Flat White

To our glorious dead, but don’t forget the living

25 April 2019

2:46 PM

25 April 2019

2:46 PM

In a different age when navy Fleet Air Arm pilots flew flimsy wood and canvas biplanes, workplace health and safety played no place.

On the night of May 24, 1941, Irish-born Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Eugene Kingsmill Esmonde flying from the carrier HMS Victorious led his squadron flight of nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber in a 120 mile, night flight in foul, North Atlantic weather against the German battleship Bismark.

The former RAF, Fleet Air Arm and later Imperial Airways pilot reenlisted in the RN at war’s outbreak in 1939.

His first carrier HMS Courageous was sunk in September 1939.

Christened ‘Stringbags’, the Swordfish were well and truly obsolete.

The attack failed to sink Bismark, but Esmonde’s leadership in the attack earned him a well-deserved Distinguished Service Order.

No doubt after their return, braced with a rum toddy and perhaps a few ales, Esmonde and his pilots gathered around the wardroom piano, robustly singing the unofficial Fleet Air Arm anthem:

They say in the air force a landing’s OK,

If the pilot gets out and can still walk away

But in the Fleet Air Arm the prospects are grim,

The landing’s piss poor and the pilot can’t swim!

Esmonde’s squadron was then transferred to HMS Ark Royal, which was sunk in November 1941.

On the morning of February 12, 1942 Esmonde, now based on shore in England, led six Stringbags against the German battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisnau and Prinz Eugen which were attempting a dash from Brest in France to their German homeports.

The ships were heavily defended, though when a promised RAF fighter escort did not materialise, Esmonde decided to press his attack.

All six RN aircraft were shot down by German fighters. Only five of their 18 crew survived.


Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Fast forward eight decades when personnel at the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Albatross at Nowra, NSW were banned from marching in an ANZAC Day dawn service lest someone fall and be injured in the dark.

Albatross is home to Australia’s fleet air arm and its commander, a senior navy legal officer who is not aircrew, erred on the side of OH&S caution.

The dysfunctional Canberra ADF public relations organisation initially defended this ridiculous decision, though it has since been reversed.

As it is ANZAC Day, and there is an election campaign underway, serving and former ADF personnel are closely scrutinising all political manifestations’ promises.

Bill Shorten has promised increased funeral benefits for “eligible” veterans, whoever they may be.

Most prefer a simple, inexpensive disposal, what they call H2O – ‘hospital to oven’ – rather than elaborate funeral rights.

It’s the contemporary equivalent of a battlefield burial, being wrapped up in your groundsheet and blanket, and simply buried deep down below.

Or in sailors’ experience, being similarly prepared, though weighted with a few chains and slipped from a plank into the deep.

Or for too many airmen, a grisly death and cremation rolled into one.

They would rather have more generous health and other benefits while still alive.

The Morrison government has offered a veterans’ covenant, with a multicoloured lapel badge and a nice, pastel card.

Veterans have more immediate issues they want addressed, appropriate recognition for hazardous or war-like service currently hidden in the too hard drawer under a veil of obfuscation, better support services for those struggling with psychological or physical issues.

Many struggle to define which of those is worse.

They don’t want token “wellness centres”, whatever they might be.

Still, it is ANZAC Day, when Australians pause to remember the service and sacrifice of those who served, many who continue to do so long after their separation from military service.

I’ll be spending today at my local RSL, where it will be beers, lies and medals for tea.

Even more importantly it will be with mates, who understand and don’t require an explanation about what we did, and why.

Or how it has affected us.

Ross Eastgate OAM blogs at Targets Down. He is also President at Surfers Paradise RSL where the beer is well priced, cold, and they run Australia’s best ANZAC Day two-up game.

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