from fascist terror. On that same day, 19th July, which was a public holiday in La Línea, the first people arrived from that town, fleeing from the shootings. Many had walked through the Sierra Carbonera and along the coast, coming from Málaga; some swam to Gibraltar or went in a boat from the town’s beaches, and the majority ran through what was then known as ‘neutral ground’ to enter Gibraltar.

After a few months, many of those who had taken refuge managed to leave Gibraltar by boat, heading for the cities which were in the hands of the Republican government such as Málaga, Valencia and Barcelona. Many joined the ranks of the different battalions of militias and the Republican army, as in the case of Fermín Salvoechea, anarchist, and Pablo Iglesias, a socialist supporter. Others left for Morocco and settled with their families in international Tangiers. A third group entered France through Marseilles port, and some left for Argentina or Mexico, or came back into Spain to fight the Francoist army. One of those was Rafael Candel, a teacher from Algeciras, who ended up living in the town of Comandante Rivadavia in Argentina, from where he broadcast the radio programme ‘Suspiros de España’. Some ended up fighting the Second World War as part of the French army, and some ended up in Nazi extermination camps.

Another group, under the false promises by the winners of the war that there would be no reprisals, chose to return home. They were nearly all detained at the border and imprisoned. There was also a group of refugees who were trade unionists, who stayed in Gibraltar until they died. Among them were Manuel López Liaño, Francisco Carretero and Manuel Viñas, all members of the anarchist CNT union.
After the civil war was over, Spanish people continued to flee from the dictatorship and go to Gibraltar, even in the 1940s. There were Republicans who had been able to hide and wanted to escape to Gibraltar before going on to Britain; guerrillas who abandoned their fight to go into exile, and prisoners who had escaped from the jails and slave camps. On 6th July 1939, 17 former Republican fighters escaped by swimming from the beach at la Línea, but only 16 reached Gibraltar. One drowned, just five metres from the shore of the Rock. The other 16 arrived, still with their weapons, but one of them also died as a result of the physical effort he had exerted. They had hidden in the mountains close to Málaga. The British press reported the incident.

The British authorities in Gibraltar always granted residence for six months, but this was not long enough for people to sort out their situation fully, and most of the refugees feared that they would be shot if they returned to Spain. Some of those who sought refuge in Gibraltar were Nicolás Martín Cantal, the last Republican civil governor of Granada, and Cristóbal Vera Saraiva, the mayor of Jimena de la Frontera in July 1936. Both arrived in Gibraltar once the war was over and then went into exile in Britain.

Links to learn more about the exodus of people from the Campo de Gibraltar: