A Brief History
On June 24, 1779, the largest battle of the American Revolutionary War began at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea at the British Fortress of Gibraltar. Spanish and French forces greatly outnumbered the British forces, in men, guns, and ships, and yet after almost 4 years of siege the British had held firm and Gibraltar is known as a metaphor for an impenetrable fortress. Spain and France had attempted to take advantage of British preoccupation with its war in America to gang up on their old foe, and had gone to war in a back handed support of the Americans.
The greatest resistance to siege in British history is also one of the great underdog victories in the annals of military actions. British forces numbered only 7500 men with 96 guns (cannon) and 12 gunboats. Spanish and French forces had the advantage of 33,000 land soldiers, 30,000 sailors and marines on ships, 47 major warships, several smaller boats and 10 floating batteries, and 86 land guns (mortars and cannon). It must have seemed hopeless for the besieged British, and provisions quickly became in short supply, resulting in hunger and scurvy.
British blockade runners managed to periodically make it through the blockade to drop off supplies to the garrison, enabling the fighting to continue on and on for what must have seemed an eternity. Spanish and French forces had expected a short campaign to be followed by an invasion of Great Britain, which of course did not happen.
In 1781 the British turned the tables on their besiegers by launching a surprise attack of their own, inflicting heavy casualties and losses of equipment on the enemy. The Bourbon forces (Spanish and French) launched a grand assault of their own which failed in the face of fierce British fire, including cannon balls heated to red hot temperatures to set any ships or boats struck on fire, which they successfully did. The British even captured a major Spanish warship, the San Miguel, when it lost a mizzen mast and was grounded. The British captured the ship and 634 prisoners.
By February 1783 in the face of a huge British relief fleet, a peace treaty was negotiated and the siege was over, one of the truly great British military victories. British losses were close to a thousand killed and a thousand wounded (many of the dead by disease), while the Bourbon allies lost 6,000 men and 10 ships (one of them the captured San Miguel). Mozart set music in honor of the siege, famous paintings of the battles were painted, and Russian poet Tsevetkov wrote The Rock in its honor.
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For more information, please see…
Chartrand, René and Patrice Courcelle. Gibraltar, 1779-1783: The Great Siege (Campaign, 172). Osprey Publishing, 2006.
The featured image in this article, a detailed view of the sortie from above the Prince’s Lines, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.