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Battle of Flamborough Head

23rd September 1779
Fought at : North Sea - North Atlantic Ocean
Part of : The American War of Independence (1775/04/19 - 1784/01/14)
Previous action : Capture of Omoa 15.9.1779 - 20.10.1779
Next action : Quebec vs Surveillante 6.10.1779

On the morning of the 23rd September 1779, the Pallas and Alliance rejoined Jones' flottilla. Very little later, in the afternoon, a great fleet came into sight. It was the Baltic trade, convoyed by his Majesty's frigate Serapis of forty-four guns, Captain Richard Pearson, and the armed ship Countess of Scarborough of twenty, Commander Thomas Piercy. The warships at once placed themselves between their convoy and the American squadron, whilst the merchant ships went off on the other tack. Captain Jones signalled to form line of battle, to which signal neither the Alliance nor Pallas paid much attention. On shore, the cliffs of Scarborough and the coast of Flamborough Head were crowded with spectators, who were to be rewarded by the sight of one of the fiercest fights in history.


Great Britain

British Ships
Ship NameCommanderNotes
Serapis (44) 1779-1779
British 44 Gun
5th Rate Ship of the Line
Richard PearsonBritish
Naval Sailor
Service 1745-1805
Captured 54 killed, 75 wounded
Countess of Scarborough (20) 1777-1779
British 20 Gun
Hired Armed Ship
Thomas PiercyBritish
Naval Sailor
Service 1745-1782
24 Killed and wounded Captured Hired ship

Allied (United States of America & Royaume de France)

American Ships
Ship NameCommanderNotes
Bonhomme Richard (44) 1779-1779
American 44 Gun
5th Rate Ship
John Paul JonesAmerican
Naval Sailor
Service 1745-1845
Fleet Flagship Severe casualties, estimates vary from 150 up Sunk Sank the next day from damage taken
Alliance (36) 1778-1785
American 36 Gun
5th Rate Frigate
Pierre LandaisAmerican
Naval Sailor
Service 1747-1820
La Pallas (34) 1778-1780
French 34 Gun
4th Rate Frigate
Denis Nicolas Cottineau de KerloguenFrench
Naval Sailor
Service 1780

Notes on Action

Description of the actionTRN4

At dusk the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis were within musket-shot, both standing for the land on the port tack. The two hailed one another, each summoning the other to surrender. Almost at the same moment, at 7.20 P.M., the Bonhomme Richard opened fire, and was replied to by the Serapis. At the first round two of the Bonhomme Richard's lower-deck 18 prs. burst, killing several men and doing great damage to the ship. The other four were abandoned, and the American had to fall back upon her thirty-six 12- and 9-prs. Against her was the Serapis, a man-of-war, handy, a better sailer, with a homogeneous crew and a far more powerful armament. In leadership alone had the American any advantage. Her captain, if not superior in sheer courage to Captain Pearson, hopelessly out-distanced him in audacity, resource, and inspiration. Whilst these two closed in desperate encounter, the Pallas engaged the Countess of Scarborough, and the Alliance sailed round and round, firing at random on British and Americans alike.

The heavy shot of the Serapis quickly began to tell. The Bonhomme Richard received several hits between wind and water; and she had her fourteen 12-prs. disabled or dismounted, and seven of her deck guns put out of action, so that she was left with a battery of only three 9-prs., one of which had to be shifted over from the starboard side. In these circumstances Jones determined, as his only hope of safety, to close with his enemy; and Captain Pearson of the Serapis was foolish enough to allow his half-beaten opponent to lay himself alongside. The Serapis evaded the Bonhomme Richard's first attempt to grapple. At the second the Bonhomme Richard's mizen-shrouds caught the Serapis' jib-boom, which was promptly lashed fast by the American captain himself. The boom broke, but the Serapis's spare anchor hooked the Bonhomme Richard's quarter, and held the two combatants side by side, bow to stern, starboard to starboard, with the muzzles of the guns touching. This happened at about 8.30 in the evening. The Serapis let go her other anchor in the hope that the American would be swept clear by the tide; but, owing to this entanglement, the manoeuvre did not succeed in its object. Meantime the Bonhomme Richard's men, driven from the 18 and 12-prs. below, had swarmed to the deck and the tops, whence they swept the Serapis with a steady musketry fire, and from time to time pitched hand-grenades on board her. Below, the port lids of the Serapis 's 18-pr. battery had been closed when the two ships swung alongside, from fear of boarders. The guns were fired through them, and speedily reduced to splinters the hull of the American. Their fire, however, though it ultimately sank the enemy's ship, did not kill his men, since these had been withdrawn from the lower battery. The 18-prs. thus failed to exercise a decisive influence on the fate of the action. Already the Serapis' starboard side had taken fire in seven or eight places, and was blazing fiercely. Yet, in spite of this, victory was decidedly inclining to her when a terrible mischance befell her. An American seaman climbed out on the Bonhomme Richard's main-yard, which overhung the Serapis' s deck, and dropped a hand grenade down the main-hatchway into the Serapis' s gun-room, where a number of 12-pdr cartridges had been placed. The grenade fired the cartridges, and the explosion ran aft between the row of guns, scorching or killing officers and men, and disabling five of the guns. Thirty-eight were killed or wounded at this one blow. Amongst those injured was Lieutenant the Hon. Henry Edwyn Stanhope, who in his agony leapt overboard, but, climbing back, had his wounds dressed and returned to his quarters A minute later the Alliance hove in sight and was seen to fire a broadside. The fire was directed on the Bonhomme Richard, and not on the British ship, though Captain Pearson could hardly know this. The Serapis still fought on, her men by that time recovering from the shock of the explosion; and at ten there was a call for quarter from the American. It came from her gunner, and was promptly silenced by Jones, who rapped him on the head with a pistol. But at the shout the British prisoners in the hold of the Bonhomme Richard, taken from the various prizes, had been released. The ship was sinking: her lower deck ports were completely shattered, and she was on fire in more than one place. The prisoners poured up on deck: the fate of the battle was in their hands. With astounding coolness Captain Jones set them to work the pumps, and thus converted them from a source of danger into a source of strength. They seem without question to have obeyed him, perhaps dumbfounded by his assurance. Each ship was now at her last gasp; each crew had fought fairly to a standstill; the men on either side had done their best; the issue rested with the captains. A refugee crawled through the ports of the Bonhomme Richard and told Captain Pearson of his enemy's condition. He ordered the boarders away, but they could do nothing in face of the small arms' fire from the rigging of the American. The last effort of the British crew had failed: the Alliance could be seen passing across the Serapis' s stern, and preparing to rake her, whilst the Serapis could not fire a gun. Her mainmast was tottering, and the bold face of Captain Jones made the British hopeless of success. At 10.30 Captain Pearson hauled down his flag, just as the mainmast went overboard. The Americans took possession of their prize, transferred to her the crew of the Bonhomme Richard, and saw the latter sink a day later. As the battle had been fought with unusual obstinacy, the loss on board each ship was very heavy.

Captain Pearson was outwitted, and threw his advantage away. The action, however, has an interesting bearing upon a point which is much debated at the present day: whether the guns should attack the enemy's water-line or his men. It seems to show that the efforts of the gunners should be directed to the killing of their opponents rather than to the disabling of the hostile ship. Captain Jones had paid great attention to his top-fire, and his marksmen cleared the Serapis's deck of all but Captain Pearson, whom they spared for his gallantry.

The Countess of Scarborough fought the Pallas for two hours, when Commander Piercy struck to the French-American, with heavy damage to his rigging, seven guns disabled, and twenty-four out of a crew of one hundred and fifty killed or wounded. He appears, like the Serapis, to have been fired upon by the Alliance. Owing to the vigorous resistance of the British ships the convoy was enabled to escape without any loss, and the Americans were left unfit for any further depredation. Captain Pearson was deservedly rewarded for his determined resistance with a knighthood. After the battle Jones proceeded to the Texel, and thence, after some weeks' blockade, sailed with his usual audacity down the Channel to Lorient under the very noses of the British cruisers. There his squadron was broken up, and though liberal promises were made to him, and though the consternation and rage in England testified to the success of his methods of making war, he was not given another command, but seems to have been distrusted by the American commissioners.

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Posted by adaela stigile on Friday 20th of February 2015 02:54

this the best site for the battle of flamborough head!

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