Gibraltar is small bit of land, but it is full of history; it is a little under 3 square miles in area, with most of that taken up by the great Rock of Gibraltar. It is and has been a British possession since 1704 when it was captured by a British and Dutch force.
Throughout the centuries of British rule, Gibraltar, located at the southern tip of Spain, has been coveted and claimed by Spain. During the American War of Independence Spain and France formed an alliance and took advantage of that war to launch a siege on the small Gibraltar peninsula late in 1779.
At the outset, Gibraltar had a little over 5,000 troops including some from Hanover and Corsica. Britain had expected a siege and stocked the stores with food and ammunition. Over 13,000 Spanish and French troops led the siege on land and sea.
The land army began building extensive fortifications on the narrow strip of land connecting Gibraltar to Spain. Within Gibraltar, general George Eliott organized sharpshooter.
During the siege, cannon fire and sniper bullets flew freely on either side of the narrow land front. As the winter came, the garrison began to run low on food. Scurvy was very common and rations were so low they barely fed the soldiers, but the men’s spirits remained high. They had repulsed several small testing assaults and had great faith that they would receive supplies by sea.
The garrison was correct in their assumption as supplies reached Gibraltar in the spring of 1780. Admiral Rodney had fought two small engagements which he won easily and actually arrived with captured Spanish supply/merchant ships. The defenders recieved a large store of supplies including fresh produce to ward off Scurvy, and an additional 1,000 soldiers.
These supplies had to last throughout 1780, as the siege settled in, though assaults and bombardments were an almost daily occurrence. The British could use the high vantage points from the Rock of Gibraltar to be well appraised of any movements or concentrations of troops. This made it easy to repel attacks and gave a rough idea on where to concentrate firepower. By the end of the year, however, starvation and disease began to be a problem. This time, the spirits of the British did not remain high, as some men deserted and, according to the diary of a soldier present, a few others committed suicide.
In the spring of 1781, a second relief and resupply force arrived at Gibraltar harbor. The Spanish attempted, but failed to intercept the force and instead attempted to bombard the docks while the supplies were unloaded. When the ships left, this time, they took many of the civilian population with them. This gave the garrison fewer mouths to feed and allowed them to operate freely.
By November, just as hunger began to start again for the garrison they received word from some Spanish or French deserters that a massive assault was planned. General Eliott decided that a nighttime sortie to attack the Spanish and French on the eve of their assault would be the perfect move.
On November 27th, several thousand British troops silently organized themselves into three groups in the dead of night. At around two A.M. they marched quietly out and into the besiegers lines. Many Spanish troops were killed on the spot as they were so surprised by the attack. The British pushed hard and fast through the front siege lines, destroying provisions and defensive structures while hammering thin nails into the firing hole of the artillery pieces.
Called “spiking the cannon” the nail was impossible to remove without precise equipment, and even then the chances were high that the piece was entirely ruined. Dozens of artillery pieces were spiked and thousands of besiegers killed before the British wisely retreated to avoid an organized counterattack. Less than ten British were killed during the attack.
This sortie postponed the great assault for several months. During the next few months, the British began building an extensive tunnel network through the Rock of Gibraltar. This allowed them to build fortified cannon housings into otherwise inaccessible cliffs that occupied most of the Rock’s northern face. Additionally, a new type of cannon mount was invented that allowed a cannon to fire at a downward angle. This made it possible to put more cannons along the heights of Gibraltar knowing that they could strike out far, but also be angled downward to fire on approaching attackers.
In September of 1782, the great Spanish and French assault began. This massive organized assault was intended to be the final push to finally take Gibraltar. More and more infantry, ships and marines had been dedicated to the siege and by this time the original besieging force of 13,000 had grown to be over 60,000 men on land and sea.
The besiegers had built ten barge-type ships to bombard Gibraltar from the bay along with their many other ships. This was intended to weaken the garrison enough for the land forces to successfully invade. Tens of thousands of Spanish civilian spectators gathered on the hills around the bay to witness the attack.
The grand assault was an utter disaster. The British had recognized the threat of the gun barges and prepared heated shot to fire at them. This was cannon shot heated in a furnace and fired at ships to start fires. Three of the barges were destroyed outright with at least one exploding as the fire reached the powder magazines. Throughout the barrages, the other seven barges were so damaged that they had to be scuttled at the end of the engagement. Though the British suffered through heavy bombardment, they inflicted far greater damage, causing close to 1,000 casualties and halting the rest of the planned assault.
The British garrison was small and could not hope to break the siege on their own, but their spirits were high. They had gone on an outstandingly successful sortie and withstood a massive assault attempt. The morale of the besiegers was crushed, especially after the third resupply force arrived in September ,to no resistance due to a fleet-scattering storm the day before. This latest resupply was the largest yet and shortly after the garrison captured a damaged Spanish ship-of-the-line after it drifted too close to Gibraltar.
The situation was moving in the British favor and with the end of the American War, they could provide more support to Gibraltar. The Spanish had taken some possessions in the West Indies and they were allowed to keep these, in return for Britain keeping Gibraltar.
The siege was one of the longest in British history, and it was fortunate that they endured as Gibraltar would play a major role in several wars.
By William McLaughlin for War History Online