On Boxing Day 1997, members of the Gibraltar Cave Group stopped to have some sandwiches inside a tunnel they were exploring. Feeling an unexpected gust of wind, they pulled aside some corrugated iron panels. Instead of limestone rock, they were met with a shuttered concrete wall. They had discovered a secret tunnel, which locals knew only by rumour as the ‘Stay Behind Cave.’
The Rock of Gibraltar has long been the natural defence of the small British overseas territory of Gibraltar. During the American Revolutionary War and then in World War Two, the British Army constructed a web of tunnels inside to defend the military hold from enemy attacks. Staggeringly, more than 50 kilometres of tunnels run through the limestone monolith, and would have originally housed guns, hangars, ammunition stores, barracks, and hospitals.
In 1940, Germany was planning to capture Gibraltar from the British. The threat was so severe that top Navy intelligence officer Rear Admiral John Henry Godfrey decided to built a clandestine observation post in Gibraltar that would remain functional even if the Rock fell to the Axis powers.
Known as ‘Operation Tracer’, the idea of the Stay Behind Cave was hatched. Among the consultants tasked with planning Operation Tracer was a young Ian Fleming, who, before he found fame as the author of the James Bond novels, was a naval Volunteer Reserve Officer and one of Godfrey’s assistants.
Builders tasked with constructing the cave were blindfolded when going to and from their work. Six men – an executive officer, two doctors, and three wireless operators – were recruited to live and work in the hideout should the Germans invade. They worked in Gibraltar by day, and were trained to live in the cave by night.
Their objective was to spy on German naval movements between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic via secret viewpoints in the east and west faces of the rock. All men volunteered to be sealed inside the rock should Germany take Gibraltar, and were provided with seven years’ worth of supplies.
The small living quarters included a living room, three bunk beds, a communications room, and two observation points. A bicycle with a quiet leather chain would generate power to send radio messages to London. Fleming even devised a number of Bond-worthy gadgets, such as self-heating soup. It would be a harsh existence: all of the volunteers had their tonsils and appendixes removed to reduce the chance of infection, and if anyone died, they were to be embalmed and buried within a small soil-filled spot close to the entrance.
However Germany didn’t invade Gibraltar, so the plan was never put into motion. Intelligence chiefs ordered that the provisions be removed and the cave sealed up. Rumours about its existence swirled for decades in Gibraltar until its discovery by some curious cave explorers in 1997. It was more or less as it had been left in 1942. In 1998 it was confirmed as authentic by one of the builders, and a decade later by one of the doctors, Dr. Bruce Cooper, who hadn’t even told his wife or children of its existence.
Today, the exact location of the Stay Behind Cave is kept secret, though around 30 guided tours are conducted a year. There is also a fascinating rumour that a second Stay Behind Cave exists on the Rock. This is because the known cave doesn’t overlook the runway, which would normally prove vital when reporting enemy movements during a war. Moreover, a builder has attested that he worked on the project, but doesn’t recognise the one that has been discovered.
Ian Fleming went on to write his first 007 novel Casino Royale in 1952. With his knowledge of secret tunnels, clever gadgets, and daring schemes, perhaps his Bond creations aren’t so unbelievable after all.