The RAN in Korea

Published on Sea Power Centre - Australia (author)

Aerial port bow view of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (III). A Fairey Firefly aircraft is on the catapult forward. Other Fireflies and Hawker Sea Furies are arranged on the flight deck further aft. (photo: Unknown)
Aerial port bow view of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (III). A Fairey Firefly aircraft is on the catapult forward. Other Fireflies and Hawker Sea Furies are arranged on the flight deck further aft.

The Australian International Airshow 2015 pays tribute to Anzac and the heroes of military aviation.  It is the major theme of the event and as such will be the first significant observance of the Gallipoli campaign in its centenary year.  The airshow features an emotional and moving tribute to our aviators from Gallipoli to the present day. During the Australian International Airshow, Navy Daily will highlight the significant contribution of naval aviators from the First World War to the present day.

On 31 August 1951, the Majestic class aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney (III), under the command of Captain David H. Harries RAN, departed Australian waters to join the Commonwealth naval forces participating in the Korean War. It was a historic occasion, being the first time that any Dominion carrier had gone into action. Embarked were RAN Fleet Air Arm squadrons 805 (Sea Furies), 808 (Sea Furies) and 817 (Fireflies). In addition, the United States Navy (USN) would loan Sydney a Dragonfly helicopter and crew. The carrier arrived in Japan on 19 September.

Participating in 'Operation Strangle,' which was intended to cut enemy supply and communications to the front lines, Sydney would share patrol duties on Korea's west coast with Royal Navy (RN) and USN carriers as part of Task Force 95, United Nations Blockade and Escort Force. Seven patrols of roughly 13 days each, including four days in transit to and from bases in Japan, were originally planned. Operations would normally entail ground attack including close air support for ground forces, armed reconnaissance, spotting for ships’ guns and anti-shipping strikes. In addition, the Carrier Air Group (CAG), now bearing the black and white striped markings of the United Nations, would maintain a Combat Area Patrol (CAP) during daylight hours to protect Sydney in the event of an air attack.

Sydney began her first patrol on 4 October and the CAG conducted its first raids the following day with 32 sorties mounted in the 'Wales' area in the south-west of North Korea. On 11 October, operating off the east coast of Korea, Sydney's CAG flew a light fleet carrier record of 89 sorties in one day conducting attacking raids and targeting sorties for the battleship USS New Jersey, and amounting to a total of 147 sorties in two days of operations. This exceptional performance drew high praise from the British Commander-in-Chief Far East Station:

Hawker Sea Fury fighter aircraft lands on the flight deck of HMAS Sydney (III).

Hawker Sea Fury fighter aircraft lands on the flight deck of HMAS Sydney (III).

"Your air effort in the last two days, unprecedented in quantity and high in quality, has been a magnificent achievement on which I warmly congratulate you. Though it is invidious to particularise - the spotters especially did a first class job and New Jersey with [the Commander of the] 7th Fleet embarked said they were the best she has had yet. Eighty-nine sorties in one day is grand batting by any standards, particularly in the opening match..."

Aircraft engineers and maintenance crews also won much well deserved praise achieving remarkable serviceability and turn-around rates to keep the aircraft flying. Ordnance crews were also required to load armaments of up to 227 kgs in all weather, day and night.

It did not take long before Sydney’s CAG earned a reputation as being a proficient strike unit having carried out a number of very successful missions against rail and road bridge targets. Rail and road interdiction became the main role of the squadron throughout the Korean War and this often required the pilots to use low level attacks against heavily defended targets behind enemy lines. Anti-aircraft fire was particularly effective under these circumstances and several Fireflies were lost or damaged as a result. Anti-submarine patrols were also flown by 817 Squadron around the Sydney task group and spotting tasks continued for ships involved in Naval Gunfire Support off the Korean coastline.

On 14 October, Sydney was subjected to the full force of Typhoon Ruth. Battling force 12 winds, and with waves up to 15m high crashing over her deck, Sydney rode out the storm with 13 of her aircraft exposed on deck. Many were damaged and five of them were written off with at least one being washed over board. The carrier itself sustained damage and several of her personnel suffered minor injuries.

During flying operations on 25-26 October, three of Sydney's aircraft were shot down and a fourth badly damaged. One of these, a Firefly from 817 Squadron, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant Neil MacMillan and Chief Petty Officer Phillip Hancox, was forced down in a frozen rice paddy 50 miles behind enemy lines. The two downed aviators resisted capture by enemy soldiers with the aid of an Owen sub-machine gun and a protective overhead umbrella provided by Sea Furies from Sydney and Meteor jet fighters from the Royal Australian Air Force's 77 Squadron. The two airmen were later rescued by Sydney's Dragonfly helicopter which had flown more than 100 miles to carry out the rescue at the limit of its endurance. It then recovered to Kimpo and returned to Sydney with its passengers the following day. The helicopter pilot, Chief Petty Officer Arlene 'Dick' Babbit, USN, was awarded the Commonwealth Distinguished Service Medal as well as the United States Navy Cross for his efforts that day, earning the distinction of being the only allied serviceman in Korea to receive the awards of two nations for the same action.

With the onset of the Korean winter, flying operations became increasingly difficult for both aircrew and maintainers. The icy conditions and subzero temperature on Sydney's windswept, and at times, snow covered flight deck resulted in a number of cases of frostbite and introduced the additional hazard of aircrew freezing to death if an aircraft was forced to ditch at sea.

40mm Bofors Anti Aircraft guns of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (III) at gunnery practice during a tour of duty of Korea 1951

40mm Bofors Anti Aircraft guns of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (III) at gunnery practice during a tour of duty of Korea 1951

Sydney's CAG lost three aircrew during the Korean War, all from 805 Squadron. Lieutenant Keith Clarkson was killed when his aircraft was struck by enemy fire while diving on a road convoy on 5 November 1951. He never recovered from the dive. Clarkson's death shocked the rest of the CAG not just because he was their first fatality, but also because he was 805 Squadron's Senior Pilot and one of the most experienced pilots in the CAG, having served in WWII with the Royal Australian Air Force.

805 Squadron suffered their second loss on 7 December 1951 when Sub-Lieutenant Richard Sinclair was hit by flak north-west of Chinnampo. His aircraft lost oil pressure and the engine caught fire forcing him to bail out. Sinclair was killed when he was struck by the tailplane of his Sea Fury. He was the father of a one month old baby back home in Australia.

The Squadron's final loss was that of Sub-Lieutenant Ronald Coleman who went missing on 2 January 1952 during an otherwise uneventful CAP over the Yellow Sea. Coleman disappeared into cloud and was never seen again. With weather conditions and visibility extremely poor, Sydney launched an arduous, but ultimately fruitless, search.

Sydney's last raids were scheduled for 25 January 1952, striking directly on the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Extremely poor weather, however, caused the mission to be cancelled and Sydney returned to Australia a few days later via Sasebo and Hong Kong.

Collectively, Sydney's CAG had flown 2,366 sorties over 64 days in the operational area for the loss of three lives (all from 805 Squadron) and 14 aircraft (including those lost overboard or damaged beyond repair by Cyclone Ruth). Sydney had achieved an enviable operational record in Korea and it was noted that enemy activity decreased significantly in Sydney's area of operations.

On October 27 1953 Sydney departed Fremantle for her second tour of duty in Korean waters with 805 (Sea Furies), 816 (Fireflies) and 850 (Sea Furies) squadrons embarked. The July 1953 ceasefire meant that the deployment should have been a comparatively uneventful affair. However, the deaths of two pilots (one from 805 Squadron, the other from 850 Squadron) and the serious injury of an aircraft handler would mar the deployment. 850 Squadron pilot Sub-Lieutenant Michael Beardsall, RN, was killed when his Sea Fury crashed into the sea about 15 kilometres ahead of the ship on 29 December 1953. 805 Squadron pilot Sub-Lieutenant John McClinton was killed on 15 January 1954 when he walked into a rotating propeller on Sydney's flight deck. On 14 February 1954, Naval Airman Keith Hazel, a 'Hookman' whose duty was to race out from the catwalk to secure a landed aircraft once it had caught a wire, appeared to either misjudge a landing or the aircraft slipped a wire and caught a later one. In either case, Hazel ran onto the flight deck too early and an arrestor wire nearly severed his legs. They were saved by a US Army doctor. The incident highlighted how dangerous naval aviation could be for all involved. Sydney departed for Australia on 4 May 1954 and arrived in Fremantle, via Hong Kong and Singapore, on 2 June 1954.