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The Great Siege of Gibraltar was an unsuccessful attempt by Spainmarker and Francemarker to capture Gibraltarmarker from the Britishmarker 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.


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 Americanmarker Revolutionary War, both states supplied arms to the American rebels, and drew up a strategy to intervene on the American side and defeat Britain.

In June of 1779, Spain declared war on Great Britain, France having done so the year before. The French and Spanish not only wished to retrieve lost territory from the British but needed to secure Gibraltar, which was a key link in Britain's control of the Mediterranean seamarker. The capture of Gibraltar was expected to be relatively quick, and the precursor to a Franco-Spanish invasion of Great Britainmarker.

The Great Siege

The fortress was besieged for nearly four years by a combined naval and military force of Spain and France. When the Rock was first besieged, the garrison consisted of 5,382 troops; General Elliot 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 Corsicanmarker troops.

The British had anticipated an attack for some time, and a number of ships had sailed to reinforce and supply The Rockmarker. 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.

Commencement of the Siege

The combined Spanish and French fleets blockaded The Rock 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 Elliot formed a corps of sharpshooters. Initially the Spanish sent twelve thousand troops, including four battalions of Royal Guards. The posting was considered both a comfortable and fashionable one, as opposed to being sent to serve in one of Spain's American colonies.

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 failure of the Armada of 1779.

First naval relief

Admiral George Rodney, after capturing a Spanish convoy off Cape Finisterremarker 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 stubbornly 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. Through the use of small, fast-sailing ships that ran the blockade they were able to keep in touch with the British forces on Minorcamarker, 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.


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 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 enemy infantry in the trenches were routed, 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 Elliot 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.

The Grand Assault

Eventually on 13 September 1782 the Bourbon allies launched their great attack; the number involved nearly 70,000 fighting men both French and Spanish. On land an army of 40,000 which consisted of nearly a third of the entire Spanish metropolitan army, on top of this they were supported by 400 guns. At sea 50 ships which included newly engineered 'floating batteries' with 200 heavy guns as well as Spanish & French ships of the line which had nearly 30,000 men. An 'army' of over 75,000 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'. The 200 guns opened fire from floating batteries in the Bay and the 400 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 enemy's floating batteries and warships in the Bay, and beating off many attempts to storm the fortress from the land side. The British redcoats fired in three ranks deep as wave after wave of Spanish troops tried desperately to get up the walls of the fort. In that great conflict, the British destroyed nearly all the enemy fleet, most of the floating batteries simply blew up as the 'red-hot shot' did its job. In addition 5,000 men both on board the ships (many of whom drowned) and on land were casualties.

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. In September 1782 a large fleet left Spitheadmarker under Richard Howe, arriving off Cape St Vincentmarker 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. 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.


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. Mozart was known to have a favourable view of the British.


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.
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.

See also


  1. Harvey p.362
  2. Sugden p.109-10
  3. Harvey p.385-87
  4. Syrett p.103
  5. Syrett p.104-05


  • 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
  • Sugden, John: Nelson: A Dream of Glory, London, 2004
  • Syrett, David: Admiral Lord Howe: A Biography, London, 2006.

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