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The secret life of Gibraltar during World War Two

After Jan ter Doest was released from Spanish concentration camp Miranda de Ebro in the north of Spain around the 20th of January 1943, he was transported to the British crown colony of Gibraltar. He was seventeen.

At his arrival Gibraltar must have looked quite grim. In this period the streets were devoid of women, children and elderly. In June 1940 the British government had ordered that all Gibraltarians who were not involved in the war effort were to be evacuated to French Morocco, which was the nearest allied territory. By doing so Gibraltar could be turned into a military fortress.

1. The evacuation of women, children and elderly from Gibraltar in June 1940

However, after the capitulation of France and a subsequent very bloody incident between the fleets of the French and the British, the new pro German government of Vichy France insisted on removal of the Gibraltarian evacuees from Morocco. But upon their return the 16,000 evacuees were denied access to their home territory by the British governor. After a quick cleaning and food supply operation the ships were forced to disperse the evacuees to Madeira, Jamaica and the United Kingdom. According to Joe Gingell, who was one of the thousands of children evacuated to London, it was a dramatic journey of sixteen days zigzagging across the Atlantic to avoid German U-boats.

“The facilities on board were very rudimentary. After six days all provisions had become inedible due to poor storage conditions. There were no medical facilities at all. Babies born during the voyage were delivered by the evacuees themselves and some of the elderly passengers died, to be buried at sea”.

Once all civilians had left and free from the public eye the British started to convert the Rock into a military stronghold as planned, to prepare Gibraltar for a possible invasion. An extensive tunnel system was added to the already existing tunnels which date back to the late 18th century. The new addition, covering around 34 miles, was big enough to house hospitals, conference rooms, ammunition and equipment to accommodate 16,000 men. General Eisenhower had his headquarters here during Operation Torch, the allied invasion of French North Africa between 8 and 11 November 1942.

2. Part of the tunnel network for Operation Tracer

Stay Behind Cave

A top secret part of this, already secret, tunnel network, codenamed Operation Tracer, was the so called Stay Behind Cave. In case the Nazis did succeed with their invasion, six British volunteers would be sealed inside a cavern. The outside wall of this cavern had two observation holes, hidden from view, from where the men would be able to watch the movements of enemy vessels. Any findings would be radio signalled to London. The secret room would be supplied with enough food for at least a year. There was a water cistern. A construction with a bicycle was meant to drive a ventilation system and generate electricity for the radio. In case anyone of the six died they were to be embalmed and cemented in a wall or under the floor.

Perhaps a nice aside - one of the people involved in this plan was ... Ian Fleming, who later wrote the James Bond books. Operation Tracer didn’t need to be carried out because Gibraltar never fell to the Germans. The Stay Behind Cave has remained a secret till 2007 when it was discovered and confirmed to be true by the last surviving volunteer, Dr. Bruce Cooper.

3. Dr. Bruce Cooper returning to the Stay Behind Cave

After the war a start was made with the repatriation of the evacuees to Gibraltar. It was a slow process due to a lack of accommodation and poor medical and educational facilities. For many refugees it took ten years after the war before they could rejoin their families in Gibraltar.



Envisioning Spain's border. Gibraltar's little known WWII history, april 2011

Secret plan to bury soldiers alive inside Rock of Gibraltar by Anne Penketh, 4 February 2007

Operation Tracer


1. National Archives of Gibraltar -

2. Lonely Planet

3. Vassar College International Studies

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