Unsurpassed Gallantry We Must Never Forget
In February 2017, the Fleet Air Arm will be commemorating the 75th anniversary of the ‘Channel Dash’, one of the most daring and courageous actions in the history of naval aviation, when 18 naval aviators of 825 Naval Air Squadron, flying six Swordfish bi-planes demonstrated unsurpassed bravery in an attack on the might of the German Battle Fleet in the English Channel.
The mission of the Swordfish torpedo bombers on 12 February 1942 was to stop the massive German Battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the Cruiser Prinz Eugen as they made their ‘dash’ for home from Brest to Germany through the English Channel.
Expecting fierce resistance, the German battleships made their audacious break for freedom protected by a screen of destroyers, E-boats and minesweepers and with over 200 fighter aircraft including Messerschmitt 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s providing air cover. It was one of the largest German Battle Fleets ever assembled and its fighter screen was one of the largest ever seen over a naval force.
Against the murderous power of the battleships’ guns and latest fighter aircraft of the time, the Swordfish faced impossible odds. All six Swordfish were shot down, 13 naval aircrew died and only 5 were rescued alive from the cold waters of the Dover Straits.
The Fleet Air Arm has been at the forefront of many courageous actions over the past 100 years but such was the bravery and supreme sacrifice in the Channel Dash action that the Commanding Officer of the Squadron, Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, who led the attack, resolutely and serenely flying on through an inferno of anti-aircraft fire, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Of the survivors, the four officers each received the DSO and the Telegraphist Air Gunner received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal; the remaining 12 who were lost were all Mentioned in Dispatches.
Crippled and ablaze before they got into range, with shells and bullets ripping through the canvas covered fuselage and wings, the Swordfish crews pressed home their attacks with extraordinary self-sacrifice and devotion to duty.
Speaking of the gallantry of the Channel Dash heroes, Admiral of the Fleet The Lord Boyce KG GCB OBE DL, Patron of the Channel Dash Association said “Our naval aviation heritage is rich in stories of actions that have been taken in the full knowledge that the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ was inevitable. There can be no better example of this than Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde leading his Squadron of Swordfish against the heavily defended and powerful German flotilla making its Channel Dash on 12 February 1942 – knowing as they closed the enemy that their annihilation was certain. We rightly honour his name and those of the other seventeen Swordfish aircrew, only five of whom survived, with humility and awe.”
Chief Executive of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, Commodore Jock Alexander OBE said, “No single action in the history of naval aviation upholds the charitable aims of Navy Wings to Inspire and Remember so absolutely – or relates more directly to the importance of keeping the Swordfish flying today – than the Channel Dash.”
“The courage and tenacity shown by the aircrews of 825 Naval Air Squadron typifies the ethos of naval aviation. When it really matters, Naval aircraft and Naval aircrews can be relied upon to get the job done, whatever the challenges and dangers – and keeping the Swordfish flying today embodies that ethos – inspiring future generations and serving asa living memorial to all those who have given their lives in the service of naval aviation” continued Commodore Alexander.
A memorial service to remember those Fleet Air Arm personnel lost in the Channel Dash will be held at the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Church, RNAS Yeovilton on 9 February 2017. The service will be attended by Admiral The Lord Boyce KG GCB OBE DL, historian Dan Snow and relatives of those who lost their lives. After the service, guests will visit the Navy Wings Heritage Centre to see the two Royal Navy Historic Flight Swordfish, including Swordfish W5856, the oldest surviving Swordfish Mk 1 still flying in the world, representing the aircraft from 825 Naval Air Squadron that took part in the heroic action 75 years, ago.
‘18 MEN WE SHALL NEVER FORGET’
THE FLEET AIR ARM CREWS OF 825 SWORDFISH SQUADRON WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE CHANNEL DASH ACTION AGAINST THE GERMAN BATTLESHIPS , SCHARNHORST, GNEISENAU AND CRUISER PRINZ EUGEN FEBRUARY 12TH 1942
Lt Cdr (A) Eugene Esmonde VC DSO Royal Navy
Lt William Henry Williams Royal Navy
Petty Officer William John ‘Jack’ Clinton Telegraphist Air Gunner
Leading Airman Ambrose Laurence Johnson DSM Telegraphist Air Gunner
Lt (A) John Chute Thompson Royal Navy
Sub Lt (A) Eric Herbert Fuller Wright RNVR
Leading Airman Ernest Tapping Telegraphist Air Gunner
Sub Lt (A) Cecil Ralph Wood Royal Navy
Sub Lt (A) Robert Laurens Parkinson Royal Navy
Leading Airman William Grenville Smith Telegraphist Air Gunner
Sub Lt (A) Peter Bligh Royal Navy
Sub Lt (A) William Beynon
Leading Airman Henry Wheeler Telegraphist Air Gunner
Of the five survivors, four were wounded, Sub Lt Pat Kingsmill DSO VRD, Sub Lt Reginald McCartney ‘Mac’ Samples DSO RNVR, Sub Lt Brian Rose and Leading Airman Don Bunce CGM and only one, Sub Lt Edgar Lee DSO VRD was unhurt.
Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde was post humously awarded the Victoria Cross and the other 12 aircrew were all Mentioned in Despatches. Had they survived there is little doubt that they would all have been similarly decorated for gallantry in the face of the enemy, however, a posthumous Mention in Despatches is the only recognition for bravery that can be given after death, other than the Victoria Cross. All 18 aircrew were heroes that day and 75 years on, they are still 18 young men we shall never forget