Today on February 7, 1783, the Great Siege of Gibraltar was finally lifted as disheartened Spanish and French forces retreat from the region.
As one of the longest in history, the Great Siege of Gibraltar lasted a staggering three years and seven months. Gibraltar is a strategic and heavily fortified British territory in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. Located at the tip of southern Spain, Gibraltar less than three square miles in size. Most of the land consists of uninhabitable mountainous terrain. Yet this tiny parcel of land has a long history of conflict for control over it. In 1704, a combined army of British and Dutch forces captured Gibraltar from Spain. Today, it is considered a British Overseas Territory, with tensions still running high between Britain and Spain over its ownership.
On June 24, 1779, the Spanish initiated the Great Siege of Gibraltar. For context, the American Revolution was fully underway, and Britain’s European rivals decided to seize the opportunity. Spain and France signed a formal alliance to attack British holdings across the continent simultaneously. The allies launched a joint land and sea attack on Gibraltar with 13,000 troops. Meanwhile, the British only had a garrison of 5,000 soldiers but were well supplied in anticipation of the attack.
In response, the British government assembled a fleet of supply ships to relieve the siege. The Spanish navy under the command Don Juan de Langara immediately sailed to intercept the relief navy. On January 16, 1780, the two fleets clashed at the Moonlight Battle. Sir George Rodney decisively beat the Spanish and went on to resupply the garrison at Gibraltar. But by the next year, starvation and disease plagued soldiers and civilians alike. In June 1781, a second relief fleet arrived, slipping passed the Spanish blockade once again. Frustrated and demoralized, the besiegers settled in and continued bombarding the defenders.
By November 1781, hunger slowly began settling back in for the defenders. The Great Siege of Gibraltar was having a severe impact on the garrison’s morale. British Governor, Lord George Elliott, learned of an impending assault from the enemy. In a stroke of brilliance, Elliott ordered a secret sortie on the night before the attack. Undercover of darkness, British soldiers marched in three columns towards the Spanish lines. His successful surprise attack forced the Spanish to call off the massive assault. A few months later, thousands of fresh troops arrived following the French victory at Minorca. Throughout the summer of 1782, the two allies began meticulously preparing for a decisive attack.
On September 13, 1782, Spanish and French soldiers launched their Grand Assault on Gibraltar - ending in a disastrous outcome for the besiegers. From the sea, they bombarded the fortress with ten floating batteries carrying almost 150 heavy cannons. Supported by 18 ships of the line, 40 gunboats, and 20 bomb vessels, they soften the British defensives. The land-attack consisted of 86 guns and thousands of infantry. Nevertheless, the British withstood the massive assault and heavily damaged most of the enemy’s floating batteries. Another large relief fleet arrived the following month with fresh soldiers and supplies. Morale plummeted among the Spanish and French armies, leaving them no choice but to abandon the Great Siege of Gibraltar.