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The Action Off Flamborough Head
His main-deck guns were silenced, his hold was filling fast, and one of his own ships was firing into him. Still John Paul Jones refused to strike
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
At one time, Jones made a show of force oft Leith, spreading consternation in Edinburgh, but he was driven out of the Firth of Forth by a westerly gale. When it abated he was far out to sea, and he decided that alarm and preparation would have destroyed his chances of success. Sensibly enough, he decided to attempt off the English coast what he had failed to do in the Forth. By a fortunate chance he fell in with the Alliance , which had once more become separated, on September 23. Almost immediately thereafter, a large convoy was sighted coming southward, around Flamborough Head on the rocky Yorkshire coast south and east of Scarborough.
The merchantmen, carrying navy stores from the Baltic, were under escort from the Serapis (Captain Pearson), a newly built frigate rated at forty-four guns but carrying fifty, and the Countess of Scarborough (Captain Piercy). The latter was a hired sloop mounting twenty six-pounders—light guns, with few trained gunners.
The advantage of the wind was with the escorting ships. They at once stretched to the southward toward an enemy of whom they had probably had warning. Jones made the signal to form line of battle, but of this Landais took no notice. He stood toward the convoy, perhaps hoping to pass by the ships of war and make prizes while Jones fought for his life.
It was evening, and at about six o’clock the English tacked, crossing ahead of the Americans, keeping between them and the convoy. Flamborough Head itself was by now crowded with people whom the rumors of the day had drawn to the neighborhood. Even after the sun set, a harvest moon lit the scene for their benefit.
At half-past seven the first shots were exchanged between the Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard , while the Pallas was engaged with the Countess of Scarborough . The less important part of the battle was soon broken off, but was resumed later; then the Pallas , more powerfully armed, found herself well able to deal with her opponent, which she took prize after the Englishman had made a creditable resistance. Unfortunately for Jones, the Pallas spent the rest of the night securing her capture, and her captain made no attempt to go to the help of his commodore. The Alliance , a powerful ship which could have rendered Jones’ victory swift and overwhelming, gave up her pursuit of the convoy soon after dark, contenting herself with circling once or twice round the Pallas and the Countess of Scarborough , firing indiscriminately at both.
In the struggle between Jones and Pearson, the advantage should clearly have been with the Englishman. Not only was his ship new, his armament considerable (two decks of guns to Jones’ one), and his crew well trained, but the Serapis was a good sailer. Moreover, within a few minutes of opening fire, two of Jones’ guns burst, killing and wounding a number of men and damaging the deck above them. After an hour’s fighting, Jones knew that his only chance of success was to grapple his opponent. It should have been Pearson’s particular care to prevent this, for his advantage was in mobility and ordnance, not in point of numbers.
It is a matter of debate how Jones caught the Serapis , but the details themselves are clear. The Serapis’ jib boom caught in the starboard mizzen rigging of the Bonhomme Richard . Jones lashed it to the mizzenmast with his own hands. The Serapis’ starboard anchor then hooked her opponent’s quarter, and the ships swung together bow and stern, their starboard sides touching.
In close fighting there was little to choose between the opponents, but their distribution of strength became important. The lower-deck battery of the Scrapis with its i8-poundcrs smashed the Bonhomme Richard’s hull badly and reduced to silence her main-deck ordnance, but the gun crews, driven above, reinforced the fighting tops, swept the quarter-deck and forecastle of the Englishman with musketry and grenades, and forced her men below.
At this critical stage the Alliance , which, had she been even tolerably handled, could have raked the Serapis and settled the issue within a few minutes, repeated her earlier maneuver of circling the combatants, firing at both, and doing more harm—or so Jones said later—to friend than foe. Even so, her mere presence had a dispiriting effect on Pearson and his men.
The English captain was even more discomforted by a display of individual daring worthy of Jones himself. One of the Bonhomme Richard’s crew crawled out onto a mainyard, carrying a bucketful of hand grenades. One of these he succeeded in throwing down the main hatchway of the Serapis , where a number of cartridges had been placed so as to be handy for the guns. The grenade fell among these. The explosions spread the length of the ship, disabled many of the guns, and killed, wounded, or scorched their crews.