Recollections: The Sea Fury Pilot

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HMAS SYDNEY IN KOREA

THE SEA FURY PILOT

Fred T. Lane and Gerry Lane

 

It is difficult for those who were engaged in action, and saw friends die, to make an objective evaluation of their own efforts. It is also easier to second-guess strategy than to make it. It has been said that our strategy in Korea was flawed, a kind of exchange of coolies and ox carts for aircrew and aircraft. [1]  Were RAN Sea Furies used to best advantage in Korea? First of all, let us explore what some others say, then let a Sea Fury pilot who was a very junior acting sub-lieutenant at the time reminisce a little.

Library Content

Compared with American coverage, it seems surprising that there is so little RAN and RN Fleet Air Arm Korean material in likely resource centres. For instance, in May 1989, in one of the best media libraries in the world, the Time-Life library in New York, there were about 50 books in the Korean section. A search for key words, in contents and index pages, suggested likely references in only three of the 23 books that appeared to address air combat in any form.

One book, discussing the early days, made a very brief reference to the “logistic burdens” of the USA with foreign forces in Korea. [2] Another, speaking about the same period, complained of the strafing of friendly troops by “Australian and US Air Forces.” [3]

Cagle and Manson discussed naval aspects of the entire Korean War and they acknowledged the fast response of the U.K, Australian and New Zealand governments in placing firm offers of naval aid.[4]  They gave a good brief account of the first naval air strikes in Korea, by HMS Triumph’s Seafires and Fireflies against Haeju, and USS Valley Forge’s Panthers and Skyraiders against Pyongyang, on 3 July 1950. They also commented on the Grand National that destroyed or damaged nine “Happy Valley” aircraft in her forward deck park after a follow-up strike that afternoon, and they criticised the absence of a Close Air Support infrastructure in the early days.[5] However, other than a brief mention of Sydney contributing to an October 1951 East Coast Wonsan operation, they fail to explore any other RAN aircraft action and their coverage of the much longer RN effort is equally slim.[6]

In June 1989, the University of New South Wales library listed about 26 books in the Korean War category. Seventeen of these focused on politics, causes or other non-combat issues. Bartlett, in an Australian War Memorial publication, probably gave RAN Sea Furies the widest cover.[7] However, some of his minor details, about the sale of a crashed RAN Sea Fury to a Korean farmer and Typhoon Ruth’s damage to aircraft on the flight deck seem a little different, for instance, from some personal recollections.[8]

However, unlike contemporaries Cagle and Manson and latterly MacDonald, Bartlett failed to analyse important strategic and tactical issues, such as the US Air Force Operation Strangle strategy, under which we operated, and the evolution of Close Air Support.

These may be classified, in general, as errors of omission. Were there also errors of commission? Most historians are probably familiar with the Barclay note, giving credit to the “Fifth US Air Force”, then in a footnote, “Royal Naval and South African Air Force planes” for important Close Air Support of the Commonwealth Division between 31 October and 26 November 1951.[9] There was no operational RN carrier within 1,000 miles at that time. According to one fairly reliable source, at least one of these sorties was flown from HMAS Sydney on 7 November, when a rare 100% target coverage was achieved, according to the Olympic Mosquito.[10]

Firkins devoted about three of his 279 pages to HMAS Sydney and  her squadrons  in  Korea  (compared  with 29 for  the World  War  II Coastwatchers).[11]  His Korean reporting seems accurate enough, but it reads like a laundry list and again fails to evaluate the results. On the other hand, a 1953 fictional work by another author is an emotional rendering, but not at all strong on fact.[12]

Journal articles may be similarly biased. If the Australian effort is mentioned at all, it might tag along as a kind of minor afterthought. For example, describing Sydney’s Task Force, TF 77, in October 1951, one author listed seven American carriers and two battleships by name, then added, “as well as various support ships and destroyers along with British and American carriers.”[13]

Informal examinations of many other libraries and resources, in Australia and the USA, tend to confirm these observations. Therefore it is difficult to reflect what others say about the RAN Sea Fury in Korea, because there is so little informed discussion about the important aspects.

Based on an admittedly tiny sample, we may tentatively conclude that: (a) at least some influential resource centres have a poor coverage of the Korean War; (b) compared with USN, USAF and land combat, Australian naval air combat in the Korean War may be poorly reported, in both volume and content; (c) perhaps too many of the very few relevant books and articles carry too many errors of omission, commission and emphasis; and (d) few, if any, readily available works comment on the strategy, tactics and outcome of this unique RAN Fleet Air Arm effort.

Operations

From the probably biased position of a very junior participant, let us explore some aspects of flying the RAN Sea Fury in Korea.

Sydney was commanded by Captain D.H. Harries in Korea and no admiral was carried, by USN request. Sydney relieved HMS Glory in September 1951and the latter, in turn, relieved Sydney some time after 26 January 1952.

The Sydney Carrier Air Group was commanded by Lieutenant Commander (later Vice Admiral Sir) Mike Fell, RN, who flew a Sea Fury. There were three squadrons: 805 (Lieutenant Commander Jim Bowles, RAN) and 808 (Lieutenant Commander “Apples” Appleby, RN) nominally had 12 Sea Furies each and 817 (Lieutenant Commander Richard Lunberg, RN) had 12 Fireflies. Maintenance was centralised, so pilots flew whatever Sea Fury was spotted, regardless of squadron.

Sydney had 10 wires and three barriers and all fixed-wing launches were by her single hydraulic catapult. The Commander(Air), Operations Officer, Flight Deck Officer and Landing Signals Officers were all RN. Also on board was an Australian Carrier-Borne Army Liaison Officer section. A borrowed RN Dragonfly or USN HOS3 helicopter was carried for plane guard and rescue.

Sydney’s air callsign was “Shine”, a corruption of “Shoeshine”, followed by 51, 52 Division, etc. Choppers were “Angels” and  rescue flying boats were “Dumbos”. On about 11 October 1951, Sydney achieved a light fleet carrier record of 89 sorties in one day, off Wonsan on the East Coast.

The major strategy was the US Fifth Air Force’s Operation Strangle, where “100 per cent of carrier effort and 70 per cent of Air Force operations were devoted to the attack on lines of communications.”[14]

The Sea Fury’s major roles in Korea were: (a) armed reconnaissance; (b) CAP, CONCAP, TARCAP/Naval Gunfire Support (NGS); (c) strike; (d) army co-operation; and (e) photo-reconnaissance. The Sea Furies typically operated in divisions of four or six during armed reconnaissance, strike and army co-operation, a single or a pair for CAP and a single for TARCAP/NGS. There was no deliberate night flying. About twice every 10 to 21 day patrol, a Sea Fury would land at Kimpo due to battle damage, extended RESCAP, fuel shortage or similar problem. It is possible that the author top-scored with 71 operational sorties, but no-one took much notice of such data.

Sydney lost three pilots in Korea, all from 805 Squadron. The first was the Senior Pilot, Lieutenant Keith Clarkson, on 5 November. He seemed to get hit in the dive attacking an ox cart during an armed reconnaissance. He pulled out late, flick-rolled and crashed. It was probably a flak-trap because another aircraft was hit by two 20mm rounds while orbiting the position 3,000 feet up 10 minutes later.[15]

Sub-Lieutenant Dick Sinclair picked up a round in his oil cooler on 7 December, west of Chinnampo. He headed for the coast but caught fire. He bailed out over the sea but used a Messerschmitt 109 technique, to trim forward, release the straps and kick the stick. He hit the fin. The third was Sub Lieutenant Ron Coleman, who simply disappeared in cloud during one of our last CAP sorties on 2 January.

The only aircrew wounded was Lieutenant (later Captain) Peter Goldrick of 808 Squadron, who picked up a .303 round in his right arm. He was lucky in that the bullet slowed as it passed through the lead shot of a message carrier mounted on the starboard cockpit wall and he was skillful in that he brought his plane back safely with an injured right arm. Morale was not improved, however, when one of the first Navy Office responses was a signal that stopped his flying pay.

Our Aircraft

The Sea Fury FBII was a fighter-bomber, about 615 of which were built by Hawker, in the tradition of the Hurricane and Tempest. The wing span was 38 feet 5 inches and it weighed about 10,000 pounds dry. It had a Bristol Centaurus Mark 18 twin-row, 18-cylinder sleeve-valve radial engine of 2,480 horse power that drove a big five-bladed propeller. Its maximum load was two 1,000- or 500-pound bombs, or 16 two-tier, 3-inch rocket pods. A successor in the RAN, the A4G Skyhawk, had a 27.5 feet span and weighed 11,300-pounds dry, but it could deliver about 12,000- pounds of ordnance – or about the equivalent of a Sea Fury’s full bomb load plus the Sea Fury itself.

Contemporary USN aircraft in Korea were the AD Skyraider and the F4U Corsair. RAAP 77 Squadron flew P51 Mustangs, then Gloster Meteors. Way up high, in the contrail area, the MIG-15s, Sabres, B29s and even Meteors for a mercifully brief period, conducted their own little war. There are quite untrue claims that the Sea Fury recorded “many kills” of “Soviet MIG-15 fighters.”[16]

In Korea, our Sea Furies typically carried 200 gallons of usable internal fuel, two 45-gallon drop tanks, twelve 3-inch rockets with 60- pound heads in two tiers and four 20mm Hispano cannon with about 125 rounds   per   gun. Unlike   the   USN,  USAF  and   RAAP,   the  RAN never carried napalm. Sortie time was about two hours, but this could vary from about an hour (for a rare bomb strike) to three hours.

The Sea Fury cruised at about 240 knots. It was a delight to fly, with plenty of reserve power. It had excellent balanced controls and excellent visibility. It was conditionally rugged in that it could accept a lot of punishment in all but one area, the oil system.

Armed Reconnaissance

About half a junior pilot’s Sea Fury sorties were armed Reconnaissance and the major operational area was “Wales”, a west coast area north of the Han River to the Chinnampo Estuary and inland to the Sariwon Waterways.[17]  The strategic aim was to stop all enemy land and water movement.

An interest was taken in the area north of Chinnampo to the Yalu, but Pyongyang and the 105mm and 88mm radar predicted AA batteries that studded the coast up towards China tended to be avoided. Operations were conducted on the east coast from time to time. Soldiers, ox carts, junks and sampans were the most frequent armed recce targets but they were always difficult to find. The major opposition was well camouflaged light AA.

Rockets were typically fired from a 15- or 30-degree dive and released at about 1,200 yards slant range. A rocket motor would fail to fire every fifth or sixth sortie, due mainly to the electrical firing pigtail falling out. Some rockets would hang up until land on. Then topsides concentration might intensify somewhat, as loose live ordnance bounced up the flight deck at 80 knots or so.

The quad 20mm cannon, with a mixed belt of ball, HE and incendiary/tracer, was a magnificent weapon. On the way back to the ship on 20 January, some rifle-toting soldiers were seen to enter a railway water tower structure, near the Haeju Gorge.[18] It must have been a fuel or ammunition storage building as well, because after one pass with the last of the division’s 20mm, it started to burn brightly. Unfortunately, the fire attracted some 808 Squadron pilots just coming on task. They followed up, but holed the water tank and put the fire out.

Weapon delivery accuracy improved considerably from even the good results achieved during work-up, but sometimes to the detriment of target damage. For instance, during one simultaneous line abreast strafing dive, four Sea Furies put four equidistant neat holes, each less than two metres in diameter, in the 20-metre long roof of a barracks structure. Less accurate fire might have brought down the roof.

Two very nasty areas, from a lowly sub-lieutenant’s point of view, were a little lighthouse opposite Chinnampo, and the Haeju Gorge that ran into the Hari River Estuary. A very accurate machine gunner operated in or near the lighthouse. One day, 17 December 1951, the primary author was quietly minding his own business as a slothful number four, doing a bit of unauthorised low flying over a beautiful glassy sea in the middle of the estuary, when he suddenly picked up two .303 rounds from the lighthouse area, at least a mile and a half away. The hits severed his elevator trimmer cables, so that it was a “both hands on the stick” deck landing.[19]

The Haeju Gorge was a flak trap that once claimed the aircraft the CO was flying. He got hit badly, so he headed for the estuary and bailed out a kilometer or so off the coast. Much later on, the primary author’s aircraft, 106, was looking the clear winner of the sweep for most operational sorties. The CO’s personal bird was running second. There was no malice intended, but the CO took 106 down the Haeju Gorge. It was badly shot up, with one round blowing up the starboard aileron like a football. It got him home, though, and 106 went on to win the sweep.

CAP, CONCAP, TARCAP and RESCAP

About a third of a junior Sea Fury pilot’s sorties were CAP (Combat Air Patrol)  or CONCAP  (Convoy CAP)  and about a sixth were TARCAP (Target CAP/Naval Gunfire Support) or dedicated RESCAP (Rescue CAP).[20] No Sydney fleet defence CAP ever saw an enemy aircraft.

Enemy MIGs were seen from time to time, but well clear of our fleet CAP stations. For instance, about 8 December the primary author was quietly wrestling with a TARCAP problem over the Chinnampo Estuary when he was suddenly surrounded by silvery forms flashing by.[21] They were drop tanks, jettisoned by aircraft 30,000 feet up. The ripple of smoke from the Sabres’ point fives versus the puff puff puff of the MIGs’ big 37mm could be clearly seen against their white contrails. One silver MIG came hightailing down to bug out north on the deck but he was much too fast and too far away to intercept.

The utility of TARCAP was directly proportional to the size of the guns. Destroyers with 4-inch guns were woefully inaccurate, with zones of 150 yards or more. The 3-inch frigates were awful. On the other hand, a shoot with a 16-inch battleship was awesome. Nine times out of 10, the first ranging shot would be a “target”, even at 15 miles or more range. “Fire for effect” simply demolished the average target with the first broadside. Every now and then a Convoy CAP would be flown for the Fleet Train or other ships. It was probably more to make them feel wanted and to give their Aircraft Direction Officers a bit of practice than to protect them from any real threat.

The air war stopped for RESCAP and all available aircraft supported downed aircrew. On 23 October a USAF B29 pilot who had bailed out over the sea just north of the Chinnampo Estuary was spotted by a Sydney Sea Fury.[22] A Sydney Firefly delivered a G-Dropper dinghy and the pilot was eventually picked up from the middle of a minefield by a boat from HMAS Murchison.

When Sub-Lieutenant MacMillan put his Firefly down back of the Chaeryongang Waterways on 26 October, a classic RESCAP was flown with RAN Sea Furies, Fireflies, RAAP and other aircraft.[23] In the face of enemy ground fire, a “double cross” strafing pattern was established for Sydney’s helicopter pick up. The RAN escort and helicopter landed safely south of the front line, but with all aircraft indicating less than zero fuel.

Strike

Once a month or so, the Sea Furies would load up with 500-pound bombs and deliver them to places like East Coast Hungam on 20 November, or West Coast Onjin Peninsula on 18 January.[24] They were reported to be effective, according to people like “Leopard”, an SAS-type person who allegedly ran agents inside the “Wales” area, but Sea Fury pilots rarely saw any spectacular target reaction.

Army Co-operation

As mentioned earlier, Cagle and Manson rightly criticise the Close Air Support mess in the first few months of the war.[25] Triumph and the US Marines had CAS experience, but the USAF, USN, RAAP, US Army and Korean Army evidently had no common CAS communications, doctrine or desire. We trained hard in the concept and it did not seem to matter whether it was a soldier, marine, airman or sailor who directed the cab-rank, so long as he had a good radio and knew how to identify targets and select ammunition. Our CBGLO was a valued member of our Air Department team.

Ourselves

Like the “Firebox” drivers, the Sea Fury pilots came from three main sources: (a) Second World War veteran ex-RN, ex-RNZN, ex-RAN College and other pilots who were now RAN; (b) loan RN officers, most of whom had war experience; and (c) seven bright-eyed, bushy tailed young RAAP-trained, RN-converted short service acting sub-lieutenants whose major exposure to danger had been standing between a thirsty CO and an open bar.

The young sub-lieutenants were graduates of the first two or three courses of the RAN pilot training system that started in December 1947. They trained with the RAAP at Point Cook in Tiger Moths and Wirraways, then with the RN in Seafires (or Fireflies for the ASW people). The first author had 188 hours on type, with a log book total of 578 hours, and 83 deck landings, before his first operational sortie.[26] It would have been unlikely for any to have been accused of being teetotal or shy at a cocktail party.

A lot of people put a lot of effort into the only action RAN fixed-wing aircraft squadrons ever saw and 805 Squadron was the only RAN unit to experience fatal Korean War casualties.

There seems to be little informed discussion about the employment of our Sea Furies in Korea. Original sources may exist, but it should be remembered that most were written or edited by RN officers, perhaps with an unconscious bias that might not coincide with Australian best interests. For instance, intriguing questions about the command structure and petty inter-service rivalries seem never to have been addressed. Was the decision not to use napalm correct? Was the USAF strategy flawed? Should RAN aircraft have paid more attention to “strategic” targets, such as the hydro-electric or irrigation systems? Were CAP and ASW sorties wasted? Was the decision to use 3-inch rockets on the Sea Furies correct? Did Sea Furies inflict any significant damage at all? Were Sea Furies the best aircraft for the job? Was NGS with ships of destroyer size or smaller worth the effort? Was the loss of three pilots worth the outcome?

It seems a pity that the answers to these questions and many others are not discussed in the manner of contemporary USN squadrons. Their detailed histories are readily available in a multitude of books and journal articles in likely resource centres.

Therefore, not only should the history of the RAN Sea Furies in Korea be written, but it may be argued that it should be written, with little delay, by a wide variety of people from a number of different perspectives. Every year, there are fewer and fewer eye-witnesses who might challenge existing, perhaps hidden, records and opinions.


Notes

[1] A. MacDonald, Korea: The War Before Vietnam (New York, 1986).

[2] J.P. Schnabel, United States Anny in the Korean War: Policy and Directions, the First Year (Washington, 1972).

[3] R.E. Appleman, United States Anny in the Korean War: South to Naktong, North to the Yalu (Washington, 1961).

[4] M.W. Cagle and P.A. Manson, The Sea War in Korea (Annapolis,1957).

[5] Ibid., pp.48-51.

[6] Ibid., p.414.

[7] N. Bartlett (ed.), With the Australians in Korea (2nd edn, Canberra, 1957).

[8] Ibid., pp. 137, 225.

[9] C.N. Barclay, The First Commonwealth Division: The Story of British Commonwealth Land Forces in Korea, 1950-1953 (Aldershot,1954), pp.100-17.

[10] F.T. Lane, Pilot’s Log Book, Vol. 1, unpublished.

[11] P. Firkins, Of Nautilus and Eagles: History of the Roya/Australian Navy (Melbourne,1983), pp.223-26,192-19.

[12] J.E. Macdonnell, Wings Off the Sea, (Toronto,1953).

[13] S. Diamond,” The Black Knights off Miramir: The History of VF-154″, The Hook, Vol.15 No.1,1987, pp.34-57.

[14] MacDonald, Korea, p.237.

[15] Lane, Pilot’s Log Book.

[16] E. Angelucci, Rand-McNally Encyclopaedia of Military Aircraft 1914- 1980 (New York, 1980) p. 425.

[17] Lane, Pilot’s Log Book.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] F.T. Lane, “Longest Helicopter Rescue?”, The Hook, Vol. 10 No.4, 1982, p.66.

[24] Lane, Pilot’s Log Book.

[25] Cagle and Manson, The Sea War, pp.48-51.

[26] Lane, Pilot’s Log Book.

This Essay was the text of a presentation given by Fred Lane 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 275-284.