Gibraltar: How The Rock Became British


For a tiny offshoot of the huge Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar has managed to pack a lot of history into its 2.6 square miles.

And this colourful past extends considerably further back in time than even ‘history’ itself.

It’s reckoned that a hollow in the side of ‘the Rock’ of Gibraltar (the chunk of Spain’s Betic Cordillera mountain range that forms the territory's promontory) was the site of a hugely important event during the stone age.

Known as Gorham’s Cave, it could be the exact spot where the last ever Neanderthals died.

Homo Neanderthalensis was a separate branch of humanity, and one that existed simultaneously with our own, homo sapiens sapiens, for thousands of years.

They are thought to have gone extinct between 40,000 and 24,000 years ago.

In more contemporary history (as in, the last several thousand years), the Week describes Gibraltar’s significance to various empires:

"It was first settled by the Phoenicians, and then the Romans, who revered it as one of the two pillars of Hercules, supposedly created during his tenth labour, when he smashed through the mountain connecting Europe and Africa."

These 'two pillars' that Hercules were said to have been mountains on either side of the Gibraltar strait, of which the Rock of Gibraltar, Calpe Mons, is the northern one. (The southern pillar is not known, but has been suggested to be either Monte Hacho in Ceuta or Jebel Musa in Morocco).

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Gibraltar was absorbed into Visigoth territory, and was then taken in turn by Moorish forces in 711 AD during the Muslim conquest of Spain.

It is from this period that Gibraltar got its name, being derived from ‘Jabal Tariq’, Tariq’s mountain – Tariq ibn Ziyad was the Moorish general who led the incursion into Visigoth Spain.

Centuries of conflict followed, with ‘Tariq’s mountain’ changing hands multiple times until it was finally retained by the Spanish in 1462.

Being the gateway between the Atlantic and the Med, as well as Europe and Africa, its strategic significance was never lost on those who took it over. Indeed, one legacy left to the Spanish was the fortified city built by the Caliph of Morocco, Abd-al-Munnin. 

And its place at the centre of several vital sea lanes was certainly noticed by the British, who awaited their opportunity to pounce and incorporate it into their growing global trade network. As Rene Chartrand explains in ‘Gibraltar 1779 – 1783’:

“For Britain… war presented an opportunity to expand its growing naval power into an area it had never ventured into before – the Mediterranean. This large inland sea was the trade route of incredible wealth between the great Christian nations to the north, namely France, Spain and the Italian states, and the Muslim domains to the south and to the east, namely the Turkish empire, Egypt and Arab North Africa extending to the Atlantic… British traders had ventured in the Mediterranean where they had been, at best, tolerated as novelties. As… war got under way in 1702, all this was about to change.”

Great power politics

‘The war’ that would give the British their chance to take Gibraltar was The War of Spanish Succession (1702 – 1715).

This began when the Habsburg (Austrian line) Spanish King Charles II, who was inbred and infertile, failed to produce an heir by the time of his death in 1700.

The crown was passed to the grandson of France’s Louis XIV instead, leaving Europe, and its ‘delicate balance of power’ facing the prospect of a marriage between French and Spanish sovereign territories and colonies, which would have produced a gigantic continental and overseas empire.

Britain, Holland, Austria, and Austria’s allies in the Holy Roman Empire banded together to whittle Spain and France down to size.

Churchill’s ancestor the Duke of Marlborough helped defeat the French, and their Bavarian allies (Bavaria is part of Germany), at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, which saved the Austrians and kept the alliance intact.

It remained together through several more years of war, until in 1712 the British, perceiving the necessary victories to have been won, stopped fighting to pursue peace through the Treaties of Utrecht and Rastatt. Meanwhile, the Dutch, Austrians, and their German (Holy Roman) allies continued to fight for a few more years to win more favourable terms for themselves.

The Rock
Gibraltar from above (Picture: MOD).

These treaties saw Louis XIV’s grandson renounce French succession and rule only Spain and its American colonies as King Philip V.

Most of Spain’s European colonies went to Austria, but Britain would be granted rights over Gibraltar.

This is because the British had won a resounding victory there in 1704, just as they had at Blenheim the same year.

Seizing the Rock

On July 17, an Anglo-Dutch force of 1,800 troops commanded by Admiral Sir George Rooke were brought ashore by the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt.

Facing them was a small garrison of 150 men with 100 artillery guns.

They stood little chance against the British force, which had 21 ships that, in the face of their resistance, proceeded to fling 15,000 rounds at them over the next six hours.

By fighting gallantly, the garrison had forced the landing party back, but they came ashore again at Old Mole head and ran straight into a trap.

As the Spanish retreated, they drew in the British, who were soon blasted by a mine that caused over 100 casualties.

Still, the survivors pushed on and, realising he had no more tricks up his sleeve, the marquis commanding the garrison surrendered to Admiral Rooke.

59 British soldiers had been killed and 217 wounded, but they had taken the territory, and soon the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt was left to preside over it with plentiful troops, 200 gunners, and 200 additional heavy iron cannons (and six mortars).

He would soon need them.

With the war still raging, a massive Franco-Spanish fleet consisting of fifty plus ships-of-the-line (three-decked vessels with anything from 80 to 100 guns, and sometimes more), several frigates and fire ships, and 25 oared galleys soon bore down on them.

A second siege began, with cannons on both sides spitting iron and causing several thousand casualties.

Still, it was a victory for the British by default, as the Allied fleet had been repulsed, and the British garrison left ensconced.

Now the previously-ejected Marquis de Villadarias would lead a ground-based assault down the isthmus with 8,000 soldiers.

Sneaking up under the cover of darkness and sleeping in a cave on the night of 31 October 1704, they quickly overpowered the new garrison’s guards at Signal-House and Middle Hill early the next morning, but were spotted by other troops who raised the alarm.

Tunnel in the Rock
There are numerous caves within the Rock of Gibraltar - some of these were created relatively recently, but many were present hundreds of years ago during the historic sieges.

As this was only a small commando force meant to soften up the enemy ahead of the main thrust, they were quickly overwhelmed by the British garrison who drove them up, and, in some cases, over the edge of the Rock to their deaths.

Of this 500-man force, 100 died and 30 surrendered, while the remaining 370 managed to get away.

De Villadarias attacked with his other troops anyway, with attempted naval support, but the Royal Navy intercepted this and the garrison was able to hold on.

By 1713, both Gibraltar and Minorca (which was captured in 1708) were officially left to the British. As the Treaty of Utrecht put it:

“(The King of Spain) does hereby, for himself, his heirs, and successors, yield to the Crown of Great Britain the full and entire property of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging; and he gives up the said property to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.”

Caught in the middle

Leaving the flowery language of the treaty aside, both Britain and Spain knew that this was a case of might making right. Britain had got Gibraltar, and Minorca, because she’d been able to take and hold them. Now, Spain planned to do the same the moment any opportunities presented themselves.

Two did, in 1720 and 1727, though both attacks were easily driven off.

Minorca was less fortunate, falling to a French force of several thousand troops in 1756. 

Admiral Byng, who led a British force meant to repel and remove them, was considered to have not tried hard enough and, incredibly, was executed by a musket volley on the deck of a ship in Portsmouth.   

Still, the island would end up back in British hands, again by treaty. 


Fighting over Minorca had broken out because Britain and France (and their respective allies) had gone to war over territory in America.

The Seven Years War (also known as ‘The French and Indian War’) was won by the British and so the concluding Treaty of Paris in 1763 included within it the provision that Minorca would come back under British control.

That might have settled things, had it not been for an unforeseen rebellion against the British.

Another opportunity

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

So opened the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, in which Britain’s American colonies would defy and ultimately defeat their colonial masters by 1781.

While the popular image of plucky American settlers outmatching arrogant British overlords is an accurate description of the Revolutionary War to a certain extent, it leaves out the important fact that the self-proclaimed United States of America had help.

France and Spain, after all, were unlikely to resist the temptation to help give the ‘old foe’ Britain a good kicking.

This led to another attempt to retake the Rock, this time with a truly epic campaign that lasted almost as long as the concurrent war going on in America. But unlike that war, the ‘Great Siege of Gibraltar’ would see the British play the defiantly victorious underdogs. 

Britain’s longest siege

With the war in America in full swing, Spain declared war on the British at Gibraltar in June 1779. Their goal was to use the French Navy to blockade the peninsula by sea while the Spanish would do so by land, starving the garrison out. 14,000 Spanish troops blocked the isthmus connecting Gibraltar with the mainland. 

At the time, there were 5,382 officers and men on the Rock, a figure that would rise to over 7,000 by the end of the siege thanks to the intermittent supply ships. These were both British and Hanoverian troops. (Legalistic backflips had been performed by politicians in Britain to keep the crown out of Catholic hands. By the late 18th century, the Hanoverian Dynasty had been firmly established on the British throne, and thus a portion of northern Germany was part of Britain at this time). 

There were also 760 sailors (though this varied depending on how many ships were docked), 1,500 wives and children, and 3,201 British, Moroccan, native Roman Catholic and Jewish civilians. In command of all these people was the Governor-General George Augustus Eliott, otherwise known as 1st Baron Heathfield, or more commonly, the 'Cock of the Rock’.  

map gibraltar
Spainish and British positions during the Great Siege (Picture from 'Gibraltar 1779 - 1783' by Rene Chartrand © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing).

He was well respected, but could not work miracles, and by the autumn of 1779, he was warning the British government (through ferried coded messages) that the blockade was starting to bite.

Supplies of flour, beef and peas would only last, he said in the correspondence, for another five months, while wheat and rice stocks consisted of a mere six weeks’ worth – oatmeal, oil and butter were completely spent. By January 1780 he was talking of the inhabitants of the garrison being near starvation, and that, perhaps a bit comically to a modern eye, “we have wine or strong liquor for near four months only”.

By hook or by crook, the garrison would be urgently resupplied.

A naval cat-and-mouse game ensued as a considerable British fleet of 21 ships-of-the-line under Admiral Sir George Rodney sailed straight around Cadiz. When Spanish Admiral de Cordova heard they were coming, he launched his own fleet to intercept… that is until he heard just how big the British fleet was, at which point he promptly fled back to port.

A second fleet led by Admiral de Langara did engage them in a moonlight battle, but he was defeated and captured and the fleet soon pushed through to the Rock… only for Governor-General Eliott to lament the fact that there was no wine or rum in the stocks they’d brought. (Eliott was a teetotaller himself, but was greatly concerned about the disruption in his men’s drinking habits).

Thankfully, the ‘disruption’ apparently wasn’t an issue as the garrison survived just fine for another six months. 

Then on 7 June 1780, British ships at port were ambushed. Out of the horizon came six Spanish fire ships.

The Navy scrambled – so did the garrison when the sailors fired their guns and woke them up. Rushing to battle stations, the gunners in the rock unleashed bar-shots to rip down the sails and slow the fire ships down.

The fire vessels were eventually intercepted by Royal Navy sailors who hooked them up to long ships and towed them out of the way of the ships in port.

The danger was over, and during the coming months, fast boats slipped past the French and Spanish blockade conveying fruit and vegetables. The garrison would fight a running battle with scurvy throughout its time there, but sympathetic leadership in Portugal and Morocco meant they weren’t entirely alone. As the siege continued, Lisbon would turn into a hotbed for diplomatic intrigue and spies, and the Emperor of Morocco would end up playing both sides off against each other to increase the bribes paid to him.  

The Spanish won the bidding war, and by January 1781 the poor garrison was again strung out on weekly rations of 5 ½ pounds of bread, 13 ounces of salt beef and 18 of salt pork, 2 ½ ounces of butter, 12 ounces of raisins, half a pint of peas and one of Spanish beans.

Thankfully, salvation came in the form of Vice Admiral George Darby, who sailed into the port at Gibraltar at the head of 29 ships-of-the-line and an incredible 100 store ships.

A daring raid

Having failed to hit these relieving ships (the Royal Navy had been careful to stay out of range of the land-based guns), the Spanish resolved to strike at the garrison down the isthmus.

Nervously, the British had to watch from their perch within the caves of the Rock as new earthworks and defensive positions were erected, inching the Spanish lines closer and closer to them.

This was done at night so that British gunners couldn’t see well enough to harass the Spanish effort. As the new lines began to fill with artillery and mortars, Eliott knew it was only a matter of time before his men would be pounded. 

night raid gibraltar
British soldiers embark on a daring night sortie (image from 'Gibraltar 1779 - 1783' by Rene Chartrand © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing).

So, in the early hours of 27 November 1781, 99 officers and 2,435 men crept out along the isthmus in three columns.

Just beyond the enemy’s main lines were 11,000 – 12,000 enemy troops, so the British sortie would have to be conducted quickly and quietly. 

At first, the darkness and their own stealth kept things under wraps, but then lookouts on the new lines saw them coming and all hell broke loose.

Firing their guns to alert their comrades further back over the main wall, the Spanish forward contingent of 600 was forced to retreat as the British force, more than four times their number, rushed them.

The San Carlos battery in the centre was quickly overwhelmed, although, in the confusion, friendly fire was exchanged between men under Lieutenant Colonel Dachenhausen and those under Lieutenant Colonel Hugo, whose men had already taken the battery.

Fortunately for the British, they heard each other’s English and German and saw red coats in the muzzle flash, and the exchange of passwords quickly ensured they correctly identified one another.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Trigge’s column had dashed along the left shore and taken the San Pascual and San Martin batteries.

the rock attack
A map of the sortie with British movements shown by the red arrows (image from 'Gibraltar 1779 - 1783' by Rene Chartrand © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing).

Out of nowhere, the Cock of the Rock appeared and proclaimed: “Is it not extraordinary that we have gained the Enemy’s work so easily?”

The response from the subordinate he was addressing was simply: “The most extraordinary thing is to see you here!”

Governor-General Eliott soon found himself embroiled in trying to convince an obstinate Spanish Walloon Guard to be removed to where his wounds could be treated (by this point in history, respect and care of enemy wounded was the norm, seen as a duty by combatants on both sides). 

Annoyed at his comrades having taken flight so easily, the man refused, saying that “at least one Spaniard shall die honourably”.

With the keys to the ammunition magazine now in British hands, engineers, artificers and sailors who’d come up behind commenced turning the new Spanish lines into rubble.

They used fire faggots (facines – bundles of sticks) to set fire to the magazines of stored ammo, and destroyed the beds and platforms of the guns as well as spiking them. 

As the British dashed back to their lines, huge columns of fire exploded from the burning magazines behind them. Eliott yelled back:

“Look round, my boys, and view how beautiful the Rock appears by the light of glorious fire.”

The British had sustained 30 casualties – 25 wounded, four dead, and one missing. In exchange, they’d managed to venture out beyond a kilometre from their own lines to destroy 100 enemy guns and the Spanish front positions. 

According to Rene Chartrand’s account:

“Tremendous explosions creating mushrooms of smoke and debris destroyed what was left of the Spanish forward lines. It was five in the morning, ‘just before the break of day’ wrote Governor Eliott. One of the most famous sorties in British military history had come to an end.”

From army left jab to naval right hook

If Gibraltar’s garrison refused to surrender then striking somewhere else might work instead.

The Spanish and French leadership turned their attention to another nearby target.

Assembling an enormous combined fleet, the Allies turned their attention to Minorca where, this time, their blockade worked. After being starving out for several months, Governor James Murray was forced to surrender. 

The British had looked the other way and lost their only Mediterranean base.

Knowing the huge Armada that had been assembled to surround and choke off Minorca would next be used re-invigorate the siege at Gibraltar, Governor-General Eliott resolved to bolster his defences.

The garrison used what supplies they’d managed to salvage over the last three years (it was now May 1782) and they constructed 12 gunboats, each crewed by 21 and hauling several 18 or 24-pounder cannons.

It was these men, patrolling near the enemy shore at Algeciras, who discovered floating batteries being constructed and the arrival of 12 French ships-of-the-line on 14 June that were hauling 4,000 extra troops.

The Rock

By this point, the land-based Spanish army had swelled to 28,000 troops anyway, but they simply weren’t able to break through the isthmus. The Rock gave the defenders too much of an advantage in gunnery.

The extra troops were an invasion force. Spanish King Carlos III had relinquished executive control of the assault to French King Louis XVI, and Louis intended to break Gibraltar by sea.

And what a spectacle it would be, drawing French princes and army officers on leave, who watched it out of curiosity from a safe distance:

“As it was a static siege, there was no danger of great movement. A gentleman and his lady would be in no danger only a few kilometres away, leisurely watching the proceedings from the nearby hills while sitting in a shaded veranda, sipping a glass of wine with a snack of the delicious local olives. By the end of August 1782, there were increasing numbers of fashionable gentry making something of a ‘Grand Tour’ of southern Spain, taking up residence in the hills to see the bombardment and actions in and about Gibraltar a few kilometres to the south, a thrilling and yet perfectly safe activity.”

With staff officers, engineers, sappers, and naval personnel, the combined Spanish-French military presence continued to swell to a massive 35,000. There was more than twice that number of curious onlookers.

A gunnery duel started with the land-based Spanish, Governor-General Eliott and his deputy General Boyd using the elevation of the Rock to full effect, again smashing the Spanish lines at the end of the isthmus.

But this was just a diversion.

The colossus coming by sea

Many of the 80,000 spectators from across Spain and France that had poured into the area were now filling a grandstand built specifically for them.

The garrison was watching out too – for any sign of relief from the Royal Navy. 

Unfortunately, when sails did appear on the horizon, they soon realised it wasn't British ships approaching them.

It was Spanish admiral Luis de Cordova coming right for them.

He was at the helm of a massive fleet with 10 other Spanish and French admirals under him.

The Armada was made up of a whopping 47 ships-of-the-line, three frigates, “plus five bomb ketches (ships with mortars for bombarding positions on land), three frigates, a number of smaller vessels and support ships... (ten floating batteries, and the small Spanish gunboats) that were always at Algeciras. Nearly 300 boats to carry the troops (had also) been constructed”.

On 13 September 1782, ram ships and wooden gunboats drifted to the front of the pack, ready to bludgeon the garrison, and deposit the first invaders ashore at the city of Gibraltar.

All hell broke loose as the ships and gunners sheltered in the caves exchanged fire. As always, the Rock gave terrific protection, but many gunners there also found their shots to be ineffective – bouncing off the tough wooden hulls of the distant gunboats.

Eliott ordered the preparation of red-hot shot, which entailed heating cannon balls in makeshift ovens for several hours.

(Red-hot shot was generally not used on ships, for fear of setting them alight, but it could be used effectively by land-based gunners).

The ships opposite had been anchored to steady their aim on the garrison, but this in turn allowed round-after-around to be fired at them without re-aiming, something Eliott’s men exploited once their rounds had been sufficiently heated. 

This got tiring for the firers, of course. Chartrand reminds us:

“Handling red-hot shot amidst smoke, in the vicinity of furnace-like grates and piles of flaming red-hot embers mixed with cannon balls under a hot sun, made the men very thirsty. Water was at times in short supply and some men carrying pails would go to fountains, ducking the enemy’s shot, to get water.”

But eventually, the lethally hot ammo did its work, setting the gunboats alight.

Two exploded in the early morning of 14 September, and with Admiral de Cordova refusing to send his other ships in support, everyone around the bay was left to witness the awful sights and sounds of these ships burning with sailors trapped aboard (many sailors actually couldn’t swim in those days).

British gunboats moved in to try and rescue some of these poor men, in some cases actually boarding the burning ships to carry wounded men off. But they were only partially successful:

"At about five in the morning, the flames reached the powder magazine in one of the floating batteries and it blew up in a tremendous explosion that made a huge noise and produced a mushroom-like cloud of smoke."

It also didn’t help that lack of communication between the sea and land-based Allied forces meant that the guns at the isthmus were fired like clockwork at 8 o’clock that morning, sending the fragile British gunboats scrambling back to shore with only the 357 Spanish sailors they’d managed to rescue.


These men, along with their British captors, now had to watch those left behind visibly signalling for help from the rooftops of the burning boats.

The ‘grand attack’ had ended in ruin, with 1,473 French and Spanish men killed, wounded, or missing (on top of those captured) to a mere 15 killed and 68 wounded on the British side.

A flag of truce

Following the trauma of the siege, Admiral Lord Howe and his ship HMS Victory were a welcome sight to those holed up at Gibraltar.

Resupplied with food, weapons, and troops, the garrison was now even more strongly positioned, and the enemy knew it.

On 2 February 1783, Spanish and British vessels flying flags of truce met in the bay, the Spaniards crying out "Todos amigos!" - which translates to: "We are all friends."

After three years, seven months, and 12 days, it was time for a ceasefire.

Over the course of the siege, the British garrison had fired over 57,000 cannonballs, more than 129,000 mortar and howitzer shells, 12,000 plus grapeshot shells, 679 light balls, and an additional 4,700 shots from British boats. That led to a grand total of well over 200,000 rounds of artillery (more than 160 for each day of the siege). This ammunition had required 8,000 barrels of gunpowder to fire it all.

The Spanish, as the attacking force, had topped this, with a total of 258,387 – most of these were mortar and heavy calibre rounds.

Three hundred and thirty-three of the garrison force were killed in action, 911 were wounded, and 536 died of disease. Estimates of enemy losses put them at around 3,752.

The Rock would go on to be used as a base from which to retake Minorca in 1798, but it was handed over to Spain in 1802. However, by this point, Malta had been acquired by the British instead.

Britain and Spain would be enemies again by 1804, coming into the Napoleonic Wars on opposite sides. This led to another famous maritime engagement, this time near Cadiz – the Battle of Trafalgar.

When Napoleon stepped over the proverbial line by trying to install his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, the British and Spanish again buried the hatchet and fought alongside one another to defeat him.

Old postcard of Gibraltar depicting Grand Casemates Square and the Moorish Castle from 1909 probably not changed much
A postcard from 1909 showing Grand Casemates Square and the Moorish Castle.

Still, Gibraltar has remained a source of disagreement between the two countries, and Franco might have been more open to trying to re-acquire it at Hitler’s prompting had the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War not exhausted his country.

Today, Gibraltar’s inhabitants remain determinedly British, having resisted calls for shared Gibraltarian sovereignty by the UK and Spain.

For more on the history of Gibraltar read 'Gibraltar 1779 - 1783' by Rene Chartrand, and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Cover image: John Singleton Copley, ‘The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar’, 1783 © Tate; CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

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