BYRON, JOHN. (1723–1786). British admiral. Second son of the fourth baron Byron, and later father of the poet, George Gordon Byron, John Byron was born on 8 November 1723. He entered the navy in 1737 and later took part in Captain George Anson' s voyage to the Pacific. Surviving shipwreck on the Chilean coast, he returned to Britain in 1746 to become a post-captain by the end of the year. In 1760 he demolished the fortifications at Louisburg (Nova Scotia) and destroyed nearby French shipping and stores. From 1764 to 1766 he circumnavigated of the globe. Governor of Newfoundland from 1769 to 1772, and a rear admiral from March 1775, he was promoted vice admiral on 29 January 1778. Almost at once he was confronted with an emergency: Charles Hector Theodat D'Estaing's naval squadron was preparing to sail from Toulon (France).
D'Estaing's destination might have been anywhere: Minorca, the English Channel (in conjunction with the Brest fleet), North America, the West Indies, or even India. It was impossible for the British fleet to cover all these destinations without being weak everywhere and taking serious risks in the Channel. Byron was therefore given a squadron with orders to pursue D'Estaing wherever he might go. In June, once it became clear that D'Estaing was heading for North America, Byron took his ships into the Atlantic, where they were scattered by gales. By the time he reached New York, D'Estaing had moved north to Rhode Island. After repairs, Byron set out to find him and was once again beset by storms. In December Byron heard that D'Estaing was in the West Indies, but on the way south in pursuit, Byron ran into foul weather yet again.
On 6 January 1779 Byron reached St. Lucia, in the Caribbean, which recently had been taken by Rear Admiral Samuel Barrington and Major General James Grant for the British. With their support, Byron ably kept D'Estaing's counter-attack at bay. Afterwards, he and Grant wisely kept their ships and troops concentrated at St. Lucia, ready to respond in force to any move D'Estaing might make from Martinique. At last, in June 1779, Byron used his whole fleet to cover a homeward-bound convoy, probably in hopes of tempting D'Estaing out to attack exposed islands. If so, the plan went badly wrong: when Byron returned, the islands of St. Vincent and Grenada had fallen and De'Estaing had been substantially reinforced. After an indecisive action off Grenada on 6 July, a now ailing Byron left the fleet and sailed for home. He was not employed again and died on 10 April 1786.
Nicknamed "Foul Weather Jack," Byron was the unluckiest of admirals. His failures in 1778 and 1779 illustrate not personal incompetence but the acute dilemmas facing an unprepared navy that was unable to be strong everywhere and not daring to seriously weaken its squadrons in home waters.
Syrett, D. The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775–1783. Aldershot, U.K.: Scholar Press, 1989.
revised by John Oliphant