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 was born on 1 March 1909 in Thurgoland, Yorkshire, near Barnsley, where his father Dr John Joseph Esmonde (1862–1915) was in temporary general practice. Though by birth English, his parents were from Ireland and he returned to his family’s ancestral home of the Esmonde baronets in Drominagh, North Tipperary as a boy and was educated by the Jesuits, first at Wimbledon College in London and then at Clongowes Wood College in Co. Kildare, Ireland.
He had three elder half-brothers from his father’s first marriage, Sir John Esmonde, 14th Baronet, who served in the First World War, 2nd Lt. Geoffrey Esmonde (1897–1916) who was killed in action in the First World War serving with the 26th Tyneside Irish Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, and Sir Anthony Esmonde, 15th Baronet.
Esmonde was commissioned into the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a pilot officer on probation on 28 December 1928. During the early 1930s, Esmonde served first in the RAF, and then transferred to the Fleet Air Arm where he served in the Mediterranean when responsibility for naval aviation was returned to the Royal Navy. Upon leaving the navy in 1934, he flew for Imperial Airways.
Early wartime career
At the start of the Second World War, he returned to the Fleet Air Arm with the rank of lieutenant commander. His first sea posting was to HMS Courageous, which was sunk in September 1939. He returned to sea duty on board HMS Victorious after a series of postings to shore-based stations.
On the night of 24 May 1941, Esmonde led No. 825 Naval Air Squadron’s nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers in an attack against the German battleship Bismarck. This attack took place after the Battle of the Denmark Strait, in which HMS Hood was sunk by the Bismarck. The biplanes flying from Victorious made a 120-mile flight in foul North Atlantic weather and hit the Bismarck amidships. (The attack that disabled the ship’s rudder and doomed the German battleship was caused by a Swordfish torpedo strike from HMS Ark Royal some days later.) Esmonde was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order on 11 February 1942 for his leadership and actions (the award was announced on 16 September 1941).
His squadron was serving on HMS Ark Royal when she was torpedoed in November 1941. Attempts to tow her to Gibraltar were abandoned, and on 14 November 1941 she sank. The Swordfish of the squadron ferried some of the crew off the ship before she sank; Esmonde was Mentioned in Despatches for his actions on this occasion.
Esmonde earned his Victoria Cross when he led his squadron against elements of the German fleet 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, 32-year-old Lieutenant Commander Esmonde led a detachment of six Fairey Swordfish in an attack on the two German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, 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 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 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”.
Officers and ratings who were decorated for the part they played in the sinking of the Bismarck, pictured in front of a Fairey Swordfish aboard HMS Ark Royal during an inspection by Admiral James Somerville. Esmonde is second from left.