Miners in War

Mining/tunnelling played an important role in Allied victories in both WWI and WWII.

As far back as 4000 years ago, tunnels were dug in warfare to bypass fortifications (i.e. to tunnel under city walls so soldiers could enter a city and attack). Tunnels have also been used to undermine fortifications. Tunnels, supported by timbering, were dug under defences like castle walls. The timbering was then burnt and without its support, the weight of the walls above would cause them to collapse.

The introduction of gunpowder later took this approach a step further - explosions could blow apart enemy walls from underneath.

In WWI, tunnelling companies were formed by both sides. In December 1914, the Germans detonated 500 kilograms of explosive under British lines and followed on with a successful infantry assault. By February 1915, British men experienced in tunnelling and mining set off their first mine under the Germans.

By 1916, the Canadian Army had raised the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company, C.E. from eastern Canadian recruits. The 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Company, C.E., was recruited in British Columbia and Alberta. The 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company was formed from mining sections initially created within the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions in France.

In addition to the role tunnelling played in the fighting, tunnelling companies also dug subways, cable trenches, saps, and underground chambers for signal or medical services. Extensive networks of tunnels were dug behind Allied front lines, allowing for movement of men and supplies into the front trenches without enemy detection.

The best example of tunnelling assisting a Canadian WWI attack occurred at Vimy Ridge. In the months prior to the April 9, 1917 attack, tunnelling companies dug 20 kilometres of subways for foot traffic, tramways for moving ammunition to the front lines and evacuating wounded soldiers, and light railways - all concealed from the enemy by the ground above. The tunnelling system housed 24,000 men prior to the attack and was equipped with electric lighting, kitchens, latrines and a medical centre. A 250-metre section of the Grange Subway has been preserved and is accessible to the public at Vimy Ridge.

Canadian tunnelling companies also played vital roles in WWII. For example, Canadian miners helped dig tunnels into the Rock of Gibraltar to protect soldiers from bombardment during WWII (pictures below). There are 52 kilometres of tunnels in the 6 square kilometre limestone ridge, some of which are open to public visits now. The tunnels could hold 16,000 soldiers and everything they needed for 16 months.

The Rock of Gibraltar guards the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. It has been a British fortress since 1704. Through the years, the Royal Engineers had excavated tunnels and galleries in the rock for defensive purposes.

During WWII, Gibraltar was a major naval and air base and a tremendous amount of excavation was required to improve its defences. Canadians tunnellers were in particular demand because many were hard rock miners, a somewhat uncommon trade in the United Kingdom. Canada first sent a special detachment of No. 1 Canadian Tunnelling Company, which was then operating in England. This detachment commenced work on the Rock November 26, 1940.
An additional detachment of diamond drillers and equipment from No. 1 Tunneling Company RCE followed. No. 2 Tunneling Company joined them early in 1941.

The Canadians excavated a series of wards and tunnels to make a hospital area inside the Rock. The largest chamber was 200' x 35' and 12' high. They also constructed ammunition magazines, oil storage tanks, pillbox fortifications and installed heavy timbering where rock conditions required it. A quarrying operation produced fill to extend the airfield runways.

During their two years on the Rock, 234 Canadians removed about 140,000 tons of rock. They produced 35 cubic feet of excavation per man per shift on average, a rate exceeded that of civilian mining operations. In later stages, this production rate increased when mechanical equipment became available to remove muck from the tunnel face.

These Canadians, many of them miners from places like Nova Scotia, played an important role protecting our country and the world.

Thanks to the Canadian Military Engineers Association for much of this great info and, as always, thanks to all veterans for their service.

Inside the Rock of Gibraltar.

Inside the Rock of Gibraltar.