- Burnhams, J.C., RNCC
- Naval Aviation, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1991 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Thursday, 12th February, 1942
The events leading to this heroic operation need many pages to tell the story, suffice it to say, that despite the many reasons advanced at the time, this squadron of enemy ships was allowed to proceed up the Channel in daylight for some three and a half hours without being reported. Indeed it was reported by Francis McMurtrie, Daily Telegraph Naval Correspondent, in their 16 February 1942 edition that an Official Enquiry was to be held in order to answer the important questions raised into the escape from Brest of the German ships, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen.
825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm under the Command of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde was with HMS Ark Royal when she was sunk by a torpedo fired by the German U-Boat 81. After leaving the Ark Royal, the Squadron was re-formed at Lee-on-Solent with seven of the members from Ark Royal. Later the Squadron was reduced from nine Swordfish to six, with a complement of seven pilots, and six each observers and telegraphist-airgunners. At the beginning of February 1942, the Squadron was expecting to be sent to escort one of the new escort carriers from the United States and in the throes of ‘working up’.
The Admiralty then had news that the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen might break out from Brest and force a passage through the Channel to their home ports. Here was a chance for the Fleet Air Arm to settle old scores. Lieutenant Commander Esmonde volunteered to lead his Squadron against the German ships, should there be a need for such a strike force. His request was granted, with the promise that every possible means of support would be given. Once the order was given, he called his officers together and told them to be in readiness for a strike at any moment. The aircraft were prepared and armed with torpedoes. On the 4th February, after a false alarm during the early hours, the Squadron was ordered to fly to RAF Manston near Ramsgate, Kent, where it arrived during a blizzard. They were placed at five minutes readiness. At this point Lieutenant Commander Esmonde was expecting to make a night attack, and arrangements had been made for RAF fighters to accompany the Swordfish as flare droppers.
The maintenance ratings arrived by road, and first had to dig their aircraft out of the snowdrifts, then service them, running the engines up at intervals to keep them warm and ready for action. The Gunner (T), although a sick man, serviced the torpedoes night and day until he collapsed.
Because of the extreme need for secrecy, Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde had committed the orders to paper, which having been read by his officers was then burned. As there were seven pilots and only six aircraft, the two junior pilots tossed a coin for the ‘privilege’ of taking part in the raid.
On the 11th of February, Eugene Esmonde went to Buckingham Palace to receive the DSO he had been awarded for his part in the Bismarck Operation.
Next morning, Thursday, 12th February, at 1140 hours, the telephone rang and Wing Commander J. Constable-Roberts, RAF Liaison Officer at Dover Castle HQ, confirmed sighting of Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen off Boulogne. On a subsequent call, Eugene Esmonde asked Wing Commander Constable-Roberts, ‘Where’s Jerry? What’s his speed?’ The reply was, ‘About ten miles north east of the Straits, sailing at 21 knots’. Constable-Roberts then asked, ‘Are you satisfied with fighter escort? If so, the Admiral (Ramsay) says it’s OK to go’. Then adding in a quieter voice, ‘Best of luck old boy’.
Sub Lieutenants Brian Rose and Edgar Lee were returning to the mess after a practice flight when a lorry carrying the rest of the Squadron’s officers came past. One of them shouted ‘The balloons gone up’. It was just after noon. Rose and Lee ran back to the crew room and put their flying kit back on. Eugene Esmonde came into the room and said ‘The Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen have had the cheek to put their noses into the Channel, and we’re going out to deal with them. Fly at fifty feet, loose line astern, individual attacks, and find your own way home. We shall have fighter protection.’