North Channel Naval Duel
The North Channel naval duel was a single-ship action between the United States Continental Navy sloop of war Ranger (Captain John Paul Jones) and the British Royal Navy sloop of war Drake (Captain George Burdon) on the evening of 24 April 1778. Fought in the North Channel, separating Ireland from Scotland, 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 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 was by no means confined to American soil; naval operations, by both the Continental Navy and privateers, ranged right across the Atlantic. In 1777, American captains such as Lambert Wickes, Gustavus Conyngham and William Day had been making raids into British waters and capturing merchant ships, which they took into French ports, even though France was officially neutral. Captain Day had even been accorded a gun salute by the French admiral at Brest. Encouraged by such successes, and even more by the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga that autumn, France signed two treaties 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 (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, 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, where he had first learned to sail. Following an unsuccessful attempt to raid the port of Whitehaven in Cumberland, 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 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. Even as the news of those deeds was racing to alert Britain's defences, Ranger was on the way back to Carrickfergus.
24 April 1778
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 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) 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 (sick), boatswain (shot dead while attempting to capture a smuggler) and lieutenant (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.
As 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's 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 with HMS Serapis. Drake 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's 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's 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's third broadside hit Lieut. Dobbs in the head, putting him out of action. Conditions on Drake's 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's 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's 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's sails and rigging had been reduced to tatters by Ranger's 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's main deck. A few minutes after the captain died, the two remaining petty officers 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 Drake 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's 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 978-1-904367-22-2
- Sawtelle, Joseph G. (Ed.) "John Paul Jones and the Ranger", Portsmouth NH, Portsmouth marine Society, 1994, ISBN 0-915819-19-8
- 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.
- William Day's report to Benjamin Franklin of his 1777 cruise in British waters franklinpapers.org — Accessed 29 Nov 2007
- S.E. Morison, "John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography" London, Faber (1959) pp. 134-5
- Recruiting flyer for the Ranger mission, 1777 seacoastnh.com- accessed Nov 27 2007
- Log of the Ranger (see Sawtelle or Bradford sources)
- news item in the Cumberland Chronicle, 25 April 1778 pastpresented.info- accessed Nov 27 2007
- Jones, John Paul (1785), Extracts from the Journals of My Campaigns, americanrevolution.org, retrieved 2007-11-27
- Green, Ezra, Diary of surgeon aboard Ranger, 1777–8, Jewett Text Project (Coe College IA), retrieved 2007-11-27
- Court martial re HMS Drake, 17 November 1779, from National Archives, Kew (ref. ADM 1/5314) pastpresented.info- accessed Nov 27 2007
- Report from Jones to American Commissioners in France, 27 May 1778 Jewett Text Project (Coe College IA)- accessed Nov 27 2007
- National Archives, Kew, Admiralty ledger (ref. ADM 8/54)
- news item in the Cumberland Chronicle, 2 May 1778 pastpresented.info- accessed Nov 28 2007
- news item from Belfast, in the Cumberland Chronicle, 9 May 1778 pastpresented.info- accessed Nov 28 2007
- news items in the Cumberland Chronicle, May–June 1778 pastpresented.info- accessed Nov 27 2007
- Don C. Seitz, "Paul Jones: His Exploits in English Seas During 1778 to 1780", Kessinger Publishing (2005–reprint of 1917 original) ISBN 1-4179-2700-3
- British newspaper articles about Jones, 1779–80, pastpresented.info, retrieved 2007-11-27