A Traitor Foiled a Raid By the ‘Father of the American Navy’ Against Britain During the Revolutionary War

Photo Credit: 1. Howard B. French / Naval History and Heritage Command 2. Stock Montage / Getty Images
Photo Credit: 1. Howard B. French / Naval History and Heritage Command 2. Stock Montage / Getty Images

When discussing the American Revolution, it’s easy to assume that all of the fighting took place on North American soil. This is true to an extent, but there were also some notable and strange battles that occurred not only outside of the country, but on British soil. The raid on Whitehaven, Cumbria, led by John Paul Jones, “the father of the American Navy,” was the only attack to reach the British mainland.

John Paul Jones planned the daring feat

Portrait of John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones. (Photo Credit: Charles Wilson Peale / US Senate / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Continental Navy Capt. John Paul Jones had made quite the name for himself during the American Revolution and, by 1778, he wanted to stage a daring assault on British soil. Previously, he’d been operating out of France, moving up and down the English Channel, trying where he could to disrupt the British and help the conflict being fought across the Atlantic.

Venturing into the Irish Sea, in the hopes of inflicting damage against merchant shipping, Jones concocted a plan to attack the British on their own doorstep. This was something that, had it been launched from America, would have been impossible, due largely to the vast distance between the nation and Britain.

Might of the British Royal Navy

Painting of the USS Ranger (1777) at sea with French ships
USS Ranger (1777) receiving a salute from French vessels. (Photo Credit: Edward Moran / Naval History and Heritage Command / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Another aspect that would have made this feat appear impossible: the might of the British Royal Navy.

At the time, the Royal Navy was unrivaled in power and was capable of decimating any naval force brave enough to face its sailors head-on. For this reason, John Paul Jones’ crew and other American ships adopted the tactic of harassment, striking supply lines and merchant shipping where possible.

Jones was aware of the Royal Navy’s strength and wanted to strike with the element of surprise. He was to strike at the port of Whitehaven, on the coast of Cumbria. The plan was to anchor his ship, the USS Ranger (1777), out at sea and head into port at night with 30 volunteers in two dinghies. One crew would attack a British fort guarding the harbor, while the other team would sabotage the town and set the 200 ships in the harbor on fire.

Finally, the British would feel the heat of Revolutionary War on their own turf.

Why Whitehaven?

Painting of Whitehaven, Cumbria
Whitehaven, Cumbria, as it appeared in 1738. (Photo Credit: Matthias Read / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Why Whitehaven? Was it strategically important? Not at all. John Paul Jones had only chosen it because he was born and raised in Scotland and had began his sailing career from the Cumbrian port. He, therefore, had intimate knowledge of its layout, which meant navigating the area in the darkness of night would be easier than another, less familiar location.

Jones’ career started at the young age of 13, with him becoming the captain of a merchant vessel at just 21, after his predecessor suddenly died from yellow fever, leaving the young man to navigate the ship back.

After commanding the vessel for a while, Jones’ reputation took a turn for the worse when he flogged a member of his crew so severely that the man died a few weeks later, causing him to be seen as overly cruel. Jones left Scotland after this, captaining another vessel in Tobago for over a year before killing yet another member of his crew after a dispute. Fleeing the potential legal repercussions, he relocated to Virginia and changed his name.

John Paul Jones launches his attack on the British

Portrait of John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones. (Photo Credit: Jean-Michel Moreau / Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Off the coast of Whitehaven, the USS Ranger‘s anchor was dropped, and the two crews set off for the port at just after midnight on April 23, 1778.

Immediately, they faced a strong wind and tides, slowing their journey significantly. Upon arrival, John Paul Jones’ team made their way to the fort, successfully and quickly silencing its cannons. Jones, however, had difficulty starting any fires; the fuel for their torches had run out on the unexpectedly long journey to shore.

Exiting the fort, the captain was greeted with a very noticeable lack of burning vessels in the harbor. Meanwhile, the other crew had also run out of fuel, forcing them to find their own in Whitehaven. On this hunt, they’d conveniently entered a public house and got caught up in more important matters – namely, having a drink!

By the time Jones had linked up with and rallied his men, they were drunk, and the sun was coming up, forcing them to abandon the goal of burning the entire port to the ground, in exchange for claiming a single coal ship that they hoped would spread flames to the other moored boats when ignited.

A traitor makes the situation worse

Aerial view of Whitehaven, Cumbria
Whitehaven, Cumbria, as it was in 2022. (Photo Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

With success seeming impossible, the situation was made worse by a traitor in John Paul Jones’ own crew, running around the town to warn the townspeople of the attack. As it turns out, he’d only joined the Continental Navy to secure a ticket back home.

At port, Jones and his crew managed to successfully set the large coal ship alight, but thanks to the alerted townsfolk, the fire was suppressed. He and his men then jumped back into their dinghies and headed for the USS Ranger in the early morning light, well aware of their failure.

John Paul Jones puts another (failed) plan into action

Drawing of John Paul Jones dressed as a pirate
Caricature of John Paul Jones as a pirate. (Photo Credit: A. Park / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

For a man like John Paul Jones, this failure was unbearable, so he set sail for Scotland, hoping to kidnap the wealthy Earl of Selkirk, to use him as a bargaining tool to retrieve captured Americans from the British.

Gathering yet another crew, he rushed ashore, entering the stately home of the earl. With another stroke of bad luck, Jones found he was in London. Exhausted, deflated and suffering yet another defeat, the crew opted to steal the man’s silverware.

Despite the total and utter failure of both of Jones’ plans, which nearly resulted in a mutiny, the attack did ruffle some feathers in Britain, which had previously insisted the mainland was safe from an American attack. It was the only one to occur on British soil and, unlike the situation in North America, it didn’t end in the Americans’ favor.

More from us: Alexander Hamilton Jr. Skillfully Avenged His Father’s Death

Jones would later go on to be remembered very differently in the two countries: as a hero in the United States and a working-class pirate in Britain.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE