Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Gate of the Mediterranean

One of the most valuable possessions of England is the great fortress of Gibraltar. It was taken from the Spaniards with very little trouble in 1704. Many attempts have been made to get it back again, for indeed it must vex the Spanish people to see it in our hands, as much as it would vex us to see the French in possession of the Isle of Portland. The great siege of which I am going to tell the story began in 1779. In that year war broke out between England and Spain, and the Spaniards immediately blockaded Gibraltar. They sent a squadron to cut off any supplies that might come by sea, and they occupied the narrow strip of ground by which the fortress can be approached by land. Before long, food became scarce, for there were many people to be fed; the population of the place, which is now about 18,000, may then have been half as large, and there was a garrison of 5000 men. The Governor, Sir George Elliott, had been very careful with the stores, but by the end of the year little was left, and many had to live on such things as thistles and wild leeks. In January 1780 Sir George Rodney defeated the Spanish fleet, and brought a large supply of provisions. But these were in time exhausted, and the scarcity became as bad as ever. Then, in April 1781, came another supply, and the besiegers began to see that, if they were ever to take the place, they must do something more than blockade it. They began a bombardment, which did a great deal of damage to the houses in the town, but did not cause much loss to the garrison. During six weeks more than fifty thousand shot and twenty thousand shells were fired into the town, but not more than twenty soldiers in all were killed. Then the Spaniards began to approach the fortress with trenches and other siege works. The governor, who had found out from a deserter what they were doing, waited for an opportunity of attacking them. At midnight on November 26, a body of 2000 men sallied out. The besiegers were taken unawares and fled. In the course of an hour all the siege works were burnt, the guns spiked, and the stores of powder blown up.

About half-a-year after this, the final attempt to take the place was made. The French and the Spaniards were now united. They had 33,000 men and 170 heavy guns. On the other hand, the British garrison consisted of 7000, all tried soldiers, full of spirit, and firmly resolved to stand by their brave commander. The great hope of the besiegers was in the floating batteries, which a French engineer had invented. It was hoped that they could be made so strong that no shot should make its way into them, and that it should be impossible to set them on fire. There were to be ten of these batteries, made out of the hulks of large ships. The tops were to be proof against shot and shell; the side nearest to the fort was strengthened with heavy timbers seven feet thick, and covered with raw hides. These batteries were moored with iron chains half a gun-shot from the shore. The besiegers hoped that when they had made a breach in the defences, the place could be carried by assault. They carried altogether 142 heavy cannon.

Taking of Gibralter


Sir George Elliot, on the other hand, did not lose courage. His second in command suggested that they might use red-hot shot against the enemy; furnaces accordingly were prepared in various parts.

On September 13 the ten batteries took up their places about six hundred yards from the shore, and opened fire. For some hours the fire went on from both sides, without, as it seemed, much effect. The batteries could not break down the fortifications nor silence the British guns. The besieged, on the other hand, appeared to make no impression on the batteries. The red-hot shot either bounded off the tops or pierced the sides without doing any harm. If at any time smoke was seen, the fire was speedily put out. But in the course of the afternoon it could be seen that something was wrong with the floating batteries. They did not keep up their cannonade, and the crews had evidently as much as they could do to keep them from catching fire. Before midnight two were seen to be in flames. The British gunners, able to take good aim by the light of the fire, went on with their cannonade more furiously than ever. Six more of the batteries were burnt, and before long the other two were destroyed. These the British had captured, but in one the powder magazine blew up, and the other was found to be so injured that it had to be burnt. The besiegers lost 1600 men, and would have lost more had it not been for the courage and kindness of the British, who did their best to take the crews of the batteries that had been destroyed.

The siege, though continued in name till peace was made in February 1783, was now at an end.