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American Revolution: Battle of Flamborough Head


American Revolution: Battle of Flamborough Head

Bonhomme Richard, 1779

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Battle of Flamborough Head - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Flamborough Head was fought September 23, 1779, between Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis was part of the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Fleets & Commanders:

Americans & French

Royal Navy

  • Captain Robert Pearson
  • HMS Serapis (44), HMS Countess of Scarborough (22)

Battle of Flamborough Head - Background:

On August 14, 1779, Commodore John Paul Jones departed Lorient, France with a small squadron of American and French warships. Flying his commodore's pennant from the 42-gun Bonhomme Richard, a converted East Indiaman, Jones intended to circle the British Isles in a clockwise fashion with the goal of attacking British commerce and diverting attention from French operations in the Channel. During the early days of the cruise, the squadron captured several merchantmen, but issues arose with Captain Pierre Landais, commander of Jones' second largest ship, the 36-gun frigate Alliance.

A Frenchman, Landais had traveled to America hoping to be a naval version of the Marquis de Lafayette. He was rewarded with a captain's commission in the Continental Navy, but now resented serving under Jones. Following an argument on August 24, Landais announced he would no longer follow orders. As a result, Alliance frequently departed and returned to the squadron at its commander's whim. After an absence of two weeks, Landais rejoined Jones near Flamborough Head at dawn on September 23. The return of Alliance raised Jones' strength to four ships as he also had Pallas (32) and Vegeance (12).

Battle of Flamborough Head - The Squadrons Approach:

Around 3:00 PM, lookouts reported sighting a large group of ships to the north. Based on intelligence reports, Jones believed this to be a 41-ship convoy returning from the Baltic guarded by the frigate HMS Serapis (44) and the sloop-of-war HMS Countess of Scarborough. Piling on sail, Jones' ships turned to chase. Due to light winds, they did not near the convoy until after 6:00. At 6:30, Bonhomme Richard rounded Serapis' port quarter and following an exchange of questions with the British commander, Captain Richard Pearson, Jones opened fire with his starboard guns.

Battle of Flamborough Head - The Ships Clash:

While Bonhomme Richard engaged Serapis, Pallas attacked Countess of Scarborough. Alliance did not enter the fray. Aboard Bonhomme Richard, the situation quickly deteriorated when two of the ship's heavy 18-pdr guns burst in the opening salvo. In addition to damaging the ship, this led to the other 18-pdrs being taken out of service for fear that they were unsafe. Using its greater maneuverability and heavier guns, Serapis raked and pounded Jones' ship. Realizing his only hope was to board Serapis, Jones turned his ship, ramming the enemy and laying along side.

Quickly the crew of Bonhomme Richard bound the two ships together with grappling hooks. The ships continued firing into each other as both side's marines sniped at opposing crew and officers. An American attempt to board Serapis was repulsed, as was a British attempt to take Bonhomme Richard. After two hours of fighting, Alliance appeared on the scene. Believing the frigate's arrival would turn the tide, Jones was shocked when Landais began indiscriminately firing into both ships. Aloft, Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning and his party in the main fighting top succeeded in eliminating their counterparts on Serapis.

Moving along the two ships' yardarms, Fanning and his men were able to cross over to Serapis. From their new position aboard the British ship, they were able to drive Serapis' crew from their stations using hand grenades and musket fire. With his men falling back, Pearson was forced to finally surrender his ship to Jones. Across the water, Pallas succeeded in taking Countess of Scarborough after a prolonged fight. During the battle, Jones was famously reputed to have exclaimed "I have not yet begun to fight!" in response to Pearson's demand that he surrender his ship.

Battle of Flamborough Head - Aftermath & Impact:

Following the battle, Jones reconcentrated his squadron and began efforts to save the badly damaged Bonhomme Richard. By September 25, it was clear that the flagship could not be saved and Jones transferred to Serapis. After several days of repairs, the newly taken prize was able to get underway and Jones sailed for Texel Roads in the Netherlands. Evading the British, his squadron arrived on October 3. Landais was relieved of his command shortly thereafter. One of the greatest prizes taken by the Continental Navy, Serapis was soon transferred to the French for political reasons. The battle proved a major embarrassment for the Royal Navy and cemented Jones' place in American naval history.

Selected Sources

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  3. Military History
  4. Naval Warfare
  5. Naval Battles: 1600-1800
  6. American Revolution: Battle of Flamborough Head

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