The Battle of Flamborough Head – 23 September 1779
As late summer turned to autumn a battle was fought off the north-east coast of England which would be forever celebrated in the annals of the American Navy. The chief protagonists were the Bonhomme Richard 40, commanded by the passionate, resourceful, but not always popular John Paul Jones on behalf of the rebel American Congress, and the brand new two-decked Serapis 44, Captain Richard Pearson, of the Royal Navy.
Jones was a man with a dubious reputation who had fled his native Scotland to become one of the first commanders in the rebel service. During the previous year, whilst commanding the Ranger 18, he had distinguished himself in the temporary occupation of the port of Whitehaven, and in the capture of the British sloop Drake 16. The latter had been carried triumphantly to Brest, but here Jones had struggled to keep his crew loyal due to the lack of pay, provisions, and the mutinous tendencies of his first lieutenant, Thomas Simpson
Whilst visiting Paris, Jones was able to gain the patronage of several prominent ladies at the court of King Louis XVI, and with their support and the backing of the American commissioner, Benjamin Franklin, he obtained the use of a superior vessel. This was a French East Indiaman, the Duc de Duras, which had been constructed to a design that would easily allow it to be converted into a man of war. Built some fifteen years previously, although her frames were not as solid as a regular fighting vessel she was capable of carrying forty guns, and she boasted huge fighting tops from which anti-personnel warfare could be practised. This ship was quickly renamed the Bonhomme Richard to honour Franklin’s many years of success in publishing his ‘Poor Richard’s Almanac’.
Jones armed the vessel with any heavy guns he could find, some of which were procured from a Lorient scrap yard, and he manned her with a motley collection of men and officers including Irish, Americans, Portuguese, Maltese, ex-British prisoners-of-war, and a contingent of French marines. A small squadron of four other ships was placed under his command, these being the American frigate Alliance 36, commanded by an obtuse and independently-minded Frenchman, Captain Pierre Landais, a converted merchantmen which became the French frigate Pallas 34, Captain Denis Nicolas Cottineau de Kerloguen, another ex-merchantmen which became the French brig Vengeance 12, and a swift cutter, the Cerf. Although the last three vessels flew the American flag they were manned and officered by Frenchmen.
After a brief venture into the Bay of Biscay which was almost curtailed following a collision between the Bonhomme Richard and the Alliance, the squadron sailed from Lorient on 14 August for a six-week cruise in the company of two privateers that were also placed under Jones’ command. Their intention was to raid the inshore commerce and ports of Ireland, Scotland and northern England, to attempt the capture of any returning ships from the West Indies or the British Baltic convoy, and then to enter the Texel to bring home a French timber convoy.
It is fair to say that the Irish leg of the cruise did not go well. Very quickly, one of the French privateer captains quarrelled with Jones over a prize and separated, a boat full of men sent to bring off some sheep were made prisoner by the local populace and sent to Tralee Jail, then up to twenty Englishmen who had been serving aboard the Bonhomme Richard escaped to Kerry in Jones’ barge, taking with them one of the ship’s lieutenants and another boat. Jones’ powers of command and loyalty were further tested by the behaviour of the unstable Landais who berated him furiously for his failings to date, and to make matters worse the Cerf lost contact with the squadron and fled for France, then the second privateer disappeared with a prize she clearly didn’t want to share with the commodore. Finally on 26 August the Pallas and Alliance parted company in rough weather.
With his squadron reduced from seven vessels to two, and with the rest of the Irish coast now on high alert, Jones made the best of his way to the west coast of Scotland, where before rounding Cape Wrath he was at least rejoined on the 31st by the Alliance with a prize West Indiaman, and then by the Pallas. A valuable storeship bound for Quebec was also captured, but Landais, as insubordinate as ever, disobeyed Jones’ orders in sending both this prize and the West Indiamen into Danish territory from where the two vessels were soon returned to the British. No doubt with some relief, Jones did nothing to prevent the perpetually obstructive Landais from taking the Alliance on another independent cruise, and steering through the Orkney Islands with the Bonhomme Richard, Pallas and Vengeance in company the commodore sailed around to the east coast of Scotland.
Having taken a couple of prizes off Dunbar, the remnants of the squadron proceeded up the Firth of Forth on 14 September with the intention of destroying the shipping at Leith and demanding a ransom from the town. Fortunately for the Scottish citizenry the two remaining French captains displayed a great reluctance to join the undertaking, and when they did finally accept after being promised some easy pickings, a westerly gale sent the three vessels scuttling back out to sea. Abandoning the reluctant Pallas, Jones then entered the mouth of the Humber with the Bonhomme Richard and Vengeance, but despite his best efforts he could not entice a British convoy harboured there to come out.
Jones now made his way northwards towards Flamborough Head, where on the morning of 23 September he fell in with the Alliance and Pallas again, and more importantly, at around midday, the vanguard of the British Baltic convoy escorted by the Serapis 44, Captain Pearson, and a hired sloop, the Countess of Scarborough 20, Commander Thomas Piercy. This fleet of forty-one vessels had left the coast of Norway a week earlier, and Pearson had already seen several of his charges into the safety of Scottish and Northumbrian ports.
Jones’ squadron had taken seventeen prizes to date, but the commodore had hoped to achieve far more, and undoubtedly might have done so but for the insubordinate behaviour of Captain Landais and the privateersmen, and to a lesser extent the intransigence of the other three French commanders. This was to be not only his greatest opportunity for glory but also probably his last chance before adhering to the orders that had directed he finish his cruise by entering the Texel.
Upon sighting the first handful of vessels rounding Flamborough Head, the Alliance, which was some way ahead of the rest of the squadron, bore away to investigate them, and she was soon followed by her eager consorts. As more vessels came into view and their identity became apparent, Jones tried to form his squadron into a line of battle behind the Bonhomme Richard. He was foiled by the unruliness of Captain Landais, who either distrusting the aptitude of his commodore to manage a full scale engagement, or perhaps anxious not to see his command detained in battle when there were so many lucrative prizes on offer, broke away to converse with Captain Cottineau de Kerloguen of the Pallas. The latter officer did at least adhere to Jones’ signal to advance upon the British, whilst the Vengeance was at this point well astern and would play no part in the events that unfolded.
Captain Pearson had previously been informed that a rebel squadron was loose off the coast, and at about midday the near presence of the four men-of-war had been confirmed by a boat that had put out to him from Scarborough with a letter from the town’s bailiffs. Enjoying the benefit of the weather-gauge, he immediately took his frigate to windward so as to be between the merchantmen and the enemy, which interposition gave the convoy the opportunity to run for protection under the Scarborough batteries. Not until 1 p.m. were the mast-heads of the rebel squadron seen from the Serapis lookouts, and when they were finally visible from her deck at about 4 p.m. Pearson ordered the Countess of Scarborough, which was inshore with the merchantmen, to close with him, a manoeuvre that took her ninety minutes to complete. By now the Bonhomme Richard and Pallas were slowly approaching with a light south south-westerly breeze, whilst the skittish Alliance was following her own course.
Throughout the rest of the late afternoon and early evening the men-of-war gradually converged upon each other, and at 6 p.m., the light breeze being in the south south-west, Pearson tacked and headed towards the coast in order to preserve the safety of those ships of the convoy that were still heading for Scarborough. By seven o’clock in the evening, with a large crowd gathering on Flamborough Head to watch the impending action, both the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis were at battle stations. Captain Pearson laid his topsails to the mast and awaited his foe, whilst in order to prevent the Alliance sailing past them and get at the convoy the Countess of Scarborough bore up into the wind.
The Serapis had only been in commission since the spring of 1779, and terms of a cohesive entity her officers and crew of some two hundred and eighty men were barely any more experienced than that of the enemy vessels they were about to engage. In terms of a broadside, she boasted ten 18-pounder cannon on her lower gun-deck, ten 9-pounders on her upper gun-deck, and five six-pounders on her forecastle and quarterdeck, equating to a weight of metal of 300 pounds.
Given the haste and arbitrary nature of her gun procurement the precise armament of the Bonhomme Richard was unclear, but it had been intended that she carry a potential broadside of 312 pounds consisting of fourteen conventional 12-pounder cannon on her main deck, four 9-pounder cannon on her forecastle, gangway and quarterdeck, and an additional six long but potentially erratic 18-pounders on her lower deck that could be manoeuvred to supplement either broadside. In terms of complement the requirement for Jones to send crew members off in prizes had reduced his manpower to about three hundred and twenty men, some forty more than his opponent, and although two of his absentees were the lieutenant taken prisoner off Ireland and another lieutenant sent to take possession of a prize that morning, the presence of a French lieutenant-colonel of infantry and other officers aboard would prove invaluable.
On paper therefore there was little to choose between the two antagonists, but the viability of the Bonhomme Richard’s makeshift lower-deck 18-pounders was key, and if they were to prove unusable, or if he were unable to obtain any assistance from his French allies, then Jones would require cunning, resilience and a large dose of good fortune to defeat the Serapis. Tactically he would need to negate the inferiority of his ship’s timber defences and accentuate the superiority of his huge fighting tops and surplus of men by laying the Serapis alongside and scrapping it out in personnel combat, rather than lying off and suffering the British frigate’s destructive broadsides.
As the Bonhomme Richard came up to windward on her larboard bow, the Serapis began to make steerage way. At 7.20, with both ships edging inshore on the larboard tack, Pearson hailed ‘what ship is that?’ to which Jones, gently easing the Bonhomme Richard’s larboard broadside towards the Serapis and arriving within musket shot on her lee bow ordered the obfuscating reply ‘Princess Royal’. A further demand from Pearson for clarification of the stranger’s identity was met with the raising of the Stars and Stripes. The rebels then opened fire with a single shot in the twilight, to which the Serapis gave a full broadside in return, one that was instantly matched by the Bonhomme Richard. Shortly afterwards the Alliance unleashed her own broadside at the Countess of Scarborough which replied in kind.
Not long into his engagement with the Serapis two of Jones’ experimental eighteen-pounders exploded, killing several men and doing a great deal of damage below decks. Their failure caused the abandonment of the other four lower deck 18-pounders, thereby reducing the Bonhomme Richard’s broadside weight to about 200 pounds, which was far less than that of her opponent. Nevertheless, attempting to take advantage of the momentum which had carried his ship slightly ahead of the Serapis, Jones turned his bows with the intention of crossing the British frigate’s path to rake her. The superior sailing quality of the opponent prevented this, and with the Serapis gaining ever more steerage way the two ships were soon exchanging broadsides side by side. Jones then backed his topsails in order to lie within pistol shot of the Serapis’ quarter before filling once more in an attempt to range up on her weather quarter and board her. Pearson backed his topsails to prevent the manoeuvre, and now with the benefit of better seamanship and gunnery the British frigate was able to ply shot into the Bonhomme Richard, holing her below the waterline.
Meanwhile, some twenty minutes into her own action with the Countess of Scarborough the Alliance suddenly withdrew to join company with the Pallas. Piercy immediately sailed towards the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard to offer what assistance he could, but having been unable to ascertain friend or foe in the darkness he then had to withdraw on the wind when the Pallas set off after him.
Some forty-five minutes into their action the Bonhomme Richard suddenly lurched up and crashed into the Serapis’ stern. Again the rebels considered a boarding attempt, but the potential bridge from her forecastle was insufficiently wide enough to allow a press of men aboard the British frigate and Jones decided not to risk it. Momentarily the gunfire ceased as the Serapis forged ahead. Knowing full well that his superior gunnery was tearing his opponent to bits, and being in a position to cross the bows of the Bonhomme Richard in his wake and rake her from forward to stern, Pearson hailed ‘have you struck?’ The reply from Jones was unequivocal. ‘I have not yet begun to fight!’, and in turn he attempted to spin away to larboard and rake the Serapis. Pearson backed his topsails and the two ships exchanged broadsides as the rebel drew abreast. But then crucially, and for such an experienced man unforgivably, Pearson allowed the Bonhomme Richard to fill her sails and pass ahead of him. It was the opportunity Jones had been waiting for, and slamming his helm a’weather he turned across the Serapis’ bow in time for the slow moving British frigate’s jib boom to become entangled in the Bonhomme Richard’s mizzen shrouds.
Suddenly at 8.30, just over an hour into the action, both ships were locked together, and Jones himself lashed the Serapis’ bowsprit to his mainmast. Fairly quickly the Serapis’ jib-boom gave way under the pressure, but it mattered little as the British frigate’s spare anchor became entangled and she swung around almost one hundred and eighty degrees so that the two ships ground into each other, starboard to starboard. Their guns began blasting away at hulls their muzzles could touch, with the British firing through the closed starboard ports that had not yet been in action.
Knowing full well that the American had him where he wanted him, Pearson dropped anchor in the hope that his sudden immobility and the momentum of his opponent would carry the Serapis free. Instead the two ships remained locked together and swung around in an arc. Seeing her own opportunity to join the fray, the Alliance moved in to rake the Serapis repeatedly from bow to stern, sweeping men off the main and quarterdecks, but with her ill-disciplined fire also taking out personnel and gun-carriages aboard the Bonhomme Richard. Moving on, she then inflicted the same punishment on both the Countess of Scarborough and the Pallas, which were now in close engagement.
As the moon continued to illuminate the scene the battle between the two main protagonists raged on at close range, the Serapis pouring shot into the Bonhomme Richard whilst the latter’s depleted gun-crews did what they could in response. Nevertheless, with the two ships lashed together the rebels and the French marines in the huge fighting tops were able to pick off man after man at the wheel and on the upper deck of the Serapis, and indeed Jones’ men bombarded the British frigate with so many combustibles that up to a dozen fires had to be extinguished.
Then at about 9.30 a vast explosion suddenly rent asunder the gun deck of the Serapis aft of the main-mast. A grenade, dropped from the Bonhomme Richard’s starboard yardarm, had pitched into a stack of cartridges and in igniting them had set off a chain of other charges nearby. Over thirty officers and men were killed or stunned in this single incident, and five guns were immediately put out of action. The second lieutenant, Michael Stanhope, leaped over the side to calm his horrific wounds before clambering back aboard to receive treatment and return to the fight.
This was the huge dose of good fortune that Jones had been waiting for, and it would prove to be the defining moment of the battle.
Even at this stage however, the damage to the Bonhomme Richard was such that a great deal of British shot was passing unimpeded through her before exiting into the sea beyond. She began taking in water, up to five feet of it in the hold, and at about 10 p.m. the carpenter cried out that she was sinking. Hearing the shrieks of alarm, the master-at-arms rushed below and released from their confinement a couple of hundred or so British prisoners taken off previous captures, and this great mass of men rushed up on deck. In the general panic that ensued the carpenter appeared on deck crying out for ‘quarter!’ and the gunner began running aft to strike the colours, although the ensign staff had in fact already been shot away. Captain Pearson, upon hearing the cried of ‘quarter!’, and noting that the Bonhomme Richard’s colours were no longer flying, now hailed the rebels several times to enquire if they were ready to surrender.
Jones, who had been furiously returning fire with a musket, was slumped down on the chicken coop attempting to gather his breath, but as the gunner charged aft he leapt into action. Flinging a pistol at him, he shouted out that he would prefer to sink before giving up his ship. At the same time his first lieutenant Richard Dale, realising that the released prisoners could turn the battle in the British favour, assailed them with both weaponry and entreaties, telling them both ships were sinking, and urging them to man the pumps to save their own lives. He was immediately joined in this subterfuge by Jones himself.
In all this confusion Pearson, perhaps not hearing Jones’ response in the cacophony of the battle, had sent across a boarding party. They were repelled by a larger group of pike men breaking cover, and indeed some rebels and French marines forced themselves aboard the British frigate before they were thrown back. At this stage the Bonhomme Richard had only three guns in action, one of which was being aimed at the Serapis’ mainmast, and the other two were sweeping her decks with grape and canister shot. Despite the repulse of their boarding party, there still seemed little doubt to the men at the guns of the Serapis that their victory was imminent.
By now however, the plucky Countess of Scarborough, with four men killed and twenty wounded, and with seven guns out of action and her rigging in tatters, had surrendered to the superior Pallas after a two hour defence. The Alliance, deprived of an easy capture by Piercy’s agreement to surrender to the Pallas, decided to beat back up into the wind to join the engagement between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis. Arriving shortly before 10 p.m., she let loose another wild broadside before circling the protagonists, again doing as much damage to friend as foe. Such was Captain Landais’ astonishing behaviour that many on the Bonhomme Richard could only reason that he believed the commodore’s ship had been captured, and that she was being used as a trap to lure his ship in to battle too. But in Pearson’s mind the Alliance’s re-appearance had suddenly tilted the odds overwhelmingly against him.
With the time approaching 10.30, the Alliance assumed a position across the Serapis’ and gave her another raking broadside to which the British frigate could not respond. Taking into account the confusion that had followed the explosion, with his mainmast about to fall, having endured so many casualties, and faced with the prospect of having to tackle the Pallas and Alliance as well as what remained of the Bonhomme Richard, it was Pearson who struck his colours with his own hand at about 10.30.
Even so, although Pearson had surrendered his ship many of his officers and crew did not realise it. When an American boarding party led by Lieutenant Richard Dale came across to take possession it was resisted. Rushing up from his station at the guns, Lieutenant John Wright assumed that it was the American who had surrendered, and such was his passion and certainty of victory that upon finally hearing from Pearson’s own lips that he had surrendered he declared ‘I have nothing more to say, sir’, and turned his back on his captain to go below in order to stop his men firing. Wisely, rather than let him do so, Dale decided to keep Wright in Pearson’s company, and they went aboard the Bonhomme Richard to surrender the latter’s sword. At the same time the Serapis’ mainmast came tumbling down, taking the mizzen topmast with it.
Staggeringly, over a hundred men had died in the battle, at least fifty-four being killed and seventy-five wounded on the Serapis, and forty-nine killed and sixty-seven wounded on the Bonhomme Richard.
With the guns silenced it was now time to look to the safety of the men who had survived the fight. Efforts continued throughout the night to save the badly holed Bonhomme Richard, and whilst her walking wounded were evacuated to the Serapis her cannon were shoved overboard. By the early afternoon of the 24th however it was decided that the chances of saving her were rapidly deteriorating and Captain Pearson and his first lieutenant were returned to the Serapis. During the early evening Jones decided to remove all the remaining wounded men to the Serapis and throughout the ensuing night the evacuation of personnel and property continued and the ineffective pumps were abandoned. With the wind rising and the procession of ships easing their way further out into the North Sea the final group of men were taken off at 10 a.m. on 25 September, and within the hour the Bonhomme Richard sunk below the waves.
After encountering adverse weather Jones eventually reached the Texel on 3 October, perhaps being lucky to avoid a squadron of frigates under the command of Captain Thomas Burnet of the Prudent 64 which had been sent to protect the coast of Scotland from his ravages. Here he initially refused to allow Pearson or the British wounded ashore, and in ignoring the protestations of the British ambassador to The Hague, Sir Joseph Yorke, the Dutch ordered Jones and his prizes back to sea. This instruction Jones ignored, which at least obliged the Dutch to obtain the release of all the prisoners. The privateer eventually returned to Brest aboard the Serapis where she was sold to the French navy, only to be lost off Madagascar two years later.
Having been acquitted of blame for the loss of his frigate at his subsequent court-martial in March 1780, Pearson was knighted for the heroic and successful defence of the convoy in the face of such a superior force of opponents, causing Jones to remark that ‘Should I have the good fortune to fall in with him again I’ll make a lord of him.’ Both Commander Piercy and Lieutenant Wright were also promoted. Conversely Jones was never given command of another squadron, and he died in relative poverty in Paris, aged forty-five, in 1792. Only when his reputation as a man of dishonour was forgotten was his skill as a commander ‘recognised’, and his remains returned to his adopted country. As for Captain Landais, he suffered the ignominy of being called a coward to his face by Captain Cottineau which at least provoked him into demanding satisfaction, and in the ensuing sword-duel he almost slew his opponent by running him through the chest.