Our Heritage: 1948-1957 In Pictures

The RAN Fleet Air Arm was approved by Cabinet in 1947. ¬†Heavily reliant on the Royal Navy for training and support, the first Air Group was trained in the UK the following year and returned to Australia aboard our first aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney, ¬†in ’49. ¬†

From these early beginnings the FAA grew in skill, professionalism and reputation. ¬†Forged by the war in Korea, battered by political decisions that robbed it of first one carrier and then the other, and serving with distinction in the Middle East, the FAA has survived to become an indispensable part of today’s Fleet.¬†

The story of the years between 1947 and 1957 are told here in the images of the time. 

Above: This Seagull V suffered significant damage during hoisting onto the ship. Below: US airforce Mitchell B25 bombers during a bombing raid on Japanese ships in Rabaul Harbour in Papua New Guinea during the Battle of the Coral Sea (The Australian).

The period leading up to the formation of the Fleet Air Arm could rightly be regarded as the formative stage of developing an aviation capability. The RAN consistently tried to obtain aircraft at sea because it was convinced of their value in naval warfare, but it was also practicable. An aircraft took up valuable space on a warship, so if it was no longer useful it was replaced by something that was.  
¬† ¬† ¬†The¬†frailty of aircraft of the time was a constant problem. ¬†Early types such as the Fairey IIID in the 1920s were simply too big and too¬†vulnerable. ¬†The Seagull III of the 1930’s was better, but it still had to be hoisted to and from the water as it was not stressed for catapult launching. ¬†It’s successor, the Seagull V, was – but it was still vulnerable to hoisting accidents (see picture left), and really only suitable for reconnaissance. ¬†In some theatres this was useful – such as during searches for German raiders in the south Atlantic or Indian Oceans, but in more confined waters it was a liability. Mediterranean Fleet cruisers soon began disembarking their aircraft to make room for more anti-aircraft guns. ¬†The Seagull V also proved highly vulnerable to attacks by more modern fighter aircraft (Perth, Sydney and Australia all had their amphibians shot down by other aircraft), and so by the end of 1944 no RAN cruisers carried them.¬†


World War 2 proved the value of Naval Aviation, however: not as single, obsolete aircraft carried on cruisers, but in the form of modern aircraft carriers able to project air power over the horizon, such as had been done in the Battle of The Coral Sea.  
By the latter stages of the war, the Royal Australian Navy was realising itself to be in a poor way regarding ships, although there was no shortage of officers or ratings.  The Australian Naval Commonwealth Board believed that a carrier task group with accompanying cruisers and destroyers was the way ahead to not only provide independent naval capability, but to assist in Commonwealth defence in a broader sense.
        In the meantime, Britain found itself in the inverse position.  It had no less than ten light fleet carriers on dockyard slipways it could neither afford to man nor operate.  Offering them to the Dominions of the Commonwealth was an attractive proposition and one that, within reason, the British Government was prepared to be generous over. 

After protracted negotiations the British offered Australia two new carriers for £2,750,000, which was about half their normal price.  A further £500,00 was committed to bring the second of these ships to the most modern standard, but the first РHMS Terrible Рwas to be completed to her original specification.  The Australian Government approved the purchase in July of 1947, together with the formation of two Carrier Air Groups (CAGs) equipped with a large number of Sea Fury and Firefly aircraft.  See a detailed account of the background to the carrier decision here.

Early Days and the Journey to Australia

Below Left. ¬†1943. Lady Astor talking to some of the women who would build HMS Terrible. ¬†Women in the workforce were increasingly common during the war as the men went to fight. ¬†Astor was the first woman to hold a seat in parliament and was fiercely feminist, so the photograph is unsurprising. ¬†Below Right. ¬†HMS Terrible at its launch on 30 September 1944. ¬†Construction was then halted as it was surplus to requirements, but the Australian Government’s decision to buy it (and one other) in 1947 brought it out of mothballs. ¬†


Above. ¬†A 1947 newspaper article reports on the Government’s decision to purchase two carriers, with associated aircraft. (Trove). Right. ¬†Following the decision the Navy wasted no time in recruiting for the new Arm, which was scheduled to start training in the UK by the end of that year. Thousands of RN and RAN personnel volunteered, to the point where the selection panel was overwhelmed.

Above. The Government’s Decision to establish a Fleet Air Arm triggered other actions, too. ¬†HMS Nabbington, which had been a Mobile Naval Operating Air Base at Nowra since 1944, was transferred to the RAN on 15 December 1947 as a home base for the new Carrier Air Groups then under training in the UK. It was commissioned¬†as HMAS Albatross on 31 August of the following year, but was in poor repair and required much work in preparation for the CAG, which arrived early in 1949.

Left. ¬†HMS TERRIBLE was launched on 30 September 1944 by Mrs Duncan Sandys, the wife of the then British Financial Secretary to the War Office. The ship was one of six Majestic Class light aircraft carriers under construction for the fleet, but by the time of her launch the Allies were on the brink of invading Europe and Germany’s air and sea power had been broken. ¬†

The incomplete hull was to languish in the dockyard for a further three years before being sold to the Australian Government.  Work resumed in 1947.

The contracted price did not include any of the more recent innovations such as an angled deck, so the FAA’s first carrier was built to original specifications (unlike her sister ship that was to become HMAS Melbourne). ¬†

Right: HMS TERRIBLE just prior to her name change to SYDNEY. ¬† The popular misconception is that the ship was launched as ‘Terrible’ but never sailed under that name. This is incorrect: she was commissioned HMS Terrible on Saturday 16 October 1948 for preliminary trials, under the command of Captain Dowling. About two-thirds of the ship’s company were RAN personnel and the remainder were¬†predominantly¬†dockyard workers required for special duties, mainly in the electrical and engineering departments.
       HMS Terrible slipped from Devonport dockyard on Monday 18th October and moved to Plymouth Sound under her own power for the first time.  She spent the next few days carrying out anchor and capstan trials before engaging in full power trials, finally reaching a speed of 24.7 knots.  She returned to the dockyard on Friday 22nd October 1948 and the following day paid off and reverted to dockyard control.  She never sailed as HMS Terrible again. 

Below. HMAS SYDNEY on her commissioning in Devonport on 16Dec48.  See Here for a British Pathe news clip of the commissioning ceremony.

The RAN crew joined SYDNEY some time before her commissioning, but it was a busy time: and none more so than over the Christmas 1948 period, when final preparations had to be made to take the ship to sea for the first time as an RAN vessel, and also prepare for the Air Group to embark for flying trials. ¬†No doubt personnel were keen to take a little leave, too, prior to the long voyage back to Australia scheduled for early April 1949. Despite this workload there was time for a little Christmas cheer, and the Navy catering staff would have made their usual magic for the Christmas Day menu, depicted here. ¬†It is not known which mess deck signed the menu but it would no doubt have been a valued memento – a brand new ship in a foreign land at the very beginning of the Fleet Air Arm’s history.

Below¬†Centre and Right.¬†SYDNEY boasted modern warfighting capability with a state of the art aircraft Plotting and Operations Rooms . These photographs were taken during her work up trials early in 1949. From the day she commissioned, work continued at a frenetic pace to prepare the ship for acceptance, embark the Air Group, and prepare for the long journey to Australia. ¬†The total time between these events was less than four months ‚Äď an astonishing accomplishment considering the complexity of what was being put together. ¬†

Far Left. Although not of good quality, this photo of 16Dec48 shows the first meeting of the combined aircraft of the Carrier Air Group (CAG) and their new mum, HMAS Sydney, as they conduct a flypast on her commissioning day. Within three weeks she commenced full power trails and Captain Dowling accepted the ship for RAN service on 03Feb49. 

Below Left. Sydney sailed from Devonport on 12 February 1949 for work up exercises. The Air Group joined her two days later and by 04 March she was in the Firth of Forth for training.  

Below: The first training course went to England at the end of 1947. ¬†The two images provided by John Harrison (from National Archives Canberra) show the official numbers and names of the first intake of technical sailors with colour coded notes on individuals (blue for Naval Airmen, red for Skilled Air Mechanics and orange for Aircraft Artificers) ‚Äď a remarkable record. The individual pages represent Port and Starboard watches in recruit school. ¬†Notice the handwritten remarks that suggest that for some recruits at least, all was not well! ¬†Aircrew were also trained in the UK using borrowed aircraft. 805 Squadron and 816 Squadron were commissioned at RNAS Eglington on 28 August 1948, to become the first Carrier Air Group. ¬†(Click on any image on this page to enlarge).

Above Right.  It fell to Captain (later VADM Sir Roy) Dowling, RAN to forge the new vessel and her fledgling air group into an operational Unit.  That he got the appointment was fortuitious: four RAN captains senior to him had been killed in the war, and of those surviving, only one was in the running for carrier command. When that officer became medically unfit for sea service, Dowling went to England in his stead and in December 1948 commissioned HMAS Sydney. His success made him certain to be selected for flag rank. He left the ship with regret in 1950 and went on to become the Chief of Naval Staff.  In this capacity he struggled to retain the Fleet Air Arm as the Government curbed Defence spending and, despite his attachment to it, had to preside over the decision to abandon it Рa move reversed after his retirement.  CDR Stevens RN, presumably the Executive Officer, is to the right of Captain Dowling.

Left: This photograph shows the first intake of Naval Airmen for the FAA, whose names were in the roster above. The image was taken at Yeovilton in early April 1947, and superimposed by John Harrison over a picture of HMAS Sydney. Back Row (standing) L-R:  Ian Ferguson , Jim Hallahan, Jack Herbert, Max Vinen, George Mackenzie, Peter Busby. Front Row (squatting) L-R: John Elliot, Neville Way, Jim Hibbert, John Harrison, Dennis Finn, Stan Dyker, Terry Egan and Keith Hope.  (Photo via John Harrison). 


Below. ¬†A group of young maintenance personnel undergoing technical training at Bramcote in Warwickshire, UK. ¬†They were the second intake which arrived in the UK in July 1948 aboard HMAS Kanimbla, along with the first crew of ‘Sydney’. (The first group, who had done their training in Yeovilton, was already on its way back to Oz). The engine is a Bristol Centaurus, which was the power plant of the Hawker Sea Fury. ¬†Regrettably we have no names other than the figure second from right (hands behind back) could be Ray Homer. ¬† (Photo via Ron Marsh, and thanks to John Harrison for information).

Below: the 14 original members of the Number 1 Course RAN pilots at RAAF Point Cook in March 1948. ¬†There were also 37 RAAF students on the same course.¬†Back row L-R: Mick Streeter, Henry Hurley (later ACDRE RAAF), Bill Sweeting, Clive Van Der Lillie (reverted to Writer); Fred Lane, Col Champ, Noel Creevey (reverted to AB) and John Roland. ¬†Seated L-R: Dick Sinclair (KIA in Korea), John Herrick (later TAA & Qantas), Garth “Slim” Eldering (ex-LSEA Radar, back classed after injury, later Missing Presumed Dead in a Seafire accident); LEUT “Paddles” Henley RN (Divisional Officer), Ian Webster, Ian McDonald, John Horwood. ¬† Following their Point Cook time successful graduates departed for RNAS Eglington (in the UK) where they undertook further training before becoming part of the 20th CAG.¬†

Below Left. ¬†The CAG joined the ship on 14 February 1949. ¬†Although they had done deck landing training, many of the pilots were inexperienced and it did not take that long for accidents to happen. ¬†One of the first is depicted in the sequence of photographs below right, when Acting Lieutenant Buchanan missed the arrester wires and then ‘floated’ over the barrier in Firefly VG973 to strike other aircraft in the forward deck park. ¬†The top image shows him approaching, the second some of the damage he inflicted (amazingly, the Observer in 227 escaped unhurt), and the third what they did to his aircraft once the dust had settled. ¬†(To be fair, the early Fireflies had a reputation for ‘hook bounce’ as the hook didn’t extend very far down. A later mod fixed that issue).

Below.  Laden with people and aircraft, HMAS Sydney slipped her moorings in Devonport on 12 April 1949 and turned south for her journey home. There were over 1600 souls aboard, so it was extremely crowded, and there was no flying to be had during the trip. The necessity for a fast passage meant only a brief stop at Aden for fuel, with two hours of shore leave per watch! (Interestingly, the best economical speed for Light Fleet Carriers was reported as 13 knots, but the program for passage to Australia as required by the Naval Board, required 14 knots).  
The journey from Devonport to Fremantle was swift, taking just one month. ¬†This meant minimum stops on the way. ¬†The ship arrived off Port Said on Thursday 21st April 1949 and, after two brief delays to wait for passing ships, transited though the Suez Canal (below left). ¬†She made a brief stop (12 hours) in Aden for fuel before resuming her journey across the Indian Ocean. ¬†She crossed the equator on Sunday May 1st but the ‘Crossing The Line’¬†ceremony was held the¬†previous day to protect Sunday routine. Below Right: Captain Dowling and ‘wife’ (a luckless Midshipman) officiate over the ceremony. ¬† She arrived at Fremantle, WA, at 0755 on 12 May and after a brief stop there and in Melbourne, shaped course for Jervis Bay.¬†

SYDNEY arrived in Jervis Bay on 25th May and anchored half a mile off the breakwater to unload personnel, stores and aircraft of the 20th CAG, together with reserve aircraft, power plants and other stores for RANAS Nowra. ¬†Personnel and their effects were the first to leave the ship followed by miscellaneous stores and engines, and it was not until afternoon that the first aircraft was offloaded. ¬†Two type “B” air lighters were used to transport each aircraft to JB jetty where they were lifted by crane and towed by prime movers to JB airstrip. ¬†They remained there until disembarkation was complete and they could be towed the 12 miles to HMAS Albatross in slower time.¬†

The work continued the following day, hampered by inexperience of personnel and temporary breakdown of the lighters and the jetty crane, but as personnel became familiar with the routine the rate improved to the point where only three aircraft remained aboard by nightfall (apart from two Sea Otters which were to fly off).  Captain Dowling had hoped to continue work into the night, but could not do so on the advice of the local police, who were reluctant to allow road towing to take place in darkness. 

Operation Decanter was completed by noon on Friday 28th May and SYDNEY departed for her namesake city soon after.  The RAN Fleet Air Arm had a footprint on home soil for the very first time. 

SYDNEY’s ROP reports her entry into Sydney as follows:
“…the sun shone again as SYDNEY passed the Heads at 0930(J) to enter her name port for the first time. On the passage up the harbour five Mustangs formated perfectly overhead in salute whilst every ferry steam welcomes the ship’s arrival with much whistling. By 1045(K) the long voyage from the United Kingdom had been completed as SYDNEY secured alongside the fitting out wharf, Captain Cook Dock where relatives and friends were assembled to meet the ship.”

The 20th CAG arrived at HMAS Albatross (left) which was rudimentary, to say the least.  The main 03/21 runway was not completed until after their arrival, and was then only just long enough to operate the Sea Furies.  Only one small fuel bowser was available too, and had to fill up in Nowra some 12 miles down the road. The married quarters were the relics of what had been at the air station when it first opened, prior even to it being HMAS Nabbington (above), and most of the Squadron personnel were forced to live in the caravan park pictured just to the north of the airfield.  To the many who had joined the CAG from the UK it must have seemed like another planet.