HMAS Sydney in the Korean War

HMAS Sydney in Korean waters, 1951-52. Honisett, Ray. [AWM ART28077]

A Firefly FR 5 on HMAS Sydney’s catapult with its engine running but not quite ready to launch. The ship’s USN S-51 `plane-guard’ helicopter has just launched and taken up its position off the port bow.

A replacement Firefly FR 5 being lowered onto HMAS Sydney’s flight deck in Sasebo.

HMAS Sydney 3 – September 1951 to January 1952 The RAN had formed its own Fleet Air Arm in 1948 with considerable help from the RN and Australia’s first aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney, had only arrived at her new home port in 1949. The need to withdraw Glory for a refit in Australia posed a problem for the Admiralty since Ocean, the next light fleet carrier intended for service in the war zone, would not be ready to deploy until May 1952. To fill the gap the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fraser, asked the First Naval Member of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board, Vice Admiral Sir John Collins, if it would be possible for `Sydney to relieve Glory for two or three months operational flying if the Korean business is still going’. Collins supported the idea and put it to the Australian Government which approved the deployment in May 1951. This was a substantial increase in the nation’s commitment to the war and a significant development in Australian history since only three nations, the UK, USA and Japan, had previously deployed aircraft carriers in combat operations. For the deployment Sydney embarked elements of 20 and 21 CAGs and sailed for the war zone after a work up with 805 and 808 (Sea Fury FB 11) and 817 (Firefly FR 5) NAS embarked. She secured alongside Glory in Kure Dockyard, Japan on 27 September 1951 to transfer aircraft, stores and the USN S-51 helicopter detachment for SAR duties. Sydney sailed for her first war patrol on 3 October 1951 and sent her aircraft into action from a position off the east coast two days later. On only her fifth day of operations she equalled the record number of eighty-nine sorties flown in a single day set by Glory. Judged by the standards of her peers with their recent extensive wartime carrier-operating experience, Sydney had started well and continued to do so.

On 14 October she had to stand out to sea to avoid Typhoon RUTH and although she managed to avoid the epicentre, high winds and seas destroyed six aircraft in her deck park. Replacement aircraft were provided from the RN Aircraft Holding Unit (AHU), at Iwakuni and Sydney began her second war patrol on 18 October. During this period she flew 474 sorties which included the provision of close air support for the Commonwealth Division which formed part of the UN land forces in Korea. Rear Admiral Scott-Moncreiff had succeeded Rear Admiral Andrewes as FO2FES on the latter’s promotion and he flew his flag in Sydney during her third war patrol which began on 4 November so that he could gain firsthand experience of carrier operations. Her aircraft carried out a number of strikes on rail targets that were synchronised with other Allied air arms. After a brief respite, Sydney took part in Operation `Athenaeum’ from 18 November, a series of co-ordinated attacks by aircraft and naval gunfire against Hungnam, a transport hub on Korea’s east coast. She resumed operations off the west coast during early December and then spent Christmas 1951 in Kure Dockyard.

These accounts of individual carrier operations that are illustrative of overall Commonwealth carrier operations. For example, on 26 October 1951 Firefly WB 393 of 817 NAS was hit by antiaircraft fire while attacking a railway tunnel near Chaeryong, north of Haeju. The pilot, Sub Lieutenant N D MacMillan RAN, managed a successful forced landing in enemy territory and both he and his observer, Chief Petty Officer J Hancox RAN, got out of the wrecked aircraft and took cover in a ditch, keeping NKPA soldiers that had encircled them at bay with their Owen submachine-guns. Sydney had a section of Sea Furies in the area and these were instructed to provide top cover, strafing enemy troops to prevent them from capturing the downed aircrew. Sydney herself was 75 miles away and her captain, Captain D H Harries CBE RAN, had doubts about the wisdom of sending her USN helicopter to rescue them because of fears that it might not locate the crash-site and clear enemy territory before nightfall. The crew insisted that they be given the chance to try, however, and Harries approved the sortie. Meanwhile Meteor jet fighters of 77 Squadron RAAF joined the Sea Furies in giving top cover. By 17.15 the jets had to go but the Sea Fury pilots, Lieutenants Cavanagh and Salthouse RAN, elected to remain, despite their low fuel state, another advantage of the piston-engined Sea Fury over the early generation of jet fighters. At 17.25 the SAR helicopter arrived, having flown at a speed considerably above the maximum quoted in the S- 51’s aircrew manual. As it landed the observer, Chief Petty Officer Gooding USN, jumped out and shot dead two NKPA soldiers who had crawled to within fifteen yards of the wrecked Firefly. An hour later the helicopter with the two rescued aircrew on board, and still escorted by the Sea Furies, landed at the Allied airfield at Kimpo just as darkness fell.

Sydney sailed on 28 December for her sixth war patrol during which emphasis was placed on the defence of small islands off the west coast held by South Korean forces. Her seventh and last patrol began on 16 January 1952 and when she entered Sasebo for the last time on 26 January, FO2 described her work in the Korean war zone as being `quite excellent’. She had flown a total of 2366 sorties in forty-three operational flying days, an average of 55.2 per day, and her expenditure of ammunition amounted to 154 500lb and 1000lb bombs, 1197 rocket projectiles and 73,440 rounds of 20mm ammunition. All replacement aircraft, ammunition and stores came from RN stocks. She lost fifteen aircraft in action and three pilots killed.

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