Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History


October 22, 2018
by Eric Sterner Also by this Author


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Book Review: Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesley Adkins, (Viking, 2017).


It is natural to think of the American Revolution in terms of events on the Atlantic coast of North America.  But the American Revolution was a truly global war. King George III and many of his countrymen may have initially dismissed the Americans as rebellious children to be put down with a firm hand, but France and Spain saw other opportunities.

One of Madrid’s war aims was to recover the small isthmus of Gibraltar located on the eastern side of the Bay of Algeciras and dominated by a massive and widely-recognized dome of rock. Possession of the isthmus was critical to controlling the straits connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. Britain seized Gibraltar from Spain in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession, which had gnawed at the Spanish ever since.  So, within days of declaring war on Britain, Madrid commenced “The Great Siege.” The siege lasted 1,323 days between June 21, 1779 and February 2, 1783.  Roy and Lesley Adkins ably chronicle events in their latest book, Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History.

Ironically, the siege was begun somewhat peacefully by closing the border. Gibraltar is barren and incapable of supporting itself.  In peacetime, it relied heavily on supplies purchased in the Spanish countryside. The garrison, family members, and a small trading town populated by a polyglot of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions regularly interacted with Spanish authorities in the nearby town of San Roque.  So, initially, the siege disrupted the economy and social life on Gibraltar more than anything else.

The idyll did not last long. The Spanish quickly extended old siege lines while the British moved to a war footing. Gibraltar’s governor, Gen. George Augustus Eliott, was a dynamo of activity, sleeping little, subsisting on a parsimonious vegetarian diet, and taking substantive steps to prepare for battle.

It was just as well that the governor did not eat meat. The Spanish strategy for the first eighteen months relied on starvation. A significant portion of the book’s early sections deals with civilian and military complaints about rising prices and food scarcities, with expected outbreaks of smallpox and scurvy resulting from so many people on a restricted diet crammed into such a small space. Nonetheless, the Spanish could not starve the British out; indeed, their own besieging army may have suffered as much from deprivation. Simply, the region around Gibraltar could not sustain a large force.

At the end of 1779, a British relief fleet put to sea under the command of Adm. George Rodney. En route, it captured a Spanish convoy, fought and defeated a Spanish squadron in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, and then arrived in Gibraltar in January 1780. Rodney did not stay long, but the supplies were critical. For the next sixteen months, the British garrison maintained itself, relying on blockade runners, local gardens, warehoused foodstuffs, and fisherman for sustenance. It routinely engaged with Spanish batteries and small Spanish gunboats, but waited tensely for the massive bombardment expected at any moment. In April 1781, another large convoy arrived. It might have marked an uptick in British fortunes, but the Spanish selected that day to begin the long-awaited grand bombardment. It quickly destroyed the town in which Gibraltar’s civilians lived, causing them to flea south and seek what shelter they could find. For their part, the garrison’s soldiers looted the town. The Adkins’ explain such indiscipline as the result of drunkenness and months of privation and extortion by some merchants, who had hoarded goods and contributed to the scarcity that drove up prices. As the Spanish siege lines crept ever closer to British defenses, Governor Eliott himself led a sortie to wreck them, which the authors describe in suitably dramatic fashion.

In 1782, a combined French-Spanish expedition captured the island of Minorca and then prepared to assault Gibraltar. The British garrison, totaling about 7500 men, including those in the hospital, faced a combined enemy force estimated at 50,000. Even allowing for exaggeration, the British estimates highlight the disparity between the scale of the forces committed in North America and those operating against the British empire elsewhere. The French and Spanish planned to bombard Gibraltar’s western side from uniquely designed floating batteries and make a contested infantry landing.  The assault failed when British red hot-shot set the batteries on fire. Less than a month later, Lord Richard Howe brought another convoy into the isthmus. While both sides continued to conduct operations, the drama associated with the Great Siege of Gibraltar was over.

Roy and Lesley Adkins are fine writers and Gibraltar is an enjoyable read. Extensive use of first-person accounts, including the journals and letters of civilians and soldiers’ wives, give Gibraltara welcome sense of intimacy. But, it will not be the definitive account. The story unfolds primarily from the British point of view and Spanish perspectives are modest. The Adkins provide enough context for the reader to understand how events elsewhere affected major developments at Gibraltar, but not enough to explain how events at Gibraltar fully affected events elsewhere. They speculate on that matter, as did some Brits after the war, but do not truly assess different interpretations. To the degree that Gibraltar is primarily a history of the experience of those living on the isthmus (soldiers and civilians alike), it is a fine book.  But, it leaves a hole in the reader’s understanding of events. Nonetheless, Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the American Revolution and should be read by anyone interested in the war or eighteenth century British military history.

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