Esmonde was a naval airman who joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 and served on the HMS Courageous and then the Victorious. While serving on the Victorious he was involved in chasing the Bismarck in May 1941. He led nine Swordfish torpedo- bombers and managed to hit the Bismarck with a torpedo but the German ship did not sink.
Esmonde was in command of 825 Squadron of torpedo-bombers in January 1942 and volunteered to attack the three battle-cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen if they attempted to break out from Brest and return to Germany. At 1050 on 12 February word came that the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were making their way up the Channel and Esmonde was promised an escort of five squadrons of fighters. Only one squadron arrived in time but Esmonde set off and under heavy fire his six Swordfish attacked the German ships. All six launched their torpedoes but none found their mark. Of the eighteen men in the squadron only five survived and Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery.