Brave, honourable, a good strategist… many are the adjectives that can be applied to great heroes such as Admiral Nelson, whose name still resonates in Britain. However, they are also characteristics that Blas de Lezo, a one-eyed, one-legged and one-armed officer of the Spanish navy who managed to resist the attack of 195 English ships with just six vessels during the 18th century, could also boast of.
This story, worthy of being featured in any film of the famous “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga, is one of many in which the strategic capacity of the Spanish navy of the time has been demonstrated. However, it adds to the dozens of feats that have fallen into oblivion.
One-legged, one-armed and one-eyed
Blas de Lezo was born in Pasajes, Guipúzcoa, on 3 February 1687, although there is still controversy about the place and year he was born. “The sources are confusing and point to another possible place of birth and another date two years later, but there is no doubt that he is a Basque sailor who became one of the greatest strategists of the Spanish Navy in its history”, says Jesús María Ruiz Vidondo, a doctor in military history, collaborator of the GEES (Strategic Studies Group) and teacher at the Elortzibar secondary school.
His military career began in 1704, when he was still a teenager. In those years, a war was raging in Spain between the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties for the crown after the death of King Carlos II, who had no descendants. “Blas de Lezo had studied in France when it was Spain’s ally in the War of the Spanish Succession. He was 17 years old when he enlisted as a midshipman in the French squadron under the command of the Count of Toulouse”, the historian points out.
That same year he lost his leg. “He lost his leg in the battle of Vélez-Málaga, the most important battle of the War of the Spanish Succession, in which the Anglo-Dutch and Franco-Spanish squads clashed”, says Vidondo. “It was a tough battle in which a cannonball took Blas de Lezo’s left leg, but he continued at his fighting post. Afterwards, the limb had to be amputated below the knee without anaesthetic. The chronicles say that the boy did not utter a moan during the operation“, says Vidondo.
Although the battle ended without a clear winner, the sailor began to be known for his heroism. “Blas de Lezo was praised by the great French admiral for his intrepidity and serenity, and for his behaviour he was promoted to second lieutenant”, explains the expert in military history.
He lost his eye two years later, in the same war, in the fortress of Saint Catherine of Toulon while fighting against the troops of Prince Eugene of Savoy. “In this action, after a cannon shot hit the fortification, a splinter lodged in his left eye, which exploded on the spot. He thus lost his sight forever, but he wanted to continue in the service and not abandon it”, Vidondo says. Undoubtedly luck was not on his side, but Lezo carried on.
Finally, when he was 26 years old, fate was once again elusive with this sailor. “The War of Succession had practically ended in July 1713 with the signing of peace with Great Britain, but Catalonia was still in arms for the supporters of the House of Austria. The sailor took part in several battles and bombardments of the square of Barcelona. In one of them, on 11 September 1714, he got too close to the enemy defences and was hit by a musket ball in the right forearm, which broke several tendons and left him maimed for life“, says the expert. Thus, after becoming one-legged, one-eyed and without a hand, Blas de Lezo became known as “Admiral Wooden Leg” or the “Halfman”. His legend had begun.
Once the War of the Spanish Succession was over, Lezo stood out for his service to Spain. One of his most outstanding missions was the one he undertook in 1720 aboard the galleon “Lanfranco”. “He was part of a Spanish-French squadron commanded by Bartolomé de Urdazi with the task of putting an end to the corsairs and pirates of the so-called South Seas (Peru)”, says the historian.
“Their first operations were against the English privateer John Clipperton. The latter managed to avoid them and flee to Asia, where he was captured and executed”, concludes the doctor in military history. For this and other exploits, the king promoted “Admiral Wooden Leg” to lieutenant general in 1734. However, his most difficult mission came when he was sent to Cartagena de Indias (Colombia) as commander general.
Lezo’s greatest challenge
Blas de Lezo’s greatest challenge was undoubtedly in Colombia, where he had to defend Cartagena de Indias (the centre of American trade and where the riches of the Spanish colonies converged) from the British, who were anxious to conquer the territory. In this case, the British took advantage of an affront to their empire to try to take the city.
The pretext was the raid on a British ship. “It was against this background that in 1738 Robert Jenkins appeared before the House of Commons, a British smuggler whose ship, the Rebecca, had been seized in April 1731 by a Spanish coastguard, who confiscated its cargo. Parliamentary opposition and later public opinion sanctioned the incidents as an offence to national honour”, says Vidondo. The perfect excuse had arrived and war was declared on Spain.
Preparations began, and the British spared no expense. “To avenge Jenkins’ ear, England assembled a formidable fleet never before seen in history (with the exception of the one used in the Normandy landings), under the command of English Admiral Edward Vernon. The armada consisted of 195 ships, 3,000 guns and some 25,000 Englishmen supported by 4,000 more US militiamen, commanded by Lawrence, President Washington’s half-brother”, says the military history expert.
In contrast, Blas de Lezo did not have a large number of soldiers or ships to defend the city. “The defences of Cartagena were no more than 3,000 men, 600 Indians, plus the seamen and marines of the six warships that the city had: the ‘Galicia’ (which was the captain’s ship), the ‘San Felipe’, the ‘San Carlos’, the ‘África’, the ‘Dragón’ and the ‘Conquistador’. The ratio of Spaniards to Englishmen was one Spaniard for every 10 Englishmen”, Vidondo explains.
But what the “Almirante Wooden Leg” had in his favour was a terrain that could be used by a great strategist like him. The only way to enter Cartagena de Indias by sea was through two narrow accesses, known as “Bocachica” and “Bocagrande”. The former was defended by two forts (San Luis and San José) and the latter by four forts and a castle (San Sebastián, Santa Cruz, Manzanillo, Santiago – the furthest away – and San Felipe castle).
Lezo prepared for defence, stationed several of his ships at the two entrances to the bays and gave orders that, if they were overrun, they were to be sunk so that they would not be captured and so that their remains would prevent the English ships from entering Cartagena de Indias. The war had begun and the “Mediohombre” prepared for defence.
The battle begins
“On 13 March 1741, the largest war fleet that would ever sail the seas until the Normandy landings appeared. By the 15th the entire enemy armada had been deployed in encirclement. At the beginning, British superiority was evident and easy actions allowed them to take over the area around the fortified city”, says Vidondo.
“The battle began at sea. After realising that they could not gain access to the bay, the British began an incessant bombardment against the forts in the harbour. Blas de Lezo supported the defenders with artillery from his ships, which he had placed close enough. He used chained balls, among other tricks, to disable the English ships“, recounts the historian.
After wiping out several batteries of cannon, Vernon set about disembarking some of his men, who managed to take up positions on land. “The English then set about cannonading the fortress of San Luis de Bocachica day and night for sixteen days, the average rate of fire being 62 big shots per hour”, says the military history expert. The bombardment was massive and the Spaniards had to abandon the forts of San José and Santa Cruz in the following days.
The impetus of the attack forced the Spaniard to take a tough decision: “Lezo set fire to his ships to obstruct the navigable channel of Bocachica, although the Galicia did not burn in time. Nevertheless, he managed to delay the British advance considerably. Blas de Lezo decided to give the order to retreat in the face of the offensive superiority and the number of Spanish casualties”, says Vidondo.
At Bocagrande, the same tactic was followed and the only two remaining ships (the Dragón and the Conquistador) were sunk to make it difficult for the enemy to enter. “The sacrifice was in vain, as the British towed the hull of one of them before it sank to re-establish the passage and disembarked“, the expert says. The positions had been lost and the Spaniards defended themselves in the fort of San Sebastián and Manzanillo. In addition, the last bastion was the castle of San Felipe.
Vernon believes himself the victor
The English had succeeded in destroying several fortresses and in establishing themselves in the bays of Cartagena de Indias after overcoming the obstacles set up by the Spanish. Undoubtedly, they felt victory was near. “Vernon then triumphantly entered the bay with his ship Almirante with the flags unfurled, declaring the battle won“, recounts the historian.
Vernon then sent a corvette to England with a message announcing his great victory over the Spanish. The news was greeted with great celebrations among the population and, due to the jubilation, a commemorative coin was minted to commemorate the great victory. It read “Spanish pride humiliated by Vernon” and also featured an engraving of Blas de Lezo kneeling in front of the Admiral.
The victory of the “Half-Man”
Vernon was determined, the hour of victory had arrived. For this reason, he wanted to put the finishing touch to it by taking the symbol of Spanish resistance: the castle of San Felipe, where, according to the historian, only six hundred soldiers were holding out. However, the assault from the front was suicidal, so the English decided to go around the fortress and attack the Spaniards from behind. “To do so, they went through the jungle, which caused hundreds of soldiers to die of disease, but in the end they arrived and Vernon ordered the attack”, says Vidondo.
According to the doctor in history, the first English assault was made against an entrance to the fortress and resulted in the death of approximately 1,500 soldiers at the hands of the 600 Spaniards who managed to resist and defend their position despite their numerical inferiority. After this initial attack, Vernon despaired at the prospect of losing a battle that seemed, until a few hours ago, to have been won in advance. Finally, in Vidondo’s terms, the officer ordered a new assault, although this time he planned that his soldiers would use ladders so that they could attack the ramparts directly.
On the night of 19 April, the British organised themselves into three groups to attack San Felipe. “At the front of the formation were the Jamaican slaves armed with a machete”, explains the doctor in history. However, the raiders were in for a big surprise: the ladders were not long enough to reach the top of the ramparts. “Admiral Wooden Leg had ordered a moat to be dug near the walls to increase their height and prevent the assault“, says Vidondo. The Spaniards then took advantage of the situation and wiped out hundreds of Englishmen. The battle had just taken an unexpected turn due to the ingenuity of one man, or rather, “Half-man”.
The next day, according to the historian, the Spaniards emerged from the fortress ready to take advantage of the psychological blow the British had suffered. Lezo ran in the front line, charging at the front of the formation while holding the gun with his one arm. Finally, after a bloody struggle, the less than 600 defenders managed to force the enemy to retreat and return to their ships. Now, and definitively, victory belonged to the Spanish soldiers and, above all, to a single combatant: “Admiral Wooden Leg”.
After that battle, there followed a series of attempts by the British to conquer the fortress, but they were repulsed. “Vernon withdrew to his ships and ordered a massive bombardment of the city for almost a month, but to no avail”, says the expert.
In the end, Vernon left the waters of Cartagena de Indias with, according to official figures, some 5,000 British dead. However, according to Vidondo, it is difficult to believe that the figure is so low, as the officer had to sink several ships in his flight because he did not have enough crew to handle them and did not want them to fall into Spanish hands. “Every ship looked like a hospital”, says the historian.
In fact, according to legend, Vernon felt such hatred for the “Half-man” that, as he and his fleet sailed away back to England, he shouted to the winds “God damn you, Lezo!” He could curse all he liked, but he had been defeated.
The English’s lies
In addition, according to Vidondo, Vernon still had one last bad thing to do: to report back to England that he had lost the battle. When he arrived back home, however, it seems that he did not have the courage to make the news public, and so time passed until his countrymen finally discovered the deception. When it came to light, the shame was so overwhelming for the country that more drastic measures were taken to silence the great defeat: “King George II forbade any kind of publication about the battle”, Vidondo concludes.