Thrusting 1300 feet above the Spanish plain on the Bay of Algeciras, the Rock of Gibraltar has been an important defensive outpost since its acquisition by the British in 1704. Long before the British occupation Gibraltar was a “point of turmoil.” The Muslims captured Gibraltar in 711 and occupied it for almost 700 years; Spain annexed the Rock in 1501, holding it until the War of Spanish Succession when it fell to British and Dutch troops.
A secret arrangement with France during peace negotiations in 1711 gave the British sole possession of Gibraltar, a move that has been hotly contested by Spain ever since.
Gibraltar was important as an Allied outpost during World War 2, but our look at its military history stops here. Instead we will discuss a little known aspect of Canadian history – an Annapolis Valley connection with wartime Gibraltar and a medal called the Gibraltar Key.
During its occupation by various nations, Gibraltar was literally “dug into” to provide underground defensive stations. These excavations continued during World War 2 and this is where Canada came in. During the war 1914-18 Canadian miners played an important part in mining and countermining operations on the Western Front. When war broke out in 1939 this role was recalled, this led to formation of No. 1 and No. 2 Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Canadian Engineers. The formation of the Tunnelling Companies was approved by the Minister of Defence in 1940; recruited were hardrock miners from Ontario and Quebec.
The role of Canadian tunnellers in Gibraltar is covered in volume 2 of the history of the Royal Canadian Engineers. During their two years on the Rock, this history notes, the Canadians mined and removed about 140,000 tons of solid rock “as well as putting in 46,000 man hours on construction work.” The efforts of Canadian tunnellers on Gibraltar was outstanding and was noted. We now come to the point of this column and here I quote from the Engineers history:
“As a souvenir of their share in this considerable excavation, the Wartime Mining Association had silver watch fobs struck in Canada for distribution to the 324 men and officers of the Canadian tunnelling companies who had worked on the massive fortress. These took the form of a key, emblematic of Gibraltar, superimposed on which was a medallion depicting the Rock and a driller in action. The designer (of the key) was Sapper R. J. Cunningham, No. 2 Tunnelling Company. General McNaughton presented the keys at a special parade on 27 March, 1943.”
From the July 1944 issue of the Canadian Geographic Journal: “As a reward for their achievements it was suggested …. that the Canadian Tunnellers might be given some special mark of distinction. The first proposal was to grant them the privilege of wearing the Gibraltar Key in the form of a cloth badge on the right sleeve. It was not considered desirable, however, to establish the principle that Units serving detached might be given such special distinction and a silver watch fob was substituted for the cloth badge. The fob was designed by Sapper R. J. Cunningham of No. 2 Canadian Tunnelling Company.”
The Gibraltar Key presented to the tunnellers is one of the rarest of Canadian badges since only a relatively limited number were made. They are treasured by the veterans who hold them and obviously are much in demand by collectors who find that few are offered in the marketplace.
The story of the Gibraltar Key and its local connection will be continued next week.
Hi Ed – I’ve been doing a search for information on The Gibraltar Key because my uncle George Murphy was in Gibraltar for 22 months tunnelling to build a hospital there – I’m wondering if there is of list of those who were awarded this Key – his son (my cousin) does not remember his father mentioning anything about it. Thanks
Hi David: I’ll have a look at my notes but I don’t believe I had a list of names when I put the column together. So back to you if I find anything. If you can get through the red tape, Ottawa should be able to provide this list. As I recall, the list of recipients wasn’t lengthy. – Ed