Great Siege of Gibraltar: Wikis


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Great Siege of Gibraltar
Part of the American War of Independence
The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar.jpg
The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782, by John Singleton Copley
Date 24 June 1779 – 7 February 1783
Location Gibraltar
36°08′23″N 5°21′18″W / 36.1397°N 5.3551°W / 36.1397; -5.3551Coordinates: 36°08′23″N 5°21′18″W / 36.1397°N 5.3551°W / 36.1397; -5.3551
Result Decisive British victory
United KingdomGreat Britain
Flag of Hanover (1692).svgHanover
Spain Spain
France France
United Kingdom George Augustus Eliott
United Kingdom Roger Curtis[1]
Flag of Hanover (1692).svg August de la Motte
France Duc de Crillon

Spain Martín Álvarez de Sotomayor
Spain Luis de Córdova y Córdova
Spain Antonio Barceló[1]

June 1779:
5,382 men;[2]
April 1781:
7,500[3]–10,000 (including 500 gunners)[4] men
96 guns
4 ships[5][6]
12 gunboats[7]
June 1779:
13,749 men[8]
June 1782:
20,000[9]–33,000 men[10] (7,000[9]–8,000[10] French)
86 land guns and mortars[9];
several xebecs and gunboats[11] & 10 floating batteries
Casualties and losses
333 killed
911 wounded
536 died from disease[12][13].
6,000 killed, wounded, captured and missing[10]

The Great Siege of Gibraltar was an unsuccessful attempt by Spain and France to capture Gibraltar from the British during the American War of Independence. This was the largest action fought during the war in terms of numbers, particularly the Grand Assault of the 18 September 1782. It was the longest siege endured by the British Armed Forces, as well as being one of the longest continuous sieges in history.[citation needed]



In 1738 a dispute between Spain and Great Britain arose over commerce between Europe and America. 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.[14] 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.[15] 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 Algeciras.[16]

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 the 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 cities of Manila and Havana. Two years later, after cessation of hostilities, Spain recovered the colonial capitals in exchange for Spanish holdings in Florida as part of the Treaty of Paris (1763).

The Treaty of Paris that had ended the Seven Years War, saw France and Spain hand over a number of territories to Great Britain. In the years of peace that followed both countries 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 Revolutionary War, both states supplied arms to the American rebels, and drew up a strategy to intervene on the American side and defeat Britain.[17]

On 12 April 1779, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez wherein they agreed to aid one another in recovering lost territory from Britain.[18] Then in June of 1779, Spain declared war on Great Britain, France having done so the year before. 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.[19]

The Great Siege

Portrait of George Augustus Eliott by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
one of the many guns and embrasures within the Great Siege Tunnels.

The Spanish blockade was directed by Martín Álvarez de Sotomayor. Spanish ground forces were composed of two battalions of Royal Guards, another two of Walloon Guards, and twelve thousand artillery squadrons of cavalry, about 13,000 in all.[20] The artillery was commanded by Rudesindo Tilly, while the cavalry and the French dragoons were headed by the Marquis of Arellano.[21] 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.[22] A fleet of eleven ships 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.[23]

When the Rock was first besieged, the British garrison consisted of 5,382 troops; General Eliott was the Governor-General, and his determined handling of the defence inspired all the troops under him with the greatest confidence. All the defences were strengthened, and many of the infantry, including picked men assisted the artillery in serving the guns. The garrison included contingents of Hanoverian and Corsican troops.

The British had anticipated an attack for some time, and a number of ships had sailed to reinforce and supply The Rock.[24] They stepped up their 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.[25]


Commencement of the Siege

The combined Spanish and French fleets blockaded Gibraltar from the sea, while on the land side an enormous army was engaged in constructing forts, redoubts, entrenchments, and batteries from which to attack. General Eliott formed a corps of sharpshooters.

As the winter of 1779 came down the garrison began to suffer from want of fresh provisions, which became very scarce and dear. Bread was almost impossible to get, and was not permitted to be issued except to the sick and children. Salt meat and biscuits, and not much of that, soon became the food of the troops, with an occasional issue of four ounces of rice as a full day's ration. 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. To the rigours of the siege was added a violent outbreak of scurvy among the troops, due to the want of fresh vegetables and medicines. As the winter wore on, the scanty store of food grew so alarmingly low that the already meagre ration was reduced to just enough to keep life in the bodies of the men. But their morale remained high and the troops continued to take their turns at trench or battery, and endured the inclement weather and the shortage of food with fortitude.

The Spanish were forced to commit increasing number of troops and ships to the siege, postponing the planned Invasion of England, due to this and the cancellation of the Armada of 1779.

First naval relief

Admiral George Rodney, after capturing a Spanish convoy off Cape Finesterre on 8 January 1780, and eight days later defeating a Spanish fleet at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, reached Gibraltar in the spring of 1780, bringing reinforcements of 1,052 men and an abundance of supplies. This greatly heartened the garrison, who, as soon as Rodney's fleet left, found the fortress as closely besieged as ever.

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 be meagre and scurvy began to reappear, reducing the effective strength of the garrison. Still, the British had no thought of surrender[citation needed]. Through the use of small, fast-sailing ships that ran the blockade they were able to keep in touch with the British forces on Minorca, until 1781 when that island fell.

Throughout the second winter the garrison faced foes, elements, disease, and starvation, until in the April of 1781 another British fleet succeeded in reaching the harbour with stores and food.

Second naval relief

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 was totally unable to intercept Darby's relief. The Spanish frustrated by this failure opened up a terrific barrage while the stores were unloaded but only did great damage to the town. The civilians of 'The Rock' sailed with Darby who set sail for England on 21 April, again without hindrance from the blockading Spanish & French fleet.


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. But the night before on 27th November 1781 they were to launch the grand attack, half the British garrison filed silently out of their defence works and made a surprise sortie.

The sortie routed the whole body of the besieging infantry in the trenches, set their batteries on fire, blew up and spiked their cannon, destroyed their entrenchments, and killed or took prisoner a large number of the Spaniards. The British did damage to the extent of two million pounds to the besiegers' stores and equipment that night. Spanish losses were over 200 and Governor Eliott claimed many were 'killed on the spot' because of the surprise. As the Spanish recovered and prepared to launch a counter-attack, the British withdrew back inside their fortifications.

This reverse postponed the grand assault on The Rock for some time. Still, the Spaniards closely maintained the siege.

Destruction of the forward Spanish batteries

The Grand Assault

Eventually on 13 September 1782 the Bourbon allies launched their great attack; 5190 fighting men both French and Spanish aboard of the newly engineered 'floating batteries' with 138[26] heavy guns, as well as 18 ships of the line, 40 Spanish gunboats and 20 bomb-vessels[27]. They were supported by 86 land guns[27]. An 'army' of over 80,000 spectators thronged the adjacent hills over the Spanish border, among them the highest families in the land, assembled to see the fortress beaten to powder and 'the British flag trailed in the dust'.[28] The 138 guns opened fire from floating batteries in the Bay and the 86 guns on the land side, directed on the fortifications after weeks of preparatory artillery fire. But the garrison replied with red-hot shot to set fire to and sink the attacker's floating batteries and warships in the Bay. In that great conflict, the British destroyed three of the floating batteries[29], which blew up as the 'red-hot shot' did its job. The other seven batteries were scuttled by the Spanish. In addition 719 men on board the ships (many of whom drowned) were casualties[30].

Final relief

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.[31] In September 1782 a large fleet left Spithead under Richard Howe, arriving off Cape St Vincent on 9 October. The following evening a gale blew up, scattering the Spanish fleet. This allowed Howe to sail unopposed into Gibraltar and the merchant ships he was escorting to unload their stores.[32] Howe then sailed out and fought an indecisive battle with the Spanish, before withdrawing to Britain in line with his orders.

The siege was continued for some months longer, but in the spring of 1783 the French and Spanish retired disheartened and defeated, leaving the British garrison victorious, after three years and seven months' conflict. The garrison sustained a loss of 1,231 men, and expended 8,000 barrels of gunpowder.


The current coat of arms of Gibraltar bears the motto commemorating The Great Siege.

Finally, in February of 1783 the siege was lifted. George Augustus Eliott was awarded the Knight of the Bath and was created 1st Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar. The Treaties of Versailles reaffirmed previous treaties.

The 39th, in common with the other regiments engaged in the defence, was 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 Great Siege in Popular culture


The Sortie from Gibraltar by Trumbull (1789).

In 1782 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed Bardengesang auf Gibraltar: O Calpe! Dir donnert's am Fusse a piece of music commemorating the Great Siege.[33] Mozart was known to have a favourable view of the British.[34]


The 1783 painting, The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782, was a work by an American artist John Singleton Copley which depicted the event.[35]
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.[36]

See also


  1. ^ a b Chartrand, pp. 18-22, except Sotomayor (Norwich, p 394).
  2. ^ Montero p. 339
  3. ^ Chartrand p. 63 Of 7,500 men in the Gibraltar garrison in September (including 400 in hospital), some 3,430 were always on duty
  4. ^ Mont p. 133
  5. ^ Palasí p. 340
  6. ^ Montero p. 339
  7. ^ Falkner p. 156
  8. ^ Montero p. 338
  9. ^ a b c Monti p. 132
  10. ^ a b c Montero p. 356
  11. ^ Montero p. 338
  12. ^ Chartrand p. 89
  13. ^ Drinkwater p. 352
  14. ^ Sayer 179
  15. ^ Tubino 158
  16. ^ Corona Barratech 288
  17. ^ Harvey 362
  18. ^ Clarfield, Gerard. United States Diplomatic History: From Revolution to Empire. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1992.
  19. ^ "The Great Siege of Gibraltar". The Keep Military Museum. Retrieved 2007-08-06. 
  20. ^ De Castro y Rossy 515
  21. ^ Calderon and Antonio 60
  22. ^ Montero 338
  23. ^ Benady 340
  24. ^ Sugden 109-10
  25. ^ Harvey 385-87
  26. ^ Monti p. 140
  27. ^ a b Monti p. 138
  28. ^ Chartrand p. 65
  29. ^ Montero pp. 365-366
  30. ^ Bajas españolas de las baterías flotantes del ataque a Gibraltar el 13 de septiembre de 1782. Gaceta de Madrid. Encontrado por Todo a Babor. Retrived on 2010-03-11
  31. ^ Syrett p.103
  32. ^ Syrett p.104-05
  33. ^ "List of musicians connected to Gibraltar". Mark Sanchez. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 
  34. ^ "Mozart's Tribute to Gibraltar". The Gibraltar Magazine. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 
  35. ^ "Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar". Collage.;jsessionid=28567CC810E31C8EDE1D0C4B4E932523?service=external/FullScreenImage&sp=I%3Acanvas%3A%3A&sp=8346&sp=X&sp=2. Retrieved 2007-07-30. 
  36. ^ "The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar, 1789". Acquired Tastes-Trumbull. Retrieved 2007-08-06. 


  • Bond, Peter. "Gibraltar's Finest Hour The Great Siege 1779-1783". 300 Years of British Gibraltar 1704-2004 (1st Edition ed.). Gibraltar: Peter-Tan Publishing Co.. pp. 28–29. 
  • Chartrand, René. Gibraltar 1779–1783: The Great Siege. Patrice Courcelle (1st Edition ed.). Gibraltar: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781841769776. 
  • Drinkwater, John: A history of the siege of Gibraltar, 1779-1783: With a description and account of that garrison from the earliest periods London, 1862.
  • Falkner, James: FIRE OVER THE ROCK: The Great Siege of Gibraltar 1779-1783, Pen and Sword, 2009
  • Harvey, Robert: A Few Bloody Noses: The American War of Independence, London, 2001
  • Rodger, N. A. M.: The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815, London, 2006
  • Norwich, John Julius: The Middle Sea: a history of the Mediterranean, Random House, 2006
  • Sugden, John: Nelson: A Dream of Glory, London, 2004
  • Syrett, David: Admiral Lord Howe: A Biography, London, 2006.
  • Maria Monti, Ángel: Historia de Gibraltar: dedicada a SS. AA. RR., los serenisimos señores Infantes Duques de Montpensier, Imp. Juan Moyano, 1852
  • Maria Montero, Francisco: Historia de Gibraltar y de su campo, Imprenta de la Revista Médica, 1860
  • Uxó Palasí, José: Referencias en torno al bloqueo naval durante los asedios, Almoraima. n.º 34, 2007

Web sources


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