- Burnhams, J.C., RNCC
- Naval Aviation, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1991 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
At 1250 hours they had their first sighting of their prime targets – an awesome array of large battleships, sleek destroyers, numerous flak ships, with E-Boats darting along the sides of this great naval procession. In a rare moment of cooperation between the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe, the sky over the fleet was covered from 50 feet to 2000 feet by a vast armada of aircraft. In addition to the Jagdgeschwader 2 Staffels, there were the Focke Wulf FW 190s from Major Gerhard Schopfel’s Jagdgeschwader 26, ‘Schlageter’ in almost full strength.
The Swordfish went into the attack over the destroyer screen facing a barrage of gunfire. As they closed towards the capital ships they were again met by intense anti-aircraft fire. The Spitfires of 72 Squadron had already begun their battle with the Luftwaffe, facing overwhelming odds. As the ships’ gunfire died, attacks from the ME 109s on the Swordfish began, followed by the FW 190s. Spitfires continued their dog fights as one by one the Swordfish flew on to press home their attack on the capital ships with a great and gallant effort. Pilots under enemy fire, fighting to keep control of their planes, often being directed by their observers and with airgunners fighting to defend the aircraft.
Lieutenant Commander Esmonde was the first to attack, despite having suffered much damage, he brought his doomed aircraft under control, heading for the Prinz Eugen, he fired his torpedo. In that final act, Eugene Esmonde and his crew perished.
Sub Lieutenant Rose followed Esmonde at about 50 yards astern. His aircraft was savagely attacked by fighters, both ME 109s and FW 190s, his observer Edgar Lee constantly told him exactly when to take avoiding action. During these attacks Brian Rose was severely wounded and nearly flew into the sea, however Edgar Lee kept talking to him and guided him to the point where he released his torpedo. Once that happened the fighters lost interest and Brian Rose climbed to some 1200 feet. The main petrol tank had been holed on the final torpedo run in (which was completed on the gravity reserve tank) and it was obvious that the English coast could not be reached, and they decided to head for some Motor Torpedo Boats, but the engine cut out some four miles away from them. Brian Rose glided the plane down towards the sea and pancaked. Edgar Lee released the dinghy and then tried to free L/A Johnson, but could not, and had to leave him. The dinghy automatically inflated and was washed from the plane and Brian Rose, despite his left arm being useless, managed to recover it and get it upright. Edgar Lee held the dinghy whilst Brian Rose got into it, he then returned to try again to free the TAG but this was impossible, and the wreckage sank. There was no doubt that L/A Johnson was dead, he had been killed much earlier in the action.
Then Sub Lieutenant Kingsmill’s Swordfish started to go into attack, fighters came screaming at them, ships throwing up a barrage of flak, he relentlessly kept on, as L/A Donald Bunce continued to engage enemy fighters. Enemy shells shot away two cylinders of the engine, the upper wing was on fire and large chunks of the fuselage were no longer there. After releasing his torpedo Charles Kingsmill turned the plane with difficulty, with Reginald Samples guiding him he tried to land near some vessels which turned out to be E-Boats. The E-Boats opened fire so the pilot did a flat turn and continued flying until his engine died. The plane, before easing gently into the sea, gave everyone watching a spontaneous fireworks display as the distress signal cartridge pyrotechnics detonated. Reginald Samples was lucky to survive the ditching, as in his weak state he found his harness difficult to release, and was nearly drowned. The crew was picked up by a Motor Torpedo Boat, two were badly injured, but all were alive.