Eugene Esmonde : biography
Lieutenant Commander Eugene Kingsmill Esmonde VC DSO, F/Lt, RAF, Lt-Cdr (A) RN (1 March 1909 – 12 February 1942) was a distinguished pilot who was a posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy awarded to members of Commonwealth forces. Lt-Cdr Esmonde earned this award while in command of a Naval torpedo bomber squadron serving in the British Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War.
Esmonde earned his Victoria Cross when he led his squadron against elements of the German lleet which made the "Channel Dash" (Operation Cerberus) from Brest in an attempt to return to their home bases at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel through the English Channel. On 12 February 1942 off the coast of England, 34-year-old Lieutenant Commander Esmonde led a detachment of six Fairey Swordfish in an attack on the two German battlecruisers and and the heavy cruiser , which had all managed to leave Brest without hindrance. These ships, along with a strong escort of smaller craft, were entering the Straits of Dover when Esmonde received his orders. He waited as long as he felt he could for confirmation of his fighter escort, but eventually took off without it. One of the fighter squadrons (10 Supermarine Spitfires of No. 72 Squadron RAF) did rendezvous with Esmonde's squadron; the two squadrons were later attacked by enemy fighters of JG 2 and JG 26 as part of Operation Donnerkeil, the German air superiority plan for the mission. The subsequent fighting left all of the planes in Esmonde's squadron damaged, and caused their fighter escort to become separated from the bombers.
The torpedo bombers continued their attack, in spite of their damaged aircraft and lack of fighter protection. There was heavy anti-aircraft fire from the German ships, and Esmonde's plane possibly sustained a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire that destroyed most of one of the port wings of his Swordfish biplane. Esmonde led his flight through a screen of the enemy destroyers and other small vessels protecting the battleships. He was still some 2,700 metres from his target when he was hit by a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, resulting in his aircraft bursting into flames and crashing into the sea. The remaining aircraft continued the attack, but all were shot down by enemy fighters; only five of the 18 crew survived the action. The four surviving officers received the Distinguished Service Order, and the enlisted survivor was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. The disproportionate ratio of officer to enlisted survivors was most likely due to the fact that the officers, as the pilots, sat further forward in the aircraft and were closer to the large radial engine, which served as a shield from enemy fire. The enlisted members sat behind the pilots in rear-facing seats and were exposed to more enemy fire as a result.
The courage of the gallant Swordfish crews was particularly noted by friend and foe alike. Admiral Bertram Ramsay later wrote, "In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed", while Admiral Otto Ciliax in the Scharnhorst described "The mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day". As he watched the smoking wrecks of the Swordfish falling into the sea, Captain Hoffmann of the Scharnhorst exclaimed, "Poor fellows, they are so very slow, it is nothing but suicide for them to fly against these big ships". Willhelm Wolf aboard the Scharnhorst wrote, "What an heroic stage for them to meet their end! Behind them their homeland, which they had just left with their hearts steeled to their purpose, still in view".
The award of the VC was gazetted on 3 March 1942, the citation read:
He was remembered in Winston Churchill's famous broadcast speech on 13 May 1945, "Five years of War", as having defended Ireland's honour:
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