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Royal Naval Hospital Annex

Ref: HLBP1/014

The British Military Hospital (BMH) annex were originally an F. O. Quarters (No. 45 and 46) predating the hospital which was converted into the Matron and Sister’s Quarters soon after the construction of the BMH. These Quarters were however too small for the number of nurses employed so soon other nearby buildings were converted as Sisters Quarters. The 1908 OS Map of Gibraltar shows the location of various buildings converted for the accommodation of the nurses.

Nursing Sister’s Quarters to the South and South-West of the Main Military Hospital. The annex is identified as the Matron’s and Nursing Sister’s Quarters.

In 1902, a year before the construction of BMH Gibraltar the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (Q.A.I.M.N.S) was formed. Queen Alexander, after whom the service was named, took a personal and very real interest in its formation which ensured its success and recognition as an integral part of H.M’s Regular Forces.1

Just like in all other stations, Q.A.I.M.N.S could not be married or have children, so they were expected to live in quarters and run their own Mess. The annex became one such Sister’s Quarter. In 1914, at the outbreak of WWI, the Service was only about 300 strong, but during 1914 a total of 2,223 trained nurses were enrolled into the Reserve, and of those 1,803 were sent abroad.2

During 1915, the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C), based at the BMH provided vital medial support and treatment to hospital ships arriving with wounded Australian, British and New Zealand military personnel form the Dardanelles campaign. Volunteers from the Q.A.I.M.N.S were dispatched to Gibraltar to assist with the vast numbers of wounded arriving at the BMH Gibraltar. Additional Sisters Quarters were built further down Europa Road to take charge of the over-flow of patients being treated at a second military hospital consisting of two blocks at Europa Point. A large hospital, such as BMH Gibraltar, was run by a Matron, whilst smaller hospitals were usually administered by a Sister-in-Charge.

Sister Alice Telford and wounded Australians at BMH

Q.A.I.M.N.S at the Sister’s Quarters opposite South Block, Europa Road.

Q.A.I.M.N.S at their Europa Road Quarters near Europa Flats.

In the period between the two World Wars, the Q.A.I.M.N.S had was being gradually accepted and formerly integrated within the British Army structure. In 1926 members of Q.A.I.M.N.S were granted relative rank in King’s Regulations. In 1940, they were authorized to wear relative rank badges. In 1941 they became commissioned officers of the women’s forces with equivalent rank as army officers.3

The lack of adequate accommodation and facilities for the Nursing Sisters near the hospital was eventually resolved with the demolition of the old F.O Quarters and the construction of the present edifice built in the Art-Deco style fashionable in Gibraltar during the 1930’s.4 Suitable accommodation for the Nursing Section was vital during this time and in the years that followed. For example, British Military Hospital cared for casualties of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Among the casualties were 83 men from the German cruiser Deutschland which had been bombed while at anchor off the Spanish island of Ibiza. The hospital had already been at capacity due to casualties from HMS Hunter (H35), a Royal Navy ship that had hit a mine while on patrol near Almeria in May 1937. At the same time, staff were tending to casualties from HM Maine, a hospital ship. Many of the casualties had sustained burn injuries. 53 Germans were treated at the BMH, the rest at the Colonial Hospital.

The influx of casualties was such that four nurses; Sister G. E. Morgan, Sister N. K. Smythe and Staff Nurses M. R. Ilkin and M. Ellis arrived at Gibraltar by flying boat (because the airstrip had not yet been built) to assist in the care of the remaining German casualties. General Sir Charles Harrington Harrington, Governor of Gibraltar at the time was truly impressed later writing… ‘Four Sisters were later sent out by air; only one had flown before. They arrived one afternoon and two of them insisted upon going on duty within two hours of arrival. I was truly proud of them’5

Almost all the casualties were suffering from terrible burns. Two or three died, but the remainder, after weeks and months, recovered. The Germans were so appreciative of the goodness of the medical officers, nursing sisters and medical orderlies, that they honoured them by the grant of German decorations, and signed photographs, etc.6

The Deutschland in Gibraltar after the attack

A total of 37 German Red Crosses were awarded by the Third Reich for saving German sailors hurt on the Deutschland. These included 2 Grand Crosses, 5 I Class Crosses, 9 II Class Crosses, and 21 Ladies Crosses to members of the Q.A.I.M.N.S, the highest German honour which could be awarded to medical staff. Also included with the medal was a certificate bearing Adolf Hitler’s own name. The Q.A.I.M.N.S recipients included Matron Margaret (Madge) Russell Casswell, (Matron of the BMH Gibraltar from 1933-37), Sister Gertrude Morgan (later Colonel), Sister M.G. Burton, Sister Margaret Paula Lewis, Sister Cargill Lockhead, Sister Catherine McShane, Sister M. ellis, Sister M. R. Ilkin and Sister Nora K. Smythe. Matron Russell Casswell would later earn the unique distinction of having been commended by both Churchill and Hitler for her services to nursing!

The recipients were invited aboard the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, which arrived in Gibraltar around three months after the incident. Following a tea-part on board, they were each presented with the Order of the German Red Cross including Governor Harrington. Three Gibraltarians also received their respective medals; George Imossi the Germun Consul, Matron Adela Giraldi and Nurse Cantos of the Colonial Hospital.7

By then, Sister Morgan had already been transferred to BMH Quetta. In presenting the medal to Sister Morgan, George Imossi the German Consul in Gibraltar, wrote:

I have much pleasure in presenting under separate cover the Ladies’ medal of the German Red Cross, as an appreciation and thankfulness on the part of the German Government, by the very good work done by you in tending the wounded of the Panzerschiff Deutschland at the Military Hospital…8

Matron Madge Russell Casswell was one of 37 staff given medals by the Third Reich for saving German sailors hurt on the Deutschland in the Spanish Civil War.

Sister Gertrude E. Morgan’s medals, including the German Order of the Red Cross

During World War II, casualties from the Malta area were treated at BMH Gibraltar while their ships were serviced at the Naval dockyard. More members of Q.A.I.M.N.S were dispatched to Gibraltar to assist the R.A.M.C at the BMH and other underground hospitals being built; Gort's Hospital, Fordham's Hospital, Monkey's Cave Convalescent Hospital and Flat Bastion Road Hospital.

In 1963, the 60-year-old BMH was taken over by the Royal Navy and was subsequently renamed as the Royal Naval Hospital (RNH). However, in consequence of the vast reduction of military personnel during the next thirty years, the RNH gradually closed down most of its wards and facilities – including the annex.

View of the BMH and annex circa 1970’s. The other old Sister’s Quarters can be seen as the buildings with the grey roof opposite.

By 2007, the capacity at the RNH, originally designed to accommodate 300, had been reduced to just 25 beds.

By then the rest of the complex however, including the annex, had been left vacant for a number of years and it was noted that the physical fabric of many parts of the buildings had by then deteriorated rapidly. In its assessment and consideration for alternative use of building it recommended that:

‘Due to the historical and architectural value of the hospital, the preference would be for the retention of the existing buildings and their conversion for an alternative use that respects their character and appearance. Only in the eventuality that the Government is satisfied that it would not be feasible or viable to retain the buildings would a new build scheme be considered for this site’.9

Plans to convert the old RNH into a new Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers’ residential home into a 92 bed facility had been formerly proposed in 2011 by the then GSD Government. This was subsequently revised by the incoming GSLP/Lib Government which opted to reduce its original capacity to create instead a more fit for purpose 52-bedroom Mental Health facility and a separate Dementia Day Care Centre facility, including eight respite beds. Renovation works which began in 2012 were completed in early 2015 with the new facility being named Ocean Views.

With the completion of the two main blocks, works to convert the annex and the remaining South Block began in 2015. The annex was converted into the Bella Vista Dementia Day Centre whilst the adjacent South Block was to house the new Hillsides Dementia Care Residential Facility. Both projects were completed by early 2017.


The old annex now converted into the new Bella Vista Day Care Centre

Royal Naval Hospital Annex Image