HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association

 

Ajax 1 continued

GEORGE BOWEN: CAPTAIN OF HMS AJAX from 15 MAY 1781 to 29 JULY 1781

This officer was of a respectable Welsh family.   He attained the rank of Post Captain 14 February 1781, and was appointed to HMS Ajax, 74, on the West India station, from May 1781 to 29 July of the same year.   He then transferred to the Montague, 74, and commanded her in the partial action between Rear-Admiral Graves and the Compte de Grasse off the Chesapeake 5 September 1781 in the same year. The Montague afterwards accompanied the squadron under Sir Samuel Hood to the West Indies, and Captain Bowen was present at all that officer's brilliant achievements on the Leeward Islands station.   He also shared the glories of the memorable 12 April, 1782, when the British fleet, under Rodney, defeated that of France commanded by de Grasse, who was taken prisoner on the occasion.   The loss sustained by the Montague in this battle amounted to 12 killed and 31 wounded.   Captain Bowen was then appointed to the Bellona, 74, in 1789.

 

A long interval of peace succeeded the above glorious events, and Captain Bowen remained unemployed until the commencement of war with the French republic in 1793, at which period he was appointed to the Belliquex, 64, and afterwards removed into the Veteran, of the same force.

In the Autumn of 1795 he obtained command of the Canada of 74 guns, and early in the following year proceeded to the West Indies, under the orders of Sir Hugh C. Christian, with whom he served at the reduction of St Lucia, after the capture of that island, the Canada was sent to Jamaica, the station where Captain Bowen continued to command her until 1797, when he removed into the Carnatic, another ship of the same rate.

 

Sir Hyde Parker appointed him President of the Court Martial of four of the captured mutineers of the Hermione - Antonio Marco, John Elliott, Joe Montell and Pierre D'Orlanie.   The Court Martial was held on 17 March 1798 on board the York.   All four were found guilty and condemned to death, and their execution took place on board the York on the 19th.   Captain Bowen presided over a second Court Martial held on board the Carnatic, at which William Benives, William Herd, John Hill and John Brown were tried. Although charged, John Brown was allowed to turn King's Evidence.   The other three were found guilty and hanged on board the Carnatic.

 

Captain Bowen was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral 14 February 1799; Vice-Admiral 9 November 1805; and Admiral 31 July 1810.   During part of the late war he commanded the Sea Fencibles in Ireland, but, it is believed, never served as a flag officer.   Admiral Bowen died 1 July 1823.

 

NICHOLAS CHARRINGTON: CAPTAIN OF HMS AJAX from 30 JULY 1781 to 8 AUGUST 1783

Nicholas Charrington was advanced to the rank of Post Captain 27 July 1781. Captain Charrington took command of HMS Ajax 30 July, 1781.   On 9 August he sailed with Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood's squadron from Antigua to American waters to join Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves, who was in command of a strong force moored in the mouth of the Hudson River.

 

De Grasse, after avoiding battle with Hood's squadron in April, had to decide how best to support the French and American land forces in America.   The British were advancing through Carolina and Virginia towards Chesapeake Bay, and the French were crossing Connecticut to join up with Washington.   De Grasse chose to make for Hampton Roads (the mouth of the Chesapeake) where he could give close support to the Franco-American armies.   He set sail, keeping to leeward of the Bahamas and creeping up the coast of the mainland.   Hood took the shortest route to the Chesapeake, and arrived on 25 August to find the anchorage empty. He continued northward and anchored three days later at the mouth of the Hudson.

 

Five days after Hood had left, de Grasse arrived at Chesapeake Bay, and anchored inside Cape Henry.   He put his troops ashore, and sent two pairs of ships to blockade the rivers James and York.   The British troops, commanded by Cornwallis, were thereby invested by sea and land, and withdrew to Yorktown.

 

Graves now had more than twenty warships.   They sailed south with the object of helping Cornwallis.   Hood had the van, with his flag in the Barfleur, 100, Graves the centre, and the rear, including the Ajax, was commanded by Rear-Admiral Drake. In this formation, with the wind dead astern, they approached the mouth of the Chesapeake.   A few suspicious sail were sighted, and Graves, believing that he had to deal with a small division at the most, crowded on all sail.   It was ten in the morning of 5 September, 1781.   The French also did not expect to see a strong enemy force, and their ships' crews were ashore, or ferrying boats across the bay with supplies for the army.   When sails were sighted, they were at first thought to be Barras's division, which was expected with supplies.   But then the frigates came in, firing guns to announce the strength of the enemy - 19 men of war, 27 in total.   To gain time de Grasse ordered his ships to slip their cables.

 

Hood suggested that Graves should attack each ship as she came tacking slowly out of the bay.   Instead, he gave the French all the time they needed.   He deployed to port, so that the squadrons should face each other in two long lines. It was unfortunate that this movement brought Drake's division into the van -'an officer with a great name, but of moderate worth' - and left Hood's to the rear, where he could not influence the main action.   When Graves signalled 'Prepare to attack' the French van veered away, delaying the beginning of the action and enabling de Grasse and the rest of his squadron to get into proper station. Hood continued in line ahead, and maintained afterwards that the signal for the line was still flying in the London, Graves' flag ship.

 

The action began at 4 p.m., the first few minutes being the worst for the four or five French van ships.    After this the French gained the ascendancy and Graves drew off.   For five days the fleets were in sight of each other, then the wind shifted and de Grasse returned to his anchorage.

The British withdrew to New York; except for Hood's seven ships, the ships were much damaged.   The Ajax had her fore topgallant mast shot away, mizzen topmast shot through, main tressel-trees, fore cap and head of the mast, main and fore topsails 'much wounded'.    Seven men were killed and sixteen wounded.

 

The outcome of the battle was that the French and Americans were freed from threats from the sea.   Washington and the French divisions tightened their grip on Yorktown, and Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October.

 

On 12 November the British fleet sailed for Barbados, arriving on 5 December Hood deduced that de Grasse's next objective would be Barbados, and while he was sailing there he received a letter from Governor Shirley of St Kitts. A large fleet of men of war and transports had been sighted from the heights of Nevis.   Hood went north with 22 of the line to his base at Antigua to pick up troops under General Prescott.   He sailed on 23 January 1782.

 

Hood sent for his flag officers, Rear-Admiral Drake and Commodore Affleck, and explained his intentions to them; they were then to inform their captains.   Such a thing was unheard of, but probably ensured the success of the manoeuvre.   Hood intended to attack the French fleet at anchor, but this was frustrated through a collision which occurred between the Alfred and the frigate Nymphe during the night.   Because of this, his fleet was still rounding the southern part of Nevis at daybreak of 24 January.   De Grasse, warned of Hood's approach, put to sea in the afternoon.   He had 25 of the line, and two 50-gun ships.

 

Hood now decided to relieve St Kitts, and sailed into Frigate Bay while de Grasse waited for his attack outside, and anchored.   Nevertheless, the rear squadron, and some of the centre, had to perform this manoeuvre under heavy fire.   Next day, the French attacked with great spirit, but the British ships, with springs on their cables to enable them to swing, were able to concentrate the fire of several ships on each French ship in turn.   The French withdrew at the end of the day to leeward.   Hood's ingenuity greatly raised the morale of the garrison and fleet, but it could not save St Kitts.   The garrison, greatly outnumbered, retreated to the fort on Brimstone Hill, on 29 January, and held out for over a month.   They were forced to capitulate when a number of heavy guns were brought against them.

 

De Grasse now had 33 ships of the line, and waited to seaward, hoping to bring the British fleet to action.   On the evening of 13 February Hood called his captains to the Barfleur.   Synchronising their watches, at 11 p.m. they were to cut their cables and set sail, leaving a boat with a lantern to deceive the French.   Dawn the next morning revealed to de Grasse an empty anchorage.

 

Hood's fleet returned to Gros Islet Bay, where Rodney waited.   Rodney considered the whole episode a disgrace to Britain, and told Hood that he should have got to windward and attacked the enemy when the opportunity offered.   He was also annoyed at the deliberate waste of so many anchors and cables at a time when naval stores of all kinds were in short supply.

 

The object of the combined efforts of France and Spain now swung to the conquest of Jamaica.   They planned to concentrate at Cap Francais (Cap Hatien) in Haiti 20,000 troops and fifty ships of the line.   Part of the troops were already there, and Rodney was charged with preventing de Grasse collecting the remainder, and supplies, from the French islands, and conveying them to the rendezvous.

 

The final decisive encounter between Rodney and de Grasse took place on 12 April 1782, between, and a little to the westward of Dominica and Guadeloupe, where the channel is narrowed to thirteen miles by three islets called the Saintes, ten miles south of Guadeloupe.   The British fleet came up with de Grasse off Dominica, and he sent the convoy into Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, while with the French fleet he tried to beat through the channel and pass east of the island, drawing the British fleet away from the transports. Just as the fleets were beginning to cannonade away at each other, the wind shifted, taking aback two ships of the French line, and creating two gaps. Rodney seized the opportunity to break the line with his centre division -Formidable, followed by Namur, St Albans, Canada, Repulse and Ajax – and Hood's rear division, six ships astern.   The French fleet was scattered and five ships taken.   The Ville de Paris surrendered to the Barfleur soon after 6 p.m.   At sunset Sir George signalled the fleet to break off and lie to, to Hood's astonishment.   He considered that if Rodney had signalled a general chase every French ship would have been taken.   HMS Ajax had eight men killed and 38 wounded; rigging and topgallant masts and yards damaged.

 

The fleet anchored in Fort Royal Bay, Jamaica on 30 April.   Rodney went home in July while Sir Samuel Hood looked after repairs to the ships.   He wrote:

"The chearfulness shewn, and diligence exerted by all the Artificers were truly great and pleasant .... every Ship which was in action (the Ajax excepted) will be ready for sea in three days .... I have therefore directed the Naval Storekeeper to pay them two for one from the end of the month."

 

The Ajax's refit was not completed until the end of December, and the next four months were spent cruising about the islands.   On 30 April 1783, Captain Charrington wrote in his Journal: "Employ'd getting the Ship to England as fast as possible!" as they sailed for home.   They reached Dover on 30 June and the ship was paid off at Gillingham on 8 August, I783.