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The Union Flag over Minorca
Chapter 7 of the series

“THE WALLS COME TUMBLING DOWN” (and the Union Flag with them). The Spanish invasion of Minorca of 1781 and the five month Siege of Fort San Felipe.

At the Treaty of Aranjuez of April 12, 1779 Spain renewed its historic alliance with France in order to strengthen its ambitions. The Spanish Government was intent on regaining many of the territories it had lost during the Seven Years War, on recapturing Gibraltar and, secondary to this, taking the island of Minorca from British control. To the Spanish and French this was important because Minorca was the base of a very successful fleet of Privateers licensed by the Governor, Lieutenant-General James Murray which played havoc with Spanish and French commerce, seizing ships of any nation doing business with British enemies.

Fort Filipe Mahon Menorca
Contemporary map of Fort San Felipe, the area of the previous Phillipstown and the newly constructed Georgetown
William Draper Menorca
Sir William Draper Deputy Governor

The Spanish attempt of recapturing of Gibraltar in 1779 was going badly and so a plan was formed to invade Minorca which would involve Britain having to defend in two places. Together with José Moñino y Redondo, Conde (Count) de Floridablanca the Foreign Minister it was Don Luis Berton, Duque de Crillon who put together the detailed plans. (de Crillon was actually of French descent and why he is often referred to as Duc de Crillon)

On June 25th. 1781 about 20 French warships left Brest on a patrol into the Mediterranean commanded by Admiral Guichen. It was planned that they were not to join with and provide escort to the Spanish invasion fleet until close to Minorca in order not to alert the British. The Spanish fleet departed from Cadiz on July 23rd. This comprised 18 supply vessels, 51 troop carriers, 3 bombardment ships, 3 hospital ships and a fire ship Accompanied by 13 escort warships.

The plan was that a main force be landed at Mesquida with another secondary landing at Alcaufar whilst the other two harbours, Ciudadella and Fornells would be blockaded. The idea being that the Mesquida force should move quickly to Mahón and capture the Governor who lived there and as many British soldiers as possible. The Alcaufar troops were to block the road from the new suburb of Georgetown to the Fort of San Felipe. Almost simultaneously a smaller third detachment were to land on Degollador beach at Cuidadella and another small group be landed at Fornells to overrun the small fort there.

The Duque de Crillon had hoped that the force approaching from the south would be assumed by the British to have friendly intentions (who was he kidding?) and that those arriving in the north and west would virtually go unnoticed. Unfortunately the best laid plans of mice and men etc. The adverse wind made an approach from the north impossible and the rough seas made a landing at Ciudadella to be temporarily postponed. The complete fleet was therefore forced to make an approach along the south coast. It was on August 19th at about 10.30 am that the first ships of the fleet started to round the Isla de Aire off Punta Prima and make headway towards Port Mahón. The Alcaufar contingent peeled off and made its way to the cove whilst the rest of the fleet led by the ship San Pascual headed east past the fortress of San Felipe and the entrance of the harbour to round La Mola making its way to Cala Mesquida. By 6.00 pm, with all ships having caught up, a landing was made and the Spanish flag was flying on the beach.

The British had a watchtower near Son Bou and on spotting the enemy fleet passing sent an urgent message to Mahón. This information was further augmented by a detailed report on the fleets size and types from the watchtower at Monte Toro. This gave time for the Governor, James Murray, to make urgent preparations. Most of the British around Mahón and Georgetown were moved to the confines of San Felipe. The harbour was blockaded with a chain and several small vessels were sunk at the entrance to impede the entry of ships. The Governors family and several other British dependants were put onto a Venetian ship to sail in safety to Italy. This also carried a message to the British envoy in Florence detailing the invasion. This ship arrived safely at Livorno (Leghorn in those days) on 31st August.

Enemy ships were eventually able to land troops at Fornells and Ciutadella and met with only a token British force, numbering about 50, who were taken prisoner. A further 152 were taken as prisoners at Georgetown as the Spanish swept in from Mesquida towards their siege positions near St Philips Fort. The total British garrison had totalled some 5,660 but of these 1,300 were local militia and about 400 civilian employees. Except for a few of the international business communities such as Greeks, Jews and North Africans amongst others most of these did not seek refuge in the fortress. Taking into account the British military already taken prisoner elsewhere on Minorca it would appear that the defence of the fortress would be in the hands of less than 3000 men. Whilst, in comparison, by August 23rd there were over 7.000 Spanish troops, with a further 3000 joining them soon after.

And so the long siege begins.
Following the French invasion in 1756 and the damage incurred at that time to Saint Philips Fort the British had completed some repairs and modifications and had laid in stores of food and ammunition to withstand a year long siege.

The Spanish were now firmly established on the Island and with the French warships returned to Brest they started work on gun emplacements. The main ones being on La Mola on the opposite side of the harbour and at Binisaida, although there were many more towards Mahon and near today’s Cala Llonga. By October 23rd. Two further brigades (one French and one German) totalling 3886 men had been landed, adding to the 10411 already on the island.

(During our guided visits to Golden Farm Sheila and I were surprised to see a very accurate map of the harbour of Mahón dated 1781 which shows the positions of all the various regiments and gun emplacements and we were surprised to see these include German as well as French battalions. This sparked our interest to research this further)

The British hampered the enemy’s preparations by directing their artillery fire at these sites. Occasionally they sent troops out on sorties. One of the most notable was on October 11th. when more than 400 British troops crossed the harbour to La Mola and succeeded in capturing eighty enemy soldiers together with eight officers.

There was regular, but fairly light, use of the British guns at this time but one incident of note is told by C.F.H. Lindeman in his journal. (see acknowledgements). Lindeman was the field chaplain to the 800 Hanoverian troops making up part of the British Garrison.

The Swimming Spy.
On Sunday October 14th. after repeated requests and because all was quiet it was agreed that the men could attend a Divine Service in the Queens Redoubt. Lieutenant General Sir William Draper who was deputy governor to James Murray also gave permission for the lookouts, guards and on duty gunners to attend the Divine service providing the guns were left in readiness for immediate action. Sir William himself stood guard as lookout.

He suddenly noticed the masts of a large ship leaving the port close to Georgetown and once the gunners returned from worship he ordered them to open fire in that direction although there was no direct line of sight. After the 14th ball had been fired there was an explosion and they could no longer see the masts. The gunners were very excited believing they had hit the ship but could not be sure. To make certain what had occurred one of the assistant gunners volunteered to swim to find out. Avoiding enemy eyes he carefully swam to the point of Cala Fonts where he was delighted to see a ship of large dimensions, probably the “Royale Hiberne”, sunk at the entrance to the cove. The ship had been loaded with ammunition from the arsenal at Mahón and had taken at least one direct hit. Swimming back in glee he reported the facts to Sir William who, in view of the bravery shown by the gunner, presented him with his sword. It is possible that some remains of the Royal Hiberne are still on the sea bed at the entrance to Calas Fonts. (One of the deepest parts of the harbour)

The Final Weeks
It was on November 11th 1781 that the enemy started their bombardment in earnest with fire being returned by the British. As well as hampering the enemy on numerous occasions and hitting the powder magazine of a mortar battery, and notably, the British gunners managed to sink another supply ship unloading alongside the Georgetown jetty.

The final assault started on the 6th January 1782 with a huge bombardment from the siege batteries (totalling some 100 cannon and 35 mortars). Murray had to withdraw his troops to within the inner part of the fortress as much damage was sustained to the outer defences. However the British were still able to bring their 200 cannon and 40 mortars into action and managed to sink another enemy supply vessel on January 12th. The enemy succeeded in hitting an important store within the fort with an incendiary grenade which contained most of the garrisons’ supply of salted meat. This in itself was of no great importance but unfortunately during the hasty repairs and part rebuilding of the fort (after 1763) no provision had been made to protect the vegetable gardens from artillery fire. These were being destroyed by the continuous shelling and there were, therefore, no fresh vegetables for the garrison. Due to a vitamin deficiency increasing numbers of the troops were showing signs of scurvy. By early February more than 50 per day were admitted to hospital with the symptoms. Although requiring 830 men to keep watch on the defences in two shifts it was found by February 3rd. that only 660 were available for duty. Of this number apparently some 560 showed signs of scurvy and some were dying on duty being too proud and having failed to report to the medical officers.

The Surrender.
On February 4th General Murray was urgently informed by his medical team that on the grounds of humanity surrender terms should be sought. Of the ten terms Murray sought was the fact that the whole garrison should be provided with transport back home, the cost being met by the British Government.

Compromises had to be made however. With the Duc de Crillon insisting that the garrison must be made prisoners of war. A final agreement on the surrender terms was accepted by both sides and signed on February 6th 1782 allowing the men to become temporary prisoners until transport ships became available. The terms also stipulated that, quote---”in the Consideration of the Constancy and Valour which General Murray and his Men have shewn in their brave Defence, they shall be permitted to go out with their Arms shouldered, Drums beating, lighted Matches and Colours flying, till having marched through the Midst of the Army, they shall lay down their Arms and Colours”

Of the original 3000 only 950 were fit enough to duly march out of the fortress between the ranks of French and Spanish troops which stretched on both sides of the road from St Phillips Castle to Georgetown where they laid down their colours and arms in surrender “to GOD alone”.

Although looking straight ahead as he led his men towards Georgetown, General Murray was later informed by de Crillon and his deputy Baron de Falkenhayn that many of the Spanish and French troops were weeping at what they saw. De Crillon went far beyond the terms of surrender in some respects and General Murray later reported that they were provided with “every Thing which can contribute to our Recovery”.

The Aftermath
On the 22 February 1782 the Periodical, Gaceta de Madrid, estimated Spanish casualties at 184 killed and 380 wounded. According to the London Gazette at the end of the siege 59 of the British garrison were killed This left 2481 military personnel, including 149 wounded to surrender. This suggests that either a large number of deaths from scurvy were ignored, or that the British claims of earlier about the size of the Garrison were much exaggerated, Apart from military personnel, after the surrender, 43 civilian workers, 154 wives and 212 children actually emerged from the fortress.

After discussion amongst the Spanish military, the three stories above ground of Fort St. Felipe were later demolished beyond repair in order that the fortress could not be seized and used again against the Spanish

I) Hannover was an ally of Great Britain not only providing the British monarchs from George 1 up to and including Queen Victoria but also troops during the War of Spanish Succession, War of Independence, Napoleonic Wars and Waterloo etc.
II) Royal Navy ships are prefixed HMS whereas French navy ships have the prefix Royale

Although this information is available in the public domain I make special acknowledgement to “La reconquista de Menorca por el duque de Crillon (1781-1782)” by José Luis Terrón Ponce, and “Diario del asedio de la Fortaleza de San Felipe en la isla de Menorca (1781/82)” by C.F.H. Lindeman

See Chapter 8 next month “A SPANISH ISLAND ONCE MORE” (well for a time anyway)
Bryce Lyons

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