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Gibraltar - The Sieges of Gibraltar

Part 1

Lieutenant Koehlers famous Depression Gun

In Casemates Square, Gibraltar, there is a most unusual weapon, a cannon with a barrel pointing towards the ground. Visitors stand and wonder how the cannon ball was prevented from rolling out before the cannon could be fired. In fact the innovative part of this cannon is the carriage that allows the gun to be depressed, the ball was held in place by the wad that was pushed up the barrel after the ball as was common practice with all muzzle loaders. The cannon is a renovated example of Lieutenant Koehlers famous Depression Gun designed in 1782 at the height of the Great Siege.

The need for such extraordinary weapons illustrates the importance of Gibraltar; incumbents went to great lengths to retain this chunk of rock strategically placed to guard the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. In the 500 years between 1309 and 1809 Gibraltar has been besieged fourteen times, surely a record of its own.

The first siege was in 1309. King Ferdinand IV of Castile was besieging Algeciras and charged Alonso Perez de Guzman, or Guzman el Bueno, with the task of taking Gibraltar from the Moors. Guzman accomplished this after a siege lasting one month.

The second in 1316 was an unsuccessful attempt to retake the rock for the Muslims by Caid Yahya.

In 1333 a Marinid army that had invaded Muslim Spain led by Abd al-Malik took Gibraltar after a siege lasting 5 months.

This was swiftly followed by the fourth siege when, in the same year, 1333, Alfonso XI of Castile attempted to take Gibraltar for Christian Spain with the aid of a fleet. He was attacked by Nasrids from Granada and the result was a truce.

In 1350 Alfonso XI tried again. On this occasion the Black Death decimated his army, including him.

The sixth siege in 1374 saw Gibraltar taken from the Marinids by the Nasrids of the Taifa of Granada.

In 1436 Enrique de Guzman, Count of Niebla unsuccessfully assaulted Gibraltar.

Castilian forces did not retake the Rock until the eighth siege in 1462.

Five years later, in 1467, Gibraltar was again besieged, this time for 16 months by the Duke of Medina Sidonia who was part of a nobility revolt against the monarch. He was granted Lordship of Gibraltar, a position the family held until 1501 when Gibraltar was ceded back to the crown.

In 1506 following a quarrel with Philip I of Castile, the Duke of Medina Sidonia attempted to take Gibraltar back. He failed and it was following this occasion that Gibraltar was awarded the title Most Loyal City.

Gibraltar then stayed in Spanish hands for almost 200 years until, in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession a combined British and Dutch fleet under George Rooke and 1,800 Dutch and English Marines under Prince George of Hesse Darmstadt besieged and took Gibraltar in three days.

This led to the twelfth siege from September 1704 until March 1705 when a combined Spanish and French army tried to take the Rock back.

From February to June in 1727 Gibraltar again found itself besieged during the Anglo-Spanish War.

The fourteenth and final siege is known as the Great Siege and took place between July 1779 and February 1783.

The Sieges of Gibraltar, Part 2

The Siege Tunnels

Last months article briefly took us through the history of the sieges of Gibraltar until the final, 14th siege, known as The Great Siege which lasted from July 1779 to February 1783.

The Great Siege took place during the American War of Independence (1775  1783). France had belatedly joined the war in 1778, siding with the colonists against Britain and in 1779 made a determined effort with their Spanish allies to take Gibraltar by laying siege to the Rock. The purpose of a siege is to force the besieged to surrender by starving them into submission at the same time making life uncomfortable for them by means of artillery bombardments. A cannon ball factory was constructed at Jimena de la Frontera especially for the occasion. The remains can still be visited.

With 5,382 troops the Governor General of Gibraltar, General Augustus Eliott, later 1st Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar, prepared for the worst the enemy could throw at them by improving the existing fortifications and enforcing severe rationing. An example of the daily diet is on display in the Siege Tunnels today. Against all odds Eliott inspired his troops and the Rock stayed firmly in British hands even though there was little hope of re-supply since the only way in to Gibraltar was by sea through a large blockading French fleet.

By the autumn of 1781 the French/Spanish force realised they had to force the issue and prepared for an invasion. They assembled their force in forward positions just behind the fortified wall at La Linea. On the evening of November 27th Brigadier Ross led a raiding party through the Landport Gate. They crept up to The Lines still visible in parts today at La Linea, and smashed the forward defences, spiked the guns and exploded three battery magazines effectively putting an end to the invasion within one hour at the cost of five lives. The event is immortalised in a painting by John Trumbull called The Sortie made by the Garrison of Gibraltar, 1789. It would take the enemy a year to prepare for another attempt giving General Eliott time to make his preparations.

In the May of 1782 General Eliott had offered a reward to anybody who could come up with a plan to get a cannon to a particular high point on the Rock called The Notch. A Sergeant Major Ince of the Company of Military Artificers (later Royal Engineers) had the idea of mining a tunnel through the rock rather than trying to haul guns up the outside. They used crowbars, sledge hammers and gunpowder to drive a 2.4 square metre tunnel 25 metres into the limestone of Gibraltar in the first five weeks. To ventilate the fumes from the gunpowder small holes were blasted through the sides of the tunnel. It quickly became obvious that these ventilation holes made excellent gun positions as they overlooked the enemy positions and offered excellent protection to the gunners. This first gallery was called Windsor Gallery and by the time the siege ended was 113 metres long and had four guns in embrasures along its length. Two more tunnels were excavated before 1783 lower down the north face of the Rock called Kings and Queens Lines. Sergeant Major Ince received his reward, a horse from the Duke of Kent, Gibraltars Royal Governor and father of Queen Victoria, and a parcel of land on the Rock. It is still called Inces Farm. Tunnelling continued after the siege up to the end of the Second World War. There are now 52 kilometres of tunnel that were opened up to the public in 2005. A tour of the original tunnel starts just above the Moorish castle where the entrance is guarded by a cannon dating back to Victorian times.

Heating the shot in the tunnels

On September 13th 1782 10,000 men and 48 ships assembled and attacked the Rock in a last ditch attempt to take Gibraltar. Lord Howe had already set sail from England with a fleet to relieve the besieged garrison. The British had no monopoly on good ideas. For this attack the Spanish had devised a weapon called the Floating Batteries. These were built of timber one metre wide, packed with wet sand and mounted cannon. The idea was to float the batteries close to the fortifications for a more effective bombardment. They were declared fireproof and unsinkable. In return the British re-invented a technique they called the hot potato, cannonballs heated to white heat in a furnace before being fired at the floating batteries. They were very successful as is shown in a painting by John Singleton Copley, The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar. News of the sinking of the floating batteries reached Lord Howe who made haste to take advantage of the confusion amongst the enemy.

The relief fleet arrived on the 11th October 1782 to put an end to any further attempts by the combined and dispirited French/Spanish force. A few months later, in February 1783, the war ended. Although not an overall victory for Britain, we did lose America after all, the Great Siege of Gibraltar is seen as one of the most decisive battles in history. The British garrison strength during the siege was between 5,500 and 7,000 men and 96 guns. They faced a combined French/Spanish force of 40,000 men and 246 guns led by the Duc de Crillon. The British lost 333 men killed in fighting and 536 to disease brought on by malnutrition with 911 wounded. The enemy suffered 5,000 casualties who were killed, wounded, captured or missing at the end of the engagement.

When the Duc de Crillon was shown the fortifications and Siege Tunnels after the war he declared the engineering feat was, Worthy of the Romans.

Articles and Stories

The Ceremony of The Keys
The Pillars of Hercules
The Red Arrows and The Battle of Britain

Days Out

The Alameda,


The Tunnels and Airfield
Operation Felix
Operation Tracer
The Rockbuster, the 100 Ton Gun
The Trafalgar Cemetery
Fortress Gibraltar - The King's Bastion
The Treaty of Utrecht 1704

Places to Visit

Top of the Rock

Walks in Andalucia

Mediterranean Steps Walk and Douglas Path

© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.

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