HMS "Ocean" in the Korean War

HMS "Ocean" in the Korean War

Russ Mallace served as a fighter pilot in HMS Ocean and was in Korean waters from May to November 1952; here's his story of those times. In the image below Ocean can be seen steaming in the Yellow Sea with a Hawker Sea Fury on her catapult ready for take-off, maybe even with Russ at the controls - unless he took the photo? Russ?

HMS Ocean in Yellow Sea in 1952

Ocean was a Colossus class Light Fleet Carrier completed at Govan, Scotland in June 1945. Five of these carriers operated in the Korean War; Glory, Triumph, Theseus, HMAS Sydney, and my ship Ocean. We sailed in Ocean from Grand Harbour, Valetta, Malta in April 1952 being ceremoniously piped out by the Pipes and Drums of the Highland Light Infantry; we were to take over from Glory on the Far East station and the Korean War in particular.

Hand over from Glory was completed with a series of RPCs (literally, an excuse for a party) in Hong Kong and operations commenced off the coast of Korea in May of that year.

Two Fleet Air Arm squadrons were aboard, 825 with a dozen Fairy Fireflies and 802 with twenty Hawker Sea Furies. I was in 802 flying a Fury. We had three C.O.s in our time off Korea; Lt. Cdr. Fraser Shotton DSC., Lt. Cdr Donald Dick DSC. who had been our Senior Pilot; he took over half way through but was sadly shot down and killed soon after. Lt. Carmichael then assumed command until Lt. Cdr. London DSC. arrived for that role.

This full complement of aircraft created a major problem in accommodation, as the ship didn’t have sufficient berths for the numbers aboard. Sleeping space was at a premium, even for hammocks, so mess deck tables, and also the weather decks were in frequent use. To compound this the ship was not air conditioned and don't forget, we were operating in the Far East in summer! Compare this with the American carriers we met up with in Sasebo, Japan where everyone on board had a bunk and their own personal space. The most junior officers such as myself, I was a Sub-Lieutenant RN at that time, lived in what was called “the Dormitory” just forward of the Wardroom while slightly more senior officers had cabins in “the Casbah” right forward on the starboard side. A few years later when in Theseus I had graduated to “the Casbah”! Much later again, in Ark Royal I had a “proper” aft cabin. The lack of air conditioning in our ships was a real problem. On one occasion in the Red Sea all the flyable aircraft were launched from Ocean, with the remainder in the hangar below and fire hoses were used to wash down the deck to cool the ship down.

Ocean - Sea Furies on deck

The flock of Sea Furies on the deck of Ocean in the image above gives some idea of the number of aircraft aboard; there's a gaggle of Fireflies in there somewhere too...

The map below shows the Korean peninsula; you might note how close Korea is to Japan; part of SW Japan is shown at bottom right.

Ocean - Korea map

The next map in larger scale shows our operational area in more detail... 

Ocean - Korea operational area

The British and Australian carriers operated in the Yellow Sea off Korea’s west coast alternating with US Marine carriers; the American 7th Fleet aircraft carriers kept to the east coast in the Sea of Japan. The pattern was to be operational for two weeks and then return to Sasebo, Kure or Kobe for re-supply, rest and maintenance over another fortnight.

Our carriers were usually stationed about 60 miles SW of Haeju and operated with a screen of six destroyers and similar ships that alternated with other duties. Typical screen ships were the HM Canadian Ship Iroquois and HM Australian ships Bataan and Kimberley.

We had three principal roles: All the islands off the mainland coast were in our hands so Role No1 was to provide air support for the islands and to keep the guns quiet that were shelling from the mainland. It was on our first patrol that Lt.(E) Ken McDonald was shot down and killed on a support mission. He had been on the same Flying Training Course as me. A very sobering beginning. As well as using our bombs, and in the case of the Fireflies, rockets, to keep the guns quiet we also spotted for the guns of surface ships including our HMS Belfast, and at the end of our time there for the US battleship Missouri.

Role 2 was to carry out armed reconnaissance flights over all of our patch to knock out road and rail bridges, transport and in general to prevent the build-up of troops and supplies that had provided the means for previous, offensive actions. This activity amounted to about two thirds of our operations.

Role 3 was close air support for the Commonwealth Division NE of Seoul and on occasions for a US Marine Brigade.

In August on our sixth patrol we unexpectedly found a major new hazard in the form of enemy MIG15 jet fighters. Out of the blue, literally, we found ourselves being bounced by Migs. Over the next few days three of our planes were hit but not shot down and a flight led by Lt. Hoagy Carmichael shot down a Mig and so became the first and I believe only piston engine aircraft to shoot down a jet fighter. Hoagy was awarded the DSC. We had blithely assumed that the US Air force Sabre jet fighters were keeping the Migs busy but  due to restricted engine hours the Sabres were only flying fighter sweeps up to the Yalu River on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. We restricted how far north we flew until the normal pattern resumed.

Ocean - Rus's - Sea Fury on catapultThe Light Fleet carriers had a design speed of 25 knots but at 22 knots, with the ship vibrating to bits and the engine room becoming hotter and hotter, that was our practical maximum. The usual way of launching aircraft was by means of the catapult, which can be seen in the image on the right; there's a Sea Fury on the catapult. It had a track length of just under 50 yards and could accelerate the aircraft to 66 knots. The lack of ship’s speed was a problem.

To fly, a Sea Fury needs 90 knots of airflow over the wings. So with the ship doing 22 knots in calm air you would just about have enough airflow over the wings to get airborne. The ship always turned into wind to launch and recover aircraft but the name Korea means “Land of the Morning Calm” so windless mornings were not uncommon. With 1000lb bombs mounted more like 95 knots was needed so RATOG, (rocket assisted take off), was used instead of the catapult. Rockets were attached to the underside of the aircraft and the take off run was started from the stern of the ship. At a predetermined point on the take-off run you would fire the rockets and heigh-ho you hopefully found yourself up in the air. All good fair-ground stuff! The rocket carriers were jettisoned after take-off.

Ocean - Sea Fury RATOG

802 squadron flew 3,964 sorties with 735 of them involving RATOG. Our average catapult launch interval was 33.7 seconds and average landing interval 17 seconds. My personal total of sorties was 159.

At Lee on Solent early in 1953 both 802 and 825 squadrons were awarded the Boyd Trophy for the “finest feat in aviation in 1952” for our operations in Korea. The presentation of that trophy in the videoclip to be found via the Weblink was to 825 Squadron; we had reformed 802 at Arbroath in January 1953 and then moved to HMS Goldcrest (since RAF Brawdy) in southwest Wales, so were nowhere near the ceremony location. We did however take part in HM The Queen's review of the fleet at Spithead in June, just two weeks after her Coronation but had to return direct to Brawdy. The very next day we embarked in Theseus to return to the Med; we never got to see the trophy!

While the squadrons were awarded the trophy much of the credit must go to the ship’s company under Capt. Charles “Crash” Evans DSC, DSO who kept everything smoothly running as a well organised team in very trying conditions. Our squadron engineers worked endlessly patching up the damage to our aircraft by anti-aircraft fire and keeping up a very high serviceability record. The teamwork of the flight deck crew who unhooked you from the landing wires, lowered and raised the safety barriers, operated the catapult and marshalled you up the deck was quite remarkable. An example of the skill and ingenuity that went on behind the scenes was the re-reeving of the catapult wire-ropes. Due to the high sortie rate this had to be done after every two or three patrols. It had always been a major dockyard job that could take days or even weeks but necessity being the mother of invention the flight deck engineers did the job in an average of 10 hours by innovative new techniques such as joining old and new wires with welding rather than rat tailing.

Ocean lost five aircrew during our six months of patrols.

Awards made were 1 CBE; 1 DSO; 4 DSCs; 2 DSMs; 2 MBEs; and 2 BEMs.

Captain Evans was a pilot, so he was very sympatico to us which meant that we were allowed a great deal of freedom and shore leave; we were able to go up country in Japan and enjoy hot spring resorts and so on. Fascinating!

Russ Mallace

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