The Gibraltar Key

The Gibraltar Key designed by Cpl Robert Cunningham, RCE

By LCol Ken Holmes, CD (Ret'd)

The Rock of Gibraltar was important as an Allied outpost during World War II. Thrusting 1300 feet above the Spanish plain on the Bay of Algeciras, it dominated the Atlantic entrance to the Mediterranean Sea,  Gibraltar had been a “point of turmoil”  throughout much of recorded history. 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. Then an arrangement with France during peace negotiations in 1711 gave the British sole possession of Gibraltar.

During its occupation by various nations, Gibraltar was extensively excavated to provide underground defensive stations. These excavations continued during World War II and the need for this work prompted the British government to request Canada’s assistance. This request led to the formation of No. 1 and No. 2 Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Canadian Engineers in 1940 and the recruiting of hardrock miners – mostly from Ontario and Quebec.

A detailing of the work of these Canadian tunnellers in Gibraltar is covered in Volume II of  The History of the Corps of the Royal Canadian Engineers”. During their two years on The Rock, the Canadians mined and removed about 140,000 tons of solid rock as well as putting in some 46,000 man hours on construction work. The efforts of these Canadian tunnellers on Gibraltar was noteworthy and warranted recognition.

The  Canadian Geographic Journal [July 1944] reports: “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 create a precedent whereby a unit might be given such special distinction and thus 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. Each tunneller had his name engraved on the back of the fob. Since the presentation of the souvenir fobs was of an unofficial nature, production was a private venture and the cost was borne by James Y. Murdock, Esq., President of Noranda Mines. The keys were minted in Canada.

There is significance to the featuring of a ‘key’ on this device. The 1944 Canadian Geographic Journal article offers the insight: “Not only was Gibraltar christened the ‘Key to the Spanish Dominions’ …. but the Key has been part of the official Coat of Arms for centuries. The ceremony of handing over the keys at the changing of the guard has been carried out by the various (British) regiments since the days of the Great Siege by the Spanish in 1779-83.”

The designer of the Key, Robert Cunningham, passed away in January 2011 at the age of 91. Born in London, England, he immigrated to Canada in 1928, settling in Melbourne, QC. Educated at St Francis College & Hailebury Mining School, in his life, Robert was a prospector, miner, tunnel worker, surveyor, wood carver, artist, published author, and poet.

In 1939 Robert enlisted with the Royal Canadian Engineers and was one of the hardrock miners recruited from Quebec and Ontario when No. 1 and No. 2 Canadian Tunnelling Companies were formed. Once overseas, he was initially involved In mapping for artillery ranging in the south of England (1940) and surveying tunnel construction for the defence of Gibraltar (1941 – 42). He then transferred to the Royal Canadian Artillery as a Gunnery Instructor (1943) and, finally, to the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders as a Infantry Line Officer who saw action in Belgium and the Netherlands. A draftsman and surveyor during the war, after the war Cunningham had a career as an engineer, tunnel supervisor, and chief draftsman.

The Gibraltar Key is a uniquely Canadian military award that was originated for a unique Canadian military group – the Canadian Army Tunnellers.  On 27 March 1943 General McNaughton presented the keys at a special parade to the 324 men and officers of the Canadian tunneling companies who had worked on the massive fortress.  It is one of the rarer of Canadian ‘badges’ since a relatively limited number were made.