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Stay Behind Cave complex

Ref: HLMP2/036

In 1941, Rear Admiral John Henry Godfrey, the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division of the British Admiralty, decided to establish a covert observation post at Gibraltar that would remain operational even if Gibraltar was captured by the enemy in the event of the Germans activating Operation Felix. Operation Felix was the codename for the plans by the German High Command to capture Gibraltar by an attack from neighbouring Spain. If such an attack was successful it was intended that, from the secret observation post, the movements of enemy vessels in the Straits and Bay of Gibraltar would be reported back to the UK. A decision was made to construct the facility using the existing tunnel system for Lord Airey's Shelter an underground shelter near Lord Airey's Battery.

The initial plan was to insert five people inside a concealed observation post for a period of one year and providing them with all the necessary resources to enable them to survive that long. However, the plan was later modified to accommodate six people instead with enough provisions to last up to seven years if necessary. Rear Admiral Godfrey consulted survival experts on the feasibility of this scheme which was to be codenamed Operation Tracer.

George Murray Levick, the Royal Navy Surgeon Commander, was one of these consultants. He was called out of retirement to work as a consultant to the specially selected team instructing them in survival, staff psychology, diet, clothing, exercise, ventilation, and in the handling dead bodies. Royal Naval Intelligence selected six men for the operation and it was understood that they were expected to remain sealed within the cave complex for about a year or longer with provisions for a seven-year stay assembled in the complex. Levick lived with the Tracer team during these exercises, tracking ships along the Thames Estuary, whilst offering first-hand knowledge and expertise.

Thomas Horder, 1st Baron Horder, was consulted on medical matters. Prior to this role, he had been the doctor to both monarchs and prime ministers. Colonel Richard Gambier-Parry advised on the communication aspect of the operation.

Vice Admiral Godfrey.

Thomas Horder, 1st Baron Horder.

George Murrey Levick.

The tunnel works were carried out under the strictest secrecy. None of the workers knew about the operation and, upon completion of the work, they were all immediately returned home.

The cave complex comprised living quarters, transmission room, sanitation and dual observation posts. The complex included an observation slit overlooking the Bay of Gibraltar (2 cm wide) and a larger opening over the Mediterranean Sea which also provided ventilation. The men had the opportunity to climb out onto the platform and get some fresh air because the holes and ledges were quite large. Not far from the centre of the main staircase was another one leading to the western observation point. A concrete wedge hid the western viewing slot.

There was also a small radio room which contained equipment for wireless communications, including an HRO Receiver and a Mark 3 transmitter. Three 12-volt 120-ampere batteries were provided, to be charged using one of two generators, powered either by a bicycle or hand-cranked.

The bicycle additionally set in motion the ventilation system. Its chain was replaced by a leather belt in order to reduce noise.

For the purposes of additional communication, an external rod antenna 18 feet (5.5 meters) was recommended. The antenna would be hidden in a pipe that went down the stairs to the main room.

Stay-Behind Cave Radio Shack and latrines.

Remains of bicycle used to generate electricity for the radio communication systems.

To reduce sound transmission, the entire main chamber was plastered and the floor was covered with cork tiles. The entrance to the tunnel would be bricked up, thus sealing the six men in the cave.

By the end of April 1942, a team was formed for Operation Tracer. This included three telecom operators, two lieutenant-surgeons (Bruce Cooper and Arthur Milner), and a senior officer as a team leader. However, the leader soon had to be replaced after he expressed his displeasure at having to dine with the ratings who were to serve as radio operators. The names of the three radio operators are unknown but the name of the replacement officer is known. His name was “Windy” Gale, a native of Kent.

By early August, a Pathfinder team was formed to provide cover for their stay in Gibraltar. At the end of the month, the construction of the cave was almost completed, and the supplies were already in place.

However, Operation Tracer was never carried out. On August 17, 1943, Allied forces invaded Sicily and captured the island. After that, the threat to Gibraltar became insignificant.

On August 24, 1943, the Director of Military Naval Intelligence sent a secret message in which he ordered the men to conduct one last lot of wireless exercises, block up the caves, and distribute supplies.

Main living chamber.

Eastern Observation Post.

Western Observation Point.

After World War II, rumours about a secret room in the Rock of Gibraltar appeared. For many years, enthusiasts explored tunnels and caves but could not find any solid confirmation to back up this story.

In the 1990s, the Gibraltar Caving Group (now the Fortress of Gibraltar Group) embarked on a 2.5-year search for the Stay Behind Cave. Following a process of elimination and discarding a number of improbable sites (the FOGG’s used the premise that the observers would need access to both the Bay of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea) and centralizing their search to the higher areas (thus discarding the previous popular view that Stay Behind Cave was inside Coptic Cave, until finally concentrating their efforts within the Lord Airey tunnel system. There the group felt a draft emanating from behind some rusting corrugated sheets which made them realise that there had to be some sort of opening behind it. On removal of part of the corrugated iron sheet a brick wall was found hidden behind which on removal revealed a hidden doorway. Behind it lay the military secret revealing its facilities and tunnels for the first time since the Second World War.

Behind this brick wall a gallery opened up with bare rock walls and a wooden floor which led to a spacious room measuring approximately 18 x 5.5m. The flooring in this room was made from cork tiles which would have provided great sound insulation. To the right of this main room, a sink and tap provided the occupants with fresh water supplied by a metal 10,000-Imprial gallon water tank (45,000 litres) located just behind the southern wall.

From this room a corridor led to some stairs. The corridor also gave access to two rooms – one on the left with two toilets, and one on the right where the wiring and furniture made it clear it was a radio shack from which information on enemy movements would have been transmitted.

The stairs initially led to a natural opening in the rock which would have allowed the men to exit onto a small natural platform high up on the east side cliffs, where hidden in the undergrowth they would have seen the entire coastline towards Malaga.

Further up the stairs, another tunnel on the right took a route in the opposite direction, westwards. This led to a small observation post with a narrow slit measuring 15 x 1.5cm cut into the western wall, through which most of the Bay of Gibraltar could be observed.

Fortunately, there was never a need to use the facilities.

Members of the Gibraltar Caving Group near the Stay Behind Cave secret entrance.

Stay Behind Cave hidden entrance.

In September 1998, former telegraph operator Dennis Woods admitted that he played an important role in the construction of this facility. He also stated that there were other tracer groups in Gibraltar, but his group was the main one. Woods suggested that the Tracer units, by then referred to as Shadow units, worked during the Suez crisis.

In November 2006, Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander Bruce Cooper, the last surviving member of Operation Tracer met Sergeant Major Pete Jackson of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment and Jim Crone to finally relate his memories of Operation Tracer. In October 2008, he returned to Gibraltar and confirmed that the Stay Behind Cave discovered in 1997 was the same covert chamber that had been constructed for his use and that of his five colleagues.

Dr Cooper visits the Stay Behind Cave in 2006.

Stay Behind Cave facilities layout.

Operation Tracer - The discovery of Stay Behind Cave.

Stay Behind Cave complex Image