The Siege of Gibraltar II


Charles Holloway, the engineer, is amongst the principal officers recorded in the commemorative painting of the Siege of Gibraltar by George Carter.


Turnbull, John, The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar, by John Trumbull, 1788.

Great preparations are making in Spain to attack the Garrison; when at Algeciras we saw them hard at work at what you call Cork-ships; the sides of these ships are covered with large square green timber and junk, the whole to be about seven or eight feet thick; only one side is to be covered in this manner, the other to remain as before; the deck is to be made shot and shell proof, at least so they endeavoured to make us believe. These ships are ready to be ranged along the Front of the Garrison in order to make breaches in the Wall, when the Troops are to be landed in Boats building at Carthagena for that purpose. While at Seville we saw them shipping off brass guns.

So wrote a Mr Anderson from Tavira (on the south coast of Portugal, just across the border from Spain) on 1 June 1782. The monstrous constructions he describes were the brainchild of a French engineer, the Chevalier Jean-Claude-Eléonor Le Michaud d’Arçon. D’Arçon had apparently persuaded Charles III and the entire Spanish government that, being incombustibles et insubmersibles, they would render the garrison powerless and ensure its speedy surrender. One man only, as we now know, remained utterly unconvinced; he was, unfortunately, the designated Commander of the Franco-Spanish army, the recent hero of Minorca, the Duc de Crillon. He tells in his memoirs of two stormy interviews at Madrid in May, first with d’Arçon himself and then with the Spanish Minister of State, the Conde de Floridablanca. In the second he made his position clear and tendered his immediate resignation, but Floridablanca refused to hear of it, and finally persuaded him to continue only on the understanding that he would officially declare his disagreement and disapproval, and that if the plan failed this declaration should be made public.

In fact, Crillon went further still. Then and there he wrote a memorandum, which he deposited with a friend with instructions that it should be opened and published the moment the news reached the capital that the attack had begun:

In leaving for Gibraltar I declare that I accept the command only in obedience to the King’s orders…I have done my utmost to explain to His Majesty my opposition to the plan…and I declare that, just as–if the place is taken thanks to the success of the floating batteries, which I greatly doubt–all the glory and the credit will go to M. d’Arçon the French engineer, so–if the batteries fail–shall I incur no reproach, having taken no part in it…

The Duke left no less than twenty copies of the letter to be distributed in France and Spain. In the words of a recent historian of the siege, ‘never before or after did a general advancing to the attack cover his own retreat with such care, or reveal his own dishonesty and hypocrisy in accepting a command in which he had no faith.’

When Crillon arrived at San Roque–the small Spanish town across the frontier–and set up his headquarters just outside it, the force under his command had swelled to over 32,000 which, even allowing for deserters and sick, was at that time possibly the largest ever deployed against a single fortress. Its weakness was in its command structure. Crillon and d’Arçon made no secret of their mutual loathing, being united only in their cordial dislike of the much younger and insufferably bumptious admiral Don Buenventura de Moreno, who had commanded the Spanish navy at Port Mahon and was now boasting that once his fleet had taken up its positions Gibraltar would fall to him within twenty-four hours. At one point d’Arçon is said to have cried out in despair: ‘Crise, contradiction, fâcherie et jalousie!’ It seems to have been a pretty fair description.

Meanwhile, the defenders–some 7,000 of them, with another 400 in hospital–were waiting: waiting for the grand attack, which would plainly not be long in coming, and waiting too for the promised relief fleet, the arrival of which was beginning to seem a good deal less certain. In London, the government continued to prevaricate. Lord North’s administration, after twelve disastrous years, had fallen in March; the new ministry of Lord Shelburne was paralysed by indecision. To the King’s repeated urgings for immediate action, Shelburne could only reply–by this time it was the beginning of August –

As to the relief of Gibraltar…this depends so much upon local as well as naval knowledge of the Bay and other circumstances, that I dare not offer to decide and I am apprehensive the Cabinet not being naval men will find a good deal of difficulty in doing so. It appears to me that a great deal should depend upon the experience and convictions of the officer who commands.

This continued dithering was the more surprising in that the siege of Gibraltar had caught the popular imagination of western Europe. The entire Bay of Algeciras formed a vast theatre from which the spectacle could be watched from a safe distance, and spectators were by now arriving from all over France and Spain to witness the coming drama. They included two French Princes of the Blood, the Comte d’Artois and the Comte de Bourbon, who had recently arrived at San Roque, and it was perhaps in their honour that the date for the grand attack had been set for St Louis’s Day, 25 August. Somehow the information had filtered through to the Rock, and as dawn broke the garrison was standing to; but nothing happened. The floating batteries, it seemed, were not yet ready.

And so, on Sunday, 8 September, the garrison launched its own assault. Over the past few weeks the Spaniards had built a vast wall right across the isthmus, composed of some million and a half sandbags and sand-filled casks, and was now engaged in bringing up guns and mortars to fill the new emplacements. This work, however, was also unfinished, and the Lieutenant-Governor, General Robert Boyd, had conceived the idea of launching upon it a sustained barrage of red-hot shot and incendiary bombs. Technically, this was a difficult operation, seldom attempted in land warfare although it was quite popular at sea; the cannonballs took about three hours on a huge grill to heat to the required temperature, after which the process of loading them presented major problems. On the other hand, they were formidable in their effect, setting fire to wood the moment they touched it and inflicting hideous wounds on any man unfortunate enough to be in their path. Beginning soon after midnight, this barrage continued for nine relentless hours, with some 5,500 rounds fired at the rate of ten a minute; the flames ran along the Spanish lines like fuses along a trail of powder. The Spaniards, taken by surprise and at first unaware of the heat of the cannonballs, were slow to act, but once started they fought like tigers, tearing down the burning wood with their bare hands as the missiles continued to rain down around them. General Boyd, watching from the Grand Battery, could not withhold his admiration: ‘braver men,’ he wrote, ‘were never seen.’

But personal courage could not conceal the disaster–or the humiliation. In order to save what face he could, Crillon ordered an immediate reply in kind: a sustained bombardment from five new batteries, to begin at daybreak the following morning. Almost as many shots were fired on the 9th as on the 8th–the official count registered 5,403–but the balls were cold, and the Rock of Gibraltar was a very different proposition from the low, sandy isthmus. The bombardment continued throughout the following day, both from the shore batteries and from Admiral Moreno’s ships, but little serious harm was done.

Then, at eight on the morning of the 12th, the lookouts reported the sails of a large fleet approaching from the west, and hearts rose: had relief from England come in the nick of time? It had not. The sails were those of an immense French and Spanish armament, including forty-seven ships of the line alone, flying the flags of no less than ten admirals. With its arrival, the defenders of the Rock found ranged against them an army of nearly 40,000, with some 200 pieces of heavy artillery. Their own relief fleet would now be useless even if it were to arrive; hopelessly outnumbered, it would have no hope of entering the harbour. Many of the defenders must by now have been feeling something very like despair.

They might have been rather more cheerful had they had any idea of the bickering and growing confusion in the enemy camp. Crillon was urging an immediate attack; his honour was at stake, autumn was approaching, the delays and postponements had gone on long enough. D’Arçon was protesting that his flottantes were not yet ready; no markers had been placed to guide them to their positions, no soundings had been taken of possible shoals or sandbanks, no anchors had been sunk to allow the vessels to be warped back if necessary. Caught between the two of them, Moreno felt frustrated and ignored, and sulked. It was, however, Crillon who prevailed. Shortly before seven on the morning of 13 September, the first three of the ten flottantes moved off to their allotted stations along the western shore. Moreno flew his flag on the twenty-four-gun Pastora. A furious d’Arçon, knowing that they were all headed straight for a sandbank, had been obliged to board the next largest, the twenty-three-gun Talla Piedra, commanded by Don Juan Mendoza, Prince of Nassau. The seven other captains, whether their vessels were ready or not, followed soon afterwards. Three hours later all ten were drawn up, broadside on, some 800 yards offshore, covering the thousand yards between the Old Mole in the north and the South Bastion. The battle began.

Late that night, Samuel Ancell, quartermaster of the 58th, wrote to his brother:

Tired and fatigued I sit down to let you know that the battle is our own, and that we have set the enemy’s ships on fire. When they came on at nine o’clock this morning, they proceeded successively to their different stations, and as they moored began to fire with the utmost vivacity; at the same time we began a discharge of cold shot upon them, but to our great astonishment we found they rebounded from their sides and roofs, even a thirteen inch shell would not penetrate one! however we were not much disheartened, although we had several killed, but with all possible speed we kindled fires in our furnaces, and put in our pills of thirty-two pound weight to roast. If you could have peeped over the rock, and viewed our several employs, you could not have forbore smiling; some stationed to work the guns like Ethiopians black by rubbing their faces with their hands dirtied with powder–the sons of Vulcan were blowing and sweating, while others were allotted to carry the blazing balls, on an iron instrument made for that purpose, but as these did not afford a sufficient supply for the batteries, wheel-barrows were procured fill’d with sand, and half a dozen shot thrown into each. The fire was returned on our part without intermission, and equally maintained by the foe, but the continual discharge of red hot balls, kept up by us, was such as rendered all the precautions taken by the enemy in the construction of the flotantees [sic] of no effect, for the balls lodging in their sides, in length of time spread the fire throughout–This we found to be the case repeatedly during the day, though the foe frequently kept it under, but a continuance of the same inconvenience, rendered it impossible at last to work their guns. Just at the close of day-light, we observed one of the largest to be on fire in several places, and soon after another in the same condition. This gave the troops additional courage, and the fire was redoubled upon the remaining eight.

One o’clock in the morning. [14 September]

The floating batteries have ceased firing, and one of them has just broke out in flames, the hands on board them are throwing rockets as signals for assistance…A report is now received that an officer and eleven men were drove on shore, upon a piece of timber, being part of a floating castle that was sunk by a shell from the garrison, as she was steering to cooperate with the flotantees.

What had happened? First of all, as we have seen, there had been no firm leadership, only a trio of squabbling prima donnas. Second–and this was to some extent a consequence of the first–the flottantes had been abandoned by the combined fleet. They had never been intended to operate alone; the original plan had called for thirty gunboats and thirty mortar-boats to take up positions between them and on their flanks, from which to maintain a steady barrage against the shore batteries. Had they done so, they might well have affected the whole course of the battle. But of these boats there had been no sign. For reasons of his own the admiral, Don Luís de Cordoba, had refused to move. Third, the Chevalier d’Arçon had overestimated the strength of his creations. Insubmersibles they may have been; incombustibles they were not. The very thickness of their defences meant that a red-hot cannonball could penetrate deep into the cladding, there to smoulder undetected and eventually ignite the timber around it.

What was now to be done? For the Spanish the day had been a disaster, and that evening at Crillon’s headquarters there was consternation. The first concern was for the flottantes, which still had some 5,000 men aboard. In two of them–including the Talla Piedra, the worst hit–there were quite serious fires, but their powder had been damped and they were unlikely to explode. On the other hand, their masts and rigging had been shot away and they were immobile. If somehow they could be towed to safety they might still be saved, but how could this be done? And did Crillon want it done anyway? He had always hated the things, and while they remained unburned and unsunk d’Arçon could claim a certain measure of success. There was also the possibility that the British would take them as prizes. Far better that they should be destroyed–but first they would have to be evacuated. At about ten thirty that night the general set off with the Prince of Nassau (who had abandoned the Talla Piedra immediately after the outbreak of fire) to ask de Cordoba to send his frigates to take off the crews. But the old admiral refused outright: he could not expose his ships to enemy fire for such a purpose. Only his small boats would be available.

The first of these reached the ten huge hulks around midnight, carrying orders to each of the ten captains to fire his vessel before abandoning it. There followed scenes of nightmare confusion. The exhausted men, who had kept their heads and fought bravely under heavy bombardment for over twelve hours, now panicked in their anxiety to escape. Some of the boats were so overloaded that they sank; others were destroyed by the shore batteries even before they could take on their complement. It soon became clear that those remaining possessed nowhere near the capacity required and would need to make two or more journeys to the shore, but by now the captains had obeyed their orders and all ten vessels were in flames. In each there were men who had failed to get away and had no choice but to leap over the side; it was better to drown than to burn.

At daybreak on Saturday 14 September, Mr Ancell continued his letter:

Our bay appears a scene of horror and conflagration, the foe are bewailing their perilous situation, whilst our gun-boats are busily employed in saving the unhappy victims from surrounding flames and threatening death, although the enemy from their land batteries inhumanly discharged their ordnance upon our tars to prevent their affording them relief. But never was bravery more conspicuous, for notwithstanding the eminent dangers which were to be apprehended from so daring an enterprize, yet our boats rowed along side of the floating batteries (though the flames rushed out of their port holes) and dragged the sufferers from their desperate state– the contempt paid by the British tars to the enemy’s fire, of round and grape shot, and shells, will ever do honor to Old England.

Seven o’Clock

The enemy’s ships are blowing up one after another half full of men, and our boats having staid as long as possible, they are now returning with a body of prisoners.

Ten o’Clock

The floating batteries have not all exploded–One of them has almost burnt to the water’s edge, the crew having thrown the powder overboard. The enemy’s land batteries maintain their cannonade upon the garrison, while on the opposite shore confusion and consternation visibly appears. The Nobles and Grandees who had assembled to view the capture of the place are withdrawing from the Spanish camp to carry the direful news to Philip’s court…

It must be a galling vexation to our foes, to behold their Royal Standard displayed on our South Parade–where it is tyed to a gun and reversed.

he grand attack had failed–but the Rock was not yet out of danger. The combined fleet still lay out in the bay, and the armies of France and Spain were still encamped on the isthmus, where the bombardment had resumed as if nothing had happened. But there was now a degree of coming and going between the two sides under flags of truce, and on 6 October prisoners were exchanged. It was from one of these that the defenders learned that the relief fleet, under Admiral Lord Howe, was on its way at last.

Howe had a hard time bringing his ships into Gibraltar. The equinoctial gales were doing their worst and the fleet was blown right out into the Mediterranean, the enemy in hot pursuit; but somehow battle was avoided, and eventually every British vessel came safely into port. From that moment the French and Spanish forces began gradually to disappear. Sporadic firing continued, but no one’s heart seemed really to be in it. Gibraltar, everyone knew, would not be taken by storm; if ever it were to be surrendered to Spain, it would be by peaceful agreement and not by force.

Preliminary negotiations began on 20 October. They were long and complicated, and continued until just before Christmas. In the early stages Britain showed herself perfectly prepared to give up Gibraltar–for the right price: she would naturally expect the return of Minorca and the two Floridas, and several of the Caribbean islands as well. At the opening of Parliament on 5 December, however, Charles James Fox turned to the subject in the course of his reply to the King’s Speech. ‘Gibraltar,’ he declared, ‘has been of infinite use to this country by the diversion of so considerable a part of the force of our enemies which, employed elsewhere, might have greatly annoyed us.’ The Parliamentary Report of his speech continues:

The fortress of Gibraltar was to be ranked among the most important possessions of this country; it was that which gave us respect in the eyes of nations…Give up to Spain the fortress of Gibraltar, and the Mediterranean becomes to them a pool in which they can navigate at pleasure, and act without control or check. Deprive yourselves of this station, and the states of Europe that border on the Mediterranean will no longer look to you for the maintenance of the free navigation of that sea; and having it no longer in your power to be useful, you cannot expect alliances.

He was enthusiastically applauded, and it was largely thanks to his words that the government decided to hold on to the Rock at all costs. Instead, the Spaniards were offered Minorca and East and West Florida–which, with some reluctance, they accepted. King George III was unhappier still. At the conclusion of the talks on 19 December, he wrote to his Principal Secretary of State, Lord Grantham: ‘I should have liked Minorca, and the two Floridas and Guadeloupe better than this proud fortress, in my opinion source of another War, or at least of a constant lurking enmity.’ They were wise words; a few fertile islands would have been of infinitely more use to his kingdom than a barren rock. But it was not only Parliament that remained adamant; there can be little doubt that the British people felt the same way. They had just lost their American colonies; they had no intention of giving up their only foothold in Europe, the symbol not only of their naval supremacy in the Mediterranean but also–in the past four years–of endurance, fortitude and courage.

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