Since ancient times history has revealed to us the incredible importance of the Rock’s strategic position and exceptional vantage point, when comparing it to the rest of the continent. Being surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, with full view of the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s little wonder that so many foreign conquests have been witnessed by this amazing Rock.
Recent history shows us incredible feats made by the British military in order to keep control of the Rock – the gateway to the Mediterranean. World War II is no exception. Having command of the western entrance to the Mediterranean, its modern cannons located at the top of the Rock made it extremely treacherous for enemy surface ships to pass between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
Winston Churchill knew therefore, that if Gibraltar were to be taken, the British and their Allies would find it near impossible to counter any German or Italian moves in the Mediterranean. Not only this, but the British would also lose an integral harbor, which at the time served as a base for their ships carrying out other operations in the Atlantic. Control of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean territory now played a vital role in the war, making an attack on Gibraltar almost imminent.
France had already fallen in 1940, leaving Spain, the only neutral territory standing between German and Italian forces and Gibraltar. Not only was this an opportunity for Spain to possibly re-claim Gibraltar, but the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco had recently come to power during the Spanish Civil War with aid from both Hitler and Mussolini.
And as you would guess it, the Germans were in fact planning that very move, code-named Operation Felix. After failing to persuade Franco to enter the war on their side, they later hoped he would agree to giving safe passage to a German army through Spain in order to attack Gibraltar.
Spain however was still weak and recovering from its own Civil War, making Franco extremely hesitant to now become involved in another such strenuous battle. Franco however, not wanting to say no to his former benefactors, candidly made exorbitant demands on the Fascist dictators in exchange for Spain’s participation which they simply could not meet. As a result of this, Operation Felix was never carried out.
The British at the time however, were in no position at all to know Franco’s motives or for that matter how long Hitler would tolerate being led on. Winston Churchill and the British military leaders believed the answer to keeping control of Gibraltar was to construct within the Rock a massive network of tunnels. Basically, to build a fortress inside a fortress, or a city within a city.
Besides the amazing Great Siege Tunnels dug back in the 1700’s, newer tunneling had already been invoked before World War II had begun, by the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The start of World War II however would see the interior of the Rock changed forever.
Churchill’s new plan gave way to the most intensive tunneling ever carried out in Gibraltar’s history, leaving the Rock with an entire tunnel network amounting to approximately 34 miles (52 kilometres) in length. That may not sound like much, but when you realise that Gibraltar is made up of only 6.8 km² — its staggering!
At the start of the war, the civilian population was evacuated from the Rock. As the number of Garrison was increased, so too was the need for more protected storage area, supplies and siege accommodation. The expanded troops would require food, equipment and ammunition, and somewhere safe to store it all – never mind where to sleep and bath! The task at hand was not an easy one.
A massive intricate tunnel system built deep inside the Rock would meet these needs, protecting the soldiers and equipment from Luftwaffe bombing air raids, as well as attacks from land and sea. The hidden fortress would comprise of a series of complex tunnels and passages, all named after streets of English towns, so British troops could find their way around without getting lost. Some names included Peterborough, Maida Vale, Durham, and Doncaster.
Four different companies specialising in tunneling from the Royal Engineers and the Canadian Army were hired for the incredible task that lay ahead. They would have to contend with serious dirt and dust from their excavations, working at times for months on end, often not seeing the light of day for very long periods at a time. Not only this, but during the war, Gibraltar’s water supply was heavily restricted, limiting the workers opportunity to wash off the heavy dirt and grime.
A pair of tunnels, the Great North Road and Fosse Way, were burrowed out, running almost the entire length of the Rock. These two main tunnels would interconnect with all the rest of the tunnels, allowing soldiers to move about freely within the Rock, in all directions, without been seeing from the enemy outside.
It’s interesting to note that most of the debris extracted from the tunnels was put into use by extending the airfield runway out into Gibraltar Bay. This actually played a significant role during the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942, as the extended runway could now cater for larger aircraft, required for such an operation.
The intricate tunnel system connected the new Main Base Area established in the south eastern part of Gibraltar, protected behind the Rock from the potentially hostile Spanish mainland, with established military bases on the west side of the Rock. In fact, by the end, whether it be St Michael’s Cave (being used at the time as a backup hospital) or the Great Siege Tunnels on the Rock’s northern face, almost all parts of the Rock were accessible one way or another via this incredible underground city.
Besides the astronomical length of the new tunnel system, enormous bunker facilities had to be large enough to house a power generating station, a hospital ward, a water desalination plant, a telephone exchange, frozen food storage, a bakery, ammunition magazines, toilets and showers, a workshop to repair damaged vehicles and passageways, not to mention accommodation facilities sufficient to cater for 16,000 soldiers for the duration of up to 16 months if under siege! Wow!
The World War II Tunnels are also home to one of Gibraltar’s most secret places. So secret, that it was not rediscovered until as recently as 1997. Built for Operation Tracer, there lies within the tunnels a Stay Behind Cave, where six men would remain behind hidden within the Rock if it had fallen to Germany. Their mission would be to report movements of enemy vessels back to the United Kingdom.
Today, you too can walk in the footsteps of Churchill, Sikorski and De Gaulle, testifying to the incredible accomplishment and bravery of soldiers and civilians who battled against extreme odds deep within the heart of the Rock itself. Since the war, the tunnels have been kept intact by the Ministry of Defence, some parts of the tunnels now used for training troops in underground warfare.
Since May 2005, the World War II Tunnels have been opened to the general public as a tourist attraction, allowing visitors to witness and appreciate the incredible tactics employed and feat of the British military forces during such a dark and difficult stage of our history.
It is very important to note that the entrance to the Nature Reserve, which is required for access to the Upper Rock, does NOT include a visit to the World War II Tunnels. A separate tour of the World War II Tunnels must be booked in advance by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or calling either +350 200 45000 or +350 200 76879.
A very big thank you to Kevin J Martinez (Upper Rock Supervisor) of HM Government of Gibraltar who helped toward the authenticity of this article.
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