Elphinston, John (DNB00)

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ELPHINSTON, JOHN (1722–1785), captain in the royal navy, rear-admiral in the Russian service, on passing his examination for the rank of lieutenant, on 11 July 1745, was certified to have 'been to sea upwards of six years, part whereof in merchants' service to the Mediterranean.' He was promoted to be lieutenant 23 Aug. 1746; and in May 1757 to be commander of the Salamander fireship, in which, in the summer of 1758, he served under Commodore Howe in the expeditions against St. Malo, Cherbourg, and St. Cas; in which last unfortunate affair, while assisting at the re-embarking of the troops, he was taken prisoner. On being ex- changed he was advanced to post rank, and appointed to command the Eurus of 20 guns 1 Feb. 1759, in which he accompanied the fleet under Sir Charles Saunders to North America, and was present during the operations which resulted in the capture of Quebec. In April 1760 he was transferred to the Richmond of 32 guns, in which, towards the close of the year, he returned to England, and in February 1761 drove ashore near the Hague and destroved the Félicité, a French frigate of 32 guns, but apparently in private service. In the beginning of 1762 the Richmond carried out orders to Rear-admiral Rodney in the West Indies, warning him of the contemplated expedition against Havana (Beatson, li. 532), and directing him to make his arrangements accordingly. The fleet under Sir George Pocock assembled at Martinique and sailed thence on 6 May. On the 26th it was off the east end of Cuba, when Sir George determined on taking the northern route through the Old Straits of Bahama, which, though hazardous and difficult navigation, is much shorter than that by the south coast. 'Luckily,' he wrote, 'the next day the Richmond joined us. She had been down the Old Straits to Cayo-Sal, and Captain Elphinston had been very diligent and careful in his remarks going through and returning back, having taken sketches of the land and Cayos on both sides. He kept ahead of the fleet, and led us through very well' (ib. 540). During the siege of Havana Elphinston was actively employed as superintendent of the transport service; and after the capitulation was appointed to the Infante of 70 guns, one of the prizes, which he commanded till the conclusion of peace (ibiii. 432). He afterwards commanded the Firm of 60 guns as a guardship at Plymouth for three years (1764-7), and in 1769 accepted a commission as rear-admiral in the Russian navy. In that capacity he sailed from Cronstadt for the Mediterranean, in the latter end of the year, in command of a squadron of four ships of the line, with some frigates and smaller vessels; and being detained at Copenhagen by the insubordinate conduct of his officers, left that place only just in time to avoid being caught in the ice. The ships, being but badly found, suffered much damage in the stormy weather of the North Sea, and were obliged to refit at Porlsmouth, permission to do so being readily given. They remained at Portsmouth till the middle of April 1770, during which time Elphinston's pretension to fire morning and evening guns in Portsmouth harbour and at Spithead led him into a correspondence wilth Vice-admiral Geary, who, as commander-in-chief at Portsmouth, refused to allow foreign ships of war to set the watch in that manner. Geary referred the matter to the admiralty, who wrote to the Russian minister that the practice could not be allowed, and that 'if Admiral Elphinston persisted in it, orders must necessarily be immediately given for him to quit the port' (Charnock.v. 184). Instructions were accordingly sent to Elphinston to desist. Towards the end of May the squadron was off the island of Cerigo, and having intelligence that the Turkish fleet had gone to Nauplis. Elphinston determined at once to proceed thither in quest of it. He met it in the mouth of the Gulf on the 27th, and although in numbers it was much superior to his own squadron, he at once attacked, and, after a sharp though partial engagement, put it to flight, the advantnge being obtained by means of shell, then for the first time used in a purely naval battle, and which struck terror inio the Turks. They drew back to Nauplia, pursued by Elphinston, who again engaged them at anchor on the afternoon of the 28th, but without being able to achieve a decisive result. He accordingly blockaded the enemy at Nauplia, and sent an express to Count Orloff, the conmander-in-chief, at Navarino, recquesting reinforcements. He afterwards joined Orloff, and on 7 July the fleet, numbering nine sail of the line, found the Turhe at anchor outside Chesme Bay. They had fourteen ships of the line, several frigates, and a vast number of transport, and store ships, making a grand total of something like two hundred. The wind was blowing fresh on shore, and Elphinston, going on board the admiral, offered to lead in, and proposed that they should anchor with springs on their cables, on the how and quarter of the weathermost Turkish ships. 'By this arrangement our nine line-of-battle ships would have been engaged against only five or six of the enemy, and the rest of their numerous fleet would have been rendered useless, as they could neither come to the assistance of those ships engaged, nor attempt to get out of the situation they were in without the greatest danger of running on shore' (Authentic Narrative, p. G6). The jealousy of the Russian officers prevented the adoption of the plan, but it is none the less worth calling attention to as the first clear exposition in modern naval war of the great tactical rule of establishing a local superiority, and as identical in principle with that which Nelson carried into effect in the battle of the Nile. On this occasion, however, the plan determined on was to range in line of battle along the line of the enemy, in a manner that could scarcely have obtained any decisive advantage, had not the vice-admiral's ship, as she led in, been disabled and drifted alongside the Turkish admiral A hand-to-hand encounter between the two ships followed, and ended in both being set on fire, burnt to the water's edge, and blown up. Very few of either ship's company were saved; and the Turks, panic-stricken, cut their cables and fled into the bay of Chesme, which is about one mile broad and two long — a confined space for some two hundred vessels of all sizes. It scarcely needed an experienced officer to see that they could be destroyed by fireships; but the terrible work was carried out under Elphinston's superintendence on the night of the 8th, the fireships being actually commanded by two British lieutenants, Dugdale and MacKenzie. Of the crowd of Turkish ships, one of 64 guns and a few galleys were saved and brought out of the bay; the rest were all destroyed. By the jealousy of the Russian vice-admiral, Elphinston was prevented initialing any further measures of offence; he was thwarted in all his proposals; and when sent, in the following January, to Leghorn, he was desired to go under an assumed name. (On his arrival at St. Petersburg he was, however, favourably received by the empress; but the war being ended, he shortly afterwards quitted the Russian service and returned to England. In 1775 he was appointed to command the Egmont of 74 guns, one of the guardships at Portsmouth; and after paying her off in 1778, ommissioned the Magnificent, in which, in December, be sailed for the West Indies, under the command of Commodore Rowley. In the West Indies the Magnificent took part in the battle off Grenada, 6 July 1779 [see Byron, Hon. John], and in the three encounters (17 April, 15 and 19 May, 1780) between Rodney and Do Guichen [see Rodney, George Brydons]. A few months later she went home with the Jamaica convoy, and was paid off. Towards the end of 1782 Elphinston was appointed to the Atlas of 90 guns, but peace being settled before she was ready for sea, she was put out of com- mission. Two years after this, 28 April 1785, Elphinston died. It is said (Charnock, vi. 360 n.) that 'his lady was delivered in London of a son and heir on 4 May 1773;' but it appears (Authentic Narrative, p. 158) that while at Leghorn 'himself and sons went by the name of Howard.' This son, born 4 March 1773 (Foster, Baronetage), was in fact the third son, and, presumably in memory of the Leghorn incident, was christened Howard; he was created a baronet 25 May 1816. Of the other sons, the eldest, a captain in the Russian navy, died about 1788; the second, a captain in the English navy, died in 1821; both having issue. The several 'Baronetages' now spell the name Elphinstone; but Elphinston himself wrote it without the final 'e.'

[Charnock's Biog. Navalis, vi. 358; Beatson's Nav. and Mil. Memoirs; An Authentic Narrative of the Russian Expedition against the Turks by sea and land, compiled from several authentic journals by an officer on board the Russian Fleet (8 vo, 1772).]

J. K. L.