Eugene Esmonde

Last updated

Eugene Esmonde

Bismarck aircrew rewarded.jpg

Officers and ratings who were decorated for the part they played in the sinking of the Bismarck, pictured in front of a Fairey Swordfish aboard HMS Ark Royal. Esmonde is second from left.
Born(1909-03-01)1 March 1909
Thurgoland, Yorkshire
Died 12 February 1942(1942-02-12) (aged 32)
English Channel
BuriedWoodlands Cemetery, Gillingham, Kent
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Air Force (1928–34)
Royal Navy (1939–42)
Years of service 1928–1934
Rank Lieutenant Commander
Commands held 825 Naval Air Squadron (1940–42)
754 Naval Air Squadron (1939)

Second World War

Awards Victoria Cross
Distinguished Service Order
Mentioned in Despatches
Relations John Joseph Esmonde (father)
Sir John Esmonde, 14th Baronet (brother)
Sir Anthony Esmonde, 15th Baronet (brother)
Thomas Esmonde (great-uncle)

Lieutenant Commander Eugene Kingsmill Esmonde, VC, DSO (1 March 1909 – 12 February 1942) was a distinguished British pilot who was a posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy awarded to members of Commonwealth forces. Esmonde earned this award while in command of a British Fleet Air Arm torpedo bomber squadron in the Second World War.

Victoria Cross highest military decoration awarded for valour in armed forces of various Commonwealth countries

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system. It is awarded for gallantry "in the presence of the enemy" to members of the British Armed Forces. It may be awarded posthumously. It was previously awarded to Commonwealth countries, most of which have established their own honours systems and no longer recommend British honours. It may be awarded to a person of any military rank in any service and to civilians under military command although no civilian has received the award since 1879. Since the first awards were presented by Queen Victoria in 1857, two-thirds of all awards have been personally presented by the British monarch. These investitures are usually held at Buckingham Palace.

Distinguished Service Order UK military decoration

The Distinguished Service Order (DSO) is a military decoration of the United Kingdom, and formerly of other parts of the Commonwealth, awarded for meritorious or distinguished service by officers of the armed forces during wartime, typically in actual combat. Since 1993 all ranks have been eligible.

Commonwealth of Nations Intergovernmental organisation

The Commonwealth of Nations, normally known as the Commonwealth, is a unique political association of 53 member states, nearly all of them former territories of the British Empire. The chief institutions of the organisation are the Commonwealth Secretariat, which focuses on intergovernmental aspects, and the Commonwealth Foundation, which focuses on non-governmental relations between member states.


Early life

Esmonde was born on 1 March 1909 in Thurgoland, Yorkshire, near Barnsley, where his Irish Catholic father, Dr John Joseph Esmonde (1862–1915), was in temporary general practice. Esmonde had three elder half-brothers and three half-sisters from his father's first marriage to Rose McGuinness. His brothers were: Sir John Esmonde, 14th Baronet, who served in the First World War; Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Esmonde (1897–1916), who was killed in action in the First World War serving with the 26th Tyneside Irish Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers; [1] and Sir Anthony Esmonde, 15th Baronet. After the death of his first wife John Esmonde elder married Eily O'Sullivan, who bore him five sons and one daughter: Owen, Donal, John Witham, Eugene and his twin James, Carmel and Patrick. Thomas Esmonde, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in the Crimean War, was a great-uncle.

Thurgoland village in the United Kingdom

Thurgoland is a village and civil parish in the Metropolitan Borough of Barnsley in South Yorkshire, England, on the A629 road. According to the 2001 census the parish had a population of 1,801, increasing to 1,969 at the 2011 Census.

Yorkshire Historic county of Northern England

Yorkshire, formally known as the County of York, is a historic county of Northern England and the largest in the United Kingdom. Due to its great size in comparison to other English counties, functions have been undertaken over time by its subdivisions, which have also been subject to periodic reform. Throughout these changes, Yorkshire has continued to be recognised as a geographical territory and cultural region. The name is familiar and well understood across the United Kingdom and is in common use in the media and the military, and also features in the titles of current areas of civil administration such as North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and East Riding of Yorkshire.

Barnsley town in South Yorkshire, England

Barnsley is a town in South Yorkshire, England, located halfway between Leeds and Sheffield. Historically in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the town centre lies on the west bank of the Dearne Valley. Barnsley is surrounded by several smaller settlements which together form the Metropolitan Borough of Barnsley, of which Barnsley is the largest and its administrative centre. At the 2011 Census, Barnsley had a population of 91,297.

Though the country of his birth was England, Esmonde's parents were from Ireland and he returned to his family's ancestral home of the Esmonde baronets in Drominagh, County Tipperary as a boy. He was educated by the Jesuits, first at Wimbledon College in London and then at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, Ireland.

The Esmonde Baronetcy, of Ballynastragh in the County of Wexford, is a title in the Baronetage of Ireland. It was created on 28 January 1629 for Thomas Esmonde. He raised a cavalry regiment for Charles I and commanded a regiment during the Siege of La Rochelle. Esmonde was the son of Sir Laurence Esmonde, who had abandoned the Roman Catholic faith during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and was raised to the Peerage of Ireland as Baron Esmonde in 1632. Lord Esmonde married firstly a Roman Catholic wife of the O'Flaherty family, and they had a son, Thomas, the first Baronet. She feared that the boy would be raised a Protestant and ran away with him, raising him as a strict Roman Catholic. As Thomas's father would not admit his legitimacy, he was not allowed to succeed to the barony, which became extinct on his father's death in 1646. He did however gain possession of the family estates in County Wexford.

Drominagh is a townland in the Barony of Ormond Lower, County Tipperary, Ireland. It is located in the civil parish of Terryglass, near Borrisokane. It is here that the Ballyfinboy River enters Lough Derg. Eugene Esmonde, a recipient of the Victoria Cross, was from Drominagh.

County Tipperary County in the Republic of Ireland

County Tipperary is a county in Ireland. It is located in the province of Munster. The county is named after the town of Tipperary, and was established in the early thirteenth century, shortly after the Norman invasion of Ireland. The population of the county was 159,553 at the 2016 census. The largest towns are Clonmel, Nenagh and Thurles.

Esmonde was commissioned into the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a pilot officer on probation on 28 December 1928. [2] During the early 1930s, Esmonde served first in the RAF, and then transferred to the Fleet Air Arm where he served in the Mediterranean when responsibility for naval aviation was returned to the Royal Navy. Upon leaving the navy in 1934, he flew for Imperial Airways. [3] and amongst other feats he flew flying boats and the first sur-charged airmail to Australia.

Royal Air Force Aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the United Kingdom's aerial warfare force. Formed towards the end of the First World War on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world. Following victory over the Central Powers in 1918 the RAF emerged as, at the time, the largest air force in the world. Since its formation, the RAF has taken a significant role in British military history. In particular, it played a large part in the Second World War where it fought its most famous campaign, the Battle of Britain.

Pilot officer Military rank

Pilot officer is the lowest commissioned rank in the Royal Air Force and the air forces of many other Commonwealth countries. It ranks immediately below flying officer.

Fleet Air Arm aviation branch of the British Royal Navy

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) is one of the five fighting arms of the Royal Navy. and is responsible for the operation of naval aircraft. The Fleet Air Arm recently started operating the F-35 Lightning II in a Maritime Strike Role, the AW159 Wildcat and AW101 Merlin in both Commando and Anti-Submarine roles, and the BAE Hawk. Helicopters such as the Lynx and Westland Wasp were previously deployed on smaller vessels since 1964, taking over the roles once performed by biplanes such as the Fairey Swordfish.

Early wartime career

At the start of the Second World War, he returned to the Fleet Air Arm with the rank of lieutenant commander. His first sea posting was to HMS Courageous, which was sunk in September 1939. He returned to sea duty on board HMS Victorious after a series of postings to shore-based stations.

Lieutenant commander commissioned officer rank in many navies

Lieutenant commander is a commissioned officer rank in many navies. The rank is superior to a lieutenant and subordinate to a commander. The corresponding rank in most armies and air forces is major, and in the Royal Air Force and other Commonwealth air forces is squadron leader.

HMS <i>Courageous</i> (50) World War One era British warship later rebuilt as an aircraft carrier

HMS Courageous was the lead ship of the Courageous-class cruisers built for the Royal Navy during the First World War. Designed to support the Baltic Project championed by First Sea Lord John Fisher, the ship was very lightly armoured and armed with only a few heavy guns. Courageous was completed in late 1916 and spent the war patrolling the North Sea. She participated in the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight in November 1917 and was present when the German High Seas Fleet surrendered a year later.

HMS <i>Victorious</i> (R38) Illustrious-class aircraft carrier, launched 1939

HMS Victorious, ordered under the 1936 Naval Programme, was the third Illustrious-class aircraft carrier after Illustrious and Formidable. She was laid down at the Vickers-Armstrong shipyard at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1937 and launched two years later in 1939. Her commissioning was delayed until 1941 due to the greater need for escort vessels for service in the Battle of the Atlantic.

On the night of 24 May 1941, Esmonde led No. 825 Naval Air Squadron's nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers in an attack against the German battleship Bismarck. This attack took place after the Battle of the Denmark Strait, in which HMS Hood was sunk by the Bismarck. The biplanes flying from Victorious made a 120-mile flight in foul North Atlantic weather and one torpedo hit the Bismarck amidships without effect. (The attack that disabled the ship's rudder and doomed the German battleship was caused by a Swordfish torpedo strike from HMS Ark Royal some days later.) Esmonde was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order on 11 February 1942 for his leadership and actions (the award was announced on 16 September 1941). [4]

825 Naval Air Squadron

825 Naval Air Squadron is a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Naval Air Squadron which was re-commissioned on 10 October 2014 and currently flies the AgustaWestland Wildcat HMA.2.

Fairey Swordfish carrier-based torpedo bomber family

The Fairey Swordfish was a biplane torpedo bomber designed by the Fairey Aviation Company. Originating in the early 1930s, the Swordfish, nicknamed "Stringbag", was operated by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, in addition to having been equipped by the Royal Air Force (RAF) alongside multiple overseas operators, including the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Royal Netherlands Navy. It was initially operated primarily as a fleet attack aircraft. During its later years, the Swordfish became increasingly used as an anti-submarine and training platform. The type was in frontline service throughout the Second World War, but it was already considered obsolete at the outbreak of the conflict in 1939.

Torpedo bomber attack aircraft specialized in torpedo delivery

A torpedo bomber is a military aircraft designed primarily to attack ships with aerial torpedoes. Torpedo bombers came into existence just before the First World War almost as soon as aircraft were built that were capable of carrying the weight of a torpedo, and remained an important aircraft type until they were rendered obsolete by anti-ship missiles. They were an important element in many famous Second World War battles, notably the British attack at Taranto and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

His squadron was serving on HMS Ark Royal when she was torpedoed in November 1941. Attempts to tow her to Gibraltar were abandoned, and on 14 November 1941 she sank. The Swordfish of the squadron ferried some of the crew off the ship before she sank; Esmonde was Mentioned in Despatches for his actions on this occasion. [5]

Victoria Cross

Esmonde earned his Victoria Cross when he led his squadron against elements of the German fleet which were making the "Channel Dash" (Operation Cerberus) from Brest in an attempt to return to their home bases at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel through the English Channel. On 12 February 1942 off the coast of England, 32-year-old Lieutenant Commander Esmonde led a detachment of six Fairey Swordfish in an attack on the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. All three had left Brest unopposed, and, with a strong escort of smaller craft, were entering the Straits of Dover when Esmonde received his orders. He waited as long as he felt he could for confirmation of his fighter escort, but eventually took off without it. One of the fighter squadrons (10 Supermarine Spitfires of No. 72 Squadron RAF) did rendezvous with Esmonde's squadron; the two squadrons were later attacked by enemy fighters of JG 2 and JG 26 as part of Operation Donnerkeil, the German air superiority plan for the mission. The subsequent fighting left all of the planes in Esmonde's squadron damaged, and caused them to become separated from their fighter escort.

The torpedo bombers continued their attack, in spite of their damage and lack of fighter protection. There was heavy anti-aircraft fire from the German ships, and Esmonde's plane possibly sustained a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire that destroyed most of one of the port wings of his Swordfish biplane. Esmonde led his flight through a screen of the enemy destroyers and other small vessels protecting the battleships. He was still 2,700 metres from his target when he was hit by a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, resulting in his aircraft bursting into flames and crashing into the sea. The remaining aircraft continued the attack, but all were shot down by enemy fighters; only five of the 18 crew survived the action. The four surviving officers received the Distinguished Service Order, and the enlisted survivor was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. [6]

The courage of the Swordfish crews was noted by friend and foe alike. Admiral Bertram Ramsay later wrote, "In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed", while Admiral Otto Ciliax in the Scharnhorst described "The mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day". As he watched the smoking wrecks of the Swordfish falling into the sea, Captain Hoffmann of the Scharnhorst exclaimed, "Poor fellows, they are so very slow, it is nothing but suicide for them to fly against these big ships". Willhelm Wolf aboard the Scharnhorst wrote, "What an heroic stage for them to meet their end! Behind them their homeland, which they had just left with their hearts steeled to their purpose, still in view".

The award of the VC was gazetted on 3 March 1942, the citation read:

ADMIRALTY. Whitehall. 3rd March, 1942.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the VICTORIA CROSS, for valour and resolution in action against the Enemy, to:

The late Lieutenant-Commander (A) Eugene Esmonde, D.S.O., Royal Navy.

On the morning of Thursday, 12th February, 1942, Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde, in command of a Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, was told that the German Battle-Cruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU and the Cruiser PRINZ EUGEN, strongly escorted by some thirty surface craft, were entering the Straits of Dover, and that his Squadron must attack before they reached the sand-banks North East of Calais.

Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde knew well that his enterprise was desperate. Soon after noon he and his squadron of six Swordfish set course for the Enemy, and after ten minutes flight were attacked by a strong force of Enemy fighters. Touch was lost with his fighter escort; and in the action which followed all his aircraft were damaged. He flew on, cool and resolute, serenely challenging hopeless odds, to encounter the deadly fire of the Battle-Cruisers and their Escort, which shattered the port wing of his aircraft. Undismayed, he led his Squadron on, straight through this inferno of fire, in steady flight towards their target. Almost at once he was shot down; but his Squadron went on to launch a gallant attack, in which at least one torpedo is believed to have struck the German Battle-Cruisers, and from which not one of the six aircraft returned.

His high courage and splendid resolution will live in the traditions of the Royal Navy, and remain for many generations a fine and stirring memory. [6]

He was remembered in Winston Churchill's famous broadcast speech on 13 May 1945, "Five years of War", [7] as having defended Ireland's honour:

When I think of these days I think also of other episodes and personalities. I do not forget Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde, V.C., D.S.O., Lance-Corporal Kenneally, V.C., Captain Fegen, V.C., and other Irish heroes that I could easily recite, and all bitterness by Britain for the Irish race dies in my heart. I can only pray that in years which I shall not see, the shame will be forgotten and the glories will endure, and that the peoples of the British Isles and of the British Commonwealth of Nations will walk together in mutual comprehension and forgiveness."

Seven weeks later Lieutenant Commander Esmonde's body, still in his lifejacket, was washed ashore in the Thames Estuary near the River Medway. Esmonde was buried in the Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham, Kent on 30 April 1942. [8]

Related Research Articles

Channel Dash

The Channel Dash or Unternehmen Zerberus was a German naval operation during World War II. A Kriegsmarine squadron of both of the Scharnhorst-class battleships, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and escorts, ran a British blockade from Brest in Brittany. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had arrived in Brest on 22 Mar 1941 after the successful Operation Berlin in the Atlantic. Further anti-commerce raids were planned and the ships used the dockyard facilities at Brest for refit and repair. They represented a substantial threat to Allied trans-Atlantic convoys, so a series of air raids were carried out by the Royal Air Force (RAF) against the two ships from 30 Mar 1941. Serious damage was inflicted on Gneisenau on 6 April 1941 and on Scharnhorst on 24 July 1941 after dispersal to La Pallice. As the repair of this damage reached completion in August, consideration was given to evacuating the ships.

Battle of Calabria battle

The Battle of Calabria, was a naval battle during the Battle of the Mediterranean in the Second World War. It was fought between the Italian Royal Navy and the British Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. The battle occurred 30 miles to the east of Punta Stilo, Calabria, on 9 July 1940. It was one of the few pitched battles of the Mediterranean campaign during the Second World War involving large numbers of ships on both sides. Both sides claimed victory, but in fact the battle was a draw and everyone returned to their bases as soon as possible.

Bruce Fraser, 1st Baron Fraser of North Cape Royal Navy admiral of the fleet

Admiral of the Fleet Bruce Austin Fraser, 1st Baron Fraser of North Cape, was a senior Royal Navy officer. He served in the First World War, saw action during the Gallipoli Campaign and took part in the internment of the German High Seas Fleet at the end of the war. He also served in the Second World War initially as Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy and then as second-in-command and afterwards as commander of the Home Fleet, leading the force that destroyed the German battleship Scharnhorst. He went on to be First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff in which role he assisted in establishing NATO and agreed to the principle that the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic should be an American admiral, in the face of fierce British opposition.

835 Naval Air Squadron was a former squadron of the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm originally formed in February 1942 as a torpedo bomber and reconnaissance unit flying Fairey Swordfish. In June 1943, six Sea Hurricanes were added to the squadron as a fighter flight. The composite unit exchanged the Hurricanes in September 1944 for Grumman Wildcats, serving on until 1 April 1945, when the squadron disbanded.

<i>Sink the Bismarck!</i> 1960 film by Lewis Gilbert

Sink the Bismarck! is a 1960 black-and-white CinemaScope British war film based on the book The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck by C. S. Forester. It stars Kenneth More and Dana Wynter and was directed by Lewis Gilbert. To date, it is the only film made that deals directly with the operations, chase and sinking of the battleship Bismarck by the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Although war films were common in the 1960s, Sink the Bismarck! was seen as something of an anomaly, with much of its time devoted to the "unsung back-room planners as much as on the combatants themselves." Its historical accuracy, in particular, met with much praise despite a number of inconsistencies.

Operation Juno was a German naval offensive late in the Norwegian Campaign. The German ships involved were the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and the destroyers Z20 Karl Galster, Z10 Hans Lody, Z15 Erich Steinbrinck and Z7 Hermann Schoemann.

HMS <i>Avenger</i> (D14) escort aircraft carrier

HMS Avenger was a Royal Navy escort aircraft carrier during the Second World War. In 1939 she was laid down as the merchant ship Rio-Hudson at the Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Company yard in Chester, Pennsylvania. Launched on 27 November 1940, she was converted to an escort carrier and transferred under the lend lease agreement to the Royal Navy. She was commissioned on 2 March 1942.

Michael Torrens-Spence British Royal Navy officer

Captain Frederick Michael Alexander Torrens-Spence, was a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot in the Second World War. Torrens-Spence earned the distinction of holding commissions in the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

HMS <i>Nairana</i> (D05) Nairana class-escort carrier

HMS Nairana was the lead ship of the Royal Navy's Nairana-class escort carriers that saw service in the Second World War. She was built at John Brown & Company shipyards in Clydebank, Scotland. When construction started in 1941 she was intended as a merchant ship, but was completed and launched as an escort carrier, entering service at the end of 1943.

806 Naval Air Squadron was a fighter squadron in the Fleet Air Arm that existed from February 1940 to December 1960 and saw active service in the Norwegian campaign, the Dunkirk evacuation and the Malta Convoys.

Victor Smith Australian admiral, Chief of Naval Staff, Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee

Admiral Sir Victor Alfred Trumper Smith, was a senior officer in the Royal Australian Navy. Smith's career culminated with his appointment as Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee—forerunner of the role of Australia's Chief of the Defence Force—from 1970 to 1975, following an earlier term as Chief of Naval Staff from 1968 to 1970.

821 Naval Air Squadron was a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm carrier based squadron formed on 3 April 1933 with the transferral and amalgamation of the Fairey III aircraft from 446 and half of 455 Flight Flights Royal Air Force to the newly formed Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force. The squadron operated during the Second World War.

Squadron Leader William Anthony Kevin Igoe, FRAES, CE was an Irish born Royal Air Force officer who was Senior Controller for No. 11 Group RAF at RAF Biggin Hill. He was also a noted sportsman and businessman.

Operation Donnerkeil

Unternehmen Donnerkeil was the codename for a German military operation of the Second World War. Donnerkeil was designed as an air superiority operation to support the Kriegsmarine's Operation Cerberus, also known as the Channel Dash.

Stanley Gordon Orr, was the highest scoring fighter ace of the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Flying with the Fleet Air Arm he was credited with the destruction of 17 aircraft. His success was recognised by the awards of the Distinguished Service Cross and Two Bars, an Air Force Cross and a Mention in Despatches.

823 Naval Air Squadron was a Fleet Air Arm aircraft squadron before and during World War II.


  1. Casualty details—Esmonde, Geoffery, Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2008-07-16.
  2. "No. 33453". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 1929. p. 72.
  3. Royal Naval Museum biography
  4. "No. 35275". The London Gazette (Supplement). 12 September 1941. p. 5357.
  5. "No. 35424". The London Gazette (Supplement). 16 January 1942. p. 341.
  6. 1 2 "No. 35474". The London Gazette (Supplement). 27 February 1942. pp. 1007–1008.
  7. Churchill's Speech
  8. Casualty details—Esmonde, Eugene Kingsmill, Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2008-07-16.

Further reading