The Battle of Flamborough Head in Filey Bay


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John Paul Jones and the Battle of Flamborough head

John Paul Jones

Jones's birthplace at Kirkbean

John Paul Jones was born 6th July 1747 in Kirkbean, Kirkcudbright, Scotland.  He first went to sea at the age of 12 and by 1776 he was the first mate of a

 slave ship.  When he was the master of a merchant ship in Tobago, he killed the leader of a mutinous crew and rather than go to prison, fled to Fredericksburg where his brother owned an estate on the Rappahannock River.

Jones entered the newly formed Continental Navy at the time of the American Revolution and was attached to the first American flagship, the Alfred.  This was followed by the command of the sloop Providence and during his voyage on this vessel, he destroyed the British fisheries in Nova Scotia.

He first sailed against Britain in the Ranger in 1777 when, after sailing to France, cruised the British coastline and sank many vessels.  Jones was well acquainted with the fathers' of the American Revolution and with the support of Benjamin Franklin and others, he undertook a second expedition in1779 with a small squadron of ships in a rebuilt East Indiaman on loan from the King of France.  The vessel was formerly called the Duc Duras which he renamed the Bonhomme Richard in honour of Benjamin Franklin.  It was Jones who stated that “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way”.

During this voyage, he destroyed many British vessels and bombarded the port of Whitehaven and was involved in a bizarre foray against the Earl of Selkirk. The Earl was not at home and Jones’s subordinates eventually left with a few items of silverware.  Jones was so incensed that he bought the items himself and eventually returned them to their owner. Following this, he sailed down the East Coast of England where he discovered a large well protected Baltic convoy under the command of the new British frigate the Serapis and The Countess of Scarborough

The Battle of Flamborough Head

Realising the value of the convoy, Jones, a recognised expert Naval tactician, took on the Serapis in what was known as the Battle of Flamborough Head and fought one of the most outstanding engagements in Naval History.  Hopelessly out gunned, and with little help from his squadron, he manoeuvred the Richard alongside the Serapis where they locked together, firing point blank into each other’s sides.  During this battle, when asked if he would surrender he replied "I'll sink, but I'll be damned if I will strike", which was later erroneously  reported as  “I have not yet begun to fight”. Then  an American seaman succeeded in throwing a grenade down the main hatch of the Serapis.  It set off cartridges below, putting the gun deck out of action and killing more than twenty or more men and at 10.30 pm with his mainmast in danger of falling, Captain Pearson surrendered.  The Bonhomme Richard had 150 casualties out of 322 and the Serapis had 130 dead or wounded out of 244 crew. Jones transferred his command to the Serapis and shortly afterwards his beloved Bonhomme Richard sank in the North Sea and because of his actions, the Bonhomme Richard and her resolute commander became American Naval icons.

Jones made good his escape in the Serapis and although Captain Pearson of the Serapis lost his ship, he won the battle by giving the convoy the opportunity to escape under the safety of the guns of Scarborough castle.  Jones escaped to Texel in Holland and returned to America where Congress awarded him a gold medal. The only naval officer so honoured. Person for his part was knighted.

In 1788 he accepted an offer by Catherine the Great of Russia to enter her Navy and in 1792 was appointed U S Consul to Algiers but died on July18th of that year before he could take up the appointment.  In 1905 his remains were brought to the United States from their long forgotten grave in Paris and in 1913 were buried in the U S Naval Academy Chapel.

John Paul Jones founded the Naval Academy in Annapolis and Commander Michael Brady of the Academy states “A measure of the man’s importance and reputation is extremely important, as he is the father of the U S Navy.  His attributes of tenacity under fire are qualities that we try to instil in each and every one of our Midshipmen.  His writings on the qualification of a Naval Officer are as true today as the day he wrote them and in fact each and every one of our Midshipmen memorise those qualifications of a Naval Officer”.

John Paul Jones’s contribution to the American Revolution and his place in history must not be underestimated, he fought a courageous and daring battle that is a classic in its own right and gave the fledgling state of America great prestige at a time when it was greatly needed. After this battle, the American people learned the value of the projection of seaborne power.

Jones went from having a sixth grade education to an apprentice British Merchant Seaman, to a Navy Captain and finished as a Russian Rear Admiral, no mean feat in those days and the today Unites States Navy use the by words “In Harms Way” to signify their courage and determination.

© Anthony Green April 2021.