The star of Our Girl, who previously played Tina McIntyre on Coronation Street, has a grandmother from Gibraltar, Mary Wiltshire, and decided to visit The Rock to trace her roots. She discovered that her great-grandmother Leonor Orfila from Gibraltar married her great-grandfather, Englishman Charles Wiltshire, in 1932. She recalled that, according to her mother Jackie, Leonor and Charles “didn’t like to be apart”.
Sadly, due to circumstances outside their control, they were apart for a number of years.
Historian Jennifer Ballantyne told Michelle: “They look like a beautiful family, but let me tell you that by 1940 the family would have been torn apart, like every other family in Gibraltar was torn apart at the time.
“Because of World War 2 and the evacuation of the civilian population of Gibraltar.
“The military establishment in Gibraltar was preparing for Gibraltar to function as a military fortress, so having civilians in Gibraltar posed all sorts of problems.”
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Michelle Keegan and her husband Mark Wright
The Rock of Gibraltar
Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory attached to the southern tip of Spain, which was ceded to Britain in 1713.
During World War 2 it was strategically important for the Allies, giving them control of naval traffic between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.
It was therefore a target for enemy bombs, and around 16,000 civilians were evacuated, mainly women, children and the elderly.
Some went to Madeira, others to Jamaica and some families went to London.
Michelle with historian Jennifer Ballantyne
This means Michelle’s great-grandmother Leonor and her children would have left Gibraltar, while her great-grandfather Charles stayed behind.
Ms Ballantyne told Michelle: “Charles would have remained as an electrician; he certainly would have had an important role to play within the war effort in Gibraltar.”
For the majority of the six-year long war, the family was separated.
Leonor, 31, and her children – Michelle’s grandmother Mary, who was six years old at the time, and her two brothers Alfred, 4, and Stuart, 2 – departed from Gibraltar on the ‘Ulster Monarch’ ship.
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Michelle’s great-grandmother and great-grandfather
Michelle reflected on this, saying: “My great-grandad and my great-grandma never liked to be apart – they were never apart.
“They loved each other very much. So to be on her own with three kids would have been absolutely terrifying for her.”
They also travelled with Michelle’s great-uncle Michael – her grandmother’s cousin – who was also six at the time, and his parents Jose and Maria.
Michelle organised to meet up with Michael, 84, who still lives in Gibraltar.
He told her that he was close with her grandmother Mary growing up, and that they were more like brother and sister than cousins.
Describing the evacuation, he said: “It took about 16 days to get there. And there were six toilets for 300-400 people in the boat.
“When we got to London, they took us to a place to wash us with brushes, in case we had any germs or anything like that.
“We stayed in London for four years, at Lancaster Gate opposite Hyde Park.
Michelle’s great-uncle Michael
“It was quite good, because we used to go to the pictures, to the toy shop, to the park and play with the other boys.”
As for the mothers, he said they “had to put up with that they had, you cannot choose”.
Of course, London was not free from the war either, and less than a month after the evacuees arrived, The Blitz started.
Indeed, many English children were evacuated out of London, not in.
Michael explained that they used to go to the Underground during the air raids and he remembers the sound of the bombs.
He said: “I remember looking out of the window one day and I saw a flying bomb on its way to Hyde Park.
“Even the road in front of us was bombed. We saw it.”
Michelle was in awe at what she had learned about her family and said she was “proud” of how they managed to cope in very difficult circumstances.