Technology Manager, Poet, History Maniac. Also, a prolific writer on varied topics
Somebody surely had a macabre sense of humour when they gave the rather innocuous name of the ‘Stay Behind’ cave to one of the most daring and dangerous missions of World War II.
The mission was code-named ‘Operation Tracer’ in which six men volunteered to be buried alive in a chamber measuring 45 x 16 x 8 feet in the Rock of Gibraltar so that they could continue to monitor enemy movements.
75 years have passed by since the war and the rumours of this secret chamber have persisted for years with countless attempts made by explorers and historians to explore Gibraltar's existing tunnels, caves, and sheer cliffs in the hope of finding it. It was only in late 1997, a team of explorers calling themselves the Gibraltar Caving Group felt a gust a wind coming from a tunnel going deep inside the rock.
The explorers followed the tunnel leading to the discovery of a brick wall, which they broke to reveal the door of a secret chamber lined with cork tiles from top to bottom to provide insulation from cold and sound. They also found remnants of an observation post, an aerial, and the remains of a bicycle. It took another 10 years before it could be confirmed that the ‘secret chamber’ was indeed the long-sought-after site of Operation Tracer.
In April 2013, the documentary Operation Tracer – Stay Behind Cave was broadcast. That was the first the world officially came to know about one of the most daring (or was it reckless?) missions of World War II.
The story of Operation Tracer
The Rock of Gibraltar for centuries had always been quite tough to crack.
In ancient times, it formed one of the famed twin Pillars of Hercules that guarded the passage between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic (the other one being a peak in Morocco). As a strategic guardian of the route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Gibraltar was besieged multiple times and figured prominently in many wars.
It fell under British control in 1713 and since then had remained vital to the British Empire as it guarded its supremacy and access to British colonies through the Suez Canal to Asia. Spain on the other hand was determined to get the Rock back although it received little support from the local inhabitants who considered Britain as their home.
The occurrence of World War II changed the dynamics completely with a cunning Spanish dictator Francisco Franco leaning towards the Nazis. Franco made no secret of his resentment towards the British as Hitler tried his best charm to woo him to his side. If that happened, Britain would lose the Rock of Gibraltar, and the British premier, Winston Churchill knew this as he wrote.
“The Rock might once again stand a long siege, but it would only be a rock. Spain held the key to all British enterprises in the Mediterranean.”
In 1940, France fell to the Germans and Hitler started discussing Operation Felix, an audacious plan to cut Great Britain off from the rest of the British Empire by invading Gibraltar. The British Intelligence came to know about it and Operation Tracer was born.
After a lot of thought, Rear Admiral John Henry Godfrey, the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division of the British Admiralty proposed to create an observation post inside the rock that would remain operational even if Gibraltar fell into enemy hands. This observation post would be located in a hidden chamber within the Rock of Gibraltar with two small openings to watch for movements on the harbour and communicate the same to British intelligence.
That the proposal was suicidal would be an understatement. Six men were to be selected to be sealed inside the chamber with enough supplies to last one year. There would be no way to go out of the chamber and if any men were to die, they were to be embalmed and cemented into the brick floor. Only if Germany was defeated within the first year would they be released. Out of the six chosen, two were doctors, three signalmen, and one executive officer leader.
The proposal was approved and the chamber was completed in 1942. The chamber had two narrow slits overlooking the Bay of Gibraltar on the west and the Mediterranean on the east that served as lookout posts. There was a toilet, a radio room, and a 10,000 gallons water tank. A transmitter powered by a bicycle generator was given to send the intelligence reports.
By the end of the summer of 1942, a full team was in place and ready for occupation, waiting for orders to kick-start Operation Tracer.
After the war
Fortunately, for the men, Operation Tracer was never executed as Adolf Hitler turned his attention away from Gibraltar and towards the Eastern Front. The Rock was never captured.
The six volunteers were called back from Gibraltar, the equipment and provisions removed and the chamber was sealed and bricked up completely. At the end of the war, the team was disbanded and its members resumed civilian life.
Today 75 years later, although the chamber has been found, it is still intriguing to think what would have happened to those men if there had been around and had continued with their duties during the war.
Would they have survived? Would they have changed the course of the war? Or worse still, would they have been lamenting in obscurity as forgotten heroes of a brutal war? The possibilities of alternate history are endless.
Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on January 20, 2021:
Thanks, MG. World war II was a very complex war and so many facets of it are even now not known to the public. As you dig you realize a lot of hidden facts and conspiracies in the bloody war.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on January 19, 2021:
Very interesting article that made good reading.