The North Channel naval duel
was a single-ship action
A single ship action is a naval engagement fought between two warships of opposing sides, excluding submarine engagements; called so because there is a single ship on each side...
between the United States Continental Navy
The Continental Navy was the navy of the United States during the American Revolutionary War, and was formed in 1775. Through the efforts of the Continental Navy's patron, John Adams and vigorous Congressional support in the face of stiff opposition, the fleet cumulatively became relatively...
sloop of war Ranger
The first USS Ranger was a sloop-of-war in the Continental Navy, and received the second salute to an American fighting vessel by a foreign power The first USS Ranger was a sloop-of-war in the Continental Navy, and received the second salute to an American fighting vessel by a foreign power The...
(Captain John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones was a Scottish sailor and the United States' first well-known naval fighter in the American Revolutionary War. Although he made enemies among America's political elites, his actions in British waters during the Revolution earned him an international reputation which persists to...
) and the British Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...
sloop of war Drake
HMS Drake was a twenty-gun sloop-of-war of the Royal Navy. Originally named Resolution, she was purchased in 1777. She served in the American Revolutionary War, and on 24 April 1778, off Carrickfergus, Ireland, she fought the North Channel naval duel with the 18-gun sloop Ranger of the Continental...
(Captain George Burdon) on the evening of 24 April 1778. Fought in the North Channel
The North Channel is the strait which separates eastern Northern Ireland from southwestern Scotland...
, separating Ireland from Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...
, it was the first American defeat of a Royal Navy ship within British home waters, and also very nearly the only American victory over the Royal Navy in the Revolution
The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America...
achieved without an overwhelming superiority of force. The action was one of a series of actions by Jones that brought the American War of Independence to British waters.
In the following account, times are approximate because ships set their own time as they travelled, so different witnesses saw the same events at what to them were different times.
Even before the official entry of other nations, the American Revolutionary War
The American Revolutionary War , the American War of Independence, or simply the Revolutionary War, began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies in North America, and ended in a global war between several European great powers.The war was the result of the...
was by no means confined to American soil; naval operations, by both the Continental Navy and privateers, ranged right across the Atlantic
The Atlantic Ocean is the second-largest of the world's oceanic divisions. With a total area of about , it covers approximately 20% of the Earth's surface and about 26% of its water surface area...
. In 1777, American captains such as Lambert Wickes
Lambert Wickes was a Captain in the Continental Navy.-Revolutionary activities:Wickes was born sometime in 1735 in Kent County, Maryland. His home was on Eastern Neck Island, in the family home, Wickcliffe. Prior to the American Revolution, Wickes was captain of the merchant ships the Neptune and...
, Gustavus Conyngham
Gustavus Conyngham was born in County Donegal, Ireland, and was a merchant sea captain, officer in the Continental Navy and a privateer....
and William Day
William Day was a Boston, Massachusetts , sea captain who acted against America's enemies in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War...
had been making raids into British waters and capturing merchant ships, which they took into French
France entered the American Revolutionary War in 1778, and assisted in the victory of the Americans seeking independence from Britain ....
ports, even though France was officially neutral. Captain Day had even been accorded a gun salute by the French admiral at Brest
Brest is a city in the Finistère department in Brittany in northwestern France. Located in a sheltered position not far from the western tip of the Breton peninsula, and the western extremity of metropolitan France, Brest is an important harbour and the second French military port after Toulon...
. Encouraged by such successes, and even more by the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga
The Battles of Saratoga conclusively decided the fate of British General John Burgoyne's army in the American War of Independence and are generally regarded as a turning point in the war. The battles were fought eighteen days apart on the same ground, south of Saratoga, New York...
that autumn, France signed two treaties
The Treaty of Alliance, also called The Treaty of Alliance with France, was a defensive alliance between France and the United States of America, formed in the midst of the American Revolutionary War, which promised military support in case of attack by British forces indefinitely into the future...
with America in February 1778, but stopped just short of declaring war on Britain. The risk of a French attack forced the Royal Navy to concentrate its forces in the English Channel
The English Channel , often referred to simply as the Channel, is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about long and varies in width from at its widest to in the Strait of Dover...
(La Manche), leaving other areas vulnerable. Wickes and Day had shown that, despite the narrowness of St. George's Channel and the North Channel, it was possible for single ships or very small squadrons to get into the Irish Sea
The Irish Sea separates the islands of Ireland and Great Britain. It is connected to the Celtic Sea in the south by St George's Channel, and to the Atlantic Ocean in the north by the North Channel. Anglesey is the largest island within the Irish Sea, followed by the Isle of Man...
, and create havoc among the many vessels which traded between Great Britain and Ireland. John Paul Jones, on his first return to British waters as an enemy, had a more ambitious plan: to teach the British people that their government's policies in America, such as the burning of ports, could be turned back against them.
The Ranger mission
With a single small Continental Navy sloop of war, the Ranger
, Jones sailed from Brest on 10 April 1778, and headed for the coasts of the Solway Firth
The Solway Firth is a firth that forms part of the border between England and Scotland, between Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway. It stretches from St Bees Head, just south of Whitehaven in Cumbria, to the Mull of Galloway, on the western end of Dumfries and Galloway. The Isle of Man is also very...
, where he had first learned to sail. Following an unsuccessful attempt to raid the port of Whitehaven
Whitehaven is a small town and port on the coast of Cumbria, England, which lies equidistant between the county's two largest settlements, Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness, and is served by the Cumbrian Coast Line and the A595 road...
Cumberland is a historic county of North West England, on the border with Scotland, from the 12th century until 1974. It formed an administrative county from 1889 to 1974 and now forms part of Cumbria....
, on the night of 17–18 April, he harassed shipping in the North Channel, then on the night of 20–21 April Ranger
entered Belfast Lough
Belfast Lough is a large, natural intertidal sea lough at the mouth of the River Lagan on the east coast of Northern Ireland. The inner part of the lough comprises a series of mudflats and lagoons. The outer lough is restricted to mainly rocky shores with some small sandy bays...
in northern Ireland, with the intention of seizing a Royal Navy ship moored off Carrickfergus, HMS Drake
. Unsuccessful, he returned to Whitehaven, and achieved the first key target of his mission, landing a large party at the harbour in the night of 22–23 April and setting light to a merchant ship. This raid was followed within hours by another, at the Scottish seashore mansion of the Earl of Selkirk, near Kirkcudbright
Kirkcudbright, is a town in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.The town lies south of Castle Douglas and Dalbeattie, in the part of Dumfries and Galloway known as the Stewartry, at the mouth of the River Dee, some six miles from the sea...
. Even as the news of those deeds was racing to alert Britain's defences, Ranger
was on the way back to Carrickfergus
Carrickfergus , known locally and colloquially as "Carrick", is a large town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It is located on the north shore of Belfast Lough, from Belfast. The town had a population of 27,201 at the 2001 Census and takes its name from Fergus Mór mac Eirc, the 6th century king...
Preparations for combat
John Paul Jones's crew had been recruited by an advertisement promising them the opportunity to "make their Fortunes", which was a goal that could definitely be achieved by privateering operations against British merchant ships. In practice, because Ranger
was a Navy vessel and not a privateer, more British ships had been sunk on the mission than captured, to avoid diverting too many crew members to the task of sailing merchant ships to France. To an extent, Jones had even failed as a Navy commander, the crew blaming him for what appeared to be a strategic error which allowed a British customs
HM Customs and Excise was, until April 2005, a department of the British Government in the UK. It was responsible for the collection of Value added tax , Customs Duties, Excise Duties, and other indirect taxes such as Air Passenger Duty, Climate Change Levy, Insurance Premium Tax, Landfill Tax and...
vessel to escape after being fired on by Ranger
. Now he was intent on capturing a Royal Navy ship from its moorings. However, it carried no cargo that could be sold for a handsome profit to its crews' benefit, just trained fighting sailors and guns. The account of events just after dawn on 24 April that Jones published in his highly embellished French autobiography a few years later may not be greatly exaggerated: "I ran a great risk of being killed or thrown in the sea". Unfortunately for the crew, the state of the wind and tide at that time prevented them from leaving anyway, but then telescopes trained on the Drake
revealed that they might not have to visit Carrickfergus after all, as the Royal Navy sailors were preparing to leave port.
In fact, Drake
had been preparing for action since the previous visit by Ranger
, taking on volunteers from the Carrickfergus area to boost the crew from 100 to about 160- though many of these were landsmen, to be used for close-quarters combat. It was ironic, therefore, that only on the evening of 23 April did the acting gunner (the ship's appointed gunner having been hospitalised on the ship's last visit to the Portsmouth naval base
Her Majesty's Naval Base Portsmouth is one of three operating bases in the United Kingdom for the British Royal Navy...
) report that there was not enough cartridge paper to make up ammunition for all these extra fighting men. Also absent from the ship's company at this crucial time were the master's mate
Master's mate is an obsolete rating which was used by the Royal Navy, United States Navy and merchant services in both countries for a senior petty officer who assisted the master...
A boatswain , bo's'n, bos'n, or bosun is an unlicensed member of the deck department of a merchant ship. The boatswain supervises the other unlicensed members of the ship's deck department, and typically is not a watchstander, except on vessels with small crews...
(shot dead while attempting to capture a smuggler) and lieutenant
A lieutenant is a junior commissioned officer in many nations' armed forces. Typically, the rank of lieutenant in naval usage, while still a junior officer rank, is senior to the army rank...
(died of fever two days earlier). The aging captain, George Burdon, was later reported to have been in poor health himself. However, such problems could not be allowed to stop a Royal Navy vessel from doing its duty. Drake
got under way about 8am, but with wind and tide still wrong, made little progress. After an hour or so a boat was therefore sent to get a closer look at the intruder, and the result of this may possibly have been a key turning point in history. Jones opted to try a slight variant of the plan which had failed to capture the customs vessel a few days earlier; hiding most of the crew and the big guns, just acting innocent and dumb. This time it worked; the crew of the reconnaissance boat (the gunner's mate, a midshipman and six crewmen) were all captured. The success was tremendously beneficial for the morale of the Americans, and it seems that as a bonus, one of the prisoners mentioned the large number of volunteers who had gone aboard Drake
moved sluggishly out across the Lough, there was also a double bonus for the British. About 1pm another small boat came out, carrying another volunteer, Royal Navy Lieutenant William Dobbs, a local man who had just got married; and according to Drake
pilot he brought with him a copy of an express letter from Whitehaven, explaining the full details of the mystery ship (and yet- Jones makes a point in his official report of stating that the news from Whitehaven had arrived the previous evening and was known to his morning captives). With the wind and tide more favourable in the afternoon, Ranger
moved slowly back out of Belfast Lough into the North Channel, making sure never to get too far ahead of Drake
. Finally, about 6pm, the two enemies were within hailing distance. Jones had the American naval colours flying, and Lieut. Dobbs' formal inquiry as to the ship's identity was answered with absolute truth.
The North Channel naval duel was in some respects a reverse, small-scale dress-rehearsal for Jones's 1779 battle
The Battle of Flamborough Head was a naval battle that took place on 23 September 1779, in the North Sea off the coast of Yorkshire between an American Continental Navy squadron led by John Paul Jones and the two British escort vessels protecting a large merchant convoy...
with HMS Serapis
HMS Serapis was a Royal Navy two-decked, Roebuck-class fifth rate. Daniel Brent built her at Greenland South Dockyard, Rotherhithe and launched her in 1779. She was armed with 44 guns . Serapis was named after the god Serapis in Greek and Egyptian mythology...
had been built as a merchant ship with defensive capability, and bought by the Royal Navy to help fill the gap left when many ships had to be sent to America; even the 20 four-pound guns were not official Navy issue, just the ones which had originally been bought by the merchants. The hull was the wrong shape for rapid battle manoeuvres, and not designed to resist cannon fire. Ranger
had been built as a fighting ship, and modified by Jones for maximum efficiency; for example, although there were ports for 20 guns, he found it safest to install only 18 six-pound guns. That made a total broadside weight of 54 pounds, slightly more than Drake
40 pounds total—but those dozens of Irish volunteers meant that if Drake
could grapple and board Ranger
the Americans would be in trouble.
The formalities completed, Ranger
turned sharply and fired a broadside at the following Drake
. The British were unable to reply immediately; when they did, they found they had a serious problem. With full charges of powder, the four-pounders were unstable, and tended to tip forward; in the case of the two pairs of guns at the rear of the ship, most subject to the rise and fall with the waves, this meant that they could skid almost anywhere as they were fired, presenting grave danger to the gun crews. In Navy records, Drake
armament had been listed as only 16 guns, suggesting that the rearmost guns had been left aboard just for show. The original gunner may well have known of these problems, and perhaps the gunner's mate too, but neither was aboard the Drake
anymore (the mate having been captured in the reconnaissance mission, and the gunner being ill at Portsmouth). After a few more broadsides, further problems emerged. Shrapnel from Ranger
third broadside hit Lieut. Dobbs in the head, putting him out of action. Conditions on Drake
gun deck were so unpredictable that the "powder monkeys"—the boys who brought charges of gunpowder up for the great guns, in fire-resistant boxes—eventually became reluctant to do their duty. Twice the ship's master had to go below to urge the acting gunner to be more efficient in supplying the powder, when opportunities for broadsides were missed. Another problem was that the "slow matches" which were used to fire the guns kept falling into their fire-safety tubs and going out. The four-pound guns could not penetrate Ranger
toughened hull anyway, so Drake
tried copying the technique the Americans had been using from the start: they aimed at the masts, sails and rigging, in order to slow the opponent down.
The combatants were very close together, but never close enough for grappling, probably because Captain Jones knew of the extra men hidden below decks on Drake
. As well as the great guns, both sides were firing small arms at each other, and here too Drake
failed. Little or no extra cartridge paper had been found since the previous night's embarrassing discovery, and soon the musketeers ran out of cartridges. That meant they had to load their guns the slow way, pouring in the right amount of powder, then putting in the shot. Musket balls were passed round in the armourer's hat, and two powder horns were shared between all the men on duty. With the other side much better organised, such inefficiency meant the difference between life and death. Drake
killed just one of Jones's crew, Lieutenant Samuel Wallingford, by musket fire; another two who were firing from positions up the masts died as a by-product of a broadside. Four of Drake
crew were killed, including, just under an hour into the fight, Captain Burdon himself, struck in the head by a musket ball. With both the captain and lieutenant out of action, command of Drake
passed to the master, John Walsh.
By that time, Drake
sails and rigging had been reduced to tatters by Ranger
broadsides, and even the masts and yardarms were seriously damaged; in the light wind, the sloop was more or less immobilised, not even able to turn to aim a broadside. Unable to load fast enough, the small-arms fighters had retreated to cover, so only about a dozen people were left on Drake
main deck. A few minutes after the captain died, the two remaining petty officer
A petty officer is a non-commissioned officer in many navies and is given the NATO rank denotion OR-6. They are equal in rank to sergeant, British Army and Royal Air Force. A Petty Officer is superior in rank to Leading Rate and subordinate to Chief Petty Officer, in the case of the British Armed...
s on deck went to the master and advised him that they should strike their colours and surrender; after further consultation, he agreed. The colours had already been shot away, so Mr. Walsh had to shout and wave his hat instead. According to John Paul Jones's records, the duel lasted one hour and five minutes.
Thirty five men were sent from Ranger
to take charge and assess the damage, then the next three days were spent making repairs, while moving slowly north-westward between Ireland and Scotland. A cargo brig which came too close was captured, and used as extra accommodation; on the other hand, six Irish fisherman who had been captured on the first Carrickfergus expedition were allowed, along with three sick Irish sailors, to take a boat and go home, with a present of sails from Drake
, and some money from Jones. On their return they also reported the concern Jones was showing for Lieut. Dobbs, who remained gravely ill. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy had sent out some proper warships in pursuit. Despite Drake
lameness, they never caught a glimpse of the slowly escaping Americans. The only real trouble Jones had was with his Lieutenant, Thomas Simpson, who was given command of the precious Drake
and at one point on the voyage sailed out of sight.
The news reached France much faster than Jones did, and the Americans were welcomed as heroes. As for the British, they had learned their lesson well—the Royal Navy could not defend British shipping against American raiders; it could not defend British coasts against American raiders; it could not even defend its own fighting vessels against American raiders. Militia regiments were hastily redeployed to coastal areas; seaports equipped themselves with artillery to defend themselves against further raids; the gentry banded together in volunteer battalions as a last line of defence. And from then onward, the press paid very close attention to every move John Paul Jones made; struggling to reconcile the malicious rumours of his murders and piracy with the evidence of his chivalrous and far from bloodthirsty behaviour on the Ranger
mission (back in France, he wrote kind and thoughtful letters to the Earl of Selkirk, and to the family of Lieut. Dobbs, who had died within a couple of days). John Paul Jones had gone from being an obscure Scottish-American to an international star, and the naval duel in the North Channel was the unequivocally triumphant climax to a remarkable mission, which demonstrated that the world's most powerful nation was as vulnerable to attack as any other. The press reports of his preparations for his next mission created a climate of fear and uncertainty which helped turn his return visit in 1779 into his best-remembered achievement.
- Bradbury, David "Captain Jones's Irish Sea Cruize", Whitehaven UK, Past Presented, 2005, ISBN 9781904367222
- Sawtelle, Joseph G. (Ed.) "John Paul Jones and the Ranger", Portsmouth NH, Portsmouth marine Society, 1994, ISBN 0915819198
- This book contains the full log of the 1777–1778 voyage, the diary of surgeon Ezra Green, and many relevant letters by Jones and others
- Bradford, James (Ed) "The Papers of John Paul Jones" microfilm edition, ProQuest (Chadwyck-Healey), 1986
- This ten-microfilm set includes all known papers by or to Jones; letters, accounts, rosters, ship logs etc. etc.