In 1779, Commodore John Paul Jones took command of USS Bonhomme Richard, a merchant ship rebuilt and given to America by the French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. On September 23, 1779, the five ship squadron included the 44 gun Bonhomme Richard, 32 gun Pallas, 32 gun Alliance, 12 gun Vengeance and Le Cerf engaged a merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head, east Yorkshire. The 44 gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 22 gun Countess of Scarborough counter-engaged, scattering the attacking squadron and allowing the merchants to disengage and attempt escape. Vengeance and Le Cerf unsuccessfully pursued the convoy.
Bonhomme Richard, Pallas, and Alliance engaged the British warships. The 44 gun Serapis engaged the older 44 gun Bonhomme Richard while the Alliance stood off and took no action. The 32 gun Alliance finally counter-engaged Serapis, firing a broadside into both ships, disregarding their nationality. (The Alliance's captain was a Frenchman, who was jealous of Jones' military genius and often went off on his own agenda against the Commodore's orders.) Serapis twice raked Bonhomme Richard with broadsides which cut her mainmast and holed her below the waterline, taking individual hits in return.
With Bonhomme Richard burning and sinking, it is believed her ensign was shot away. The British commander asked if she had struck her colors. Jones replied, saying, “I have not yet begun to fight!” He then rammed Serapis and tied up to her, an attempt by the Americans to board Serapis was repulsed, as was an attempt by the British to board Bonhomme Richard. Finally, an American party under command of Nathaniel Fanning seized control of the enemy tops and used this position to clear the deck below with grenades, mortars and gunfire. Meanwhile the 22 gun Countess of Scarborough engaged the 32 gun Pallas and was eventually captured, both ships taking extensive damage.
The Bonhomme Richard, shattered, on fire, and leaking badly defied all efforts to save her and sank at 11:00 on September 25, 1779. John Paul Jones sailed the captured Serapis to the United Provinces for repairs.
Upon arrival in port, the Alliance's captain was promptly detained and sentenced to court-marshal and Jones eventually hoisted his penant over the Alliance, making it his new flagship.
Though Bonhomme Richard sank subsequent to the battle, the outcome of the battle convinced the French crown of the wisdom of backing the colonies in their fight to separate from British authority. The defeat of Serapis, no less in home waters, stung the British admiralty.