Ten weeks later, they were joined by heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which had departed Germany on 19 May along with the battleship Bismarck (Operation Rheinübung). After a brief stop in Norway, the two ships proceeded toward the Denmark Strait, where on the 23rd they met up with HM ships Prince of Wales, Hood, Norfolk and Suffolk. Hood was sunk during the ensuing battle; Bismarck and Prince of Wales were both damaged. The two German ships separated the following day, Prinz Eugen continuing out into the Atlantic to look for targets whilst Bismarck headed for the French port of St Nazaire for repairs. Crippled by a torpedo launched by a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber, Bismarck was sunk late in the morning of the 27th. Prinz Eugen was unsuccessful in finding any targets before being forced by engine trouble to head for Brest, where she arrived on 1 June.
The three ships were doing no good in Brest. They wouldn't be of much more use in a German port, but at least they would be further away from British aircraft (Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, RAFVR, had been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for heroism during an air attack on Gneisenau on 6 April), so the decision was made to bring them home. Rather than take the long way round, north of Great Britain, they would make a run up the English Channel (Operation Cerberus) to Wilhelmshaven.
The three German ships departed Brest on 11 February 1942, escorted by an assortment of destroyers and torpedo boats, with 400+ aircraft. The British response was enthusiastic, involving six destroyers, numerous smaller ships, coast artillery batteries and 600+ aircraft, but was poorly coordinated and ineffective. The German ships arrived in Wilhelmshaven on the 13th, the two battlecruisers having suffered minor damage from mines in the North Sea. Other German losses included minor damage to a pair of torpedo boats and 17 aircraft shot down, with 13 killed and two wounded; the British had one destroyer (HMS Worcester) heavily damaged and 42 planes shot down, with the loss of 40 men killed and 21 wounded.
Among the attackers were six Fairey Swordfish from 825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde DSO. Attacking in two groups of three, with no fighter escort, all six were shot down, having scored no hits on the German ships. Only five of the 18 airmen survived. Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax, commanding the German flotilla, described it as "The mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day." Helmuth Giessler, Scharnhorst's navigator, said, "Such bravery was devoted and incredible. One was privileged to witness it."
EUGENE ESMONDE, DSO
Lieutenant-Commander, Royal Navy; commanding 825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm
Born: 1 March 1909, Thurgoland, Yorkshire
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the VICTORIA CROSS, for valour and resolution in action against the Enemy, to:
The late Lieutenant-Commander (A) Eugene Esmonde, D.S.O., Royal Navy
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.
His Majesty has also been graciously pleased to give orders for the following Appointments to the Distinguished Service Order, and to approve the following awards:
Temporary Acting Sub-Lieutenant (A) Brian Westland Rose, R.N.V.R.
who was pilot of one of the Swordfish aircraft sent to attack the German Battle-Cruisers. His aircraft was hit early in the action; but though in great pain from a wound in his back, he held on his course. Another hit burst his petrol tank, and his engine began to fail, but with unshaken resolve he flew on, and came within 2,000 yards of the Enemy before he dropped his torpedo, which was last seen running well towards the target. Then he flew back across the fire of the Enemy escort, and his aircraft, now on fire, came down into the sea just beyond.
Temporary Acting Sub-Lieutenant (A) Edgar Frederick Lee, R.N.V.R.
who was Observer to Sub-Lieutenant Rose. Before the Swordfish had reached the Enemy escort vessels their Air Gunner was killed. Sub-Lieutenant Lee stood up in the cockpit and directed the Pilot so that he could evade the attacking Enemy fighters. He went on doing this until his aircraft came down in flames. Then, although under fierce fire from the Enemy, he got his wounded Pilot, who was very much heavier than he, into his dinghy, and returned to the aircraft, but found it sinking. For an hour and a half he stayed in the flooded dinghy, tending and encouraging his wounded Pilot, and never losing heart, until both were rescued.
Temporary Acting Sub-Lieutenant (A) Charles Major Kingsmill, R.N.V.R.
Temporary Sub-Lieutenant (A) Reginald McCartney Samples, R.N.V.R.
who were Pilot and Observer of a Swordfish that was badly hit early in the action by cannon shells from an Enemy fighter. Both were wounded, but with part of the aircraft shot away, and the engine and upper wing in flames, they flew on undaunted until they had taken aim and fired their torpedo. They then turned and tried to come down near some ships, but these opened fire, so they flew on until their engine stopped, and their aircraft came down into the sea. Soon afterwards they were picked up, still cheerful and dauntless, by one of H.M. Vessels.
Naval Airman First Class Donald Arthur Bunce, FAA/SFX.631,
who was Air Gunner in the Swordfish Aircraft piloted by Sub-Lieutenant Kingsmill. With his machine on fire, and the engine failing, he stayed steadfast at his gun, engaging the Enemy fighters which beset his aircraft. He is believed to have shot one of them down. Throughout the action his coolness was unshaken.
Lieutenant (A) John Chute Thompson, Royal Navy.
Sub-Lieutenant (A) Robert Laurens Parkinson, Royal Navy.
Sub-Lieutenant (A) Cecil Ralph Wood, Royal Navy.
Temporary Sub-Lieutenant William Beynon, R.N.V.R.
Temporary Sub-Lieutenant (A) Eric Herbert Fuller-Wright, R.N.V.R.
Temporary Acting Sub-Lieutenant (A) Peter Bligh, R.N.V.R.
Leading Airman Ernest Tapping, FAA/FX.76365.
Temporary Leading Airman William Grenville Smith, FAA/FX.79499.
Temporary Leading Airman Henry Thomas Albert Wheeler, FAA/FX.189404.
The last that was seen of this gallant band, who were astern of the leading flight, is that they were flying steadily towards the Battle-Cruisers, led by Lieutenant Thompson. Their aircraft shattered, undeterred by an inferno of fire, they carried out their orders, which were to attack the target. Not one came back. Theirs was the courage which is beyond praise.
Leading Airman Ambrose Laurence Johnson, D.S.M., FAA/FX.82042,
who, as Air Gunner to Sub-Lieutenant Rose, showed the same dauntless spirit. He was killed early in the action.
Lieutenant William Henry Williams, Royal Navy,
Leading Airman William John Clinton, P/JX.143258,
who, as Observer and Air Gunner to Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde, shared his fate in this gallant action, and showed the same high courage.
(London Gazette issue 35474 dated 3 Mar 1942, published 27 Feb 1942.)
Note: Lieut Cmdr Esmonde was the great-nephew of Lt Col Thomas Esmonde VC, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Sebastopol in 1855.
He was a survivor of HMS Courageous, sunk by U 29 on 17 Sep 1939. In 1941, flying off HMS Victorious, he participated in the air attacks on Bismarck; it was for this that he received the DSO.