FEW people beyond military historians would have reason to know the details of the Second World War’s Operation Fuller.
In hindsight, the attempt to sink two of Germany’s most feared battleships using only a handful of outdated “stringbag” biplanes appeared doomed from the start.
But despite the lack of equipment the Fleet Air Arm pilots and crew involved possessed more than their share of raw courage and although the engagement resulted in terrible losses, it was enough to win a posthumous Victoria Cross for the Yorkshire officer who commanded the attack force.
Sunday marks the 70th anniversary of the events which cost the life of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde and the anniversary is to be marked in the South Yorkshire village of Thurgoland, where he was born and where his name appears on the war memorial.
Operation Fuller was the British response to the so-called “Channel Dash”’ where the German high command instructed their navy to get the battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisanau and Prinz Eugen out of the French port of Brest, where they were the target of allied attacks, and back to the safety of a German base.
That left the ships relatively exposed as they sailed through the English Channel, but the aircraft available were old Fairey Swordfish biplanes, outdated but able to launch torpedoes.
By 1942, Lt Cdr Esmonde had a vast military experience. He was born at Huthwaite House in Thurgoland in 1909 when his father was a family doctor in the area, though by 1928 a thirst for adventure had seen him join the RAF where he trained as a pilot. Following a spell of civil aviation work, he was drafted back into the RAF in 1939 but ended up in the Fleet Air Arm, based at Manston airfield in Kent.
It was vital to seize an opportunity to attack the German ships when they left Brest – though an escort of just 10 Spitfires, far fewer than the number desired– was available to help protect them.
With his experience, it must have been clear to Lt Cdr Esmonde that the odds were massively stacked against him, but the attack went ahead nonetheless. German fighters distracted the Spitfires and left the slow and lumbering Swordfish, which had to fly in at 50 feet to launch their torpedoes, to the mercy of the ships’ gunners. Lt Cdr Esmonde’s plane was hit, but he continued towards his target until the aircraft went down. All six Swordfish were lost and although the German craft successfully completed their journey, the potential threat they offered to allied shipping was never fully realised.
Of the crew of 18, 13 were killed, with four of the survivors also injured. Lt Cdr Esmonde’s body was recovered several weeks later, when it was washed up still wearing a life jacket. He was buried in Kent.
His exploits had been largely forgotten in Thurgoland although his name was apparently added to the village memorial some time after the war, suggesting he was “someone special”.
Thurgoland Parish Council was contacted by the Yorkshire Fleet Air Arm Association, which arranged the service and wreath laying, and invited to take part in Sunday’s ceremony. Chairman Bob Blythe said: “The more we learned about it, the more keen we were to be involved.”
Mick Grubb, chairman of the Yorkshire Fleet Air Arm Association, said he had researched the Esmonde family and found Eugene’s great uncle had won the same award during the Crimean War. Few knew of the Yorkshire connection, however, and mystery remains about who organised adding the Esmonde name to the Thurgoland memorial.
South Yorkshire Police are expected to close the main road through the village road so a crowd can gather at the war memorial.