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The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe


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John Paul Jones and Asymmetric Warfare
John Paul Jones and Asymmetric Warfare
by Bruce L. Brager 

John Paul Jones, the "father" of the United States Navy, owes his historical image to a few hours of fighting, on September 23, 1779. Jones, commanding the USS Bonhomme Richard, fought and defeated the HMS Serapis , a somewhat better armed British warship. An unusual aspect to this battle is that Jones' ship was sunk, that he and his surviving crew, and British prisoners, sailed back to his base in France on the captured British ship.

Jones' very real contribution to the American Revolution was to give Americans hope. He was the new nation's most successful naval officer. He was willing to "go in harm's way," and in fact created that phrase, once writing a French official who offered Jones' an older ship, "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm's way."[1]

Jones had a strategic vision of how the United States Navy might grow and how it might function. Jones was an early advocate for a professional, merit based navy. The Revolutionary War American Navy still depended heavily on political pull for officer appointments and promotions. For the self-centered motive that this hurt his own promotion, though he still was correct, Jones advocated meritocratic promotion and appointment.

Jones was also an early advocate and practitioner of what we now call "asymmetrical warfare." For an oversimplified but quick definition symmetrical enemies are those with militaries structured basically the same way, such as the United States and Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Symmetrical enemies primarily, though not necessarily exclusively, rely on conventional means to stand up and confront each other.

Asymmetrical enemies use unconventional warfare to strike at another power's weaknesses. Current examples of asymmetrical enemies of the United States are Al Qaeda and the insurgents in Iraq. Asymmetrical warfare, sometimes called fourth generation warfare,

". . . uses all available networks – political, economic, social, and military – to convince an enemy's political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unavailable or too costly for the perceived benefits. It is an evolved form of insurgency. . . Unlike previous generations of warfare, it does not attempt to win by defeating the enemy's military forces. Instead. . . it directly attacks the minds of enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy's political will."[2]

An opponent facing a far stronger enemy is certain to try asymmetry. The United States faced this situation in the American Revolution. Our primary method of asymmetry was to seek stronger allies against Great Britain, basically moving the primary focus from American battlefield weakness to American diplomatic skill and strength.

John Paul Jones, a prolific letter writer to the Continental Congress, almost as soon as he got his first officer's commission, began to think of ways the American Navy might overcome its severe weaknesses in strength and technology. Jones started to attract the attention of some members of Congress. Robert Morris, a financial expert from New York, was one of them. In January 1777, Morris wrote John Hancock, President of the Congress, that Jones "is a fine fellow and should be constantly kept employed."[3]

Morris appreciated some of Jones' ideas. Morris described Jones' letters as "always entertaining and in many parts useful."[4] Morris saw that Jones brought a far broader perspective to naval affairs than most other naval officers and members of Congress. Jones was interested in Jones, but he was also interested in the Navy.

On February 5, 1777, Morris wrote to Jones that:

"It has always been clear to me that our infant fleet cannot protect our own coasts & that the only effectual relief it can afford us is to attack the enemies' defenseless places and thereby oblige them to station more of their ships in their own countries or to keep them employed in following ours. . . either way we are relieved."[5]

Jones had earlier thought along the same lines. Perhaps inspired by this letter, Jones began to look for innovative ways to most effectively use the limited American naval resources against the British. Jones came to support diversionary hit and run raids on the enemy's coast. Public outcry at the raids would force the British to divert resources from North America to defend their own homeland. The modern term for what Jones proposed is "unexpected asymmetry," sudden and unexpected attacks where the opponent has not thought to defend.

Jones wanted to ratchet up the stakes of 18th century warfare – a relatively, though not always, narrowly focused affair aiming at enemy armies. However, Jones, along with Morris and others who thought the way they did, did not want to return to the massively destructive anti-civilian warfare of the past, particularly the religious wars of the 1600s when thousands of civilians died from violence, hunger and disease. Jones wanted to panic, even terrorize, British civilians, but by destroying their property. He would have been appalled by 21st century terrorism.

Jones would have seen modern terrorism as counterproductive. Of Scottish ancestry, probably heard family tales of the English brutality in crushing Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion in the 1740s, not long before Jones was born. He knew the hatred this engendered in Scotland. Jones would know that such behavior by Americans towards the British would only add a strong desire for vengeance to British power. For a modern example, German behavior during its invasion of the Soviet Union certainly ratcheted up the brutality Soviet troops showed towards German civilians in 1945.

The colonies had nowhere near the resources needed to carry a war onto the British homeland. But the more far-sighted American leaders wanted to panic British civilians, and destroy enough of their property so that they would pressure the Parliament and the government to end the war with America.

Jones got his chance in July 1777. He received orders to take command of a ship under construction in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Ranger. After several more months of construction, which Jones supervised, and recruitment of a crew, Jones set sail on November 1, 1777. His fast ship managed to slip past the British fleet blockading the American coast, a fleet which managed to capture most American warships trying to get out into the open ocean. In addition to resources needed for raiding British shipping, the Ranger carried the news of the American capture of an entire British army at Saratoga. Though another ship brought the news to France first, this victory convinced the French government to openly support the American rebels against the British.

Most of the journey was quiet, until the Ranger was just over the horizon from the British coast. Lookouts then spied 17 ships in the distance. The American gave chase, to discover a merchant convoy. They also discovered the convoy was escorted by a 74-gun British warship. Had the 20-gun Ranger been spotted, it would easily have been sunk. Direct confrontation with the Royal Navy ship was out of the question. Unable to slip away, Jones tried something else. He had hIs ship fall in line with the merchantmen.

An unidentified officer on board ship later wrote home "Our captain took a very wise step, which was to heave to with the convoy."[6] There Jones stayed until nightfall, when he was able to slip away. The British warship crew never noticed. "Had he suspected us to be Americans, we must have been captured."[7] Jones was not able to capture or sink any of the merchantmen before he left the convoy. The Ranger arrived at the French port of Nantes on December 2, 1777.

The Cruise of the Ranger

The Ranger left the French port of Brest on April 8, 1778. At the slow sailing speed of the day, it was April 15 before the ship entered the channel between England and Ireland. (Jones would have seen this as a more direct route to less defended targets in Ireland and the west coast of England and Scotland.) The weather that day was windy and overcast. This limited visibility would have blocked the American's view of potential targets. However, British warships could not have spotted Jones unless they were very close.

Jones planned to sail to the south coast of Scotland, to the port of Whitehaven, to burn at least some of the merchant ships in the port. He also planned to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, whom he considered an important British nobleman, who lived in the area, and hold him as a hostage to obtain the release of captive American seamen.

Jones knew the local waters, as this was the area where the captain had gained his first sea experience. He could serve as his own pilot, to guide the Ranger close to shore. Jones was also acquainted with the Selkirks. The Earl's father had been the closest friend of William Craik, and a frequent visitor at Craik's estate, where Jones' father worked as the landscape designer and Jones grew up. Jones might even have met the old Earl, his target, himself.

Continental leaders of the time tried to lead, but the men would not always follow. This was particularly true in the Navy. American sailors demanded a lot more democracy on their ships, even to the point of endangering the effective military operation of the vessels. New England sailors, such as those with Jones, came from perhaps the most democratic area of the country. They saw no reason why such things as the town meeting tradition, where every man had a say in what happened in a town, had to be totally forgotten just because they were at sea and at war.

This stood in stark contrast to the harsh discipline of the British Royal Navy of the period. Flogging, or worse, punishment followed relatively minor offenses by common British sailors. American captains, on the other hand, though in theory they could punish, had to alternate between persuading and effectively bribing their crews.

The crew of the Ranger was not happy about raiding Britain. They thought they would be on their way back to America, making prize money on the way by capturing British merchant ships. Jones sensed pending problems. He later, though perhaps with some of what came to be known as "20/20 hindsight," wrote about "A slow and half obedience I had observed even from the beginning."[8]

Just a few days after leaving France, Jones faced a mutiny. Jean Meijer, a French officer who had volunteered to command the marine detachment onboard ship when the American marine commander left, was the only officer loyal to Jones. He tipped Jones off about a pending mutiny. The ship's master, roughly equivalent to a senior non-commissioned officer in the modern navy, would rush Jones and take him captive. All other officers would make sure they were not around when this happened. The ship would then sail for America, with Jones either in chains or trying to swim back to France.

Jones had no other proof so he decided to wait for something to happen. The master, David Cullam, rushed Jones, as Meijer had warned, as Jones paced the quarterdeck – the raised open area at the back of the ship. Jones then pulled out his pistol and pointed it at Cullam's head. Cullam, and his associates, then backed off. They might have been shocked at Jones' reaction, or they might have heard a rumor about what happened the last time someone tried this with Jones. Jones had run a mutiny leader through with a sword early in his career. Cullam was not put in chains, which would have been appropriate, but Jones knew he had to watch his back.

Before Jones, the last time Britain had been raided by a foreign power was in the 17th century, when a Dutch raiding party had burned a town on the South East Coast. The British people felt secure that this could not happen again, that the "wooden walls" of the Royal Navy would protect them. Jones was determined to prove them wrong. This was dangerous, but not impossible. Well before the days of radar, when ships too far away to see were effectively invisible, there would be gaps in any defensive (or blockading) naval screen.

On April 17, the Ranger reached Whitehaven, Jones' first target. Jones managed to assemble a 30-man raiding party from his crew of 150. But, when the boats were being lowered into the water about 10 p.m., the wind both shifted and increased. Heavy waves were now breaking on shore. The landing would now be far more risky. The Ranger herself now risked either being wrecked on the rocks or being a sitting duck for any British warship that happened to pass by. Jones cancelled the raid. He withdrew to the open sea to await a better chance for success.

The next day Jones ran into a British revenue cutter, the Hussar, on patrol for smugglers. In a battle that followed, the smaller Hussar was able to escape the Ranger by sailing into shallow waters close to shore where the Jones could not follow. Jones realized that once the British ship made port his "cover was blown." The alarm would go out, and any British warship in the area would be sent to look for the Americans. Jones had to quickly find targets of opportunity.

Sailing west, Jones and his men captured a British fishing boat. From the crew they identified a target. The British sloop Drake, of about the same size and firepower as the Ranger, lay in a harbor not far from Belfast, in what is now Northern Ireland. The Drake's officers and crew were unlikely to have heard that Jones was in the area. Jones' first plan was to brazenly sail in during daylight and sink or capture the British ship. However, according to a diary kept by the Ranger 's ship's doctor, Ezra Green, the "people were unwilling to undertake it."[9] No reason is given, but refusing orders, particularly if they seemed dangerous, was common.

Jones negotiated an alternative plan with executive officer Simpson. The Ranger would enter the harbor at night, and surprise the British ship. As the Ranger crossed the Drake 's bow, the American crew would throw grappling hooks over the British ship's side, and use small arms to capture the British ship. Before they could react, the ship would be an American prize.

The plan would have to start with the Ranger dropping anchor at just the right moment, stopping the ship next to the Drake. The mate in charge of the anchor detail lost concentration and delayed just long enough for the Ranger to end up 100 feet in front of the Drake, too far for the plan to work. Jones ordered the Ranger's anchor cable cut – ships had several anchors, in anticipation of this method of quickly getting underway – and the Ranger first drifted and then sailed out of the harbor. Amazingly, the officers and crew of the Drake had no idea of the danger they had briefly been in.

Jones wanted to try again, but the tide had shifted and he could not get back into the harbor. He looked again to a raid on Whitehaven. As the Ranger sailed back, Jones told his crew of his plans. He would lead a raiding part to first capture the forts guarding the town, spike their cannon, and then burn the merchantmen in the harbor. Jones would lead the raid himself. Jones got what by this point should not have been a surprising reaction.

Officers and crew did not want to follow Jones' plans. Simpson, his unreliable second in command, led the objections. They signed on for prize money, not glory of hurting the enemy literarily where the enemy lived. They even told the captain they were too tired to perform their duties. Surgeon Green raised a more principled objection, that the mission was dangerous and that they would be attacking poor people's property. Jones was more responsive to Green, but was still determined to go ahead with the raid.

The Ranger was behind the optimum schedule. By midnight of April 23, when he thought the attack would be under way, Jones was still several miles off shore. After a somewhat too leisurely row ashore, Jones and the 30 volunteers were ashore. But the sun was starting to come up. Jones still wanted to go ahead. Jones and some of the men headed to the forts. The rest were told to prepare to burn the shipping, roughly 200 vessels sitting close together.

The raid on the fort went well. Jones and his party quickly and efficiently slipped into the fort, overcame the guards, and spiked the suns. Spiking consisted of driving heavy nails into cannon touchholes, used in firing the guns. The cannon could no longer be fired.

The sun was now coming over the horizon, but Jones still had some surprises left. He called for the rest of the men to join him. Many of those who did had gotten drunk. Jones was actually lucky, as they had been planning to leave him on shore. After a bit of the customary debate, this time over why the ships were not already on fire, Jones and the men headed out to find fire and get a candle lit. Jones then found a coal ship, and threw in the candle. Nothing happened. Jones then had his men pour a barrel full of tar into the hold of the ship. This worked.

However, the town was now awake. One of Jones' seamen had enlisted in New Hampshire for the sole purpose of getting home to Britain. He was now banging on doors to warn the town of their danger. Citizens ran towards the docks to see what was happening. As Jones later described it:

"The inhabitants began to appear in thousands and individuals ran hastily towards us. I stood between them and the Ship of Fire with a pistol in my hand and ordered them to retire which they did with precipitation. The flames had already caught the rigging and began to ascend the main mast. The sun was a full hour's march above the horizon, and as sleep no longer ruled the world, it was time to retire."[10]

This time his men put more effort into rowing back to the Ranger .

Jones knew that he and his men had put on a dramatic show, but they had not done very much practical damage. Only one ship had been burned. Jones decided to go ahead with the second part of his plan, going after the Earl of Selkirk.

He ordered to ship 20 miles across the Firth of Solway. The entrance channel was tricky, but Jones had sailed it before. By noon, Jones' landing cutter was on the beach. Twelve armed men accompanied him, include Master Cullam. Jones and his men headed up the hill towards the Selkirk house.

On the way there, they ran into Lord Selkirk's gardener. Jones told the gardener that he and his men were a Royal Navy press gang. They had come ashore to draft men for the navy. The gardener immediately warned all young men on the estate, who fled "naval service" and any chance to resist the Selkirk kidnapping. Unfortunately, the gardener also said that Selkirk was not at home.

Disappointed, Jones turned to head back to the ship. He was stopped by Cullam and the other officer. They were not going back without something. They were sure that there was treasure in the house, and demanded that Jones let them go collect the treasure. Jones now had a dilemma. If he said ok, he had no way of controlling his men and the damage they might do. If he resisted, they would probably kill him and do the damage anyway. Jones compromised. The men would wait outside while the two officers went to get the Selkirk silver plate – basically, expensive dinning room plates, silverware, cups and saucers. Jones decided to stay with his men.

Most of the women and children in the house fled to the top floor. Lady Selkirk went to meet the two officers, and acceded to their demands. She was not impressed with them, but later wrote her husband "Upon the whole, I must say they behaved civilly."[11]

Jones' would have been more concerned for his reputation if he had read another paragraph in Lady Selkirk's letter. She had been told by one of the officers in her home that the captain of their ship was Jones. The letter states that:

"It was immediately known that this Paul Jones is one John Paul, born at Arbigland, who once commanded a Kirkcudbright vessel belonging to Mr. Muir and others, a great villain as ever was born, guilty of many crimes and several murders by ill usage, was tried and condemned for one, escaped, and followed a piratical life, til he engaged with the Americans."[12]

Jones and the Ranger quickly left the area, but headed back to northern Ireland. Jones was unhappy about the results of the main phases of his cruise. He wanted one more try at capturing, or sinking, the Drake. Lieutenant Simpson was making another effort to stir up the crew when the Ranger arrived at northern Ireland. Before the Ranger 's crew realized it, the ship had drifted into Carrickfergus Harbor. "The tide and what little wind there was had imperceptibly carried us in so far that they was very little chance for an escape."[13]

This time the crew of the Drake was more alert. The British ship was unfurling her sails, in case she had to challenge the intruder. But, first a boat came out to investigate. Jones was flying a British flag and trying to appear as a merchantman. Jones ordered the Ranger 's helmsman to keep her stern towards the longboat, to keep the British from counting the Ranger's cannon, and even seeing that the Ranger had cannon. The Drake's boat came alongside. Jones, wearing a uniform identical to that of a British naval officer, greeted the British officer. He then informed the officer he and his men were prisoners of the United States.

The American and British ships slowly maneuvered their way out of the harbor. Jones wanted to fight in the open sea, where he would have more room to maneuver. Both ships were pretty evenly matched as to size and armaments. But the Drake had more men, an advantage if the ships got close enough for boarding. The Drake also had a more experienced crew. Jones would also have realized that the British crew was almost certainly better disciplined than his own men.

When the ships drew close enough to each other, and with the sun going down, the fighting began. Formal challenges were called out from both sides, the custom in single ship combat of the time. Jones sent Marines up into the masts, to shoot down any British crewmen on deck. When the Ranger crossed the Drake's bow, Jones ordered his men to open fire. The nine guns on the side of the Ranger , the ship's broadside, opened fire. Grapeshot, anti personnel ammunition consisting of small iron balls, sliced down the Drake's deck. When the small iron bulls hit wood, they sent splinters flying, adding a dangerous indirect shrapnel effect.

Now Jones' ship was vulnerable. It would take his men one or two minutes to reload. The Drake's broadside could open up on the back, the stern, of the Ranger . This could particularly endanger the officers, including Jones, standing by the helm near the stern of the ship. Custom of the day did not allow the officers to take cover. Jones knew this, and ordered a quick turn. Both ships were now broadside to broadside.

Jones decided to make an effort to capture, rather than sink, the Drake. As the two ships sailed almost side by side, the Ranger's broadside angled upwards. Cannon shots would damage the Drake's masts and spars. The Drake's cannon angled downwards. Normally this might risk sinking the Ranger, but the Drake 's cannon were smaller caliber, meaning they fired smaller and less powerful balls.

The ships bashed away at each other for an hour. By this time, the Drake 's masts and spars were nearly wrecked. Even worse, the captain and first lieutenant had been seriously wounded and could no longer exercise command. The sailing master realized he would have to surrender. For the first time in history, a United States Navy ship had won a single ship combat with a Royal Navy ship.

Despite the relatively fierce combat, the British lost four dead and nineteen wounded, the Americans three dead and five wounded.

Jones had surprisingly little problem getting back to France, at least from the British. After the Drake was repaired enough to sail, Jones put Simpson and a prize crew on the ship to get her back to France. At the first opportunity, Simpson tried to sail off. Jones caught up with, and finally could take action. Simpson had disobeyed a direct written order to keep the Drake near to the Ranger . Simpson was placed under arrest. One had to wonder if Jones expected Simpson to try to desert, and was looking for an excuse to arrest his disloyal number two officer.

Jones was not too happy with the end results of his cruise. After a series of mishaps resembling low comedy, he had burned one coal ship, captured a warship and few merchantman, not to mention some plates and silverware. But he had also made the British public think. The newspaper The London Advertiser wrote "When such ravages are committed all along the coast, by one small privateer, what credit must it reflect on the First Lord of the Admiralty?"[14] Jones had accomplished something with the cruise of the Ranger , making the British people worry. This was before he sailed his way into history.

___

On the night of October 7-8, 2001, the USS John Paul Jones, a powerfully armed Burke-class destroyer in the United States Navy, joined in firing the first missiles, among the first shots in the War on Terrorism at targets in Afghanistan. This ship is a very modern ship, and a very fast ship. She is fully able to in go harm's way, but missiles increase the Jones' value by letting her "stand off" in relative safety and put the enemy in harm's way. Armed with missiles, guns and torpedoes, the John Paul Jones could likely sink every warship that sailed in the days 225 years ago when its namesake became one of the first American naval heroes. John Paul Jones would have appreciated the latest of six United States Navy ships named after him. He would certainly have appreciated the large size and ability to project power of the navy of which his namesake ship was a part. Jones had foreseen the day, or at least hoped for the day, when the United State Navy would dominate the world's oceans.

* * *

This essay is adapted from:
Bruce L. Brager
John Paul Jones: America’s Sailor
Greensboro, North Carolina: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, Inc. 2006
(March 2006)

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

Footnotes

[1]. John Paul Jones to Jacques-Donatier Leray de Chaumont, November 16, 1778, quoted page 182, Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography , Boston: An Atlantic Press Monthly Book, Little Brown and Company, 1959.

[2]. Colonel Timothy X. Hammes (USMC, Ret.), The Sling and Stone , St. Paul, Minnesota: Zenith Press, 2003, page 2.

[3]. Morris to Hancock, January 16, 1777, Naval Documents of the American Revolution, William Bell Clark, Editor, Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1964-1996, , vol 7, page 972.

[4]. Quoted Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones , New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003, 78.

[5]. Thomas, page 78.

[6]. Extract, December 5, 1777, NDAR, Volume 10, page 1069.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Quoted Thomas 114.

[9]. Diary of Ezra Green, April 21, 1778, page 21. Ezra Green, Diary of Ezra Green, M.D. , George Henry Preble and Walter C. Green, editors, Boston: 1875, page 21..

[10]. Thomas 123.

[11]. Lady Selkirk to Lord Selkirk, April 27, 1778. Mrs. Reginald De Koven, The Life and Letters of John Paul Jones , New York: Scribner’s, 1930, Volume I, page 309.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Green Diary, April 24, 1778, page 20.

[14]. London Public Advertiser , May 2, 1778.

* * *

Copyright © 2006 Bruce L. Brager. 

Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
bbrager@juno.com.

About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty published articles.

Published online: 06/08/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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