Recollections: The Firefly Pilot




Norman Lee


I was a newly qualified pilot with 817 Squadron which, together with 808, formed the 21st Carrier Air Group. We had two groups in those days, something like 48 front-line aircraft, which was marvellous.

We were equipped with 12 Mark 6 Fireflies. The Firefly was an anti-submarine aircraft and therefore had no cannon. This was part of the blinkered approach to planning which could be summed up as “there is only one form of warfare – and it is ASW”. We have already heard something of this in the other seminar papers. When we were detailed to go to Korea we swapped our aircraft for those of 816 Squadron which had Mark 5 Fireflies which carried four 20mm cannon. If I may boast a little about the size of engines, the Firefly was fitted with a Rolls Royce Griffin which was the most powerful piston engine that Rolls Royce had ever developed and its speed range was from 90 knots up to about 365 knots in a vertical dive. It was quite a manoeuvrable aircraft, or so I thought until I flew Seahawks, Hunters and Scimitars with the Royal Navy some years later. I came back to Australia and flew a Firefly and thought that the controls had frozen solid. Contrary to what appears in the official history, the air group was known as the Sydney Carrier Air Group and not the 20th Carrier Air Group.

It was decided that the Furies would rocket and we would bomb and our normal load was two 500-pound bombs and 120 rounds of 20mm ammunition. We naturally required a work up before we left. This was perhaps more necessary because we had been on one of those famous cruises we used to have just after World War II – Melbourne for the Cup, Sydney for the Show and Hobart for the Regatta.

We did our work-up on that site well known to the RAN, Beecroft Head at Jervis Bay. We also did a deck landing work-up which was a bit disastrous as a lot of aircraft were pranged or lost over the side. On arriving in Korea we relieved Glory and I recall for musical history buffs that, as we steamed in, the band was playing “If I’d Known You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake” – which dates the time very much to 1951.

Contrary to Fred Lane’s experience, my first operational sortie was an anti-submarine patrol, a Cobra 15 which was a 15-mile radius circle around the ship. The most difficult bit was to fly that 15-mile radius around the Sydney. We were originally planned to dive bomb, in fact we started off dive bombing. Our tactical profile was from 8,000 feet to 3,000 feet in a 55-degree dive and, in the old Firefly, if you didn’t get full right rudder on at the top of the dive, it went down sideways. As with the Sea Furies, the Fireflies found that we could put bombs on either side of a bridge – literally straddle it – and do absolutely no damage at all. You must hit a bridge to damage it.

We also established that, contrary to what we thought, the opposition was not that great. There was small-arms fire with the odd small cannon, but the threat was not that bad, so a bold decision was made to go to low level bombing. To achieve this we modified our anti-submarine depth charge attack to descend to 100 feet in a 20-degree dive using delay fuses set to 37 seconds. We were operating in flights of four aircraft, so if you were “Tail-End Charlie” – as we poor sub-lieutenants always were – you had to get in within less than 37 seconds from when your leader dropped the first bomb, otherwise you wore it. I don’t think that anybody got blown up, but it is marvelous how it sharpens the wit when you know you can be blown out of the sky.

Our tactical profile proved to be very successful. We were taking out bridges with monotonous regularity and eventually reduced down to one aircraft attacking instead of four – on one occasion we knocked out a bridge with a single bomb. You had to be careful that the bomb did not bounce in cold weather, the ground being frozen solid. This meant a steeper dive was necessary because the bomb would either break up and there would be just a white puff, or it would bounce. There was one reported incident where precisely this happened and the bomb hit an ammunition dump. To everyone’s great surprise, this blew up some distance away from our intended attack.

After we had dropped our bombs we would carry out an armed reconnaissance at about 2,000 feet. Analysis after the war determined this to be the perfect height not to fly at because the aircraft was going at just about the right height and speed for small-arms fire. The North Koreans were rather clever chaps, they had rifle sections with a leader with a whistle. They would all aim towards the directing aircraft, pointing the rifles at different angles and, on the sound of the whistle; they would fire as one. In this way they would straddle the aircraft. This tactic was reasonably successful because a number of aircraft were hit.

We used a gridding plot on our maps, so we could readily indicate positions to other types of aircraft, which was really quite successful. It was just an arbitrary grid which we determined ourselves.

On completion of the sortie, we would return to the Sydney via a rendezvous point. At that stage, the Firefly had something of a reputation for hook bounce. The hook only came down to a limited angle and, in consequence, a modification had been introduced (the Mod 12.11 from memory) which was ·a much heavier damper and it really put the hook down. When formed up the routine was to drop your hook to make certain you had not suffered any damage to it. If you didn’t have the modification it was very sobering to see the other fellows with their hooks right down knowing full well that yours was only a little one from a deck landing point of view. Anyhow, our deck landing accident rate reduced practically to zero which is indicative of a good work-up, however fraught.

On one occasion we bombed a village which was known to be a North Korean supply point and we were a bit casual in our attack profile. Instead of doing a dive bombing attack, we used instantaneous fuses and did a sort of semi-dive bombing low-level attack. As I pulled out I saw a dint in the left wing. As everyone else had suffered battle damage at this point, I thought: “At last, I’m a hero!” We landed on and, sure enough, there was a hole about the size of a two shilling piece in the wing. The maintenance crews recovered the piece of shrapnel which caused the hole and I kept it as a souvenir. When we returned to Australia, my father, who was an engineer officer in the RAAP, asked, “How did it go, son?” and I said, “Rough, Dad, Look at this bit I got hit with.” And he looked at it and said, “Looks like a bit of bomb to me, son.” He was dead right.

Prior to Korea we had mostly carried out free take offs from the ship. It is marvellous how things customarily happen. Free take offs were the thing, so we did free take offs. We sub-lieutenants used to be at the front end of the deck park and you had to be pretty sharp about it to make certain that you got airborne in the available deck length. Because we had three squadrons on board for Korea, it was decided that we should try the alternatives, which were Rocket Assisted Take Off Gear (RATOG), which meant individual rockets strapped to the side of the aircraft, and the ship’s catapult. I have the dubious honour of having carried out the last-rocket assisted take-off in the RAN from a carrier because the chap behind me unfortunately torque stalled and, with his motor stopped, the aircraft revolved out of control and he was killed.

I mentioned the hydraulic catapult. The very nature of the thing meant that you got maximum thrust almost instantaneously and it was almost like being kicked up the backside by an elephant. The catapult was a very effective way of getting airborne and from there on in we rarely went back to free take-offs. The other advantage of catapult operations was that they made moving the aircraft about the deck and striking them up from the hangar much simpler.

Our routine was to spend about 10 days on patrol and then to return to Japan to either Kure or Sasebo where the Executive Officer, Commander V.A.T. (later Admiral Sir Victor) Smith, would have painted out the starboard after ladder bay, as I recall, or the port after ladder bay if necessary. It was more difficult to get to the briefing room than it was to find your target. This is actually Dr Lane’s line but I stole it from him- the ship was always being painted.

During patrol we would have a break in the middle for a replenishment day. It was indicative of the thinking, shall we say, of those old days that we sub-lieutenants were sent back to school where we did seamanship and the duties of second officer of the watch. Then the next day was on with our flying suits and back to the war. It always struck me as a little odd. We generally flew one to two sorties a day of an hour and a half. As I noted, we operated as a patrol of four aircraft. This occasionally went up to five which was a very unwieldy combination. I was busily following my section leader chasing after an ox cart on one occasion and thinking, “he’s not flying like he normally flies – he’s a fairly sedate fellow.” Nevertheless, we were having fun and when we formed up it turned out that I’d latched on to the other number two and the pair of us, a couple of sub-lieutenants, were fighting our own private war over Korea.

As will be mentioned by Captain Gordon, we did an operation on the east coast because of the peace talks. The idea was to·put pressure on the negotiations. It  always strikes me as odd  that when you are having peace talks you always intensify your effort. It seems contrary to what you should do, but I expect that there is some logic in it.

I was tasked to carry out a shoot with a destroyer, Tobruk, which was one of the Australian Battle class. My section leader was to spot for Belfast. Away we went and I was busily correcting the fall of shot when Tobruk came up and said that she would  have to come closer to the coast to effect the last correction I had given. Anyway, my sub-lieutenant’s computer went “whirr whirr”, something is wrong, I can see Tobruk and she is quite close in. The penny dropped. I replied, “Are you using Willie Peter?” This was white phosphorous  ranging shot. The reply was negative. I was ranging Tobruk on Belfast’s fall of shot. We then tried to find Tobruk’s shot but in the early morning high explosive shells are very difficult to see. She ended up firing broadsides until finally I saw her shot and gave her a correction which measured thousands of yards. She got into the  target area, fired for effect and called it a day. I slunk off back to the ship very embarrassed. Some time later, I was in the frigate Murchison doing my watchkeeping time when I met a certain gunnery officer in the Wardroom who said: “Oh, you’re an aviator. I met the biggest idiot aviator up in Korea” I let him go on and then said, “Yes, that was me!”

During the time on the east coast we attacked a railway tunnel with 1,000 pound bombs. We had to reduce our loads of fuel and ammunition to bring the aircraft in to its maximum permissible all-up weight with this weapon. We hit the thing with 10,000 pounds of bombs and some weeks later were credited with a train which they used to hide in the tunnels.

You may have heard mention of the dinghy drop to a downed B29 crew member. I was sent off on a hasty mission to drop a special type dinghy and I well recall on my way north very carefully testing my cannon in case we came across any MIG fighters. Fortunately we did not. I reckon that I could have outflown them at low-level but how long we would have survived I don’t know.

Typhoon Ruth caused its share of excitement. We were in Sasebo, as I recall, and we sailed as soon as we could. It was a pretty rough night. As remember it, the ship rolled 35 degrees, we had electrical fires all over the place as salt water got into areas it normally did not. Paint was stripped off the ship’s side, a Firefly went over the side, damaging other aircraft with it, and we lost a tractor and a small boat from the flight deck. There were, however, a couple of amusing incidents. There was a pipe on the main broadcast right in the middle of this howling typhoon, “Fuel danger, No smoking on the flight or weather decks.” You couldn’t even stand on the flight or weather decks. The other one I recall was, “Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire in the bomb room.” We sub-lieutenants, those who were off watch and not monitoring the aircraft in the hangar, were up forward, naughty, playing pontoon and we looked at each other because we were sitting right on top of the bomb room. And the question might be asked, what did we do? The answer was simple: another hand was dealt – there was nothing we could do. As you can imagine, the fire didn’t come to anything.

During the bitter winter months we had to oil dilute the engines by starting them up at intervals. The idea was to keep the oil thin so that the engine could be started the following day. Naval aircraft traditionally have had cartridge starters and you get only one bang to turn the engine. Of course, this lot fell to the sub-lieutenants, as you can well imagine. It was a pretty uncomfortable, cold and miserable activity that. After all the day’s flying had finished, we had to go up to the flight deck and start all these wretched aircraft and do this oil dilution.

But if we thought it was rough, it was a lot rougher for flight deck and maintenance crews to be up there the whole time. Their performance was extraordinary and the Sydney Carrier Air Group’s impressive operational performance was in large measure due to their efforts.

This Essay was the text of a presentation given by Norman Lee 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 285-290.