Sunday, January 2, 2022

ARP232 Jones and the Armada

This week, we return to Continental Navy Captain John Paul Jones.  We last left Jones’ story in Episode 180.  In 1778 Jones had raided the British coast, captured numerous merchant ships as prizes and eventually returned to France, where he lost his ship and was stuck on land for nearly a year.

A Year in Paris

The French celebrated Jones for his earlier exploits against the British.  At the same time, they seemed in no hurry to give him a new ship to continue those exploits.  Jones spent his time meeting with French officials, as well as the American Commissioners in Paris.  

John Paul Jones

Jones still hoped to get command of L’Indien, a ship built in the Netherlands for the American Commissioners.  This was the ship that Jones had been promised back in 1777.  The British got word of the project and protested a ship being built by an ally for their enemy.  In the end, the French Navy had to purchase the ship.  At the time, France and Britain were still at peace, and Britain could not object to the purchase.

French officials dangled L’Indien to the Americans, suggesting possibly making Jones its captain, but it never happened.  The French were building up their own navy and did not want to give away such a valuable ship of the line to an American.

Jones also continued to feel the effects of his disputes with Lieutenant Thomas Simpson, with whom he had argued constantly on the prior voyage.  In France, Jones had Simpson thrown into prison for disobeying orders while at sea.  John Adams had taken Simpson’s side in the matter, and against Jones, believing that Jones was just trying to take all the credit for the voyage and slandering the good name of this New England officer whose family was related to that of Adams. 

After a few months, Jones, under pressure, agreed to drop the charge against Simpson and allow him to captain the Ranger on its return to America.  Franklin and other French officials hinted that he needed to do this before getting another command.  After Simpson sailed for America aboard the Ranger, Jones remained without a ship.

He spent time with Lafayette, as the two men schemed to put together a substantial invasion of about 1500 men in England.  French officials put the kibosh on those plans as they were planning a much larger invasion.  They transferred Lafayette to a command on the other side of France, where he could not be as much trouble.

comte d'Orvilliers

Jones also met with French Admiral the comte de Orvilliers, who had fought the Battle of Ushant against British Admiral Keppel in 1778 (see Episode 194).  Jones suggested that he be given a ship or small fleet.  He could destroy the coal fleet at Newcastle in order to cause a fuel shortage in London.  He could destroy the fishing fleet of Greenland in order to cause food shortages, or perhaps more disruption of trade by picking off some of the longer distance trade ships.  While his ideas intrigued de Orvilliers, Jones still could not get a ship.

Jones spent the summer of 1779 trying anything to get back to sea, but was continually frustrated. His prize ship, the Drake was plundered and sold for a pittance, meaning his crew was out of much of their hoped-for prize money.  

He did almost get a small fleet to take into the Irish Sea.  He worked out his plans with Edward Bancroft, who was Benjamin Franklin’s secretary.  In the end, the plans fell through when, once again, he was not given the ships promised. In this case, it was probably a good thing since Bancroft was a British spy and had forwarded Jones’ plans to London.  Had he set sail, he probably would have sailed right into a British trap.  Jones was never aware of that.  He continued to express frustration at his inability to get a new ship.

Bonhomme Richard 

In September of 1779, Jones finally received a new ship - well, new to him.  The Duc de Duras was a thirteen year old merchant vessel that had made several trips to China before being converted to more local trade.  

The French Navy purchased the ship in February 1779 and assisted the Americans with outfitting it as a naval vessel.  They added 44 guns, which was a fairly impressive number, although all but six of those were 12 pounders or less.  Larger guns were critical to sinking an enemy ship.  It was an impressive armament to take merchantmen, but not for taking on a British ship of the line.  It was not a particularly fast ship and not one that the French wanted to use.  So they were happy to make it available to the Americans.

Bonhomme Richard

Because the ship had been built as a long distance merchant ship, it had a large and luxurious captain’s quarters.  This appealed to Jones, who liked to present himself as a gentleman of substance.  He even had a set of plates bearing his family crest made for himself so that he could entertain his guests aboard ship in style.

That said, he was wary of the ship.  Early test voyages proved that it was very slow.  That did not matter much for a merchant ship in peacetime.  It mattered very much for a military ship that needed to chase down targets and escape from pursuing naval vessels.

Jones, of course, had been lobbying to get the ship for months.  He would take anything he could get.  Jones renamed the ship the Bonhome Richard, an honor to Benjamin Franklin whose Poor Richard’s Almanac sold in France under the name Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard

The Bonhomme Richard ready to sail in the fall, Jones received a fleet to sail with him.  It included the 36 gun Alliance, the 32 gun Pallas, the 18 gun Cerf, and the 12 gun Vengeance.

Captain Landais

Commanding the Alliance was the fleet’s second-in-command, Captain Pierre Landais.  He was a French officer of 30 years.  He had been wounded in action during the Seven Years War and had spent time as a British prisoner.  He had also accompanied Captain Louis Antoine, Compte de Bougainville on a voyage around the world after the war. 

Pierre Landais
By 1775, Landais was discharged from the service for his reputation as an incompetent officer.  Two years later, he was one of many down-on-their-luck officers who went to Silas Deane looking for work. In 1777, Deane gave Landais a captain’s commission and command of the newly converted merchant ship, the Alliance, full of covert French military aid for the Continental Army. 

Why did Deane give a disgraced terminated officer a commission? Well, the American commissioners did not exactly do any due diligence in checking the backgrounds of their officer applicants.  Landais appeared to have been able to present himself well, and he did have decades of experience.

Landais would prove to have a rather poor record with the Continental Navy. As one historian put it “If he was not the worst of the frigate captains, it was only because, with a few notable exceptions, so many of them were incompetent.” 

During Landais’ voyage from France to America, he had to put down a mutiny, but arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire with his cargo intact.  The captain met with top officials in America and received praise from Samuel Adams.

Based on his successful mission, and his very high view of himself, during interviews Congress affirmed his captaincy and his command of the Alliance.  He also became a citizen of Massachusetts during his visit. In January of 1779, he was given the honor of returning the Marquis de Lafayette to France.  During the return voyage, he had to put down another mutiny, but manage to complete his voyage successfully once again.

Landais was supposed to bring the Alliance back to America, returning John Adams home.  Benjamin Franklin, however, countermanded those orders and assigned Landais to the squadron under Captain Jones to sail into the North Sea and harass British shipping.

Jones and Landais did not seem to get along, despite efforts to spend some bonding time together before the voyage.  During a shake-down cruise, the Bonhomme Richard crashed into the Alliance, causing some minor damage.  At the time, Jones was asleep in his cabin. Landais was on duty, but rather than attempt to avoid the ship, he ran down to his cabin to grab his pistols.  He later said that he thought the crew on the other ship had mutinied and was deliberately trying to ram him.  Captain Jones dismissed Lieutenant Robert Robinson who had the con on the Bonhomme Richard during the collision, but also began to doubt Landais’ abilities as a captain.

Commodore of a fleet

The crew of the fleet was pretty problematic.  Most of them were European sailors, who mostly wanted rum and money, and cared about little else.  A fair percentage of the crew were English sailors who had been taken from French prisons.  Landais’ fear of a mutiny was not without cause.  Many of the men would have happily overthrown their officers and sailed for England if given the chance.

Jones had to resort to repeated lashings to keep control of his crew.  He broke a mutiny plot among the English sailors and sentenced the ringleader to 250 lashes.  On another occasion, he had a crew take him ashore for some business.  While he was away, the crew abandoned their boat and went off to get drunk.  Jones had to find a local fisherman to get back to his ship.  When the crew returned with the launch, he sentenced each man to twelve lashes.

Richard Dale

Captain Jones did have a few good men among his crew.  After he fired Lieutenant Robinson for crashing into the Alliance, Jones appointed Lieutenant Richard Dale as his new second in command.  The 22 year old Virginian had seen his share of difficulties before his assignment on the Bonhomme Richard.  

Dale had gone to sea in 1769, at age 12. His father, a merchant and shipwright from Norfolk, Virginia, had died two years earlier, and the boy needed to support himself.   His uncle gave him his first position aboard ship.  Dale traveled to Liverpool, England as he learned the trade of a seaman.  After five years as an apprentice, the 17 year old Dale was serving as chief mate on colonial merchant vessel.

Richard Dale
In 1776, Dale joined the Virginia Navy, but was captured almost immediately by a British ship, the Liverpool, at that time still fighting under Lord Dunmore to take back Royal control of Virginia.  Dale knew many of the men serving on the British vessel.  They persuaded him to sign on with the British crew.   A short time later, Dale was wounded while fighting for the British as they tried to capture several smaller American ships.  While traveling to Jamaica, an American ship, the Lexington, under the Command of Captain John Barry, captured the British ship on which Dale was serving.  Dale agreed to return to switch sides again and took a position as a midshipman in the Continental Navy.  He remained aboard the Lexington after Captain Barry transferred to a larger ship.

Once again though, the fates were against him.  The British ship Pearl captured the Lexington and Dale was taken aboard as a prisoner.  Although a storm soon allowed the Lexington to escape, Dale remained a prisoner aboard the Pearl.  A prisoner exchange returned Dale to the Lexington, but it was only January 1777, and he had already been a prisoner of war twice.

The Lexington then sailed for France, where it joined a small fleet under the command of Lambert Wickes, raiding the Irish coast, a raid I discussed back in Episode 137.  The raiders took many merchant ships and returned to France.  There, however, British diplomats forced France, which was still at peace with Britain, to expel the American ships from its ports.  The Lexington attempted a return voyage to America, but was captured at sea in September of 1777.

Dale and the rest of his crew were sent to Mill Prison in Plymouth, England.  There, the crews of a number of ships were being held under horrific conditions.  Charged with treason, the men were often held in irons, and almost never fed.  Malnutrition threatened their lives. At one point the prisoners killed and ate a dog.  Other desperate meals included cats, rats, and grass.  Some of the locals even took pity on them and raised funds to provide a bit of food, disgusted that the British government was simply allowing the prisoners to starve to death.

The prisoners managed to dig a tunnel under the prison wall, allowing several dozen men to escape.  I mentioned this incident once before as one of the successful escapees was Gustavus Conyingham, another Continental Navy captain.  Dale managed to get away from the prison, but was arrested as he attempted to board a ship in London that was headed for France.  He was returned to Mill Prison, where he spent 40 days in the black hole as punishment.

After about a year at the prison, Dale managed to obtain the uniform of a British officer, and simply walked out the front gate of the prison.  This time, he managed to get aboard a ship and make his way to France in February 1779.  This was about the time that John Paul Jones had received word that he would get command of the Bonhomme Richard.  Desperate for crew members, Jones happily signed on Dale as an officer.

French-Spanish Armada

The reason that the French government provided Jones, not only with a ship, but a small fleet, at this time, was that it was part of a larger plan by French officials.  France and Spain’s combined fleet, along with the British Navy’s distraction in America, provided the best opportunity for an invasion of Britain in centuries.  

Armada off the British Coast, 1779
The plan was for the French fleet to sail down to Spain and combine with the Spanish fleet.  The combined fleet would sail into the English Channel and defeat the smaller British fleet.  Once in control of the channel, troop transports would carry 40,000 soldiers from France to the coast of Britain.  They would then force a battle with the British army and capture London.

The numbers seemed to favor the would-be invaders.  France had 30 ships of the line to combine with 36 Spanish ships of the line, along with many more smaller ships.  Britain had less than 40 ships of the line to defend the island, commanded by Admiral Charles Hardy, who had not had a sea command in twenty years.  The rest of the officers and ships were away, defending other parts of the empire.

The British army had only about 20,000 soldiers in Britain.  It could supplement these with militia.  But the English militia had even less training and experience than colonial militia.  The English militia had not seen combat in generations.  It had not seen combat in generations.  If the French and Spanish could clear the Channel with their larger fleet, then land a larger army in England, they had a real chance of repeating William the Conqueror's success of 1066.  

Britain was completely unprepared for such an invasion.  Coastal defenses had already proved ill-equipped to handle small coastal raids, let alone a full invasion.  Fortunately for the unprepared British, the invasion fleet ran into problems from the outset.

In an attempt to throw off British spies in France, the French fleet, under the command of Admiral d'Orvilliers, left Brest quickly and without taking on rations for an extended tour.  The fleet set sail on June 3, 1779 to meet up with the Spanish off the northwest coast of Spain.  Where they awaited the arrival of the Spanish Armada. They waited and waited and waited.  June turned into July with no Spanish fleet in sight.

French sailors and marines suffered through terrible heat below decks during the Spanish summer.  Without proper rations, the men began to show signs of scurvy.  On top of that smallpox and typhus spread through the fleet.

Finally, after about six weeks of waiting, the Spanish fleet, under the command of Don Luis de Córdova, arrived.  By this time, it was late July.  It was not until mid-August that the combined fleet could get underway and reach the English Channel.  The fleet made it to the British coast with no opposition.  They encountered only one British naval vessel, the Ardent, which was sailing to join the British fleet.  The captain mistook the French and Spanish Armada for the British fleet, sailed toward it, and was promptly captured.

British Defensive Encampment in Kent
The sight of the enemy fleet off the coast of Plymouth set off alarms all over Britain.  But the Armada was not the invasion force.  It was looking for the British Navy in order to clear the way for the invasion force.  The British had received word that the French and Spanish had sailed out into the Atlantic and had sailed after them, thus leaving an open path in the English Channel. But until the Allied French and Spanish defeated the British Navy, they could not launch the invasion fleet of troop transports.  Otherwise, the British Navy could show up at the wrong time and destroy the troop transports.  So, the French and Spanish continued to sail around the channel, looking for their enemy.

A storm blew the armada out into the Atlantic.  At the same time, the British fleet used foggy conditions to sail back to Plymouth, where the smaller fleet could be supported by many smaller ships and coastal defenses.

Meanwhile, all of these many weeks of delay meant that thousands of French and Spanish soldiers, sailors, and marines were dying.  Typhus and smallpox in the French fleet has spread to the Spanish ships as well.  Hundreds of men were dying each day.  Further, it was already September, meaning a land campaign in Britain, even if launched successfully, would probably be fought into the winter, which French and Spanish leaders thought would put them at great disadvantage. 

In the end, the allied fleet simply returned to Brest and gave up without a fight.  The armada had not fired a single cannon shot in battle, but lost over 8000 men to disease.  Admiral d’Orvilliers resigned his command shortly after returning in failure.  The British, now on high alert, began improving their coastal defenses all over Britain.

It was in the context of this planned invasion that John Paul Jones embarked on the raid that led to one of the most famous naval battles in American history. We will get to that next week, when the Bonhomme Richard takes on the British ship Serapis.

- - -

Next Episode 233 Bonhomme Richard vs. Serapis 

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Further Reading


“To Benjamin Franklin from John Paul Jones, 3 October 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Excerpts from John Paul Jones’ Memoirs

Landais, Pierre

Norton, Louis Arthur “The Battle between Bonhomme Richard and Serapis” Journal of the American Revolution, August 20, 2019.

Norton, Louis Arthur “The Revolutionary War’s most Enigmatic Naval Captain: Pierre Landais” Journal of the American Revolution, July 17, 2018.

Battle of Flamborough Head

I have not yet begun to fight

Schellhammer, Michael “The Real Immortal Words of John Paul Jones” Journal of the American Revolution, January 19, 2015.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Abbott, John S. C. Life of John Paul Jones, New York, Dodd, Mead and Co. 1898. 

De Koven, Anna The Life and Letters of John Paul Jones, Vol. 1, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913. 

Honeyman, A. Van Doren Admiral Paul Jones, Plainfield, N.J. Honeyman & Co. 1905. 

Morison, Samuel Eliot John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography, Boston: Little, Brown, 1959. 

Paullin, Charles Oscar The Navy of the American Revolution: Its Administration, Its Policy and Its Achievements, The Burrows Brothers Co. 1906. 

Tooker, L. Frank John Paul Jones, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916. 

Walker, George Benjamin Life of Rear-Admiral John Paul Jones, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1876. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bowen-Hassell, E. Gordon, Dennis Conrad, and Mark Hays Sea Raiders of the American Revolution: The Continental Navy in European Waters, Univ. of the Pacific Press, 2004.

Fowler, William M. Jr. Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy During the Revolution, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976.

McGrath, Tim Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, Caliber, 2014.

Thomas, Evan, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


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