Details of Operation Tracer have been shrouded in mystery until a fascinating document from the files of Naval Intelligence at the Public Records Office, Kew (England) recently came to light. The plan, hatched during the darkest days of the Second World War, was for six men to be sealed in a cave in Gibraltar with only two small openings to the outside world and enough supplies for one year. They were told there would be no way out and anyone who died within the chamber would have to be embalmed and cemented into the walls. Only if Germany was defeated within a year would they be released. (It was presumed that Germany would overrun Gibraltar, hence the need for Operation Tracer). The Volunteers, two doctors, three signalmen and their leader, would run a cave-based observation post from two 12" by 6" slits, one looking due east over the Mediterranean and the other over the Straits and harbour. All shipping movements would be radioed to the Admiralty.
With the fall of France in 1940, there was only Spain between Hitler and his desire to invade Gibraltar and take control of all naval movements in the Mediterranean. He had already helped General Franco to power and it was feared the Spanish Dictator would permit the Germans to march through Spain to the Rock. This was seen as a very real threat and by the end of the summer of 1941 ideas for a series of observation posts, firstly in Gibraltar and later in places like Malta and Aden were put together as Operation Tracer. Work at Gibraltar began immediately under Commander Geoffrey Birley and his Chief Engineer Colonel Fordham. The site chosen at Lord Airey's Battery on the southern tip of the Rock already had an existing tunnel used as a shelter.
By the end of 1941 construction work was under way on the chamber where the men would live. This would be 45ft x 16ft x 8ft with a water tank containing 10,000 gallons of water and a passage section for the radio. As the whole plan depended on the communications system much thought was given to the radio installation. The equipment would be run from three small 12 volt, batteries which in turn would be powered by two generators, one propelled by a bicycle and the other by band. An outside aerial would be vital. A rod, eighteen feet long was to be pushed out of one of the openings when required. Extensive trials began in January 1942 under the eye of Colonel Gambier-Parry, an MI6 radio expert. Much thought was also given to the type of men needed for such a strange and demanding task. Murray Levick, a member of Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition was called up as a Surgeon Commander to advise on survival techniques. There were practical matters such as diet, exercise, sanitation and clothing to consider as well as the psychology of the personnel.
In March a coded message was sent to Commander Gibraltar announcing the arrival of a Lieutenant White asking for full co-operation and reminding everyone that the ultimate success of Operation Tracer depends on 100% security. The rest of the team arrived on the Rock with jobs to cover their presence and signals on the Operation Tracer file announced the appointment of Surgeon-Lieutenants Cooper and Milne, both of the RNVR, who arrived on HMS Cormorant that summer on an operation "on the instructions of the First Sea Lord." The full team were in place by the end of the summer of 1942 and their cavern was fully equipped and ready for occupation. A comprehensive manual was prepared on all aspects of the operation and it was considered that similar secret lookout posts should be prepared throughout the world in the event of future wars. Happily, the Gibraltar Tracer was never called upon to go into commission (or should that be "deployment"!!) as Hitler turned his attention away from Gibraltar towards the Eastern Front.
The six volunteers were eventually stood down after a year, the stores and equipment removed and the cave blocked up. Today, more than half a century later there is still an intriguing part of the operation still to be discovered - the Manual of Operation Tracer. This contains full and elaborate details on what food, clothing and tools would be required and even a list of preferred books for the library! Should the manual ever come to light it would be interesting to find out about the radio aspects, such as procedures, watchkeeping routines, codes and details of the transmitter and receiver. It would be intriguing to find out who the telegraphists were and if they are still around.
I had the pleasure of many "good runs" in Gibraltar but during that time I never gave any thought to how Gibraltar got it's name. That is, not until I spent a week's holiday there during October 1997, at the Caletta Palace Hotel, Catalan Bay, where incidentally, some of the Ship's Company of HM Submarine Torbay were billeted for a few days (Happy Hour was never the same once they left!). I digress. During the Rock's history it has been invaded, captured, laid under seige, recaptured and so on by a succession of North African Tribes. One such tribe was led by a Prince TARIK, and the Rock was known by the Arabic word JEBEL, meaning hill or mountain, hence JEBEL TARIK, which over the centuries has been alliterated to GIBRALTAR.
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