By Fred Lane
The story of the RAN’s first pilots course in Korea starts with a workup that began in earnest in late April 1951. The 21st Carrier Air Group had arrived at Nowra in December 1950. Even though the ‘CAG concept’ was being phased out, the 20th and 21st CAGs amalgamated to form a three-squadron (805, 808 and 817) Sydney Carrier Air Group. The Number One Course pilots had been with 805 and 816 Squadrons also since December 1950 and had a summer cruise under their belts. The new sub-lieutenants from Number Two and subsequent courses dribbled in as soon as the training pipeline permitted and they quickly settled down. The Number One Course people welcomed the new pilots with the same enthusiasm the junior squadron lieutenants showed them, back in December 1950. Onerous nit-picking duties such as coffee-boat captain and transport officer were gleefully handed over to the newcomers.
With Captain D.H. Harries (later RADM, CB, CBE) in command, nearly all the senior non-aviation billets in HMAS Sydney were manned by RAN officers. RAN aircrew filled 80 per cent or more of the squadron slots but, except for 805’s commanding officer, all the senior air appointments (Commander Air, Operations Officer, Flight Deck Officer, etc.) were filled by RN officers on loan or exchange duty. The Air Group Commander was LCDR M.F. Fell, DSO, DSC, RN (later VADM, KCB, DSC*), with LCDR J.L. Appleby RN (808) and LCDR W.G. (Jimmy) Bowles RAN (805) in command of the Sea Fury squadrons and LCDR R.B. Lunberg RN (817) commanding the Firefly squadron. The Carrier Borne Army Liaison Officers (CBALO or CBalls for short, e.g. Major Hardcastle) were seconded from Australian Army units.
Korea was the first, and only time to date, that fixed wing aircraft from any RAN aircraft carrier participated in a shooting war. The Hawker Sea Fury and Fairey Firefly were never ideal platforms for the kind of war fought in Korea. As a fighter, the piston-engined Sea Fury could put up only token resistance against the jet-powered MiG 15 in a one-on-one situation, so we tended to avoid aerial contact. The chief theoretical tactic was to try and suck an aggressive MiG down to low level and low speed. In Korea, MiGs could be seen from time to time, contrailing and ducking it out with USAF Sabres 20,000 to 30,000 feet above. Short of having to dodge drop tank and cartridge case showers now and then, they presented little threat in our lower-flying environment.
Compared with contemporary American aircraft, the Sea Fury had poor internal fuel capacity. To maintain a busy but comfortable one hour 30 minutes deck cycle, our Sea Furies carried two 45 gallon (170 litres) overload drop tanks. Underwing geometry with drop tanks limited the number and type of rockets and bombs that could be carried. A typical Korean load might be eight x three-inch (76 mm) 60 lbs (27 kg) warhead rockets in two tiers plus 125 rounds per gun for four 20 mm cannon. No napalm was ever carried by any RAN aircraft. Without drop tanks the Sea Fury carried a maximum 2,000 lbs (907 kg) of bombs, but this required a problematic deck cycle time of one hour or less.
In the RAN we liked to load our serious armament in a deliberate distraction-free manner. Refueled aircraft were spotted for start up and we stopped all other flight deck activity. One hour deck cycle times sometimes rushed the armament handlers, a potentially dangerous practice, hence the preference for a one and a half hour cycle.
The single seat USN Douglas A-1 (AD, Spad) Skyraiders, with 15 external hardpoints, carried much heavier and more versatile loads, up to 8,000 lbs (3,600 kg) and included bombs, torpedoes, mines, big five-inch (130 mm) HVAR rockets and depth charges. Like the Sea Fury, they also mounted a handy brace of four 20 mm cannon. The F4-U Corsair also carried a more varied armament load than the Sea Fury, but it was no match for the Skyraider. American carriers operated both aircraft types in Korea. From a pilot’s point of view, a single Skyraider could theoretically do more damage than a division of four Sea Furies.
Despite extra protection in the form of a heavy aluminum plate under the big oil cooler in the port wing root, Sea Furies were still susceptible to ground fire. Any hit in the big engine or oil cooler area typically reduced oil pressure to zero in seconds and in another 45 seconds or so the sleeve valve engine was guaranteed to seize or burst into flames. The main petrol tank sat between the engine and the pilot.
The original Australian Fireflies were the Mk VI versions, specialised for Anti-Submarine Warfare with no cannon fitted. They were swapped on 27 September 1951, with 812 Squadron’s cannon-bearing Firefly IVs from HMS Glory when that carrier and Sydney sat alongside a common pontoon dock in Kure, Japan. The Mk IVs carried four 20 mm cannon, like the Sea Fury, but they could also load a pair of 500 lbs (226 kg) bombs or 250 lbs depth charges without it affecting their fuel load or deck cycle time. The Fireflies typically bombed bridges and railway tunnels, while the Sea Furies specialised in rocketing and strafing lighter targets.
The Number One Course pilots in this Korean trip included Ian Macdonald, Dick Sinclair, Ian Webster and Fred Lane, all flying Sea Furies in 805 Squadron, with Col Champ and John Roland flying Fireflies for 816 Squadron. John Roland won the thoroughly deserved ‘Sub-Lieutenant’s M.I.D.’ (Mention in Despatches) for his consistent ability to drop bridges and block railway tunnels. He also had one of the best deck landing records. Late in the piece, he had the most unpleasant experience of having his elevators frozen rock solid over enemy territory. His section successfully dropped a bridge span but a piece of shrapnel lodged in a vital hinge, jamming his elevators. By judicious throttle, elevator trim and other controls, he regained partial command of the aircraft and, instead of bailing out, staggered south towards friendlier territory. After finding that he could maintain a semblance of control after lowering his wheels and partial flap at a safe height, he made a very long and very gentle straight in approach to Kimpo airfield, near Seoul, landing successfully without further damage.
The workup included the usual Aerodrome Dummy Deck Landings (ADDLS) as well as live armament training. CBalls Major Hardcastle, an armoured warfare specialist, was very popular. With never a PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) in sight, his briefings would frequently be prefaced with, ‘Gentlemen, the Queen of air warfare is the Fleet Air Arm. What is the Queen of the battlefield?’ With one accord we would shout ‘The tank corps.’ ‘Right. Your target for this sortie …’. He taught us Naval Gunfire Support and Army Artillery Spotting using a big roll-up canvas model. It took some time for we junior sub-lieutenants to take charge and get used to phrases such as ‘At my Command’ (i.e. You do what I tell you) when shooting with a ship commanded by a full four-ring Captain.
The usual deck landing accidents occurred during the workup, including one 808 Squadron Sea Fury flown by a young Number Two Course pilot that went half over the port side. Incredibly, an ordnance artificer was in a sponson checking a Bofors gun with a feeler gauge when this Sea Fury’s port wheel came down, missing his head by inches and bending his feeler gauge. Of course, the artificer should never have been there during a land-on. The pilot, quite unaware of all this, scrambled out of his cockpit and, with his parachute pack still attached, ran up the 70 degrees sloping wing. He hit the flight deck, still running.
Racing forward he jumped from the flight deck into the starboard forward sponson, parachute and dinghy still buckled to his backside, a highly athletic and dangerous leap. From there he made his way to the nearby sick bay and announced, ‘I’ve just had an accident’. On 3 May 1951, LEUT Bob Barnett of 808 Squadron was killed during the workup when he experienced an asymmetric RATOG (rocket assisted) launch. Only one side of his rockets fired and he ended up untidily in the sea just ahead of the ship. This was the last RATOG launch scheduled from an Australian carrier.
HMAS Sydney departed Australia 31 August 1951 and arrived in Japan 19 September. On our way north, there was considerable discussion about the ability of a pilot to survive a Sea Fury ditching. The big radial engine, it was argued, would drag the aircraft’s nose down on first contact with the water, making escape problematic. Only one successful Sea Fury ditching had been recorded, and that from a clean Theseus Sea Fury, nine months before, off Korea. It was resolved to parachute out of the aircraft or force-land on dry land whenever possible. Then SBLT Ian Webster, from Number One Course, had a total sudden engine failure at 300 feet on the downwind leg. He had no option. He ditched not only with the big radial engine up front, but also downwind with his flaps down and wheels half up. He certainly pitched upside down on water contact, but the aircraft steadied and he escaped using the standard emergency method. He climbed into his dinghy, but was not yet safe. The rescue destroyer came charging at him, full chat, over-running his dinghy and tossing him out. Some days we realise we should have stayed in bed.
There were no personal two-way radios in those days, so CBalls introduced us to a two-scarf system, one fluorescent yellow square panel, the other red, to communicate with the Rescue Combat Air Patrol (RESCAP) in the event of being shot down. This very simple system indicated many things, from ‘all well’ to ‘I am under fire from this direction at that range’. It was adopted by the USAF while we were there. We could also drop lead shot-filled message bags with long streamers to people on the ground. One of these message bags probably saved the life of LEUT Peter Goldrick, 808 Squadron, on 5 January 1952. A ground fire
bullet passed through the message bag that was stowed on the starboard side of his cockpit. The bullet then entered Peter’s right arm about in line with his heart. Invalided home, we were dismayed to hear that his flying pay was stopped from the day he was wounded. One or two terse signals later rectified this.
We learned our rules of engagement, what might be a genuine target and what must not be attacked. Ox carts, we were told, were legitimate targets. This was difficult for some of us until one ox cart blew up during a strafing attack, proving it was loaded with ammunition. Lighthouses were sacrosanct, including the one on the south shore of the Chinnampo Estuary from where an amazingly accurate machine-gunner plied his lethal trade. We avoided civilian targets, such as villages, unless briefed to attack a specific structure. In one railway bridge attack, a Number Two Course pilot, SBLT Neil MacMillan, saw his Firefly’s bomb ricochet from a frozen embankment 500 meters or more away directly into a nearby peaceful-looking village. The pilot watched in horror as the delay fuse set off the bomb, only to see it followed by a huge explosion and many secondaries. The ‘village’ burned for days. It was a huge ammunition dump.
Special attention was given to escape and evasion procedures. All pilots carried revolvers and the Firefly observers had an Owen gun, so the training ranged from small arms handling to tips on how to navigate cross country to a couple of designated evasion points without stirring the possum. Special attention was given to POW behaviour. A very few American aircrew prisoners made all kinds of quite impossible ‘confessions’. We were told we should be on our guard about this new ‘brainwashing’ thing. The security people leapt on this, setting up virtual torture chambers to ‘train’ us how to resist. What a waste of time and effort it was. We had much more important lessons to learn, like how to improve our deck landing technique and how to deliver more and better armament on target on time.
Sydney started with a 13-day cycle, chiefly on the West Coast of Korea, that included a day self-replenishing at sea plus four days transiting back and forth for a five to ten days R and R in Japan. Our buddy carriers, the tiny escort carriers USS Rendova CVE 114 and Badoeng Strait CVE 116, kept enemy heads down when we were away. The major strategy was an Operation Strangle that aimed to halt all transport and other movement that might resupply the then static front line. It was never successful in that our front line troops never reported the enemy short of any material and in any event night logistics transport was rarely intercepted. The enemy was also highly skilled in camouflage and rapid bridge repair. Good targets were very few, except during a couple of East Coast sorties. Once, the best part of a battalion of enemy troops was spotted reacting to deliberate misinformation about a projected amphibious landing. The rest of the time, Sydney’s aircraft rarely saw an enemy soldier. Even when attacking a so-called ‘Divisional Headquarters’ no enemy was seen, yet spies ashore might credit us later with many dead and wounded plus considerable collateral damage. After our departure, USN commanders convinced the Joint Operations Center to adopt a more aggressive posture, including destroying the North’s hydroelectric infrastructure.
During the first of these R and R cycles, Typhoon Ruth descended on our supposedly typhoon-safe Sasebo harbour on 14-15 October 1950. Captain Harries wisely decided to go to sea, a good seaman’s decision fully justified when, on our return, we saw an 18,000 ton supply ship up on the beach. It had dragged its moorings right through our anchorage. At one stage at sea we had revolutions for 14 knots, but made good only one knot. The wind broke our wind gauge but was estimated to be about 120 knots with seas 45 feet or more. Five hundred souls perished ashore. Sydney lost one Firefly, the captain’s jollyboat, a cutter and a forklift overboard. Four other aircraft stowed on the flight deck were seriously damaged. This aircraft damage was possibly due to the chocks not being battened, as they were in the hangar, where they remained damage-free. ‘Expendable’ non-seasick sub-lieutenants roped each other together in teams of five to eight to patrol the flight deck overnight, tighten loose engine and cockpit covers and adjust sloppy lashings. One Sea Fury came loose and its full drop tank landed smack on a deck edge bullhorn. The Tannoy promptly started sparking strongly while 130 octane petrol poured out all over it. Circuit power could not be switched off nor could this speaker be isolated. We had 10 fire reports at one time or another, but this is one fire that should have, but never did, happen.
Three pilots were lost, all from 805 Squadron. LEUT Keith Clarkson, the Senior Pilot, was killed 5 November 1950 when he was caught in a flak trap strafing the only enemy truck we ever saw on the West Coast. Another aircraft circling his crash site at 3,000 feet was hit with a couple of 20 mm rounds some five minutes later. SBLT Dick Sinclair, one of the Number One Course people, was killed baling out of his 805 Squadron Sea Fury 7 December. He was hit by flak northwest of Chinnampo and developed an engine fire. He was low, so he chose a not-recommended Me 109 ‘bunt’ technique to exit the cockpit. He hit the taller Sea Fury fin. The ship ran a constant two-aircraft Carrier Air Patrol (CAP) and one Anti-Submarine Patrol aircraft during flying stations. At other daylight hours these aircraft might be ranged, ready to go, on standby. No submarine was ever reported and only friendly aircraft were intercepted. One CAP aircraft was lost when SBLT Ron Coleman disappeared 2 January 1952.
A dozen or more junior squadron officers slept in the ‘Casbah’ forward in two big multi-bunk cabins. The rationale, we were told, was that if all the rest of the officers were wiped out in the middle of the night by a torpedo aft, there would still be a few left up forward to sail the ship. Not that we knew much about sailing a ship. Furthermore, it may be argued that with the aft end blown off, there would not be much ship left to sail. But the Casbah developed a number of initiatives, including a Casbah Band that generated considerable noise but little musical harmony. The Casbah was also home for an amazing number and variety of Japanese toys, including half a dozen cymbal-playing somersaulting monkeys (for young relatives at home, of course). On the more serious side, we carried a long commando-like knife over enemy territory and were delighted to find a rare wooden door in the Casbah. It was an ideal target for late night knife-throwing practice. Then one sleepy fellow responded to what he thought was a knock on his door…
It was winter and the water was cold, with an unprotected body life expectancy of under 15 minutes. We were personally fitted with immersion suits. These were of the two-piece ‘dry’ variety, while the Americans chose the wet ‘poopy suits’ that would become popular with skin divers in later years. The dry suits depended on rubber seals to keep the water out and string undergarments to keep the body warm. One 808 Squadron pilot inadvertently left his immersion suit’s urinating tube a bit loose one day. Of course that was the day he was forced to ditch and after climbing into his waterlogged dinghy he burst his fluorescent dye pack. The water leaked into his suit and he found, after rescue, that he had bright fluorescent yellow skin from the waist down. He was a sight to behold in the showers for days. There is no truth whatsoever in the rumour that he was raffled in a Japanese brothel later on.
Sydney, we were told, was the first aircraft carrier in Korean service not to accidentally taxi or push an aircraft overboard, typically over the starboard forward deck edge. Credit for this must go to Flight Deck Officer LCDR Charlie Lavender RN, who dreamed up the ‘Lavender Line’. This simple dotted line, in the starboard forward deck park, was positioned parallel to the deck edge at exactly the width of the widest track of any aircraft on board plus one foot. Under no circumstances was any inboard wheel allowed to stray over this line.
We borrowed an RN Westland Dragonfly helicopter initially, before it was replaced by an identical-looking craft, a USN Sikorsky HO3S-1. This chopper assumed the duties of rescue destroyer, but the latter was kept in hand just in case the helicopter was called away for a rescue elsewhere or it became unfit to fly. A similar helicopter was deployed to one of the islands nearer to the coast and it featured in a number of rescues of downed RAN aircrew. On 26 October 1951, SBLT Neil MacMillan and his Observer, OBS1 Hancox, were shot down during a railway tunnel attack near the Chaeryong-gang waterways. Sydney’s borrowed USN helicopter, flown by CPO A.K. (Dick) Babbit and aided by a fortuitous gale-force tailwind, made what must have been the longest helicopter transit over enemy territory to rescue downed aircrew in the Korean War. Calculated at 120 nautical miles, this was in addition to a transit south to Kimpo airfield that Babbit made in gathering, then total, darkness. The RESCAP for this opposed rescue was provided by RAN Fireflies and Sea Furies and, for a brief period, Meteors from RAAF 77 Squadron. The HOS3-1 was not cleared for night flying. It had no instrument lighting. In his report, Babbit said that he used the dome light intermittently to check his instruments but ‘flew by ear to maintain speed and engine R.P.M.’ His total flight time was two and a half hours and he landed with zero fuel at Kimpo with the aid of hastily-ranged truck headlights.
The Number One Course pilots had suffered their first fatal casualty. They had experienced war. They returned to Australia to find they were no longer just wingmen, but suddenly section and divisional leaders. They had to make their minds up whether to apply for a permanent commission or remain on the Short Service list. Scotty MacDonald chose to serve out his Short Service commission and joined Qantas. In a very short time the others were dispersed to additional professional courses, such as Flying Instructor and Landing Signals Officer. John Roland became an LSO and served on loan as the ace RN Seahawk Squadron’s batsman. For those who chose the permanent commission route, watchkeeping qualifications in a small ship also beckoned.