Gibraltar: training Britain’s tunnel rats

Afghanistan is criss-crossed with underground irrigation systems, crop storage facilities, and sheltered dwellings, used by farmers and shepherds – as well as the more famous underground and cave-based fortifications used by the Mujahideen and Taliban.  So its no surprise that conducting combat operations in tunnels and caves has made quite a come-back in the American Army – and has provided some interesting new challenges for other Western forces. 

Training in Gibraltar's tunnels, to face the challenges of Afghanistan's caves.

British troops in training to face the challenges of Afghanistan's caves.

But one nation has a training facility at its disposal that no other country can match – not even the US.  This is a facility that combines the ability to conduct airborne, seaborne and land-borne operations with a MOUT/FIBUA focus; plus to practice hard fighting in tunnels and complexes carved out of solid rock.  And all within a total area of only 14 square kilometres – with a toasty Mediterranean climate thrown in for added realism.  This facility is the famous rock of Gibraltar located at the western edge of the Med between Spain and Morrocco.

Gurkhas storm Rosia Bay

Gibraltar’s warm waters and generally favourable weather are ideal for maritime training – so the Submarine Parachute Assistance Group frequently drop in – literally. 


Teams of RN Clearance divers, and other specialists also regularly train there. Submarines use the deep waters to trial new sonar systems and ships’ weapons officers know that the seas around Gibraltar make a perfect place to get in a bit of last minute live firing practice and operational sea training.

The RAF Regiment could make good use of Gibraltar’s facilities too.  With a busy RAF airstrip hosting plenty of commercial traffic, and excellent infantry and camp protection training opportunities just a couple of miles up the road at Buffadero Training Centre, all the necessary ingredients to hone force and camp protection are on tap.

No strangers to the quality of Gibraltar’s training facilities are the British Army’s Sappers, who have a long association with the rock. The Royal Engineers regiment was formed there in the 18th century, and much of the town has been built by them.

Buffadero Training Centre

Buffadero is situated on the southernmost tip of Gibraltar. It is a compact facility, just 37 acres (15 hectares), ideal for platoon size training. It boasts two live firing ranges, an obstacle course, a CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) testing shed and the jewel in the crown – the village. This is a collection of houses, and other buildings, some of which have been given Middle East style flat roofs, which allows for extensive FIBUA (fighting in a built up area) exercises.

RLC FIBUA Exercise

The rocky ground is covered with a tangle of shrubs and robust vegetation giving patrolling troops something of a taste of the terrain they may face in Afghanistan.  A bonus is the bulk of the 1400ft (427m) rock looming over Buffadero. The upper rock enables infantry to conduct night-time patrols, and observational points can be established from the old gun emplacements adding an extra threat for platoon commanders to negotiate.

Tunnel rats

Gibraltar’s specialist training course for fighting in tunnels was recently put to use by Territorial Army soldiers from 39 (Skinners) Signal Regiment while on their two-week annual camp. 

The specialist course makes full use of the many man-made tunnels which run throughout the Rock and was designed to improve the soldiers’ skills in fieldcraft, shooting and fitness and to improve the command skills of junior commanders.

Other activities included Fighting in Built-Up Areas (FIBUA) in the specially constructed mock village, and a marksmanship course on the rifle ranges at Buffadero Training Centre.

It may not be feasible to use Gibraltar’s tunnels to train large numbers of troops, in bulk, but they can be used to train the trainers – or for small, specialist units to hone their skills. 

And whilst Gibraltar is famous now for its rock apes, in the future it may be just as famous for its tunnel rats.

Ex Marble Tor 4 Tunnels_020 tunnels2

(Photos Crown Copyright/MOD 2009.  Compiled from information provided by the MOD.)

On the other hand, UK (or other European) airsofters who are keen to experience the adrenalin rush of up close and personal tunnel warfare should check out UCAP Airsoft, based near Portsmouth.

About this entry