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Government officials are considering re-opening the tunnels that run through Gibraltar’s most famous landmark in the name of tourism
10.02.14 - 12:11 -
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Digging in to Gibraltar’s past
Here the galleries of the Great siege tunnels can be seen from ground level :: A. B.
Government officials are considering re-opening the tunnels that run through Gibraltar’s most famous landmark in the name of tourism
It’s one of the most recognised land formations in Europe – and some would argue the world.
But unbeknown to many tourists is that the Rock of Gibraltar is riddled with miles of military tunnels, making it resemble a giant block of Swiss cheese inside.
To put it into perspective, there are around 34 miles (54km) of tunnels, the same length of the British colony’s entire road network.
In fact, some tunnels are so wide it’s possible to drive two double decker buses past each other.
Now it’s hoped that more of these fascinating passageways will be opened to the public after the government announced it could open the Northern Defences to tourists.
Yorkshire man Peter Jackson, who has run Siege Battlefield Tours in the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) tunnels for the last 25 years, told SUR in English: “If this happens it could make a significant improvement on the tourist product in Gibraltar and would see the Kings Gallery, Queens Gallery, Princes Gallery and the Princes Lines open to visit.
“This project will not only breathe new life into an area which has remained derelict for decades, but will benefit the local population and the tourist alike.”
To understand how the tunnels came to be, we have to go back to 1782 when tunnelling began during the Great Siege (1779-83).
Lasting three years and seven months, this siege saw the combined forces of Spain and France unsuccessfully attempt to capture Gibraltar from the British.
It was officially the longest siege ever endured by the British Armed Forces and resulted in a number of galleries being excavated through the north face of the Rock, where troops could fire cannons at their enemy.
The early tunnellers were soldier artificers from a unit formed in Gibraltar in 1772, who are widely recognised now as the forefathers of the Royal Engineers.
In a bid to solve the British outpost’s long-running water supply problems, tunnelling started again in 1809 to create a number of underground reservoirs.
In the early days, tunnelling techniques saw men using gunpowder to loosen the rock, before finishing the job with sledgehammers and crowbars.
But it was in the 1930s that tunnelling dramatically increased with the rise of Nazi Germany and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
To put it into context, the Brits had just been evacuated from Dunkirk, France had fallen and Italy had stepped into the theatre of war, meaning the outlook did not look good for this enviable foothold in the Mediterranean.
What happened next was that almost the entire civilian population of Gibraltar was evacuated, while a team of four tunnelling companies from the Royal Engineers and the Canadian Army set about turning the inside of the Rock into an underground city.
The troops dug seven days a week in three, eight hour shifts, meaning excavation continued 24 hours a day.
By 1945 approximately 28 miles had been dug out, creating a fortress to accommodate the 16,500 strong garrison, along with enough food, ammunition and supplies to last them for 16 months.
So much spoil was removed (35 million cubic feet of rock) in fact, that the army was able to extend Gibraltar’s runway.
Inside there was an underground telephone exchange, a power station, four underground hospitals, a water distillation plant, a bakery and a vehicle maintenance workshop.
But most fascinating of all to history buffs was the Rock’s best kept secret – the rather sinister sounding Stay Behind Cave.
Built for Operation Tracer, this secret observation post was excavated in case the Rock fell into German hands, and would have allowed six men to remain and monitor the situation.
Even more interestingly, it was not rediscovered until 1997.
Peter added: “The tunnels were essential to the survival of the garrison, should attack have been made through Spain. The ability for a garrison, comprising of 16,500 men, to continue to operate, defend the assets on the Rock and support the war effort in the Mediterranean was fundamental to the British. Hence stores, hospitals vehicle workshops, ammunition and much more were moved underground.”
Post war, tunnelling slowed down and in 1960 work on the Keightley Way Tunnel started, linking Little Bay to Europa Point.
The last major tunnelling project was Molesend Way between 1965 and 1967, but in 1968 the British Army’s last specialist tunnelling unit was disbanded.
Nowadays, some of the tunnels are open to the public including the Upper Galleries from the Great Siege, the Middle Galleries and some of the Second World War tunnels.
The Lower Galleries are abandoned and theoretically off-limits, as they are reportedly too dangerous to enter.
Retired Gibraltarian tunnels expert Tito Vallejo, who served with the Gibraltar Regiment reserve for 30 years and worked for the Ministry of Defence for 44 years, explained how he took consultants around the tunnels three months ago to see how they could be used for new roads, underground parking and tourist centres.
One of the ideas he would like to see come to fruition are plans to open Gibraltar’s underground hospitals to tourists, as they have done with the Underground German Hospital in Jersey (the Channel Islands).
He added: “I have taken the people from Disney World around on two occasions and they love the place and said they could do wonders. The only thing that stops them applying for the sites is the frontier situation.
“They would need a guaranteed flow of visitors coming in to visit, but with the situation as has been and is still going on, they would not risk the investment.”
Government officials are currently asking the public for ideas on how the tunnels could be developed - if you have any ideas let them know at www.gibraltar.gov.gi
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