Sunday, March 31, 2024

ARP305 Siege of Menorca

This week we’re stepping away from North America to look at a battle raging over in Europe. By 1781 The British were so short-handed in America because of the war with France and Spain.  Both countries were set on taking real estate back from Britain, believing that their traditional enemy was spread thin due to the American rebellion and that other colonies and territories would be vulnerable to attack.

The main reason Spain got involved in the war was over the hope of retaking Gibraltar, part of the Spanish mainland that had been under British control for over 70 years. A combined British and Dutch force captured the region in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession. The island remained a British possession in the treaty that ended that war.

In the decades following the capture, Britain viewed its control of Gibraltar as more of a bargaining chip to use against Spain.  There were several proposals to return Gibraltar to Spain over the years, but the two countries could never come to terms. Spain had attempted to retake Gibraltar militarily multiple times since then, but without any luck.

Almost as soon as Spain declared war on Britain, in 1779, it began its siege of Gibraltar.  But after two years, that siege seemed to be going nowhere.  Spanish officials began to focus on other British possessions that might be vulnerable.  Attention quickly turned to Menorca.


The island of Menorca sits in the Mediterranean, about 130 miles southwest of Barcelona.  It is the second largest of a chain of islands that had for centuries been controlled by Spain, or other Spanish kingdoms before Spain became a unified nation.  Britain had taken control of Menorca in the same peace treaty that gave it control of Gibraltar. 

Island of Menorca
Menorca became an important naval base for British ships in the Mediterranean.  The British moved the capital to port Mahon, and established a naval base there.  The British also built up a Spanish fort there, known as the Castillo de San Felipe, which the British called Fort St. Phillip.

During the Seven Years War, a French fleet took back Menorca from the British.  At the outset of the war, France deployed a 16,000 man army and seventeen ships of the line to dislodge the British.  French forces were able to take the island rather easily, but had to besiege the British garrison in Fort St. Phillip.  That siege lasted about two months, before the British garrison finally surrendered.  The British, with less than 3000 men, had managed to hold off the French losing 59 killed and 149 wounded. French losses of 3600 dead and wounded, although many of those came from disease rather than battle.

During the siege, Britain sent a relief fleet under Admiral John Byng, which attacked and withdrew rather quickly.  During a review after the battle, a court martial determined the Admiral Byng had failed to do his utmost to relieve the British garrison and ordered him executed by firing squad. Although many thought the Admiral would receive clemency, he did not. He was shot the following spring.

Without British naval support, the British garrison could not get food and supplies and began to starve.  The British agreed to surrender on the promise that they would be sent to Gibraltar.

France held the island for the remainder of the Seven Years War.  In 1763 the peace treaty ending the war returned Menorca to British control.  In exchange Britain returned the captured island of Guadeloupe to France.

For the Spanish, British control of Menorca, part of a chain of Spanish islands, was almost as galling as British control of Gibraltar.  During the most recent war, Britain had made Menorca a port for British privateers, who attacked French and Spanish shipping in the region.  Spain set its sights on retaking the island and requested support from the ally in the French Navy.

Spanish and French Fleets

During the summer of 1781, Spain deployed an invasion fleet, which included 51 troop carriers moving 13,000 soldiers.  The fleet was backed up by supply ships, hospital ships, bombardment ships, and 13 Navy vessels.  Don Luis Berton de los Blats, Duc de Crillon, commanded the fleet.  

Duc de Crillon
Crillon was a French army officer from an aristocratic family, who rose to the rank of general after fighting in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War.  Near the end of the Seven Years war, he moved to Spain and took a commission as a general in the Spanish Army.  Spain and France were close allies and both ruled by the Bourbon family during this era, so I guess changing armies did not seem to raise any eyebrows.

He had been part of the Spanish effort to capture Gibraltar after Spain declared war in 1779.  While that siege continued without him, the king tasked him with the capture of Menorca in 1781.

France deployed 20 more ships of the line under the command of Admiral Luc Urbain du Bouëxic, comte de Guichen to support the Spanish fleet.  Like his counterpart, Guichen was also an experienced officer from a noble family.  He had also fought in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years war.  Guichen had fought at the Battle of Ushant and also in the West Indies in the West Indies where the Comte de Grasse had served under him.  In the summer of 1780, Guichen led a merchant fleet back to Europe, leaving de Grasse in the West Indies.

Plan of Attack

Both fleets approached Menorca, hoping to surprise the British there.   The French fleet had initially headed out into the Atlantic, hoping to fool anyone watching that it was headed for America.  It then slipped past Gibraltar at night, avoiding observation as it entered the Mediterranean.  Although France provided some naval support, the invasion itself was a Spanish operation.

The Spanish planned to land its main army at Mesquida bay, just north of the capital at Port Mahón. A smaller force would land south of the capital.  The hope was to march both armies at once and capture most of the British garrison outside the fort.

The fleets arrived at Menorca in late August, 1781.  Plans began to fall apart almost immediately.  British observers spotted the fleets on the southern side of the island and sent urgent dispatches to Port Mahón.  Within hours, most of the garrison was in the fort.  The defenders also put a chain across the mouth of the port and sank several ships to prevent the invasion fleet from entering.  Despite getting its defenses in place, the British faced a difficult situation.

British Defenses

The British commander, James Murray, was also a highly experienced officer from an aristocratic family.  Like his opponents, Murray was old enough to have fought in the War of Austrian Succession. He served as the captain of a grenadier company.  After the war, Murray used his experience and family money to purchase a commission as a major, and then as a lieutenant colonel.  He had faced off against the de Guichen during the Seven Years War when the latter besieged Louisbourg in Canada.

Port Mahon in 1756
I talked about Murray’s service very early in this podcast, when he was one of three generals under General Wolfe during the capture of Quebec in 1759.  After the war, Murray received promotion to major general, and served as the British governor of Quebec from 1763 to 1768.  After his return to Britain, Murray received an appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of Menorca in 1774, and then as Governor in 1778.

Murray’s lieutenant governor was also a general in the regular army: William Draper.  There is some debate about the size of the British garrison.  Some contemporary reports say that the defenders numbered around 5600.  However, nearly 2000 of those were civilian workers and local militia. Many of the locals were from other nationalities.  There were sizable Jewish, Greek, and North African communities living on the island.  It appears that few, if any, of these, mustered at the fort for its defense.  Within a few weeks of its invasion, the Spanish expelled all of these communities, removing from the island.

Many of the British regulars who had been stationed on Menorca before the war had been shipped to North America.  To replace them, George III had deployed soldiers from Hanover, in what is today Germany, to fill the garrison at Menorca.  Recall that in addition to being King of Britain, George was also the Elector of Hanover.  Murray reported having about 2700 men, of which about 2000 were British regulars, although about 400 of his regulars were invalids who could perform limited service.

The Siege

Despite the disparity in forces, Fort St. Phillip was a formidable defense.  Spanish forces would be unable to take it by storming the defenses.  Instead, both sides settled in for a siege.  General Murray had managed to get a message off the island, via a Venetian merchant vessel, which brought word to the British Consulate at Florence that the garrison was under siege.  Even so, there were no British fleets readily available to break the siege.

Port Mahon in 1781
Initially, Spanish forces deployed just over 10,000 soldiers to the island.  Spanish artillery set up a large battery on Cape Molal, just across Port Mahon to the west of Fort St. Phillip. Over time, additional artillery batteries were set up the north, west, and south of the fort so that the attackers could fire from all sides.  After several months, the Spanish received reinforcements, increasing their ranks to over 13,000.  The addition of French soldiers may have put enemy boots on the ground at over 16,000.

By November, the Spanish were lobbing mortar shells into the fort, causing some damage, but not enough to take the fort.

During this time, British defenders were not simply hunkering down.  British cannons fired on the Spanish artillery, destroying some.  Several British sorties front he fort killed or captured enemies who got too close.  Given the vast difference in force size, however, these sorties had to retreat back into the fort before the Spanish could mount any sort of counterattack.


Several months into the siege, Crillon was under pressure to finish off the garrison.  The Spanish general had a reputation as a courteous enemy who was gracious to his opponents.  There is an example of this, while he was engaged in the siege of Gibraltar, Crillon had sent the British commander a shipment of fruits, vegetables, meats, and ice, noting the excessive heat, and a note stating that he looked forward to becoming his friend after facing him as an enemy.

On Menorca, about two months into the siege, Crillon attempted to reach out to Murray in the hopes of ending the siege as soon as possible.  Crillon decided the best way to do this might just be to offer a bribe.  In mid-October, Crillon offered Murray a payment of what amounted to a little more than £100,000 and a general’s commission in the French or Spanish army if Murray would surrender the fort.

Murray took the offer as an insult to his honor.  The two leaders exchanged a series of notes that indicated that there would be no surrender anytime soon.  The British had plenty of ammunition, impenetrable defenses, and enough food to last for a year before the need for a relief fleet.


Soon after this exchange, a dispute broke out between General Murray and his second in command, General Draper.  It seems that Draper began to favor a British surrender in late October.  The timing of this has led some historians to speculate that the Spanish might have offered a bribe to Draper after Murray had turned down such an offer.  No evidence of such a bribe has ever been found, but the timing does seem suspicious.

During the first few months of the siege, the two generals seemed to work well with one another.  On October 29, however, Draper wrote a letter back to a member of the House of Lords stating:

My Lord, I am sorry to be obliged to inform you that I think Lieut.-General Murray in his capacity as a magistrate has acted so very ill that I hold it incumbent upon me to bring him to trial for the same, and I must beg the favour of you to inform His Majesty therewith. 

The letter is frustratingly unclear about exactly what Murray had done to deserve being put on trial.  A few weeks later, Murray wrote a note to Draper, criticizing him for not doing his duty, and asking if he wanted to be relieved.  Draper continued and the two seemed to continue working on the defense of the fort for the next couple of months.

James Murray
In January, 1782, when Murray ordered defenders to withdraw from some of the fort’s outer works and reinforce the inner works, Draper demanded a council of war, or said he would no longer serve as lieutenant governor.  Murray took that as an act of insubordination.  He relieved Draper of command and divided the command between British Colonel Pringle and Hanoverian Colonel Linsing.

In addition to commanding the defense of the fort, Murray also had to deal with dissension in the ranks caused by Draper’s removal, and the view of many officers that they really did need to consider surrendering.

In truth, the military situation began to get much worse over November and December.  Enemy mortars  had destroyed many gardens inside the fort that provided the only source of fresh vegetables.  As a result, many in the garrison were suffering from scurvy.  Malnourishment also allowed other diseases to begin to take their toll.

Spanish Troops on Menorca
The garrison had fallen to about 1500 men, many of those in hospital.  Many soldiers who were sick refused to seek medical assistance, especially since there was little that could be done.  There were quite a few accounts of guards simply dropping dead from sickness while on guard duty.

One reason Murray had to pull back from the outer defenses in January was that he no longer had enough men to defend them.  The enemy had intensified its bombardment in preparation for a final assault.   About this same time, enemy mortars destroyed a storehouse that contained much of the salted meat that had been sustaining the garrison.

The defenders managed to hold out for a few more weeks, keeping up cannon fire against the enemy.  But by February, they were losing about 50 men per day to scurvy.  Murray noted that he needed 830 men to maintain guard duty in the fort, but had only 660 who were healthy enough to do so.  Almost all of those 660 men showed some signs of scurvy, meaning they would not be able to do so for much longer.


With the end appearing near, Murray sent a note to Crillon on February 4, setting forth the terms under which he would surrender the fort.  Essentially Murray was willing to give up the fort in exchange for passage of his men, and their arms back to Gibraltar.  His men would retain their arms, ammunition and flags while awaiting transport.

Surrender at Minorca
Crillon, of course, also realizing the end was near for the British, refused these generous terms.  He countered that any surrender would require the British garrison to become prisoners of war.

The following day, the two commanders reached a compromise agreement.  The British would become prisoners of war temporarily, but would be allowed transport back to Gibraltar.  Crillon allowed that 

in 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

The British force of about 950 soldiers who were still capable of walking, walked out of the fort on February 6, 1782 to the nearby town of Georgetown, where they laid down their arms.  British records report only 59 defenders killed in battle, meaning that probably nearly 2000 died of scurvy or other diseases during the siege.  The victors did everything they could to care for their foes, providing them with much needed food and medicine.  French ships carried the survivors back to Gibraltar.


The Spanish victory made Crillon a national hero.  He received promotions and accolades, including changing his title to the Duke de Crillon-Mahon.  Spanish leaders gave him command of the Siege of Gibraltar.

Over in London, the dispute between General Murray and General Draper only grew larger.  Draper returned to London while Murray remained at Gibraltar for several months.  Draper, while in London, referred 29 charges against his former commander to be heard by court martial.  Murray’s absence, as well as chaos in the government following news of Yorktown, meant that the court martial did not have a chance to sit until the end of 1782, rendering a verdict in early 1783.

Murray was acquitted of all but two minor charges, one of which was bringing discredit and dishonor up Draper.  The court recommended only a reprimand.  The king approved the verdict but did not issue a reprimand of his own.  The court also directed Draper to sign an apology to Murray for bringing frivolous and ill-founded charges against his commander.

The following year, the court published the records of the court martial, including Murray’s defense.  The court left out Draper’s response to the defense, so Draper published his views as a public pamphlet.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the other battles around the world that pressured the British to end the war in America.

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Next Episode 306 War in India 

Previous Episode 304 Jacksonborough Assembly

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Further Reading


Cassell's Illustrated History of England, Vol. 5, London: Cassell Petter & Galpin, 1865. 

Ode on the taking of Minorca. Addressed to the Honourable James Murray, 1782. 

Andrews, John History of the war with America, France, Spain, and Holland: Commencing in 1775 and ending in 1783, London: Pater Noster Row, 1785. 

Draper, William Observations on the Honourable Lieutenant-General Murray's Defence, 1783. 

Mahon, Reginald H. Life of General the Hon. James Murray, London: John Murray, 1921. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Chartrand, René Gibraltar, 1779-1783: The Great Siege, Osprey Publishing, 2006

 Warren, Jack D. Freedom: The Enduring Importance of the American Revolution, Lyons Press, 2023

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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