On 12 February 1942 six obsolete Swordfish biplanes flew against the strongest force Hitler ever put to sea – two battleships, a heavy cruiser and powerful escorts afloat and in the air. All six Swordfish were shot down. Edgar Lee was a 19-year-old observer/navigator in one of the Swordfish and was one of only five men rescued from 18. He was the last survivor of the action, and the only man to escape unhurt.
Lee had sighted the enemy fleet breaking out of the Dover Strait into the southern North Sea, what became known as the "Channel Dash". The Swordfish took on the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which were escorted by destroyers and motor torpedo boats – 35 vessels in all – and 50 modern fighter aircraft.
German naval chiefs wanted to take the capital ships home from the French port of Brest, where they risked being bottled up by growing allied strength. They departed under cover of night and, helped by luck, sailed unchallenged through the English Channel. Did Lee know fear when he saw the daunting odds? "I was a little scared when setting out over the sea, because we expected more than one Spitfire squadron to escort us," he told me ."But once in action we were too busy to be frightened."
Their own squadron had been reduced from nine to six aircraft by the time they found themselves at RAF Manston in Kent. Lee was sitting behind the pilot, Sub-Lieut. Brian Rose, and in front of the gunner, Leading Airman "Ginger" Johnson, all in an open cockpit. Lee himself recalled that they had been sent to do a dummy run in Deal Bay, armed with a live torpedo, when they were recalled urgently to Manston. "On landing we saw the crews of the other Swordfish hurrying out to their aircraft," he said."Someone shouted 'the balloon's gone up'. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmond ordered us to fly at a height of 50ft, attack individually and make our own way home."
They circled over Dover awaiting Spitfire escort and set off under a low cloud base with just one squadron of RAF fighters Ten minutes after leaving Manston they entered a fearsome battle zone.
"The air was crowded with enemy aircraft, – not just Me109s but new Fw190s," Lee said. "They had 200 fighters available for the operation, 50 at any one time, backed by anti-aircraft fire from the warships. In the first attack our Spitfires managed to put off the Germans. The Swordfish was obsolete before the War started, but its slow speed gave us one advantage. They had difficulty slowing to our speed – 90 knots (103mph) with our torpedo underneath – and had their flaps down as they came at us.
"Early in the second attack our air gunner, Ginger Johnson, was killed. Our aircraft was badly damaged, but at least its mainly canvas construction allowed shells to pass right through. We were hit again, this time by a shell whose explosion badly injured our pilot, Brian Rose, and holed our petrol tanks. We were sprayed with fuel, which fortunately did not ignite. Brian was still able to attack the Prinz Eugen and got within 1,000 or 1,500 yards of her before dropping our torpedo.
"The heavy cruiser turned hard to port and the torpedo narrowly missed her stern. We dived into the sea a mile beyond the destroyer screen. When we hit the water, Brian could not get out. I hauled him from the cockpit and helped him into our self-inflating dinghy. Our gunner was dead and we and we watched the aircraft sink. A British motor torpedo boat picked us up an hour later."
Lee was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for bravery; his citation reads: "Before the Swordfish had reached the enemy escort vessels the air gunner was killed. Sub-Lieut. Lee stood up in the cockpit and directed the pilot so that he could evade the attacking enemy fighters. He went on doing this until his aircraft came down. Although under fierce fire from the enemy, he got his wounded pilot, who was very much heavier than he, into his dinghy. For an hour an a half he stayed in the flooded dingy, tending and encouraging his pilot."
Squadron commander Esmond was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Brian Rose recovered and was back on duty in a year, but killed in a flying accident in 1944.
It was the second time that Lee, had escaped from a sinking craft. Born in Gosport in 1921, he studied at the then Northgate Grammar School, Ipswich, becoming school captain, head boy and cross-country champion. His hobbies were naval history, gardening and DIY. He joined the Royal Navy in May 1940, shortly after his 18th birthday, and was posted to an observer/navigator course. After flying training in Trinidad he was commissioned in May 1941.
He joined the aircraft carrier Ark Royal in July 1941 as she escorted Malta convoys. Submarine U-81 torpedoed the vessel 50 miles east of Gibraltar in November shortly after Lee's Swordfish had landed and been taken by lift down to the hanger. There was a big bang and all the hangar lights went out. "It was pitch black," Lee said. "The ship's pumps couldn't keep pace with the flooding and she eventually sank."
Lee was picked up by a destroyer that came alongside and returned to Britain in the battleship Nelson. He went to Lee-on-Solent to a reforming 825 Squadron in January 1942 with new crews straight from training, working up among the Scottish islands. He spent most of 1943 seconded to 106 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command, flying Lancasters. His first commanding officer was Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who left to form the renowned Dambusters.
Lee was sent as an instructor to Canada, returning to England at the end of 1944 to qualify as a signals officer. He was demobilised in 1947, but rejoined the naval reserve in 1956 and served in national and Nato exercises until retirement as a lieutenant commander in May 1981.
The Royal Navy's Chief of Staff (Aviation), Rear Admiral Simon Charlier, gave this tribute at Lee's funeral service in Waldringfield, Suffolk: "Edgar's passing ends the direct link to the historic event of the Channel Dash, but it will remain in the history of the Fleet Air Arm. His character and attitude are exactly what we want in our naval aviators today."
Lee started a second career as a schoolmaster in the 1960s, first at Mildenhall, Suffolk, teaching mathematics, history, geography and physical education at a secondary modern school. He was later appointed deputy head of nearby Brandon Primary School and then of Breckland Secondary School, also in Brandon.
Edgar Frederick Lee, aviator and teacher: born Gosport 28 May 1921; DSO 1942; president, Channel Dash Association; married 1942 Isobel Lee-Robinson (marriage dissolved, two daughters), 1974 Carol Aldham; died Woodbridge, Suffolk 29 October 2009.