In 1776 Britain found itself at war with its former colonies in America who wanted independence from Britain. France, who had lost its own American colonies to Britain, supported the rebel colonists. France encouraged Spain to attack and capture Gibraltar and pledged military support if Spain did so. Being totally cut off by land, the defence of the Rock now depended on the strength and ingenuity of the commanders of the Garrison.
Fig.6. Colonel William Green. Artist unknown.
Fig.8. Vice Admiral Sir Roger Curtis. Artist unknown, 18th Century. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
The British Commanders
Luckily, Britain had been busy modernising the Rock’s fortifications a few years before the siege started and had sent Colonel William Green to Gibraltar as Senior Engineer. In 1772 he raised the first Soldier Artificer Company, the fore-runner of the present day Royal Engineers. With his men, Green began to reinforce or replace all the batteries, bastions and curtain walls defending Gibraltar. His greatest work was King’s Bastion. The foundation stone for this great bastion was laid in 1773. Standing as it does
halfway between North and South Bastions; it became the key defensive position being the front line in any possible attack from the sea. With the improvements made to the defences, by the time war was declared, Gibraltar had become an almost unconquerable fortress.
In 1776 Lieutenant-General George Augustus Eliott arrived in Gibraltar as Governor. He was an outstanding soldier. On arrival Eliott set about reinforcing the garrison with supplies of food and ammunition in case of war. He kept a tight discipline within the ranks and rarely slept for more than four hours a night. He was a vegetarian and did not drink alcohol either which helped to inspire his men
during the hardships of the siege. His leadership qualities were extremely important during the four year siege.
Eliott was ably assisted by his second in command Major General Robert Boyd, another soldier of renown who took command of King’s Bastion. If King’s Bastion fell or was destroyed Gibraltar would be lost, so Eliott’s trust in Boyd was crucial. Boyd would later be buried in King’s Bastion.
The naval forces were commanded by Captain Roger Curtis, whose daring actions, especially in the rescue operations in the aftermath of the attack of the Floating Batteries, saved hundreds of enemy sailors and earned him the praise of Governor Eliott and later of the King and Parliament.
The British commanders, therefore, had a redesignedand heavily strengthened fortress just before the start of hostilities. The Officers and men were well prepared to withstand a long siege as long as food and reinforcements could arrive by sea. The commanders had been given enough time to make all necessary preparations and were ready.
Fig.9. Martín Antonio Álvarez de Sotomayor y Soto-Flores, conde de Colomera. Esteve y Marqués, Agustín , 1798.
Fig.10. Louis des Balbes de Berton de Crillon.
Fig.11. Vice Admiral Antonio de Barcelo, unknown artist.
Fig.12. Admiral de Cordova y Cordova, unknown artist.
Fig.13. Jean Claude Eléonore Le Michaud d’Arçon. Jean Wyrsch (1732-1798).
The Spanish and French Commanders
The Spanish blockade was directed by Martín Álvarez de Sotomayor, a Spanish General, but in 1782 the French Louis des Balbes de Berton de Crillon (Duc de Crillon), who had successfully defeated the British Garrison at Minorca a year earlier, took command.
Vice Admiral Antonio de Barceló commanded the blockading Spanish gunboats which proved quite effective and annoying to the British garrison. However, in 1782 he was superseded in rank by Admiral de Cordova. This made Barceló quite bitter and his gun boats no longer enforced the naval blockade as tightly as before. Admiral de Cordova himself preferred to avoid a direct fight with the British Navy and the British were able to relieve the Garrison unopposed.
Colonel Jean Claude D’Arcon was a French military engineer who came up with a clever plan of using floating batteries to make a breach in the fortress walls which would allow French and Spanish marines to storm the town. He was not very well liked by the Duc De Crillon, who was afraid that his own role in the capture of Gibraltar could be undermined by D’Arcon’s success.
There is evidence, therefore, that the French and Spanish commanders quarrelled constantly and found it almost impossible to work together for a common cause. The French and Spanish army and naval commanders never managed to work as an organised unit and were more interested in claiming victory for themselves than sharing the honour of capturing Gibraltar with each other.