The utter futility of senior RAF and Naval folly and command failures to co-ordinate the resources of the RAF and the FAA is laid bare here in John Kilbracken's
... Eugene Esmonde et al, didn't stand a chance.
On 11–12 February 1942, however, they gave their dramatic answer in one of the epic operations of the war. Lord Kilbracken, who, as Lieutenant-Commander John Godley, RNVR, had a distinguished wartime record both as a Swordfish pilot and as a squadron commander in the Fleet Air Arm, has written, from the air standpoint, probably the most objective and authoritative summary of the affair. After explaining that 825 Squadron, led by Eugene Esmonde, an officer of immense courage and dash, who had already won glory in the attack on Bismarck, was relatively inexperienced operationally, he points to the question marks. Lord Kilbracken, Bring Back My Stringbag (Peter Davies, 1979; Pan Books, 1980) Why they sent 825 is a question that has never been explained – and it would take some explanation. There is no attempt to do so in the report of the Board of Inquiry. Shore-based operations against enemy shipping in the Channel were not a normal function of naval aircraft. The RAF had many squadrons of fast modern bombers standing by for the operation to which Esmonde’s little striking force would make an insignificant addition. Bomber Command had 242 aircraft ready to take part; there were also fifty Whitleys of which it would be reported, though they were far faster and less vulnerable than the Swordfish, that they were ‘a type unsuitable for a day bombing’. Coastal Command had three dozen torpedo-dropping Beaufighters briefed and ready. To support these, thirty-four squadrons of fighters were standing by, comprising over 500 Spitfires and Hurricanes. The entire debacle, perhaps the sorriest of the war, went wrong from the beginning. For reasons hard to understand, it had been thought more likely that the battle cruisers would sail from Brest in daylight and one solitary aircraft – a Hudson of Coastal Command – had the job of watching the harbour from dusk till 2300 when another would replace him. It was a pitch dark night and the Hudson’s ASV just happened to pack up at 1920. It was 2238 before the next took over. A careful watch was then kept up till morning and nobody realized that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and a powerful escort of destroyers and E-boats, had slipped out at 2120 during those 198 minutes when Brest wasn’t covered at all. The RAF flew two other single-aircraft patrols during the night, and a dawn sweep by two Spitfires, but the enemy armada was not sighted until 1042, when two Spits who weren’t even looking for it but chasing a couple of Messerschmitts just happened to fly over it by mistake. The fleet was then approaching the Straits of Dover, having covered 300 miles undetected. For unexplained reasons the pilots were in no circumstances permitted to use their wireless and had to return to base, where they landed at 1109, to report the sighting for which half the RAF was waiting. The events which followed pass all comprehension. Alone of all the aircraft, Esmonde’s squadron, as a naval unit, came under the command of Vice-Admiral (Dover), who received the news at 1130 and ordered the six Stringbags to take off for their attack one hour later. This was supposed to be coordinated with an attack by four Beaufighters, the first little wave of all the air force aircraft that were waiting in their hundreds. But the Beaufighters couldn’t get airborne till 1340, seventy minutes after Esmonde’s though they had been standing by for a week. It was known that extremely heavy air opposition would be encountered and it was therefore arranged on the telephone between VA (Dover) and Fighter Command that five squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes would accompany 825. However, only one of these reached Manston by 1230 and its ten Spitfires soon lost contact with the much slower Stringbags. So Esmonde’s Swordfish, which took off precisely on time in very bad visibility, flew alone and virtually unprotected towards their immensely powerful enemy, now 10 miles north of Calais … … They approached in two flights of three. Before reaching the powerful destroyer screen they were engaged by the enemy’s most modern fighters in strength. Esmonde’s own aircraft was the first to be badly damaged. His port mainplanes were ‘shot to shreds’ (according to a survivor) but the Stringbag kept flying as Esmonde headed at low level over the destroyers towards the capital ships they encircled. Both the pilots with him, Kingsmill and Rose, were also hit but flew on, though Rose was badly wounded, his air gunner killed, his petrol tank shattered by cannon fire. Esmonde’s aircraft crashed into the sea when hit again some 3000 yards from the battle cruisers. Kingsmill and his observer, Samples, were wounded, the aircraft further damaged. But they closed within range of their target, Scharnhorst, and Kingsmill could aim and drop his torpedo before being forced to ditch. Rose did much the same: he pressed home his torpedo attack, also on Scharnhorst, and was able to turn back over the destroyers before his engine succumbed. Of the second flight, led by Lieutenant Thompson, nothing can be reported. Flying astern of Esmonde’s, they were never seen again by any of those who survived. So ended the most incomprehensible, most badly planned, most gallantly led operation in the history of naval aviation. No hits were scored on the enemy fleet. Of the eighteen officers and men taking part, thirteen were killed and four seriously wounded. Lee, who was Rose’s observer, alone emerged unscathed. Esmonde was awarded a posthumous VC. The four surviving officers, all RNVR sub-lieutenants, received DSOs, the surviving gunner a CGM, the next highest decorations for gallantry. They had been picked up by allied torpedo boats after over an hour in their dinghies. During the rest of the day, the enemy flotilla was attacked by the RAF as well as by torpedo-boats and a handful of ancient destroyers, but to no avail whatever. Of the 242 modern bombers sent out with full fighter escort, 188 ‘failed to locate the ships or were unable to attack them owing to low cloud’. So states the Board of Inquiry’s report. No hits were scored by the twenty-eight fast torpedo-bombers (Beaufighters) sent out additionally, three of which were lost. The only redeeming feature was that both battle cruisers were quite badly damaged by mines laid ahead of them by aircraft of Bomber Command. The Board found that no blame could be attached to anyone for the whole shameful disaster.
Lucas, Laddie. Voices In The Air 1939-1945 (p. 254). Random House. Kindle Edition.