Korea: The Sea Fury Years I

A striking shot of a Sea Fury being moved. The chockmen so close to the undercarriage and the very reduced team numbers pushing it off the lift suggests the aircraft had no brake pressure. That, and the close-by Doggy, indicates it may have been a hangar reshuffle after flying was completed for the day and before a high-line or message bag transfer. Sometimes a reduced hangar handling team, like this, might pop up one or two aircraft to enable access to a potentially serviceable craft for the next day’s flying or to put a potentially extended service aircraft out of the way, up against the fire curtain that divided A and B hangars.  HMAS Anzac, a Battle Class destroyer, crosses close astern. (RAN image).

The carrier that replaced Triumph, HMS Theseus, had been completed for service in February 1946 and had initially been allocated to the Far East Fleet with No.804 NAS and its Seafires plus No.812 NAS and its Fireflies aboard. After a refit in Rosyth Dockyard during 1947 the air wing was re-equipped with Sea Furies and Fireflies of Nos 807 and 813 NAS. After working-up the carrier departed for Sasebo on 8 October 1950 in company with the cruiser HMS Kenya plus Constance, Sioux and Cayuga. En route to Sasebo extensive and concentrated flying training was carried out to ensure that the pilots could land their aircraft safely thus reducing the workload overall on the maintenance teams, who would be fully stretched keeping the aircraft rearmed and maintained during operations, without having to repair damaged airframes. The deck parties also worked hard to ensure that their duties were performed without mistakes and, in particular, the deck landing officers studied each approaching aircraft and would wave it off if there was any doubt.

Having arrived in Hong Kong on 29 September the carrier would depart for Sasebo on 2 October, the air wing arriving back on board after having been ashore at Kai Tak from 24 September. The journey was slowed slightly as there was a typhoon warning in force and the aircraft were secured for this eventuality and the carrier and escorts slowed down to reduce the possibility of damage to the smaller ships. The delay meant that the ships did not arrive until 4 October. Once secured in Sasebo Theseus received extra aircraft from HMS Warrior which had replaced Unicorn as the carrier support vessel. Unlike Unicorn HMS Warrior had been built as fully functional aircraft carrier before assuming its new role in June 1950. With its full inventory of aircraft aboard the ground crews applied black and white striping to all the aircraft for recognition purposes. With a full complement of vessels available Admiral Andrewes decided to reorganise the ships so that Task Element TE 95.11 comprised Theseus plus escorts, TE 95.12 was for surface patrol and blockade, TE 95.13 was the screen element while another handful of small ships and aircraft covered minesweeping and general tasking. On 9 October Theseus undertook its first operational patrol off the Korean coast, combat cover was provided by the Sea Furies while the Firefly squadron carried out anti-submarine patrols. By this time the Firefly had been fitted with a radar pod in place of one of the under-wing fuel tanks; it detracted little from the aircraft’s performance and its addition gave the aircraft better capabilities. The main patrol area for Theseus was the Yellow Sea close by the Shantung Peninsula. While the carrier was fitted with a very good air warning radar it was decided that the standing air patrols would be maintained during daylight hours for increased security. During these patrols the Sea Fury pilots felt themselves to be most unlucky not to engage in any air to air combat although they did manage to intercept various Neptunes, Sunderlands and B-29 Superfortress bombers heading to bomb the bridges on the Yula River.

Missions selected for Theseus included the usual selection of standing air patrols and anti-submarine patrols to which were added armed reconnaissance and air strikes, the latter being handed down by the Joint Operations Centre, initially located in Seoul and later in Taegu. Prior to departure on patrol the carrier was provided with all the intelligence and target data current at that time, any updates concerning new targets and bombing missions would be sent by immediate signal. To improve targeting the aerial operational areas were marked out on special maps that broke the country up into designated squares which were also marked with roads that were allocated colours and numbers. As soon as a target was spotted within any area it could be quickly identified on the armed reconnaissance map and aircraft assigned to attack. This method of attacking available targets soon drove the North Koreans to find another way of using the roads. By night it was far easier while in daylight extremely good camouflage was needed, even so as aircrews became familiar with their assigned territories any unusual changes were quickly spotted and these potential targets could be dealt with. In order to protect the aircraft and crews it was recommended that general area over flights be carried out at 1,500 ft while over zones with a greater concentration of defences the recommended height was 5,000 ft. Ground strikes in support of ground forces was normally managed using the British method of strike management. This consisted of an aerial controller flying in an NAA T.6 Harvard in contact by radio with spotters on the ground. Using this method of control allowed fast moving aircraft to come close to their targets as they sprayed the area with bombs, rockets and cannon fire. Obviously this lack of accuracy meant that the targets suffered only minor damage so the Americans developed and deployed napalm bombs while the Fleet Air Arm concentrated upon improving their accuracy which in turn caused greater casualties amongst the enemy. The crews of both Fireflies and Sea Furies also had to contend with the fact that their area of operations was highly mountainous, to their credit not a single aircraft was lost to terrain collision accidents. As the flights from the aircraft carriers were over nearly 80 miles of sea it was common practice to have a destroyer placed approximately at the mid-flight point between the carrier operating point and Inchon this being known as ‘Bird Dog’.

When Theseus arrived in theatre its air wing complement consisted of 23 Sea Furies of No.807 NAS commanded by Lt Cdr A J Thomson DSC and No.813 NAS commanded by Lt Cdr L W A Barrington with 12 Fireflies plus a Sea/Air Rescue (SAR) component consisting of either a Sea Otter amphibian or a helicopter. The vessel’s captain was Captain A S Bolt DSO, DSC. When the air wing was tasked with sorties the single-seater fighters were fitted with 45 gallon external fuel tanks while the two-seaters had 55 gallon tanks installed. These were needed because the sortie lengths were timed at two and a half hours. Added to the extra fuel load was the internal and external weapons loads which required that either the catapult be used for launching or, if that was out of action, each aircraft had to be boosted by RATOG packs. Initially the Sea Furies were launched with a weapons load of two 500 lb bombs, although this was later changed to the lighter 60 lb rockets as the required over-deck speed of 28 knots was not achievable by Theseus as the carriers hull required scraping and was therefore only capable of 22 knots. Changing the bomb loads to the Fireflies meant that the carrier needed only to achieve a top speed of 21 knots. As the handling crews became more experienced the launch and recovery rates improved; when operating with the US 7th Fleet carriers they were well able to match the launch rate of the Americans even though Theseus only had the one catapult. During the carrier’s deployment it was found that the best launch rate was 50 sorties per day however this could be pushed to 66 per day should the need arise. The first strike launched by Theseus on 9 October consisted of six Sea Furies carrying eight 60 lb warhead rockets and four Fireflies armed with a pair of 500 lb bombs each, the strike leader being Lt Cdr Stovin-Bradford DSC, the air wing commander. The assigned targets were Paengyong-do and the Fireflies concentrated upon the more hardened targets while the fighters strafed and rocketed everything that moved and much that did not. All aircraft returned to Theseus without damage after two hours airborne. The afternoon saw the next strike launched this time only five Sea Furies were sent although the Firefly complement remained the same. The target was the harbour area at Chinnampo. As before the Fireflies attacked the more hardened targets with better success than the morning raid while yet again the fighters attacked the slightly softer targets. During both sorties very little anti-aircraft fire was encountered and was restricted to some rifle fire.

The following day the air wing resumed the more mundane duties of anti-submarine patrols which were coupled with searching for mines. During one of these flights an 810 NAS Firefly crew reported the possible existence of a minefield to the north of the carrier group. Although not an immediate threat efforts were promptly made to remove it. While the rolling patrols were being undertaken Theseus launched four Fireflies escorted by a pair of Sea Furies tasked with attacking the railway bridge at Chang-you and two spans were successfully downed. Once the Fireflies had finished, one being slightly damaged by blast from its own bombs, the Sea Furies attacked rail and road vehicles in the vicinity of the railway station. While one strike force was demolishing a bridge and giving the locals a hard time a further four Sea Furies led by the air wing commander attacked other buildings and positions around the area. During these attacks a Sea Fury, VW628, flown by Lieutenant Leonard was damaged causing the engine to fail. The pilot managed to retain control long enough to crash land in a local paddy field. In an effort to protect the pilot who had remained trapped in his wrecked aircraft a pair of his companions in Sea Furies circled the area until fuel ran short at which point another Sea Fury took over. While providing support for their downed compatriot a request had been made for a rescue helicopter from Kimpo. Within the hour the helicopter touched down to be met by gunfire from a nearby building. As the onboard doctor helped the seriously injured airman from his cockpit the helicopter pilot laid down covering fire from his aircraft while urging the doctor to hurry. Eventually Lt Leonard was extracted from his aircraft and both the patient and doctor returned to the helicopter which took off safely. While the USAF helicopter was performing its rescue, support was given by an USMC Grumman F7F Tigercat which destroyed the Sea Fury as the final act of this drama.

The afternoon sorties went ahead as planned comprising four Fireflies and six Sea Furies armed with bombs and rockets respectively. While the Fireflies caused some damage to their target the Sea Furies, operating in pairs, attacked lesser targets of opportunity. All aircraft would later return to Theseus safely. Of the strikes planned for 11 October only the morning sorties were launched in an effort to catch the North Koreans still in the open. Unfortunately, they quickly disappeared as the fighters came near but even so some targets were found and attacked with some success. A further mission was launched later that morning against the islands off the west coast but this was the last attack possible before the weather deteriorated below flying minima. As no further flying was possible that day Theseus moved off to the replenishment area near Inchon to refuel the destroyer escort before returning to its station the next morning. No sorties were flown on the morning of 12 October, the plan being to launch a major attack against targets in the vicinity of Chang-yong. Although the attempt to take out the bridge failed, strafing and rocket attacks against troop trenches, ammunition dumps and antiaircraft emplacements were more successful, at least one dump blowing up most satisfactorily. These continued harassing attacks seemed to be driving enemy forces out of the Haeju-Ongjin area, however, Admiral Andrewes decided that Theseus would continue operations in the area as the harbour at Haeju was a useful port and that the enemy could still have his communications harassed in the Chinnampo area. The following day was a relatively quiet one for the Theseus air wing, the Fireflies carried out their assigned patrols while the Sea Furies strafed some junks suspected of being mine layers. A further sortie launched that afternoon saw the Sea Furies attacking various small vessels suspected of being employed by the enemy; during these attacks both rockets and cannons were utilised garnering some success.

The original mission planned for 14 October was against targets in the Sariwon area but the alternative at Chinnampo was selected. The Firefly contingent bombed buildings with some success while the fighters used their rockets and cannons to attack targets of opportunity. On their way home from the harbour the Sea Furies attacked some junks and troop trenches. As some of the junks had escaped from the fighters attention it was decided to refuel and rearm them quickly so that they could return to finish the job. The attack was successful and the junks destroyed. Having dealt with the shipping the fighters went onto harass troops positions in the area surrounding Chinnampo harbour while the Fireflies concentrated upon the docks. The weather on the following day played a part in curtailing the aerial operations from Theseus although one attack was made again on the bridge at Sariwon although it survived the attentions of the Fireflies. One of the Fireflies would just manage to return to the carrier as its engine was close to failing. A similar fate befell the air wing commander whose engine failed just after touchdown. Once the strike force had landed it was the turn of the combat patrol to make the attempt, by that time visibility had reduced drastically although both did manage to touch down safely. Both the damaged aircraft were struck down into the hanger where engine changes were carried out bringing them both up to a serviceable status. On 16 October the Sea Furies were launched in late morning to attack some minelaying junks proceeding up the coast which blew up dramatically after being hit by fire from all aircraft. Following this spectacular part of the mission the fighters attacked warehouses at Chinnampo destroying them with their remaining rockets. Once the fighters were safely recovered HMS Theseus departed for Inchon for refuelling from the tankers RFA Green Ranger and Wave Premier. During this phase of the deployment serviceability amongst the aircraft was at least 99 per cent, a credit to the ships engineering staff.

Around breakfast time on 18 October HMS Theseus departed from Inchon and the first flights were launched soon afterwards, as normal the Firefly squadron put up an anti-submarine and mine patrol while the Sea Furies provided air cover. While Theseus had been in port the ground forces had pushed the North Koreans hard and the designated bomb line, the movable point on the tactical map above which weapons could be used without restriction, was moving northwards rapidly. This meant that targets were few and far between. As there was little trade for the aircraft the Fireflies over flew the frontlines while the Sea Furies took a look at the harbours along the coast, while little was to be seen one Sea Fury experienced anti-aircraft fire which damaged the engine, fortunately the pilot was able to make an emergency landing on the carrier. With so little to do in their assigned area the Theseus Task Force moved further north taking up a position which enabled the air group to fly comfortably in the Sinanju-Chongju-Sonchon zone, arriving on 19 October. The first operations were launched the next morning, their targets being in the vicinity of Chongju. The Fireflies attacked buildings used for storage while the Sea Furies attacked various warehouses and the infrastructure of the local railway. As the town had been severely bombed by the USAF B-29 force there was very little of significance left to attack. While further sorties were launched in the afternoon and the following morning not enough targets remained in the area to justify Theseus remaining on station, therefore, the Task Force was ordered back to port at Sasebo. The return to Sasebo was well timed as the reeving of the catapult was found to be worn through while the arrester cables were also in need of an overhaul.

Such was the need for Theseus to resume patrol duties that the carrier was ordered back to sea earlier than expected. Prior to leaving Sasebo on 27 October three damaged Sea Furies were returned ashore and six Fireflies would fly off for Iwakuni as Theseus had no catapult available. In return a US Navy helicopter would land aboard the carrier for the task acting in concert with the minesweepers to clear the approaches of Chinnampo harbour. With a reduced number of Fireflies aboard their task was restricted purely to anti-submarine and mine spotting. In contrast the Sea Furies undertook armed reconnaissance duties throughout their assigned patrol area. As there were weight restrictions due to the lack of a catapult the fighters had to fly without external fuel tanks, rockets or bombs which left the 20 mm cannon as their only offensive capability Having taken off under their own power for their first patrol it was decided for the next day’s flying that due to the lack of a decent headwind that RATOG would be used to get the patrol airborne. The first three departed in accordance with the pilots notes however the fourth suffered a possible misfire and flipped over on its back just after take-off. Fortunately quick reactions by the pilot saved it from crashing into the sea and the patrol continued after the RATOG had been jettisoned. As there was little work for the carrier to do it was decided to return the vessel to Sasebo. En route to port the six missing Fireflies were flown on, a further three would be transhipped from HMS Unicorn in port. While en route the ships engineering department replaced the acceleration and retardation ropes for the catapult which was a feat in itself as it was normally a task reserved for a well equipped dockyard. This practice would later become the norm for this class of aircraft carrier. On 8 November Theseus, in company with HMS Sioux, departed for Hong Kong. During the passage to Hong Kong the ships were warned that the remnants of Typhoon Clare was headed their way. While the carrier rode out the storm quite well the smaller ship suffered some damage but, even so, both vessels arrived safely on 11 November.

After completing re-storing Theseus put to sea for catapult trials which were successfully carried out. With the carrier fully serviceable the air wing was put through its paces and while some incidents occurred, both squadrons passed muster, the final aircraft arriving from Kai Tak on the evening of 30 November. On 1 December HMS Theseus departed from Hong Kong arriving in Sasebo some three days later. The continued presence of a carrier in the far east was fortuitous as it had been intended to reduce the Royal Navy contingent in the war zone as the United Nations forces appeared to be winning, however the tone of the war was soon to change. On 25 October the UN forces had reached the Yula river and were in the process of consolidating their positions when they were subject to heavy attacks by units of the Chinese Red Army Further incursions saw the UN frontline reversing course rapidly finally reaching the Chongchon river where a new front line was established. In support of the ground forces the US 7th Fleet launched every aircraft to attack the advancing Chinese forces with further attacks being mounted by the USAF units in theatre. In order not to lose too many troops it was decided to lift off an many as possible by sea. Evacuation was already underway from Wonsan with the rescued troops being deposited further south where they could be redeployed.

HMS Theseus with Admiral Andrewes aboard departed from Sasebo on 4 December as part of Carrier Task Group 95.1 with three escorts. Their role was to provide air cover for the amphibious rescue effort. To that end a constant stream of Fireflies and Sea Furies began operations on 5 December attacking targets in the area on Chinnampo. The railways in that area, so vital for moving supplies, were heavily hit. Flying throughout that day was hampered by the first fingers of winter as snow showers were hampering either launches or recoveries. The following day was similar but, even so, targets along the coast were attacked with rockets. With all aircraft safely returned the carrier departed to Inchon as one of the propeller glands was exhibiting signs of overheating and needed repacking. Fortunately this was quickly carried out and Theseus was back on station in the early hours of the following day. Over the following two days the Sea Furies and the Fireflies attacked various enemy targets along the coast and around the outskirts of Chinnampo. The following day the weather worsened resulting in the aircraft from Theseus landing at Kimpo.

Strikes resumed on 11 December and were particularly successful as a pair of rail bridges were attacked while the Sea Furies totally wrecked a moving train. Pyongyang was the focus for the air wing the following day with a dam and two bridges attacked. While in the area the aircraft also took the opportunity to destroy buildings once occupied by the UN and to destroy any stores remaining in the area. The following day a similar range of targets were treated to some destruction as were some truck convoys and small shipping off the coast. After four days on station Theseus returned to Sasebo. The time in port was short as Theseus departed the next day complete with its usual selection of escorts. The carrier’s arrival on station was a bit premature because the weather deteriorated rapidly which meant that although flying was possible it was delayed as the aircraft needed de-icing and the flight deck required clearing of snow. However, the usual range of patrols was launched as was a small Sea Fury strike group. While the patrols had an uneventful time the strike mission enjoyed the freedom to attack trucks trapped by the weather near the Chongchon river. Once the Sea Furies had returned the patrols were quickly recalled as the weather was worsening. On 19 December the Sea Furies had a field day in Hangju-Sariwon area where they successfully destroyed a large amount of trucks and some tanks. The Fireflies also undertook bombing raids along the roads although they had to do it through gaps in the clouds.

The following day also saw further strikes being launched with Sea Furies attacking buildings in the area of Chinnampo and Sariwon after which they strafed a bulldozer, hit two petrol, oil and lubricant (POL) dumps and some lorries. Over the next two days similar sorties were undertaken although all were interrupted occasionally by the snow. Even so bridges, trucks and buildings were given close attention by the roving aircraft. On 22 December the carrier had a rest day for refuelling with flying resuming the following day. This time the sorties by the Fireflies were unproductive and some aircraft jettisoned their rockets before landing. However, the Sea Furies had more joy attacking a troop concentration near Pyongyang and trucks and buildings with good results. While most of the world was looking forward to Christmas the Theseus air wing was again in action on Christmas Eve successfully attacking a column of troops en route to Sariwon after which Sariwon itself was subject to attack. On Christmas Day two strike sorties were launched against Sariwon again where, once more, troops, vehicles and buildings were hit. The follow-up mission and the standing patrols were halted when fuel checks revealed that the fuel in some of the aircraft was contaminated by water. Once all available aircraft had been checked those confirmed as clear were launched to provide the standing patrols which remained airborne until the strike sortie had returned. Once all aircraft had landed-on, the carrier plus escorts set course for Sasebo. When in Sasebo on 26 December the carrier picked up a new group of pilots before departing for Kure. Arriving in port the carrier moored alongside Unicorn where damaged aircraft were replaced by serviceable machines. It would be New Year’s Eve when Theseus finally celebrated Christmas, a good time being had by all.

While Theseus was enjoying a belated Christmas the UN forces had established a defensive line from Munsan-ni and partly along the 38th parallel towards Yangyang on the east coast. Again this line across Korea would be shattered when large Chinese forces started assaulting the whole front, massively outnumbered, the UN forces withdrew south in good order. The 8th Army and the Republic of Korea forces had to pull back further, by 3 January 1951 Seoul had been abandoned again and the President and the government were resettled in Pusan. Further advances by the Chinese saw the defensive line stretching from Pyongtack in the west to Wonju in the east. On 5 January Theseus departed from Kure arriving off the Korean coast on 7 January. Flying operations started immediately, the task being to carry out armed patrols up towards Chinnampo and to destroy any enemy shipping and other targets found in their area. As the harbours and various inlets were frozen there was little activity at sea therefore Admiral Andrewes contacted the Joint Operations Centre and offered his fighters for close support work. On 8 January the Sea Furies from Theseus provided support for the US 25th Division operating under the control of the USAF forward air controllers flying modified North American T-6A Texans known as Mosquitoes.

While the air wing was engaged with attacking targets on behalf of UN commanders they were also undertaking patrols along the coast and over the airfields at Chinnampo, Haeju and Ongjin which, although abandoned, were still capable of usage by the North Korean air force. As Theseus was stationed quite a distance away from its area of operations the decision was taken to place a rescue ship halfway between each point which greatly reassured the air crew. An alteration in operations began on 15 January when the airfields at Suwon and Kimpo were recaptured as was the port at Inchon. During the run-up to these recaptures many of missions were interrupted by bad weather as snow showers were frequent and heavy. Even so the air wing was able to give air support to the US 25th Army Division at a crucial time in its operations. Over the following few days the Sea Furies were heavily engaged in attacking ground positions in support of the US Army always under the control of a Mosquito Forward Air Controller (FAC). Given the accuracy of their supporting fire the FAC pilots preferred the Sea Fury in support in preference to other forces. Occasionally when the FAC had to return to base for a refuel he was able to designate specific areas as weapons free. On 14 January the Sea Furies were given such an order and operating in severely cloudy conditions they rocketed and strafed the airfield at Suwon blowing up two supply dumps in the process. Also attacked were obvious groups of troops plus lorries, bridges and a haystack that blew up with a large bang.

The weather also played a part in delaying operations on 15 January as the over-deck wind speed was too low to launch aircraft, however, some juggling of the deck park and the use of RATOG allowed the patrols and strike sorties to get airborne. As Theseus had moved closer to the area of operations the sortie lengths were reduced and the air wing was able to generate 58 sorties that day. By this time the UN forces were pushing back successfully and the fleeing enemy forces were easier to spot and extensive casualties resulted amongst these troops. The following day saw the sortie rate increase to 60 during which vehicles, oil tanks and sampans were destroyed. Having completed this phase of operations Theseus returned to Sasebo being replaced by USS Bataan, a light carrier. Bataan’s escorts took over the responsibility of patrolling the area and became CTE 95.11 in the process. This addition to his forces allowed Admiral Andrewes to create an 18 days operational cycle for each vessel which meant that up to nine days were available for operations, one was allocated to sea replenishment, two were required for transit and six days were in port for rest, recuperation and repair.

By 24 January the Chinese had been halted on a line from Pyongtaek to Wonju. Further advances by UN forces resulted in Seoul being recaptured again on 14 March. This situation would change on 22 April when the Communist forces began their Spring Offensive on the left flank. Although the UN forces were pushed back to the Han river the capital was still held by Allied forces. It was during this offensive that the Gloucestershire Regiment suffered grievous losses with only 169 men left out of the original 850 men. Although these losses were grievous the Allied counter attack was successful and pushed the enemy back further. It was during this period that General MacArthur was replaced as Supreme Commander by General Ridgway with General Van Fleet replacing Ridgway as Commander of the 8th Army. A further Communist offensive was launched in mid-May against the right flank although this was quickly countered by the UN forces. The resulting defensive line would remain virtually unchanged for the remainder of the war although there were some vicious battles along the way over such real estate as Pork Chop hill and Heartbreak Ridge.

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