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Gibraltar: The World War II Tunnels Image

Gibraltar: The World War II Tunnels

January 22, 2019

Any holiday in Gibraltar should include a visit to its famous World War II tunnels - the underground network of caves and tunnels that were of enormous strategic importance to the British war effort. The historic tunnels today are a fascinating link to a bygone era - a reminder of the hardships people endured during times of war.

Open for guided tours, visitors can take a trip back in time to the defence, storage, medical and other facilities that became a way of life for the Armed Forces and other personnel between 1939 and 1945.

As a British territory on Spain's south coast, Gibraltar's location made it ideal to provide safe accommodation for the troops, while it was also used to store food and other essential items.

The civilian population was evacuated after war broke out and the size of the garrison increased to 16,000 troops, allowing Britain to control access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Gibraltar's military history

The hive of tunnels underneath Gibraltar is not a modern phenomenon. In fact, military tunnels were first built there as long ago as 1782, during the famous Great Siege of Gibraltar, which lasted from 1779 to 1783.

Gibraltar was ruled by Spain from the 15th century, after being inhabited by the Moors from the eighth century. It became a British territory in 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht.

Construction of the Great Siege Tunnels, as they were originally known, began after Spanish and French forces tried to recapture Gibraltar from Britain - a military action known as the Great Siege of Gibraltar.

Construction of the tunnels began on the orders of Governor General George Augustus Eliott - a Scots-born British Army officer, who was governor of Gibraltar from 1777 to 1790. They were intended to be a means of installing guns in a largely inaccessible part of the rock.

How were the tunnels made?

Despite the work being carried out manually using sledgehammers, without the aid of modern machinery, in just two weeks 25 metres of tunnel had been excavated by eight workers. Explosives were used to blast through particularly tough sections of the rock.

Holes were blasted in the sides of the tunnels for gun mountings. They also provided fresh air and ventilation in the suffocating working conditions. In 1783, when the siege ended in failure for Spain and France, 113 metres of tunnels had been excavated manually, with four guns mounted in the openings.

Even after the siege ended, work on the tunnels continued, with St George’s Hall being excavated to create a spacious cavern, where a battery of seven guns was housed. The original tunnels were a remarkable feat of engineering, considering they were built without the aid of modern equipment.

20th century tunnel expansion

The tunnels remained in place for around 200 years before further work was carried out. During World War II, the network of tunnels was expanded further to create an underground community. An additional 18 miles of tunnels extended the network into an underground city, with some of them even being used as roads.

The expansion was completed in 1940. Many different facilities were created beneath the rock such as a bakery, a hospital ward, munitions stores and a station to repair damaged vehicles. There was also a telephone exchange, a water distillation plant and workshops to repair damaged guns.

By this time, machinery was available to carry out the work more quickly than the manual labourers of the 18th century. Specialist workers from the Canadian Army and the Royal Engineers carried out the construction.

There were two central thoroughfares - called the Great North Road and Fosse Way - running from north to south for almost the whole length of the rock and connecting the smaller tunnels that ran from east to west.

The tunnels accommodated the 16,000-strong garrison, their weapons and supplies, while also linking the new military base in the south-east corner of Gibraltar with the existing headquarters on the western coast.

Life underground

During World War II, the troops stationed on Gibraltar were made to feel as much at home as possible, with the underground thoroughfares named after English districts to help them find their way around.

The passages branching off the main 60ft-wide tunnel had place names such as Maida Vale, Doncaster, Peterborough and Durham. The tunnels housed enough supplies to support the troops for 16 months.

The Calpe Hole Generating Station supplied electricity to the Great North Road district, while similar generating stations were constructed in other areas of the mountain. Massive water pipes ran down the corridors, carrying fresh water from underground reservoirs to the residents' quarters.

As it was so well-positioned and equipped, the Admiralty Tunnel was used by General Dwight Eisenhower as the Allied Command Headquarters, where the allied invasion of North Africa was planned in 1942.

During World War II, St Michael's Cave was prepared to accommodate an emergency hospital. However, it was never used as such and today, it houses a theatre.

Post-war use

After the war, the British Ministry of Defence handed control of many of the tunnels over to the Government of Gibraltar. However, some of them remain under MOD control and are used for training the Armed Forces in underground warfare. The Ministry of Defence keeps them intact, should they ever be needed again.

In recent years, a plaque was unearthed on the Great North Road, indicating that the Royal Engineers were "at home in this chamber" on 19th October 1956, as they celebrated the centenary of their Corps.

Above ground, the Devils Gap Battery still faces out towards the Spanish coast - its position since being built in 1902 - to guard against enemy warships.

Today, visitors can enjoy organised tours of the tunnels, including seeing the reconstruction of the 18th century siege era, complete with life-size figures of the men who built them and the troops.

As well as being home to some fascinating tourist attractions, Gibraltar is also the Head Office base of Fiduciary Wealth, an established, independent private wealth planning advisory practice. Our goal is to positively shape the wealth of the British community, at home and abroad, by providing first class financial solutions. Our services span the whole range of financial planning, from investments to retirement planning, through to tax residency in a variety of jurisdictions and IHT and family protection solutions. For further information please contact us.