The Third Relief of Gibraltar and Battle of Cape Spartel – October 1782
Throughout the summer of 1782 the British government had been unable to send a fleet to replenish the beleaguered Gibraltar as they had required ships in home waters to counter the threat of the Franco/Spanish armada under Vice-Admiral Louis-Urbain de Bouënic, the Comte de Guichen. Not until the allied force’s dispersal in early August was Admiral Lord Howe, the commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet, instructed to prepare his vessels for the expedition to relieve the Mediterranean rock fortress.
At this late stage the news of a Dutch fleet’s threat to the British Baltic convoy necessitated a delayed departure for Gibraltar, and some thirty ships of the line were prepared for North Sea service. In the event the government received intelligence on 25 August that the Dutch had returned to the Texel. Even so, the Admiralty decided that a final check had to be made on the Dutch before the relief fleet could be sent, and thus whilst supplies were being taken aboard the huge convoy of store-ships at Spithead, ten sail of the line made a speedy reconnaissance of the Texel. These returned to Spithead on 4 September with the welcome confirmation that the Dutch were ensconced in their home waters.
On 11 September Lord Howe finally departed Spithead with thirty-four ships of the line, one 50-gun ship and eight frigates, together with convoys for all parts of the world, the whole fleet totalling one hundred and eighty-three ships. After battling against south-westerly gales and a hurricane in the Bay of Biscay he was off Cape St. Vincent on 9 October. Here he detached the convoys which made up the bulk of the merchant vessels, one of them going out to Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes in the East Indies under the escort of the Bristol 50, Captain James Burney, another to the West Indies with the Proserpine 28, Captain Thomas Taylor, and a third into Oporto under the care of the Termagant 22, Captain Charles Stirling.
On the same day, 9 October, a cutter was sent into Faro carrying a lieutenant to obtain the latest news from the British consul, and this officer returned on the 10th with intelligence that the allied ‘Grand Assault’ against Gibraltar had been defeated in September, but that up to fifty enemy sail of the line remained off Algeciras. At noon the next day Howe entered the Straits of Gibraltar with the Buffalo 60 and Panther 60 at the head of the thirty-one remaining storeships, and with his fleet forming three protective divisions to windward.
Although the allied commander-in-chief at Algeciras, Admiral Don Luis de Cordova, became aware of the British fleet’s approach in the early afternoon of the 11th he remained passively at anchor. In fact the allies had endured a tempestuous previous couple of days, for on the night of the 10th a violent storm had rushed through the Straits of Gibraltar, driving two sail of the line eastwards out to sea, forcing Rear-Admiral Don Juan Moreno’s flagship San Miguel 70 to go aground and surrender under the British batteries on the Rock, and propelling another vessel ashore near Algeciras. Numerous other vessels in the allied fleet had been damaged aloft, and these were busy making repairs when news of the British approach was received.
Conversely, the British had barely suffered any damage in the storm, and by the time they came through the Straits a thick haze had descended; indeed it was only with some difficulty that the expectant and excited watchers on the Rock could see the first sails of the fleet looming through the fog at sunset. Soon afterwards the frigate Latona anchored under the batteries and Captain Hon. Hugh Seymour Conway went ashore to liaise with the governor of Gibraltar, General Sir George Elliot. At this point all appeared to be going to plan, but as darkness descended the garrison’s jubilation turned to dismay when only four of the store-ships managed to make it into the waters under the rock. Having failed to adhere to their strict sailing instructions of keeping close into the Spanish shoreline the remaining two dozen store-ships had been carried past Gibraltar on the current. Taking aboard the Rock’s senior naval officer, Captain Roger Curtis, the Latona quickly put to sea again in order to apprise Lord Howe of this disaster.
Like a sheep dog attempting to rein in its flock the flagship Victory 100 now led the fleet past Europa Point on the tip of Gibraltar before turning towards the Spanish coast in order to shepherd the convoy towards the back of the Rock. By noon the next day, the 12th, the fleet had reformed between Estepona and Marbella, some twenty five miles down the coast, whilst the store-ships and frigates were working into the wind in an attempt to return to Gibraltar. That evening the Panther 60 and several stores-ships did manage to anchor under the rock having run the gauntlet of the Spanish batteries whose cannon, all the while, kept up an incessant fire upon the grounded San Miguel and upon the garrison.
In the meantime Cordova had been spurred into action, for not only did the British fleet’s entry into the Mediterranean jeopardize the two Spanish sail of the line that had been driven eastwards in the storm two days earlier, but it also give him the opportunity of picking off any store-ships trying to put back to Gibraltar. Throughout the 12th the allies busily undertook repairs, and at 9 a.m. on the morning of the 13th they got underway with the wind in the west. Given the missing ships and others beyond immediate repair their fleet now numbered about forty-four sail of the line, in addition to five frigates and about thirty other craft. This force was further reduced when in passing Europa Point Cordova detached a sail of the line and two frigates to guard the Panther, which was still at anchor off Gibraltar.
On first being apprised by the Latona that the allies were underway, Howe had ordered Captain John Holloway in the Buffalo 60 to collect the bulk of the store-ships and take them to a safe anchorage amongst the Zafarine Islands on the Barbary Coast, about two hundred miles above Gibraltar. Several store-ships were only just returning from their attempt to beat up to Gibraltar the day before however, and these he placed to leeward of his fleet. In the meantime Captain Curtis had returned to the Rock in a boat from the Latona with the news that the British fleet was expectant, and ready, for a fight. A battle certainly seemed inevitable, and the imprisoned crew of the San Miguel were so overjoyed at the prospect of an allied victory that they had to be forcibly confined.
By sunset on the evening of the 13th the allies were in sight from the Victory’s quarterdeck, and with the benefit of the weather-gauge, the wind being in the west north-west, they bore down in line of battle. Yet surprisingly Cordova showed no inclination to engage the British, and instead he bore up at 9 p.m. Come dawn on the 14th the British fleet was adjacent to Fuengirola, some fifty miles to the east of Gibraltar, and having been joined by the two errant ships the allied fleet was close in to Estepona in the north-east under the close watch of the Latona and Minerva frigates. That same day the Panther attempted to put to sea and rejoin Lord Howe, but she was prevented from doing so by the adverse wind and the threat of seventeen gunboats coming out of Algeciras.
At 8 a.m. on the hazy morning of the 15th an easterly wind sprung up to the benefit of the British fleet, which by now was some twenty miles south of the becalmed allies off Marbella. Taking immediate advantage of these favourable conditions, Howe set a westerly course for Gibraltar. Towards noon the anxious watchers on the Rock could see the fleet approaching from the direction of Ceuta in the south-east, and that night up to ten store-ships which had remained with the fleet were able to anchor in Rosia Bay under the protection of the Latona and the Panther.
The foggy morning of the 16th found Howe cruising to the east of Gibraltar with the wind still in the east and with the allies out of sight. For most of the morning into the early afternoon it rained incessantly, and an accompanying heavy swell made for the most difficult conditions, so that the ships were busily engaged maintaining their distance from the Spanish shore. On the 17th the wind came around to the south-west, but on the 18th it changed to the east once more allowing Captain Holloway, who had protected all bar one of the remaining dozen or so store-ships by keeping close into the Barbary shore, to rendezvous with Howe’s fleet. These store-ships were now escorted into Rosia Bay, and by the night of the 18th they were unloading their vital supplies, men and ammunition. The exception was a vessel that had been carrying the wives and baggage belonging to two regiments which had come out with the fleet, but had parted company and been captured off Malaga.
The relief of Gibraltar may have been completed, but the British fleet still had to get out of the Mediterranean in the face of the allied superiority, and with Cordova posturing at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar this would not be easy. Desirous of taking advantage of the easterly wind, Howe decided to sail at once, and he took with him the stranded Captain Curtis who had come out with General Elliot’s despatches the previous evening aboard the Latona, and who could not regain the Rock.
At dawn on the 19th the Crown 64 signalled that the allies were in sight to windward in the north-east, and they remained there for the whole day, carrying all sail and holding the weather gauge. Preferring to avoid any engagement in the Gut of Gibraltar because of the lack of sea-room and reservations about the ability of Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes to understand his role in the fleet’s evolutions, Howe continued on his passage past Europa Point, and by 2 p.m. his ships were no longer visible to the spectators on the Rock. By keeping close in with the shore of Africa, and by making the most of the misty wet conditions and the easterly wind, Howe managed to get through the Straits by the end of the day.
On the 20th a northerly wind arrived in favour of the allied fleet which was now sailing in line of battle abreast some two miles to windward of the British. Howe formed line of battle on the starboard tack, but still the diffident Cordova showed no great urge to attack despite the excellent conditions for doing so, and it was not until sunset at around 5.45 that he tried his hand off Cape Spartel.
A four-hour, ineffectual skirmish at long range followed, with the initial action involving the leading allied ship, which was presumed to be the Royal Louis 100, and the head of the British van, the Goliath 74. Although the engagement extended to the other ships in the British van Howe’s centre was barely employed and his flagship Victory never got to fire at all. His rear did come under pressure, it apparently being the intention of Cordova in the mighty Santisima Trinidad 120 to cut off the Union 90, Buffalo 60 and Vengeance 74, but this attempt was subverted by the splendid discipline in battle order and gunnery displayed by Vice-Admiral Milbanke’s division. With the allies neglecting to get into close action, and with their rear dozen or so ships not being employed at all, the battle came to nothing.
Shortly after 10 p.m. the allies hauled their wind whilst the British stood on, and the next day they bent their course for Cadiz. Casualties in the skirmish numbered sixty-eight men killed and one hundred and ninety-nine wounded on the British side, and sixty men killed and three hundred and twenty wounded on the allied side. The British spent the next two days effecting repairs, whilst Captain Henry Duncan was sent home in the Latona with Howe’s despatches, reaching the Admiralty on the morning of 7 November. In his stead Captain Curtis, took command of the Victory.
By 14 November Lord Howe and the fleet were back at St. Helens, having detached Rear-Admiral Hughes with eight sail of the line to the Leeward Islands on 28 October, and Vice-Admiral Milbanke with six sail of the line for Cork. The replenishment of Gibraltar had been brilliantly achieved and it enabled the colony to subsist until the peace of 1783.
British fleet and casualties in the engagement off Cape Spartel:
*Detached to the West Indies with Rear-Admiral Hughes