Recollections: The Firefly Observer
Looking at my log book I find that the first sortie into North Korea was undertaken on 5 October 1951 and the final one was undertaken on 24 January 1952. A total of some 60 sorties adding up to 120 hours flying. As I recall, we were briefed and ready to go on a last sortie the day after, on 25 January, but representations were made to the chaplain, Father G.S. Lake. He had a direct line to the man who controls the weather and enormous snow storms suddenly precluded flying. We therefore departed for more congenial waters as fast as a light fleet carrier has been known to travel. There was an enormous amount of superstition amongst air crew in those days about the survival rate on the first and last sorties of a tour of operations and to have the last programmed sortie cancelled was a relief, to say the least.
There are several interesting facts about the use of carriers in interdiction and close air support, particularly in relation to the use of carriers around a peninsula. Before mentioning these, however, some points should be emphasised about the practical aspects of flying from the Sydney and the progress of operations.
The first thing which should be emphasised was the experience of the Sydney Carrier Air Group. From an old photograph I notice that 75% of the air crew had flown in World War Two and included three members who technically qualified for the title “ace”, while most had completed at least one tour of combat operations. The remainder had undertaken their flying courses post-war. The Air Group, consisting of two squadrons from the 21st CAG (808 and 817) and one (805) from the 20th, had undergone intensive training in the UK and, from April to September 1951, specific training for its role in Korea. For the Firefly crews this meant an extension of their normal role from anti-submarine operations to bombardment spotting, dive bombing and close air support. The training we received from our indefatigable Carrier Borne Ground Liaison Officers (CBGLOs) was superb. Due to their efforts, the rapport which was achieved with the Australian Army and the skills in close air support on which the army relied so much were a part of Army/Navy relations for many years thereafter.
Earlier experiences with Rocket Assisted Take Off Gear (RATOG)
RATOG in the Air Group had not been such as to inspire the greatest confidence in it as a means of propelling one into the air. It was with a fair sense of relief that the catapult became the norm. I do not know how many readers have seen rocket assisted take-off, let alone sat in the aircraft as it took off in a shower of smoke and sparks, but it is not something to be repeated by the faint hearted.
Arriving in Yokosuka, we were privileged to receive a visit from an American general and an aviator who had been shot down over Korea several times, if memory serves me correctly. Their task was apparently to give us the “good oil” on what to expect. The feats of derring-do which were described, due no doubt to the difference in cultures, reduced the Air Group to tears – of laughter – at which the furious general burst out with the fact that it wasn’t funny and “some of you guys ain’t gonna be sittin’ there next week”, which so broke up the audience that the general had to leave.
The average Firefly sortie consisted of bombing a particular target, mostly rail bridges with 7-ton spans and then undertaking armed reconnaissance along the roads or railway between two points. There are two things that sick in my mind on the first trip – a young sub-lieutenant who had the misfortune to have one of his bombs hang up and the absolute refusal of the carrier to let him come back on board with it. Nobody wanted to know him and he eventually landed in Korea to get rid of it.
It soon became apparent that dive bombing in a Firefly was not a particularly accurate method of weapon delivery and the squadron reverted to the type of bombing it had spent a year perfecting, that is, operating at 50 feet in a similar method to dropping depth charges. From this developed the use of 37-second delay bombs and a dirty dart in before they could get ready for you (hopefully) and away out of it. Having stirred them up, I can still hear the thick Scottish brogue of 25 Flight leader saying, “Och 25-3, will you go down and take a photograph?” Needless to say, we were 25-3 and had the pleasure of going down again into the ants’ nest.
Some Machiavellian ploys can be worked with delay bombs. After we destroyed bridges during the day, the opposition were dragooned to repair or jury rig them at night. Sprinkling the odd 12- or 24-hour delay in amongst the bombs gave him pause for thought in his repair program.
The trains operated at night and hid by day in the tunnels and I don’t think that there is anything more satisfying than catching a train in a tunnel. The use of aircraft, each carrying two 1,000-pound bombs, and the excitement of flying up the railway cutting is rewarded when you see a continuous stream coming from inside the tunnel after the attack.
Operating against an enemy who did not have air superiority and where there was a distinct front line was at first an eerie experience. The total lack of movement by day in his area, as opposed to the almost criminal lack of precautions against air attack in our area, was most noticeable. This was vastly different in my case from experiences in Burma in the Second World War where a more fluid situation prevailed. Whole divisions used to move down from the Chinese border and not be detected and it was only with experience that one could detect and flush troops or find vehicles camouflaged in odd fields.
I have lunch with some old wartime comrades and you can see people depart in droves when the conversation gets around to “warries”. I have therefore restricted my comments to small items of day-to-day activities, but what did it all mean?
First, it was a pleasure to operate in a professional permanent force, highly experienced and trained to the minute. After some of the bumbling that went on in World War II it was a relief to know exactly what you were doing. There is a lesson in this for governments in the nurturing of their professional forces and the reserves comprised of ex-regulars. The British Army found it necessary to bolster its troops with Class 2 reservists, that is those who had seen action in the Second World War. Our relieving carrier on station was manned by United States Marine Corps squadrons who were ex-Second World War reservists called up with no notice whatsoever.
I make the point therefore that time spent on training pays enormous dividends. The contrast between a professional fully trained unit and some of the Second World War units resulted in a greater return in operational efficiency and far fewer casualties.
I might make a point here for future historians. The official history of the Korean War makes mention of the doubts that existed in some quarters as to our efficiency because we made no extravagant claims on targets. As pointed out previously, some 75% of us had flown in the Second World War, where early in the piece “drawing a long bow” resulted in so much ridicule when it was proved that such claims were false that a very healthy scepticism prevailed later in the war. Consequently, claims were only made on what you saw. The “bodycount” mentality did not prevail in the Air Group. These doubts as to our efficiency were apparently overcome by our Allies attributing some enormous number of enemy slain to us after one operation. The use of the body count as a yardstick of success in Asia is dangerous. I prefer the notation I found in my log that at one time all bridges in our area were out. No vehicular traffic could move and the enemy was confined to moving supplies by hand at night; a subject for a paper on its own in respect to Asia.
With other units of the fleet we were sent for a period in November 1951 to the east coast to act as a diversion and draw troops away from the front line. In this I believe we were entirely successful as large numbers of troops were moved in. My memories of the operation were enlivened by winning a bottle of champagne from the CBGLO for knocking off a gun position and fortifications on the end of the breakwater in the enclosed harbour at Hamnung. I was bombardment spotting for HMS Belfast and what neither Belfast nor the CBGLO realised was that inside the main harbour was a boat harbour exactly 400 yards along the gun target line. I therefore had a built-in device for amending the fall of shot. Incidentally, for collectors of trivia, the _time of flight of the shells from the battleship New Jersey on one occasion when she was engaged in bombardment in the area was 87 seconds. The formula for the safety height was four by time squared. Taking 90 seconds as near enough to 87, some mental gymnastics worked out 32,000 feet as the safety height for the aircraft. Try that in a Firefly!
What lessons other than intensive training and the provision of modern equipment can we learn from our participation in the Korean War?
First, air superiority – in this case provided by our allies. Second, interdiction, carried out effectively and cheaply by carrier forces at far less cost in manpower and material than land based aircraft. Nothing I have seen has convinced me that there is any better use for airpower in land warfare than interdiction and close air support. The strategic bombing campaign in Europe was incredibly uneconomic and, in effect, unsuccessful. The interdiction before and after D-Day at Normandy and whilst the Allied armies moved across Europe contributed in no small measure to the success of that campaign. Without dwelling on another controversy, I am sure that political restraints imposed on the interdiction campaign in Vietnam contributed to the ability of the North Vietnamese to sustain their war effort.
To those who say that the air war in Vietnam could have been carried out by land-based aircraft alone, the answer is “yes”, 99% of the time it could, at a much increased cost. Could Australia guarantee that in any future situation it could base its aircraft in friendly countries or use two divisions of troops to ensure the safety of an airfield, as in Vietnam?
I am not here to argue the strategic basis, but the lessons learnt from the use of the carrier in Korea in close air support of the army and interdiction are as valid today as they were 40 or 20 years ago and the tasks cannot be undertaken by land based aircraft in an island or peninsular campaign except at enormous cost.
This Essay was the text of a presentation given by A.H. Gordon to the inaugural Naval History Seminar at the Australian War Memorial in 1989. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the Authors of “Reflections on The Royal Australian Navy” by T.R. Frame, J.V.P. Goldrick and P.D. Jones. Kangaroo Press pp 291-295.