1704 – Siege of Gibraltar
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The siege lasted from September 1704 to May 1705
At the beginning of August 1704, an allied force had captured Gibraltar. It was not long before the Spaniards and the French undertook the siege of the place.
At the end of August 1704, a Spanish force of 9,000 men under the Marquis de Villadarias marched towards Gibraltar.
On 5 September, the first units of Villadarias’ forces reached the isthmus giving access to Gibraltar. Villadarias joined them a few days later. His army included Andalusian militias as well as regular line infantry rgts under the Count de Aguilar, and the Reales Guardias Valonas under the Duke de Havre.
At the end of September, 4,000 Frenchmen were disembarked at the head of the bay of Gibraltar. These joint forces then began the siege of Gibraltar. The operations were pushed forward with great vigour, and the besieged were soon hard beset.
Early in October, Sir John Leake was informed by the Prince of Hessen-Darmstadt that the Spaniards, who were to attack Gibraltar on the land side, had secured a promise of the cooperation of a French squadron under de Pointis. Leake sailed from Lisbon.
At the end of October, Admiral Sir John Leake landed 400 Marines, and some gunners, carpenters and mechanics at Gibraltar, together with an officer of engineers, one Captain Joseph Bennett, whose energy and ability were of priceless value.
On 28 October, de Pointis reached Gibraltar Bay where he found and destroyed the Terror bomb under Commander Isaac Cook.
The siege dragged on for several weeks, the British repulsing an attack from the eastern side with heavy loss.
On 9 November, Leake entered Gibraltar Bay and had the good fortune to surprise there a 42-guns frigate, a 24-guns frigate, a 14-guns brigantine, a 16-guns fireship, 1 storeship laden with bombs, 1 tartan, and 2 vessels which had been taken from the British. All these were run ashore and destroyed by their crews. Another 30-guns frigate and a tartan which got out of the Bay, were chased and taken. The heavier ships of de Pointis had sailed some days earlier to Cádiz, and were at the time refitting there.
Leake was kept well informed of the movements of de Pointis' squadron, and knowing that, although he had been slightly reinforced since Rooke's departure, he was still of inferior strength, he was careful to make such dispositions as would prevent him from being in turn surprised. Instead of remaining in the Bay, he stood off and on to the eastward of it, keeping the Rock always in sight.
On 11 November, Villadarias, who had been offered by a local herdsman to guide a detachment along a hidden path leading to Gibraltar, detached Colonel Figueroa with 500 men to launch a surprise attack. However, planning went astray and the diversionary attack by the main body was delayed and Figueroa’s detachment was spotted by the defenders and exterminated.
By the end of November, the garrison of Gibraltar had dwindled to 1,000 men, exhausted by the fatigue of incessant duty. After three months, despite bad weather and heavy desertions, the Franco-Spanish trenches had reached the outworks of Gibraltar and the “Laguna,” a marshy area located some 200 m north of these outworks (in future sieges of Gibraltar, the besiegers would never reach such an advanced position). However, the Spanish and French forces did not cooperate very efficiently and problems arose around supply.
On 10 December, two convoys of transports, one in charge of the Antelope (54), and the other in charge of the Newcastle (50), came in safely at Gibraltar and disembarked a reinforcement of 2,000 men (detachments of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, 2nd Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards, Earl of Barrymore's Foot and Earl of Donegall's Foot), 1,000 Portuguese and Dutch (an unidentified Portuguese unit and the Dutch Waas Infantry) and a quantity of stores. These convoys had first narrowly escaped capture by a French fleet.
Prince George of Hessen-Darmstadt then turned upon the besiegers, and by a succession of brilliant sorties almost paralysed further progress on their side.
On 1 January 1705, seeing that the Fortress of Gibraltar was in a position to take care of itself for some little time to come, and that his ships needed refitting and cleaning, Leake sailed for Lisbon. On his passage thither, he saw nothing of the enemy.
At the end of January, a reinforcement of 4,000 men reached the Franco-Spanish camp. Their batteries renewed their fire, and a great breach was made in the Round Tower, which formed one of the main defences on the western side.
On the morning of 7 February, the Franco-Spanish army launched an assault, and 1,300 men (18 coys) swarmed up to the attack of the Round Tower. They were met by a brave resistance by one-fifth of their number of British, but after a severe struggle they overpowered them, drove them out, and pressed on to gain possession of a gate leading into the main fortress. There, however, they were checked by a handful of the Queen's Own Regiment of Marines, just 17 men, under Captain Fisher. Few though they were, this gallant little band held its own, until the arrival of some of the Earl of Barrymore's Foot and of the Coldstream Guards enabled them to force the enemy back and drive them headlong out of the Round Tower.
On 9 February, the Newport and the Tartar conveyed supplies of men and ammunition to Gibraltar unhindered.
In mid-February, the French Maréchal de Tessé arrived at Gibraltar and assumed direction of operations. Humiliated, Villadarias and other Spanish officers, left and retired to his residence in Antequera.
Tessé fell back on the bombardment of the town, which was speedily laid in ruins.
On 16 February, the Roebuck and Leopard convoyed further supplies of men and ammunition to Gibraltar.
On 18 February, the Tiger convoyed further supplies of men and ammunition to Gibraltar.
On 25 February, de Pointis returned to the Bay of Gibraltar with part of his squadron (14 men-of-war, 2 fireships) to assist in the prosecution of the siege. News of his arrival was promptly conveyed to Sir John Leake at Lisbon.
The advent of the French squadron seemed likely at one moment to hearten the besiegers to renewed efforts, but Bennett, who ever since his arrival had been the soul of the defence, had by that time constructed fresh batteries and was fully prepared.
Leake had recently been joined by Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Dilkes with 5 third-rates from England.
On 17 March, Leake quitted Lisbon with 23 British men-of-war, 4 Dutch men-of-war and 8 Portuguese men-of-war.
On 20 March at noon, Leake’s fleet sighted Cape Spartel and lay by to avoid discovery from the Spanish shore.
On 21 March, Leake’s fleet engaged part of de Pointis’ fleet in the Combat of Cabrita Point and defeated it. When the rest of de Pointis’ ships learned of the result of the engagement, they cut their cables and made for Toulon.
Realising that, without naval support, he would be unable to prevent the British Navy from resupplying Gibraltar, the French commander decided to raise the siege. However, before doing so, he established a land blockade to make sure that the place could not be used to launch raids in Andalusia. Once the works on the blockade completed, the besiegers started to retire.
By the end of April, the siege of Gibraltar had been raised.
Though the scale of the operations may seem small the siege had cost the Franco-Spanish army no fewer than 12,000 men.
This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- Clowes, Wm. Laird: The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. II, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 396-408
- Fortescue, J. W.: A History of the British Army, Vol. I, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 447-450
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