Saturday, 14 July 2012

Hanoverians at the Siege - Gibraltar 1779-83

Extracted from "Geschichte de churhannoverschen Truppen in Gibraltar, Minorca und Ostindien" by Ernst von dem Knesebeck, published in 1845. Available as a google ebook.

To Gibraltar

August de la Motte, the senior Hanoverian commander during the Siege

It soon became clear in 1775 that Britain did not have enough troops to calm the colonial rebellion in America. So the English parliament approached George III, who was also king of Hanover, and they requested the use of Hanoverian troops. He agreed and wrote to Field Marshal von Spoercken to release five battalions. These would be paid by the English, but were only be available for use in Europe, and would be subject to their own rules, justice and religion. The idea was that they could release British garrison troops for the Americas. Two battalions were sent to the island of Minorca, then British, and three to Gibraltar.

das 1. Bataillon von Reden, under Obristlieutenant von Walthausen; replaced by von Dachenhausen when von Walthausen drowned in November 1775

das 1. Bataillon von Hardenberg, later known as von Sydow, under Obristlieutenant von dem Bussche. Von dem Bussche returned to Hannover in 1778 and was replaced by von Hugo.

das 1. Bataillon la Motte, under Obristen la Motte and Major von Schlepegrell.

Each battalion consisted of one grenadier and five musketeer companies, with a total including officers and noncommissioned officers of 473 men, as well as two women. The red and white uniform was remarkably similar to the British troops, though Hanoverian officers wore a characteristic gold sash.

 Gustav Von Dachenhausen

By November 1775 they had been shipped down to Gibraltar, where they were heartily welcomed by the Vice-Governor, Major-General Boyd, and shown to their barracks in the city. The three English regiments that the Hanoverians were replacing were reportedly not best pleased to be leaving for the forests of America, and the Hanoverians soon discovered why. Gibraltar at this time was a very congenial posting, the southern climate was comfortable, the food good, and the Rock interesting. Although most days, after service, the troops were put to work on the fortifications they received a working grant, and most considered themselves well paid.

"Many a trip was undertaken by the Hanoverian officers after the Spanish cities in the area, even to Italy, Africa and the African pirate states. In the fortress were the hospitable rooms of the vice-governor of officers to open once a week, and also to the other days there was no lack of social conversations. The arrival of the first governor (General Elliot) in no way interfered with these pleasant conditions, and soon did this great man's love and respect for the Hanoverian brigade just to win as much as had been both the General Boyd."

Start of the Siege - 1779-1780

Governor Elliot was expecting trouble, but a sudden declaration of war in 1779 took him by surprise. Several officers from the garrison were vacationing in Spain, and one was taken prisoner. The Spanish, based in a camp at San Roque, consisted of 18 battalions of infantry, one battalion of artillery, eight squadrons of cavalry and 4 squadrons of dragoons. At the same time the Bay of Gibraltar was blockaded by a Spanish fleet of three battleships, three frigates and nine smaller vessels. In comparison, the garrison of Gibraltar, had 5 English and 3 Hanoverian battalions, which including the artillery reached a strength of almost 5,400 men. There was also a volunteer corps of Englishmen and Germans, with 2 officers and 80 privates, under Lieutenant Belleville of the La Motte regiment. They had in the harbour one ship of the line, of 60 guns, and three smaller ships.

From July 1779 to mid-January 1780 only 15, mostly in small boats made it past the blockade with food, and lack of meat and fresh food became a  real issue. An armed guard had to be put on the bakers, so great was the demand. The weekly ration of a soldier consisted of 7 pounds of wheat bread or hardtack, 2 pounds of salted beef and 1 pound of salt pork, 4 pints of peas, 3 of oatmeal and 10 ounces of butter. The latter was later withdrawn and replaced by more oatmeal. On 11th January 1780 even this was reduced, with the loss of the pork and one pound of beef. Apart from this though, service in the fortress was not too severe and the health of the soldiers was pretty good. At any one time only 600 out of 6,000 were needed for piquet duty, and time hung heavy for the rest. They were also well protected from enemy fire, only 30 men were lost from the three Hanoverian battalions in 1780.

On the night of 30 September 1st October 1780 the Spanish made a raid on the palisades of the Bay side and caused some damage, but worse was prevented by the "vigilance and intrepidity of two Hanoverian soldiers who were here on duty".

1781 - the counter attack

The relief convoy in April 1781 was a huge relief, with massive celebrations all round, and in fact quite a lot of drunkenness until order was restored. The downside was a huge increase in Spanish bombardment, first against the transports and then against the town. 25 Hanoverians were wounded, and 156 in the garrison as a whole. Monotony was replaced by labour as the bastions were continually repaired, and new ones cut from the rock.

Throughout the autumn work continued on the Spanish side, building more and more batteries, and it was clear that something had to be done. In secret, General Elliot started planning a sortie. He was helped when on 20th November two Spanish deserters arrived, and could give detailed plans of the batteries and their layout. They also described Spanish morale as very low, and the state of things on general to be sloppy. On the night of the 26th November 1781, the British attacked,. It was an incredibly risky operation. They had to cover 500 yards to the Spanish lines, and then another 1,000 to the batteries and there was only one exit, and entry, gate. They were organised into three columns, with Hanoverian troops forming the bulk of the right hand column under von Hugo. This consisted of the von Hardenberg regiment (296 men), together with the grenadier companies of the von Reden and la Motte Regiments (142), the light company of the British 56th Regiment (57) together with 25 artillery men and 50 labourers, 570 in total. The right column was to attack the San Carlos battery on the east of the Spanish lines. The British troops in the centre column were under the Hanoverian Dachenhausen.

 Senior allied officers during the sortie, with Gibraltar behind

At midnight the troops were gathered, and 3 clock in the morning on 27 November, after the moon, which shone very bright, had set, they left Gibralltar. In the darkness they came first across the Spanish Walloon Guard, and upon being challenged Lieutenant Hugo shouted "Krena6iers ällsnovre! " and they rushed the 7ft high barricade with little resistance. A portion of the Hardenberg Regiment had strayed in the darkness and came upon the San Carlos battery unexpectedly, from where they received a volley but they carried on, reinforced by the rest of the Regiment, and this was the only mistake of the night. At a given signal the batteries in Gibraltar opened up and the Spanish, thrown into confusion, retired from the battery line. With incredible speed troops swarmed over the batteries and fascines, attaching wreathes of pitch which they set alight, and spiking the guns. They were covered from counter attack by the combined light and grenadier companies and the Hardenberg Regiment. When trails of powder were lit to the magazines, the order was given to withdraw, again covered by the Hardenberg Regiment, with the magazine exploding like an earthquake before they reached the gate. By 5 o clock they were inside.

The sortie had been incredibly successful, the siege works burned for days and several magazines had been lost, all for remarkably little loss. Of the Hanoverians, the Hardenberg Reigment lost 2 dead and one wounded, von Reden 1 dead, and la Motte escaped casualties.

One consequence of the sallie was increased public perception in England, especially at a time of almost unrelenting bad news. George III, as Hanoverian head of state, promoted La Motte to Lieutenant Genral, and von Hugo and von Dachenhausen to Colonel & Brigadier.

The Spanish now turned their fire again on the city, and much of it was destroyed, though the fortifications were almost untouched. There were again few casualties, though several men from La Motte were lost when one of the magazine at the Willis batteries received a direct hit and exploded. But conditions on the Rock were now worse than ever, the troops sleeping in tents, many of the non-combatants in whatever ruins or huts they could find. There was plenty of salt beef, but no fresh food, and scurvy broke out again.

1782-4 - the Grand Bombardment and home.

A German (Hanoverian?) portrayal of the bombardment

During the early months of 1782 the Spanish reconstructed their earthworks, with no expense being spared, and of course, defences much improved. They also considered what new methods they could use, even poison gas, but they decided to build floating batteries, and this went ahead in great secrecy. Meanwhile, the British and Hanoverians had been strenghtened to 7,500 men, and were making innovations of their own, including a cannon which could be depressed 20 degrees, for firing from the great height of the Rock. They also developed "heated shot". Actually, this wasn't new, but was hardly ever used as it was technically very difficult, the heat tending to ignite the powder of the cannon prematurely. But they had lots of cannons, and time, to play with and eventually got it right. A sergeant in the La Motte Regiment, Schwependik, a blacksmith by trade, invented an oven that could produce several glowing shot at once. He received a life long pension from the English government.

The Spanish also built up their assault forces, under the command of the Duke of Crillon, who had just captured the island of Minorca, and the Hannoverian garrison there. There was also a French corps under Falkenhayn of 4,000 men, which although small in comparison to the Spanish forces, almost matched the garrison by itself. There were many more cannon, more ships, and the floating batteries. There were also landing craft, flat bottomed to convey troops across the bay after the defences had been pounded to rubble. It looked like this time the Spanish could not possibly fail.

On 9th September 1782 all the land batteries and gun boats started firing, joined on the 12th by a Franco Spanish fleet, and on the 13th by the floating batteries, which were meant to bear the brunt of the attack. The British responded by the heaviest fire they could manage, concentrated initially on the boats towing the floating batteries, which were crewed by criminals as the work was so obviously dangerous. To their dismay the British found that the floating batteries themselves were more or less immune to cannon fire. Only the heated shot seemed to make any impression, and even then the artillery battle went on for hours. By 3pm smoke was blowing around the bay, but it was not until 8pm that the garrison could see boats evacuating crews from the floating batteries. By 11pm a shipwrecked Spanish ship bought news that the Spanish were starting to retire, but still the battle kept on, artillery crews replaced with sailors who knew how to work the guns. By 3am several floating batteries could be seen in flames, which only served to illuminate the others to make better targets. Before daybreak a counterattack with gunboats drove off the boats protecting the batteries and the danger was over. Overall, Spanish losses were estimated at about 2,000, losses in the garrison were just 16 killed and 69 wounded.

Although moral in the siege lines was now low, the Spanish court did not give up, and the blockade continued. Fresh food was still low. The arrival of Howe's convoy in October relieved matters though, and brought the garrison up to 8,000 men. Spanish preparations for another attack continues, but halfheartedly, and in February 1783 news came of the Treaty of Versailles. On March 12th Governor Elloit met the Duke of Crillon outside the walls, they shook hands and peace was declared.

It was over a year before the Hanoverian brigade could return home, but in August 1784 they embarked and in September they were back in the river Weser at Geestendorf (Bremerhaven). They were met by Major Genreral von Busse and one by one discharged from English service. They marched to their respective garrisons at Nienburg, Verden and Hameln, where they were received as heroes.

As an aside, the three Hanoverian Regiments were granted the battle honour "Gibraltar". Their successors in the German Army still carried this into World War 1.

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