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The military history of Gibraltar during World War II exemplifies Gibraltar's position as a British fortress since the early 18th century and as a vital factor in British military strategy, both as a foothold on the continent of Europe, and as a bastion of British sea power. During World War II, Gibraltar served a vital role in both the Atlantic Theater and the Mediterranean Theater, controlling virtually all naval traffic into and out of the Mediterranean Sea from the Altantic Ocean.
In addition to its commanding position, Gibraltar provided a strongly defended harbour from which ships could operate in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Force H, under the command of Vice-Admiral James Somerville was based in Gibraltar and had the task of maintaining naval superiority and providing a strong escort for convoys to and from the besieged island of Malta
Inside the Rock of Gibraltar itself, miles of tunnels were excavated from the limestone. Masses of rock were blasted out to build an "underground city". In huge man-made caverns, barracks, offices, and a fully equipped hospital were constructed, complete with an operating theater and X-ray equipment.
Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, was coordinated from the "Rock". General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was given command of the operation, set up his headquarters in Gibraltar during the planning phases of the operation. Following the successful completion of the North African campaign and the surrender of Italy in 1943, Gibraltar's role shifted from a forward operating base to a rear-area supply position. The harbour continued to operate dry docks and supply depots for the convoy routes through the Mediterranean until V-E Day in 1945.
The Africa Campaign
Plans for the Allied counter offensive after the attack on Pearl Harbor were ongoing by mid-1942. An invasion of Europe in 1943 would be unworkable, but the allies could attack the "soft underbelly of Europe" through the Mediterranean, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it. Devised by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Churchill and code named Operation Torch, the plan was to occupy French North Africa: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. From these French colonies, attacks could be launched that would drive Italy out of the war.
In July 1942, Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Allied Commander-in-Chief of Operation Torch. Churchill placed Gibraltar under the command of General Eisenhower as the temporary headquarters for this, the first large-scale Anglo-American operation of the war. He arrived in Gibraltar on 5 November 1942 to take over, not just command of Operation Torch itself, but also military command of Gibraltar.
General Eisenhower stayed at The Convent, the official Governor's residence, but his operational headquarters were in a small chamber in a tunnel in the heart of the Rock. In his memoirs General Eisenhower wrote:
"The subterranean passages under the Rock provided the sole available office space, and in them was located the signal equipment by which we expected to keep in touch with the commanders of the three assault forces. The eternal darkness of the tunnels was here and there partially pierced by feeble electric bulbs. Damp, cold air in block-long passages was heavy with stagnation and did not noticeably respond to the clattering efforts of electric fans. Through the arched ceilings came a constant drip, drip, drip of surface water that faithfully but drearily ticked off the seconds of the interminable, almost unendurable, wait which always occurs between completion of a military plan and the moment action begins."
One hundred thousand soldiers on the high seas in a multitude of transports converged on Gibraltar. More than 400 aircraft of all types were crammed into the dispersal areas around the Gibraltar runway. Fighters had been shipped in crates and assembled on the airfield. Every available area of storage was taken up with ammunition, fuel, and other essential supplies. 168 American pilots were housed in the RAF messes at North Front.
On 8 November 1942, 466 aircraft from Gibraltar landed on captured North African airfields.
From their headquarters in Gibraltar, General Eisenhower and Admiral Sir Andrew Brown Cunningham (III) directed Operation Torch, the first major combined combat operation during World War II involving American and British forces.
Given that Gibraltar was a small town with only a few defences protecting it, the solution was to build a massive series of tunnels and chambers inside the natural protection of the Rock of Gibraltar. This "town" inside the Rock contained its own power station, water supply, and hospital. Some soldiers posted here would not see the light of day for months on end. Two Canadian engineer companies, the only soldiers with diamond-tipped drills and 5 British engineer companies, added some 30 miles (48 km) of such tunnels, a feat thought impossible at the time. That was enough to hold all 30,000 troops on the rock. Today, the rock has more underground tunnels than roads.