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Lt Brian Westland Rose (4059)
Brian Westland Rose was at EC from 1933 to 1939. In 1937 Rose played for the 1st XI cricket team and was awarded his colours, and the following year he was one of the successful fast bowlers besides setting the high jump record for the school of 5’ 5” (1.65m). In his last year he was second in the long jump against Victoria College and was first in the 110m hurdles in a match that EC beat VC by 52 pts to 11. He played centre-forward in the 1st XI football team where he was said to ‘work hard and tries persistently’. As the spearhead of the cricket bowling attack he was described as a ‘fast right-handed bowler with deadly precision on several occasions and was rather intimidating on a fiery wicket’.
He was also something of a theatrical enthusiast playing Fleance in Macbeth in 1934, being one of the gentlemen of the jury in the school’s Trial by Jury in 1938, and the next year he was one of the pirates and the policemen in the Pirates of Penzance.
His full record is;
2nd in long jump v Vic Coll when EC beat VC by 36.5 to 12.5 pts
EC 104 0 GICC 86-8 7-2-18-0
EC 203-7 dnb GICC 80 6-0-25-1
EC 61 5 FW Mourant 61 4-1-7-2
EC 126-2 dnb Pilgrims 97 10-2-28-5
EC 139-6d dnb Commercial Lge 67 10-2-22-4
EC 95 6 Pilgrims 124-5 10-2-43-1
EC 26-2 aband. GICC 45 6-2-6-4
EC 73 0 2nd Bn Sherwood F 113 9-3-18-0
EC 137-4 dnb GICC 83 7-0-29-1
EC 106-5 dnb FW Mourant 158-6d 6-1-15-0
EC 128 3 HMS Nelson 101 7-3-9-4
EC 126 6* Vic Coll 156 8-1-48-3
EC 111 27 GICC 106-8 9-2-23-6
EC 137-8d 10 Commercial Lge 109-3 8-1-25-0
EC 254 34 King Edward school 264-4 12-0-58-2
EC 139 9 Tauntons school 113-9 9-1-25-0
EC 121 2 Vic Coll 101 10-2-30-2
He was awarded his colours
1st in high jump with New Record of 5’ 5” (1.65m), 2nd in long jump
EC beat VC by 50 – 13 pts
EC 155-8 25 Sherwood Forresters 61 6-2-10-0
EC 181-2d dnb GICC 42 8-3-10-6
EC 64 15 FW Mourant 124-7 9-4-29-1
EC 162-4d dnb GICC 154-5 13-2-48-2
EC 108 13 Commercial Lge 120 6-0-13-1
EC 181-2d dnb Pilgrims 101-9 12-1-31-4
EC 174 60 GICC 104-7 6-1-22-0
EC 72 12 FW Mourant 60 9-3-20-4
EC 135 0 Vic Coll 70 13-4-30-2
EC 188 4 King Edward school 68 12-2-36-1
EC 167 8 Tauntons school 112 13-5-30-2
EC 78 16 Vic Coll 89 5-0-19-0
He was awarded his colours
1st in high jump, 2nd in long jump, 1st in 120 yard hurdles. EC beat VC by 52 – 11 pts
EC 169-6 0 Royal Irish Fus. 87 8-1-30-1
EC 123-8d 7 GICC 63 5-1-8-3
EC 219-3d 3* Pilgrims 102 7-2-15-4
EC 144 27 FW Mourants 127-5 7-4-14-0
EC 133-8d 48 GICC 54 5-2-14-1
EC 147-3 dnb Commercial Lge 135 9-2-38-2
EC 64 13 Commercial Lge 42 9-2-21-3
EC 98 5 FW Mourant 85 9-2-16-2
EC 180 22 Vic Coll 35 3-1-7-3
EC 43-1 dnb GICC 116-6d 10-5-30-1
EC 55 10 Commercial Lge 149-9 13-0-40-4
EC 176-6d 21 HMS Vindictive 103 10-2-28-5
EC 109 8 King Edward school 44 9-4-10-6
EC 163 2 Tauntons school 31 11.2-5-14-6
EC 109 16 Vic Coll 103 14.5-3-35-5
He joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. He was in the Fleet Air Arm Swordfish of 825 Squadron from Manston in 1944 as well as numerous RAF Coastal Command and Bomber Command aircraft carried out attacks. The incident where six FAA aircraft crews and their fates were as follows –
(1) Lt Cdr (A) E Esmonde DSO+, Lt W H Williams+, gunner L/Airman W J Clinton+,
(2) S/Lt B W Rose RNVR, Acting Temporary S/Lt (A) E F Lee RNVR, L/Airman A L Johnson+,
(3) S/Lt C M Kingsmill RNVR, S/Lt (A) R M Samples RNVR, L/Airman D A Bunce,
(4) Lt J C Thompson+, S/Lt E H F Wright RNVR+, L/Airman E Tapping+,
(5) S/Lt C R Wood+, S/Lt (A) R L Parkinson+, L/Airman H T A Wheeler+
(6) S/Lt P Bligh RNVR+, S/Lt D R Beynon RNVR+, L/Airman W G Smith+.
Most were killed (+). Rose, Samples, and Kingsmill were wounded, and only Lee and Bunce were uninjured. Rose and Lee were rescued by MTB.45, Samples and Bunce by a minesweeper, and it is believed Kingsmill by an MTB. The bodies of Esmonde and Smith were later recovered and buried ashore. Esmonde received the Victoria Cross (posthumously), Rose, Lee, and Samples the DSO, and Bunce the CGM.
Destroyers taking part: CAMPBELL (D 21 Pizey), VIVACIOUS, WORCESTER
Early in February 1942, the Admiralty suspected that Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen might break out from their French port of Brest and try to force a passage through the English Channel to their home ports in Germany. The Fleet Air Arm had a long account to settle with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, for eight of Ark Royal’s Skua crews had perished in an attack on the enemy battleships at Trondheim, as well as two Swordfish in an attack off the Norwegian coast in the same campaign. Although naval aircraft had sighted the two ships more than once in the Atlantic, no striking force had ever caught them. Lieutenant Commander Esmonde had already asked to be allowed to lead his squadron against them if the need for such an attack ever arose.
One evening Esmonde called his squadron officers to his cabin and told them to be ready for a strike at any moment; the aircraft were prepared and armed with torpedoes. There was a ‘flap’ at 0300 hours next morning and the officers were briefed, but it proved to be a false alarm – a strange coincidence in view of what was soon to happen.
Next morning the squadron flew to an RAF station in Kent, arriving in a blizzard, and were put on five minutes’ readiness. Esmonde was in fact expecting to make a night attack on the German ships, and arrangements had been made for RAF fighters to accompany the Swordfish as flare-droppers. The maintenance ratings had to dig the dispersed aircraft out of the snow in the morning and run the engines three times during the day to keep them warm.
On 11 February, Esmonde went to Buckingham Palace to receive the DSO he had been awarded for the Bismarck action. Next morning, Thursday 12 February, Sub-Lieutenant (Air) B.W. Rose, RNVR, was returning to the mess with his observer after a practice flight when a lorry with some of the squadron officers came tearing past. One of them shouted: ‘The balloon’s gone up.’
It was then a few minutes after noon. The RAF Headquarters had reported that the three ships had at last broken cover and appeared in the Channel, with an escort of destroyers, torpedo boats, E-boats and minesweepers, and a fighter escort described as the biggest ever seen over a naval force.
Rose and his observer ran back to the crew room to put on their flying kit again, and just as they were ready Esmonde came rushing in to give them orders: ‘Fly at 50 feet, close line astern, individual attacks, and find your own way home. We shall have fighter protection.’
The Fleet Air Arm did not waste time. Already the enemy ships would be well along the French coast and nearing the Straits of Dover. The aim was to try to intercept this massive force of more than two dozen surface craft, and attack them before they could reach the sandbanks north-east of Calais.
The six Swordfish crews climbed into their slow, torpedo-carrying biplanes, taxied out and took off at about 1230 hours. They were grouped into two sub-flights of three each, flying in echelon. Only a few Motor Torpedo Boats, the Dover shore batteries, and ten Spitfires were able to support them, the fighters zigzagging across the course keep their speed of advance down to that of the Swordfish. Already by 1942 the biplanes, with their Pegasus engines and single gun turrets, were rightly regarded as out-of-date.
By now, the German warships had passed through the Straits of Dover and were some ten miles north of Calais. According to the subsequent German account, they had left Brest with their escort of destroyers immediately after an RAF raid at 2030 hours the previous night. The E-boats and minesweepers had joined them up-Channel hugging the French coast. Their covering umbrella of shore-based fighters could be relieved and reinforced from the French coastal airfields at short notice. As the squadron passed through the Straits, the long-range batteries on the Kent coast opened fire, but the ships took evasive action. They were also able to avoid the torpedoes fired by the MTBs and destroyers that tried to intercept them.
The Swordfish sighted the enemy after twenty minutes’ flying time. The vessels were a mile and a half away, steaming in line ahead, with Prinz Eugen leading, followed by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau; they were almost through the Straits. Visibility had been patchy during the flight, sometimes right down, and at other times up to a couple of miles.
The force went into the attack over the destroyer screen, meeting the anticipated intense anti-aircraft fire as they closed towards the capital ships. Esmonde in aircraft No W.5984/825 was still flying at only fifty feet when a shell ricocheted off the water and hit the belly of his Swordfish, causing him to steer an erratic course from then on. Johnson, the air gunner of Rose’s aircraft next astern, was hit.
Then the ships’ guns quietened and the fighter attacks began. About fifteen Me 109s and FW 190s dived out of the clouds onto the tails of the Swordfish, and the Spitfire escort became involved in a general dogfight. An FW 190 ripped off the top of the mainplane of Esmonde’s aircraft and he went straight down into the sea.
Rose was attacked both from ahead and astern, at a range of some 200 yards. He dodged as well as he could while his observer, Sub-Lieutenant (Air) E. Lee, RNVR, stood up in the after-cockpit and shouted ‘Port’ or ‘Starboard’ as the attacks came in. They could see the tracer bullets streaming past, and the Swordfish was being hit continually. Moreover, the constant evasive action slowed down its advance, while to make matters worse there was no-one to work the rear gun. Johnson had been either knocked unconscious or killed instantaneously, and Lee could not move his body.
In spite of Lee’s watchfulness, Rose was hit by splinters from a cannon shell that struck the bulkhead behind his seat. Now leading the formation, and with his engine faltering, he decided they must attack without delay. He selected the leading ship and, getting as good a position as he could, dropped his torpedo at a range of about 1,200 yards and saw it running well. It was difficult to observe results, but directly he had made his attack the fighters ceased to pay any further attention to him, concentrating instead on the others. One Swordfish had two Focke-Wulfs on its tail, their flaps and undercarriages down to retard their speed, attacking whichever way the pilot turned.
Sub Lt B W Rose RNVR
The third aircraft, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant (Air) C.M. Kingsmill, RNVR, had the two top cylinders of its engines shot away. The engine and the upper port wing caught fire, yet the air gunner, Leading Airman D.A. Bunce, continued to engage the enemy fighters and saw one crash into the sea. Although all the crew of this Swordfish were wounded, Kingsmill kept control long enough to aim his torpedo in the direction of the second enemy ship, then turned with difficulty and tried to land near some vessels – which turned out to be E-boats. They opened fire on him but he kept flying until his engine finally cut out. The Swordfish crashed on the water a few hundred yards from some British MTBs and eventual rescue; although the crew had first to take to the icy wintry water because their dinghy had been destroyed by fire.
The three Swordfish aircraft in the second sub-flight were piloted by Lieutenant (Air) J.C. Thompson, RN, Sub-Lieutenant (Air) C.R. Wood, RN, and Sub-Lieutenant (Air) P. Bligh, RNVR. They were seen crossing the destroyer screen to attack, taking violent evasive action, but proceeding steadily towards the enemy capital ships. Nothing further was seen of them after that.
As soon as Rose had dropped his torpedo, he tried to make as much height as possible and went out on the port wing of the destroyer screen. He had climbed to 1,200 feet when Lee told him that petrol was pouring out of their starboard side. It was obvious that he could not reach the English coast and he decided to make for some MTBs. He was within four miles of them when his engine cut out but, undeterred, he glided down towards the sea, pulled his stick well back and pancaked down. As he said later, ‘The Swordfish sat down very nicely’.
Rose climbed out of his cockpit into the sea, while Lee tried, unsuccessfully, to remove Johnson, the air gunner, from the after-cockpit. Rose could not help him because his left arm was useless. Despite this incapacity, when the dinghy was washed out into the sea Rose recovered it and got it upright. Lee held it while Rose climbed into it, then he went back to the aircraft to make another attempt to remove Johnson. He could not do so and had to leave him. There was no doubt that Johnson was already dead.
Lee then joined Rose in the dinghy, but the sea was choppy and the little craft soon filled with water. They tried baling it out with their flying helmets, though without much success. Then from their emergency gear they took out the marine distress signals and the aluminium dust-markers. The dust formed a silver pool around the dinghy and could be seen at a distance. But they flung the dust to windward and it blew back on them, so that they looked like a couple of shining tin soldiers. However, they could use the empty tins for baling out the dinghy, and when it was dry they fired the distress signals. Two MTBs then closed in on the dinghy. By that time they had been in the water for an hour and a half. Rose was suffering severely from his wounds, and both he and Lee were numb with the cold.
Only five aircrew survived from the Swordfish striking force, Lee being the only one unwounded. Having made his report to the naval authorities, he apologised for having to hurry away, but as he explained, he was now acting senior officer of the little squadron.
Another account of the battle was:
On 12 February 1942, 18 young men of the Fleet Air Arm flew 6 fabric-covered Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Bombers from RAF Manston in Kent, at little more than 100mph to attack in the Straits of Dover, the largest German Battle Fleet ever assembled. The fleet included the Battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the Cruiser Prinz Eugen, protected by 6 Destroyers, 40 Flak Ships and more than 200 fighter aircraft. All of the Fairey Swordfish were destroyed and only 5 of the aircrew were rescued alive from the cold, dark waters of the Straits.
The Daily Mail reported at the time;
“This is an episode of which Britons can be rightly proud. In planes which, against the German protecting aircraft, were as slow as a cart horse compared with a motorcar, 18 men of the Fleet Air Arm flew over the Channel. Crippled and ablaze before they got within range, they kept on, delivered their attacks – and died!”
The Admiralty predicted that the German Battleships would come through the Straits of Dover at night and a sophisticated plan of co-operation between 32 Motor Torpedo Boats and 6 Torpedo carrying Fairey Swordfish aircraft was devised to mount a converging attack on each side of the ships’ bows, lit by flares from the aircraft. The crews practiced this from the start of February but just 2 days before the attack, the Admiralty decided that the threat level had lowered. They removed most of the MTB’s, leaving only 6 boats in Dover at 4 hrs. readiness. 825 Squadron were reforming after having lost their aircraft when the Aircraft Carrier HMS Ark Royal was sunk. Three replacement aircraft were to be collected from storage at Campbeltown in Scotland and Petty Officer WJ Clinton was detailed to go there to check-out polar diagrams for the replacement aircraft. He had arranged a date with his fiance in London for that particular weekend, and as CPO Les Sayer’s wife was living in Scotland, he willingly agreed to swap duties. Les had previously flown with pilot “Percy Gick” in the attack led by Esmonde against the Bismarck but now as CPO, he would fly with the CO. In his place however, CPO Clinton became Senior TAG and so it was his lot to accompany the CO.
6 aircraft were sent to RAF Manston but 7 pilots were available. So, on the morning of 12th February, the 2 most junior pilots, Sub Lt Peter Bligh, and Sub Lt Bennet tossed a coin to decide who should fly. Peter Bligh called tails and flew whilst Bennet stayed on the ground.
Since they arrived at RAF Manston, on the morning of 4th February 1942, 825 Naval Air squadron consisting of Fairey Swordfish had been on 5-minute standby but on 11th February as there appeared no real threat they were stood down. Their CO, Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, had a very important appointment in London on that day to receive the award of Distinguished Service Order from HM King George VI at Buckingham Palace, for his part in the attack on the Bismarck 7 months earlier.
Squadron Senior Observer Lt Williams, took the opportunity to visit his mother and family who had been evacuated from their Leigh-on-Sea home to Ruskin Manor, Denmark Hill in London. He received a telegram recalling him to RAF Manston but with an air raid in progress no public transport was running. Jack Hulbert, a well-known variety artist who was a war reserve policeman and as such had a petrol ration, was visiting a friend who had also been evacuated to Ruskin Manor. When he understood just how important it was for Lt Williams to return to RAF Manston, he readily agreed to drive him there.
That evening some RAF Officers together with the Fleet Air Arm flying crews arranged a small party to celebrate with Esmonde the award he had received that afternoon. The party ended reasonably early and soberly, for the Fleet Air Arm aircrews had to be standing by their aircraft at 0400 hrs. ready for take-off. This was a routine alert for the pre-dawn critical danger period, which the Admiralty believed the Germans might use to attempt to slip through the Straits. By dawn they were stood down again on a cold crisp morning with freezing snow swirling over the runways at Manston. In the corner of the dispersal area of the aerodrome 6 obsolete biplanes stood alone, fully exposed to the elements.
When the presence of the German ships in the Channel was established beyond doubt, Admiral Ramsey realised that these 6 old planes which had been standing by, on the assumption that a night attack would be ordered, were in fact the only aircraft immediately available to attack the German ships. But how could he send these slow planes out in daylight against the ferocious firepower of the German Battleships and accompanying heavy fighter escort? It would be certain death. Admiral Ramsey telephoned the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, in Whitehall and pleaded with him not to be asked to send these 18 men on such a suicidal mission. Sir Dudley replied: “The navy will attack the enemy whenever and wherever he is to be found”. Putting the phone down, Admiral Ramsey nodded to his Air Liaison Officer, Wing Cdr Constable-Roberts.
At Manston Lt Cdr Esmonde addressed his crews in a clipped voice. “The balloon’s gone up. Get ready”. It was of course essential that the vulnerable torpedo carrying biplanes should be given fighter cover for their run in. When Lt Cdr Esmonde’s phone rang again, it was 11 Fighter Group, saying; “We intend putting in the Biggin Hill Wing of 3 squadrons as top cover with the Hornchurch Wing of 2 squadrons as close escort to beat up the ‘flak’ ships for you”. The voice continued: “Both Wings have been told to rendezvous over Manston. What time should they be there?” Lt Cdr Esmonde glanced at his watch and said: “Tell them to be here by 12.25 hrs. Get the fighters to us on time – for the love of God”.
At Dover Castle, despite Sir Dudley-Pound’s ruling, there was evidently some misgivings, for Wing Cdr Constable-Roberts telephoned Esmonde again to stress that the Swordfish must go only if he was satisfied that the fighter cover was adequate. Both the RAF and RN officers on the spot felt that even with a heavy fighter escort, few Swordfish crews would return from this mission.
At 12.25hrs Eugene Esmonde waved his arm to signal the take off. As the 6 biplanes climbed into the air, the Commanding Officer of RAF Manston’ Wing Commander Tom Gleave, stood alone in the middle of the snow-covered airfield and gave a farewell salute. The Swordfish circled at 1,500 feet over the East Kent coast waiting for their fighter escort. At 12.29hrs – 4 minutes after the arranged rendezvous time – the Swordfish were still circling over the coast off Ramsgate. The weather was thickening up but there was not a fighter to be seen in the sky let alone the promised 5 Spitfire squadrons. Only 10 Spitfires of No. 72 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Brian Kingscombe, found the Swordfish and that was at 12.32hrs. The Swordfish and Spitfires circled for another 2 minutes but no more fighters arrived. Esmonde knew that it was case of ‘now or never’. He waved his hand and dived down to 50 feet above sea level and led his squadron out to sea.
Squadron Leader Kingscombe at this stage had little knowledge of what was really happening. The security screen at this stage was still functioning. The orders which had been given to him were: “Get to Manston to escort 6 Swordfish and intervene between German E-Boats and British MTB’s”. He had thought it odd to be asked to intervene in a small naval scuffle, but just then it became obvious to him that there was a big flap on. He said later that as he made for the first of the Messerschmitt, “I saw a beautiful ship. I did not know that the Royal Navy had such a lovely ship”.
The British aircraft were approaching the main Luftwaffe fighter screen flying through layers of cloud and meeting the enemy at all levels. As they broke up one wave of attacking aircraft another flight dived to attack the Swordfish. There were 20 or more Me109s circling to make a mass dive on the old biplanes when 3 of Kingcombes Spitfires attacked and scattered them. Suddenly all 10 Spitfires were lost in a whirling air battle with the Luftwaffe. As the Squadron Leader’s courageous and experienced Spitfire pilots began fighting furiously, the Swordfish pilots sighted the German battle fleet. From just about sea level up to about 2,000 feet the whole sky swarmed with Luftwaffe fighters, the largest number ever to have covered any Naval Fleet of any nation up to that time. Onboard the Battle Cruiser Prinz Eugen the anti-aircraft gunnery officer, Cdr Schmalenbach, suddenly heard one of his look-outs shout, “Enemy planes at sea level” The Germans realised with a cold chill that here was their greatest danger of all – a suicide attack! When they were 2,000 yards away every flak gun in the German fleet from the 4-inch guns to the multi-barrelled guns manned by the German Marines, burst with flickering flame. With gold tracer shells and white stars of bursting flak around them, the Swordfish continued on unswervingly.
Esmonde led his squadron over the destroyers while his TAG, PO Clinton, continually fired his machine gun at the diving Luftwaffe planes. Tracers from the destroyers and E-boats smacked into the cockpit as some FW190s now joined the attack. They dived onto the Swordfish and their cannon shells tore big holes in the fuselage and wing fabric. It was a miracle that they kept flying. Tracers set fire to Lt Cdr Esmonde’s tailplane. Spitfire pilot Flt Lt Michael Crombie reported with the raging all around he was aghast to see a crew member (PO Clinton) climb out of his cockpit and crawl along the back of the fuselage to the tail where he beat out the flames with his hands! By the time that ‘Clints’ Clinton had eased himself back to his cockpit they were over the outer screen of the flak ships and the German Battleships’ main 11-inch guns came into action. Belching smoke and flame they laid down a barrage that sent spray splashing into the low flying and now limping aircraft. One shell burst right in front of the CO and it shot away his lower port wing. His Swordfish shuddered and dipped but Esmonde kept it flying. With blood pouring from wounds in his head and back Lt Cdr Esmonde hung onto the controls, holding his course steady for the Prinz Eugen. In the rear cockpit lay PO Clinton and the Observer Lt Williams, both killed in the last attack by a Focke-Wolf Fw 190.
In a last desperate effort he pulled the Swordfish’s nose up and released his torpedo just before a direct hit blew the Swordfish to pieces in a red flash. As pieces crashed into the sea lookouts on the Prinz Eugen reported the torpedo track, Captain Brinkmann ordered “Port 15”, and the ship turned easily to avoid the torpedo. Aboard the German Battleships all this heroism by the Swordfish crews produced no sense of danger whatever, but certainly a feeling of compassion for the fliers sacrificing themselves against impossible odds. Admiral Ciliax, watching from the Scharnhorst Bridge, the Swordfish lumbering towards her, remarked to Captain Hoffmann: “The British are now throwing their mothball Navy at us. Those Swordfish are doing well to get their torpedoes away”. While all 3 ships steamed full speed ahead, firing everything they had, the torpedo planes continued flying straight towards them, just skimming the waves.
The Swordfish immediately behind the leader followed in to attack and the Observer, 20-year-old Sub Lt Edgar Lee, saw the CO crash into the sea. The Pilot, Sub Lt Brian Rose, tried to keep a steady course and when Edgar Lee had a clear sighting seeing the ships stand out under the clouds, he tried to give instructions through the Gosport Speaking Tube, shouting: “Now, Brian, now!” Unaware that the speaking tube had been severed by gunfire and that his instructions were not being heard. Brian Rose, wounded in the back by cannon shell splinters, held onto the controls, whilst Edgar Lee was too busy shouting directions to notice that the torpedo had been released. At the same time Brian was wounded the main petrol tank was hit. Fortunately, it did not catch fire but fuel starvation made the engine splutter. Brian switched over to the 12-gallon emergency gravity tank which would allow them another 10 to 12 minutes flying time.
As they were losing height, Brian tried to pass round the stern of the Gneisenau but flew right as they swerved away from the barrage of anti-aircraft fire, Edgar Lee turned and saw TAG ‘Ginger’ Johnson slumped over his gun. He had been mortally wounded when that cannon shell had hit them.
Brian kept control of the plane and managed to bring it down on the ice-cold sea about half a mile from the Prinz Eugen. Edgar managed to get Brian out of the aircraft and into the yellow dinghy he had released just as the battered Swordfish sank taking the body of Leading Airman Johnson with it as he was still attached by his G-Strap. The third Swordfish, flown by sub Lt Kingsmill, can claim to have had the most success, insofar as the TAG, Leading Airman ‘Don’ Bunce is credited with shooting down a German Fighter. Don was standing up firing his Vickers gun and after several bursts he looked down to where his seat should have been, only to see a gaping hole. In fact, most of the fuselage was full of holes and tears. Suddenly through the mist Observer ‘Mac’ Samples caught a glimpse of a big ship which he identified as the Prinz Eugen. They continued over the battle fleet screen with a tremendous amount of flak coming up at them. It all seemed so unreal. The three aircrew watched the shells and bullets ripping through wings and amazingly the Swordfish kept flying. Suddenly a cannon shell hit the fuselage immediately behind the Pilot and exploded, wounding both Pat Kingsmill and Mac Samples. Don Bunce saw that the Observer was covered in blood but as he was continuing to shout orders to the pilot to try to dodge the attacking aircraft, Don continued to fire his Vickers gun. Pat Kingsmill recalls: “The tracers came floating gently towards us and then whizzed past. There were more and more large splotches in the sea as aircraft and ships fired at us and their shells burst into the waves. We were really in it, when suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder and my foot went squelchy. Oddly enough I didn’t feel any more pain and I managed to keep control of the plane. Mac had been hit in the legs at this point but luckily Don Bunce was unhurt”. Whilst still concentrating on the Prinz Eugen, as the sea was rough Pat wondered whether the torpedo would run true. He chugged along at 50 feet but could not at first get lined up properly. He then turned back to make another run in against the intense flak sent up from the Destroyer screen. As he once again flew towards the Prinz Eugen, the German gun crews could be seen in their sleek black anti-flash overalls as they continued to fire everything they had at them. Mac felt a sudden burning sensation in his leg and when he looked down at his black flying boots he was astonished to see that in one there was a neat pattern which looked like button holes. He felt no pain but whilst gazing at his leg that had been drilled with holes, he did not notice that Pat had dropped his torpedo, aimed at the Prinz Eugen, from about 2,000 yards. As Pat’s Swordfish, ripped and shaken by the flak, veered back once more over the destroyer screen a shell sliced off the tops of two or three cylinders which greatly reduced the engine power.
Losing height rapidly he pulled the stick back to bring the nose up to keep flying. With the fabric of the wings tattered with holes the plane could not maintain height and was gradually sinking towards the water when the engine burst into flames and the port wing caught fire. Don continued firing at the same time as screaming insults at the Germans. Pat tried to shout to Mac through the Gosport Tube, not realising that it had been shattered, to say that he was going to attempt to get back to base. Covered in blood Mac managed to climb up towards the pilot and shouted into his ear; “We’ll never make it, ditch near those MTB’s”, and pointed in the direction of Pumphrey’s boats, which were still in the area. Kingsmill’s burning plane, with the engine shot to pieces, glided silently towards the sea. The crew saw the 2nd Vic of three Swordfish, led by Lt J C Thompson, approach the Prinz Eugen at about 100 feet. Pat Kingsmill, being unable to gain height, passed underneath them.
Thompson’s Swordfish limped on, the fabric of the wings and fuselage now tattered and in ribbons and their crews wounded or dying. They still maintained a steady course and flew into the red and orange wall of exploding shells. One after another the Swordfish with their young aircrews were blown to pieces. Of these 9, only the body of Leading Airman William Granville-Smith was recovered. That was the last that anyone saw of those three planes.
As he watched the smoking wrecks 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”. Everyone on the bridges of the Battleships felt the same. Willhelm Wolf, on the Scharnhorst, said; “What a heroic stage for them to meet their end on. Behind them their homeland which they had just left with their hearts steeled to their purpose still in view”.
The heroic attack was over. As the last of the Fairey Swordfish Torpedo planes blew up and splashed into the sea and the German fighters resumed their patrol, it was 12.45hrs. 825 Naval Air Squadron had only taken off from RAF Manston 20 minutes earlier.
Of the 5 survivors, only Observer Edgar Lee was not wounded although the wound of Donald Bunce was slight. Pat Kingsmill and Mac Samples had serious leg injuries. Brian Rose had back injuries but after some months was fit for duty. He died in his aircraft 2 years later in an accident when the wing of his Barracuda aircraft folded up shortly after take-off. He was aged just 23 and is in Paisley Cemetery in Scotland.
The surviving Officers were each made a Companion of the DSO and Don Bunce received a CGM. The others who lost their lives were awarded a posthumous Mention in Dispatches. And, for their exceptionally brave, Commanding Officer, Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde DSO, a posthumous Victoria Cross – incredibly, the second Victoria Cross to be won by his immediate family.
The Bodies of Lt Williams and PO Clinton were recovered from the sea, taken to RAF Manston and buried in Aylesham Cemetery, near Dover, Kent. The body of PO Clinton was returned to his home in Ruislip, Middlesex, where he was buried with full military honours in St Martin’s Church Cemetery. Lt Cdr Esmonde’s body was recovered from the River Medway at Gillingham, Kent, having drifted from near Calais. He was buried on 30 April 1942 in grave number 187 of the RC Section, Naval Reservation, Woodland Cemetery, Gillingham, Kent, with full military honours. Nearly two weeks later, the body of Leading Airman W G Smith was found on Upchurch Marshes, close to Gillingham, Kent. Naval authorities would not allow his widow to have his body for burial at his home town of Poplar, East London, and he was buried at a private ceremony in grave number 1393 in the same Woodlands Cemetery Naval Reservation, 40 yards away from his Commanding Officer.