Adkins, Roy and Lesley. GIBRALTAR: The Greatest Siege in British History. New York: Viking, 2018.
When Americans think about the War for Independence, they regularly cite Boston at the outset of the rebellion and Yorktown near the end as the two game-changing sieges. However, the most overlooked and arguably most important siege was the one contested at Gibraltar. The longest siege in British history pitted a massive combined Spanish and French force against an undersized British garrison cut off from regular sources of food and armaments.
Stretched almost beyond their capacities, the British devoted enormous numbers of ships and men to periodically resupplying Gibraltar which were critically needed to support reconquering North America. For example, if these British naval units were available in North American waters in 1781, the French might not have been able to establish naval superiority in the Chesapeake region leading to the disastrous surrender of the isolated British Army at Yorktown. In the long run, this outwardly suboptimal decision to strongly defend a few kilometers of barren rock did prove vital in subsequent, more dangerous conflicts. In the ensuing Napoleonic Wars, Gibraltar proved essential to defeating the French Navy in the Mediterranean and to maintaining trade routes with India and the Middle East. This is another example of how difficult and sometimes seemingly illogical decisions do follow a country’s true national interests.
A British wife and husband team re-tells the story of this four-year siege backed up with primary sources research supported by copious footnotes. The Adkins provide the second full study of the Revolutionary War conflict at Gibraltar in the 21st century (see below for a list of books on Gibraltar). Similar to other accounts, much of the description of the siege comes from published diaries of the participants. Logically, sieges provide ample time for participants to write comprehensive and compelling diaries. These diaries include both British officers and civilians, which form the core of the book’s narrative. While the Adkin’s do cite a few French and Spanish sources, a richer description would result from telling portions of the story from a French and Spanish perspective.
Not interested in aiding American freedom, the Spanish entered the war principally to recover Gibraltar. Spain devoted huge numbers of soldiers and naval forces to the siege. An innovative French engineer convinced the commanders to build a new type of bomb-proof ship –early version of the iron clad to destroy the British artillery and open the way for an infantry assault. However, the British did not stand still and developed new artillery techniques of their own including gun carriages which were able to shoot downward from the Rock of Gibraltar. In a spectacular cannonade, the French/Spanish bombproof ships moved into position to attack. However, poor cooperation between the Spanish and French naval units doomed the attack with horrific losses of sailors to the deadly British bombardment. After this attack, the garrison was never under threat of serious assault through the end of the war.
The Adkin’s credit George Elliot, the singular British military commander and civilian leader for the victory. While conflict existed among the British officers, just like in North America, Elliot grasped a firm hand on command and everyone knew who was in charge. Also like North America, the British deployed hired German troops to supplement British troops and remarkably a steady stream of desertions vexed commanders on both sides.
In the end, the Adkin’s team relies on many of the sources of earlier books and does not offer new research. However, their book is very well written and is the best among all of the previous books on Gibraltar. As in these earlier accounts, they tell the story from a British perspective. Adding French/Spanish perspectives would derive a richer and more interesting account. Perhaps more research from French or Spanish Archives would result in answers to interesting questions. Why were the besiegers not more aggressive at the beginning of the siege, Why, when they began bombardment, did they not shoot that much, with sometimes only a few volleys a day. Why didn’t they conduct a land assault? Why didn’t the French and Spanish cooperate more?
Even with these limitations, I highly recommend Adkins’ book. It is the most comprehensive of the previous accounts and is well written and scholarly supported. And finally, all those interested in the American Revolutionary War should understand the implication of the siege of Gibraltar and other global conflicts on the outcome of the war in North America. For that alone, this book is well worth picking up.
Adkins, Roy, and Leslie Adkins. GIBRALTAR: The Greatest Siege in British History. S.l.: VIKING, 2018.
Chartrand, René. Gibraltar, 1779-83: The Great Siege. Campaign 172. Oxford ; New York: Osprey, 2006.
Falkner, James. Fire over the Rock: The Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1779-1783. Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Military, 2009.
McGuffie, T.H. The Siege of Gibraltar – 1779-1783. Philadelphia: Dufour Editions, 1965.
Russell, Jack. Gibraltar Besieged 1779-1783. London: Heinemann, 1965.