1 November 2007

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Medal entitlement of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde
Royal Navy ( 825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm )

  • Victoria Cross
  • Distinguished Service Order ( DSO )
  • 1939-45 Star
  • Atlantic Star
  • War Medal ( 1939-45 ) + MiD Oakleaf

The Victoria Cross awarded to Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, 825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, a Second World War award, has been loaned to the Imperial War Museum in London.

In the winter of 1941-42 the German battleships 'Scharnhorst' and 'Gneisenau', together with the heavy cruiser 'Prinz Eugen' were defensively in harbour at Brest, western France. The battleships had taken part in the invasion of Norway in 1940, after which they became commerce raiders. Relentlessly harried by the Royal Navy, the three ships found refuge at Brest, where they were encircled by hundreds of anti-aircraft guns. Whilst the warships remained operational it was not necessary to use them at sea - the threat they posed to Britain was enough to dictate naval strategy in the Atlantic and northern waters.

After RAF raids had damaged 'Scharnhorst' the German High Command decided to move all three ships to home waters at Wilhelmshaven. The date of 12 February 1942 was fixed for what became known as the 'Channel Dash'.

To stop the German warships one contingency plan, code-named Operation Fuller, involved 825 Squadron, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, of the Fleet Air Arm, then standing by at Manston Airfield in Kent. The squadron was equipped with the Fairy Swordfish planes which could only attain a top speed of 100 mph when carrying a torpedo. Eugene Esmonde's plan was for his six aircraft, in two sections, to launch their torpedoes at an altitude of 50 feet towards the German ships.

For the award of the Victoria Cross.

[ London Gazette, 3 March 1942 ], Straits of Dover, English Channel, 12 February 1942, Lieutenant Commander Eugene Kingsmill Esmonde, Royal Navy ( 825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm ).

On the morning of Thursday, 12th February, 1942, Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde, in command of a Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, was told that the German Battle-Cruisers 'Scharnhorst' and 'Gneisenau' and the Cruiser 'Prinz Eugen', strongly escorted by some thirty surface craft, were entering the Straits of Dover, and that his Squadron must attack before they reached the sand-banks North East of Calais. Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde knew well that his enterprise was desperate.

Soon after noon he and his squadron of six Swordfish set course for the Enemy, and after ten minutes flight were attacked by a strong force of Enemy fighters. Touch was lost with his fighter escort and in the action which followed all his aircraft were damaged. He flew on, cool and resolute, serenely challenging hopeless odds, to encounter the deadly fire of the Battle-Cruisers and their Escort, which shattered the port wing of his aircraft.

Undismayed, he led his Squadron on, straight through this inferno of fire, in steady flight towards their target. Almost at once he was shot down: but his Squadron went on to launch a gallant attack, in which at least one torpedo is believed to have struck the German Battle-Cruisers, and from which not one of the six aircraft returned.

His high courage and splendid resolution will live in the traditions of the Royal Navy, and remain for many generations a fine and stirring memory.

All six Fairey Swordfish aircraft were shot down. Five survivors were fished out of the Channel waters and only one of these men was unwounded. Four of them were awarded the DSO, the other the CGM. About seven weeks later Eugene Esmonde's body, still in his lifejacket, was washed ashore in the Thames Estuary near the River Medway. Esmonde was buried at Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham, Kent, on the 30th April 1942.

The German War Diary entry for 12 February 1942 stated "the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day".

It was later confirmed that all three German warships reached safety. The 'Gneisenau' was damaged in RAF raids on Kiel, decommissioned in July 1942 and scuttled in Gdynia at the end of the war. 'Scharnhorst' was damaged by mines during the Channel Dash and was imobilized until early 1943. She later operated in northern Norway against Allied convoys but in December 1943 was sunk by British warships with the loss of 1,864 men. 'Prinz Eugen' survived the war and was turned over to the Allies.

[ London Gazette, 12 September 1941 ], To be a Companion to the Distinguished Service Order ( DSO ), Lieutenant Commander Eugene Kingsmill Esmonde, Royal Navy, ( HMS 'Victorious' )

Awards to Officers and Men of HM Aircraft-Carriers and Naval Air Stations for gallantry, daring and skill in operations in which the German Battleship Bismark was destroyed.


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Iain Stewart, 1 November 2007