Great Siege of Gibraltar
The British garrison under George Augustus Eliott were blockaded at first by the Spanish led by Martín Álvarez de Sotomayor in June 1779. This failed however as two relief convoys entered unmolested—the first under Admiral George Rodney succeeded in 1780 and the second by Admiral George Darby in 1781 despite the presence of the Spanish fleets. The same year a major assault was planned by the Spanish but a sortie by the Gibraltar garrison in November succeeded in destroying much of the forward batteries. With the siege going nowhere and constant Spanish failures the besiegers were reinforced by French forces under the Duc de Crillon who took over operations in early 1782. With a lull in the siege in which the allied force gathered more guns, ships and troops, a huge 'Grand Assault' was delivered in September 1782. This involved huge numbers—60,000 men, 49 ships of the line and ten specially designed newly invented floating batteries against 5,000 men of the Gibraltar garrison. This was a disastrous failure which caused heavy losses for the Bourbon allies.
The siege then settled down again to more of a blockade but the final defeat for the allies was complete when a crucial British relief convoy under Admiral Richard Howe slipped through the blockading allied fleet and arrived at the garrison in October. The siege was subsequently lifted on 7 February 1783 and was a decisive victory for the British forces being a vital decider for the Peace of Paris which had been negotiated towards the end of the siege.
This was the largest action fought during the war in terms of numbers, particularly the Grand Assault of 18 September 1782. At three years and seven months, it is the longest siege endured by the British Armed Forces and one of the longest sieges in history.
- 1 Background
- 2 Siege
- 3 The Grand Assault
- 4 Final victory
- 5 Aftermath
- 6 In popular culture
- 7 Today
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 External links
In 1738 a dispute between Spain and Great Britain arose over commerce between Europe and the Americas. Initially, both sides intended to sign an agreement at the Spanish Royal Palace of El Pardo, but in January of the following year, the British Parliament rejected the advice of Foreign Minister Robert Walpole, a supporter of the agreement with Spain. A short time later, the War of Jenkins' Ear began, and both countries declared war on 23 October 1739, each side drawing up plans to establish trenches near Gibraltar. Seeing these first movements, Britain ordered Admiral Vernon to sail from Portobello and strengthen the squadron of Admiral Haddock who was already stationed in the Bay of Gibraltar.
The passage of years failed to break the hostilities in the region. Then on 9 July 1746, King Philip V of Spain died in Madrid. His successor, Ferdinand VI, soon began negotiations with Britain on trade. The British Parliament was amenable to such negotiations, and even looked favourably upon lifting the British embargo on Spain and possibly ceding Gibraltar. The neutrality adopted by Ferdinand VI quickly ended with his death in 1759. The new king, Charles III, was less willing to negotiate with Great Britain. Instead, he signed a Family Compact with Louis XV of France on 15 August 1761. At that time France was at war with Britain, so Britain responded by declaring war on Spain and capturing the Spanish colonial capitals of Manila and Havana. Two years later, after cessation of hostilities, Spain recovered Manila and Havana in exchange for Spanish holdings in Florida as part of the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
In the years of peace that followed both France and Spain hoped for an opportunity to launch a war against Britain on more favourable terms and recover their lost colonial possessions. Following the outbreak of the American War of Independence, both states supplied funding and arms to the American rebels, and drew up a strategy to intervene on the American side and defeat Britain.
In October 1778 France entered the war and on 12 April 1779, both France and Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez wherein they agreed to aid one another in recovering lost territory from Britain. France and Spain sought to secure Gibraltar, which was a key link in Britain's control of the Mediterranean Sea, and expected its capture to be relatively quick—a precursor to a Franco-Spanish invasion of Great Britain.
The Spanish blockade was to be directed by Martín Álvarez de Sotomayor. Spanish ground forces were composed of sixteen infantry battalions which included the Royal Guards, and the Walloon Guards and along with artillery there were twelve squadrons of cavalry which brought a total of about 14,000 in all. The artillery was commanded by Rudesindo Tilly, while the cavalry and the French dragoons were headed by the Marquis of Arellano. Antonio Barceló commanded the maritime forces responsible for blockading the bay, and established his base in Algeciras, commanding a fleet of several xebecs and gunboats. A fleet of eleven ships of the line and two frigates were placed in the Gulf of Cadiz under the command of Luis de Córdova y Córdova to block the passage of British reinforcements.
The British garrison in 1778 consisted of 5,382 soldiers; General Eliott was the Governor-General. All the defences were strengthened; the main physical task facing Eliott was an extensive building programme of new fortifications for Gibraltar, as set out in a report by a Commission that had examined the state of the Rock’s defences in the early 1770s. The most prominent new work was the King's Bastion designed by Sir William Green and built by the Soldier Artificer Company on the main waterfront of the town in Gibraltar. The King’s Bastion comprised a stone battery holding twenty-six heavy guns and mortars, with barracks and casemates to house a full battalion of foot. The Grand Battery protected the Land Port Gate, the main entrance to Gibraltar from the isthmus leading to the Spanish mainland. Other fortifications and batteries crowded along the town’s waterfront and on the Rock.
Eliott began a programme of increasing the number of guns deployed in the batteries and fortifications, which initially stood at 412, many of them inoperable. Many of the infantry, including picked men, assisted the artillery in serving the guns. The garrison included three battalions of Hanoverian and around eighty Corsican troops. Eliott also formed a corps of sharpshooters. The navy only had a token force: most of the sailors and marines were used on shore, but one ship of the line, HMS Panther was being used as a hulk and floating battery, a frigate HMS Enterprise, and twelve gunboats, were present. Elliott's determined handling of the preparations inspired all the troops under him with the greatest confidence. The British had anticipated an attack for some time, and many ships had sailed to reinforce and supply Gibraltar. Britain stepped up preparations after France entered the conflict in 1778, although the French were initially more concerned with sending forces to America, and it was not until Spain joined the war that the long-expected siege commenced.
On 16th June 1779, the Spanish issued what was in effect a declaration of war against Great Britain and a blockade immediately commenced. On 6th July 1779, an engagement took place between the British ships and Spanish vessels bringing supplies to the Spanish troops on shore. Several Spanish vessels were taken and the hostilities began. The combined Spanish and French fleets blockaded Gibraltar from the sea, while on the land side an enormous army constructed forts, redoubts, entrenchments, and batteries from which to attack.
As the winter of 1779 came provisions for the garrison soon became scarce. Bread was almost impossible to get, and was not permitted to be issued except to the sick and children. Salt meat and biscuits soon became a major part of the rations with an occasional issue of four ounces of rice each day. Fuel was exhausted, and fires were only made with difficulty, the salt-encrusted timbers of old ships broken up in the harbour for the purpose. As a result a violent outbreak of scurvy among the troops arrived, due to the lack of vegetables and medicines. Eliott appealed to London for relief, and as the winter wore on rations were reduced further. Despite this the garrison's morale remained high and the troops continued to take their turns at various posts of duty. They had also repulsed several small testing assaults made by the Spanish and had great faith that they would receive supplies by sea and so endured the cold and hunger.
On December 1779, a large convoy sailed from England to Gibraltar, escorted by 21 ships of the line under the command of Admiral George Rodney. On their way, they encountered and captured a Spanish convoy off Cape Finisterre on 8 January 1780, and planned to provision the Gibraltar garrison further with the goods they had captured. The Spanish soon learned of the convoy and sent a fleet under Juan de Langara to intercept it, but underestimated the escort's strength, and Langara's ships soon had to flee. Rodney caught up with and defeated the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, taking five ships of the line and additional supplies. The fleet easily penetrated the Spanish blockade and reached Gibraltar on 25th January 1780, bringing reinforcements of 1,052 men of the 73rd Highland regiment of foot under George Mackenzie, captured Spanish goods, and an abundance of supplies.  This greatly heartened the garrison, but as soon as Rodney's fleet left, the siege resumed.
The British defenders resisted every attempt to capture Gibraltar by assault. While the two sides unceasingly exchanged shot and shell, by the end of the summer, provisions again began to run low, and scurvy began to reappear, reducing the effective strength of the garrison. Through the use of small, fast-sailing ships that ran the blockade, they were able to keep in communication with the British forces besieged on Minorca, but that force was also low on supplies.
On 7th June 1780 the two largest ships of Gibraltar, HMS Panther and HMS Enterprise, were targeted within Gibraltar's harbour by Spanish fireships. Warning shots from Enterprise alerted the garrison and soon an intense bombardment slowed the fire ships. A few were sunk but the others carried on; the Spanish fleet waited just outside the harbour for any British ships trying to escape, so seamen from Panther and Enterprise set out in Longboats, intercepted the fire ships, and towed them off course.
Throughout the second winter the garrison faced foes, elements, disease, and starvation. By March the situation was serious and the garrison and civilians were on weekly rations the garrison was in need of a large supply. For the Spanish the blockade was working and only a few small ships having slipped past the blockade had got in but it wasn't enough.
On 12 April 1781 Vice Admiral George Darby's squadron of 29 ships of the line escorting 100 store ships from England laden for Gibraltar entered the bay. The Spanish fleet had been totally unable to intercept Darby's relief. The Spanish, frustrated by this failure, for the first time in the siege opened up a terrific barrage while the stores were unloaded. They only did great damage to the town however since the South Mole where the ships unloaded their stores was far out of reach of Spanish guns. The civilian population numbering about 1,000 of Gibraltar sailed with Darby for England on 21 April and gave the garrison fewer mouths to feed and allowed them to operate freely. Again the fleet left without hindrance during the night and slipped past blockading Spanish fleet. The provisions for the garrison were now plentiful, not only food and supplies but enough black powder, guns and ammunition.
The French and Spanish found it was impossible to starve the garrison out. They therefore resolved to make further attacks by land and sea and assembled a large army and fleet to carry this out. In addition the Spanish stepped up a succession of batteries that grew across the isthmus – soon there were four of them each containing around fourteen guns. There were also the already built San Carlos, San Felipe, and Santa Barbara batteries each containing around 24 to 27 guns.
On 9 June, the British gunners hit a major Spanish magazine which exploded. The main explosion was followed by a host of minor explosions, as expense magazines, subsidiary stores and shells blew up. The Spanish lines were in pandemonium as the troops struggled to put out the numbers of fires that started in their camp. Eventually order was restored and the fires failed to halt the Spanish effort of battery building. By late 1781 there were around fifty mortars bringing the besiegers total number to 114 guns ranging from heavy 24 pounders to twelve inch mortars.
By November, just as hunger began to start again for the garrison they received word from some Spanish deserters that a massive assault was planned. General Eliott decided that a night time sortie to attack the Spanish and French on the eve of their assault would be the perfect move.
On 27 November 1781, the night before they were to launch the grand attack, the British made their surprise sortie. In all 2,435 soldiers with 99 officers composed of three columns of around 700–800 men—they included engineers & pioneers who were armed with axes and firing equipment. At around 2am they marched towards the besiegers lines—the right column came across the Spanish sentries at the end of the parallel charged and stormed the lines bayoneting the Spanish in there. While the rest retreated the Eastern flank of the Spanish advanced works was taken and consolidated. A detachment of the right column a group of Hanoverians got lost in the dark, mistook its target and found themselves at the base of the huge San Carlos mortar battery. Having realised the mistake they had made, they then decided to take the position and after some heavy fighting the position was taken. The battery however was the target of the centre column which came up and reinforced the position and prepared for a Spanish counterattack. Meanwhile the left column struck along the seashore meeting light resistance but the flank companies of the 73rd Highlanders charged ahead and stormed the San Pascual and the San Martin batteries and took the trenches putting the Spanish to flight.
Elliot decided to come out and view the victory much to the surprise of the British officers. A badly wounded Spanish artillery officer José de Barboza refused to be moved – Elliot tried to persuade him but asked to be "left alone and perish amid the ruin of my post". This would be an inspiration for a painting by John Trumbull. With all the Spanish forward positions secured the British set upon the destruction of provisions, ammunition, weapons, defensive structures, taking booty and spiking the guns. They set fire to the ammunition and the siege works were engulfed in flames. Soon after Spanish cavalry were observed coming up and faced a Hanoverian battalion but they did not charge. The Spanish under Alvarez had no plans and were unprepared for a sortie, noting that he wasn't expecting one.
With the objective completed, the British withdrew back inside their fortifications. The total British and Hanoverian casualties in the Sortie were two killed and 25 wounded. Spanish losses were over 100 men which included thirty prisoners, a number of these were blue coated Walloon soldiers of the Walloon Guards. The British did damage to the extent of two million pounds to the besiegers – fourteen months of work by the Spanish and a considerable quantity of ammunition had been destroyed. British troops and pioneers spiked ten thirteen inch mortars and eighteen twenty six pounder guns in the Spanish siege works each. In addition the platforms and beds on which they were based were also destroyed. As the British returned after their victorious sortie the garrison watched in amazement as huge explosions from the ammunition ripped through the Spanish lines and destroyed what was left of them.
This sortie postponed the great Spanish assault for several months. In that time the British began building an extensive tunnel network through the Rock of Gibraltar. The work was carried out by hand aided by gunpowder blasts, which was dangerous – it took thirteen men five weeks to dig a tunnel with a width of 8 square feet (0.74 m2) and a length of 82 feet (25 m). Embrasures had been blasted overlooking the Spanish lines. Additionally, a new type of cannon mount was invented that allowed a cannon to fire at a downward angle. The new depressing gun-carriage was devised by George Koehler which allowed guns to be fired down a slope. This was demonstrated on 15 February 1782 at Princess Royal's Battery. This new carriage enabled the defending guns to take advantage of the height of the Rock of Gibraltar knowing that they could strike out far, but also be angled downward to fire on approaching attackers.
At the beginning of March news of the surrender of the Minorca garrison was received and lowered morale for the besieged. The Spanish and French at Gibraltar would soon be reinforced by the victors of Minorca. Life however in Gibraltar was able to carry on with relief from merchants who ran the Spanish blockade. British ships arrived unmolested to bring in reinforcements taking away the sick, prisoners and civilians. Portuguese vessels with lemons, wine and vegetables helped the garrison, and gave valuable intelligence on the Spanish lines and the heavy casualties they had suffered from the British guns. News of HMS Success's defeat of a Spanish frigate Santa Catalina bought much rejoicing to the rock when she entered.
Arrival of the French
Soon after the surrender of Minorca French forces arrived to take part in the siege. In addition the French engineers and pioneers were brought in and the Duke of Crillon-Mahon took over from Sotomayor as commander of the besiegers with the final say in operations. Sotomayer was effectively demoted to take command of the Spanish contingent. Both the Spanish and the French hoped for more imaginative concepts and arrangements to bring about victory. French troops were veterans of the siege of Minorca and French ships joined Cordova's already powerful Spanish navy to make more of an effective blockade. During this time it was decided that the special floating batteries be constructed and soon after the British garrison observed hulks being brought into Bay of Gibraltar. The American diplomat Louis Littlepage acted as a volunteer aide to de Crillon during the siege and made sketches of the siege.
With the arrival of more troops and ships, guns and mortars were also delivered to the Spanish siege lines which were creeping forward and were soon nearing completion. A new Spanish battery, the Mahon was erected in quick time despite being hit many times by the British siege guns which caused severe losses. Elliot though kept his initiative and didn't strike once it had been finished in April.
A lull in the siege then occurred with one side not knowing when the other would bombard and this went on through the summer. On 11 June, a Spanish shell exploded inside the magazine of Princess Anne's Battery further up the Rock, causing a massive explosion that blew the flank of the battery into the Prince's Lines, killing fourteen soldiers.
Destruction of Spanish batteries
In early September the Spanish advanced their lines further right up to the British siege guns' effective range but Elliot held back and suggested to his artillery general Boyd to bombard the lines with red hot shot and grapeshot which had been used to great effect against Spanish gunboats daring to come close to make an attack. These "hot potatoes", as they were nicknamed, were pre-heated to furnace temperatures before being fired at the dry wooden defences.
At 7am on the 8th September the bombardment commenced with concentration mainly on the Western parallel of the Spanish siege works. Supporting the heavy guns were the field artillery with support from other types of British guns. Within a few hours of intense bombardment the results became apparent and soon exceeded the garrison's expectations. The Mahon battery along with conjoining work's were set on fire. The other batteries San Carlos and San Martin were heavily damaged and had to be partly dismantled by French and Spanish pioneers.
The bombardment was a huge success and had inflicted great damage – Spanish and French casualties numbered at least 280. The red hot shot had proved a success; furnaces and grates were thus installed right next to the batteries.
The Grand Assault
|Battery||Men||Guns in use||Guns in reserve||Captain|
|Talla Piedra||760||21||10||Príncipe Nassau|
|Paula Primera||760||21||10||Cayetano de Lángara|
|San Cristóbal||650||18||10||Federico Gravina|
|Paula Segunda||340||9||4||Pablo de Cózar|
|Santa Ana||300||7||4||José Goicoechea|
|San Juan||340||9||4||José Angeler|
|Príncipe Carlos||400||11||4||Antonio Basurto|
For the allies it was becoming clear that an attack by land would be impossible and the recent blockades were a complete failure. Ideas were put forward to break the siege once and for all. The plan was put for a squadron of battering ships to take on the British land based batteries and pound them into submission by numbers and weight of shots fired, before a storming party attacked from the siege works on the Isthmus and troops were put ashore from the waiting Spanish fleet. The French engineer Jean Le Michaud d'Arçon invented and designed the Floating batteries – ‘unsinkable’ and ‘unburnable’ intended to breakthrough from the coast in tandem with other batteries bombarding the British rear from inland. The floating batteries would have strong thick wooden armour – 1-metre-wide (3 ft) timbers packed with layers of wet sand and water pumped around them to avoid fire breaking out. In addition old cables would also deaden the fall of British shot and their ballast would counterbalance the guns' weight. Guns were to be fired from one side only—the starboard battery was removed completely and the port battery heavily augmented with timber and sand infill. The ten floating batteries would be supported by ships of the line and bomb ships, who would try to draw away and split up the British fire. Five machines with two rows of batteries and a single row of five batteries would make up a total of 150 guns. The Spanish enthusiastically received the proposal and D'Arcon sailed close to shore under enemy fire in a skiff to get more accurate calculations and intelligence.
On 13 September 1782 the Bourbon allies launched their great attack; 5,260 fighting men both French and Spanish aboard ten of the newly engineered 'floating batteries' with 138 to 212 heavy guns with Don Buenaventura Moreno in charge. Outside in support were the combined Spanish and French fleet which consisted of 49 ships of the line, 40 Spanish gunboats and 20 bomb-vessels, with a total of 30,000 sailors and marines. under the command of Spanish Admiral Luis de Córdova. They were supported by 86 land guns and 35,000 Spanish and French troops (7,000–8,000 French) on land intending to assault the fortifications once they had been demolished. An 'army' of over 80,000 spectators thronged the adjacent hills over the Spanish border, among them the highest families in the land which included the Comte D'Artois, assembled to see the fortress beaten to powder and 'the British flag trailed in the dust'.
The batteries slowly moved forward in the bay; one by one the 138 guns opened fire but soon events did not go according to plan. Alignments for broadsides were not correct; the two lead ships Pastora and the Tala Piedra moved further ahead than they should have. When they opened fire on their main target, the Kings battery, the British guns replied but the cannonballs were observed to bounce off their hulls. Eventually the Spanish junks were anchored on the sandbanks near the Mole but were too spread out to create any significant damage to the British walls.
Meanwhile after weeks of preparatory artillery fire the 200 heavy calibre Spanish and French guns opened up on the land side from the North directed on the fortifications. This caused some casualties and damage but by noon the artificers had heated up red-hot shot. After a few hours and once they were ready Elliot ordered them to be fired. The shots were actually quicker to load since they didn't need to rammed. At first no difference was made as many of the shots were doused on board the floating batteries.
Although the batteries had anchored, a number had soon grounded and began to take damage in the rigging and masts. The Kings Bastion blasted away at the closest ships the Pastora and the Talla Peidra and soon the British guns began to make an effect. Smoke was soon spotted coming from Talla Piedra, already severely damaged with its rigging in tatters. Panic ensued since no vessel could come and support her nor was there any way of the ship escaping. Meanwhile the other Spanish battery Pastora under the Prince de Nassau began to emit a huge amount of smoke. Despite efforts to find the cause the sailors on board were fighting a losing battle. To make matters worse the Spanish land guns had ceased firing and it soon became apparent to Crillon that the Spanish army had run out of powder and were already low on shot. By nightfall it was clear that the assault had failed but worse was to come as the fire on the two batteries were out of control. To add to the frustration Cordova's ships of the lines failed to move in support and neither did Barcelo's vessels. Crillon realising defeat and not wishing to upset the Spanish by issuing demands soon ordered the floating batteries to be scuttled and the crews rescued. Rockets were sent up from the batteries as distress signals.
Destruction of the Floating Batteries
During this operation, Roger Curtis, the British naval commander, seeing the attacking force in supreme danger, warned Elliot about the huge death toll and that something must be done. Elliot agreed and had the fleet of twelve gunboats under Curtis set out with 250 men and set upon the Spanish gunboats firing and advancing as they came and the Spanish precipitated a quick retreat.
Curtis' gunboats reached the batteries and one by one took them; but this soon turned into a rescue effort when they realised from prisoners that many were still on board with the scuttling now taking place. On board the Pastora British marines boarded taking the men as prisoners but getting them off the ship. They soon found the Spanish Royal Standard which they took with them as well. As this was going on, the flames, which had engulfed Talla Piedra, soon reached the magazine. the ensuing eruption was tremendous with a huge noise which reverberated around the bay and a huge mushroom cloud of smoke and debris rose up in the air. Many were killed on board but the British had few casualties. The Spanish, now in panic, all reached for the British boats by jumping in the water, soon the Pastora engulfed in a mass of flames was next to follow – another huge explosion ensued – this time many in the water were killed outright; a British boat was sunk and the coxswain of Roger's boat was killed when he was hit by debris.
Curtis realised that it was unsafe to be near the flaming batteries and soon withdrew men from the two more floating batteries engulfed in flame and finally ordered a withdrawal. The rescue operation was hindered further when Spanish batteries opened fire after receiving more powder and shot. Many more drowned or were burned in the ensuing inferno as well as being hit by their own artillery. The Spanish ceased fire only when the mistake was realised but it was too late. The rest of the Spanish batteries blew up in similar horrific style; the eruptions lofting huge mushroom clouds that rose nearly 1,000 feet in the air. Some men were still on board and those that jumped drowned as the vast majority couldn't swim. By the early hours of the morning only two floating batteries remained – a Spanish Felucca tried to set one on fire but was driven off by British guns. The two were promptly set alight by them and were finished in the same way as the others by the afternoon.
By 4am, all the floating batteries had been sunk, leaving the Gibraltar waterfront a mass of debris and bodies from the wrecked Spanish ships. During the Grand Assault 40,000 rounds had been fired. Casualties in just twelve hours were heavy – 719 men on board the ships (many of whom drowned) were casualties. Curtis had rescued a further 357 officers and men thus as prisoners while in the siege lines more casualties brought up the allied total of 1,473 for the grand assault with all ten floating batteries being destroyed. The engagement was the fiercest battle of the war and many bodies washed up ashore. The British had a total of fifteen killed and sixty eight wounded nearly half of whom were from the Royal artillery. A British sailor found and took Pastoras large Spanish colour of which had flown from the stern and presented it to Elliot. One of the survivors who had been on a floating battery that had blown up was the American Louis Littlepage who was saved and managed to get back to the Spanish fleet.
For Elliot and the garrison it was a great victory but for the allies it was a brutal defeat: their plans and hopes were in tatters. Cordova was heavily criticised for not coming to help the batteries while D'Arcon and de Crillon threw accusations and recriminations at each other. In Spain the news was met with consternation and despair and the huge number of crowds that had been promised a crushing victory left the area chagrined.
On 14th September 1782, another assault by the allies by land was planned – the Spanish army formed up behind the batteries at the northern end of the Isthmus. At the same time, the Spanish ships moved across the bay, packed with more troops. The Duc de Crillon decided to cancel the assault, estimating that losses would be huge.
Gibraltar remained under siege but Spanish bombardments decreased to about 200 rounds a day as both sides knew of the impending peace treaty, to which the siege of Gibraltar would be a major contributor.
From 20 September, reports of the great French and Spanish assault on Gibraltar began to reach Paris; all were negative, and by 27 September it was clear that the operation, involving more troops than had ever been in service at one time on the entire North American continent, had been a horrific disaster. At Madrid news of the failure was received with dismay; the King was in mute despair as he read the intelligence reports at the Palace of San Ildefonso. The French had done all they could to help the Spanish achieve their essential war aim, and began serious discussions on alternative exit strategies, urging Spain to offer Britain some really large concessions in return for Gibraltar.
In Britain the Admiralty considered plans for a major relief of Gibraltar, opting to send a larger, but slower fleet, rather than a smaller faster one. This was key to the outcome of the siege. Admiral Richard Howe's orders were to deliver the supplies to Gibraltar and then to return to England. The fleet which composed of 35 ships of the line, a large convoy of transports destined for Gibraltar, and additional convoys destined for the East and West Indies left Spithead on 11 September. Bad weather and contrary winds however meant that the fleet did not arrive at Cape St. Vincent until 9 October. The following evening another gale blew up, this scattered the Spanish and French fleet.
Capture of the San Miguel
On 10 October a storm wrought havoc on the allied fleet: one ship of the line was driven aground, and a third was swept through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. One other, a Spanish ship of the line San Miguel of seventy two guns under the command of Don Juan Moreno it had lost its mizzen mast in the storm. It was driven helplessly into Gibraltar by the storm. Cannon fire from the King's Bastion was fired at the vessel some of which penetrated the vessel and caused damage and casualties. The San Miguel then tried with great difficulty to get out of danger but was soon grounded. Gunboats from the garrison quickly captured her, Moreno agreed to surrender to avoid any further bloodshed, being too close to the guns of Gibraltar. A total of 634 Spanish sailors, marines and dismounted dragoons were captured. An attempt on 17 December to bombard the San Miguel by the Spanish and French with mortars failed and caused only minimal damage. By this time the powder magazine had been removed or thrown overboard.
With the Franco Spanish fleet dispersed by the gale Admiral Howe meanwhile met with all of his captains, and gave detailed instructions for ensuring the safe arrival of the transports. On 11 October the transports began entry into the straits, followed by covering fleet. Four transports successfully anchored at Gibraltar, but the remainder were carried by the strong currents into the Mediterranean but the fleet followed. Taking advantage of a change in the wind, de Córdova's fleet sailed in pursuit, while the Spanish admiral sent his smaller vessels to shadow the British. The British regrouped about 50 miles east of Gibraltar off the Spanish coast on 13 October, but sailed south toward the Moroccan coast upon the approach of the allied fleet, which failed to catch up and didn't take any of the British ships.
Third and Final relief
With a fair wind on the 15th the British re-entered the straits, and successfully brought the convoy into Gibraltar between the 16th and 18th—a total of 31 transport ships which delivered vital supplies, food, and ammunition. The fleet also brought the 25th, 59th, and 97th regiments of foot bringing the total number of the garrison to over 7,000. The large combined French and Spanish fleet hovered nearby, so on 20 October the British fleet, without seriously engaging for battle, lured them away. The Franco-Spanish van opened fire as the British under Howe formed line of battle. The British returned fire, while Howe signalled 'retreat all sail', making at least fourteen Franco-Spanish ships redundant. De Córdova's ships attempted to chase the British fleet, but despite his efforts the British with copper sheathing were able to defy the Spanish and French trap.
This was the final action of the siege and showed up again the dismal failure of the allied navy for the third time in failing to stop the relief—the Spanish under Cordova particularly was the single greatest factor for the siege's failure.
End of the siege
News that Gibraltar was fully resupplied, with no problems for the convoy combined with the disastrous Franco-Spanish attack of 13 September reached London on 7 November, and probably reached Paris about the same time. As a result this greatly strengthened the British hand at the peace talks which had begun earlier in October. British diplomats steadfastly refused to part with Gibraltar, despite offers by Spain to trade most of its gains. The objections of Spain ceased to be of any relevance, and also the French had accepted the preliminary peace treaty between Great Britain and America, on 30 November, with protests but no action. The siege was continued but on 20 January 1783 preliminary treaties were signed with France and Spain.
Unbeknown to events on the peace table on February 1st the garrison opened a tremendous and accurate fire upon the besiegers causing some damage and inflicting casualties. The following day De Crillon had received a letter informing him that the preliminaries of the general peace had been signed. Four days later a Spanish vessel flying a flag of truce brought news of the preliminaries, whose terms allowed Britain to remain in possession of Gibraltar. By the end of the month French and Spanish troops retired disheartened and defeated, after three years, seven months and twelve days of conflict.
The victorious British garrison during the three years of siege had sustained a loss of 333 killed and 1008 wounded which included 219 of the garrisons gunners. Between 536 to 1,034 men died or were sick from disease. In addition, 196 civilian employees were killed and 800 died of disease. Between 12 April 1781 to 2 February 1783 Gibraltar been hit by 244,104 artillery rounds from guns ashore and 14,283 from cannon afloat. The guns of the defenders had in reply fired 200,600 rounds and British ships had hurled another 4,782 shells and in total had expended 8,000 barrels of gunpowder. The defenders he besiegers had lost in excess of 6,000 killed or wounded. with many others sick or dead from disease. In addition many guns were destroyed and the combined allied fleet lost a total of ten floating batteries and one ship of the line captured and many gunboats. Together both sides fired off nearly half a million rounds of shot during the Great Siege. Elliot’s defence of the Rock had tied down large numbers of Spanish and French naval and military resources that could have been valuable in other theatres of operations. The Treaties of Versailles reaffirmed previous treaties.
Despite the Spanish attempt to regain Gibraltar at the negotiating table, they ended up merely retaining Menorca and territories in Florida, though for the Spanish this was of little or no value Of note, an attempt to exchange Puerto Rico for Gibraltar collapsed, as it would have brought too much competition for Jamaican products into the protected British market. The final peace treaty left Gibraltar with the British.
Elliot was made a Knight of the Bath and was created 1st Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar. Many British regiments engaged in the defence were given the badge of the Castle of Gibraltar with the motto "Montis Insignia Calpe", in commemoration of the gallant part it took in the "Great Siege". The failure of the floating batteries reduced General d'Arcon to despair, and he was deeply resentful of the failure for the rest of his life, printing a vindication in 1783 under the title "Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du siège de Gibraltar, par l’auteur des batteries flottantes".
Soon after the siege the town of Gibraltar was reconstructed, the defences strengthened and bastions were constructed. The tunnelling continued after the siege and a series of connecting galleries and communication tunnels to link them together with the Lines were built. By the end of the 18th century, nearly 4,000 feet (1,200 m) of tunnels had been dug. No further attempt was made to besiege or blockade Gibraltar by the Spanish except in May 1968 when the Spanish Government closed the frontier and started an economic blockade.
In popular culture
Baron Münchhausen recorded in the fourth version of the book by Rudolf Eric Raspe his visit to Gibraltar, arriving on board Admiral Rodney’s flagship HMS Sandwich. Münchhausen writes that after seeing his ‘old friend Elliot’ he dressed as a Catholic priest and slipped over to the Spanish lines where he caused considerable damage with a bomb.
In 1782 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed Bardengesang auf Gibraltar: O Calpe! Dir donnert's am Fuße a piece of music commemorating the Great Siege. Mozart was known to have a favourable view of the British.
Numerous paintings of the siege have been made famous by well known artists of the period
The 1783 painting The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782, also known as The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, was a work by American artist John Singleton Copley depicting the event now at the Tate Britain
A 1789 work by American painter John Trumbull, The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar, 1789, covered the 1781 sortie that the garrison had made against the besiegers, and the dying officer Don José de Barboza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A British caricature of the siege: The Duke de Crillon Giving Orders for the Siege of Gibraltar
In 2004, the Gibraltar National Mint release a commemorative coin into circulation. These coins feature on the obverse (front of the coin), a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II facing right and the lettering "ELIZABETH II GIBRALTAR" 2004, engraved by Raphael David Maklouf. On the coin's reverse, a cannon set for a downhill target and the lettering "1704 – 2004 THE GREAT SIEGE, 1779–1783 and ONE POUND" and was engraved by Philip Nathan.
The Great Siege Tunnels are today preserved can today be accessed as part of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve with dioramas and displays of the battle. After the siege the original cannon were replaced with more modern 64-pounder rifled muzzle loaders on iron carriages, some of which can still be seen in the tunnels. The tunnels were hugely expanded and new tunnels were built to connect to the first galleries. By 1790 around 4,000 feet (1,200 m) of tunnels had been constructed inside The Rock. They were again expanded during the Second World War.
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