- Burnhams, J.C., RNCC
- Naval Aviation, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1991 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
It was 1215 hours as the six crews climbed into their Swordfish, at this point a runner came with a message from the Control Room, ‘Dover says the enemy’s speed now estimated 27 knots, Sir’. Message acknowledged, the crews were now ready for take off. The Swordfish and crews were:
|W 5984 ‘H’||Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde, DSO||Pilot|
|Lt William H. Williams||Observer|
|L/A William J. Clinton||TAG|
|W5983 ‘G’||S/Lt Brian W. Rose||Pilot|
|S/Lt Edgar F. Lee||Observer|
|L/A Ambrose L. Johnson, DSM||TAG|
|W5907 ‘L’||S/Lt Charles M. Kingsmill||Pilot|
|S/Lt Reginald McC Samples||Observer|
|L/A Donald A. Bunce||TAG|
|W4523 ‘F’||Lt John C. Thompson||Pilot|
|S/Lt Robert L. Parkinson||Observer|
|L/A Ernest Topping||TAG|
|W5985 ‘K’||S/Lt Ralph Wood||Pilot|
|S/Lt Eric H. Fuller-Wright||Observer|
|L/A Henry T.A. Wheeler||TAG|
|W 5978 ‘M’||S/Lt Peter Bligh||Pilot|
|S/Lt William Beynon||Observer|
|L/A William G. Smith||TAG|
At 1225 hours, one by one the six torpedo laden Swordfish taxied along Manston’s frozen grass runway and took off into the wintry sky. Eighteen young men in six antiquated biplanes on their way to challenge more than half the Germany Navy and an unknown strength of Luftwaffe support. As the Swordfish circled the airfield levelling off at 1550 feet they set course for Ramsgate to await fighter escort.
Passing under an evil looking black cumulus cloud, they reached Ramsgate by 1229 hours and began to circuit the town waiting for their vital fighter escort. At 1232 hours, ten Spitfires of 72 Squadron RAF led by Squadron Leader Brian Kingcombe appeared. After two more minutes orbiting, Eugene Esmonde decided, that in view of the failure of the other four squadrons to arrive he could wait no longer, and Operation Fuller must proceed without further delay. The situation now facing 825 Squadron FAA was completely different from the night attack originally envisaged.
The Swordfish set off east of Ramsgate, flying at just fifty feet above the waves. The German ships were calculated to be around 23 miles off Ramsgate, and heading at speed towards safety. At their basic speed of 85-90 knots it would take the Swordfish some fifteen minutes flying to reach and attack them.
The two Squadrons from Biggin Hill, Nos. 124 and 401, arrived at the rendezvous point some fifteen minutes late. Seeing no Swordfish they set off in an easterly direction and soon became embroiled in combat with German fighters. The other two Squadrons, Nos. 64 and 411, from Hornchurch arrived over Manston at 1245 hours. They set off in the direction of Calais and were engaged by stragglers from one of the Jagdgeschwader 2, ‘Richthoven’ Staffels.
As the gallant six flew away from the coast, Spitfires of 72 Squadron went up to 2000 feet and slightly ahead of their charges. One of their problems was to keep visual contact with the Swordfish. This meant keeping the throttle to the minimum and flying in a weaving pattern. At about ten miles out, the Swordfish ran into two Staffels of Messerschmitt Bf 109s of Jagdgeschwader 2, ‘Richthoven’ commanded by Oberstleutnant Walter Oesau. The Spitfires descended from above and began to beat off the enemy aircraft towards Ramsgate. This first clash with the air cover to the German Fleet was brief and the Spitfires were soon back giving cover to the Swordfish.