Larissa Swirski and Gabriel Riera probably never met, although they both survived the dangerous and intriguing scenario that the Strait of Gibraltar was during WWII; she, as queen of hearts, double agent of the Nazis and allies in Gibraltar’s spy ring, which the British dubbed Spy Row; him, as a prisoner forced to eat crushed snails to avoid starvation while digging a huge tunnel under the Carbonera mountain range to be used in a German offensive against the Rock that never took place. Although the history books linger on other exploits, a tense and low-key battle took place in Cadiz in the early 1940s; one of the frustrated military operations, spies and prisoner battalions who built over 640 bunkers and various military infrastructure that would soon be abandoned to their fate along the Cadiz coast.
Bunkers, anti-aircraft guns, command posts, tunnels and even a hidden road to Algeciras are living witnesses of a war being fought in one of the essential geostrategic corners of the world where no shots were fired. The infrastructure that stretches along the coast of Cadiz, from Huelva to Malaga, was part of the so-called Plan of Fortifications of the Southern Border, designed by Brigadier General Pedro Jevenois Labernade in May 1939. Just before World War II, Franco The Army studied a fortification and artillery plan that would officially serve to defend the country against possible incursions by Allied forces. “We are talking about a very serious project,” explains Alfonso Escuadra, an expert on Cadiz’s military heritage and its historical context. “With the system of fortifications on the line of the Pyrenees [the so-called P Line, which consisted of 6,000 bunkers built between 1944 and 1948] these are the great defensive constructions of the time.
But no matter how much the Franco regime insisted that the fortifications in the Strait of Gibraltar were for defense purposes only, no one would deny that whoever controlled the Strait and the Suez Canal would have the keys to the Mediterranean. In 1940, the regime erected a particularly dense fortified line around Gibraltar. “All elements of the artillery system and observatories have an offensive undertone,” explains Escuadra. For this reason, Nazi Germany included the bunkers that same year as key aspects of Operation Felix – Hitler’s plan to invade Gibraltar in January 1941.
“Some still think that in Hendaye’s interview [held between Franco and Hitler in October 1940 to discuss Spain’s entry into the war], no agreement has been reached, but it is not, ”says Escuadra. “The fortifications were used as a key element in the negotiations. In fact, secret documents have surfaced in German archives in which Nazi General Hubert Lanz states that the Spanish state had “given him several bunkers located in La Línea”. Escuadra thinks it is clear that the plan to invade Gibraltar involved a much greater degree of Francoist regime involvement than had historically been assumed. But preparations for the seizure of the Rock ended up going awry, as they overlapped with the German occupation operation of the USSR and the subsequent transfer of advantages to the Allies.
A quiet war
Meanwhile, on the ground in Campo de Gibraltar, there was a lot of espionage and even double agents, like Swirski, whose fascinating life was documented by journalist Wayne Jamison.
And if it was possible for the Franco dictatorship to erect more than 640 defensive constructions in a few months, it is because the State called on private contractors, soldiers and especially thousands of prisoners forced to work. in extreme conditions. Historian José Manuel Algarbani calculated the existence of no less than 43 disciplinary units from May 1939 to 1944. But there were 30,000 here, which few people are aware of, ”he says.
According to journalist and researcher Juan José Téllez, “we lived under the illusion that Spain did not participate in World War II. But tell that to the people of La Línea de la Concepción, who mistakenly suffered an Italian bombardment of Gibraltar [on July 11, 1941, with five fatalities]. “
When the humid east wind from the Strait of Gibraltar mixes with the fog, the rock disappears behind the clouds. Faced with a bunker in the Sierra Carbonera, the apparent absence makes the existence of the bunkers even more futile as well as the suffering that their construction has caused. “This is only part of it; in San Roque we have a bunker for every square kilometer, ”explains Carlos Jordán, who works in the city’s tourism department and is responsible for cultural routes through these dilapidated structures. “There are more than 180 in the commune alone.
Gabriel Riera, originally from the island of Mallorca, was one of the prisoners who worked on this infrastructure and he documented his experience in Chronicle of a Mallorcan prisoner in the concentration camps (1936-1942): “One day, an inspection team showed up with a health colonel,” he wrote. “The other members of the company were forced to line up; there were no more of us, and as we walked through the fence he said: “It’s a cemetery of living men!” caused the deaths of at least 500 prisoners, according to Algarbani. These were unnecessary fatalities, the cost of building a fortified line which was never used and which fell into disuse as soon as Franco saw that it would neither be used to attack nor to defend against the Allies.
Today, bunkers barely survive as megaliths along a coast that has remained, to a large extent, natural and wild due to the military needs of the region. Stuck in a tangle of administrative and land ownership issues, there is no consensus on their number. In 2001, Escuadra and Ángel Sáez produced a catalog for the regional culture ministry in which they documented some 500 structures, but Escuadra believes there could be more. Jordán, meanwhile, estimates more than 640, for which he calls for protection as an asset of cultural interest (BIC), a promise promised by the regional government in September 2019. Consulted by EL PAÍS, the Andalusian department of the culture did not specify whether it would declare them goods of cultural interest but specified that “within the framework of the defensive architecture, the bunkers already have the consideration of the BIC in application of the law on the patrimony of 1985”.
Algarbani and Escuadra have worked for decades to save buildings from oblivion, as they are located in areas of undeniable tourist attraction. Wishing that the role of bunkers as places of historical memory be recognized, Alharbani says: “We have to explain how they were built and why, in order to make them places of memory, not to destroy them.
Escuadra goes further. “In two decades, they will be 100 years old and they are telling us about our history,” he says. “Plus, it’s not a local problem; it places the region in the context of European and world history.
english version by Heather galloway.