I am a sucker for World War II history. So when our Gibraltarian tour guide Paul briefly mentioned the existence of a subterranean tunnel system within the Rock of Gibraltar, I was immediately intrigued. It led me to do some more research into this period of Gibraltar’s history, and to find a few peculiar stories.
Due to Gibraltar’s strategic geographic location, it was both a valuable and vulnerable territory during the war. It served as the connection between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean as well as Europe and Africa, and thus played a part in multiple campaigns. As a British military stronghold, Gibraltar was susceptible to attacks and air raids from Axis powers. Since the risk for attack was high, early in 1940 evacuations began as women, children, and the elderly were sent away from the Rock, while men were required to stay and serve. Around 13,500 people were sent first to Casablanca in Morocco, but their stay was short-lived. After a few months, the Vichy French government no longer wanted them in Morocco and had them all placed on cargo ships to be sent back home. Concerned for their safety, the Governor of Gibraltar would not allow these evacuees to return, and instead they were sent to Jamaica, Madeira and the United Kingdom. After the war was over, these Gibraltarians gradually returned to the Rock, with the last evacuees arriving in 1951.
With the civilian population gone, Gibraltar was turned into a military fortification intended to withstand constant bombardment and a possible invasion. Capturing Gibraltar was crucial to the Axis war plans, so much so that the German and Spanish armies organized Operation Felix in which they plotted out their joint strategy for a siege and capture of the Rock. In order to prepare the country for a potential invasion, the British army began constructing a complex system of tunnels inside the Rock. There were already some tunnels in the Rock, the first of which were dug during the Great Siege of Gibraltar in 1779 to 1783 so that cannons could be placed in better firing positions. With the threat of another possible siege in 1940, the British forces began construction on a tunnel network and ultimately established over 30 miles of tunnels and enough space for around 16,000 men to live. A real “underground city” was built, complete with fully equipped hospitals, conference rooms, ration stations and everything these men would need to live during a prolonged siege.
To explore the tunnels further, click on this link to watch as the British Forces News goes inside the Rock: Inside Gibraltar\’s WWII Tunnels
“Stay Behind Cave”
One of the most interesting stories in Gibraltarian WWII history is that of the popularly named “Stay Behind Cave.” For many years after the war, a myth circulated in Gibraltar and Britain of a secret cave within the Rock that would have been sealed, with six men inside it, if the Nazis ever succeeded with their invasion. Sounds crazy, right? Turns out it is entirely true. And in 1996, members of the Gibraltar Caving Group felt a gust of wind coming from a tunnel, which caused them to break down a wall leading into an unexplored group of chambers that had been sealed for nearly 50 years.
Operation Tracer, the real name of this long rumored mission, arranged for six men to be sealed inside this cavern in the case of a German invasion From there, these men were expected to live and spy on the Germans, reporting their movements back to London. In order to provide ventilation and electricity, a pedal bicycle was placed in the chamber that one of the six men to be would have needed to be constantly operating. While there were enough provisions ready for these men to live for one year, there was no way out of Stay Behind Cave, and if any men were to die they were to be embalmed and cemented into the walls. The team was composed of two doctors, three signalmen and one executive officer, each of which volunteered to be buried alive. Thankfully, Gibraltar never fell to the Germans, and Operation Tracer was never needed. In 2006, the only surviving member of this team, Dr. W. A. Bruce Cooper Surgeon-Lieutenant Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves, returned to the Rock to examine the cave and confirmed that Stay Behind Cave had indeed been discovered. Dr. Cooper passed away this past January at the age of 96.
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