Was the Great Sortie of 1781 a success or a failure?


Fig.25. Map showing the route of the Sortie, 1781, J. Cheevers.

For two years the Spanish and French engineers had been slowly advancing their lines through the narrow isthmus in order to launch an all out land attack against Gibraltar. They mistakenly thought the British defenders were too weak to launch a sortie against their front lines which the Spaniards christened ‘La Linea de la Contravalación’ (literally translated to mean the line of ‘counter fire’ and from which the present town derives the first part of its name). Their main forces were at the army camp at ‘Campamento’ and only a few sentries were placed near Forbe’s Barrier to warn the advanced Spanish lines in case of a surprise attack.

Fig.24. Sketch by Spilsbury showing the Landport Gates with the Sally Port below the entrance bridge, 1783. Courtesy Gibraltar Garrison Library.
Fig.26. The Sortie, 1782, by A.C. Poggi. Courtesy Gibraltar Museum.

On the 27th November 1781 Eliott ordered a sortie out of the fortress on a mission to destroy the poorly defended enemy lines. Eliott was considered too valuable as Governor to risk commanding the troops out of Gibraltar and so command was given to Brigadier Ross. The selected regiments were ordered to assemble at Red Sands (Grand Parade) and each soldier was given ‘36 rounds of ammunition, with a good flint in his piece (weapon) and another in his pocket’. Some 2,000 men marched out of Landport Gate in three columns composed of infantry elements to storm and hold off the enemy whilst artillery and engineers spiked the guns, destroyed the batteries and blew up the magazines. The demolition parties made up from artillery and engineers and including many civilian volunteers were equipped with axes, crowbars, sledgehammers and spikes, together with incendiary devices to burn the timbers.

Fig.27. The sortie made by the Garrison of Gibraltar, by John Trumbull, 1789. www.metmuseum.org.

At 2:45 a.m. the attack began. General Eliott could not resist being involved and he followed the troops as a spectator, much to Ross’ annoyance. The few Spanish troops defending the lines quickly fled allowing the demolition parties to destroy the gun emplacements with almost no opposition. However, not all Spaniards fled without a fight. A Spanish Officer Don José de Barboza was mortally wounded and lay dying near his post yet refused assistance. Eliott was moved by his bravery and ordered a ‘Guard of Honour’ be placed around the Officer as he died. He is depicted in the front cover of this book refusing aid from Governor Eliott in the famous painting by John Trumbull in 1789.
With their mission accomplished the British retreated to the safety of the fortress. Casualties had been very light, just four killed, twenty-five wounded and one missing; One interesting souvenir brought back was the prematurely written report of the Spanish Commanding Officer, due to be sent in the morning to his General which stated that ‘nothing extraordinary had happened’ that night.

A view from Gibraltar of the Spanish Batteries, 1785, from Capt. Drinkwater’s diary of the Great Siege