1762 - British expedition against Havana – Siege till the naval attack on Morro Castle

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Campaigns >> 1762 - British expedition against Cuba >> 1762 - British expedition against Havana – Siege till the naval attack on Morro Castle

The campaign lasted from March to August 1762. This article describes the first phase of the campaign from June 6 to July 1, 1762.

Introduction

The Spanish preparations in 1761, the British preparations in 1762, the concentration of the British expeditionary forces in the West Indies and their arrival in front of Havana are described in our article 1762 - British expedition against Havana – Preparations and Arrival.

Map of Havana

Map of Havana - Source: "History of the British Army" volume II by J. W. Fortescue

In these days, Havana probably had the the best harbour of the West Indies. It could easily accommodate up to 100 ships of the line. A 180 m wide and 800 m 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. One 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 (300 infantry, 50 seamen and 50 gunners, with 300 African labourers). 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 5 km wall.

Description

Arrival of the British amphibious forces

On the morning of June 6, Pocock's sails were seen from the top of Morro Castle, and an officer hurried across the harbour to tell the news in the city; but only to be reprimanded for spreading false alarms. The fleet could be nothing, he was told, but the regular Jamaica convoy homeward bound. Finally it was not till fresh messengers reported in the evening that a fleet was standing in a little to the eastward with flat-boats in tow that the miracle could be believed. Then all was alarm. Then and not till then the garrison was mobilised, the militia called out, and horses sought for the dragoons. Anson's clever device had entirely succeeded. The surprise was complete. Pocock had arrived off the Coximar river, about 28 km east of the Morro. Before sailing he and Albemarle had been furnished with a copy of Knowles's report. It indicated the sandy bay where the river falls into the sea as the only possible landing-place, since on the further or city side of the harbour the coast was supposed to be all foul ground. Here then the admiral dropped the transports and a division of 6 ships of the line and some frigates under Commodore Augustus Keppel to destroy the two forts which they found guarding the bay, exactly as Knowles had stated, and to cover the landing. At 2:00 PM, Pocock himself with the remaining 13 ships of the line bore away with 13 ships of the line, 2 frigates, the bombs, and 36 victuallers and storeships, and ran down towards the mouth of the entrance channel to block in the Spanish fleet. Pocock got his marines into the boats and made a feint of landing on the further or western side of the city. At the same time Keppel, having quickly destroyed the forts, was getting the troops ashore in the usual 3 divisions under Captains Hervey, Barton and Drake at a point on the east side of Coximar Bay which Knowles had advised, and it was done without the loss of a man. In the harbour, Pocock could see 12 Spanish ships of the line and several merchantmen, more precisely the ships of the line were:

  • Tigre (70), Marqués del Real Trasporte and Don J. Y. Madariaga
  • Reina (70), Don L. de Velasco
  • Soberano (74), Don J. del Postigo
  • Infante (74), Don F. de Medina
  • Neptuno (74), Don P. Bermudez
  • Aquilón (74), Marqués Gonzales
  • Asia (64), Don F. Garganta
  • América (60), Don J. Antonio
  • Europa (64), Don J. Vincente
  • Conquistador (74), Don P. Castejon
  • San Jenaro (60), not yet commissioned
  • San Antonio (64), not yet commissioned

Furthermore, there were two unfinished ships upon the stocks: the San Carlos (80) and the Santiago (60 or 80).

From this moment, Albemarle began to depart from Knowles's plan. From the point where the landing was made a path led through the bush to the inner end of La Cabana ridge where the redoubt had been planned, and Knowles had recommended that an immediate advance should be made along this track and the position seized. For some reason this was not done, probably because the soldiers considered that the Morro Castle rendered the ridge untenable. This formidable work stood at its seaward end upon a somewhat isolated rock, and formed the main defence of the harbour entrance. It was to be assumed that it enfiladed La Cabana ridge. Knowles seems to have thought it did not : and, moreover, had satisfied himself that from the Quarry Hill, in which the ridge terminated towards the sea just short of the Morro, the Castle could be attacked on its weakest side. The soldiers apparently were of a different opinion. At all events, though an immediate advance was made, it was not made upon the ridge. The soldiers preferred to make direct for the bastioned front of Morro. They therefore advanced along the shore, Keppel scouring the beach and woods before them with his small cruisers, With this help they had passed the last obstacle between them and their objective before night. Still no attempt on La Cabana ridge was made.

Landing of the British troops

On the morning of June 7, Pocock made a feint of landing the Marines about 6 km to the west of Havana, while the Earl of Albemarle, with the whole army, landed without opposition between the rivers Boca Nao and Coximar, 10 km east of Morro Castle, under the conduct of captains Hervey, Barton, Drake, Arbuthnot, Jekyll, and Wheelock of the Royal Navy. After the landing of the British force, the Spaniards made some show of fight, especially when the British troops were about to cross the river Coximar but the Spaniards were dispersed by the fire of the Mercury (20), Bonetta (10), and Dragon (74). A detachment of seamen and 900 Marines were landed to co-operate.

On June 7, a corps was detached under Eliott with orders to force his way through the woods below it, and endeavour to seize the village of Guanabacoa, which lay in the open country beyond at the head of Havana Bay. Driving a considerable body of troops before him, Elliot successfully accomplished his task. The idea of the operation seems to have been to secure horses and fresh provisions, and to cut off the communication of the city with the interior on that side, and to cover the siege. The whole movement had the effect of permanently dividing the British army and of preventing Eliott's corps taking any part in the subsequent siege operations. It appears also as the first indication of Albemarle's incapacity for the kind of operation entrusted to him. A coup de main is the method to which such combined attacks peculiarly lend themselves, and which above all in such a climate they particularly demand. Pocock had handed the general a complete surprise for the purpose, yet he was proceeding by the text-book rules for continental warfare in Europe, and every hour was letting his chances slip. Indeed, during all this time the Spanish Council of War was sitting in distracted debate. An order had been immediately issued to complete the unfinished redoubt which had been designed for the shore end of La Cabana ridge, so as to enfilade the whole; for the truth was that by this means alone could its occupation by the enemy be prevented. About 1,000 sailors from the fleet were set to drag up guns to arm it. The Spaniards considered that the place which the British had chosen for their landing indicated La Cabana as the first objective. But in the panic that prevailed no one thought of covering the working parties by abatis or other temporary expedients such as the difficult ground afforded in abundance. The consequence was fatal.

On the night of June 7 to 8, Carleton pushed a reconnaissance towards the Spanish works. The Spaniards took it for an attack in force, and retired. The panic spread to the Council, and in spite of the direct and elaborate orders from Spain they hastily decided to spike the 12 heavy guns which the sailors had got up, and to abandon the position as untenable. But still Albemarle let it alone. In the city, they almost gave themselves up for lost. 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.

On June 8, the Spanish commanders gave top priority to the defence of Morro Castle which was assigned to Luis de Velasco, a naval officer. Who immediately took measures to prepare and provision the fortress for a siege. With all the warning they had had, and the years Spain had been preparing for war, the regular force in the place, as previously stated, was under 3,000, including marines and available seamen, and the militia and volunteers amounted to less than 6,000. 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. Without the help of Hevia's crews, the Spanish commanders regarded the place as untenable, and the depressing step was taken of paralysing the fleet which 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.

On June 11, under cover of a diversion which Pocock made to the westward, Carleton seized the end of the Cabana ridge adjoining the Morro with hardly any resistance, but no use was made of the lodgement. The idea was merely to prevent interruption of the siege works which were now opened against the Morro. Only then did the British command realize how strong was the Morro, surrounded by brushwood and protected by a large ditch. Thus several days had been lost to no purpose, and of the rest of the proceedings the best that can be said is that they continued to afford an unhappy example of the unwisdom of committing such work to a general without experience of combined expeditions, and with no genius for amphibious warfare. Indeed, the city walls were low and old, designed merely for defence against buccaneers; in several places they had crumbled down and half-filled the ditch, and whatever loss a bold assault in the early days would have cost it must have been far less than that which Albemarle's tactics involved.

Siege of Fort Morro

On June 12, 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. The entrance to the splendid haven was but 800 m. wide. It was defended in the strongest manner. Besides the Morro Castle and two heavy batteries below it on the water's edge, there was on the opposite or western side the formidable Punta Fort and the city batteries, denying all access. Yet even so the timid and startled Council could not rest at ease, and the insane resolution was taken of sinking 3 ships of the line selected among the fleet for their poor condition to block the entrance. The channel entrance was immediately closed with the boom chain. According to orders, the Asia (64), Europa (64) and Neptuno (74) were then sunk behind this boom chain. So, for no possible good, they imprisoned their own fleet and rendered Pocock free to assist the army. The British had been presented gratuitously with the absolute local command of the sea, and the admiral was able to perform the last part of his special task, and send word to Douglas that all was clear for him to pass the convoy homeward.

On June 13, a British detachment landed at Chorera, on the south side of the harbour. In this action, Lieutenant Walker, commanding the Lurcher cutter, going up the Chorera river out of mere curiosity, had the misfortune to be killed. According to Knowles's information, a landing on the city side was impossible, owing to there being all foul ground off the shore. Now Pocock found out that it was not so. In fact, good anchorage was found all along the coast, but it made no difference to Albemarle who persisted in his enterprise against Morro Castle. Accordingly, Colonel Patrick Mackellar, an engineer, continued to oversee 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. Finally, and worst of all, there was no water to be found; every drop had to be brought by the seamen from the other side of the bay.

On June 15, Pocock landed at Chorera, by Albemarle's request, 2 battalions of marines and the detachment of infantry which the general sent across with Howe. This looked more like the proper thing, but nothing came of it. Albemarle could not rise to anything better than a commonplace diversion. In a single night, as at Quebec, sufficient troops could have been thrown across to Pocock's side to rush the defences of the city itself, while Eliott's corps replaced them before the Morro. The possibilities of a successful surprise were great enough.

On June 22, 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 June 29, 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 June 29, 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 July 1, the British launched a combined land and naval attack on the Morro. The fleet detached 4 ships of the line under Captain Hervey for this purpose: the Cambridge (80), the Dragon (74), the Marlborough (68) and an unidentified ship. At about 8:00 AM, the naval and land artilleries simultaneously opened fire on the Morro. The artillery duel lasted till 2:00 PM. However, naval guns were ineffective, the fort being located too high. Counter-fire from 30 guns of the Morro inflicted serious damage to the ships who, one after another, had to be called off. The Cambridge lost 24 killed and 95 wounded; the Dragon, 16 killed and 37 wounded; and the Marlborough, 2 killed and 8 wounded. Among the killed in the Cambridge was Captain Goostrey, whose place was afterwards taken by Captain Lindsay of the Trent (28). 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.

Continuation

The other phases of the expedition are described in the following articles:

References

This article is mostly a compilation of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Clowes, Wm. Laird: The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 238-239, 245-250
  • Corbett, Julian S.; England in the Seven Years' War – A Study in Combined Strategy, Vol II; New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1907; pp. 250-284
  • Fortescue, J. W.: A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 541-544

Other sources

Greentree, David; A Far-Flung Gamble - Havana 1762, Osprey Publishing

Sanchez-Galarraga, Jorge, Luis de Velasco - Siege of Havana, 1762, Seven Years War Association Journal Vol. XII No. 2

Acknowledgments

Andy Francis, Jean-Pierre Loriot and Juan for the information provided