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Aces of Aviation

Swordfish Mark II of Eugene Esmonde

Swordfish Mark II of Eugene Esmonde

Swordfish Mark II from the 825th Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, piloted by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, the 12th February 1942.

Wingspan: 13.87 meters.

Length: 10.87 meters.

Height: 3.76 meters.

Engine[s]: Bristol Pegasus III M3 of 690 horsepower.

Maximum speed: 224 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 3260 meters.

Range: 1657 kilometers.

Armament: One Lewis/Vickers 0.303-inch machine gun; one 457-millimeter torpedo.

Born the 1st March 1909 as a twin in a family of thirteen siblings, and raised in Drominahg, in the Irish county of Tipperary, Eugene Esmonde joined the Royal Air Force in December 1928 and was later destined to a short service with the Fleet Air Arm in the Mediterranean. In 1933 he joined the Imperial Airways as commercial pilot and was eventually appointed as Captain of one of the new Short Empire seaplanes for the route Southampton-Australia. In April 1939 he was invited to rejoin the Fleet Air Arm with the rank of Lieutenant Commander, position which he accepted. Few days after the beginning of the Second World War he managed to escape from the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous when this one was torpedoed.

Assigned to command the 825th Squadron, which in 1936 had been the first unit to be equipped with the Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers, Esmonde served onboard the HMS Furious from July 1940. In the first part of the following year he commanded his squadron onboard the HMS Victorious, and had occasion to take decissive part in the action in which the Swordfish left the German battleship Bismarck out of action in the Atlantic, the 23rd May 1941. Because of his good leadership and the courage shown in that attack, Esmonde was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

The following month the 825th Squadron was transferred to the HMS Ark Royal, but the famous aircraft carrier sank after being torpedoed by a German submarine near Gibraltar, the 12th November 1941. After returning to Great Britain in the early 1942, Esmonde began to rebuild the 825th Squadron with the Swordfish Mark II, which had the lower wing coated with metal.

During the night from the 11th to the 12th February the German warships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen departed from Brest and headed to Germany across the English Channel. The 12th February, Esmonde was called to take part in an operation to stop the crossing of the enemy ships, if these indeed dared to effectuate such crossing. Albeit he was told that his force would only be used in a nocturnal attack, it was evident that the enemy ships would have to cross the English Channel during daytime. Besides, the 825th Squadron was only half operative. However, Esmonde accepted the mission, as he was told that the squadron would be escorted by five fighter squadrons.

At 12:30 o'clock on the 12th February, departing from Manston airbase in Kent, Esmonde led his group of six Swordfish against the anti-aircraft fire of the German warships and the fighters which escorted them. However, only one squadron of Supermarine Spitfire joined to escort the Swordfish. Still, after dividing his group into two sections of three aircraft each, Esmonde launched the attack despite the determined efforts of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 to neutralize the attackers.

Choosing the Scharnhorst as target, Esmonde dove until being at only fifteen meters above water level, which immediately put him within the reach of enemy anti-aircraft fire. His lower wing was almost torn off by the shots, but the brave officer could release the torpedo before his aircraft were engulfed by flames and exploded in the air. Also all the other Swordfish were downed, either by fighters or anti-aircraft fire, and none of the torpedoes could hit their target. Esmonde was not among the five surviving pilots who were rescued from the waters, and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.