Collingwood was commissioned lieutenant on 28 October 1750, and promoted commander of the sloop Fortune 14 with seniority from 9 September 1756, although whilst in command of this vessel he had previously delivered dispatches from Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hawke off Minorca to Barcelona on 2 August for onward transmission to the ambassador in Madrid. Shortly afterwards, he captured a French xebec from Marseilles valued at five thousand guineas.
On 29 November 1756 he was posted captain of the frigate Syren 20 by Hawke in the Mediterranean, and in February 1757 he chased the French man-of-war Nymphe 24 from Sardinia to the Barbary Coast but was unable to bring her to action. The Syren arrived at Naples from Cagliari on 25 March to undertake convoy duty with the Jersey 60, Captain Sir William Burnaby, but they were unable to immediately sail out as not only had two larger French men-of-war appeared off the port, but others were in the vicinity of Leghorn where more richly laden merchantmen awaited an escort. On the night of 18 April, having made Leghorn, the Syren and Jersey got away with a convoy of twenty-two merchantmen, and they were able to reach Gibraltar safely.
In December 1757, the Syren was attacked by a newly-fitted-out Barbary frigate which had mistaken her for a merchantman, and in an action lasting ninety minutes she dismasted her opponent and drove her ashore on Cape Spartel, where only four men from her crew of four hundred survived. The incident led to the detention of the consul-general to the Moroccan Court, James Read, and when he refused to accede to King Sidi Mahomet’s demands for reparation he was subjected to several beatings, confined to a dungeon, and ordered to be enslaved, whereupon he committed suicide with a pistol on 18 February 1758.
Meanwhile, on 29 January 1758 the Syren had arrived at Leghorn from Gibraltar with seven fish ships from Newfoundland, and by 29 March she was back at the Rock, having collected the trade from Naples, Genoa and Leghorn in the company of the Guernsey. After returning to Portsmouth with a convoy, she arrived off Deal on 10 June with coasters for the Thames, and she was paid off shortly afterwards.
On 18 October 1758, after four months on the beach, Collingwood was appointed to the newly commissioned frigate Crescent 32, which sailed out of Portsmouth Harbour for Spithead on 22 January 1759, and which was attached to Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes’ squadron in February. On the 22nd of that month she sailed from Portsmouth in quest of a large French privateer which had captured several small craft off the Isle of Wight, but she evidently did not fall in with her. She was next ordered express to Antigua, and the dockyard worked day and night throughout March to copper-sheath her, whilst six shipwrights were taken aboard for her voyage to the Caribbean with a convoy, which eventually commenced on 23 April.
Remaining in the Leeward Islands, on 3 August 1759 off Basseterre the Crescent recaptured the Bristol-owned Berkeley, which had been converted into a 20-gun man-of-war by the French, but she was unable to bring the latter’s consort, the Amethyste 32, to any meaningful action because the enemy frigate held the wind and made off when the Crescent was damaged aloft. Collingwood also captured the small French frigate Hermione 26 on 16 August and the privateers Saint-Antoine 8 on 15 August 1760, Saint-Michel 14 on 22 August, and Colibri on 2 March 1761, the latter being boarded after the Crescent had chased her into the Bay of Dominica, and the locals had prevented her crew from defending her out of concern for their own safety. The Crescent subsequently formed part of Rear-Admiral George Brydges Rodney’s force which assisted the Army in the capture of Martinique in the early part of 1762.
Remaining in the Caribbean, Collingwood removed to the Nottingham 60 in the spring of 1762, and transferred to the Jamaican station in April with his vessel being present at the reduction of Havana during the summer. He then exchanged with Captain Chaloner Ogle into the Temple 68 during September, but suffered the misfortune of losing this leaky ship on 18 December when she foundered off Cape Clear during the voyage home. After reaching England in Admiral Sir George Pocock’s flagship Namur 90, Collingwood was received at Court in London on 21 January 1763.
On 29 November 1766 he was appointed to the frigate Tweed 36, and on 13 November she left Portsmouth at short notice, only to be driven back within days due to adverse winds. During the early part of 1767 she saw duty in home waters, and in August she took the British ambassador to Portugal, William Henry Lyttelton, out to Lisbon from Plymouth. During February 1768 she was in dock at Portsmouth, and in March sailed to Plymouth with money for the dockyard workers before returning to Spithead, where she spent much of the next few months. She was next dispatched to Russia to deliver the ambassador, Lord Cathcart, together with his family, and she arrived at Cronstadt on 14 August having struck a rock off Nyland the morning before, necessitating the jettisoning of ten guns and various casks to enable her to be hauled off. Returning to Portsmouth, she sailed for Plymouth on 18 October with money for the dockyard workers, and during December she was in the Cowes Roads. After serving with the Duke of Cumberland’s squadron in June 1769, she arrived at Lisbon on 24 October with the Count de Viry, who had been appointed the ambassador to Madrid from the Court of Turin. After returning to England, Collingwood left the Tweed in the following February.
On 27 November 1771 he was appointed to the Rainbow 44, which on 11 December put out of Portsmouth Harbour for Spithead, and at the end of the year sailed for Guinea on the West African coast. She returned to Portsmouth from Guinea via Jamaica on 26 August 1772 to be unrigged and taken into dock, and on 16 November she left harbour for Spithead to sail once more for the coast of Guinea on 2 December. At the end of May 1773, she arrived at Jamaica having not lost a single man whilst on duty off Africa, for which achievement Collingwood received much acclaim. This success would be attributed to his having prohibited visits ashore, whilst much credit was also given to the discovery by his surgeon of a wine and bark remedy for fevers. The Rainbow was back at Portsmouth from Port Royal by the end of August, and on 27 November she sailed for Africa again. In early 1774 it was reported in the Press that she had been wrecked off Cape Blanco on the coast of Guinea, and that a ship was being sent to rescue the crew who were under regular attack by the natives; however, this news was soon proved to be without foundation. The Rainbow arrived at Port Royal, Jamaica on 4 June, she was back at Portsmouth on 31 August, and in early September she sailed for the Thames to be paid off.
After three and a half years unemployment, Collingwood was appointed to the newly commissioned Monmouth 64 at Portsmouth on 26 January 1778, in which he joined Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron’s squadron that went out to North America on 9 June. This force famously separated in the storms during its passage, and the Monmouth, which parted company on 4 July, sprung her mainmast prior to arriving off Sandy Hook on 17 August. She immediately joined Vice-Admiral Lord Howe’s North American fleet, and she was present in the running battle with the French fleet off Rhode Island during August.
The Monmouth subsequently rejoined Byron’s fleet which sailed for the Leeward Islands in December 1778, and on 27 February 1779 Collingwood was appointed to the Fame 74 by the admiral in succession to Captain Stephen Colby, who died at about that time. It then appears that he removed to the Grafton 74 in June, for he commanded her at the Battle of Grenada on 6 July, losing thirty-five men killed and sixty-three wounded, these figures representing the highest casualties in the fleet.
Towards the end of 1779, Collingwood raised a broad pennant aboard the Grafton, and with Captain Thomas Newnham acting as his captain he commanded a small squadron in the Leeward Islands. By February 1780 he was patrolling off Guadeloupe with eight sail of the line, and here he gave chase to Rear-Admiral Jean Toussaint Guillaume La Motte-Picquet’s seven French sail of the line; however, despite sending off two of his ships he could not prevail upon the latter to come out and fight. He then commanded the centre division under Admiral Sir George Rodney at the Battle of Martinique on 17 April, but unfortunately, he failed to grasp his senior’s complex signals and in trying to catch up with the van he left his own division far behind.
Collingwood could not cope with his part in the failure that was the Battle of Martinique, and having commanded a small squadron off the island with his broad pennant aboard the Terrible 74, Captain Archibald Dickson, and taken part in the skirmishes with the French fleet in May, he lost his senses. He was put aboard the frigate Brilliant 28, Captain John Ford, bound for Lisbon but sadly died on 2 June after just a day at sea.
He married Mary, the daughter of Captain Sir Richard Hughes, the Commissioner of the Navy at Portsmouth, and sister of Admiral Sir Richard Hughes. Following his death, she married Lieutenant-Colonel Nathaniel Heywood. His address was given as Unthank, Northumberland, but the newspapers of the time also mentioned that he was a resident of Southampton.
Collingwood was esteemed by all, and in describing him as the ‘best and bravest’ officer, Admiral Rodney claimed to have done his utmost to assuage Collingwood’s self-blame for his failure at the Battle of Martinique