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Biography: Eugene Esmonde VC

EUGENE ESMONDE VC

Born 1st March 1909, at Thurgoland, Wortley, Yorkshire. Eugene Esmonde was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF, on the 28th December 1928, and was posted to the Fleet Air Arm, serving in the Mediterranean until the expiry of his commission five years later. On leaving the RAF, Esmonde joined Imperial Airways as a First Officer on the 9th August 1934. Esmonde flew on the mail carrying routes between London and Glasgow, and as Imperial Airways expanded its service, to the Middle East and India. In 1935, he flew on regular service between Rangoon and Mandalay in Burma, and survived a serious accident when his aircraft crashed into Irrawaddy. He was promoted to Captain on the 3rd July 1937, and was one of the first to fly the giant flying boats which introduced the first airmail service between the UK and Australia. On the 3rd May 1939, Esmonde resigned to take up a commission as a Lieutenant-Commander in the Fleet Air Arm.

Esmonde was a survivor of the carrier HMS Courageous, which was torpedoed and sunk in the Western Approaches on the 17th September 1939. Following this he served at RNAS Lee-on-Solent and other naval air stations in the south of England. He was then appointed to the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious. On the night of the 24th May 1941, he led a squadron of nine Swordfish aircraft, armed with torpedoes, to make a 120 mile flight in foul weather and into head-winds to attack the German battleship, Bismarck. Esmonde’s aircraft attacked through intense anti-aircraft fire from Bismarck, and scored one hit, amidships on the starboard side. Esmonde received the Distinguished Service Order for this action on the 11th February 1942.

Esmonde’s next appointment was on HMS Ark Royal, and his air squadron rescued members of the ship’s company when the ship was sunk off Gibraltar on the 13th November 1941. By the end of November, Esmonde was back at Lee-on-Solent, until 12th February 1942, the day when the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, with the cruiser Prinz Eugen, and a strong escort of surface craft, made their ‘Channel dash’ from Brest back to Germany. In the Straits of Dover, Esmonde led the 825 Squadron of six Swordfish aircraft to attack the German ships. The squadron encountered a hail of fire from the German ships off Calais in their desperate but unsuccessful attempt at least to damage the enemy vessels. Esmonde’s plane sustained a direct hit, just after he had fired its torpedo, he continued the run-in towards his target until his plane burst into flames and crashed into the sea. The attack continued and three of the other Swordfish were also shot down and their crews killed. Five men of Esmonde’s flight survived, four of them wounded. The four officers received the DSO, while the sole rating who survived received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Admiral Ramsey stated that ‘the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self sacrifice and devotion to duty that the war has yet witnessed’.

Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions, which was gazetted on the 3rd March 1942. A memorial to Eugene Esmonde is at Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham, Kent.

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© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2004
The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.

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