The Capture of Gibraltar and the Battle of Malaga 1704

This article was originally blogged on Boxing Day 2013, so it’s somewhat personalised

I’m currently in southern Spain, between Malaga and Marbella, and looking southwards across a Mediterranean which is calm and blue today but which yesterday was grey and overcast, with large white breakers pounding on the beach. I needed no reminder of just how rough the Mediterranean can be – back in 1977 I went through a Force 12 gale in a 165ft. dynamically-positioned diving support vessel, the Kattenturm. I was on the enclosed upper bridge but the only access to it was external, so that the captain, first officer and I myself were essentially marooned there for hours on end as waves and spray pounded it.

Kattenturm 1977 – one of the first dynamically positioned diving support vessels

The Mediterranean is narrow at the point I now am and the mountains of the Moroccan shore are visible on a clear day. The Mediterranean is funnelling towards the Straits of Gibraltar, and I’m looking out towards the location of the Battle of Malaga on 24th August 1704, perhaps the largest sea battle fought up to that time. The proximity to Gibraltar is significant since it was the capture of “The Rock” at the beginning of that month by a combined British-Dutch naval force that led to the battle. A heavy naval bombardment preceded landing of marines at two points, one force launching an attack southwards from the isthmus and another northwards from Europa Point at Gibraltar’s southern tip. The Spanish defenders were heavily outnumbered and outgunned and the governor surrendered. Gaining possession of Gibraltar was to be not only one of the key events of the War of Spanish Succession (1701-14) but one which was to have major strategic significance for Britain in all subsequent wars and right up to our own day.


Dutch (left) and British (right) marines landing at Europa Point, 1st August 1704

This strategic significance was immediately realised by the French and Spanish, and the need for immediate recapture of Gibraltar was decided on. A combined French and Spanish fleet sailed west towards Gibraltar from their base at Malaga – several ships being towed out to sea by some of the large galleys present. The total French-Spanish force consisted of over 60 sailing warships, including some 17 1st and 2nd Rate vessels, and no less than 24 rowed galleys. Nominal command was by the 28-year old Louis Alexandre, Comte de Toulouse, a legitimated son of Louis XIV by one of his mistresses. It is more likely however that actual command was by Toulouse’s deputy, Victor-Marie d’Estrées, a competent 44-year old sailor whose experience extended back to the Franco-Dutch War of the 1670s.

Alerted by intelligence that the French and Spanish had left Malaga, the combined British-Dutch fleet moved eastwards from Gibraltar to meet them. Overall command was under the 54-year old British Admiral George Rooke, whose experience was as long as that of d’Estrées. Apart from his capture of Gibraltar, Rooke had already scored a notable blow at the French-Spanish alliance by destroying a Spanish treasure fleet at Vigo Bay in 1702. Rooke’s combined British-Dutch force was roughly equal in numbers to the enemy – almost 60 ships – but had fewer 1st and 2nd rates and ammunition stocks had been depleted by the recent bombardment at Gibraltar.

The Battle of Malaga – as painted by Isaac Sailmaker (1633-1721)

The fleets were to meet in two continuous parallel lines – the preferred formation of the period – and favourable initial manoeuvring by the British-Dutch force gave it the advantage of an upwind position. The battle consisted of a long and bloody pounding match, ship against ship, and there were no attempts to break the enemy line, as was to be such a feature of Nelsonian tactics almost a century later. The casualties were to be high – over 2500 dead or wounded for the British-Dutch and 1600 for the French-Spanish. No ship was sunk or captured by either side though many were very seriously damaged and left barely seaworthy, one being a Dutch vessel which exploded the following day. Little part was played in the action by the galleys – the rowers of which must have endured hell, even if their vessels were not engaged – and they appear to have been concentrated at the rear of the French-Spanish line. Four galleys did however stage a concerted attack on a Dutch ship, the Gelderland, but were driven off by gunfire.

Exhausted and battered, the fleets disengaged, the French and Spanish returning to Toulon and Malaga and the British-Dutch to Gibraltar. In view of the heavier British-Dutch casualties the French were to claim a victory, but this could only be in the narrow tactical sense, for the action had prevented recapture of Gibraltar. The Rock was to remain in British and Dutch hands throughout the war, and in British hands thereafter. The analogy with the Battle of Jutland – also arguably a tactical defeat for the Royal Navy but an undoubted strategic victory – is very pronounced.

Notable as this battle was for its long-lasting strategic implications, and for the huge number of ships involved, and for the high casualty toll, and for the participation of galleys (perhaps the last time British ships faced them?), this battle seems to have faded from popular historic awareness. Looking out today on a calm sea I cannot but think sadly of the 4000-plus casualties and the misery they represented for so many thousands more and how different world history might have been in succeeding centuries had the outcome been otherwise.

HMS Ark Royal and some of her Swordfish in 1939 before outbreak of war

There’s one other striking link with British naval history as I look out from here. On 14th November 1941 the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal sank following a torpedo attack by a U-Boat the previous day. She lies some 30 miles due east of Gibraltar. Luckily she had remained afloat long enough for her entire complement to be taken off. In the little over two years of wartime service the Ark Royal had an almost unrivalled record of intense action, including launching the Swordfish strike that crippled the Bismarck.

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