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In 2009, BHSP published a book entitled Eyewitness Accounts of the Portuguese Revolution (1974-1976), in which 36 members provided their recollections. The following summarises their memories of the week from 25 April to May Day 1974.


The Revolution seemed to have been a surprise for some, but many others report feeling that the end was near for the Estado Novo. Jennifer Fernandes, a relative newcomer to Portugal, says that throughout 1973 “there was an almost tangible build up in tension, with a feeling that something was going to happen”. Guy van den Berg, originally from South Africa, also reports that in the days before the 25th he was learning from colleagues that “something was afoot”. Peter Mollet writes that “nearly all [of his acquaintances] had seen the revolution coming”.


The first responses of British people on the morning of 25 April were to call friends and colleagues and to turn on the radio, either the local state stations, then known as the Emissora Nacional de Radiodifusão, or the BBC World Service. The television was just playing music. The Emissora Nacional was one of the first targets of the rebels and people tuning in were rather re-assured by the politeness of the “new, excited and a little nervous” rebel announcers, who referred to the deposed president (Américo Tomás) and prime minister (Marcello Caetano) as “Sua Excelência”. Robert Symington tells the amusing story of a Portuguese lady woken in the early hours by the noise of troops advancing on the radio station, shouting out of her window to tell them they were making too much noise. She received the reply, “Desculpe, minha senhora” from the officer-in-charge.


In addition to announcements, the radio stations played two main pieces of music. One was Grândola, Vila Morena by José Afonso and the other, surprisingly, was A Life on the Ocean WaveGrândola was the song used overnight on Radio Renascença to inform the troops that the Revolution had started. Robert Bremner tuned to frequencies used by the Guarda Nacional (GNR). Hoping to find out what was happening, he only managed to hear a sergeant complaining that he had 12 men and only eleven lunches! This provides support for the otherwise difficult-to-believe story of Clive Gilbert that he was told by one of the rebel leaders that they aimed to succeed in seizing control before noon, as their troops would be more interested in their lunches after that.


Contacting friends by phone proved impossible for some, with their phones having gone dead. Some, such as the husband of Jennifer Fernandes, were able to get in touch with a few friends and colleagues before theirs were also silenced. Others had no difficulties, which was fortunate for people such as Martin Reynolds, who had arrived by train in the morning, only to learn later that all trains had been cancelled. He had to call his wife to drive in from Sintra to collect him. Woken at 07.00 by a friend’s call, Clive Gilbert, whose factory was in Sacavém, a town with Communist Party sympathies, ignored the radio’s demand that people stay at home and quickly made his way to work.


Not all British became aware immediately of the situation. Lesley Leitão (who would later marry a Portuguese) was one of five professional dancers who were in Portugal to perform shows at the Algarve’s three casinos. They worked until the early hours and slept until late. They had no TV and spoke no Portuguese so could not understand the radio. Eventually being told of the Revolution and informed that their show that evening had been cancelled, they naively assumed they could go out for a night on the town.  


While most people stayed at home that morning, complying with the request to do so by the rebels, some braver souls, people wanting to stock up before the shops ran out of food and the petrol stations ran out of fuel, people with business interests to protect, and the early birds who had left their homes in the suburbs without hearing the news, found themselves walking down streets occupied by tanks and hearing bursts of machine gun fire. Robin Rankine witnessed a GNR contingent withdraw after spotting more-heavily-armed insurgents. He was the first of many to hear the chant O povo, unido, jamais será vencido (The people, united, will never be defeated). His reaction was that such a chant (used a year earlier in Chile), so soon after the rebellion, could not have been spontaneous and must have been pre-planned.


Ormond Fannon, a teacher at St. Julian's, drove to the school in the morning when things were very quiet. Returning an hour later, as few students had turned up, he found there were troops everywhere and was stopped and searched on the Marginal. Sheilah Fenner Leitão, a teacher at the same school, also made it to St. Julian’s that morning, but left when it became clear that the Marginal would be closed from 13.00. In later days, she found driving around Lisbon worrying, particularly as a Mercedes “was somewhat risky”.


As the day went on, both those who stayed at home and those who had made it to their offices, remained glued to their radios. Jany Philip records letting out a sigh of relief every time the surrender of a new building was announced, slowly putting an end to her “hours of anxiety and anguish”. Radio broadcasts could be both concerning and amusing. One live reporter, responding to a momentary panic in the crowd around him, ran down the nearest steps for safety, only to discover he was in a ladies’ toilet.


Those in their offices often had tanks right outside their windows, but no overall idea of what was going on. However, it rapidly became clear that there was little or no opposition to the coup. Indeed, D’Arcy Orders reports that his staff had assumed this from the very beginning, as they turned up at the office wearing very casual clothes, instead of the usual sombre business attire. In the so-called “red town” of Setúbal, there was no effective government opposition. Guy van den Berg reports that celebrations began earlier than in Lisbon, with people on the streets as if it were a carnival.


Several people report having seen the naval frigate, NRP Gago Countinho, which was leaving Lisbon that morning to join a NATO exercise. It was recalled by the government and ordered to fire warning shots to intimidate the insurgents in Lisbon’s Terreiro do Paço. However, Captain Seixas Louçã ignored those instructions, pointing the ship’s guns upwards and making evasive manoeuvres in case the rebels decided to fire.


In Porto, according to Angela Lockhart, peoples’ minds turned to another naval vessel, the one that had taken British people to safety during the Spanish civil war. Would the British government be sending a destroyer this time? It soon became clear that such a response would not be needed. Ian Sinclair suspected that something was up as he found soldiers lining the Ponte da Arrábida as he drove to work. The next thing he saw was the view from his office in Vila Nova de Gaia of cars belonging to the PIDE (Secret Police) being dumped in the Douro on the Porto side. Within a few days he was finding, as D’Arcy Orders did in Lisbon, that staff we relaxing their dress code, with women turning up in trousers, and men forgetting their ties and, horror of horrors, growing beards. Meanwhile, some of the Portuguese and British elite in town were nowhere to be seen.


By the late afternoon of the 25th, when the success of the coup seemed assured, jubilant crowds were appearing on the streets of Lisbon. Gwyneth Roberts joined those outside the Carmo barracks where the president and prime minister were being held. The prevailing atmosphere in the crowd was one of near disbelief that such events could be happening. A few people were already carrying red carnations. Some of the British began to get in touch with Portuguese friends. While a few were apprehensive, many of those contacted were “in tears of emotion at this unexpected freedom”, as Barry Vernon reports. 


25 April was a Thursday. On Friday more and more red carnations filled the streets in button holes, pinned to people’s clothes and in the rifles of the soldiers. This was when the only reported casualties occurred, with five people being killed in a stand-off outside the PIDE office. Jennifer Fernandes turned up for a driving test, not expecting to find the examiner there. But he was, and she was able to enjoy traffic-free streets. There were, however, so many cars parked at the side of the road that only with great difficulty did the examiner find a space for her to show off her reverse-parking skills.


Whether the revolutionaries were a fighting force by the weekend is debateable, as they had had little sleep: several people report how tired all the soldiers seemed. Banks did not open until the following Tuesday. When they were allowed to open it was decreed that this would only be to pay out salaries, it being the end of the month. But the banks were swamped and had little choice but to meet the demands of all customers, who were lining up six deep along the pavement. Barry Vernon managed a small bank called BOLSA, but the queue was 50 metres long. This inevitable run on the banks led to the authorities imposing a 2000 Escudo (around €350 in today’s money) limit on the amount of cash that could be withdrawn at any one time. Even so, some of Vernon’s customers had to make do with notes destined for the shredder.


While most Portuguese celebrated, many British were wondering what the future held for them. Warnings of future problems were beginning to appear. All the political prisoners had been released by Day 2 of the Revolution and the Portuguese Communist Party leader Álvaro Cunhal returned from Paris on 30 April on a flight that contained many other exiled communists. The Socialist leader, Mário Soares also returned. The various left-wing factions were already beginning to vie for supremacy. Wednesday was May Day and 500,000 people flooded into the streets of Lisbon for the country’s first ever May Day celebrations.


The general impression from the British eyewitness accounts was that the events of 25 April 1974 and the following few days increased peoples’ admiration for the Portuguese, seeing it as a very civilized revolution with, perhaps, the treatment of some members of the PIDE being an understandable exception. However, the same admiration is not expressed about many of the events of the following 18 months, known as the Processo Revolucionário Em Curso (Ongoing Revolutionary Process).