Operation Fuller - 12th February 1942
During 1941, the Admiralty suspected that the German battleships the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, supported by the cruiser Prinz Eugen, might break out of Brest harbour and attempt to force a passage through the Channel Straits.
On 4th February 1942, in preparation for 'Operation Fuller', six Fairey Swordfish biplanes from 825 Naval Air Squadron, under the command of Lt Cdr. Eugene Esmonde DSO. were dispatched from Lee-on-Solent to RAF Manston.
Over the next few days the aircraft were maintained in a state of readiness with their ground crews working tirelessly in the snow to ensure that the engines remained warm and torpedoes serviced.
On the morning of 12th February, the German flotilla having left Brest harbour was sighted close to the French coast and had almost passed through the Channel Straits.
Protected by destroyers, E-Boats, minesweepers and extensive air cover of over 250 Luftwaffe aircraft, the battleships provided formidable targets.
At 12:25pm, the six Fairey Swordfish took off from RAF Manston and circled Ramsgate awaiting the five Spitfire squadrons promised as escorts.
In the event only ten Spitfires from 72 squadrons arrived as support, and as time was running short Lt Cdr. Esmonde dived his aircraft to 50 feet above sea and led his squadron out across the Channel to attack the German battleships.
Crippled and ablaze before they got within range, they pressed home their gallant and heroic attack against the heavily defended German convoy.
All six Fairey Swordfish aircraft were destroyed by 12:45pm with only five out of the eighteen aircrew surviving.
For his part in leading the attack Lt Cdr. Eugene Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Collectively the crews were recognised with four Distinguished Service Orders, one Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and twelve were Mentioned in Dispatches.
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Source: The Channel Dash Memorial