During the American War Of Independence, the fledgling United States Congress was anxious to smash Britain’s domination of the seas and disrupt British trade routes. The French, knowing any such disorder could only benefit them too, were eager to help. King Louis XVI promised to furnish and arm a ship to be commanded by an American officer who would have free access to French ports.
John Paul Jones was chosen to be that officer. Born plain John Paul on July 6, 1747 at Arbigland in Galloway, Scotland, he was the son of an estate gardener. At sea by the age of 13, by 21 he had become master of John, trading between Scotland and the West Indies. With the aim of becoming a plantation owner in Virginia, he formed a partnership in Tobago. But while he was busy hatching plans, life interfered. After killing a mutineer in self-defense and fearing a kangaroo court, he fled Tobago, enlarging his name to John Paul Jones to escape detection.
But fortune favors the brave. In 1775 on the outbreak of the War of Independence, John Paul Jones volunteered for America’s infant navy and within three years was given command of Ranger and ordered across the Atlantic. He arrived in France in 1778, but was shocked to find himself relieved of his command when Ranger was needed back in America. The politician Benjamin Franklin, based in Paris to liaise with the French government, became Paul Jones’s greatest ally. Offering constant reassurance, he guided Jones though the murky waters of the French Marine Ministry in his quest to secure a ship to fight against the British and when the task seemed hopeless, he eventually devised a plot to force the purchase of a suitable vessel. In recognition of Franklin’s efforts, Jones renamed his new command Bonhomme Richard, Franklin’s pen name when he wrote newspaper articles.
Promoted to commodore, John Paul Jones began to harry the English in their own territorial waters while battling the treachery of insubordinate French officers who commanded the other ships in his small flotilla. A year later, off Flamborough Head, just south of Scarborough on England’s Yorkshire coast, he tackled a brand new enemy frigate within sight of the very shores of England, a nation whose proud boast was its invincible navy.
And it was at the Battle of Flamborough Head in 1779 John Paul Jones became a legend.
The first broadsides were deafening.
Gunpowder thunder rolled over the sea, cannonballs searing the sky before shredding canvas and wrenching away rigging. The distance between the two ships was so narrow there was little chance of missing. The eighteen-pound shot smashed into decking, spears of white wood rearing up as planks were ripped from cross beams and flung into the air like firewood. The thunder drowned the screams of agony as men’s limbs were torn from their bodies while the red varnished timbers of the gun decks disguised spurting blood.
HMS Serapis did not suffer alone. When Captain Pearson saw the stars and stripes he had no hesitation. His gunners had long been ready, smoldering matches close to hand. He gave the order for the port battery to open fire, the broadside merging with the American’s. Bonhomme Richard shuddered as the English shot sought and found targets, smashing into her topsides.
Below the main deck Lieutenant Richard Dale stood with one arm hanging onto a stanchion, eyes screwed into slits against the smoke and stink of spent gunpowder. After only one broadside the heat from the cannon had already brought out fresh sweat on his back and shoulders where the cold sweat of fear had dried. The gun crews on Richard’s port side stood by their unfired charges, numbly staring at the sweat drenched starboard gunners working their cannon. Flung back by the recoil, the smoking muzzles were inside the ports.
“Reload!” Lt Dale shouted.
The men had begun without him. The leading hand pulled a stave from the low beam above then dipped the sponge tip into a water bucket before ramming it straight down the barrel to kill sparks or scraps of burning cartridge. Turning a deaf ear to the cannoneer’s sequence of orders, they automatically followed the ritual. Cartridge, wad, ball, heave the gun carriage until it hit the topsides, prime, aim. Only when all was ready did they glance at the lieutenant braced against the stanchion, or glance at their shipmates who had watched the performance.
“Fire!” Dale shouted.
The cannoneers held slow matches to the touch holes. An almighty explosion ripped through the gun deck. Men were flung into the air to bounce off beams like dolls discarded by petulant children. Another explosion followed, horrified faces turning open mouthed, starkly lit by orange bursts of fire. Carnage everywhere. The idle port gunners still on their feet were spattered by spraying blood. A head, complete with open eyes, ragged tendons dangling bloody from a sheared neck, was caught by a sailor in a reflex movement. He stared at it for a second in disbelief then threw it away. The second blast sent him staggering to his knees. The severed head rolled back in front of his face. He vomited as he tried to scramble away but his feet slipped on the gory deck.
“Oh my God!” a man wailed, his eardrums burst by pressure waves. “The magazine’s blown! We’re dead!”
Richard Dale pulled himself upright, wiping blood from his eyes. Picking through the debris, he moved forward to inspect the scene. Two of the eighteen-pounders had burst, barrels blown open like flowers. With carriages upended, the ruined muzzles stared uselessly at a gaping hole in the timbers above. Their crews were nowhere to be seen in the smoke, blown to bits along with the crews from several cannon on either side and men from the port battery. Horribly disfigured sailors lay moaning among the human debris of bone and gristle, clutching wounds in a bid to staunch welling blood. It was as though a madman had run the length of the deck whirling a scythe about his head.
Lt Dale hid his revulsion and fought the heaving in his stomach by issuing a rapid stream of orders.
“Those guns still intact! Reload and fire at will! You, yes you, get your crew to take the wounded below to the surgeon. You port side men, make up the men missing from the starboard crews. Jump to it!” Behind him, an English cannonball punched through the topsides, leaving a charred trail as it careered across the deck. He never flinched. “You heard me! Get to it or I’ll know the reason why!”
Scarborough Fair is a terrific story. You have a beautiful way with words. Of course, you English always had a better command of the language than we colonists. The Serapis and Bonhomme Richard battle was always a great adventure tale and you did it proud.—
best-selling author Clive Cussler
This is a well written novel and the personality of the many historical figures featured as characters come through, all mixed into a compelling narrative which is hard to put down.
Recommended.’ David Hayes. Historic Naval Fiction website
Chris' extremely clever way of descriptive writing take the reader right into the place where the characters live... During the battle at sea in 1779 off the coast of Yorkshire one can smell the smoke from the cannons and hear the tortured voices of frightened sailors in battle, and feel the tension of warfare at sea. A good read.’ Mike Eastwood