Evaders and Oranges, The Seville Escape Route

Evaders and Oranges, The Seville Escape Route to Gibraltar

By Bruce Bolinger, AFEES webmaster

Bob Kellows, in his book Paths to Freedom, described how, with the assistance of the British Embassy in Madrid, he reached the British naval base at Gibraltar.  He merely took a train from Madrid to a local train station near Gibraltar, then a bus, and, finally, walked across the border.  But travel by public transportation could be risky, requiring guides, false ID, etc.  In that case, why not travel by car, such as diplomatic cars, which would not be subject to searches by the Spanish police?   But diplomatic cars would draw attention, both from the Spanish police and German agents, and had limited space.   In addition, the Spanish roads were in terrible condition in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, making it impossible to drive directly from Madrid to Gibraltar, with the road to Gibraltar the worst of all.  What’s more, the Spanish police controlled the roads and you did not want them or German agents being able to calculate the sheer number of evading airmen.  For these reasons the British looked for alternate ways for evaders to reach Gibraltar, one of which was by hiding airmen in Norwegian merchant ships sailing from Seville to the U.K. by way of Gibraltar.

Norway’s Merchant Ships and Notraship

Before WWII, Norway’s merchant fleet was larger than the those of Germany, Italy, or France.  Only the merchant fleets of the U.S., U.K., and Japan were larger.   Following the German invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, the Germans and their Norwegian collaborator, Vidkun Quisling, radioed to the Norwegian ships that they should sail for German-controlled waters.  But the orders were ignored.  The British Ministry of Shipping arranged for insurance for the Norwegian ships, contingent on their sailing for Allied harbors, and radioed the announcement to the ships.  Approximately 1000 Norwegian ships that weren’t in German-controlled ports consequently were placed under the control of the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission, known as Nortraship, which soon had offices in London and New York.  Adding a thousand Norwegian ships to the Allied shipping fleets was of enormous benefit. Norwegian ships would continue to deliver British coal to Portugal and, via Gibraltar, to Spain; iron ore from Spain to the U.K.; copper and pyrite from the Spanish port of Huelva; and bitter Seville oranges to Hartley’s, the marmalade producer in Liverpool.  A particularly important Spanish export was wolfram, better known as tungsten.  Its resistance to high temperatures, hardness, density, and strengthening of alloys made it important for use in military weapons and equipment. (See photo #1 at end of article.)

German Sabotage of Allied Shipping

Seville is the only inland port in Spain and was famous as the European port of departure and commercial capital of the Spanish Empire in the 16th Century.  It is only some 58 miles by road from the port of Huelva, which, during WWII, was a hub of espionage, with German activity centered on reporting British shipping.  Huelva was the city used by the British for its Operation Mincemeat, in which a body containing false information (“The Man Who Never Was”) was deposited in the ocean and allowed to wash ashore.  Huelva was also an important mining center, especially for copper, the British Rio Tinto Co. having been established in 1873 to conduct the mining operations.

Since the Spanish government objected to the Germans blowing up Allied shipping in Spanish waters, the Germans devised a “bilge-keel bomb” that would be attached to the British and Norwegian ships while at anchor in Spanish waters.  It was designed so that as the ship begins to move, a timing device would go into action, with a detonation occurring after so many revolutions of the vanes, conveniently outside of Spanish territory.  In addition, Italian frogmen would attach limpet mines to the keels of Allied ships at anchor at Gibraltar.  One seaman noted 20-30 ships at Gibraltar with their backs broken by limpet mines.  To combat this, the British used anti-personnel depth charges dropped into the sea from boats every few minutes, mainly at night because the enemy scuba divers worked under cover of darkness.

Even longshoremen in the U.K., unloading cargo from Seville, had to be on the lookout for time bombs planted by German agents in crates of oranges.

And, of course, the ships were the targets of attacks by German planes, U-boats, raiders, and mines.

Armament of Norwegian Ships; DEMS Personnel

The Norwegian and British merchant ships were not defenseless against attack.  One such ship, the Norwegian ship Lisbeth, which, in January 1944, had five Allied airmen hidden in its ship’s propeller shaft compartment, had the following:

  •  A four-inch gun of WWI vintage mounted on the stern, requiring a five-man gun crew.
  • Two Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, one on each end of the flying bridge, which could be angled down to aim at submarines as well.  A protective framework around each gun prevented its 22-mm shells from accidentally hitting the ship.  The shells used were the same size as those used on Spitfires.  The guns were manned around the clock.  (See photo #2 at end of article.)
  • Two Hotchkiss machine-guns.  Stored when not in use, they were mounted on the rear part of the boat deck.
  • DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship).  The DEMS personnel were drawn equally from the Royal Navy and British Army and were responsible for manning the guns.
  • The Lisbeth was “degaussed”, i.e., demagnetized to protect it from magnetic mines but not from impact or acoustic mines.
  • One of the airmen hidden in the Lisbeth remembered a rocket-shaped balloon on a cable attached to the ship to protect it from dive bombers, most likely used when the ship was at anchor.
  • All members of the crew had gunnery practice because there were not enough DEMS men.
  • The ship was equipped with lifeboats and Carley floats, sliding frames that would slide off and float if the ship was sunk.

Transport from Madrid to Seville

To avoid drawing attention to the airmen when they were moved from the British Embassy in Madrid to Seville, different forms of transport were used.  In one case five men were moved on January 7, 1944, including Stan Munns, RAF, in an ambulance, probably provided by Dr. Francisco Luque, director of the Red Cross Hospital in Madrid; another in a diplomatic car, probably from the British Embassy; and a third man, 2nd Lt. Tom Applewhite, on a flatbed truck with some drunken Spanish sailors who kept encouraging him to join them in song as the truck careened through the towns en route to Seville.

The Escape Organization in Seville

Four people in Seville were the primary figures in the escape line: Eustace Formby, the British Vice-Consul for Seville; Robert Griffith Evans, local representative of the MacAndrews Co.; Evans’ wife May; and Fredrik Nergard, the Norwegian consul. 

Eustace Formby (see photo #3 below) came to Spain with his brother in the 1920s as a telecommunications engineer to help Spain’s telephone company.  His brother returned to the U.K. but Eustace met a local girl, living in Seville, and decided to stay.    The Supplement to the London Gazette of Jan. 1, 1934 listed appointments to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), among them Eustace Formby, British Vice-Consul at Seville.  During the war he worked out of the British Consulate at Mateos Gago #7, in downtown Seville, a short distance from the Seville cathedral. (See photo #4 at end of article.)   Evading airmen were sometimes housed at the pension Calle Fabiola, a two-minute walk from the consulate, and other times at Formby’s home where a room had been converted to a small dorm for them.  The consulate paid all costs of lodging, trips, and Spanish helpers.

The MacAndrews Co. was a Scottish shipping company founded in 1770 that began by specializing in importing fruit from Spain, Portugal, and the Azores.  During WWII it had a weekly ship’s service between Seville and the U.K., mainly carrying oranges to the U.K., but sailing first to Gibraltar to join a convoy.  The best marmalade was made from bitter Seville oranges destined for marmalade maker Hartley’s of Liverpool.  The Seville agent for MacAndrews, Robert Griffith Evans, was enlisted into the escape system by the British Ambassador to Spain, Samuel Hoare.  Evans and his wife, May, were Welsh and, when they needed to talk to contacts at the British Embassy in Madrid, they would speak in Welsh, it being unlikely that Spanish police or German agents wiretapping the conversation would be able to understand.  May described what would happen: “They would ring me from the embassy on a private phone to say they had a parcel for me.”  She would meet a contact and create cover stories for escapees. (See photo #5 of Robert Griffith Evans, Samuel Hoare, and May Evans at end of article.)

Robert Evans’ normal work was to take care of the needs of the visiting merchant ships, including ordering supplies for the ship’s steward, paying port fees, interceding with port authorities, and delivering final messages before a ship sailed. When in port, all communications to a ship came from either the shipping agent or the consulate. Evans also would pick up from the British consulate a certificate of origin for the British customs authorities in the U.K. and prepare a bill of lading.  All these activities gave Evans good reason for regular visits to the ships.

The notebook of Einar Apeland, captain of the Norwegian ship Lisbeth, for example, shows two meetings with representatives of the MacAndrews Company while the ship was in port at Seville from January 3-7, 1944.  One probably was by Evans, the other by his wife.  One subterfuge used to get airmen on board a ship past the Spanish guard assigned to it was a drunken party in the captain’s quarters.  Evans’ wife, May, would liaise with the ship’s captain and then invite members of the British expatriate colony in Seville to the party.  Captain Apeland’s birthday was Jan. 6, 1944.  On Jan 7, five airmen arrived in Seville and a birthday party in honor of the captain served as cover for slipping them on board.  With guests coming and going, the Spanish guard would not have been able to distinguish the airmen from the guests, least of all once he had been provided a bottle of wine to keep him occupied.

Typically, a single Spanish guard would be placed on a visiting merchant ship.  These men were from the Spanish Army, not the Guardia Civil, the feared Spanish police.  One British seaman, Jack MacAvoy, recalled, “There only seemed to be one guard at a time.  They never asked for any ID and used to stand on the gangplank near the bottom.  They were bone idle, bored with nothing to do, and often hot.  Occasionally they would be invited on board for a coffee on the bridge or on the midship’s deck.  Without prior warning I would receive a verbal order to ‘get rid of the guard for a while.’  I would go down and via a few words and signs we would have a leisurely stroll along the docks.  This was after I had given him a pack of 200 cigarettes.  After about 20 minutes we would return and all was well.”  MacAvoy notes that the guard never checked members of the crew getting on and off the ship.

H.J. Spiller, RAF, in his book, Ticket to Freedom, describes how, after staying at the home of Vice-Consul Formby several nights, he and the other airmen with him were met there by a ship’s captain who explained how the airmen were to pretend to be drunken members of his crew.  Fortified by drinks even before they set out from the Formby home en route to the docks, they also stopped at a small tavern near the dock where several seamen had congregated.  “For a few minutes we sat drinking a raw red wine until a bell sounded on the boat,” wrote Spiller.   This time there were Spanish police at the bottom of the gangplank.  But the airmen and seamen, singing their hearts out in drunken fashion, had no problem with the police, who were very amused.  The captain confronted them at the top of the gangplank and, for the benefit of the watching police, cuffed Spiller’s ear, ordering him below.  (See photo #6 below of the Norwegian ship Lisbeth after the war.)

Lastly, there was Fredrik Nergard, the Norwegian consul, who worked for La Compañia de Maderas, a company specializing in importing Nordic lumber.  Norwegian sailors from ships that had been interned, who were trying to return home, were given clothing and food by Nergard and his assistant, Reidar Dehli, both of whom also wrote letters to the seamen’s families in Norway letting them know the sailors’ whereabouts.  In one case a Norwegian merchant ship had been interned in Spanish Morocco.  Nine sailors from the ship made it to Seville on a small boat and were lodged in the homes of Nergard and Dehli, where they passed Christmas of 1940.  When the time was right, they were surreptitiously placed on a Norwegian ship that was part of a convoy for England. (See photo #7 below of Nergard.)

Even if a Spanish Army guard posted on a ship’s gangplank was casual about his duties and could easily be distracted, the Guardia Civil, the national police, was a greater risk, carrying out searches of ships when they arrived and before they departed.  They mainly looked for any type of contraband, checked the crew, and confirmed the goods according to the official manifest.

Hiding Places on Ships and Use of Diplomatic Cars

Hiding places on ships varied from one to the next.  The British sailor Jack MacAvoy described how a secret cabin had been built in his ship in the hold, forward of amidships.  The only access to it was by a door from the engine room which opened into the room.  On the one occasion when he went into the cabin, he saw twenty bunks “in twos, one on top of the other, ‘POW style’, and a couple of tables.”  It housed 20 men who were speaking French.  On another occasion in 1943, MacAvoy said, he shared his double cabin located on the boat deck with a well-educated civilian wearing a suit and carrying a suitcase, who got off in Seville.  The following year, when MacAvoy was in Gibraltar, someone called out “Sparks!”.  It was the same man but this time he was a Major in British Army uniform wearing a kilt.

The propeller shaft of a merchant ship was sometimes used as a hiding place.  H.J. Spiller described it thusly: “A succession of doors, hatches, ladders, and catwalks led us to a small confined space somewhere in the bowels of the vessel.  A square metal door in the bulkhead was opened by the mate and we looked in. ‘This is the propeller shaft locker,’ he said.  ‘You will be in here until the boat is searched and we are out on the river on the way to the sea.  No one ever comes down here.’  The propeller shaft seemed to take up most of the room but we managed to squeeze in with our legs underneath it, and with our chests some six inches away.  We sat in complete darkness, oil and other nautical smells strong in our nostrils, not daring to talk in case we revealed our presence.  The propeller shaft began to revolve, faster and faster flashing past within inches of my face.”  Eventually they were allowed out and invited up to the saloon cabin where the captain had a small celebration organized for them, which included some excellent rum.

A variation on the above was the experience on the Lisbeth on Jan. 7, 1944. The five airmen who were to be hidden on the ship arrived with more liquor, pretending to be more guests.  As soon as they had all arrived, the other guests were told that the party was over and were dismissed.  (Years later, one of the airmen, Tom Applewhite, the last airman to arrive, complained that he never did get a drink at the party.)  The airmen were taken down into the ship and placed in a small compartment next to a boiler that hadn’t been fired up yet.  But the boiler was quickly fired up for departure and the compartment became too hot, with the airmen banging on the door to be let out.   They were moved again, this time down to the coal bunker and put through a hatch down into the ship’s propeller shaft compartment. They were given sandwiches, water, and a bucket for waste.  There was a platform at one end lit by a dim bulb where they settled down.  Coal was shoveled over the hatch to disguise it from any Spanish police who might search the ship.  The men were only too aware that if the ship was torpedoed and they were still in the propeller shaft compartment, they would not survive.  (See ship’s diagram #8 below showing side view of the Lisbeth and its propeller shaft.)

In addition to men being hidden on merchant ships, it was likely that the British Consulate’s car in Seville was also used to transport men hidden in the car to Gibraltar or the reverse.  Flying the British flag, the car would be saluted by the Spanish police.  Returning to Spain, Spanish Customs would ask if they had anything to declare, whereupon the driver would say “No!”

The Voyage to Gibraltar

A merchant ship sailing up the Guadalquavir River to Seville or back down it, relied on a river pilot for navigation.  With the five men hidden safely on board, the Norwegian ship Lisbeth departed the Seville docks at 3 p.m. on Jan. 7, 1944 and five hours later anchored at the small port of Bonanza, located near the mouth of the Guadalquivir, to let off the river pilot, having averaged a speed of nine knots, or a little over 10 mph.  Having done that, typically, such a ship would continue on to Gibraltar, the total time of the voyage taking about 24 hours.  But, instead, the Lisbeth remained there at anchor for three days, the five men in the propeller shaft compartment having no idea what was going on.  Since the Spanish police were unlikely to conduct a search of the ship there, what appears to have happened is that Captain Apeland received a message from the British Admiralty, relayed by Eustace Formby in Seville, or his counterpart, Guy D. Williams, the British consul in Jerez de la Frontera, a town close to Bonanza, to stay put until Jan. 10.  The Royal Navy, preparing for the next convoy to England, did not want ships converging on Gibraltar prematurely.  Sabotage by enemy frogmen was always a risk, hence the delay.

During the night of Jan. 10-11, the five airmen probably shared the DEMS mess and their bunks, a great improvement over the propeller shaft compartment.  Because of the risk of the ship being spotted by a German submarine while at sea at night, there were no ship’s lights at all and lighting a cigarette, especially on deck, was “dissuaded.”  Lights in the cabins were bed lights, portholes had metal covers on the inside to keep light from going out or water from coming in, and passageways had two curtains near each other, each with a gap for passage but at opposite edges.  On the way to Gibraltar, the men were able to see the lights of Cadiz.  En route, the Lisbeth was stopped and boarded by a British warship, probably to confirm that it was, indeed, a Norwegian ship and not a German warship, probably from Brest a German naval base on the coast of France, disguised as a merchant ship.  During the night the radio shack on the Lisbeth picked up a signal that a ship on the other side of Gibraltar had been torpedoed, probably by the U-380.

On arriving in the Bay of Gibraltar on Jan. 11, 1944, there was a little ceremony involving the five men and Capt. Apeland. (See photo # 9 below of Captain Apelan.) The captain apologized for having kept them in the propeller shaft for so long.  In return, the men thanked the captain.  The four American airmen in the group were given six days for sightseeing on Gibraltar (see photo #11 below) but poor Stan Munns, the only British member of the group, was assigned to night guard duty at the airfield.   On Jan. 17, following debriefing by Donald Darling of MI9, the men were flown back to England, their plane using a route that took it way out into the Atlantic to avoid the risk of attack by German fighters from Brest. (See photo # 12 below.)

Brigadier William Torr, the military attaché at the British Embassy in Madrid, summed it up nicely.  He said that the total number of Allied military personnel returned to Allied control from Spain during WWII was 30,951.

Photos:

  1. Merchant ship loading cargo at Seville docks during WWII

2. Oerlikon Anti-Aircraft Gun

3. Eustace Formby, British Vice-Consul in Seville

4. British Consulate, Seville

5. Robert Griffith Evans (light-colored coat), Seville agent for MacAndrews Co.; Samuel Hoare, British ambassador to Spain; May Andrews

6. Norwegian ship Lisbeth after the war

7. Fredrik Nergard, Norwegian consul

8. Diagram of the Lisbeth, Norwegian merchant ship

9. Einar Apeland, captain of the Lisbeth

10. Practice air raid at Gibraltar

11. Street scene at Gibraltar

12. Lockheed Hudson taking off from Gibraltar