Former Royal Marines musician Gerald Miles spent a few precious moments thinking about the last time he was on the Rock back on Christmas Day 1963.
But there was nothing to celebrate on this festive day because Gerald along with his colleagues had just landed 55 bodies from the fire stricken ocean liner the TSMS Lakonia.
One hundred and twenty eight people died in the fire and its aftermath – 95 passengers and 33 crew members.
Gerald and his fellow musicians were on their way to the Far East on board the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Centaur when they were ordered to join other ships in the rescue operation.
Although 20 Merchant ships were soon at the scene of the disaster they are not allowed to retrieve dead bodies so the Centaur was summonsed to carry out the sad task.
When not playing their instruments, the Royal Marines musicians take on the role of First Aiders and on Christmas Eve 1963 they pulled 55 dead bodies from the icy cold waters of the Atlantic which they duly brought ashore at Gibraltar on Christmas Day.
“It was the one Christmas in the 76 years of my life that I will never forget, “ explained Gerald who paid a flying visit to Gibraltar last week….his first visit in 49 years.
“But we had never been faced with such an horrific task as on this occasion.
There were bodies bobbing about everywhere and our job was to recover all of them and take them ashore.
“We were also upset we couldn’t speak to our loved ones back home in the UK as ringing home was not so easy in those days, especially from on board ship.”
Fortunately, Gerald’s previous visit to the Rock – back in 1954 – had been a lot happier.
The musicians were on their way to the Far East and they called into Gibraltar for a week.
“That was a happy occasion as we hit the bars and restaurants and mixed with the locals,” explained Gerald who lives in Exmouth, Devon.
“There is simply no comparison to Gibraltar as it was then and now but I can understand why it remains such a major tourist attraction.
“As servicemen we were mostly interested in the bars in those days and there were plenty of them in the main street – in fact every other building was a bar.”
“I remember taking a taxi ride to the top of the Rock and seeing the apes and some of the tunnels but I was only 18 then and the bars were more of an attraction.
“Coming back after all these years has been a bit of a shock because although I have kept abreast of the many developments over the years to see the amount of reclaimed land and the skyscraper apartments for myself has been quite an eye-opener,” Gerald added.
”There’s no comparison … I remember the main street, the Rock and apes but so much else is new.” He met up with well known Gibraltarian resident Roy Button who served for many years with the RAF and who was only too aware of the plight of the Laconia.
Gerald, who recently celebrated his Golden Wedding with his wife Pauline, is proud of the role he played on that sad occasion.
By Clive Smith