The Siege Tunnels of Gibraltar are something to be seen, and should be at the least peeked into with a view to what they mean to the history of the area.
One of the great attractions of Gibraltar, they were carved out by the Merchant Marines in order to defend Gibraltar during one of the many sieges, this one aptly called the Great Siege of 1779 to 1783.
During the time of the American War of Independence against Britain, perhaps taking advantage of a time when Britain’s attentions were focused elsewhere, Spain and France took the opportunity to advance and attempt to recapture the “rock” from the British, and began what was the fourteenth siege against Gibraltar, always known as the Great Siege.
In July of 1779 till February of 1783, the Rock was under siege, and gradually the troops advanced, until in the latter part of 1782, the troops were so close to the Rock that it appeared that none of the existing batteries of Gibraltar could fire upon them due to the angle.
It is said that the governor then, General Elliot, offered a substantial reward to anyone who could find a way to get the cannons onto the northern face of the rock, which was known as the “notch”.
Sergeant-Major Ince is credited with finding the answer, though its unknown if he achieved his reward. Ince, who was a member of a company of Military Artificers said that he believed this could be accomplished by tunneling and he was granted permission to begin the work.
Relying only on brute force, the muscle of their arms, their sledgehammers and metal bars, the company of men used gunpowder to blast out part of the tunnel, and made their way through about eighty feet of rock and dirt.
In the beginning there was no such idea as cannon mounting and the end result, however as the work moved along, the fumes that emitted from the blasting powder began to take its toll on the men and they decided to vent the area to release it and afford themselves some fresh air.
The original goal of the tunnels was to give the men the ability to get a cannon from where they were, over to the northern face of the rock which is known as the Notch, not to mount them within the tunnels but this was a great idea..
Nearly as one the men realized what a wonder opportunity this would be and how well it would work for the cannons, and one was mounted there, without waiting for their tunnel to reach the “Notch” area.
The cannons were taken into the tunnels and holes were cut into the rock all along the face of the side that faced the mainland. When the visitor to Gibraltar is crossing into Gibraltar, if you look carefully, you will see the holes in the face of the rock that tell of the cities past.
When the cannons were laid in place, a rod was placed above them and a wet cloth hung from it, to prevent the sparks from the cannon from flying backwards and igniting the remaining powder. Some areas in the tunnels went up nearly a story or two, and were for the very brave or the very foolhardy to traverse, while other areas lay on the ground, so the shooting could take place from multiple levels.
In the beginning the tunnel was only 82 feet long, however by the end of the second World War, when diamond drills and better methods of tunneling existed, the tunnels traversed a distance of more than thirty miles in length, winding and turning as they went.
Today, the visitor to the Siege Tunnels will note that the seem to go on for eternity, and that upon entering on one side of Gibraltar, you will quite literally end up nearly on the other side of the Rock.
Make sure that you wear comfy shoes when you visit the Siege tunnels of Gibraltar.
Its been said that the hike down into the tunnels is fairly easily accomplished as its downhill all the way, but lest we forget, there is also that return trip. The unique perspective of a history of multiple sieges and multiple rulers makes it well worth the trek.
Take in the Siege Tunnels of Gibraltar on your next vacation to the “Rock”.
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