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British expedition against Cuba

The British expedition against Cuba was a military action from March to August 1762, as part of the Seven Years' War.

Spanish preparations

Before involving his country in the conflict raging in Europe and across the world, King Carlos III of Spain had made provisions to defend the Spanish colonies against the British navy. For the defence of Cuba, he had appointed Juan de Prado as commander-in-chief.

In February 1761 de Prado arrived at Havana and began fortifications works to strengthen the city.

In June 1761, a flotilla of 7 ships of the line under the command of Admiral Gutierre de Hevia arrived at Havana. It transported two regular infantry regiments (España and Aragón) totalling some 1,000 men. With these reinforcements, the garrison of Havana now numbered 2,400 regulars while the fleet amounted to 12 ships of the line manned by 6,300 sailors, gunners, and marines.

In those days Havana probably had the best harbour in the West Indies. It could easily accommodate up to 100 ships of the line. A 180m wide and 800m long entrance channel gave access to the harbour. Furthermore, Havana housed important shipyards building first rate men of war.

Two strong fortress defended the entrance channel; on the north side of the channel stood the very strong Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro on the rocky Cavannos Ridge. It had 64 heavy guns and was garrisoned by 700 men. The south side was defended by the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta. The channel could also be blocked by a boom chain extending from El Morro to La Punta. Havana itself lay on the south side along the channel and was surrounded by a 5km wall.

British preparations

When war broke out with Spain plans were made in Great Britain for an amphibious attack on Havana. The expedition was under the command of George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle, with Vice-Admiral Sir George Pocock as naval commander. This plan also called for Jeffrey Amherst to embark 4,000 men from America to join Keppel and to assemble another force of 8,000 men for an attack on Louisiana.

During the month of February, British troops embarked, they consisted of:

On 5 March the British expedition sailed from Spithead, England, with 7 ships of the line and 4,365 men aboard 64 transports.

On 20 April the expedition arrived at Barbados.

On 25 April the expedition reached Fort Royal on the recently conquered island of Martinique where it picked up the remainder of Major-General Robert Monckton still numbering 8,461 men. Rear Admiral George Rodney's squadron, amounting to 8 ships of the line also joined the expedition bringing the total number of ships of the line to 15.

On 23 May the expedition, now off the northwest corner of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), was further reinforced by Sir James Douglas' squadron from Port Royal, Jamaica. The force under Albemarle now amounted to 21 ships of the line, 24 lesser warships, and 168 other vessels, carrying some 14,000 seamen and marines and 12,826 regulars.

The siege

On 6 June the British force came into sight of Havana. Immediately, 12 British ships of the line were sent to the mouth of the entrance channel to block in the Spanish fleet. The British planned to begin the operations by the reduction of the Morro fortress, on the north side of the channel, through a formal siege à la Vauban. The commanding position of this fort over the city would then force the Spanish commander to surrender. However, this plan did not take into account the fact that this fortress was located on a rocky promontory where it was impossible to dig approach trenches and that a large ditch cut into the rock protected the fort on the land side.

The Spanish force under Prado and Admiral Hevia, surprised by the size of the attacking force, adopted a delaying defensive strategy, hoping for a relief force or for an epidemic of yellow fever among the besiegers or for a hurricane destroying the British fleet. Accordingly, the Spanish fleet was kept in the harbour while its sailors, gunners and marines were sent to garrison the fortresses of Morro and Punta which were placed under the command of naval officers. Most of the shot and powder of the fleet as well as its best guns were also transferred to these two fortresses. Meanwhile, regular troops were assigned to the defence of the city.

The channel entrance was immediately closed with the boom chain. Furthermore, 3 ships of the line (Asia (64), Europa (64) and Neptuno (74)) were selected among the fleet for their poor condition and sunk behind the boom chain. Realising the importance of the Morro, the Spanish commanders gave it top priority.

On 7 June the British troops were landed to the northward of Havana.

On 8 June the British force advanced westward. It met a militia party that was easily pushed back. By the end of the day, the British infantry had reached the vicinity of Havana. Meanwhile, the defence of the Morro was assigned to Luis Vicente de Velasco e Isla, a naval officer, who immediately took measures to prepare and provision the fortress for a siege.

On 11 June a British party stormed a detached redoubt on the Cavannos heights. Only then did the British command realise how strong was the Morro, surrounded by brushwood and protected by a large ditch.

On 12 June, now that their siege train was on site, the British began the erection of their batteries among the trees on La Cabana hill overlooking the Morro (some 7 meters higher in fact) as well as the city and the bay. Surprisingly, this hill had been left undefended by the Spanish army despite its well known strategic importance. The king of Spain had even instructed Prado to fortify this hill, the task that he considered the most urgent among those confided to his commander.

On 13 June a British detachment landed at Chorera, on the south side of the harbour. Meanwhile, Colonel Patrick Mackellar, an engineer, was overseeing the construction of the siege works against the Morro. Since digging trenches was impossible, he resolved to erect breastworks instead. He planned to mine towards a bastion of the Morro once his siege works would have reached the ditch and to create a runway across this ditch with the rubble produced by his mining activities.

On 22 June, 4 British batteries totalling 12 heavy guns and 38 mortars opened fire on the Morro from La Cabana. Mackellar gradually advanced his breastworks towards the ditch under cover of these batteries.

By 29 June, the British batteries had increased their daily direct hits on the Morro to 500. Velasco was now losing some 30 men a day. Each night was dedicated to the repair of the fortress. The task imposed to the garrison was so exhausting that a rotation had to be established. Replacements were brought from the city every 3 days. Finally, Velasco managed to convince Prado that a raid was necessary against the British batteries.

At daylight on 29 June 988 men (grenadiers, marines, engineers, slaves...) attacked the siege works. They reached the British batteries from the rear and started to spike guns. However, British reaction was swift and the attackers were repulsed before causing any serious damage.

On 1 July, the British launched a combined land and naval attack on the Morro. The fleet detached 4 ships of the line for this purpose: HMS Stirling Castle, HMS Dragon, HMS Marlborough and HMS Cambridge. The naval and land artilleries simultaneously opened fire on the Morro. However, naval guns were ineffective, the fort being located too high. Counter-fire from 30 guns of the Morro inflicted 192 casualties and serious damage to the 4 ships of the line, forcing them to withdraw. Meanwhile, the bombardment by the land artillery was far more effective. By the end of the day, only 3 Spanish guns were still effective on the side of the Morro facing the British batteries.

On 2 July, the British breastworks around the Morro caught fire and the batteries were burned down, annihilating the results of the work undertaken since mid June. Velasco immediately capitalized on this event, remounting many guns and repairing breaches in the fortifications of the Morro.

Since its arrival at Havana, the British army had heavily suffered from yellow fever. It was now at half strength. Since the hurricane season was approaching, Albemarle was now engaged in a race against time. He ordered the batteries to be rebuilt with the help of men of the fleet. Many 32-pdrs were taken from the lower deck of several ships to equip these new batteries.

By July 17 the new British batteries had progressively silenced most of Velasco's guns. Indeed, only two were operational. With the absence of artillery cover, it had become impossible for the Spanish troops to repair the increasing damages made to the Morro. Mackellar was now able to resume construction of siege works to approach the fortress. With the army in such a bad condition, work progressed rather slowly. All hope of the British army now resided in the expected arrival of reinforcements from North America.

On July 20 the progress of siege works allowed the British to begin the mining towards the right bastion of the Morro. Meanwhile, the now unopposed British artillery was daily hitting the Morro up to 600 times, causing some 60 casualties. Velasco had now no hope but to destroy British siege works.

At 4am on 22 July 1,300 regulars, seamen and militia sallied from Havana in three columns and attacked the siege works surrounding the Morro. The sortie did not succeed and the siege works were left relatively intact.

On 24 July Albemarle offered Velasco to surrender, allowing him to write his own terms of capitulation. Velasco answered that the issue would rather be settled by force of arms.

On 27 July the reinforcements from North America led by Colonel Burton finally arrived. During their journey, they had been attacked by the French, who captured some 500 men. These reinforcements consisted of:

On 29 July the mine near the right bastion of the Morro fort was completed and ready to explode. Albemarle, vainly feigned an assault, hoping that Velasco would finally decide to surrender. On the contrary, Velasco decided to launched a desperate attack from the sea upon the British miners in the ditch.

At 2:00 AM on 30 July two Spanish schooners attacked the miners from the sea. Their attack was unsuccessful and they had to withdraw. At 1:00 PM the British finally detonated the mine. The debris of the explosion partly filled the ditch but the passage was still difficult. Nevertheless, Albemarle launched the assault, sending 699 picked men against the right bastion. Before the Spanish could react, 16 men had already gained a foothold on the bastion. Velasco then rushed to the breach with his troops. He was mortally wounded during the ensuing hand-to-hand fighting. Once the British were in control of the Morro fort Velasco was transported to Havana.

At 9:00 PM on 31 July, Velasco, the defender of the Morro, died of his wound. The British now occupied a position commanding the city as well as the bay. They built batteries along the north side of the entrance channel from the Morro fort to La Cabana hill.

On 11 August, after Prado had rejected the demand for surrender sent to him by Albermarle, the British batteries opened fire on Havana. A total of 47 guns (15 x 32-pdrs, 32 x 24-pdrs), 10 mortars and 5 howitzers pounded the city from a distance of 500-800m. By the end of the day Fort la Punta was silenced. Prado had no other choice left but to surrender.

On 12 and 13 August negotiations of the articles of capitulation went on, and Prado and his army obtained the honours of war. Hevia neglected to burn his fleet which fell intact in the hands of the British.

On 14 August the British entered the city. They had obtained possession of the most important harbour in the Spanish West Indies along with military equipment, 1,828,116 Spanish pesos and merchandise valued around 1,000,000 Spanish pesos. Furthermore, they had seized 20% of the ships of the line of the Spanish Navy, namely Aquilón (74), Conquistador (74), Reina (70), San Antonio (64), Tigre (70), San Jenaro (60), África (70), América (60), Infante (74) and Soberano (74), together with 3 frigates, 9 smaller vessels and some armed vessels belonging to trading companies (Compañía de La Habana and Compañía de Caracas). Furthermore, two new almost-completed ships of the line were seized in the dockyards - San Carlos (80) and Santiago (60 or 80).

During the siege the British had lost 1,000 from enemy fire. However, by October 18, they had lost a total of 5,000 men from sickness. One of the most depleted brigade was transferred to North America where it lost a further 360 men whitin a month of his arrival.

On their return to Spain Prado and Hevia were court-martialed and convicted.

Aftermath

The loss af Havana and Western Cuba was a serious blow for Spain. Not only were the financial losses considerable, the loss in prestige was even greater. This defeat, together with the conquest of Manila by the British one and a half months later, meant the loss of both the capitals of the Spanish West Indies and the Spanish East Indies. This confirmed British naval supremacy, and indicated that Great Britain could successfully strike the Spanish wherever they wanted. Just as the earlier War of Jenkins' ear had forced the British government into a thorough review of its military, this war forced the Spanish government into undertaking a similar process.

Havana and Manila were given back to Spain in the Treaty of Paris (1763) but Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain in return.

References

  • Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 541-544
  • Sanchez-Galarraga, Jorge, Luis de Velasco - Siege of Havana, 1762, Seven Years War Association Journal Vol. XII No. 2
  • Retrieved from "http://www.kronoskaf.com/syw/index.php?title=1762_-_British_expedition_against_Cuba"
  • LA TOMA DE LA HABANA POR LOS INGLESES (Spanish)

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