Friday, 10 November 2023
The Second World War was the biggest armed conflict in history and undoubtedly the one that continues to arouse most interest. It lasted almost six years and claimed the lives of millions of people. Despite the Spanish government’s claim of non-belligerency, dozens of Allied soldiers, especially British, ended their days in clashes or accidents close to the Spanish coastline, and their remains rest in Spanish territory.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the organisation responsible for the care of military graves of the former British empire, recognises the existence in Spain of seventeen cemeteries with the remains of 85 soldiers and officers who died during the Second World War.
The largest number are in the British Cemetery in Bilbao, with 49, as remains were gathered there from different places. It is followed by Ceuta (10), Melilla (9), Mataró (5), Malaga (4), Madrid (3) and Huelva (2) and, with one grave each, Algeciras, Montjuich, Zahara de los Atunes, Figueras, Cervera, Palma, Peña (Navarra), Mazo (La Palma), Seville and the Catholic cemetery of Huelva.
In the latter the grave is of William Martin, the man who never existed, as that was the false identity created to turn a corpse into a tool at the service of Allied espionage to fool the Germans about plans to land in Europe.
The real name of the person whose remains lie in the Huelva necropolis is Glyndwr Michael, a homeless Welshman who died months earlier without anyone claiming his body. He was the unwitting protagonist of Operation Mincemeat.
The English Cemetery in Malaga has a rectangle covered with white pebbles in one of its sections. Inside there are four headstones that indicate that they are British military graves, according to the model that was established at the end of the First World War.
These are the graves of three airmen and a sailor who died during the 1939-1945 conflict. The first to arrive here was John MacGregor Maughan Patterson, a flying officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, whose aircraft, a Vickers Wellington, crashed into the sea at midnight on 9 January 1942 off Europa Point, after a stopover in Gibraltar on a flight from Portreath (Cornwall) to Malta.
Of the six crew members, there was only one survivor and two bodies were retrieved, that of the observer, recovered by a British ship and returned to the sea according to the usual ceremonial procedures, and that of Patterson, who was 25 years old at the time, and who, for reasons unknown, ended up in the Malaga cemetery, where he was laid to rest on 12 April of that year.
The other graves date from April 1946, when the bodies of three men who had been recovered from the sea and buried in the municipal cemetery of Marbella were transferred to Malaga.
They were two airmen of the rank of sergeant in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve: Francis William Calladine, who died aged 22 on 31 December 1942 when his plane crashed into the sea some 19 miles west of Gibraltar; and Albert Arthur Ross, 35, who lost his life when his Gibraltar-based reconnaissance plane crashed in the Straits on 3 June 1943.
The third, Major Wallace Douglas Stranack, 45, a veteran of the First World War, died on board the light cruiser HMS Manchester from injuries sustained when his ship was hit by an aerial torpedo dropped by an Italian aircraft on 23 July 1941 while escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to Malta.
The ship, despite the damage sustained, managed to return to Gibraltar, and Stranack’s body probably fell overboard. Twenty-five other crew members were killed or missing in the attack, and twelve of the troops on board were killed.
Every year in November, a Remembrance ceremony takes place in honour of the fallen, with a service in St George’s church, which stands in the cemetery, and wreath-laying at the war graves.
These four graves, each with a different epitaph, tell us a part of the history of the world from a corner of the English Cemetery. They offer yet another good reason to visit the cemetery which is tucked away in a peaceful corner of Malaga’s bustling city centre.
In the decades following the end of the war, names of people with a long record of service to the British Empire were added to the register of the old cemetery. They included Grace Effingham Laughton Bell. Grace and her sister Vera Laughton, daughters of the Cadiz-born María Josefa Alberti Arrigunaga, were among the first officers of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Grace reached the rank of superintendent and received the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Sydney James Knowles, among other services to the Royal Navy, was part of the underwater combat group stationed at Gibraltar to prevent sabotage by Italian frogmen.
The spy Desmond Bristow, who grew up in Huelva, was in charge of monitoring the movements of Italian saboteurs in the Campo de Gibraltar thanks to a dense network of informers. He later worked in the counter-espionage services and was suspicious of his friend Kim Philby before the latter went over to the Soviet side. Both had recruited the Spaniard Juan Pujol, Garbo, the most famous double agent of the war.
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