ANDREW LAMBERT admires an exciting account of one of naval history’s most gripping incidents
Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy and Lesley Adkins Little Brown, 480 pages, £20
From a quick glance at the title of Roy and Lesley Adkins’ new book, casual readers may wonder how the “greatest siege in British history” could have taken place such a very long way away from Britain. Yet for much of history, strategically placed naval bases were the key to British power across the globe. Gibraltar, a mountain rising steeply from a narrow sand spit, was the most important: it secured the entrance to the Mediterranean for trade and naval power.
Spain’s grip on the inland sea was broken in 1704, when the Royal Navy seized the town. In 1779, France and Spain declared war on Britain, supporting rebelling American colonists intent on weakening Britain’s global empire. Gibraltar’s 7,000-man British garrison found themselves under siege from French and Spanish forces. Under the command of General Sir George Augustus Eliott, they defied blockade and massive bombardments from land and sea for a gruelling three and a half years (1779–1783). The town was reduced to rubble, but the defences held, and casualties were low.
As anyone familiar with their previous books will expect, Roy and Lesley Adkins tell the dramatic story of the siege through the words of eyewitnesses and contemporaries. The action is partially recounted by those directly involved: British, Spanish, French and German soldiers, sailors and civilians of all ranks.
The book sets the siege against the backdrop of the American War of Independence, highlighting that although
Britain lost the American colonies, it retained command of the sea, the key to security, trade and empire.
The authors also explore how Gibraltar, held by right of conquest by the British for more than 300 years, was a place that came to define British resolve. ‘As strong as the Rock of Gibraltar’ was no mere turn of phrase. As Daniel Defoe observed, the rock had replaced Dover as the quintessential British fortress because it was the key to an overseas empire of trade.
This book is a fascinating, well-crafted account of a siege that defined Britishness, and shaped the strategy of the next four major wars.