The siege of Tarifa of 20 December 1811-5 January 1812 was an unsuccessful French attempt to capture one of the few remaining Spanish-held strongholds in Andalusia. The small coastal town of Tarifa had been occupied by a small British garrison early in 1811, and in October 1811 that garrison was expanded to contain a British brigade under Colonel Skerrett and a Spanish brigade under General Copons, a combined force of just under 4,000 men. In November this garrison had made an attack on an outlying part of the French lines around Cadiz, and Marshal Soult decided to attack the town.
Tarifa appeared to be a very weak defensive position. It had no modern fortifications, and was only protected by its medieval walls. The town was surrounded by low hills, ideal for French bombardment. At the north eastern corner of the walls a stream entered the town, and this was considered to be the weakest point in the walls. The defenders made a great effort to create an inner line of defences inside the walls, and expected these to be more effective than the walls themselves.
To the south of the town was a rocky island, connected to the mainland by a sandy causeway. This had been fortified, and would have made a strong final refuge for the garrison.
The French detached 15,000 men from the siege of Cadiz, under the command of Marshal Victor. Although they began to move on 8 December, heavy rain slowed them down, and the 10,000 men allocated to the actual siege itself did not reach Tarifa until 19 December. This slow journey played a major part in the failure of the French plans, for they had to carry all of their food with them, and used up a significant amount of their supplies during the march.
The siege began on 20 December, when the French pushed in the British and French pickets, and by 4pm the town was blockaded. Work on the first parallel, facing the north eastern wall of the town, began on the night of 23-24 December, and the bombardment began on the morning of 29 December. By the end of the first day there was already a breach in the walls!
This demonstration of the weakness of the walls caused a crisis within the town. Colonel Skerrett argued in favour of evacuating the town and pulling back to the rocky island to the south, and was so convinced of his case that he ordered the only heavy gun in the town to be spiked. Skerrett was opposed by his junior officers, while General Copons made it clear that he was going to defend the walls regardless. One of Skerrett’s junior officers, Major King, the commander of a detachment from Gibraltar, sent a message back to General Campbell, at Gibraltar, warning him of Skerrett’s plans, and Campbell sent a return message making it clear that the British were to defend the town. He also withdrew the transport ships at Tarifa, making it impossible for Skerrett to carry out his plan.
The French bombardment continued on 30 December, and by the end of the day the breach was sixty feet wide. That evening the weather intervened. A torrential rainstorm caused a flash-flood, which swept away some of the defensives on the north eastern wall, but also flooded the French trenches and camps. The French had planned to storm the breach at dawn on 31 December, but they were forced to delay their attack for several hours in an attempt to dry out.
This gave the defenders time to prepare for the onslaught. A battalion of Copons’s troops held the breach, with the British 87th Regiment of Foot on the walls to either side, and part of the 47th in a town to the south east.
The French began their attack at 9am, and soon came under heavy musket fire. The rain had turned the ground outside the town to mud, and so the French advance was much slower than normal. Even so, some of the leading French troops reached the top of the breach, just to discover a fourteen-foot drop into the town. The rest of the French attacking force then turned right, and attempted to break into the town along the line of the stream, but the portcullis protecting the stream had been repaired in time after the floods, and this attack also failed. The French were forced to pull back to their trenches, having suffered somewhere between 210 and 400 casualties. The British lost 36 men and the Spanish 20.
The weather continued to play a major part in the siege. The rain meant that the besieging force was cut off from the main French armies around Cadiz, and on 1 January the various French camps outside Tarifa were cut off from each other. Food was running short in the French camps, and General Leval was already convinced that they needed to retreat. Victor refused to agree on 1 January, and attempted to reopen the bombardment, but another heavy rainstorm hit the area on the night of 3-4 January, and even Victor had to admit that the French cause was hopeless. On the night of 4-5 January, after spiking nine of their twelve heavy guns, the French abandoned the siege.