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Royal Naval Biography/Sykes, John

[Post-Captain of 1806.]

A son of the late James Sykes, Esq. Navy Agent, of Arundel Street, Strand, London.

This officer was one of Captain Vancouver’s midshipmen, in the Discovery, during a voyage round the world, already noticed at p. 200 et seq. of Vol. II. Part I. He obtained his first commission in 1795, and was made a Commander in 1800. His post commission bears date Jan. 22d, 1806; previous to which he had commanded the Hecla bomb, and the Nautilus sloop of war. The former vessel formed part of the squadron under Captain, (now Rear-Admiral) Robert Dudley Oliver, at the bombardment of Havre, in July and Aug. 1804, on which occasions his conduct was highly meritorious, as will be seen by the following official letters:

Melpomene, off Havre, July 24, 1804.

“My Lord.– Since my letter to your Lordship of the 17th instant, we had light and very variable winds for three days, which were succeeded by a gale from the northward, when the bombs had some difficulty to keep clear of the shore. Yesterday, the wind having got to the S.W., I stood in with the squadron, and at 11 made the signal for the bombs to try their range; they placed themselves with the utmost precision immediately off the pier-heads, and at a quarter past 11 began a most tremendous fire of shells and carcasses, which was continued without intermission for an hour and a half; in a very few minutes the town was observed to be on fire, and as the pier was very full of vessels, it is impossible but they must have suffered considerably. The vessels which had been outside the pier during the bombardment of the 16th, were so much annoyed as to retire, some into the pier, and some up the river; one of them was towed on shore under the batteries, and has since been taken to pieces. The enemy’s mortar-batteries have been very considerably increased since the attack of the 16th; and although the fire from them on the bombs was as great as, I will venture to say, was ever experienced, they being considerably within range, yet it is with the most inexpressible pleasure I acquaint your’ Lordship, that not a man has been hurt. A shell passed through the mizen stay-sail of the Zebra, another carried away the spare top-sail-yard and two chain-plates of the Merlin, and grazed her side; and a 42-pound shot cut the spare top-mast and some other spars, and lodged in the booms of the Hecla; this is all the damage done. It is impossible for me to find words to express my admiration of the conduct of Captains Sykes, (Joseph) James, (Robert) Paul, and (William) Beauchamp[1], and the other officers and crews of the bombs, for the able manner in which they placed and managed their vessels; and also of the officers and men of the royal artillery embarked on board of them, for the judicious manner in which they fired the shells.”

Melpomene, off Havre, Aug. 2, 1804.

“The wind having changed yesterday to the N.E. I determined to make another attack on the numerous vessels in Havre pier, as well as those which were moored outside, amounting to twenty-eight brigs and as many luggers; and stood in with the squadron as per margin[2]. At 7h 30' P.M., the bombs were well placed off the pier-heads, when they began a well-directed fire, which was kept up with great spirit for an hour and a half. The town was very soon observed to be on fire in two places; and seven brigs, which were on the outside of the pier, found it necessary to move; one lost her main-mast. As the wind came more off the land, and a strong ebb-tide setting out, I ordered the bombs to discontinue firing. At 9h 30', we anchored with the squadron about five miles from the light-houses. As the Explosion had fired away all her shells, and the Zebra most of her powder, I had them supplied from the Meteor; and at 5h 30' this morning got under weigh, and stood in with the squadron again: before 8, the bombs took up their position near the pier-heads, and kept up a constant fire for near three hours with shells and carcasses: so many shells burst on and about the piers, that the enemy’s fire was observed latterly to slacken considerably, and it was evident they were in the greatest confusion; some brigs and luggers, however, got under weigh, and came out to endeavour to annoy the bombs, but all the other ships and vessels of the squadron were so well placed as to give chase to them immediately; and it was only by cutting away their boats, which were astern, and retreating very speedily into shoal water, that they escaped, but not before they had run the gauntlet of all the ships and cutters, and were very closely engaged for a considerable time by the Merlin, Favorite, Locust, and Hope; and on this occasion I feel particularly indebted to Captains Brenton and Foote, and Lieutenants Lake and Dobbin, whose vessels were often during the action in very shoal water, with a falling tide; indeed nothing but the bad sailing of the Merlin prevented Captain (Edward Pelham) Brenton from cutting off the sterninost brig.

“The Locust lost her main-top-mast, but I have not heard of any other loss. The conduct of Captains Sykes, James, Paul, and Beauchamp, commanding the bombs on both these occasions, was highly meritorious; and although their ships were frequently struck, it gives me great pleasure to add that no lives have been lost. What damage may be done to the enemy by near 500 shells and carcasses thrown into the town and basin last evening and this morning, it is impossible to calculate; but I may, without vanity, say, that if the exertions of the enemy’s flotilla be not much greater on our shore than on their own, we have little to dread from them. I cannot conclude without expressing my obligations to every officer and man employed in this squadron. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)R. Dudley Oliver.”

Right Hon. Lord Keith, K.B.

Since his promotion to post-rank, Captain Sykes has successively commanded the Diomede of 50 guns, Ardent 64, Adamant 50, and Ocean 80; the former bearing the flag of Sir Edward Nagle, when commander-in-chief at Guernsey; and the latter, the flag-ship of Lord Amelias Beauclerk, now in the river Tagus.

Captain Sykes married, in 1811, a daughter of Edward Earl, Esq. Chairman of the Board of Customs in Scotland: one of his sisters is the lady of Captain Richard Byron, C.B.

Agents.– Messrs. Stilwell.

  1. The present Captain William Beauchamp Proctor.
  2. Melpomene frigate. Trusty of 50 guns, Magnamime 44, Ariadne 30, Merlin and Favorite sloops, four bombs, one gun-brig, and four cutters.