Underground defences in Gibraltar 1942.
The decision to evacuate the entire Gibraltar civilian population had not been an easy one. In 1940 it was generally believed that Gibraltar’s strategic position in the Mediterranean would place it in the front-line of enemy action. In the event of an attack, Gibraltar would have been unable to protect the 16,000 strong civilian population. If the expected Germany attack came, the population would have suffered horrendous casualties and therefore the decision to evacuate everyone, even despite the huge problems and personal distress it caused, was considered ‘a necessary evil of war’.
Meanwhile Gibraltar was transformed into a virtual fortress and underwent drastic changes. Thousands of extra military personnel poured into Gibraltar. At North Front the beautiful gardens, racecourse, football and cricket pitches disappeared to make way for the building of an airfield, soon brimming with fighter planes and bombers. Royal Engineers built miles of new tunnels and chambers transforming the limestone rock into a an underground city which included telephone exchanges, barracks, stores, generating stations and fully equipped hospitals. Military exercises often took place in the middle of a largely deserted city.
Searchlights on the Rock of Gibraltar, 1942.
Although the anticipated attack against Gibraltar never materialised the threat had been very real. Hitler had given his approval for the invasion of Gibraltar. This was codenamed Operation Felix. However, Germany required Spain’s co-operation and consent for any such invasion to take place, and Franco, although on friendly terms with Hitler, did not want to side with Germany until it was clear Britain was going to be defeated. Hitler had hoped to start Operation Felix in early February 1941 and had secretly trained 65,000 men for the attack against some 16,000 heavily entrenched defenders.
RAF aircraft on the gravel runway.
The operation was expected to take four weeks to complete. Franco, however, continued to drag his feet and thought it too risky to declare war on Britain just yet. Spain having just emerged from a bloody Civil War itself, which had devastated the country, was at present in no condition to join the Axis Alliance and declare war on Britain. Despite Hitler’s efforts, Franco would not be drawn and he continued to play for time. Hitler frustrated by Franco’s dithering turned his attention to the invasion of Russia. With all available troops and resources now earmarked for Operation Barbarossa instead, Operation Felix was secretly shelved.
Gibraltar runway during Operation Torch
The decision to postpone Operation Felix for another occasion would cost Germany dear during the course of the war. Gibraltar became a vital base of naval operations in the Mediterranean and the huge underground network of tunnels would later be used to good effect. Thousands of British and American troops were secretly shipped into Gibraltar and billeted inside the huge underground facilities dug into the Rock. From here, the invasion of North Africa was launched on the 8th November 1942. Operation Torch would soon lead to the defeat of the German army in Africa and pave the way for the invasions of Sicily and Italy. Gibraltar’s strategic position would play a vital part in the eventual defeat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
Inspection of Civilian Police at Police Barracks.