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-Wulf 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.
Lt Cdr Eugene Kingsmill Esmonde VC, DSO, the commanding officer of 825 Squadron from May 13, 1940 to November 13, 1941 and again from January 1, 1942 to his demise on February 12, 1942.
Glad to be alive, Don Bunce’s pilot (left), Sub Lt Charles Major ‘Pat’ Kingsmill and his observer, Sub Lt Reginald McCartney Samples recovering from their injuries in March 1942.
An account by TAG Don Bunce, one of the five survivors of the ill-fated attack.
Taking part in a `fiasco’
Making our way to the dispersal, on that February day, the weather was no different to the previous days, bitterly cold, with snow covering the grass airfield. Blissfully unaware that we were taking part in a `fiasco’, what dominated our minds was that a planned night attack was now to take place at midday. As usual, TAGs were excluded from the briefing sessions and had to rely on the Observer for any `Gen’. Four TAGs (including myself), one former pilot of mine, one Observer, and, of course, Esmonde himself, had taken part in the torpedo attack on the Bismarck, from HMS Victorious, and we were only too aware of the implications of a daylight action. This time it was not the middle of the North Atlantic, but the Straits of Dover, and a warning was ringing in our ears from the RAF types in the mess: a new German fighter, the Fw190, was now operational.
We took off and formed up over the coast, and I well remember exchanging a `thumbs up’ sign with fellow TAG `Ginger’ Johnson, just before seeing Spitfires overhead, and assumed all our escort had arrived; we were already at sea level. Soon after, we were headed out to sea, in line ahead formation. I was in the first flight of three, with Esmonde leading, our aircraft bringing up the rear. The second flight was some distance from us, still in `V’ formation, and I cannot recall seeing them again. I began to prepare the VGO machine gun, loading a magazine and then sitting down and waiting. The weather was overcast, with low cloud and poor visibility, and the Spitfires were just below the cloud base. Perhaps at this point, I should remind the reader, and indeed myself, just how short actions of this sort are; everything happens so quickly. Trying to recall it now gives a type of `time lapse’ element to the story.
Fw190 target practice
At this stage, with the Spitfires weaving overhead in an attempt to stay with us, I ventured a look forward and, through the mist, saw a destroyer. Then it all happened:
tracer from the destroyer `floated’ our way, that is, until it came close, when it took on the characteristics of an express train, and in came the Fw190s. I have no recollection of how many there were, but only concentrated on those that were on our tail. It seemed endless; as soon as one peeled off another was in its place, with tracer speeding toward us.
What was my reaction? Apart from using every Naval swear word I could muster, my instinct appeared to be to place as much of the feeble .303in tracer in front of the 190s as I could, stoppages permitting; all drill in this respect went overboard, as indeed went any malfunctioning magazine. There simply isn’t time to do other than that. The whole affair, from my backward viewpoint, was developing into a practice shoot for Fw190s, and we were the drogue target; they were coming so close. As they peeled off to the port I had a sideways clear view of the pilot. I had a quick visual image of the shells hitting the water, giving them perfect alignment to hit the old Swordfish.
Strange to say, throughout the entire action, I had no impending sense of danger or injury to myself, despite all the hardware being thrown at us. I just considered myself `fireproof’. Alas, my Pilot and Observer were less fortunate, both being hit.
Just as suddenly as it had started, the fighters left. Presumably our torpedo had been launched; one is usually aware of the drop, but not on this occasion. Now I could look around. I turned, to sit down, and found a gaping hole to the port side of the seat. Gingerly, I tried sitting, in order to send some kind of distress signal, but the wireless set was dead. However, the IFF worked, and I immediately switched to the distress position, but as this relied on radar contact, at sea level, this must have been a useless exercise.
At about this time, I turned to the Observer, `Mac’ Samples, (although I didn’t refer to him as `Mac’ in those days, but over the years we have become fi rm friends) to ask if he was ok. In reply, he reached down with one hand and brought it up covered in blood; his leg and foot were badly injured. It appeared the Pilot, Pat Kingsmill, was also hurt in the lower leg at the same time.
A glance to starboard showed a group of small boats – MTBs? And we appeared to be heading for them. As we closed, their true identity was revealed: they were E-Boats, and gunfire from them immediately began hitting us, and Pat, with great skill, began to crab away, and I, with further oaths, emptied my last magazine in their direction.
It was all the old Swordfish could do to crab, because the damage was considerable, and we began to assume a tail-down position. Then, suddenly, great flashes streaked down the port side; a large square hole in the upper main plane meant that the dinghy had been shot away; the marine distress flare was lodged in place, and our last encounter with the E-Boats must have ignited it; a few more flashes and it sputtered out. What of the rest of the damage? The Stringbag was beginning to live up to its nickname. Everywhere a shell had passed through the fabric, a three-cornered tear had appeared; there was no fabric at all on the port tail plane. Oil was dripping down the starboard fuselage, where the oil cooler had been punctured. Pat Kingsmill told me afterwards that it is quite normal to be able to see three cylinders of the Pegasus engine. Two were shot away, and we still managed to fly; not for long though: with the tail well down, we ditched perfectly.
Mac and I could see a single MTB type boat on the starboard and, as we appeared to be heading that way, I was convinced that Pat had seen it too, but, no, it was a pure coincidence, we dropped into the sea a few hundred yards short. It was a Motor Minelayer (ML), sent out for just this purpose. On impact, I hit my harness release button and threw it off, then, literally, stepped overboard into the Channel, to help Mac. A jerk on my head told me that I had forgotten to unplug the headphones and, quickly yanking off my helmet, I found that Mac had floated free. The ML was now alongside, and I hung back, thinking that I might be able to help the others, but was `politely’ informed that, if I was ok, to get out and leave it to the experts. I was grateful, for it was extremely cold!
Once aboard, I was bundled down below, to lie between the giant diesel engines, given dry clothes and a cup of `pussers’ rum. Pat Kingsmill was in the wheelhouse, and Mac Samples lay on the after deck, a big matelot attempting to keep him warm, for his injuries were quite severe. The passage to Ramsgate harbour, at full speed through a choppy sea, must have been a nightmare to the other two. The rum helped me, but the roar of the engines precluded any conversation, leaving me with my own thoughts.
An ambulance was waiting on the quayside and quickly whipped us off to hospital. The others received treatment immediately, and I was left to loaf about the corridor until transport picked me up that evening. I did manage a bedside visit before leaving, but it was to be many years before I was to see them again.
No news is not good news
I now began to look forward, with some trepidation, for news of my mates. Edgar Lee, (Observer in the second aircraft) who, too, was uninjured, must have arrived back at Manston at about the same time as I did, his pilot, Rose, told me. Rose had severe back injuries but, to my dismay, his TAG, `Ginger’ Johnson DSM, had been killed early in the action. There was no news of the rest, but there was still hope. Next morning, it became increasingly evident we who had made it back were to be the only ones!
The impact of this must have put me in a kind of daze, and it didn’t help when, along with the PO Fitter, we were ordered to assemble and pack the kit of the other five TAGs. Stowing photographs and other personal items was very traumatic, but it had to be done, and rather me than anyone else. Quite how I arrived back at Lee-on-Solent escapes me. I vaguely remember being hauled out in front of Sunday Divisions, with Edgar Lee, to be told that we were some kind of heroes. A week or so later, the Daily Mirror front page announced, along with the VC for Esmonde, DSOs for the officers; the CGM had come my way. What was the CGM? Nobody could tell me! The rest of the squadron were `Mentioned in Dispatches’.
`Buy’ your own ribbon
During this time, I saw no Medical Officer, nor indeed anyone else, except when passing `Jimmy the One’ (The First Lieutenant, also referred to as `Number One’; second in command on a ship). One morning, he stopped me and asked why I wasn’t wearing my medal ribbon. `No idea what it looks like, Sir,’ I replied.
With that, he hauled me off to examine the records, and eventually came up with the `gen’. It was some time before I could trace a source and `buy’ some.
Counselling, of course, wasn’t heard of in those days, so I was packed off on leave, with the idea, no doubt, that it was a cure for everything! It was, perhaps, the worst thing that could happen. All my mates from pre-service days were either in the Services themselves, or working all hours, so I became completely isolated. At one point, I became so disturbed that I was afraid to cross the road and, in those, days, even in the centre of Oxford, you couldn’t say there was a traffic problem. What of my fellow TAGs whose experiences that day easily overshadowed my own? Some of us had been together for almost twelve months; it seemed much longer.
Remembering the TAGs
Jack, or `Clints’, Clinton had been in the third sub-flight on the Bismarck attack, and on that day was TAG to Esmonde. At the height of the action, he was seen outside the cockpit, astride the fuselage, beating out a fire with his hands, witnessed by a Spitfire pilot. I’m sure that if this had been known at the time he would have collected a VC, like his pilot. His swap of duties with Les Sayer, our Squadron PO, is well known, and must give Les the miss of the century. `Clints’ is buried at St James Church, Ruislip. Laurence `Ginger’ Johnson and I were alongside each other in the first sub-flight on the Bismarck attack, and retained the same position that day. He was awarded the DSM, after the Bismarck action. My abiding memory of `Ginger’ is on the Ark Royal. Every time he was flying, you could always see his father, a member of the Ship’s Company, waiting anxiously for his return. I received a very sad letter, many years later, from `Pop’ Johnson. No doubt, by now, he has joined his son on that Final Draft.
Henry Wheeler had been in the second sub-flight against the Bismarck and is best known for the yarns he could spin on being a gasman in London.
Ernest `Horse’ Tapping joined us, I think, on the Ark Royal, and was famed for his consumption of beer. The rest of us tried to keep in step at those very enjoyable lunchtime sessions in the NAAFI at Lee, prior to moving down to Manston.
William `Bill’ Smith had joined us, again, on the `Ark’. His family were Thames watermen, a career he intended to follow. Smithy is at rest a few yards from Lt Cdr Esmonde, in Gillingham cemetery. Nothing is known of the fate of the second sub-flight that day. They were led by my pilot on the Bismarck action, Lt Thompson, and also included my pilot from the Ark Royal, Sub Lt Wood, an ex-Rating Pilot.