Captain Curtis and the Grand Assault on Gibraltar – 13 September 1782
The leadership qualities and self-belief of Captain Roger Curtis had manifested themselves at an early age when as a young captain he had twice disobeyed orders from his admiral in the interests of the service, and had twice been complimented by Vice-Admiral Lord Howe for doing so. Indeed such was Howe’s favourable opinion of Curtis that he had taken him for his flag-captain in April 1777, and the great admiral would continue to do so whenever he raised his flag thereafter.
Towards the end of 1780, at a time when Howe was unemployed following his disagreement with the government, Curtis was ordered out to the Mediterranean in command of the frigate Brilliant 28. This was a hostile station under the control of the Spanish and French fleets, but nevertheless Curtis was able to spirit two frigates and a xebec into Minorca and take command at Port Mahon of a convoy of twenty victuallers that had been gathered for the relief of the besieged Gibraltar. On 27 April 1781 he safely delivered the convoy to the Rock, and he remained there as the senior naval officer, finding employment in the fitting out a force of gunboats, and forming a brigade of almost one thousand seamen with himself at the head as its brigadier under the overall command of the governor, General Sir George Elliot.
The siege of Gibraltar had commenced with Spain’s declaration of war on Britain in June 1779, but the fortress had withstood all that had been thrown against it in the succeeding three years despite only receiving relief from the homeland on two occasions. By the late summer of 1782, being aware that the re-employed Howe was convening another relief fleet at Portsmouth to sail for Gibraltar, and conscious that the war was drawing towards a termination that would prevent any further opportunity to gain control of the Rock, the Spanish and their French allies began to concentrate their forces for what would come to be known as the ‘Grand Assault’.
Preparations for this attack began to gather pace on 29 August when the Spanish towed several new -fangled ‘battering ships’ out of Algeciras to anchor off Barcelo’s Battery. These were a mixture of specially constructed one and two decked heavily reinforced vessels that were armed with up to twenty-one guns on one side only, with a further number in reserve, and which could be propelled by sweeps as well as sail. They were the brainchild of an esteemed French military engineer, and the expectation of their prowess was such that they had already been somewhat prematurely celebrated as the invention that would ensure the return of Gibraltar to Spain.
Realising that a denouement was imminent, the British brought all their vessels into the New Mole from Rosia Bay where the yards were struck, the cannon ferried ashore, and the men sent to set up camp at Europa. This operation took place whilst the garrisons’ artillery did its best to mow down workmen and pack mules who were attempting to move materials up to the Spanish front, and in particular to finalise the construction of an immense 64-gun land battery that would be used to support the battering ships.
On 3 September another two French sail of the line were brought into the bay by a Spanish frigate to join the small squadron already present, and at sunset the next day the men-of-war were joined off the Orange Grove by several more battering ships. On the 5th twenty-nine square rigged boats came in from the west to assemble off Rocadillo Point with another one hundred and twenty which had come out of Algeciras, and later in the day a large floating battery was towed out to anchor nearby. Somewhat sinisterly, a column of five hundred men were also observed that evening being escorted down to the beach by a troop of cavalry, prior to embarking aboard the battering ships. Whatever the acclaim of these vessels the allies clearly weren’t willing to risk prime seamen in manning them when there were convicts or galley slaves available to fill part of their complement.
Increasingly wary of the forces ranged against them, the British scuttled a number of vessels including three guardships and brought the remainder of their seamen ashore to camp at Europa. Yet the garrison were also ready to deploy their own new method of warfare, and at 7 a.m. on 8 September the artillery opened up on the allied land batteries with experimental red hot shot and fireballs. This bombardment continued most successfully until about 4 p.m., and by inflicting casualties running into the hundreds it also ensured that the Spanish were as equally employed in extinguishing the resultant flames as they were in returning fire.
Nevertheless, at 5.30 the next morning the allied bombardment of Gibraltar began in earnest with a prodigious amount of shot and shell raining down upon the garrison, whilst in the early afternoon nine sail of the line approached from the Orange Grove and added their own cannon to the onslaught. Once these ships had passed Europa Point they wore and sailed back along the face of Gibraltar to attack in succession the batteries at Europa, in Rosia Bay, and at the New Mole. Their sortie was followed from 5.30 in the evening by fifteen Spanish gunboats and bombs, although these were driven off in some disarray two hours later. In the early hours of the 10th the men-of-war repeated their attack, but on this occasion it was from an ineffectual distance, and they soon returned to anchor off the Orange Grove after discovering that red hot shot was being used against them. The same day saw the navy scuttle the Brilliant 28 and Porcupine 24 in the New Mole, although both vessels would later be raised and restored to the navy.
Continuing to soften up the British defences prior to the Grand Assault, the allied gunboats repeated their attack during three hours in the early morning of 12 September, but in turn the garrison proceeded with their own preparations to meet the expected attack by constructing additional furnaces for the heated shot. This task was given an extra alacrity when later that day a combined allied fleet totalling well over thirty sail of the line and attendant vessels under the command of Admiral Don Luis de Cordova came into the bay to anchor between the Orange Grove and Algeciras. Clearly the Grand Assault was imminent.
The allied forces now ranged against Gibraltar totalled thirty Spanish and fourteen French sail of the line, three fourth rates, and five battering ships of two decks and five of one deck, the latter ten vessels carrying five thousand two hundred men and two hundred and twelve guns, of which seventy were in reserve. Supporting these capital ships were scores of frigates, xebecs, gunboats, bombs, cutters and other ancillary vessels. Ashore, in addition to the formidable batteries mounting up to two hundred pieces of heavy ordnance, an army of up to forty thousand men was ready to march on the Rock and put to the sword the battle-hardened garrison of seven thousand five hundred British troops and seamen, of whom four hundred were hospitalised. Unsurprisingly, the allies were supremely confident that, at last, Spain would regain the rock fortress whose existence under the British flag on the extremity of their mainland had for so long been a stain on their nation.
Viewed with great expectation by tens of thousands of excited spectators on the Spanish beaches and hills, and under the gloating eye of two French princes and other members of the nobility, the Grand Assault began at dawn on 13 September when the ten battering ships under the command of Rear-Admiral Buenaventura Moreno moved out of the Orange Grove on a moderate north-westerly breeze in the company of many small craft. On the Rock the orders were given to light the furnaces, although it would be some hours before the shot was sufficiently heated to have the desired impact. The mood amongst the garrison was resolute. Having endured for so many years on meagre supplies and against all odds the defenders were determined not to be defeated now.
By 9 a.m. the battering ships, led in the centre by the largest vessel flying Moreno’s flag, were moving towards their positions about a thousand yards before the Rock, and as soon as the first dropped anchor some forty-odd minutes later the garrison opened fire. Within ten minutes the battering ships had all been deployed and were returning fire, being joined by the land batteries to unleash a most unforgiving hail of shells and shot on the defenders of the Rock.
For the first few hours the garrison’s heavy artillery made little impact on the reinforced timbers of the battering ships, and although the newly commissioned red hot shot was in use after midday any fires which did break out on Moreno’s vessels were quickly extinguished by ingenious onboard water reservoirs, hoses and soaked matting. In turn the battering ships eventually found their range after initially firing short, and the damage they inflicted soon began to toll on the remnants of the town, and on the battery at the King’s Bastion.
However, at about midday an attempt to outflank the garrison by a division of gunboats and bomb vessels was frustrated by an adverse south-westerly wind and heavy swell, and this also prevented a diversionary attack on Europa Point. With the expected support of ten allied sail of the line failing to materialise because of the same unhelpful conditions the British batteries were now able to fully concentrate their resources on the battering ships.
As the afternoon wore on the defenders began to gain the upper hand, and under their sustained bombardment the red-hot shot started to bury itself in the hulls of the battering ships, causing fires to proliferate. Flames were regularly seen to break out aboard the admiral’s flagship Pastora and the equally large Tailla Piedra, and although these were extinguished others soon appeared, requiring men to leave the guns and deal with them. Gradually the cannon fire from the battering ships subsided, and by 7 p.m. it had withered away to nothing bar that of two smaller vessels at the extremity of the line, which given their distance from the British defences had neither received nor inflicted little damage.
Once darkness had descended the fires could be observed raging on eight of the battering ships. Most had already sent up distress rockets and Cordova despatched all the boats he could to their aid, but the light skies and the betraying flames allowed any British cannon still in use to ply their fire unmercifully. Thus many of the boats were driven away by grape shot, and one launch was sunk with the loss of all but a dozen of her crew of almost a hundred men. As midnight passed so it could be seen that the Pastora was well ablaze, and by 2 p.m. the whole length of the ship had been consumed by the fire.
Captain Curtis now determined to take the fight to the allies on the water, so steering the Rock’s dozen gunboats out of the New Mole at about 3 p.m. he moved up on the enemy flank and laid down a withering, raking fire. Any rescue boats from the fleet that were still in the vicinity fled from this retributive cannonade, leaving the floating batteries and their crews to their fate. Then a couple of Spanish launches were captured, and learning from his prisoners of the hopeless situation aboard the battering ships the intrepid Curtis realised that the allies no longer represented a threat, and that it was his duty to save life.
Leading his men aboard the dangerous blazing hulks despite the risk of their exploding, Curtis at first had to overcome the refusal of the desperate survivors to submit out of a conviction that they in turn would be put to the sword. Gradually more and more men were evacuated, but at about 5.15 Curtis’ pinnace was showered with the wreckage from an exploding battering ship which blew the bottom out of the boat, killed his coxswain outright, and wounded a number of other men. By thrusting their balled-up jackets into the gaping hole his men were able to keep the boat afloat, and in returning to the Rock they were able to collect survivors from another two vessels. Come the end of the operation up to four hundred of the enemy had been rescued.
The rout out of the battering ships had indeed become a massacre. Allied casualties varied between seven hundred men drowned to two thousand killed, wounded, and taken prisoner. Despite the devastation on Gibraltar caused by the British losses were reported as just sixteen men killed and sixty-eight wounded. Three of the battering ships had been destroyed by fire, and the remaining seven burned and smashed hulks had been scuttled by Spanish.
After a further month of mutual cannon fire the defenders of Gibraltar adorned their repulse of the Grand Assault when they took possession of the San Miguel 70, Captain Don Juan Moreno, after she had been driven aground under the British batteries near the Old Mole on 10 October by a violent gale. Curtis’ patron, Lord Howe, arrived with his convoy a week later, and after carrying despatches aboard the flagship Victory 100 Curtis found himself unable to get back to the Rock. He therefore returned with the fleet to England where he was deservedly awarded a knighthood and granted a pension of five hundred guineas. At the request of the beleaguered Elliot he was then sent back to Gibraltar with the rank of commodore aboard the Thetis 38, Captain John Blankett, but by the time he arrived on 10 March 1783 hostilities had ceased.
Sadly Curtis was to become a less than popular figure as he grew older, and Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood in particular never did have a good word to say about him. His conduct at Gibraltar was always held in the highest regard however, and the leadership he displayed in the most desperate of causes would be forever admired.