How did Britain relieve the besieged garrison?


Fig.20. Looking south after the Great Siege, 1793. Capt. Thomas Davis. Courtesy Gibraltar Museum.

Six months had passed since the garrison of Gibraltar had been cut-off and left to starve and still no relief convoy arrived with food and reinforcements. Admiral Barceló’s gunboats constantly patrolled the bay preventing any ships entering or leaving Gibraltar. The few blockade runners, who managed to bring in food, could not sustain both garrison and civilian population. Food supplies were critically low and, unless Gibraltar’s food supplies could be restored, the garrison would be starved into surrender. The situation worsened when the Moroccan sultan, Mohamed III, sided with Spain and prohibited trade with Gibraltar. Blockade runners now needed to sail further to Portugal or Oran in Africa, in order to obtain food supplies. Only a full scale relieving convoy could now save the defenders.
Admiral Rodney was given orders to escort a relief convoy into Gibraltar. At Cape St. Vincent, a Spanish fleet was waiting to seize and destroy Rodney’s convoy before they could relieve Gibraltar. In the ensuing battle, Admiral Rodney defeated and almost completely destroyed the Spanish fleet led by Admiral De Langara who was taken prisoner. In late January 1780, Rodney’s triumphant fleet entered the Bay of Gibraltar escorting the vital relief convoy crammed with fresh food supplies, ammunition and
reinforcements. Rodney’s arrival made it possible for the defenders in Gibraltar to keep on fighting for at least another year. It was a huge blow to Spanish plans to starve the defenders into surrender.

Fig.21. Relief of Gibraltar by Earl Howe, 11 October 1782 , by Richard Paton. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

A year later, another convoy led by Admiral Darby, whose escort fleet included the new HMS Victory, relieved the garrison for a second time. In retaliation Spanish batteries attempted to disrupt the unloading of supplies by firing from all their batteries. These, however, were too far away to reach New Mole or Rosia Bay, where the unloading was taking place, but the town area was devastated and almost every building completely destroyed or heavily damaged. The relief of Gibraltar came at great expense, however. Whilst Darby sailed to Gibraltar a French fleet sailed to America and blockaded Yorktown forcing the British General Cornwallis into surrender. Gibraltar had been saved at America´s expense!

Fig.22. Vice-Admiral George Darby, circa 1720-90, by Romney, George. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Fig.23. Admiral George Brydges Rodney, 1718-92, 1st Baron Rodney, by Monsieur, Jean-Laurent. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The effects of the devastating bombardment of Gibraltar can be observed from two paintings currently held at the Gibraltar Museum and reproduced (fig.20). Between April and May 1781 an average of 1,500 rounds were being fired per day whilst Spanish gunboats lobbed shells onto the city at night. The Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned suffered severe damage as did most of the city.