Francis Silva during a recent radio interview. / D.B.

'Workers in Gibraltar took matters into their own hands and repaired the ship in secret, and unpaid'

The book, Red Ship and Red Tape, tells the little-known story of a Spanish destroyer which took refuge in Gibraltar, causing a real dilemma for the authorities there and in UKFrancis Silva Lead author of a new book about Gibraltar and the Spanish Civil War

GIBRALTAR.

Some people seem to pack more into every 24-hour day than most, and Francis Silva is one of them. In addition to his full-time job as a Civil Servant with the Government of Gibraltar, he is a history enthusiast and author, and his latest project is a book about a subject very close to his heart, the José Luis Díez, a Republican ship which had to take refuge in Gibraltar during the Spanish Civil War and the dilemma that caused for the Gibraltarian and UK authorities. Francis is the lead author of the book, which will be officially launched next month, and he took time out of his very busy schedule to tell us more about it.

–What first sparked your interest in the José Luis Díez story?

–A while back, I went to an exhibition on Gibraltar and the Civil War, which was organised by Unite the Union. I saw all the pain and suffering on the republican side, and that of the refugees in Gibraltar. I'm also interested in naval history, and realised that I didn't know much about this ship, so I dug into the history of it. Then a friend who knew about the research I was doing suggested that I write something for the Forum for Historical Memory in the Campo de Gibraltar. My aim was to write a clearer and more readable version of the correspondence between Gibraltar and London. In fact, I had already started to write about the different captains and crew of the José Luis Díez during the Civil War, highlighting the human side. What they went through was very dramatic, right from the beginning of the war. So that is also a chapter in the book.

–The ship tried to get through the Strait of Gibraltar, which was blockaded by Franco's ships, disguised as a British destroyer, but she was attacked and holed and took refuge in Gibraltar harbour, didn't she?

–Yes, and that caused a real dilemma for the Gibraltar and UK authorities because of the Non-Intervention agreement which meant they were not supposed to get involved in the Spanish war. It was further complicated by the fact that in general, the authorities were on Franco's side, although many of the working-class people in Gibraltar supported the republicans.

–It must have taken a tremendous amount of research to find all this information.

–Yes, I started with Internet articles, then local newspapers and I went to the National Archives in Gibraltar. The file on the José Luis Díez was kept in a separate room and I had to ask permission from the government to access it. It was declassified later, but at the time it was with the secret files. I also went to London, to the National Archives in Kew, and obtained copies of several files from the Admiralty and the Foreign Office. Apart from that, I also found a booklet by a crew member which had been published in Spain some time back, giving a first-hand account of what happened to the crew in Gibraltar and subsequently. In all, I went through hundreds of pages of documents. It has taken over a year, sifting through them, creating a clear picture from the information available.

–You are the lead author of the book, which is called Red Ship and Red Tape. Who are the other writers?

–We have been lucky enough to have contributions from three very well-known historians. Chris Grocott has written the introduction, Dr Gareth Stockey has written a chapter about the way that Gibraltar and the UK failed to comply with the Non-Intervention agreement in many ways, and in another chapter Luis Miguel Cerdera has given an overview of the ship itself and its other experiences during the Civil War.

–You have previously published articles and given talks on the José Luis Díez in Gibraltar, haven't you?

–Yes, I have written an article for the Gibraltar Heritage Trust Journal, which is coming out this month, on the salvage operation when the ship ran aground. In the end, with all the arguments between Gibraltar, the UK and the republicans and nationalists in Spain about what should happen to her, and local companies not wanting to repair her for different reasons, some of the dockyard workers decided to take matters into their own hands and repaired her secretly themselves, unpaid. The ship had arrived in August, but it wasn't until December that she was repaired, and she then attempted to leave in secret in the middle of the night. Spies in Gibraltar let off flares to warn the nationalist ships which were always waiting outside Gibraltar in case she tried to escape, and she was attacked again and ran aground off Catalan Bay. In the book, we also explain what happened to the captain, the crew and the ship after that. And last month I gave a talk to the Gibraltar Heritage Trust members at the John Mackintosh Hall, explaining my research and giving the background story of the ship and its crew in Gibraltar.

–Is there anything in Gibraltar nowadays to indicate that a Republican destroyer was there during the Spanish Civil War, and that local people repaired her?

–The ship's flag, which was sewn by a local lady, is now held by The Gibraltar National Museum. The José Luis Díez was flying that flag when she tried to leave Gibraltar. The Museum also has a silver plaque which was commissioned by the crew of the ship, after receiving so much help and support from the people of Gibraltar. For several years they were on display at the TGWU headquarters in London, and then they were returned. In the 1980s attempts were made to return the flag to Spain, but there didn't seem to be much interest.

–I must admit that I am not normally interested in naval or military history, but I found Red Ship and Red Tape not only fascinating but gripping. There is so much information which, I imagine, it would be rare to find elsewhere, and it is written in a way which is extremely readable. What are you going to do next? Have a well-deserved rest after all this research and hard work, or do you have any more projects in the pipeline?

–Well, I'm a history buff so I am always interested in carrying out research, especially in military history. I'm going to write about the 100-Ton Gun for the Gibraltar Heritage Trust Journal, and that could end up in a book on Victorian artillery. I could easily have written more about the José Luis Díez, but time was of the essence. You never know where research will take you. You follow a lead, and come across a myriad of interesting facts. It's fascinating. And it's addictive. There is a treasure trove of material to read and discover.