British since 4th August 1704 and situated at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea, the small rocky peninsula of Gibraltar – five kilometres long with a rock of Jurassic limestone 426 metres above sea level at its highest point – has long been one of history’s most important geostrategic locations.
Ever since humans took to the sea, possession of this commanding outpost has guaranteed control of the Western Mediterranean, as well as the gateway between Southern Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. It should therefore come as no surprise that Gibraltar has been fought over for centuries. Indeed, the city of Gibraltar, established by the Moors under Tariq Ibn Zeyad in 711AD – and originally called Jebel Tariq (Tariq’s Mountain) – is no stranger to sieges: it has witnessed 13 in its long and turbulent history.
The greatest of these sieges, in terms of intensity and length, began just over 240 years ago this week, on the 16th June 1779. Seeking to wage war on the Kingdom of Great Britain (UK) while it was embroiled in the American War of Independence, Spain and France signed the Treaty of Aranjuez in April that year, pledging mutual support to regain their lost territories – with Gibraltar key among them.
It was on that hot June day in 1779 that Gen Joaquin de Mendoza announced what in effect was the commencement of hostilities to the Governor of Gibraltar, Lt Gen George Augustus Eliott. Both had, until then, maintained good relations and it was with some surprise that Gen Eliott received this news and rapidly began bolstering the city’s defences to meet the perceived threat.
What in effect was at first an interruption of land communications intensified to a total blockade headed by Gen Martin Alvarez de Sotomayor with 16 infantry battalions and 12 squadrons of cavalry totalling about 14,000 men in all. A naval blockade under Adm Barcelo was also implemented.
Facing them was the British garrison at Gibraltar, then consisting of 5,382 troops in five regiments of foot and a small naval force. At its height, the siege would count 28,000 French, Belgian and Spanish troops on one side, while the greatest number of British defenders hardly exceeded 7,000 in number, making the siege one of the most one-sided conflicts in military history.
By October 1779, sizeable Spanish forces had consolidated on land in the isthmus connecting Spain with the peninsular and in the Bay of Gibraltar. The city faced a ferocious bombardment from the Spanish lines on land and by sea every day. Most citizens fled to the southern end of Gibraltar away from the range of the Spanish guns, but this did not stop Spain’s gunboats from making well-documented incursions along the south western coast and firing upon the civilians taking shelter in Windmill Hill Flats, inflicting casualties among them.
Affairs intensified in 1782 after the fall of Menorca when French forces formally joined the siege on behalf of their Spanish allies. Taking over operations at this time was Louis de Balbe de Berton, Duc de Crillon, a veteran French general who had taken part in numerous sieges by then.
Ever since humans took to the sea, possession of this commanding outpost – Gibraltar – has guaranteed control of the Western Mediterranean, as well as the gateway between Southern Europe and the Atlantic Ocean.
Various ingenious methods were resorted to by the resourceful defenders to better their situation. Among the most famous are the Great Siege Tunnels. Works to excavate tunnels in the Rock itself began in June 1772 under the direction of Sgt Maj Henry Ince and were completed in September of that year. These tunnels, carved by hand out of the north face of the Rock contained embrasures, which allowed the British forces to bombard Spanish units on the isthmus whilst themselves being immune to counter fire. Similarly Lt George Koehler devised a method whereby a gun could, with the help of a modified carriage, be made to lower its firing angle to be able to fire directly down at the besieging forces. Several examples of Lt Koehler’s ‘depression carriage’ can be found in Gibraltar today, most notably on display at Casemates Square.
Although reduced to the lowest edge of despair and scarcity, the Royal Navy mounted several successful relief efforts for the besieged forces, notably on 19th January 1780 by Adm George Rodney and later on the 12th April the following year by Vice Adm George Darby. Not only did these vital convoys bring much needed ammunition but also food and medical stocks and proved to be a tremendous morale booster to the British defenders.
Several incidences during this four year long conflict stand out to show the variety of methods which the opposing forces resorted to in order to capture the Rock. On 7th June 1780 a Spanish fire ship attack was launched on Royal Navy vessels anchored in the Bay of Gibraltar, which was successfully fended off. By late November 1781, Gen Eliott noticed that the Spanish lines were advancing south uncomfortably close to the North Face of the Rock. As such during the night of the 27th November, a column of British and Hanoverian troops assembled in the Grand Parade and silently marched up town and through the Bayside Barrier, splitting into two columns and hitting the Spanish batteries located north of that location. In what was one of the British Army’s first Special Operations, the sortie surprised the Spanish troops and proved a highly successful operation with very little in terms of cost.
The final throw of the dice took place on the 13th September 1772 when a fleet of 10 floating batteries (vessels specially built with protected timber roofs and carrying their guns on their port side) carrying 212 guns set sail to attempt to pummel the defences on the western side of the Rock facing the Bay of Gibraltar. Its objective was to mount a breach, allowing a French-Spanish invasion force to follow. But thanks to the ingenious use of heated shot (another innovation that resulted from the siege) by the British, the bombarding vessels eventually caught fire with some blowing up, dismally ending the latest and most ferocious attempt to capture the Rock. The many Spanish noblemen and women who had flocked to nearby pavilions erected to watch the spectacle could only look on in despair as their latest operation went up in smoke.
The Great Siege had a profound impact on the inhabitants of Gibraltar. A strong attachment to the Royal Navy and its symbolic assurance of British sovereignty and assistance in times of need endures to this day.
Gibraltar was again resupplied by Adm Howe in mid-October 1772 but by then the combined fleets had left the area, the failure of the attack of the floating batteries having broken the besiegers’ morale and by 2nd February 1783 the siege was officially lifted. Gibraltar had stood strong and Britain had successfully endured one of the most one-sided and longest sieges in its military history.
The Great Siege had a profound impact on the inhabitants of Gibraltar. A strong attachment to the Royal Navy and its symbolic assurance of British sovereignty and assistance in times of need endures to this day. The Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers also hold a particularly high place in the hearts of Gibraltarians, links which stretch back to those trying times when they stood side by side. Similarly the motto of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, which this year celebrates its 80th anniversary, is ‘Nulli Expungabilis Hosti’ (conquered by no foe). British Army personnel based in the British overseas territory still celebrate Sortie Night on the anniversary of the famous mission as well.
Lastly the pluck and determination shown during the Great Siege served as inspiration to the whole city during what is locally considered as the ‘14th Siege’ (albeit non-military) when Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, closed the border with Spain from 1969 until 1985. This, like the Great Siege before it, only ended in defeat and served to further cement the identity and resolve of a proud, loyal British population.
Ever since the lifting of the Great Siege, the UK has maintained a military presence in Gibraltar, on land and sea – and later in the air. Due to its key geostrategic location, Gibraltar has continued to find itself central to British military operations, including the Napoleonic and Peninsular Wars, the two World Wars, the Cold War, the Falklands Conflict, Operation Desert Storm and beyond. Although the British military presence in Gibraltar has been reduced significantly in recent years, it is clear that the Rock will remain a vital geostrategic asset for the UK.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.