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New discovery in Gibraltar: the site of the clandestine SOE wireless station that changed history

Nicholas Rankin tells how local archaeologists helped him uncover a key wartime secret

"When you were researching your book Defending the Rock," the BBC man asked, "did you come across any interesting document with an untold story?"

I remembered then a beige file in the National Archives at Kew in London, with a 24-page closely-typed diary. The authorities called it 'an alarming breach of security' because it revealed some activities of S.O.E in Spain and Gibraltar.

S.O.E, the Special Operations Executive, founded in June 1940, was one of the nine secret services that Britain maintained in the Second World War. Its role was sabotage, subversion and resistance to Nazi rule. 'Set Europe ablaze!' ordered Churchill.

The illicit diary belonged to a man called Hugh Mallory Falconer, and he wrote it in French because he'd served five years with the French Foreign Legion, where he became expert in radios and wireless telegraphy. Recruited by S.O.E and given the code number GB 007, 'Squadron Leader Mallory' was sent to Gibraltar at the end of 1941 to set up a secret agents' wireless network covering Iberia and North Africa.

S.O.E's HQ in Gibraltar, the requisitioned Villa Lourdes in South Barracks Road, already contained trained signallers. They were radio operators from the RELATOR party of S.O.E saboteurs who had come to Gibraltar in 1940, disguised as Royal Engineers, ready to wreak havoc in Spain if General Franco ever permitted German troops to cross his territory and attack Gibraltar. (The naval side was Operation GOLDENEYE, run by Lt.-Cdr. Ian Fleming of Naval Intelligence, the future author of the James Bond books.)

After the Governor, Lord Gort, told him that British forces were preparing defences deep inside the Rock's tunnels, Mallory/Falconer decided to set up his wireless station there too. He out-manoeuvred an unpopular officer, Lt.-Col. 'Tito' Medlam, and got possession of a cave that he called 'un trou', 'a hole'. But where exactly was it?

Rankin SOE radio operator 2

The diary contained several black and white photographs, which I shared with Ian Reyes of the Fortress of Gibraltar Group. FOGG [pictured below] are the premier military archaeology organisation on the Rock, the descendants of the caving group who discovered the long-hidden Naval Intelligence 'Stay-Behind-Cave' near Lord Airey's Battery. They had provided me with great help for my book, both among the physical WW2 defences in Gibraltar, and in UK archives. Now their accumulated years of local knowledge proved invaluable.

Rankin FOGG

It was around 11 o'clock on Saturday 11th November 2017 when Ian Reyes showed me a rocky cave overlooking the Laguna Estate. It had once been a gun-position carved out of the limestone by redcoat engineers and still had the iron curtain-rail over the deep embrasure where the ancient gunners hung wet ropes to absorb the smoky blast of black powder.

But now there was a more modern addition to the cave: the remaining framework of a two-room wooden hut, walled and roofed with corrugated-iron sheets to keep out moisture. Comparing it with Falconer's original photograph from 1942, we could see the irregularly cut panel above the door was just the same. The table and radio equipment had gone, but the wall-plank above still held the rusting nails where messages used to hang, beneath pasted labels. The name of RAMON, the principal S.O.E agent in Sevilla, was still legible. This was the place.

Rankin SOE

Falconer needed another station on the eastern side of the Rock to communicate clearly with the S.O.E smuggling fleet in the Mediterranean, and the agents in North Africa. Once again, from old photos, FOGG recognised the mouth of a tunnel that seemed to be leading downwards. On Monday 13th November, the AquaGib superintendent Jose Luis Marzan took me through the half-mile reservoir tunnel to the end of the water-catchment area, high above Catalan Bay. There, by an old pill-box, I could quite clearly see the site of S.O.E's second wireless station.

Rankin SOE radio operator

Why get excited by old wood and concrete? Why does this stuff matter? Because it changed the course of the Second World War. Seventy-five years ago, in November 1942, Operation TORCH took place, the Anglo-American landings of 65,000 men in three places in Morocco and Algeria in order to drive the Axis forces finally out of Africa.

US General Dwight Eisenhower's HQ was on the Rock of Gibraltar, deep in the Admiralty tunnel, while US General George Patton was landing at Casablanca, having sailed across the Atlantic. There was a fleet of 600 ships; the airfield was crammed with fighters and bombers. All co-ordination depended on radio.

At this crucial moment, all the US Army wireless communications went down. Static noise; no signal. A message black-out threatening the entire strategic operation. But Hugh Mallory Falconer's radio network held up. All the vital signals traffic now went via the S.O.E people on the Rock and the three S.O.E operators with the invaders.

G.B. 007's work saved the day. The official history called Hugh Mallory Falconer's Gibraltar radio stations "S.O.E's most important contribution to history in North Africa."

The DOCUMENT feature 'The Gibraltar Diary of Squadron Leader Mallory', presented by Nick Rankin, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 9pm Gibraltar time tonight, Monday 4th December 2017. Rankin’s latest book, Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler, is published by Faber.

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