Great Siege of Gibraltar

Eventually on 13 September 1782 the Bourbon allies launched their great attack; the number involved nearly 70,000 fighting men both French and Spanish.

On land an army of 40,000 which consisted of nearly a third of the entire Spanish metropolitan army, on top of this they were supported by 400 guns. At sea 50 ships which included newly engineered 'floating batteries' with 200 heavy guns as well as Spanish & French ships of the line which had nearly 30,000 men. An 'army' of over 75,000 spectators thronged the adjacent hills over the Spanish border, among them the highest families in the land, assembled to see the fortress beaten to powder and 'the British flag trailed in the dust'. The 200 guns opened fire from floating batteries in the Bay and the 400 guns on the land side, directed on the fortifications after weeks of preparatory artillery fire. But the garrison replied with red-hot shot to set fire to and sink the enemy's floating batteries and warships in the Bay, and beating off many attempts to storm the fortress from the land side. The British redcoats fired in three ranks deep as wave after wave of Spanish troops tried desperately to get up the walls of the fort. In that great conflict, the British destroyed nearly all the enemy fleet, most of the floating batteries simply blew up as the 'red-hot shot' did its job. In addition 5,000 men both on board the ships (many of whom drowned) and on land were casualties.

In Britain the Admiralty considered plans for a major relief of Gibraltar, opting to send a larger, but slower fleet, rather than smaller faster one. In September 1782 a large fleet left Spithead under Richard Howe, arriving off Cape St Vincent on 9 October. The following evening a gale blew up, scattering the Spanish fleet and allowing Howe to sail unopposed into Gibraltar and the merchant ships he was escorting to unload their stores. Howe then sailed out and fought an indecisive battle with the Spanish, before withdrawing to Britain in line with his orders.

The siege was continued for some months longer, but in the spring of 1783 the French and Spanish retired disheartened and defeated, leaving the British garrison victorious, after three years and seven months' conflict. The garrison sustained a loss of 1,231 men, and expended 8,000 barrels of gunpowder.

The French and Spanish not only wished to retrieve lost territory from Britain but needed to secure Gibraltar, which was a key link in Britain's control of the sea. The fortress was besieged for nearly four years by the full naval and military strengths of the enemy. When the Rock was first besieged, the garrison consisted of 5,382 troops; General Elliot was the Governor-General, and his determined handling of the defense inspired all the troops under him with the greatest confidence. All the defenses were strengthened, and many of the infantry, including picked men from the 39th Regiment, assisted the artillery in serving the guns.

The combined Spanish and French fleets blockaded the Rock from the sea, while on the land side an enormous army was engaged in constructing forts, redoubts, entrenchments, and batteries from which to attack. General Elliot formed a corps of sharpshooters, the command of which was given to Lieutenant Burleigh, of the 39th Regiment, which rendered splendid service in keeping the enemy constantly engaged, and inflicting heavy losses.

As the winter of 1779 came down the garrison began to suffer from want of fresh provisions, which became very scarce and dear. Bread was almost impossible to get, and was not permitted to be issued except to the sick and children. Salt meat and biscuits, and not much of that, soon became the food of the troops, with an occasional issue of four ounces of rice as a full day's ration. Fuel was exhausted, and fires were only made with difficulty, the salt-encrusted timbers of old ships broken up in the harbor for the purpose. To the rigors of the siege was added a violent outbreak of scurvy among the devoted troops, due to the want of fresh vegetables and medicines. As the winter wore on, the scanty store of food grew so alarmingly low that the already meager ration was reduced to just enough to keep life in the bodies of the men. But their morale remained high and the troops continued to take their turns at trench or battery, and endured the inclement weather and the shortage of food with fortitude.