The Second Relief of Gibraltar – 12 April 1781
Following Admiral Sir George Rodney’s relief of Gibraltar in January 1780, the rock fortress had successfully withstood the Spanish siege for the remainder of that year. By the beginning of 1781 however it was in desperate need of replenishment, and the Admiralty decided that the Channel Fleet under the quiet but confident command of Vice-Admiral George Darby should be sent out with supplies.
Ever since Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel had hauled down his flag out of a reluctance to serve the incumbent Board of Admiralty, the command of the grand fleet in the Channel had resided with largely unremarkable officers of whom Darby, previously out of employment for nearly twenty years, was one. Recalled to the colours as a subordinate admiral in 1779, he had assumed the command of the fleet in August 1780 after the brilliant but awkward Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington had refused to take over from the sickly and ancient Admiral Francis Geary.
On 13 March Darby, flying his flag aboard the Britannia 100, departed St. Helens with a fleet of twenty-nine sail of the line, having not only the Gibraltar convoy but also the East and West Indian trade in his charge. Also attached to this armada was Commodore George Johnstone’s Cape-bound expedition. Darby’s instructions were to make for Cork and collect some further victaulling vessels before proceeding to Gibraltar. He was advised that at any time he could expect to be challenged by the French fleet at Brest, by their West Indian-bound fleet of twenty sail of the line, or by the Spanish fleet of twenty-five sail of the line harboured at Cadiz. His departure from home waters also left the Channel open to a potential attack from any or all of these fleets, yet such was the importance to Britain of Gibraltar that the government was prepared to accept these risks.
Arriving at Cork on 17 March, Darby encountered contrary winds that not only kept the Irish victuallers port-bound but also facilitated the departure of the French West Indian fleet from Brest. Commanded by Admiral François Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse, this force initially sailed in company with five sail of the line under the command of Captain Pierre André de Suffren which would part company for the East Indies and enjoy a number of battles there against the British East Indian fleet. The combined French force would have been more than a match for Darby, although conversely the interception of either division would have saved the British much trouble later on. Even so, the relief of Gibraltar remained paramount, and no attempt was made to hunt down either de Grasse or Suffren.
On 27 March Darby was finally able to depart Irish waters with some hundred-odd store ships under his care, and the next day two unknown sail were seen to the south. Whilst the fleet gathered in the convoy under an increasing gale, the Marlborough 74 and Cumberland 74 were deployed in chase of the strangers. Their return the next morning saw them escorting a prize, the French privateer Duc de Chartres 24, which would later be commissioned as a man-of-war under the Britannia’s first lieutenant, John Child Purvis.
On 11 April the fleet entered the Straits of Gibraltar. Intelligence received in London had suggested that it would be met by a Spanish fleet now numbering thirty-two sail of the line under the command of Admiral Don Luis de Cordova, but when the Alexander 74, Foudroyant 80 and Minerva 38 chased three enemy frigates into Cadiz the Spaniards was found to be to be still at anchor in the port. Somewhat relieved, Darby anchored off Cape Spartel that evening and sent the cutter Kite, Commander Henry Trollope, into Gibraltar with news of his impending arrival. Come daybreak a thick fog was covering the Gut of Gibraltar, but throughout the morning the mists dispersed under the hot Mediterranean sun to reveal to the joyous inhabitants and garrison their salvation in the form of the hundred-odd sail.
During the morning Darby sent the supply ships and four sail of the line with attendant frigates into Rosia Bay whilst he kept under sail with the remainder of his fleet to prevent his larger men-of-war being subjected to any potential fireship attack. Nevertheless, the Spanish were determined to dispute the replenishment of the Rock, and as the convoy began to approach the bay fifteen specially prepared mortar and 26-pounder gunboats came out to tackle it, being supported by land mortars and batteries. The gunboats were forced to back off by one of the sail of the line and a couple of frigates, and indeed several were hastily abandoned by their crews who sought sanctuary in the rocks. Disdaining perhaps a little too recklessly their significance, the British men-of-war did not make any further attempt to complete the destruction of the gunboats, and as a result the latter remained a menace throughout the duration of the Channel Fleet’s stay at the Rock.
By 10.45 the leading ships from the convoy were coming to anchor off the New Mole, and as if this were a signal the Spanish batteries, which had been substantially reinforced overnight, opened up a furious bombardment. Fortunately the ships were able to berth just out of range of the cannon fire, but the inhabitants of the town were badly inconvenienced and evacuated to the southern end of the rock to escape the onslaught. Following a lull in fire during the afternoon the Spanish assault re-started in earnest at about 5 p.m. and it continued relentlessly thereafter. Meanwhile that evening Darby detached the frigates Flora 36, Captain William Peere Williams, and Crescent, 28, Captain the Hon. Thomas Pakenham to escort thirteen supply ships to Minorca.
Nothing daunted by their failure to disrupt the Rock’s continuing replenishment, the Spanish batteries continued their bombardment throughout the night of the 12th and into the succeeding days, resulting in a number of British soldiers becoming casualties. On 14 April, as fires burned ashore on Gibraltar, Rear-Admiral Sir John Lockhart-Ross shifted his flag into the Alexander 74 and entered the bay with three sail of the line to offer greater protection to the men unloading the convoy. Even so the Spanish gun-boats attempted another attack on the mornings of the 15th and the 16th but were rebuffed, although they had better fortune on the morning of the 18th when they inflicted casualties aboard the frigates Minerva and Monsieur, as well as material damage to the Nonsuch’s mizzen mast.
On the 20th, with the replenishment of Gibraltar complete and the wind veering towards the east, the men of war began to leave the bay under further harassing and damaging fire from the Spanish gunboats. Sailing with the fleet were many of the Rock’s civilians, as well as a good deal of merchandise and goods that the merchants had decided could not be safely retained on the rock. Ahead of the fleet Captain Trollope of the Kite was sent home with Darby’s despatches, arriving at the Admiralty on Sunday 13 May and being posted captain for his promptness
During Darby’s absence from the Channel the French had taken the opportunity to send out a squadron of six sail of the line from Brest under the 61 year-old Admiral Toussaint Guillaume La Motte-Picquet to intercept the homeward-bound St. Eustatius convoy, and this squadron took twenty-two of the thirty merchant vessels carrying Admiral Sir George Rodney’s booty at a value of five million pounds. Learning of this sortie whilst off the Scilly Isles on 16 May, Darby had detached eight sail of the line under Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby to chase the French, but to no avail. The remainder of the fleet then anchored at Spithead on 22 May.
For the garrison and civilians who remained on the Rock of Gibraltar it would be another long eighteen months before they received a further relief, but for the moment Vice-Admiral Darby could congratulate himself on having performed an excellent service to the British maintenance of its vital Mediterranean possession.
Vice-Admiral Darby’s Fleet:
=* The Magnanime, in the event, was not ready to sail with the fleet and instead joined the North Sea squadron.