The Great Siege of Gibraltar 1779-1783

René Chartrand. Gibraltar, 1779-83: The Great Siege. Campaign series. Illustrated by Patrice Courcelle. Botley, England: Osprey, 2006. ISBN 978-1-84176-977-6. Chronology. Illustrations. Photos. Maps. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 96. $19.95.

James Falkner. Fire over the Rock: The Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1779-1783. Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword Military, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84415-915-4. Chronology. Illustrations. Maps. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xix, 168. $39.99.

Britain captured Gibraltar from Spain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713/14).  The Peace of Utrecht (1713) confirmed Britain’s control of Gibraltar.  Britain defended and kept Gibraltar during the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-1720), Anglo-Spanish War of 1727-1729, War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748) and the Anglo-Spanish conflict during the latter part of the Seven Years War (1756-1763).  Then, in the midst of the American War of Independence (1775-1783), Spain allied with France against Britain in the Convention of Aranjuez (April 1779).  Spain, under King Carlos III, subsequently declared war against Britain in June 1779, and the Franco-Spanish alliance planned to take Gibraltar, and then launch an invasion of Britain.  Gibraltar (along with Minorca) was vital to Britain’s control of the Mediterranean.  So began the Spanish quest to capture the Rock in the Great Siege of Gibraltar on 21 June 1779.  In 1782, French forces would join Spanish troops and naval forces besieging Gibraltar.  During the siege, British resources were stretched thin.  Britain was at war with the American rebels in North America, France, Spain, and soon the Dutch Republic (Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, 1780-1784).  Britain lacked an ally, and was also opposed by the League of Armed Neutrality (1780-1783).  Even so, the British army and navy successfully defended the Rock until the Peace of Versailles (1783).

René Chartrand, a senior curator with Canada’s National Historic Sites, is a freelance writer and historical consultant. He has written numerous articles and books including over thirty Osprey titles, including Ticonderoga, 1758: Montcalm’s Victory against All Odds (2000), Louisbourg, 1758: Wolfe’s First Siege (2000), and Monongahela, 1754-55: Washington’s Defeat, Braddock’s Disaster (2004).

Chartrand sets the scene with a brief discussion of the background to the campaign, from the Anglo-Dutch capture of Gibraltar in 1704 to the Great Siege of Gibraltar.  He presents the British commanders, including Lieutenant-General Sir George Augustus Eliott, the Governor-General of Gibraltar.  He briefly depicts some Franco-Spanish commanders, including the Frenchman Louis de Balbe de Berton, Duc de Crillon, who took command of the Franco-Spanish forces besieging Gibraltar in 1782, and the Spaniard Vice-Admiral Antonio de Barceloo, who commanded the Spanish warships that blockaded Gibraltar for most of the siege.  But, the author fails to address the Spanish generals in charge of the early part of the siege, including Lieutenant-General Don Joaquin Mendoza and Lieutenant-General Don Martin Alvarez de Soto-Mayor.  The author goes on to describe the British garrison at Gibraltar and the opposing Spanish and French forces.  The study includes a brief discussion of military plans, the blockade and siege of Gibraltar, naval activities, and relief operations.  Chartrand presents a description of the British sortie against Spanish siege lines in November 1781 and the failed Franco-Spanish naval attack using floating batteries in September 1782.  He also gives a brief depiction of the  French attack and capture of Minorca in February 1782.  The work contains many valuable illustrations and maps.

James Falkner, a military historian and former British Army officer, examines the Great Siege of Gibraltar.  Falkner has previously provided us valuable studies on the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns, battles, and sieges during the War of the Spanish Succession in Great and Glorious Days: The Duke of Marlborough’s Battles, 1704-1709 (2003), Blenheim 1704: Marlborough’s Greatest Victory (2004), Marlborough’s Wars: Eye Witness Accounts, 1702-1713 (2005), Ramillies 1706: Year of Miracles (2006), Marlborough’s Sieges (2007), and James Falkner’s Guide to Marlborough’s Battlefields (2008).

Falkner provides a valuable narrative study of the Great Siege of Gibraltar.  He discusses Spain’s efforts to at first blockade, then attack the British garrison on the Rock while Britain was fully engaged at war elsewhere.  But, Spanish naval and military commanders soon discovered that Britain would fight with determination to keep its hold on Gibraltar.  The Rock, located about eleven hundred miles from the British Isles, was staunchly defended and resupplied by the British Royal Navy.  As Falkner writes: “Whatever the cost, the retention of Gibraltar, and also Port Mahon in Minorca if that could be achieved, was undoubtedly seen as a legitimate use of otherwise scarce resources” (p.xvii).  The author relates failed Franco-Spanish attempts to blockade Gibraltar.  The Spanish Navy, and later the French, were incapable of preventing the resupply of the British garrison.  Eliott, the commander of the Anglo-Hanoverian garrison, fought off a considerable effort by the Spanish and French forces to take the Rock.

In Fire over the Rock, Falkner presents the diplomatic and military background to the Great Siege.  As for the siege itself, the author explains the British, Spanish, and French naval and military resources available and employed during the Franco-Spanish attempt to take the Rock.  His narrative depicts the attacks on Gibraltar, the defence of the Rock, and the impact on military troops and civilians being bombarded during the siege.  He notes that despite the blockade and siege there was not constant action.  “Long months of siege . . . passed,” so writes Falkner, “with brief spurts of danger and excitement, but the chances to display valour and gain advancement were few” (p.70).  Nevertheless, the major Franco-Spanish artillery attack, using battering gun ships and land-based guns, against Gibraltar in September 1782 was a failure.  The author blames this on poor coordination between Spanish and French forces.  Soon British Admiral Sir Richard Howe resupplied the garrison at Gibraltar, and, “it was plain to most commanders — British, Hanoverian, Spanish and French — that the siege was now all but over, with no real prospect of success for Madrid and Paris” (p.126).  Peace preliminaries were signed in January, and the blockade/siege was lifted on 5 February 1783.  Falkner provides some interesting statistics, stating that the opposing sides fired nearly half a million rounds of shot during the Great Siege (p.133).  He also notes that Eliott’s defense of the Rock tied down large numbers of Spanish and French naval and military resources that could have been valuable in other theaters of operations.

Chartrand and Falkner’s studies are valuable recent depictions of the Great Siege of Gibraltar.  Chartrand supplies a fine, brief introduction to the topic.  Falkner provides a fuller narrative account with the insight of a military mind.  These works, along with Stetson Conn’s Gibraltar in British Diplomacy in the Eighteenth Century (1942), Tom Henderson McGuffie’s Siege of Gibraltar, 1779-1783 (1965), Jack Russell’s Gibraltar Besieged, 1779-1783 (1965), and Darren Fa and Clive Finlayson’s The Fortifications of Gibraltar, 1068-1945 (2006) illuminate the diplomacy and warfare surrounding the British capture and efforts to keep Gibraltar in the eighteenth century.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota


About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in American War of Independence (1775-1783), Book Reviews, British Foreign Policy, British Naval History, Europe in the 18th Century (1713-1789), French Foreign Policy, French Military History, Spanish Foreign Affairs, Spanish Military History and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Great Siege of Gibraltar 1779-1783

  1. William Young says:

    Reblogged this on Military History.

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