The People of Gibraltar
1781 - The Sortie - Cold and Raining

Drinkwater, Cornwell and Ancell - Spilsbury, Poggi and Heriot
Trumbull, Pouncy and Eliott - Barboza, Vasquez and Helmstadt

On the 26th of November 1781, General George Augustus Eliott, Governor of Gibraltar, ordered that all the wine shops of the Rock should be closed by 6 o'clock. After midnight, a detachment of sober British volunteers passed through the gates of Land Port and into yet another page of the military history of the Rock. It was cold and it had been raining all day. The intention was to surprise the besiegers on the isthmus that joined Rock to the mainland and to destroy their newly created advance fortifications. Where possible, they also intended to spike their guns.

Meticulously planned by General Eliott, the Governor of Gibraltar, and led by Brigadier General Ross, the assault - which eventually came to be known as the 'Sortie' - proved so successful on all counts that it was described by John Heriot in his Historical Sketch of Gibraltar as 'An Enterprise without example in the Annals of Military Service. . .'

 
British Officers in the Convent planning the finer details of the Sortie. The white-wigged central figure is supposed to be General Boyd, Eliott's lieutenant Governor (1785 - George Carter)

Probably the first account ever published about what happened during the Sortie was that of Captain John Drinkwater (see LINK) who recorded all the finer military details in his History of the Great Siege. According to Drinkwater the assault began rather inauspiciously. Despite a deliberately stealthy approach into enemy territory the Spanish sentries discovered the advance column before it had managed to negotiate Forbes' Barrier - in other word almost before they had even had a chance to leave the Rock.

A contemporary of Drinkwater, by the name of Cornwell, (see LINK) included an account of the Sortie - which he referred to as a 'sally' - in his Description of Gibraltar. Being a civilian, Cornwell's version gives far fewer military details than Drinkwater's but confirms that opening shots were fired almost immediately. In his opinion the shots by the Spanish sentinels were misinterpreted by their colleagues elsewhere on the Spanish Lines. They thought they were firing at troops deserting to the Garrison. Desertions either to or from Gibraltar were an almost nightly occurrence.


The Rock of Gibraltar. The tower in the middle of the picture is the Torre del Molino. It stood roughly in the center of where most of the action of the Sortie took place- and destroyed by it  (1782 - John Mace)

Drinkwater's blow by blow description of the engagement occupies twelve pages of his famous book and starts with a lengthy account of what might have been a costly blunder. One of the regiments lost their way as they pressed forward in the dark and found themselves unexpectedly in front of the main San Carlos Battery. Meeting some resistance they nevertheless continued to attack forcing the enemy to retreat.

Unfortunately one of the Hanoverian officers, Lieutenant Colonel Dachenhausen, heading another company, arrived at the battery from a different direction and - 'naturally mistaking the British soldiers for his opponents, fired and wounded several'. A good 18th century example of the unpleasant effects of 'friendly fire'. It would prove to be their last and only bit of 'bad luck' on the night.

Elsewhere Eliott's troops encircled the forward positions which were their main target. These were semi-permanent constructions mostly made of wood and earth. Their purpose was to enable the Spanish guns to lie closer to British targets on the Rock. They were built with protection in mind as the enemy were always at a disadvantage against the higher placed guns of the Rock and they were not really designed for defence against a determined attack by land. For this the Spaniards depended on the massive fortifications of la Línea de la Contravalación which lay a few hundred meters further north.


Map of the isthmus showing the main Spanish fortifications of la Línea de la Contravalación with the forward batteries projecting from southward from them. Right in the middle labelled G is the main San Carlos Battery. La Torre del Molino is described as 'the Old Windmill  ( 1785 - J. Cheevers - detail )    

Taking advantage of these and other factors Eliott's troops took up their positions so as to 'repel any attempt which the enemy might make to prevent the destruction of the works' - for that indeed was the name of the game. Unable to resist a gleeful tone to creep into his writing Drinkwater tells us that within 'an hour the object of the sortie was fully effected'. Cannons were spiked, earthworks dug up, timber set alight - the destruction was complete. 'The exertions of the workmen and the artillery 'were wonderful' and the columns of fire and smoke 'beautifully illuminated the troop'.

Yet another contemporary witness was Lieutenant Samuel Ancell (see LINK) who more or less confirms Drinkwater's account. He provides rather less detail but adds a few observations of his own. When the guns were being spiked with 'tomahawks, devils and warlike combustibles' one of the canon went off by accident sending a shell southward - which must have caused some consternation to the British. But again luck was on the side of the angels and nobody was either killed or injured. As regards numbers both Drinkwater and Ancell put the ordnance spiked at ten thirteen inch mortars, and eighteen twenty-six pounders. 


One of two pictures painted in 1791 on one of the patio walls of the Convent and known as the Marshman Murals. This one shows soldiers taking part in the Sortie. 'Tomahawks, devils and warlike combustibles' are very much in evidence.

On the whole Ancell tends to be less critical of the enemy than Drinkwater, attributing their failure to stop the assault both on the element of surprise - or as he put it , 'not apprehending so unexpected a visit' - and the speed with which the soldiers carried out their tasks. As he wrote to his brother, 'The enemy only recovered their surprise, and beat to arms, when the detachment was repassing the Landport Gate, so you will say we were expeditious in destruction'. As well as extraordinarily lucky, he might have added.


Land Port Gate drawn by somebody who was there at the time. Governor Eliott is jokingly shown as a wizard keeping guard over the place. Just below the gate is the 'Sally Port'. It is possible that it is through here that the troops marched out to battle rather than the more obvious Land Port Gate ( 1781 - John Spilsbury)

Ancell does not mention the San Carlos battery episode - presumably because he was not part of the Sortie itself but was rather involved in firing at the enemy from Witham's Battery which even at night-time must have given him a good bird's eye view of the whole affair. In a subsequent letter to his brother he confirms the death of the Spanish officer who was wounded while defending San Carlos.

When Brigadier Ross finally decided that enough was enough and ordered the advanced corps to withdraw, he found that the entrance to Forbes's barrier was locked. It was more or less at that moment that by yet another stroke of good luck - bad if you happened to be the enemy - a small quantity of powder caught fire and set the main magazine alight. None of the British troops were injured but the resulting blaze did much to dramatise the Sortie for posterity. As a distraction it couldn't have been improved upon and it allowed the troops to regroup and exit via Bayside.

The Spanish Batteries at the time of the Sortie - although they can hardly be seen. To the left of the Inundation is a narrow causeway that leads to the Bayside Barrier, the one to the right to Forbes Barrier. (1781 - Roberts)   (see LINK

Ancell - oddly enough - fails to comment on this little contretemps but does mention that Captain Witham presented Eliott with the keys to the Spanish magazine and that he had taken from a Spanish officer. The implication here is that the explosion of the main magazine had not been an accident. Whatever the case It must have been a massive explosion and was probably the reason behind Cornwell's description; 'a most dreadful conflagration . . . so great indeed that all the north part of the hill of Gibraltar was illuminated by it.'

General Eliott must have been ecstatic - 'Look round, my boys,' he is reputed to have said, 'and view how beautiful the rock appears by the light of this glorious fire'. To add to his delight he was apparently in no danger from the enemy. Despite Drinkwater's assurance to the contrary, the Spanish batteries had by now thrown caution to the wind and were attempting to bombard the area occupied by the British and Hanoverian troops - even at the expense of hitting a few of their own.

They were wasting their time. The guns on the Spanish lines were designed to shoot up towards the higher Rock batteries. As Ansell was quick to notice, 'their cannon for want of being sufficiently depressed, had not the desired effect' and most of their shot flew over everybody's head. A curious irony when one considers that one of the main ordnance problems for the British had always been that they couldn't get their guns to depress low enough to fire from the heights of the Rock on to the enemy below. Until, of course, Lieutenant Koehler had come up with his nifty solution. But the Spaniards had never paid too much attention to this new-fangled technology . They had never had any need for it.



Lieutenant Koehler's Depressing Carriage

As regards the number of people guarding the advanced fortifications, Drinkwater puts this at one captain, three subalterns and seventy four privates. Of these, two officers and fifteen privates were taken prisoner. On the British side both Drinkwater and Ancell give very detailed figures as to the size of the detachments that took part in the Sortie as well as the number of soldiers in the Garrison at the time. Up to a point so does Spilsbury. All the figures differ slightly from one another. One of the reasons for this anomaly is that the number of British sailors involved seems to have been something of an unknown quantity.

 

Garrison strength and number of troops  taking part in the Sortie ( Drinkwater (top) and Ancell )   

Nevertheless a safe estimate would be that around 1700 British and 600 Hanoverian troops took part in the Sortie. Several Spanish accounts bandy figures ranging from a modest 2000 in total to an extravagant 4100 men taking part but the higher figures can safely be dismissed as exaggerations.

As regards the Garrison itself, there were roughly 5000 soldiers stationed on the Rock which meant that close to a third of the entire force - a half if we remove those who were in hospital - were involved in the Sortie. On the enemy side various Spanish authorities suggest about 14000 men living rough in leaky tents in Campamento. A Walloon guard who deserted shortly before the Sortie puts the figure at a rather unbelievable 21000. The truth is that continuous troop movements from the Campo to elsewhere - as well as an engrained bureaucratic incompetence on the part of the enemy - makes it almost impossible to make out exactly how many enemy soldiers were present during the Sortie.


Annotated Rock showing Spanish tents in Campamento well away from the main forts. The advanced batteries are not shown as they had not yet been built  ( 1779 - Vicente Fernández de Ruiloba )    (see LINK

Eliott, however, is reputed to have believed implicitly the information offered by the Walloon deserter, and he and his lieutenant, General Boyd, are said to have made full use of this while planning the Sortie. It gave them a clear description of the works on the isthmus as well as the strength of its guards.

Casualties on the British side were light, four privates were killed as well as Lieutenant Tweedie. Twenty-four non-commissioned officers and privates were wounded and Lieutenant Colonel Tovey apparently died before leaving the Neutral Ground - whether from his wounds or from a heart attack is not clear. None were taken prisoner.

There are no British records of Spanish casualties other than that of a lieutenant of the Spanish Artillery Captain who died defending the San Carlos battery and another of an officer of the Walloon Guards - Captain Baron von Helmstadt- who was captured and died later of his wounds. Spanish histories wisely tend to give these figures a miss but on the evidence of such a small defending force and the fact that the enemy generally opted to retreat rather than fight, the number of casualties were probably very light.

But perhaps it would be best to return to John Spilsbury, Captain of the 12th Regiment of Foot, author of 'A Journal of the Siege of Gibraltar' and who unlike everybody else mentioned so far, wrote not from hearsay but from personal experience as he at least, actually took part in the Sortie. His name appears in the Garrison orders of the day as one of the officers who were relieved of all other duties for the 27th of December. They were to join their regiments in order to take part in the assault. His very concise record of the event is worth quoting in full:
27th November 1781 - 'Wind and weather the same. - it was cold and raining. About 12 last night a detachment of the Garrison assembled on the Red Sands, and waited for the moon's going down at about 3 am when they marched out at Land Port under the command of Governor (?) by the name of Brigadier Ross, and attacked, burnt and destroyed the Don's New, and Advanced Barriers, and returned to their quarters before daylight, with the loss of only 4 killed and 17 wounded and 1 (Rheden's) (stet) missing: one 12th, two Hardenburg's and one 73rd killed, Lieut. Tweedy, 12th, 4 sailors and a serjeant of the 39th wounded. Two officers were brought in with 10 privates prisoners. 
28th December 1781 - Wind the same, and rain.. . . . The Works still on fire . . . the Dons threw up a rocket and continued incessant fire . . . supposing our second attack.'
And that - apart from a scribbled plan - is just about all he has to say about the event.


Captain John Spilsbury's contemporary plan of the Sortie

As for Spanish views on the Sortie these are roughly in line with those of British commentators - with of course a difference in emphasis. Francisco María Montero (see LINK) in his Historia de Gibraltar, confirms most of the military details but offers a different perspective:
Aunque caminaban muy en silencio y con tácitos pasos, al llegar a las obras avanzadas fueron sentidos por los centinelas de las trincheras y se dio la voz de alarma en toda la línea. La columna de Hugo dando un rodeo por el extremó de la paralela ataco vigorosamente a la batería de morteros de San Carlos y logro incendiarla; las otras dos columnas embistieron también a las otras baterías y desmontaron alguna piezas y destrozaron municiones y pertrechos. Pero reforzados las guarniciones rechazaron con coraje y bravura a los enemigos, obligándolo a volver con alguna perdida.
In other words, 'Aquí no pasó nada' - not quite as dismissive as the report of the Spanish Commanding Officer which was found inside one of the batteries on the night of the Sortie. Addressed to his superior officer it stated - somewhat prematurely - that 'nothing extraordinary' had happened that night.

Another Spanish Historian, Lieutenant Colonel Angel Maria Monti writes off the Sortie as a waste of time suggesting that the main aim had been to reconnoitre the newly built defences - which he also considers as 'de muy poca consideración militar.' In a nutshell, from a Spanish point of view the Sortie may have caused considerable damage but in the final analysis it was a relatively minor skirmish.

As regards the aftermath, Drinkwater opts for a tone of contempt for an enemy that apparently made no attempt to put out the fires or try to repair the damage and generally failed to make an appearance on the following day. Cornwell, on the other hand, supplies a plausible excuse; the vast amounts of timber used in the construction of the advanced lines meant that the entire area had become an inferno which continued to burn not just the following day but for several afterwards. There was also another factor. Having been taken so much by surprise by the assault, the enemy was determined not to be caught out by a second attempt. Badly damaged fortifications were not the best place to be if the British decided on a repeat performance.

Drinkwater, Cornwell, Ansell and Spilsbury were not the only ones who recorded the events of the Sortie. Others such as A.C. Poggi, John Heriot and John Trumbull possibly did even more in popularising the story of the assault than anybody else, although none of them were actually in Gibraltar at the time. Their evidence was based on hearsay supplied by people who had an axe to grind and were therefore almost certainly inclined to exaggerate and misquote.

Spilsbury, curiously enough, indirectly mentions Poggi in his diary entry of the 5th of August. A 'draughtsman' had arrived from 'the City of London to draw' Gibraltar 'and the Governor'. Spilsbury thought it idle gossip but in fact just such a person in the shape of Antonio Cesare Poggi - invariably known as A.C.Poggi - had in fact arrived in the Garrison.

Although originally from Florence, Poggi had married an English girl and had established himself in Britain as a an artist and later as an art dealer. According to John Heriot, author of An Historical Sketch of Gibraltar, Poggi spent ten months in Gibraltar. During his time there General Eliott ' did him the honour to say' that 'he regarded him as one of his family.' He was also allowed access to Eliott's Quarter-Master-General and his Aide de Camps, and was shown Lieutenant Koehler's plan of the Sortie. 


General George Augustus Eliott, Governor of Gibraltar and eventually 1st Baron Heathfield ( John Singleton Copley )  (See LINK)

The end result of his visit was a detailed engraving showing not just troop movements and positions but also a series of sketches showing episodes that had taken place during the Sortie. Heriot also mentions that Poggi's father had served in the army of 'an Italian Sovereign' and that some of this had rubbed off on to his son - the inference being that the military accuracy of Poggi's engraving could be taken as given.

For unknown reasons Poggi's principle engraving was left unpublished until eight years after he had left Gibraltar. There also appear to be several versions of Poggi's work.




Two of A.C. Poggi's engravings of the Sortie. The only real difference between them is the addition of an explanatory strip at the bottom describing various events that took place during the Sortie. It seems possible that these two engravings were preliminary 'sketches' for the much more formal engraving which was produced shortly afterwards  (See LINK


Benjamin Thomas Pouncy's definitive engraving of the Sortie based on Poggi's work and presumably commissioned by him     (See LINK

A quick comparison between Pouncy's work and Poggi's original reveals that the later contains several interesting embellishments. The advanced fortifications have been given a more robust appearance, the Spanish cavalry have increased in number and the main Spanish lines - La Línea de la Contravalación - seem to have either been set on fire by members of the Sortie or have received direct hits from the British batteries.

A year after having published Pouncy's engraving, Poggi found himself in London strolling down Oxford street in the company of John Trumbell, an American artist with whom he seems to have been both publisher and agent - as well as a good friend. It was early evening.


John Trumbull ( 1777 - Self Portrait )

Trumbull had yet to make a real name himself as an artist, although he would one day achieve notoriety in Britain because of his well known painting of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown at the end of the American War of Independence. It was a picture that seems to have given huge offence to any number of people in England - something that adds a certain piquancy to the story of the Sortie, as the loss of the American colonies is very much linked to British efforts to defend the Rock during the Great Siege.




The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown - The picture that understandably gave offence to the British - Cornwallis didn't attend the ceremony claiming to be ill and General O'Hara, who would later become Governor of Gibraltar, did so in his place -That's him with the red jacket on the left ( John Trumbull )

As the two friends walked home, Poggi apparently told him of his experiences in Gibraltar and - crucially - about his engraving of the Sortie. When Trumbull returned to his lodgings near the Adelphi Theatre, he made a small sketch of one of the scenes described by Poggi - the death of the Spanish Artillery Captain, Don José de Balzan. It was a picture that pleased him -a subject which offered not only the 'gallant conduct and death of the Spanish commander' but also:
. . a scene of deep interest to the feelings, and in contrast of the darkness of the night, with the illuminations of an extensive conflagration, great splendour of effect and colour.
Unfortunately he made a mistake. He dressed the officer in white and scarlet thinking it to be the uniform of the Spanish artillery. A second study he also found unsatisfactory, but he persisted and produced a third and final picture, six foot high by nine wide.

It was exhibited at the Spring Garden Room at the entrance to St James' Park and was an instant success. The military were particularly impressed - but not all of them. Lord Moira, the Marquis of Hastings and later Minister at War heard of the painting during a dinner party at which he had invited a number of high army officers. When the picture became part of the conversation the name of the artist cropped up.

According to a friend of Trumbull who was present at the party, Lord Moira is reputed to have said 'Gentleman, nothing ever done by that man ought ever to be patronised by members of the British Army.' Others, however, disagreed. Horace Walpole considered Trumbull's picture a masterpiece.


The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar - The focal point of the painting is the death of a Spanish officer mortally wounded during the Sortie - Trumbull portrays him rejecting the aid of General Eliott, the commander of the British troops - Although Pogggi must have given Trumbull the name of the fallen officer, the artist did not include it in the title of the picture    ( 1789 John Trumbull )   (See LINK)

More than a decade after the Sortie had taken place, John Heriot published his Historical Sketch. In his 'Advertisement' at the start of the book he advises his readers that: 
Of the Sortie which, in truth, is the principal object of this work, the Author has been enabled from the collective information of a number of Officers engaged on that important Service, communicated to him by Mr. Poggi, to give a more minute and circumstantial detail than has yet been offered to the world.
It did indeed, but unfortunately it was also mostly hearsay twice removed - as well as a tendency to amplify minor events. It also includes a lengthy postscript explaining Pouncy's engravings in detail and with a noticeable difference in writing styles between the sections dealing with the Sortie and those dealing with anything else. The latter is written in a reasonably matter of fact manner in which both friend and foe are given their due. The second, even by the flowery standards of 18th century prose, is history as hagiography .



The complete title of Heriot's book

Heriot takes every oportunity to enhance the ingenuity, bravery and humanity of the assailants in contrast to the cowardice and incompetence of the enemy. The number of guards defending the advanced fortifications is increased to 410 as against Drinkwater's 70 odd, including a long rational as to why this number must be the correct one. On the other hand, the assailants were drawn from 'a weak and sickly Garrison' whereas the enemy were backed by 'an army of 14 000 men'.

Drinkwater's 17 prisoners he makes out to be 19 and the rather ramshackle San Carlos battery he considers to be a 'stupendous work'. Overall he calculates that the cost to the Spaniards of the general mayhem was the 'enormous sum of 'Thirteen Million large Piastres' - or three million pounds' - a substantial increase over the amounts claimed by all other commentators. It is a sum that today would be worth well over four billion US dollars, an amount that almost certainly exceeded the entire annual national budget of Spain at the time.

He also implies that the destruction caused by the Sortie made a mockery of the sacrifices made by the enemy during the creation of the forts. He puts the number of enemy casualties at '5000 men killed by fire from the Garrison', as well as those 'who died from distempers occasioned by excessive fatigue . . .' This in contrast with equally unbelievable Spanish boasts that not a single man had been lost during their construction.


Stylized representation of the building of the advanced batteries. The Spanish text boasts - among other things - that it took ten thousand men to shift the one million six hundred thousand sacks of earth that were required to complete the final barrier. Not a single man was lost in its construction. Somewhat anachronistically the picture shows the Duc of Crillon on the bottom left. In fact he had not yet been put in command of the enemy forces as he was still engaged in fighting the British - with some success - in Minorca  ( 1780s - Juan Palomino )    (See LINK


Another stylised representation this time of the Floating Batteries fiasco which took place well over a year later. Optimistically the artist seems to imply that the Sortie had done little damage to the advanced works   ( 1780s - Juan Palomino )  (See LINK)

Heriot also expands on various anecdotes which are merely touched upon by others. The unarmed British Captain Witham takes on an armed Spanish artillery officer - Don Vicente Vasquez - takes him prisoner and asks him to hand over the key to the main magazine of the San Carlos battery. Don Vicente's answer is given in rather bad Spanish - ' Siegnor, todo es Bomba' - by which one must presume that there was no key and no magazine as such - the entire battery was itself a magazine. It is a tale that seems to contradict Ancell's story of Captain Witham formally presenting Eliott with the keys to a Spanish magazine just after it blew up. Whatever the case a key does exist. The original is in the British Army Museum in Chelsea.

As regards Don Vicente, several months after the end of the Sortie, he was sent to England as a prisoner of war. Eliott paid 15 guineas for his 'table'. Appropriately he also received enough money to buy himself a copy of the '2nd edition of Don Quixote's works.'

Another anecdote is that of Tweedie, the officer who was killed in action. Having 'received a grapeshot' which broke his thigh, Tweedie nevertheless kept himself in his post 'on the other knee and his spontoon'. Even more attractively he was discovered by Eliott who was duly impressed and ordered him to be assisted and taken back to the Garrison. He didn't make it.

The only soldier of the 73rd who was killed in action is also given heroic treatment - although Heriot is apologetically unable to name him. He was the first to climb to the top of the battery and was seriously wounded by a Spanish Captain of Artillery.

Although Heriot does not make this clear it is almost certain that this is the Captain who is supposed to have been mortally wounded while defending the fort of San Carlos. In other words the man who forms the centre piece of John Trumbull's picture of the Siege. According to Heriot he had been left on his own after his troops had abandoned him. When approached by Eliott - who seems to have managed to find himself in the right place and at the right time throughout the Sortie - the Spaniard is reputed to have said - 'No sir, no, Leave me. Let me perish amidst the ruins of my post. At least one Spaniard will die honourably.' Heriot gives him a name - Captain Don José de Barboza

The story of the other major enemy casualty - Captain Baron von Helmstadt - is also dealt with in full and includes a eulogy to the two soldiers who carried him back to the garrison. They were, wrote Heriot, 'characteristic of the generous disposition of a British soldier towards a vanquished enemy . . . '

Helmstadt's injuries required serious treatment - his leg needed to be amputated. The Baron refused on the grounds that he was about to be married and 'would rather risk his life than present himself before her on one leg.' Eliott persuaded him to change his mind and the Surgeons carried out the operation. During his illness flags of truce were the order of the day and the commander of the Spanish land forces, Álvarez de Sotomayor, sent in food and refreshments for Helmstadt. Unfortunately the captain died a few days later.

The return of the corpse to Spain proved a massive occasion in which just about everybody who was anybody in the Garrison took part. Anything that had been sent over by Sotomayor and had been left unused - including a few chickens - were returned 'even to the minutest detail.'

As regards light relief, Drinkwater's mention of the Scotsman of the 73rd who had lost his 'kelt' is offered by Heriot as one of those 'little derangements which generally attend Night expedition of this nature.' Eliott apparently made the usual jokes and later presented the soldier with a commission in a veteran regiment. 

From a British point of view Heriot's account is a very attractive story and justifies his premise that the Sortie was 'an Enterprise without example in the Annals of Military Service. . .' But he does leave several questions unanswered. 

For example, why on earth did Eliott, a man of intelligence and undoubted courage but not one given to taking unnecessary risks jeopardize nearly half his troops on what was essentially a very dubious enterprise? Or perhaps an even more pertinent question - what exactly did he want to achieve?

In my opinion the answer to the first question is quite simple. Eliott only decided to take on the Sortie after he had made very sure that there was in fact very little risk and every chance of success and planned it accordingly down to the last detail - '36 rounds of ammunition with a good flint in his piece and another in his pocket.'

His conversations with the Walloon deserters convinced him that the number of enemy troops guarding the advanced batteries were not the 5000 men suggested by some. They were not even the 410 suggested by Heriot but almost certainly a mere 78 in total. Whatever the actual number it was small enough to reassure him that a surprise assault by well over 2500 men would almost certainly prevail. 

He also knew from simple observation that the defences around the main guns had as yet to be replaced by sandbags. Made of wooden fascines and gabions he knew they were highly inflammable. He could also see that the area to the east of the San Carlos battery was unfinished and mostly made of 'espaldones'. In fact - although presumably Eliott was unaware of it, this was the area where most of the gunpowder was kept - hence the 'todo es bomba' comment by CaptainVasquez.

He also knew that the response from the main enemy forces would be slow and confused. The element of surprise would ensure that enemy commanders - who had invariably proved even more cautious than he was - would take their time before attempting a counterattack on an assault in the middle of the night.


Map showing San Carlos and other batteries. The faint line identified as 18 is the section made of 'espaldones' (1781 - José Portillo )   (See LINK

But perhaps the main reason why Eliott decided to take the risk - however minimum - of carrying out his Sortie into enemy lines was because he felt he had to. The second relief of Gibraltar by Admiral Darby had taken place a good nine months previously.

The Admiral's much admired relief of the Rock during the Siege came at a price. While he was busy re-provisioning Gibraltar he relaxed his blockade of the port of Brest. The French Admiral de Grasse slipped out of the harbour, crossed the Atlantic and defeated the British squadron at Chesapeake Bay.

It ensured that British reinforcements were unable to help the British army in America and led to the surrender of General Cornwallis. It was the most significant defeat for the British Royal Navy in the almost 400 years. In fact it is the opinion of many modern historians that the Great Siege of Gibraltar was won at the expense of the American colonies.

Eliott was well aware of this. He knew that both the war in general and the Siege in particular - were not going Britain's way. Moral inside the Garrison was low, indiscipline was rife after the discovery of hidden supplies of food and drink. A large number of the civilian population had left Gibraltar when Darby returned home. It meant that the rank and file had been forced to take on many of the menial tasks normally carried out by civilians as well as their own military duties. They did not like it. Also by the time Eliott had decided to go ahead with his plan no less than 700 of his men were considered to be too sick to carry out any duties whatsoever.

Eliott had also noticed that the Spanish guns had been relatively silent for several months and that there had been a considerable diminution in the number of enemy troops facing Gibraltar. He knew why. They had gone to join the Duc de Crillon and his joint Franco-Spanish forces against British Minorca. 

He also knew it was bad news; the fall of Minorca would mean that the French would join the Spanish and take part in the Siege of Gibraltar. The Governor had to do something to boost morale and distract attention from the worsening situation. The Sortie was the ideal solution.


Political cartoon showing Britain's loss of Minorca to French and Spanish forces

Happily for Eliott everything went almost exactly according to plan - few casualties, considerable damage to the Spanish Lines and - at last - a direct confrontation with a hidden enemy that had been bombarding the Rock relentlessly for months.

Eliott  (1783 - A Poggi )

From a battle perspective however, the Sortie was - as many impartial observers have noted - a waste of time and effort. Every single canon and mortar of the San Pascual, San Martin and San Carlos batteries were destroyed but this should be seen within the context of the total number of guns in place along the entire Spanish lines which were well over 150 - all of them heavy caliber 24 powders or 12 inch mortars.

Worse still for all the contemptuous scoffing by Drinkwater on the lack of urgency by the enemy in returning to the advanced lines, the Sortie did not succeed in reducing the levels of bombardment that the destruction of the advanced lines were supposed to have brought about. It may have taken them a few days more than Drinkwater would have thought appropriate but they were soon back in business bombarding the town just as they had before the assault.

The Sortie did nothing whatsoever to bring the Siege to an end. By the time the last soldier had returned to his barracks after celebrating his and Eliott's triumph the Siege had not been shortened by a single minute. In fact it still had a year and several months to go.

So if one could argue that the Sortie was simply a small if successful skirmish within the wider context of the Great Siege itself, then why did so many British historians - both then and now - insist in describing it both at great length and as an exceptional feat of arms?

My own view is that the circumstances of the battle effortlessly lend themselves to propaganda. It is said that history is written by the victors and in the case of the Great Siege the victors were very much the British. But the story of the Sortie has little need for revisionism. Every action, indeed every single detail, shows Eliott and his men as heroic figures while their enemies are reduced to bunglers at best and cowards at worst.

When required to fight we are told that they ran away. When they ought to have counterattacked, they cower behind their lines. When they do get going all we have is a few cavalry men who take a peek and quickly retire. When they finally manage to fire back they do so at a defenseless town instead of at their attackers and when it is all over, they sit back and do nothing to repair or lessen the damage. Meanwhile a large force of men sit in their tents in Campamento and twiddle their thumbs.

It was the kind of view perpetuated by most main line British Historians of the 19th century who all took their cue from John Heriot. Robert Bisset - The History of the Reign of George III (1811), Oliver Goldsmith and William Jones - The History of England (1825) - William Russell - The History of Modern Europe (1841), all described the Sortie using exactly the same words - not similar words but exactly the same ones;
With such silence did they march that the enemy had not the smallest suspicion of their approach, until an universal attack conveyed the tremendous intimation. The ardour of our troops was everywhere irresistible; the Spaniards, astonished, confounded, and dismayed, fled with the outmost precipitation, and abandoned those immense works of so much labour time and expense. . . . . the chief object of their pride . . . were in two hours destroyed by British genius directing British intrepidity, ardour and skill.
From the British perspective it is, as Trumbull himself wrote, the perfect story;
. . . the Heroism of the Vanquished, the Humanity of the Victors - the darkness of night illuminating an extensive conflagration - the Hurry and Tumult of the troops busy in the work of destruction - the quiet & calm of the Officers, the guiding Spirits of the Scene." . . . .
The 'Heroism of the Vanquished' refers almost entirely to one man - Captain Don José de Barboza - but it is, of course, mainly the 'Humanity of the Victors' and the 'quiet and calm' of Eliott and his officers and the rank and file that stick in the mind. Tweedy refuses to give up despite his wounds, the soldiers of the 73rd aid a fallen enemy officer, another dies heroically at the top of San Carlos Battery. There is the concern by the British commander for a wounded Walloon officer, the drama of the amputation of his leg, British military agression tempered by the philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment.

Even the centre piece of the picture says more about the magnanimity of Eliott than the bravery of Don José whose own men are made more responsible for his death that his enemies - if one can believe his dying words.

As a piece of propaganda it has proved faultless. And it continues to retain its power. For many years the Gibraltar Directory and Guide Book referred to it not as 'the Sortie' but as:
 . . . the 'Great Sortie' . . made by the Garrison who destroyed the formidable works of the enemy and spiked 28 guns.'
The fact is that long before Poggi and the rest had made their contributions, the importance of the Sortie had been exaggerated to such an extent that many at home in Britain were convinced that the Spaniards had been completely routed and that the Siege had come to an end.

Such was the case of an Irishman trying his luck at a spot of blockade-running nearly two months after the event. Sailing his ship towards Gibraltar the captain continued his course until he came up opposite the Spanish batteries. When the officer on duty challenged him he answered in English. He was, he said, from Cork. His reply was met with a short incredulous silence followed by thunderous gunfire. Realizing his mistake, the Irishman moved hastily away and only just managed to escape to the safety of the old mole.

When asked by the British authorities why on earth he had tried to anchor so close to the Spanish lines the Captain was unabashed. He had heard, he answered in an incomprehensible southern Irish brogue, that the British had carried out a sortie that had completely burnt down the Spanish batteries and spiked all their guns. He thought he would be able to anchor safely anywhere in the Bay.



A rather unrealistic representation in that the ground in which the Sortie took place was completely flat  ( Unknown ) 

20th century historians such as Ernle Bradford - Gibraltar, The History of a Fortress (1971), George Hills - Rock of Contention (1974), William Jackson - The Rock of the Gibraltarians (1987) and Maurice Harvey - Gibraltar - a History (1996) all continue to read from the same hymn sheet. Anybody using the internet as a resource will also find the following description on Wikipedia as well as other sites that quote it verbatim;
 . . on 27 November 1781, the night before (the enemy) were to launch the grand attack, half the British garrison filed silently out of their defence works and made a surprise Sortie. The sortie routed the whole body of the besieging infantry in the trenches, set their batteries on fire, blew up and spiked their cannon, destroyed their entrenchments, and killed or took prisoner a large number of the Spaniards. 
The British did damage to the extent of two million pounds to the besiegers' stores and equipment that night. Spanish losses were over 200 and Governor Eliott claimed many were 'killed on the spot' because of the surprise. As the Spanish recovered and prepared to launch a counter-attack, the British withdrew back inside their fortifications. This reverse postponed the grand assault on The Rock for some time. '
John Heriot would have approved.


Detail from a British map showing enemy positions on the 13th of September 1782 - or less than a year after the Sortie. The advance batteries destroyed during the Sortie have not only been repaired but have been enlarged to extend all the way across the isthmus ( 1785 - Alhby - detail )    (See LINK


Gibraltar from the Spanish Lines at the time of the destruction of the floating batteries in 1783 . The advanced lines seem to have been back in business ( Unknown )

A list of civilians who took part in the Sortie - They are classified as Spaniards, Portuguese and so forth but in fact they were all Gibraltarians