Nelson and Villeneuve at Trafalgar: 1805

VADM Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Silvestre Villeneuve

Five years younger than Nelson, VADM Villeneuve commanded the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. He was born into a Valensoles, Provence, aristocratic family and joined the French Navy when he was 15. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not resign with the onset of the Revolution, but dropped his aristocratic “de” and supported the new order. Promoted to RADM in 1796, he commanded a squadron that was part of a fruitless plan to invade Ireland.

Battle of the Nile

At the Battle of the Nile, he commanded the 80-gun Guillaume Tell, in which he escaped with another ship of the line and two frigates. Criticised for fleeing the scene of action and failing to support his leader, he pleaded, somewhat weakly, that he had no orders to do otherwise.

In 1804, the very capable VADM Latouche-Treville, who had repulsed Nelson at Boulogne, was in command of the French Fleet at Toulon. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack on 14 August and the newly promoted VADM Villeneuve replaced him, hoisting his flag in the new 80-gun Bucentaure on 19 December.

Slow to challenge Nelson’s blockade, after some prodding Villeneuve sortied from Toulon on 18 January 1805, but quickly turned back with four of his ships reporting severe storm damage. His immediate response, on 22 January, was to resign. “In reality it is utterly impossible for us to defeat the enemy when both sides are equal, indeed they will beat us when they are a third weaker than we are. Under no circumstances do I intend to become the laughing stock of Europe by being involved in further disasters,” he wrote.

Villeneuve was not replaced because evidently there was no other senior naval officer who had not offended Napoleon. He was eventually cajoled into breaking out of Toulon with his 11 ships of the line and six frigates on 30 March.


By 26 May he was in Martinique, with a small Spanish squadron in company, expecting French ships from the Rochefort Squadron and Brest Fleet to join him. This combined fleet of 40 ships would then sail to control the English Channel for Napoleon’s invasion of England.

Instructed to wait until 22 June, Villeneuve learned that Nelson was hunting for him with 10 or 12 ships, so without landing the 1200 troops that he had transported to protect French Caribbean possessions, he scuttled back to Europe with 20 ships on 11 June. During a fog-shrouded skirmish off El Ferrol with 15 British warships, Villeneuve lost two Spanish ships, but he made Corunna safely on 1 August, then retreated to Cadiz to refit and reprovision. Napoleon was furious. Villeneuve’s timidity had ruined his English invasion plans.

He sacked Villeneuve and ordered the Fleet to land the troops at Naples but before his relief arrived, Villeneuve sailed on 19-20 October. Then he heard that Nelson was nearby, so he scuttled back to Cadiz, 20 or so miles distant, about 0800, 21 October.

The Battle of Trafalgar, about 1200, 21 October 1805

The British Fleet was numerically inferior in every respect: 27 versus 33 ships, 2148 versus 2568 guns and 17,000 versus 30,000 men. Villeneuve had also correctly guessed Nelson’s strategy, but all this was still not enough to prevent his resounding defeat, with 18 of his 27 ships captured or destroyed for no loss of any British ship.

Villeneuve was captured but repatriated in April 1806. He is said to have “committed suicide” in Rennes on his return journey, with no fewer than six chest stab wounds.

Nelson and de Brueys at Aboukir: 1798

VADM Francois Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers,
Compte de Brueys (1753-1798)

de Breuys

VADM de Brueys, commander of the French Fleet during Nelson’s Battle of the Nile in Aboukir Bay, was five years older than Nelson. Born in Uzes he joined the French Navy at age 13 and experienced rapid promotion during the revolutionary wars. He caught Napoleon’s eye around 1796, after taking possession of the Ionian Islands and later capturing a larger force of Venetian ships in Corfu.

Promoted VADM

Promoted to VADM just before the Egypt expedition, he had a number of highly regarded officers assisting him, including RADM Villeneuve, third in command, who would meet Nelson again at Trafalgar.

This fleet might have been de Bruey’s biggest command but he did not sound at all confident in a letter to his Minister of Marine when he noted, “Our crews are very weak both in numbers and the quality of the men. Our ships are, in general, ill-armed …” He estimated that he was short 2000 men and those aboard were “composed of men picked up at hazard and almost at the moment of sailing.” On the other hand, he had 13 ships of the line, seven frigates and a number of other warships to protect his 300-odd transports. He also had ample time to train the raw new hands during his lumbering passage to Malta and Alexandria, 19 May to 1 July. Finally, his flagship, the formidable new L’Orient, had 120 guns and was one of the biggest warships in the world.

VADM de Brueys fought valiantly at Aboukir but was defeated by Nelson.

He luckily evaded Nelson on his passage to Egypt and he disembarked Napoleon with his army virtually unopposed at Alexandria. De Brueys correctly forecast that the harbour there was too “difficult and dangerous” for his larger ships, so he took the warships, probably under Napoleon’s direction, to wait in support 32 km away in Aboukir. When Nelson struck, a good proportion of de Brueys’ sailors had been camped ashore in Alexandria for three weeks or more helping to unload stores, dig wells and even perform garrison duties.

Following RADM Hood at St Kitts in 1782 and RADM Barrington in St Lucia in 1778, where prolonged attacks had been repulsed in similar harbours, de Brueys anchored his 13 ships of the line close to shoal water in a slightly curved formation. However he failed to keep his frigates at sea to warn of an attack and he failed to ensure that his anchoring plan had been properly executed.

For instance, his first ship, La Guerre, was not close enough to the shoal ground and his large ships were not close enough for mutual support. Contrary to his instructions, his big ships also failed to pass lines to the next astern to prevent the English slipping through. They also anchored by the bow only and had no anchor springs to bring guns to bear.

Where French ships had room to swing on the tide, English captains reasoned that there was room to pass inside and bracket their prey with broadsides from both sides.

Secondly, Nelson’s early instructions to his fleet, to prepare to anchor by the stern with a spring leading forward, permitted devastating and well-directed fire.

De Brueys’s flagship L’Orient explodes at Aboukir.

De Brueys’s ships sighted the English about 1400 but it was not until 1845 that his flagship L’Orient could bring a gun to bear. By 1900 de Brueys had been wounded in the head and arm and at 1930 he was almost cut in half by a cannonball. He refused to be taken below and died about 1945. L’Orient exploded at 2200, with a roar heard at Alexandria, 32 kilometres away.

Operation Strangle: 1951-52

Operation Strangle: Naval aviation in Korea.

by Fred Lane

Paper presented at the Aviation Historical Society of Australia, Sydney, 7 July 2004.

To understand naval aviation in the Korean War, it is necessary to understand the context. Before the Americans dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs, a highly successful Pacific War had been waged between 1941 and 1945 when, following the lead of the British at Taranto, Japanese and American naval aircraft, dramatically demonstrated their overwhelming tactical and strategic worth. As well as enemy ships, naval aircraft routinely found and destroyed strategic military targets, including airfields and rail yards, in pure “strike” roles. Over time and sometimes at painful cost, the United States Navy, Marines and Army developed a highly successful “Cab Rank” Close Support system, independent of any Air Force component.

Despite decades of neglect of the Fleet Air Arm a mere 21 “Stringbag” Fairey Swordfish demonstrated the worth of naval aviation when they single-handedly crippled the Italian battle fleet at Taranto in Operation Judgement on 11 November 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbour.

 Some authors claim that it was naval aviation that saved South Korea from falling to an aggressive North Korea. Others claim that, on the contrary, the Korean War saved naval aviation. In the face of the USAF’s powerful “Victory through Air Power” propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, the USN had been in real danger of losing its aviation component, just as the Royal Navy lost its Fleet Air Arm to the RAF in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet others argue that by late 1951 the Korean War had devolved into a boring military and political stalemate and that concomitant Washington machinations were much more important. There, as in London, the major war focus was on Europe, the Atlantic and nuclear weapons. Korea, they argued, was nothing much more than a sideshow to be fought by reservists and ad hoc forces. In fact, Korea was an important testing ground for the “limited war” concept waged by communist forces for the next half century. It was also correlated with a dramatic reversal of American naval aviation fortunes.

Post WW II evolution

In 1946 the USN’s authorised strength included 98 aircraft carriers and 29,125 aircraft. In 1947, even the perennially cash-strapped Australian Government purchased two British light fleet carriers, which led to HMAS Sydney and her carrier air group serving proudly in Korea from October 1951 to February 1952. The carrier had replaced the battleship as the premier capital ship but by June 1950, under the new US Department of Defence, the USN had a mere 15 carriers and 9,422 aircraft in commission, with nothing much of any substance in the pipeline.

For a number of reasons, not the least of which is the danger of trying to interpret biased historical records, this paper will focus initially on some of the better recorded political aspects that preceded the Korean War, examine how they might have influenced biased reporting and look at Sydney‘s part in Korea’s Operation Strangle, as seen by a very minor participant observer.

The vital contributions of naval aviation, particularly US Marine Corps aviation, to the defence of the Pusan Perimeter, the Inchon landings and the withdrawal of the 1st Marine Division from the Chosin Reservoir are acknowledged and are well known. The air transport contributions of USAF, Marine and other forces were novel, important and even vital in many Korean actions, but again they fall outside the immediate focus of this paper, as does the grinding and valiant work done by hundreds of Air Force aircrew, including those flying the F-51 Mustangs and the Meteors of RAAF 77 Squadron. Helicopters, especially US Marine Corps helicopters, revolutionised many aspects of land and sea warfare in Korea, but they too will only be briefly mentioned.

However, anyone researching hard data about the Korean War will find the library studded with minefields for the unwary, not the least of which are grossly biased enemy damage reports.

US Army assessment of aircrew damage claims

US Army historian Billy Mossman conservatively reports:

There must be a recognition that damage claims were overstated. In 1952, for instance, the Fifth Air Force in Korea noted that the experience of World War II had proved the validity of halving pilot claims, and that the need for a similar reduction of claims was being borne out by the Korean experience. The USN, in a study of close air support in Korea, went even further, concluding that pilot claims were of such questionable reliability as an index of performance that they should be omitted from consideration altogether.1

As will be discussed later, personal observations suggest that at least some so-called independent Army-source intelligence was also heavily exaggerated. This might be traced to bad habits condoned in WW II, but there was another reason in 1951, the intense rivalry at many levels between the USAF and USN that spawned, among other things, the “Revolt of the Admirals” in 1949. The author recommends a careful reading of all original data, including action reports backed up by pre- and post-action photographic evidence, before attempting to reach any conclusion regarding comparative Air Force versus Naval Aviation Korean War claims.

“Unified” Department of Defence

A serious bureaucratic bunfight raged in Washington between 1947-49 regarding the separation of the US Air Force from the US Army and a newly created “unified” Department of Defence that would oversee all the fighting services. Following the theories and leads of Guilio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard and Billy Mitchell, US Air Force advocates, ably led by Secretary of Defence Louis Johnson, claimed that sufficient numbers of the USAF’s grand new B-36 bomber, first flown in August 1946, would make large expensive navies and armies superfluous and therefore a waste of money.2 Their strongly held fallback position was that even if navy or army rumps insisted on keeping tiny little auxiliary air forces, simple economy of force and air safety considerations demanded a single authority to purchase all air-related assets and, importantly, to control all air operations in one geographical theatre. That authority, of course, rested with the USAF.

Bureaucratic fights for funds for the B-36 (H version, above) led to the cancellation and downgrading of many important USN projects, including the revolutionary flush-decked super carrier USS United States (below).

In the three years since WW II, the USN had its carrier fleet decimated. Despite this, Johnson slashed the carrier budget even more. A month after its keel was laid on 18 April, 1949, the Defence Secretary unilaterally cancelled the 65,000-ton super-carrier USS United States without consulting either the Secretary of the Navy or the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Forward planning for this ship had mollified USN aviators as they saw carrier after carrier decommissioned and squadron after squadron disbanded. This ship was seen as an essential step towards a nuclear-capable assured future. These and other actions elicited the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan, the “Revolt of the Admirals” and the undignified sacking of the CNO, ADML Louis E. Denfeld, by the end of October 1949.3

Unlike the Army, the USN was never keen on the idea of a separate Air Force concept. They were also concerned that “Army plus Air Force” votes would outweigh their lone voice in Joint Chiefs of Staff aviation-related decisions within the new Department of Defence.

The USN argued that no matter what WW II experiences in the European Theatre might suggest, a separate Air Force was not necessary. The recent Pacific War amply demonstrated how, given sufficient aircraft carriers and other aviation-related resources, strategic aims could be achieved without any Air Force assistance whatsoever. Never warming to GENL MacArthur, the USN had long argued that his USAF-assisted WW II coast-hopping strategy was far more costly than their direct thrust plan. They were dismayed at the profligate waste of landing craft and amphibious support ships in MacArthur-controlled side shows, including the Australian landings in Bougainville and Tarakan. They scoffed at the Air Force’s “daylight precision bombing” mantra as post-war bombing survey after survey confirmed the emptiness of the boast.

The USAF’s primary reliance on sledgehammer nuclear weapons, they argued, was costly, immoral and probably irrelevant in future limited wars. In any event, both the Army and the Air Force required a sizeable merchant fleet, and a navy to protect it, to mount and sustain operations anywhere in the world with anything other than nuclear bombs.

Unfortunately, logic and performance were not enough. The USN lost the public relations battle. A virtual media blitz in Congress, newspapers, magazines and even the cinema repeatedly trumpeted a “Victory through Air Power” theme.

Alongside all this Washington bureaucratic upheaval was the international political turmoil of the Berlin crisis of 1948 and communist successes in Czechoslovakia and China in 1948 and 1949. Closer to home, the Malayan Emergency was declared after communist terrorist attacks in 1948 and the French soon found themselves locked into a similar deadly struggle in Indo-China. Then the Soviets surprisingly exploded their first nuclear device on 29 August 1949. This contributed to an April 1950 US National Security Council (NSC) directive that warned of a Soviet Union bent on world domination and recommended sharp increases in US defence spending.

North Korea invades

Consistent with the NSC warnings, North Korea suddenly invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950 in the first stage of a war that was to last a little over three years. More than half the South Korean Army was destroyed within the first few weeks. By the end of July, UN ground reinforcements, chiefly under-strength American Army units fed piecemeal into the battle, found themselves pushed back into a small “Pusan Perimeter” pocket in the southeast corner of the peninsula.

Here was an opportunity for the first test in the cauldron of war of the Johnson-USAF domination-by-air strategy. If that strategy was sound, North Korea’s major communications centres and industrial bases would be bombed to a standstill within weeks. Its army would then fold and the ground forces would just mop up and take control of the civilian population.


 On 27 June the United Nations Security Council called on member nations to help South Korea. American B-26 Douglas Invader twin-engined tactical bombers and fighters of the Far East Air Force based in Japan commenced interdiction raids that night. B-29s followed up with heavier bombardments the next day.

Chiefly British Commonwealth warships initiated a highly successful naval blockade of the entire Korean coast within hours of the UN resolution. HMS Triumph, a British light fleet carrier with about 24 aircraft aboard, and USS Valley Forge, an American Essex class carrier with about 70 aircraft closed Korea. Triumph launched 12 Seafire Mk 47s and seven Fireflies to raid Haeju airfield at 0615, 3 July 1950. Valley Forge launched a series of raids against Pyongyang airfield using 12 AD Skyraiders, 16 F4U Corsairs and eight F9F-2 Panthers about the same time. The Panthers shot down two Yak-9Ps, Spitfire-equivalent Russian-built fighter bombers.

Seafires Mk 47 aboard HMS
Triumph, in March 1950 off Subic Bay (above). An ASW Firefly (below) warming up for launch on Sydney‘s catapult, with a borrowed USN HO-3S1 (S-51) helicopter in the background.

However, the enemy was not responsible for the first naval aviation losses in Korea. The next day a Valley Forge AD Skyraider received flak damage. It made a flapless approach, hurdled the barriers, destroyed one AD and two F4Us, and damaged three other aircraft in the forward deck park.4  On 28 July, Triumph lost her first aircraft, a Seafire, shot down by a “friendly” B-29, in a classic communications failure and aircraft misidentification incident.5

Essex class CV USS Valley Forge (above) and a “Jeep” carrier the CVE USS Rendova (below) with USMC F4U Corsairs on deck.

 One reason for the B-29/Seafire communications failure was a direct outcome outcome of the earlier Washington bunfight and a MacArthur-imposed command structure in Korea was that although a central command knew just about what was happening everywhere, there was little cross-information between the various commands in the same geographical area at the tactical level. From the start of the Korean War, as James Field notes:

For the conduct of the air campaign, control was centralized at the highest possible level and preplanned operations were the rule. From this structure had developed a communications system with large capacity for routine transmission of orders and reports between central command post and operating air bases, but with limited provision for tactical communications at the scene of action — Air Force verbosity swamped the less capacious naval circuits — an extreme example was the grandfather of all radio messages received by Task Force 77 in November 1950, which took 8,000 encrypted groups to set forth the air plan for one day, and which required over 30 man-hours for processing.6

Another well-forecast problem was that American navy and air force aircraft could not talk to each other or to opposite number close support controllers over the battlefield except on two VHF radio frequencies that were so overloaded that they were frequently unusable.

In the early days, many USN aircraft were forced to jettison their bombs before landing back on the carrier because they could not talk to ground controllers. Other very serious early problems included incompatible USN and USAF aeronautical charts and very poor target intelligence.7

Understanding the Australian naval aviation contribution to the Korean War is sometimes difficult because it is poorly recorded and there are many traps for the unwary in literature searches.8 For instance, the Americans who discuss naval aviation tend to focus on the 11 big and capable Seventh Fleet Essex class carriers that served in Korea from time to time. They tend to either ignore or lump in the contributions of the five reasonably capable British Commonwealth light fleet carriers, HMAS Sydney, HMS Triumph, HMS Theseus, HMS Glory and HMS Ocean, with the five frequently anonymous and usually single-role USN jeep carriers, such as USS Rendova and USS Sicily, that were significantly smaller and carried half their aircraft. More often, the RN and RAN carriers are ignored.

Sydney carried 24 RAN Sea Furies, such as this one from 805 Squadron and 12 Fireflies.

 When Sydney is not ignored, the associated data are frequently in error, even in Australian publications. For instance, the number of sorties flown by Sydney in Korea varies from 4,196 according to Eric Grove,9 to 2,366 according to the official RAN historian, Joe Straczek.10 The 2,366 figure is probably closer to the truth, but by the time Sydney’s tour ended, there was considerable internal inconsistency between Sydney’s catapult data, aircraft maintenance books and operations room logs.

Despite efforts to correct the error, the official RAN website said for years that Sydney carried 871 Squadron aboard.11 The RAN never had an 871 Squadron, it should read 817 Squadron. That was corrected after about 30 years. The modern website also nearly correctly says that 11 aircraft were lost and 77 damaged while delivering 802 bombs and 6,359 rocket projectiles.

Perhaps consolidated reports of United Nations aircraft casualties are least liable to error but it is sometimes difficult to determine exactly what losses were recorded by what command at what phase of the war. It is easy to be bewildered by the frequently changing alphabet soup systems that identified American carrier and amphibious forces, such as TF 77, TF 90, TF 95 and TF 96; also individual carrier types, such as CV, CVA, CVL, CVS and CVE; as well as aircraft squadrons and groups such as VMA, VMFS, CAG, ATG (from 1952), and 1st MAW versus MTACS-2.

Again, simple aircraft designators can be confusing. The B-26 was the Martin Marauder in WW II, but since 1948 and in the Korean War the B-26 was the Douglas Invader, which was called the A-26 in WW II. Helicopter designators were an almost indecipherable jumble, with virtually identical aircraft having totally different designators and type names according to the nation or service that flew them and the roles they performed. It is also frequently difficult to confirm whether RAAF, RAN, RN, South African Air Force and even US Marine Corps aircraft contribute to both USAF and USN consolidated data tables.

RAN aviation rarely mentioned

With rare exceptions, e.g. George Odgers (2000)12 Australian naval aviation contributions to the Korean War receive short shrift in the British, American and even Australian historical records, e.g. Ben Evans (2000),13 Cagle and Manson (1957),14 James Field (1962),15 Robert Futrell (1983)16 and Peter Firkins (1983).17 James Field mentions Sydney just twice in parts of six lines in his 457-page official USN history of Korea. Cagle and Manson award Sydney two lines in their 555 pages.

Even relatively careful and sympathetic authors like Odgers have been led astray. Although five were destroyed, only one, not four, aircraft were lost overboard from HMAS Sydney during Typhoon Ruth.18, 19 Odgers and many others also neglect an interesting international/interservice RAN-related rescue, discussed later, of the co-pilot of an American B-29 shot down in the Battle of Namsi on 23 October 1951.20

Just as the British and Americans misused their carriers early in WW II, USN carriers were also forced into the aircraft transport role. The very capable Essex class USS Boxer loads up USAF F-51 fighters for Korea in July 1950 (left) .
Bad weather also interfered with aircraft carriers (and most land bases). Double-lashed Sea Furies and Fireflies ride out October 1951’s Typhoon Ruth in Sydney‘s deck park.

Finally, in a highly regarded book, BGEN Cyril Barclay either misidentifies his aircraft or the date when he says, in a footnote, that “Royal Navy and South African Air Force planes” contributed to Close Air Support of the Commonwealth Division between 31 October and 26 November 1951.21 There was no operational RN carrier within a thousand miles of Korea at that time. Sydney supplied the aircraft.

Some claims, never made by the aircrew or operating authority concerned, are later exaggerated by others. It is quite untrue that the Sea Fury recorded “many kills” of “Soviet MiG 15 fighters” as stated by Enzo Angelucci.22 Only one MiG 15 was ever shot down by Sea Furies. Six Sea Furies led by LEUT P. Carmichael, RN, 802 Squadron, HMS Glory, shot down a lone MiG 15 on 9 August 1952 off Korea.23

All this relates to weighing the efficacy of naval aviation in Korea. Whose data should be used? This is a difficult question.

Early USN claims were reasonably accurate when they were confirmed by hard photographic evidence, e.g. Valley Forge Action Report 16-31 July 1950.24 but personal experience suggests that later American reports might well be biased, perhaps for political reasons associated with the very survival of USN naval aviation and the attempted takeover of all things air by the USAF. It is dangerous trying to compare one set of “official”  biased reports against another set of “official” biased reports.

Beware also of simple sortie number comparisons, even for similar-category aircraft. For instance, the USAF might have flown far more fighter-bomber sorties to the Pusan Perimeter than the USN, USMC and RN, but effect, in terms of weight of high explosive delivered on target on time, is what counts. Many early USAF fighter-bomber Close Support sorties were inappropriate. Jet aircraft with only two small rockets or just .5 machine guns sometimes monopolised the radios, air space and time over the front lines while more capable USN and USMC aircraft were forced to wait or even to jettison their more suitable bombs.25

Again, the USAF took great pride in their “daylight precision bombing”, particularly from B-29s. However, the USN cleaned up USAF B-29 failures many times, e.g. Wonsan oil refinery 13 July 1950 and the Seoul rail bridge 19 August 1950.26, 27 Many argue that the war was brought to a conclusion not because of USAF influence but because of the USN’s shifts to heavy air strikes on strategic targets, particularly power plants, in June-October 1952.

Conservative RAN claims

On the other hand, RAN aircrew claims were deliberately conservative. For instance, RAN aircrew claimed a North Korean Army divisional headquarters building destroyed in 6 October 1951 raid, but nothing else. An American Army ground-based intelligence source, “Leopard”, credited the same raid with not only destroying that building but also many troops, stores, vehicles, outlying shacks and other booty. RAN aircrew found this very hard to believe and it was never included in any formal RAN damage claims.

RAN Firefly pilots became adept at dropping bridges. Unfortunately, Chinese and North Korean engineers became equally adept at repairing or bypassing them.

Conversely, reliable reports plus good photographic data led to Sydney claiming no rail or road bridge standing in the RAN sector on completion of one patrol in late November 1951. That included the important main rail line running south from Pyongyang. Days later, a major USAF intelligence summary reported rail traffic unhindered and operating at normal capacity throughout North Korea. Again, RAN aircrew found this hard to believe, at least for the sector they controlled.

It was perhaps no coincidence that about that time that even the USAF Fifth Air Force was trying to convince the CinCFE (GENL Ridgway, who had relieved the sacked GENL MacArthur in April 1951) that it was time to change its costly Operation Strangle strategy.

Operation Strangle

What was Operation Strangle? Following a similarly-named operation in Italy during WW II, Operation Strangle (Korea) was devised by the USAF Fifth Air Force Vice Commander, BGEN E.J. Timberlake, in May 1951, to interdict enemy road and rail traffic before it could resupply the front lines. Eight north-south routes were identified, 20 to 80 miles north of the foremost troops.28 There was some overlap, but generally the Fifth Air Force (including aircraft from West Coast carriers such as HMAS Sydney) was responsible for the two western routes. TF 77 targeted the two central routes from carriers normally deployed off the East Coast, while the mainly shore-based Marines took care of the three easternmost routes.29

The RAN chose Australian Fireflies for bridge-dropping and tunnel-blocking tasks. They usually carried two 500 lb bombs and 240 rounds of 20 mm. After shifting in late October 1951 from a 30-degree dive bomb to a 10-degree anti-submarine glide bomb profile, with 37-second delay fuses, Firefly pilots became expert at dropping bridge spans and blocking tunnels. For armed reconnaissance sorties of the road, rail and waterways networks, RAN Sea Furies typically carried eight three-inch ballistic rockets with 60 lb HE heads, 600 rounds of 20 mm and two 45-gallon drop tanks. Unlike the RAAF, USAF and USN, no RAN aircraft ever carried napalm in Korea.

a-26 invaders
The USAF contributed to the interdiction tasks with, for instance, day and night sorties from about 100 A-26 Invaders (above), but during
Sydney‘s tour, the USAF’s  main interest after paying off their P-51 Mustangs lay in big B-29 Superfortress raids and F-86 Sabre fighter sweeps.

The USAF’s Far East Air Force (FEAF) allocated about 100 B-26 Douglas Invader medium bombers as night intruders and their entire F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bomber fleet to Operation Strangle. Despite some modest success in its early months, aircraft losses quickly mounted as the North Korean and Chinese displayed unexpected skills at camouflage, bridge repair, logistic flexibility and, particularly, shooting down aircraft with light weapons. Between August 1951 and March 1952 FEAF lost no fewer than 243 fighter bombers and another 290 sustained major damage. This was four times the aircraft replacement rate, if those aircraft with major damage are included. In human terms, 245 airmen were killed or missing and 34 wounded.30

Sydney‘s losses included three 805 Squadron pilots, 11 aircraft and another 77 damaged while making 2366 sorties and dropping 802 bombs and 6359 three-inch rockets.

Bridges were dropped, tunnels were blocked and virtually no traffic moved by day across the middle of North Korea during Sydney’s watch. Trucks and trains moved at night, but they were difficult to see. Operation Strangle reduced rail traffic to about five percent of its pre-war capacity during its first couple of months, but together with increased night road transport and even human A-frame back-pack porters, that limited capacity was sufficient to support the static enemy front line. Despite targets being sown randomly with up to 24 hours delay-fused bombs, most simple road and rail track cuts were repaired or by-passed within hours. Big bridges over fast-flowing rivers were harder to repair but, given time, nothing seemed to daunt the brilliant enemy engineers and their seemingly endless supply of labour and repair material. The enemy also quickly worked out what the next most likely target might be and redeployed their light anti-aircraft weapons accordingly.

Originally planned to last 45 days, Operation Strangle was extended continuously as it tried to meet its objectives. By December 1951, the Fifth Air Force had concluded that Operation Strangle was not working, but in the absence of an acceptable alternative, General Ridgway insisted that it continue.31

Not all of Sydney‘s sorties were pure Operation Strangle. There were self defence CAP sorties and two or three times a month a Sea Fury pilot might load up with 500 lb or 1000 lb bombs for pre-briefed strikes, sometimes on the East Coast. At other times Sydney‘s aircraft might conduct Naval Gunfire Support shoots (TARCAP) with anything from a battleship to a frigate. Other sorties included Photo Reconnaissance, Close Support, Rescue CAP (RESCAP), RAS convoy CAP (CONCAP) and rare anti-shipping strikes.

The Fireflies carried a pair of 250 lb depth charges on daylight anti-submarine patrols while CAP Sea Furies just had loaded guns. No submarine was ever found by Sydney‘s anti-submarine patrols and no enemy aircraft was ever intercepted by Sydney’s CAP.

The carriers operated in an environment that included riding out seasonal typhoons. Sydney was hit by a particularly severe Typhoon Ruth on 14-15 October 1951 that killed 500 Japanese ashore. Contrary to Odgers and Catchpole, only one Firefly (but also a motor boat and a forklift) were lost overboard and another four aircraft tied down on the flight deck were seriously damaged. Aircraft damage was caused mainly by double-tied chocks slipping out after failure to batten them with strips of wood. The Hangar Party battened their chocks and their aircraft remained undamaged, despite some heavy stores and equipment coming adrift.

Sydney typically spent about 10 days on patrol, with half to one day around the middle being devoted to Replenishment at Sea (RAS). Five to ten days in harbour followed, before repeating the cycle. Her 36 aircraft embarked (plus four spares) flew about 400 offensive sorties a month. A maximum of 89 Sydney sorties were flown in one day and 147 in two consecutive days.

For the data pedants, the author can vouch for the approximate accuracy of most of the following Sydney laundry list of claims by her CBALO section:

Sydney‘s aircraft, in total, killed 1428 troops, destroyed seven vehicles, seven field guns, and dropped 47 rail and four road bridges. Most of these bridges had, of course, been dropped more than once. The aircraft had demolished more than 1000 buildings or troop shelters, sunk 39 junks and 66 sampans or barges and destroyed 234 ox carts. Sixteen ammunition dumps and seven fuel dumps were blown up.

All this was achieved in 2366 sorties for the cost of three lives and 11 aircraft. Five more aircraft were lost to Typhoon Ruth. Nearly a third of those sorties were self-defensive, in the form of CAP or ASW patrols, or non-offensive (e.g., return from diversion Kimpo to carrier.)  Sydney‘s aircraft had been hit by flak 87 times, an average of about once every 18 (operational) sorties.32

Because so few action photographs were ever published, it may be assumed by some that Sydney‘s aircraft rarely left the ship. Unfortunately, a mentally ill senior photography sailor ditched nearly all of Sydney’s camera gun and other film records into Hong Kong Harbour by after being told to clean up his section for Captain’s Rounds in February 1952. Only private snapshots and those few photographs sent on ahead remain.

The big USN carriers maintained a much higher work rate. They flew a total of about 2827 offensive sorties a month from about 70 aircraft in each of between one and four carriers deployed on station.33 Their AD Skyraiders carried a much heavier bombload than RAN aircraft: one 1,000 lb plus two 2000 lb bombs or half a dozen variations of rockets and smaller bombs plus four 20 mm guns. The F4U Corsairs also handled a bigger and more versatile bombload than the Sea Fury, but they mounted only .5 inch machine guns. The bigger USN carriers also conducted limited night operations.

The US Marines were Close Support experts and flew their F4U Corsairs from both their own dedicated carriers and ashore. Their intervention in the Pusan Perimeter in July and August 1950, their coverage of the Inchon invasion in September and their protection of the November-December 1950 withdrawal from the Yalu must be considered textbook Close Support. They also invented the forerunner of the aerial command centre. After experiencing severe communications problems with hard-pressed troops in the mountainous terrain around the Chosin Reservoir, they quickly threw a bunch of radio sets into a Douglas DC4 transport in December 1950 and preserved command and control during the withdrawal.


In the event of an aircraft being shot down, the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) had the theoretical ability to stop the whole air war and divert all airborne aircraft or launch others to aid aircrew survivors. A Sea Otter rescue by Triumph‘s amphibian of a Corsair pilot on 29 July 1950 was the first and last for that aircraft type in Korea.34 USAF Dumbos (Grumman SA-16 Albatross twin-engined flying boats) were also used throughout the Korean War to supplement the Angel (usually Sikorsky HO-3S1s or S-51) helicopters and smaller warships in this role.

An RAN Sea Fury spotted a USAF B-29 co-pilot who baled out into the Yellow Sea north of the Chinnampo Estuary after the Battle of Namsi on 23 October 1951. In a classic example of international and interservice cooperation, the survivor was spotted by Sea Furies, then Sydney scrambled a Firefly with a G-dropper dinghy. A motor boat from HMAS Murchison subsequently picked up the downed pilot from the middle of a minefield as  he was being swept towards the shore.

Australian-built River class frigate HMAS
Murchison was a highly capable “maid of all work” in Korea.

Sydney’s SBLT Ian MacMillan crash-landed his Firefly in the Chaeryongang Waterways area on 26 October 1951 after being hit by AA fire. MacMillan and his observer, Hank Hancox, came under heavy automatic weapons fire from soldiers in the area. The enemy were initially kept at bay by orbiting RAN Fireflies and Sea Furies, but they were recalled when RAAF Meteors, tasked by JOC, arrived. Following hand signal directions from the Air Group Commander, who happened to be flying that day, the two Sea Furies with the best fuel states elected to suffer selective “radio failure” and failed to head the recall message, which was fortunate, because the Meteors had to leave some 20 minutes before the helicopter arrived.

The Sea Furies protected the pair until Sydney’s borrowed USN helicopter, piloted by USN CPO A.K. Babbitt, performed the longest helicopter rescue transit over enemy territory in the Korean War, courtesy of a convenient 25-30 knot tail wind on the long inbound leg. The helicopter and the Sea Furies landed safely near Seoul with all fuel gauges reading less than zero. This operation was successful in part because MacMillan and Hancox used RAN-introduced fluorescent panels to communicate with the RESCAP aircraft and to direct supporting fire towards enemy machine guns and other fire.

RAN Innovations

The RAN was responsible for a number of innovations in Korea. These included red and yellow fluorescent panels for RESCAP communications, worn as scarves. These were subsequently adopted by the USAF. Unlike the USN and many RN aircrew, all RAN aircrew trained thoroughly in Close Support, Naval Gunfire Support, Artillery Spotting and Photo Reconnaissance. Sydney was also the first to apply the seemingly simple “Lavender Line”, named after Sydney’s Flight Deck Officer. This line, painted on the flight deck, contributed to Sydney being the first carrier not to taxi an aircraft overboard from the forward deck park. Because of tighter drills, Sydney‘s single catapult launch rate was frequently as good as if not better than the twin-catapult USN carriers. Its landing rate was also usually better, but that was probably more a function of operating on a shorter deck than anything else.

As Sydney was leaving in February 1952 and possibly prompted by Sydney‘s urgings, MGEN Jacob Smart, the FEAF deputy operations commander, commissioned a study that counted massive Operation Strangle losses for little gain. The study recommended change to an Air Pressure Strategy that included some interdiction, but prioritised destruction that would cause “permanent loss to the enemy and…drain his strength”.35

USN major strikes

June-October 1953Following the defection of North Korean BGEN Lee Il on 21 February 1952 and his debriefing by USN officers, it was learned that the enemy was delighted with the Washington policy of exempting the big Yalu River hydroelectric generating stations from attack. They supplied power to China as well as North Korea.36 Initiated by USN TF 77 staff officers, approval was eventually obtained to take out these targets with USN dive bombers. The naval aircraft had a better chance than B-29s of hitting the target without overflying China or, worse, accidentally bombing China. Between 23 and 27 June 1952, coordinated attacks by USN and USAF aircraft destroyed 11 of the 13 generating plants in North Korea, eliminating 90 per cent of their electrical power.37

The MiG 15’s superior performance was a nasty surprise to all USAF-friendly forces in Korea.

The first target was the big Suiho plant, the fourth largest in the world. Antung, a big Chinese air complex housing 250 MiG-15s, was only 35 miles away, hence the large fighter cover for the strike aircraft. Also defending the target were 28 heavy AA guns and 43 lighter automatic weapons, many radar-controlled. On 23 June 1952, a three-carrier strike force of 35 AD Skyraider dive bombers, each loaded with one 1,000 lb and two 2,000 lb bombs, were protected by 84 USAF F-86 Sabres and 24 USN F-9F Panthers. The USAF followed up with coordinated attacks from 124 F-84 Thunderjets, but their tiny bombload made it doubtful that they contributed much. No aircraft was lost, although one diverted to Seoul to land wheels up after receiving flak damage. The Suiho bombing alone resulted in a 23 per cent loss of electrical power in northeast China and caused serious Chinese production shortfalls. The four-day campaign reduced power by 90 per cent in North Korea, causing a two-week blackout and serious disruptions to industry and agriculture.

However, Chinese and Soviet technicians rushed to repair the damage from these raids with small generating plants. Over time, these countermeasures, together with power-saving economies, successfully insulated the front lines from the effects of the raids.38

The policy of hitting power stations and other major military and industrial targets deep inside North Korea continued for six months or so but the USN had to jockey with the USAF for operational control of combined or single-service raids on the remaining few prime targets. These included massed USN/USAF raids on military targets in Pyongyang, the Sindok lead and zinc mine and the Aoji synthetic oil refinery. The latter target was up near the Russian border, way beyond the range of USAF dive bombers and could not be bombed by B-29s without them overflying Russia.

The 8 October 1952 raid on the rail centre of Kowan, a target with a bad flak reputation, was the last time USAF B-29 bombers were used in conjunction with USN aircraft in Korea. Ten B-29s suppressed flak very successfully with 500 lb VT-fused bombs, just before 89 USN aircraft bombed and rocketed the target. No aircraft was lost.

Subsequently, USAF policy was changed to permit B-29s to bomb only by night. It was perhaps no coincidence that this policy change was correlated not so much with MiG day fighter activity, the official reason, but to avoid the USAF being seen in a support role, like flak suppression, for USN strategic bombing, long regarded as the USAF’s sole prerogative.

Cherokee strikes

In the final six months, starting slowly from about mid-October 1952, Seventh Fleet naval aircraft primarily supported front line troops with another naval initiative, Cherokee strikes. These were concentrated attacks on pre-briefed targets, generally 20 to 40 miles from the front line but they had a chequered history. If they were regular Close Support, they should be closely controlled by the Fifth Air Force, said the USAF. The USN argued that these strikes were pre-briefed, they were heavy air-power missions outside the bomb line, they did not require mosquito direction and they might have flak suppression aircraft in company: therefore they were “strike”. After some negotiation between the respective commanders, it was agreed that the raids would be coordinated by the Fifth Air Force, the strike leader would check in and out with the ground Tactical Air Control party of the area and mosquito aircraft would mark the targets, just like Close Support.

In return, the Fifth Air Force was held solely responsible for any friendly fire incident. Data at the time suggested chiefly USAF and a few USMC, but no confirmed USN aircraft, had dropped ordnance on own troops. In February 1953 a USAF threat was made to relieve any air group commander whose aircraft was involved and to court-martial pilots responsible for inadvertent friendly fire. This dampened enthusiasm for a while, but by March 1953, as the weather improved and with ground radar assisting, Cherokee strikes regained momentum and continued until the end of the war in July.39

Naval Aviation outcome

Some claim that naval aviation saved South Korea from communist domination. Some others say it was the USAF. Yet others, particularly American naval aviators looking at a broader picture, claim that the converse might well have been true true: Korea saved naval aviation. Before anyone tries to weigh the contributions of naval aviation and other arms in saving South Korea, it should be noted that although the June-October 1952 USN air strikes were correlated with changing attitudes in the North Korean negotiators at the Truce Talks, perhaps the most important single factor that contributed to the signing of the armistice on 27 July 1953 was the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953.

Certainly, naval aviation was highly significant and maybe even decisive in a number of battles, including those around Pusan, Inchon and Chosin. Along with the USAF, however, naval aviation achieved little in expensive sideshows like Operation Strangle. Perhaps, above all, naval aviation, and particularly US Marine aviation,  showed the USAF how to conduct Army Support, a skill the USAF initially ignored chiefly because it did not fit their overarching strategy and it was difficult. Naval aviation also spotlighted procedural and material weaknesses in their Joint Operations Center command system.

Did Korea save naval aviation? The failure of his USAF-dominated Korean strategy, together with other political machinations, led to Truman sacking Defense Secretary Johnson in September 1950. This alone was good news for the USN and naval aviation in general. This prefaced the approval of the first new carrier construction since Johnson cancelled the USS United States. The USS Forrestal‘s keel was laid on 14 July 1952.

However, it must be acknowledged that Korea was seen by many in 1950-53 to be a sideshow fought by the Reserves, not a real war. The “real war” was always Euro-centric and it kept America’s newest and biggest three Midway class carriers and the big British fleet carriers in the Atlantic or Mediterranean, far from Korea. Therefore it might be difficult to derive any important generalisation other than to note that Korea was the first of many little wars over the past half century. All were resolved with non-nuclear weapons. None validated the Douhet/Trenchard/Mitchell hard line position that victory could be achieved by air power alone. All American and British interventions employed aircraft carriers and sometimes Air Forces, but all depended on close cooperation with ground troops.

If causality is demanded, let us first remember that it was the British who invented the angled deck, the deck landing mirror and the steam catapult. These three very important components enabled jet aircraft and big bombload-carrying aircraft to operate safely from carriers. The British also invented the Harrier jump jet and ski ramp for medium and small carriers. The Royal Navy might argue persuasively that if naval aviation needed saving, it was these British inventions, rather than the Korean War, that did the job.

Certainly, naval aviation contributed significantly to the defence of South Korea and naval aviation has continued to be an essential element in America’s strategy in every war since then. Without naval aviation, especially the USMC intervention, the Pusan Perimeter might well have been lost and we might only conjecture whether there would have been enough political will to stage an Inchon-like invasion against a country not actively engaged in war. Close Support, long regarded as an irrelevant irritant by the USAF, resumed its rightful place, just as the USN, and especially the USMC, so ably demonstrated in Korea.

Contrary to USAF assertions back in 1948 that aircraft carriers would be quickly sunk in future conflicts, it has been not the carrier but the in-country airfield, such as Da Nang, that has proven vulnerable to enemy action. The carrier has also demonstrated a flexibility to attack targets virtually anywhere in the world without having to depend on sometimes convoluted overflight negotiations. Finally, the carrier also has the versatility to be used in many important roles other than war, ranging from disaster relief to space exploration.


Angelucci, Enzo. Rand-McNally encyclopedia of military aircraft 1914-1980. Rand McNally: Chicago. 1981.
Appleman, Roy E. United States Army in the Korean War: South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu. Military History Department of the Army: Washington D.C. 1961.
Barclay Cyril N. The First Commonwealth Division: The story of the British Commonwealth forces in Korea. Gale and Polden: Aldershot. 1954.
Barlow, Jeffrey G. Revolt of the Admirals: The fight for naval aviation, 1945-1950. Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy: Washington, D.C. 1994.
Bowdish, Randall G. Between Scylla and Charybdis: Discussion and dissent in the Navy. US Naval Institute Proceedings, 130/5 pp. 42-45. 2004.
Cagle, Malcolm. W. and Frank A. Manson. The Sea War in Korea. US Naval Institute Press: Annapolis. 1957. (Also on the CD: The sea services in the Korean War, US Naval Institute.)
Caraley, Demetrios. The politics of military unification: A study of conflict and the policy process. Columbia University Press: New York. 1966.
Catchpole, Brian. The Korean War, 1950-53. Robinson: London. 2000.
Denny, Norman.R. The Revolt of the Generals is coming. US Naval Institute Proceedings, 130/5. p. 78. 2004.
Douhet, Guilio. The command of the air. Tr D. Ferrari. Office of Air Force History: Washington, D.C. 1983.
Evans, Ben. Out in the cold: Australia’s involvement in the Korean War 1950-1953. Australian War Memorial and Department of Veterans Affairs: Canberra. 2000.
Field, James A. Jr. History of United States naval operations: Korea. Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center: Washington, D.C. 1962. (Also intro.htm and on the CD: The Sea Services in the Korean War, US Naval Institute.)
Firkins, Peter. Of nautilus and eagles: The history of the Royal Australian Navy. Hutchinson: Melbourne. 1983.
Flying Stations. Australian Naval Aviation Museum: Allen and Unwin. 1998.
Friedman, Norman. U.S. Aircraft Carriers. US Naval Institute Press: Annapolis. 1983.
Futrell, Robert F. The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950-1953, rev. ed. Office of Air Force History: Washington DC. 1983.
Futrell, Robert F. Tactical Employment of Strategic Air Power in Korea. Aerospace Power Journal – Winter 1988.
Griffith, Thomas E. Strategic Attack of National Electrical Systems. Air University Press: Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. 1944.
Grove, Eric. Policy in the Korean War era, in J.V.P. Goldrick and P.D. Jones (eds) Reflections on the Royal Australian Navy. Kangaroo Press: Kenthurst. 1991.
Hammond, P.Y. Super carriers and B-36 bombers: Appropriations, strategy and politics, in H. Stein ed., American civil-military decision. University of Alabama Press: Birmingham. 1963.
Hermes, Walter G. US Army in the Korean War: Truce tent and fighting front. Chief of Military History US Army: Washington D.C. 1966.
Jackson, Robert. The encyclopedia of military aircraft. Parragon: Bath. 2002.
Kirtland, Michael A. Planning air operations: Learning from Operation Strangle in the Korean War. Airpower Journal Vol 6/2, 37-42, 1992.
Lane, Fred. Revolt of the Admirals: B-36 versus the USS United States. Naval Officers Club Newsletter, 58 September 2004, p 27-29
Lane, Fred T. and Gerry Lane. Sea Furies in Korea, in J.V.P. Goldrick and P.D. Jones (eds) Reflections on the Royal Australian Navy. Kangaroo Press: Kenthurst. 1991.
Lewis, A.L. Revolt of the Admirals. A Research Report submitted in partial fulfilment of the graduation requirements. Maxwell Air Force Base: Alabama, April 1998. p16. 1998. (Also at:
McFarland, K.D. “The 1949 Revolt of the Admirals,” Parameters 11/2 (June 1981), p 56. 1981.
Mets, David R. Airpower and the sea services: Revolt of the Admirals. Aerospace Power Journal – Summer 1999.
Montross, Lynn et al. History of U.S. Marine operations in Korea, 1950-1953, 5 vols. Washington: Historical Branch, G-3, Headquarters, Marine Corps. 1954-1972.
Mossman, Billy C. The effectiveness of air interdiction during the Korean War. OCMH study prepared by the Histories Division, March 1966, Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army. 1966. (Also at
Ogders, George. Remembering Korea: Australians in the war of 1950-53. Lansdown: Sydney. 2000.
Schnabel, James F. United States Army in the Korean War: Policy and direction: The first year. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History. 1972.
Time magazine: Revolt of the Admirals, Time 54/16 (17 October 1949): 23.


Bevilacqua, Allan C. (2004) Marine Corps Aviation in the Korean War, the First Year. At: mca-marines. org/Leather neck/Mayaviation.htm.
britains-smallwars. com/carriers/Glory.html.
britains-smallwars. com/carriers/Triumph.html.
britains-smallwars. com/korea/kwaircraft.html.
Field, James A. Jr. History of United States naval operations: Korea. At: intro.htm. (About 220 declassified USN carrier and air group action reports in .pdf format are also on CD.)
Lewis, A.L. Revolt of the Admirals.
Mossman, Billy C. The effectiveness of air interdiction during the Korean War. At: mil/cmh-pg/documents/237ADH.htm.
Straczek, J.H. (Senior RAN Historical Officer.) At:
USN carrier and air group action reports. (About 220 declassified reports in .pdf format, also available on CD.)


1. Mossman, Billy C. Mossman is the official US Army historian for Korea.
2. Douhet, Guilio. Douhet is recognized as the first to advance the theory that air power alone could win a war.
3. Barlow, Jeffrey G.; Lane, Fred 2004; Hammond, P.Y. p 493.
4. Cagle, Malcolm. W. and Frank A. Manson. pp 37-38. Cagle and Manson were experienced USN officers, with WW II combat experience. They served aboard Valley Forge in Korea chiefly to coordinate the dissemination of USN action information.
5. http://www.britains-smallwars. com/carriers/Triumph.html. This little website carries reliable-looking data about RN carriers in Korea.
6. Field, James A. Jr. p 387.
7. Cagle and Manson p 53.
8. Lane, Fred and Gerry Lane, 1991.
9. Grove, Eric.
10. This official RAN website carries limited data, compared with its USN counterpart.
11. ibid.
12. Ogders, George. Odgers was a journalist and FltLt with RAAF 77 Squadron.
13. Evans, Ben. This is a Department of Veterans Affairs booklet about the Korean War.
14. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 414.
15. Field, James op. cit.
16. Futrell, Robert F. Futrell wrote an encyclopaedic treatise, published in 1983, extolling USAF strategy and USAF operations in Korea.
17. Firkins, Peter.
18. Odgers op. cit. p 101;
19. Catchpole, Brian. p 203.
20. Odgers op. cit. p 115.
21. Barclay Cyril N. p 117.
22. Angelucci, Enzo. p 425.
24. Valley Forge Action Report 16-31 July 1950. Korea action reports for carriers and air groups: .htm; CV45-J50.pdf.
25. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 45;
26. Futrell 1988 op. cit.
27. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 49-74. Valley Forge Action report op. cit. Philippine Sea Action Report 22 December 1950, Korea action reports for carriers and air groups: mil.htm; CV47-dec50.pdf.
28. Kirtland.
29. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 241.
30. Catchpole op. cit., Kirtland op. cit.
31. Kirtland op. cit.
32. Flying Stations. The Australian Naval Aviation Museum: Allen and Unwin. 1998. p 100.
33. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 523.
35. Griffith, Thomas E. Strategic Attack of National Electrical Systems. Air University Press: Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. 1944.
36. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 442.
37. Griffith op. cit.
38. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 441-454.
39. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 460-469.

The Battle of Antietam: 1862

The Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg

More American soldiers  (617,528) died during the 1861-65 American Civil War than in any other conflict involving Americans. The next worse loss of life was in WW II when 407,316 were killed (Morison and Commager 1950, p. 653). These figures cannot compare to the millions of Russian, German and other European deaths recorded in WW II (Beevor 2002), but from a then total American population of only 31.4 million (1860 census figure) the large number of deaths together with the privations reported by prisoners of war on both sides had a profound effect on the country. The Battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862 was a seminal event in American history and a major turning point of the Civil War.

Oddly, this conflict is rarely called “Civil War” in the South, even to this present day. Preferred titles there are “The War between the States” or, even in Charleston, where the first cannon was fired by the South into Union-held Fort Sumter, “The War of Northern Aggression.” Similarly, the North’s “Battle of Antietam”,  is known in most Southern States as the “Battle of Sharpsburg”.

Antietam was the first major Civil War battle fought outside the Confederacy and it marked the end of a dramatic northern push by Confederate General Robert E. Lee in 1862. Union forces were able to engage the enemy only after an appalling security breach by Confederate forces, a stroke of sheer luck in discovering and reporting secret orders and an uncharacteristically nimble response by the Union commander, General George B. McClennan. Antietam also preceded Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, five days later. This broadened the base of the war and made it more difficult for European nations, such as England and France, to support the Confederate States that still countenanced slavery.

More Americans fell that day at Antietam than in any other battle in their history. The casualty toll (22,720 killed, wounded and captured) was nine times that of American casualties during D-Day (2,510). No fewer than six generals were killed and 12 sustained wounds at Antietam.


The Battle of Antietam is amazingly well-documented. The battlefield itself is preserved today as an historic monument, close to its original state, and its numerous historic sites are clearly but discretely signposted with monuments and other reminders. One major factor contributing to the battlefield’s present day authenticity was Alexander Gardner’s photography. Arriving within a couple of days of the action, Gardner took 70 graphic photographs of the battlefield, before they buried the dead. This was the first time a major armed conflict had been recorded in this manner. Instead of the “death or glory” cavalry charge, beloved of the painters and artists, here was the grim reality of war: thousands of dead bodies lying grotesquely as they fell.

Bloody Lane 1862 Bloody Lane 2002
Bloody Lane after the battle (left, Alexander Gardner photo) and now (Jim Strongon photo).

To put Antietam into context, the overt cause of the “War between the States” was the threat of Abraham Lincoln declaring freedom for all American slaves. This aroused considerable political and judicial muscle flexing but there were wider issues contributing to the long-threatened secession resolutions of the Confederate State parliaments in 1860-1. Chief among these was a perceived constitutional “States versus Federal” right to determine policy.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as Federal President and his universal anti-slavery platform was anathema to Southern “State rights”, despite Lincoln’s repeated statements that at that time “slavery was not an issue”. If Lincoln ever enacted his highly forecast anti-slavery legislation, the slave owners argued, he would pauperise the South. What would stop the more numerous Northern States banding together to tax or otherwise skim the profits from lucrative Southern exports such as cotton and tobacco? The Confederates fired the first gun on 12 April 1861, towards Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina, to beat off a Union attempt to resupply the garrison to which they were laying siege.

Naval strategy

The North’s naval strategy was obvious and played a decisive part in the struggle. After a slow start due to shortages of ships and men, the Union had four squadrons in place by July 1861 to blockade the seven or eight Southern ports that had been loading more than 6,000 ships a year. Never perfect, about 800 cargo ships ran the blockade in its first year and small ships could also sail along the intricate inland North Carolina waterways, then slip through any of dozens of outlets once the horizon looked clear. The South wanted England or France to relieve the blockade to facilitate their cotton exports, but Europe held substantial reserve stocks and the major powers were in no hurry to intervene.

Union forces captured a small number of bases along the South’s coast, chiefly to service the blockading ships. This strategy also pinned down Southern troops, but no major effort was made either to mount an offensive from these bases or to recapture them.

Inland, Brigadier Ulysses S. Grant chalked up notable Union successes on the Mississippi in early 1862. He was supported by freshwater gunboats moving downstream and a saltwater fleet commanded by Captain (Damn the torpedoes …) Farragut sailing up river from the Gulf of Mexico. However, Grant was surprised by a counterattack from Fort Donelson, Shiloh, on 6 April 1862 that cost 13,000 of his 63,000 Union troops engaged. Confederate losses were listed as 11,000 out of 40,000 (Morison and Commager 1950 p. 677). Higher authority then enforced a much more pedestrian tempo in that theatre, but it was Grant who finally accepted the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and all his Confederate forces three years later at Appomatox, 9 April, 1865.

Major General McClellan, commanding Union troops in the Washington theatre in 1862, followed a similar pedestrian strategy. He was a great logistics manager, but he consistently overestimated his opposition and lacked the initiative and flexibility of the South’s Generals Lee and Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson in battle. After an aborted mid-1862 approach aiming to capture Richmond with a numerically superior, better-equipped and better-trained army, the South stalemated or beat McClellan piecemeal. He retreated back to Washington, supported by Union naval forces, including the revolutionary ironclad Monitor, that kept him supplied and provided Naval Gunfire Support for his troops.

Manassas mauling

On 29-30 August 1862, Lee and Jackson badly mauled the Union Army of the Potomac at Manassas. With Virginia now clear of Union forces, they commenced an invasion of then-neutral Maryland on 4 September, aiming to march through Maryland to capture a railway bridge in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This thrust would nearly cut the Union in two. Lee expected the rich countryside to provide food for his hungry army and he hoped the invasion would press Maryland to join the Southern cause. Wider afield, such signal success might also swing a European nation or two behind the Confederacy.

Abraham Lincoln (centre, in top hat) with some of his Generals.

Lee expected McClellan to take weeks to reorganise, but Private Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indianas, discovered Lee’s Scheme of March, Special Order 191, dated 9 September, in an abandoned Confederate campsite on 12 September. “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home,” McClellan is reported to have said later that day. He rapidly deployed his 85,000 men to counter the South’s bold thrust.

Lee detected McClellan’s approach and, unable to manoeuvre, quickly set up defensive perimeters with his available troops. On 17 September, a series of desperate uncoordinated attacks and counter-attacks ensued. These became known as the Battle of Antietam. There were three major battle phases, morning, midday and afternoon, at five well-documented major sites: Cornfield, West Woods, Bloody Lane, Burnside Bridge and Final Attack. These exhausted Lee’s army, but failed to destroy it.

The Cornfield Battle raged for most of the forenoon as the generals threw division after division into the fray. At Burnside Bridge, a few hundred Confederate riflemen held off General Burnside’s entire Corps for most of the day. This vital delay allowed a relief force to march up from Harpers Ferry, 27 kilometres away, and block Burnside’s late afternoon thrust towards the Confederate Army’s headquarters and main line of retreat. McClellan failed to follow up the next day, allowing most of Lee’s survivors to escape.

Day trip from Washington, Antietam is eminently placed for a day trip excursion from Washington, DC, only 114 kilometres away. Consider visiting Antietam by car and wandering around the exhibits in your own time, guidebook in hand, or booking any of a number of battlefield guided tours. Visit the National Parks Service website below for more information.


Beevor, A. Berlin: The downfall 1945. Penguin Books: London, 2003.
Morison S.E. and H.S. Commager. The growth of the American Republic, Vol 1, 4th Ed. Oxford University Press: New York, 1950.
National Parks Services:

The Battle of Bantry: 1796

Bantry, the unknown invasion

by Tom De Voil

This is a true story of bad timing, missed communications, confusing orders and changes in plans. The Commander-in-Chief goes missing, there is inclement but predictable weather and bad intelligence.

Where did it occur? Bantry is a picturesque township of about 3000 people at the head of Bantry Bay in the south-west of Ireland. It is the site of a failed invasion of Ireland by France. This real tragi-comedy of errors took place just over 200 years ago.

Bantry mapBantry Bay is a deep water inlet approximately 20 miles long and six miles wide at its widest point. On Whiddy Island, about a mile offshore from Bantry, the RN set up a 19th century establishment and the US built a military aviation base there in WW I. A scintillating posting it would have been, observing the nature of the weather most of the year. With the development of convoys to combat the U-boat menace, Bantry Bay became an assembly point for many trans-Atlantic convoys.

To the west of Bantry is a Georgian mansion, Bantry House, the 18th century home of Richard White (1769-1851, later First Earl of Bantry). Its Carriage House is a museum, the French Invasion Exhibition Centre (also called the French Armada Exhibit). Only the Irish could do this. The museum displays a wonderful range of artefacts from a French sixth rate, La Surveillante (26 x 12-pounders plus six 6-pounder guns and a crew of 200), together with descriptions of life afloat and ashore at the time of the invasion. The French scuttled this storm-damaged ship off Whiddy Island on 2 January 1797. Re-discovered in 1981, it has been gradually excavated over the following years (Breen MS).

Shifting political alliances

Great Britain and France were at war in 1797. After the 1789 French Revolution there were a number of wars from 1793 to 1815 between France and a series of changing coalitions. Austria and Prussia were their first opponents, but in 1793 Great Britain and the United Provinces of the Netherlands joined in. Originally undertaken by France to defend the French Revolution and whip up Republican fervour, French aims shifted with Napoleon’s rise to absolute power to include aggrandisement and territorial annexation.

Meanwhile, Ireland seethed with social and political unrest. Irish Protestants developed political aspirations during the 18th century and in 1782 Westminster finally granted a Declaration of Independence to the Dublin-based Irish Parliament. In 1793 the Catholic Relief Act granted Catholics a limited right to vote, but all this did little to mollify the increasingly volatile Irish nationalists.

“Volunteer” groups

Overtly recruited to replace British forces diverted to fight the American revolutionary war, armed “Volunteer” groups sprang up in Ireland, but they implicitly threatened Westminster control. One of these was the Society of United Irishmen, with Dublin Protestant lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98) as an enthusiastic founding member.

Its initial innocent-sounding aims, rapid parliamentary reform based on a united Catholic and Protestant society, achieved little. The group evolved into an even more radical secret society, willing to use violence to achieve its immediate aims (Foster p 151, Kee p 60).

Violent revolutionary concepts advocated by both French and American activists fed the Irish maelstrom of radical social and sectarian activity. Additionally, there were pervasive inputs from religious agitators and underlying political discontent with the Westminster Government.


Lord Edward Fitzgerald (left) and Theobold Wolfe Tone were active leaders of the Irish revolutionaries.

There was also considerable conflict between and within the secret societies. Sectarian pressure to relax anti-Catholic penal laws and controls generated unrest among the Protestant gentry. Some of these people, more interested in pushing their own hidden agendas, including land ownership “reform”, strongly influenced the Volunteer groups. An attempted crackdown on radical activity followed the declaration of war with France in 1793, but it did little other than to set up yet another crisis point (Foster, ed., p 152-3).

It was in this environment that Tone travelled first to the USA and then to Paris. There, he persuaded the Directory, the governing body of the French Republic, to invade Ireland. Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1763 – 98) lobbied the Directory independently and almost persuaded them that a monarchy under himself might be an acceptable compromise if it followed a triumphal French invasion supported by Irish allies. The French recognised Fitzgerald’s republican sympathies, his acceptance by many leading Irish citizens, his (illegitimate) descent from Charles II and the Fitzgerald “royal Gaelic blood” (Foster pp. 264-86, Moore pp. 280-83, Tillyard pp. 193-6).


General Hoche (left) and  VADM de Galles

The French Revolutionary Government always doubted that Ireland was ready for republican government but they authorised a military invasion. The choice of leader was between a fast-rising Napoleon and a brilliant, ambitious young commander, General Louis-Lazare Hoche. The latter was chosen. How history could have been different.

General Louis-Lazare Hoche and VADM Morard de Galles were in command of the expedition.

The weather factor

The invasion force, Armee Expeditionaire d’Irlande, was formed from part of the Armee des Cotes de l’Ocean. Estimates of their strength vary (Breen says 13,000; Bridge Ch IV says 14,000; Moore p. 283 and Todd p. 194 say 15,000; Brenton p. 325 says 20,000), but it probably comprised 14,000 to 15,000 men, with limited artillery and some extra 50,000 or so small arms for the Irish militias.

They planned to depart Brest in December 1796 in 17 line-of-battle ships and 13 frigates plus sloops and transports. VADM Morard de Galles and RADM Bouvet commanded the 44 ships (Moore p. 283 says 43), with General Emmanuel Grouchy supporting Hoche.

The invasion force aimed to land in Ireland, then link up with the Volunteer and other dissident armed groups, defeat the British forces by means of a series of coordinated uprisings and establish a revolutionary Irish government. Wolfe Tone, commissioned as a Colonel in the French Army, accompanied the force.

December weather

December weather was notorious for the frequency and strength of easterly gales and there had been a moderate easterly wind blowing for six weeks prior to the planned departure. This was not a good time of the year to plan a campaign that had a final run to the east up Bantry Bay. Additionally, many of the best officers in the French navy had been executed or removed in the French Revolution purges and this left the French fleet in a weakened state. De Galles replaced the first French naval commander chosen, ADML Villaret de Joyeuse, possibly because of the latter’s pessimistic view of the venture.

The invasion force embarked in Brest but the French government changed its mind at the last minute. They despatched a messenger but a wheel fell off his coach and he missed the fleet’s departure by four hours.

A blockading fleet of 15 sail-of-the-line under VADM Admiral Colpoys remained off Brest, but they had drifted 50 miles to the west. Only Sir Edward Pellew (of Hornblower fame) with three inshore frigates was aware of the French movements. When the French moved on 15 December it took three days for one of his frigates to alert Colpoys, who should have been near Ushant at the seaward entrance to the Iroise Channel. VADM de Galles took his fleet from Brest to the roads before the Iroise Channel on 15 December, in a blustery easterly wind. He set sail the next day in stormy weather as Pellew despatched a second frigate to warn Colpoys. The British Channel Fleet, under VADM Bridport, was wintering off Spithead but when it was finally alerted and did sail, it stormed off towards Lisbon.

Order + counterorder = disorder

After sailing, de Galles changed his departure plan. Believing Colpoys might be near Ushant he decided to try the southern track through the narrow Passage de Raz. However, as the wind veered to the south in the evening, he again changed his mind and signalled the fleet to take the Iroise Channel. In the confusion and darkness most of the French vessels missed the signal and he despatched a sloop to stop them. Pellew, in true Hornblower fashion, cheekily attached himself to the leading ships during the night and added to the confusion by firing signal guns and displaying fake signal lights (Padfield p. 117).

In the confusion, two French ships collided and the 74-gun frigate Séduisant grounded. They saved only 70 of her 850 aboard. Eventually, all the other French ships cleared Brest without encountering Colpoys but three other frigates, a fourth rate 44-gun warship and a transport, together with nearly all aboard, were lost during the transit voyage. This included three ships captured or sunk on passage as independent British warships picked off stragglers.  

Seventeen ships made the Mizen Head rendezvous by 19 December. Most of the survivors were there by 22 December, when 15 ships carrying 6,400 men entered Bantry Bay. The French found it very difficult to proceed because of fog, snowstorms and easterly gales.

Hoche and de Galles, still embarked in the 74-gun frigate Fraternitê never caught up. Their ship, damaged in one of the storms, cast about for some days until they found another damaged frigate on 31 December, which they escorted back to Brest. That was the end of their campaign (Breen MS, Padfield p. 117).

Meanwhile, a reinforcing squadron of French ships-of-the-line, commanded by RADM Villeneuve, of Trafalgar fame, sailed from Toulon. Intercepted by Colpoys, they were too little too late to provide any direct assistance to the invasion force.

Grouchy, the French army commander, believed that in addition to the adverse weather there was a significant British land force ashore and this made him reluctant to land. He also feared the strong British Channel Fleet that might find them and attack at any moment. Intermittent foul weather made anchoring dangerous. When a fresh storm dragged anchors, parted cables and blew ships scores of miles out to sea, Bouvet took off the crew, scuttled the badly damaged La Surveillante, abandoned the invasion and sailed home for Brest on 2 January.

Irish militia

Unbeknown to Bouvet and Grouchy, all they had to face ashore was a number of generally ill-prepared and poorly motivated Irish militia units, hastily assembled from Cork and other parts of Ireland. False alarms were frequent. The French preparations to scuttle La Surveillante generated a lot of boat traffic and this was interpreted ashore as preparations for an invasion. Most of the militia immediately deserted. The way to Cork stood wide open (Kee p. 60, Moore p. 284).

By 14 January 1797, 31 of de Galles’s original 44 ships had scuttled battered but safely back to France. In all, the weather claimed seven ships, the Royal Navy six.

And so the 1796 French Invasion of Ireland ended.


The French made a small number of abortive raids against Ireland and Wales in the ensuing months. These included landings in Killala and Lough Swilly in Northern Ireland and Fishguard (Fisgard) in Wales. A British squadron captured Tone during the abortive Lough Swilly landing attempt with 3000 men on 12 October 1798. Sentenced to death a month later, Tone cheated the hangman by cutting his own throat (Todd p. 302, Moore p. 284).

Fitzgerald returned to Dublin, but was arrested 18 May 1798 after a struggle in which he was shot in the shoulder. He died of his wounds ten days later in Newgate Prison (Todd p. 275-9).

The French dumped a force of 1400 men, chiefly poorly trained convicts, ashore at Fishguard, Wales, on 22 February 1797. Newly released from prison, the convicts displayed less interest in military gains than looting and drinking. A Portuguese ship carrying a cargo of port wine had been driven ashore nearby a few weeks beforehand and most of the coastal houses had pillaged barrels stacked inside. The French forces surrendered to the local militia virtually without firing a shot while “the frigates from which they had disembarked never waited to see the results of their expedition” (Brenton p 325).


Breen, C. 2005 Multi-disciplinary investigation of the French Frigate La Surveillante (1796). Unpub MSc thesis MS
Brenton, E.P. The naval history of Great Britain, from 1783 to 1836. Vol 1. Henry Colburn: London. 1837.
Bridge, C. Sea-Power and other studies. Gutenberg EBook #10694, 2004.
Colledge, J.J. Ships of the Royal Navy Vol.1 Major ships. David and Charles: Newton Abott.1969.
Elliot, M. Partners in revolution: The United States and France. Yale University Press: New Haven. 1989.
Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland 1600-1972. Penguin Books: Harmondsworth. 1989.
Foster, R.F. (ed.) The Oxford illustrated history of Ireland. Oxford University Press: New York 1989.
Kee, R. Ireland, a history. (Rev. Ed.) Abacus: London. 2003.
Moore, T. The life and death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald Vol 1, 3rd ed., The Irish revolutionary. Longman et al: London. 1831.
Padfield, P. Maritime power and the struggle for freedom: Naval campaigns that shaped the world 1788-1851. Overlook Press: Woodstock. 2003.
Tillyard, S. Citizen Lord: The life of Edward Fitzgerald, the Irish revolutionary. Farrar et al: New York. 1998.
Todd, J. Rebel daughters: Ireland in Conflict 1798. Viking: London. 2003.

Tsushima Straits and Mikasa: 1905

Mikasa, the Tsushima Straits victor

Don’t be misled by the “10 minutes walk, 8 if you run a bit” posted signs in Japan.

The Mikasa website says the old museum battleship might be only a 10 minute walk from the National Line Yokosuka-Chuo railway station, but it’s a good 45-minute slog around the dockyard and beachfront from a different station, the Japan Rail Yokosuka terminal, that looks just a little bit further away on a map. Mikasa admission fees are ¥500 for adults and the ship is open 0900 to 1730 (summer) or 1630 (winter). However, unless you have purchased one of those magical Japan Rail Passes before leaving Australia, which permits free travel throughout the Japan Rail network, the rail fare alone from Tokyo could set you back anywhere between ¥900 and ¥2000 for the 73-minute journey.

HIJMS Mikasa was VADM Togo’s victorious flagship in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Straits.

HIJMS Mikasa was VADM Heihachiro Togo’s flagship during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. She played a decisive role in the virtual annihilation of the Russian Second Pacific Squadron on 27 May 1905 during the Battle of the Tsushima Straits (called the Battle of Japan Sea by many Japanese). Few naval battles had such a profound effect. By crushing the Russian Fleet, an essential prerequisite to victory in the Russo-Japanese War, this “Japanese Trafalgar” demonstrated with an iron fist that Asian nations need no longer kowtow to the whims of the major European powers. This action also probably contributed to dangerous unrest in Russia. Mutinies at Sevastopol, Vladivostok, Kronstadt and in the battleship Potemkin followed not long after the Tsushima news filtered back to Russia. A revolutionary uprising forced the Tsar to renounce his absolutist powers in the October Manifesto of 1905.

HIJMS Mikasa is preserved as a museum in Yokosuka. She is the only pre-Dreadnought armoured battleship in existence.
Mikasa is important, not only because of her deep, almost spiritual, significance to the Japanese people, but also because it is the last pre-Dreadnought battleship in the world. Characterised by big guns in twin turrets, heavy armour and a handy turn of speed, this revolutionary design evolved into the Dreadnought class that changed naval warfare forever. Although Mikasa carried tall masts, yards and even a prominent mizzen gaff, the battle was a spectacular demonstration of the absolute superiority of steam and armour. Naval experts all over the world studied the battle in detail. The results encouraged the Dreadnought designers to introduce even more big guns in rotating centreline turrets, steam turbines, fewer secondary armament “broadside” guns and better fire control.

Built at Barrow by Vickers in 1900, this enhanced Majestic class ship arrived in Japan in 1902. Displacing 15,140 tons, she was 435 feet (133 metres) long and had a beam of 76 feet (23.2 metres). Her Bellville boilers supplied steam to vertical triple expansion engines that delivered 15,000 hp to two propellers that gave her 18 knots. Her four 12-inch (30.5 cm) guns in two twin turrets threw 850 lb (386 kg shells). Secondary armament included 14 6-inch (15 cm) and 20 three-inch (8 cm) guns, all in single mounts, plus four 18-inch (45.7 cm) torpedo tubes. Her 860 crew were protected by nine-inch (23 cm) and three-inch (7 cm) Krups cemented armour (upgraded from the Harvey nickel steel of her British sister ships). She was one of six similar battleships and eight armoured cruisers ordered by the Japanese navy around 1893-4.

Through a series of raids, artillery shelling of Port Arthur, open sea battles, blockades and mining, the Japanese eliminated all seven battleships and a number of other warships of the Russian Far East Fleet within 12 months of their declaration of war with Russia in February 1904. This created considerable alarm in St Petersburg and as early as April 1904 planning commenced to bolster the Far East Fleet to discipline the upstart Japanese.


Russian VADM Zinovi Rozhdestvenski was appointed to command the best and most modern of the Russian Baltic Fleet ships, which was renamed the Second Pacific Squadron. These included four new Borodino class battleships: Borodino, Imperator Alexander III, Orel and Kniaz Suvorov. Rozhdestvenski was frequently importuned to include older, slower and less seaworthy vessels in his fleet, but he repeatedly declined because he considered that they were low freeboard “self-sinkers” and they would slow down his more capable ships. He reluctantly sailed from Kronstadt on 10 October 1904 in Kniaz Suvorov. He knew the task of delivering his ships safely to Port Arthur was formidable. Apart from the daunting hazards of navigation and weather on passage, he knew that his major ships were inferior in important respects to those of the battle-hardened Japanese fleet that would most likely oppose his passage.

The Russian flagship, the pre-Dreadnought armoured battleship Kniaz Suvorov.

The Russians also lacked training and discipline. For instance, in the very early hours of 22 October they came across a Hull fishing fleet in the North Sea. Wrongly assuming they were Japanese ships bent on torpedo attack, the Second Pacific Squadron responded aggressively, frequently shooting at each other. Despite firing hundreds of rounds, they sank only one trawler and lightly damaged one of their own cruisers.

Discipline was a constant worry. Rozhdestvenski had to put down at least one mutiny with some force before sailing from Madagascar on 16 March 1905. This was associated with the lack of support in the form of naval bases and dockyards during the long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. He had virtually no practice ammunition and uncertain coal supplies limited his ability to exercise his ships. His warships’ decks were frequently stacked high with spare bags of coal. Rozhdestvenski also had to bring his slow auxiliaries with him, which made his job even more difficult. It was the possibly drunken captain of one of these who raised the false alarm of the “Japanese torpedo boat attack” off the Dogger Banks. The German Hamburg-Amerika Line did contract to deploy 60 colliers along the route to refuel the Russians, but this often required tedious and difficult coaling at sea.

Then there would be little relief when he arrived at Vladivostok. He knew that he faced a protracted war with a modern enemy fleet skilled at blockading and holding the initiative, yet all he had in support were the supplies he brought with him. The reciprocating steam engines of his warships required lots of spares and dockyard-level maintenance, especially after sustained full power operations. He knew the one-track Trans-Siberian railway was already overtaxed supplying the Russian Army in Manchuria.

To add to the Russian commander’s worries, his St Petersburg superiors despatched a second squadron of the very same slow old “self-sinkers” that he declined the year before. Under RADM Nicholi Nebogatov they took the shorter Suez Canal route and caught up with Rozhdestvenski at Cam Ranh Bay, Indochina.

 The warships



 Battleships and coastal defence ships  Battleships and coastal defence ships
 Mikasa (Flag)  Knyaz Suvorov (Flag)
 Asahi  Orel
 Shikishima  Borodino
 Fuji  Emperor Alexander III
 Heavy cruisers  Sysoy Veliky
 Nisshin  Navarin
 Kasuga  Emperor Nikolas I (RADM Nebogatov)
 Yakumo  General Admiral Graf Apraxin
 Azuma  Admiral Ushakov
 Tokiwa  Admiral Seniavin
  Idzumo  Heavy cruisers
 Awate  Dimitri Donskoi
   Vladimir Monomakh
 Other  Admiral Nakhimov
 7 Light Cruisers  
 65 Destroyers  Other
   6 Light Cruisers
   10 Destroyers

(Some authors list these and other ships in different categories, a task aggravated by transliteration problems.)

Shadowed from 0245

The Japanese auxiliary merchant cruiser Shinano Maru spotted and shadowed the Russians from 0245 on 27 May, south of Tsushima Island. Other scouts closed in, reported by radio and were so effective that in his official report, Togo says, “… though a heavy fog covered the sea, making it impossible to observe anything at a distance of over five miles, all the conditions of the enemy were as clear to us, who were 30 or 40 miles distant, as though they had been under our very eyes. Long before we came in sight of him we knew that his fighting force comprised the Second and Third Baltic Squadrons, that he had seven special service ships with him, that he was marshalled in two columns line ahead, that his strongest vessels were at the head of the right column, that his special service craft followed in the rear, that his speed was about 12 knots, and that he was still advancing to the north-east.”

Togo’s four battleships, two armoured cruisers and six cruisers sortied leisurely from their Pusan, Korea, base at 0615 and closed Rozhdestvenski’s four new and four older battleships, four coast defence ships, six cruisers and 26 other vessels in the narrow Tsushima Straits. “At 1.45 p.m. we sighted the enemy for the first time at a distance of several miles south on our port bow. As had been expected, his right column was headed by four battleships of the Borodino type, his left by the Oslyabya, the Sisoi Veliky, the Navarin, and the Nakhimov … at 1.55 p.m. I ran up this signal for all the ships in sight: ‘The fate of the Empire depends upon this event. Let every man do his utmost,'” Togo records.

The Japanese might have been inferior in both major warship numbers and big guns in the coming fight, but they more than made up for this with superior RN-based seamanship, gunnery and morale.

With a six-knot plus speed advantage Togo ran rings around the Russians, quickly knocking out their flagship Kniaz Suvorov and another battleship in a gunnery duel.

This phase saw the (in)famous “Togo turn”. The fleets were sailing on near opposite courses and Togo reversed his line by turning nearly 180 degrees in succession. All his ships passed one by one through a single geographical position and once its range had been found, Russian guns should have had little difficulty sinking Japanese ships as they passed through it. Beatty spectacularly failed with the same tactic at Jutland. Togo was luckier, or perhaps Russian gunnery was that much inferior.

The highly destructive phase 2 of the battle: 1425 to 1820, 27 May 1905.

Togo also reported that he left his 65-odd Japanese destroyers and smaller vessels sheltering inshore initially, because of the rough seas and murky weather, “…I caused the torpedo section which accompanied my own squadron to take refuge in Miura Bay before the day’s fighting commenced. Towards evening the wind lost some of its force, but the sea remained very high, and the state of affairs was very unfavorable for night operations by our torpedo craft. Nevertheless, our destroyer sections and torpedo sections, fearing to lose this unique occasion for combined action, all stood out before sunset, regardless of the state of the weather, and, each vying with the other to take the lead, approached the enemy … From nightfall the enemy made a desperate resistance by the aid of searchlights and the flashing of guns, but the onset overcame him, he lost his formation, and fell into confusion, his vessels scattering in all directions to avoid our onslaught.” About 30 Japanese destroyers fired 74 torpedoes in mass attacks. “The torpedo sections pursuing, a pell-mell contest ensued, in the course of which the battleship Sisoi Veliki and the armored cruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Vladimir Monomakh, three ships at least, were struck by torpedoes, put out of action, and rendered unmanageable,” reported Togo.

After two days of chases and skirmishes, frequently in poor visibility and rough seas, total Russian losses after two days included six battleships and four others sunk. The Japanese captured four ships, including two battleships and the destroyer Biedovy with an unconscious VADM Rozhdestvenski aboard. Others were forced into internment or ran aground trying to escape. The Russians lost about 4545 dead, another 6106 were taken prisoner and 1862 interned. The Japanese lost no major combatant ship. Mikasa was hit 32 times, but reported only eight dead. All told, Japanese losses were 117 men killed, 583 wounded and three torpedo boats sunk. The dead included Prince Hiroyashu Fushimi, a Divisional Officer in Mikasa’s after turret.

The Russian cruiser Aurora, rides in the Neva River, St Petersburg.

The Russian pre-Dreadnought armoured cruiser Aurora was there. She received 18 hits from eight-inch to three-inch shells, reporting 16 killed, including her captain, and 83 wounded. She escaped with two other cruisers to Manila, where they were interned. Aurora returned to Libau in 1906 and she was refitting in St Petersburg, 11 years later, when her crew fired the blank shot towards the Winter Palace that initiated the 25 October 1917 Bolshevik uprising. Aurora is also a museum ship, but she is still floating in the Neva River, whereas Mikasa is set in concrete.

Magazine fire

On 11 September 1905, Mikasa experienced a devastating magazine fire and explosion in Sasebo Harbour that led to the loss of 339 of her crew and blew a massive hole in her port quarter. Refloated and repaired by 1908, she continued serving until decommissioned in 1921.

The 1921 Washington Conference spared Mikasa from destruction, permitting her preservation as a memorial ship. After WW II, supported strongly by the Soviet Union, the occupation forces stripped Mikasa‘s armament and she fell into decay. As the Cold War developed, and at the strong personal behest of ADML Chester Nimitz USN, the Japanese Defence Agency assumed responsibility for Mikasa in 1959 and she was restored to her present pristine state by May 1961.

These three portraits, in pride of place in the Mikasa Museum’s below-decks display, reflect the Japanese admiration of three outstanding naval heroes: Togo, Nelson and John Paul Jones.

The Japanese credit their fleet’s performance at the Battle of Tsushima Straits as one of the most important in Asia’s history. It was that naval battle, they claim, that established Japan as a modern world power. Mikasa is an important and highly respected reminder of that historic battle.

Mikasa, set in concrete in Yokosuka, attracts a constant stream of visitors.

The Battle of Tsushima Straits: a Russian version

(Downloaded from This version offers another perspective to one of the world’s greatest naval battles. Note that Russian Julian calendar dates are used in this section. Julian 14 May was equivalent to the Gregorian 27 May used by Japan and most Western nations)

The fleets converged on the afternoon of 14 May 1905 (see Gregorian calendar note above). The first ship to open fire was VADM Rozhdestvenski’s flag battleship Knyaz Suvorov. Three minutes later, under the flag of VADM Togo, the battleship Mikasa fired back. Rozhdestvenski had reduced his force’s cruising speed to nine knots because he was saddled with slow-moving transports. Togo took full advantage; at 15 knots he overtook the Russians and concentrated his fire on the flagships. During the first forty minutes, the Japanese showered the battleships Knyaz Suvorov and Oslyabya with high-explosive shells, whereupon the Oslyabya sank with its commander, CAPT Vladimir Ber, and the majority of its crew.

VADM Rozhdestvenski was wounded, and his disabled flagship now became the Japanese target. Control of his squadron was disorganized. The commanders of the battleships Emperor Alexander III and Borodino, CAPTs Nikolay Bukhvostov and Pyotr Serebrenikov, tried in vain to screen the damaged flagship and bring the squadron back on course toward Vladivostok. The Alexander, Borodino and then the other battleships came under the lateral fire of the Japanese. However, by 1600 hours VADM Togo had lost sight of the Russian ships in the mist and smoke. The Borodino led the battleships to the battle line, where the cruisers were fighting to protect their transports. Under fire from the main Russian forces, the cruiser Kassagi was badly damaged and rendered unoperational.

Burning flagship

Having drawn away from the burning Knyaz Suvorov, the Borodino turned northward. Its senior officer, CMDR Dmitry Makarov, replaced the wounded Serebrenikov and took charge of the battleship. While travelling northwards, the squadron was overtaken by the battleships of VADM Togo. The Emperor Alexander III and Borodino were lost just before dusk in the ensuing battle, and almost simultaneously, the Knyaz Suvorov began sinking after being hit by Japanese torpedoes. CMDR Nikolay Kolomeitsov pulled his destroyer Buyny alongside the crippled battleship to save VADM Rozhdestvenski and part of his staff. The surviving officers of the Knyaz Suvorov, LEUTs Nikolay Bogdanov, Pyotr Vyrubov and Ensign Verner Kursel, refused to abandon ship and thus shared their vessel’s fate.

Late in the evening, aboard the Emperor Nicholas I, RADM Nebogatov took command of the squadron. VADM Togo ceased firing and ordered his destroyers to rush in and attack the Russian ships at close range. Thirty Japanese destroyers launched 74 Whitehead torpedoes. The battleship Sysoy Veliky along with the cruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Vladimir Monomakh, exploded. Three other ships tried to head for Tsushima but were so badly damaged that they were scuttled by their crews on the morning of 15 May. The Navarin was blown up by floating mines and sank as well.

VADM Togo (left) roundly defeated VADM Rozhdestvenski at Tsushima in 1905.

By nightfall the squadron was badly scattered, with many of the damaged ships left behind to reach Vladivostok on their own. RADM Enkwist with the cruisers Oleg, Aurora and Zhemchug eventually reached Manila. Under CMDR Vasily Ferzen, the fast cruiser Izumrud broke out of the encirclement of Japanese ships. Sailing along the coast, however, the ship was wrecked on reefs and scuttled by its crew. Only three very badly damaged ships, the cruiser-yacht Almaz and the destroyers Bravy and Grozny, reached Vladivostok without assistance. VADM Rozhdestvenski and his staff were transferred from the destroyer Buyny, which was experiencing engine trouble, to the Biedovy, which was then captured by the Japanese on 15 May.

Under the command of CAPT Iosif Matusevich, the crew of the destroyer Bezuprechny, engaged for over two hours in a battle with a Japanese cruiser and destroyer; the Russian ship was then lost with all aboard. For more than an hour and a half, under CAPT Sergey Shein, the damaged cruiser Svetlana fought several Japanese cruisers. Having fired all their shells, the sailors of the Svetlana opened the ship’s Kingston valves.

The Russian armed yacht Almaz (Diamond), seen here in 1903, survived the Battle of Tsushima Straits. Rated as a light cruiser, she was converted to a seaplane tender in 1915.

When the Japanese ordered the Admiral Ushakov, the single remaining Russian battleship of the squadron, to surrender, CAPT Vladimir Miklukha commanded his crew to answer the Japanese with the sound of Russian guns. Within an hour, the Admiral Ushakov sank under St Andrew’s ensign. In the battle with two Japanese destroyers, the destroyer Gromky, under CMDR Georgy Kern, sank with her colours flying. The last ship to break off the fight was a veteran of the Navy, the cruiser Dmitry Donskoi. On the evening of 15 May, her crew withstood a fierce battle against six Japanese cruisers. On the morning of 16 May the badly damaged ship was scuttled, following the orders of the senior officer, CMDR Konstantin Blokhin, who had replaced the mortally wounded CAPT Ivan Lebedev.

Following the Tsushima calamity, the Russian casualty tally was different from the Japanese, but they acknowledged 5,045 Russian sailors killed and 6,106 taken prisoner. They claim victory cost the Japanese three destroyers as well as 699 officers and sailors. After the battle of 14-15 May, the government of Nicholas II agreed to peace negotiations. According to the Portsmouth Treaty of 23 August 1905, Japan was given the Kwantung Peninsula along with Port Arthur and the southern part of Sakhalin Island up to the 50th parallel.

Other Comment

With some justification, many Japanese hail this remarkable victory as important to the world as Trafalgar, 100 years earlier. They correctly claim that this was the first time an Asian nation had confronted and thoroughly defeated a major European naval power, albeit with mainly British-built ships and Royal Navy training.

HIJMS Asahi, a Japanese battleship at Tsushima.

The Russian VADM Zinovi Petrovich Rozhdestvenski faced criticism because he failed to guard against the Japanese battle fleet and he failed to communicate any real plan of action should his fleet meet up with those ships. There was also his decision to choose the more direct Tsushima Straits route instead of a longer but perhaps less risky passage via either La Perouse or Tsugaru.

He is accused of having some unfounded fatalistic hope that he might sneak through Tsushima Straits in poor visibility in a two-column formation that only made sense if he expected opposition from small destroyers and torpedo boats. Why? One very good reason was that he had been told by his scouts some days before that they had sighted the main Japanese battle fleet off Formosa and that it was well behind him. Instead it was sheltering comfortably in a port within a few miles of his Tsushima Straits track.

Additionally, in his defence, it should be noted that his 18,000-mile voyage from the Baltic was the longest ever for a steam-driven fleet of that size. For this, he had to devise new procedures for both refuelling at sea and self-maintenance. He also knew that his primary destination, Port Arthur, had surrendered to the Japanese while he was at sea and he had to divert to the more northern port of Vladivostok. Having reached Vladivostok, it was not at all clear what he could do there. He had very limited supplies, little or no chance of re-supply and he knew that an efficient Japanese fleet blockaded the harbour.

Dogger Bank

One disgraceful incident during his epic voyage occurred in the North Sea when his ships wrongly identified a British fishing fleet as a Japanese torpedo boat formation. In the ensuing night action many Russian ships fired on each other. Fortunately, very few shells actually hit home and even fewer exploded. They sank only one British trawler. Unfortunately, this poor gunnery performance was not corrected during the long voyage.
Linked with political unrest at home in Russia, some of his crews were defiant. He had to put down at least one mutiny in Madagascar.

Rozhdestvenski, never optimistic about success, is reported to have become more sullen and withdrawn during the long voyage. He is also reported to have displayed fits of uncontrollable rage. His job was not aided by a demonstrated lack of support from his StPetersburg superiors and their second-guessing him. They despatched a second fleet of what Rozhdestvenski called “self sinkers”. These were low-freeboard slow coastal defence ships that would slow his battle group and perform poorly in the rough waters of the open Pacific Ocean. He had refused their participation initially but the Russian high command were determined to teach these Japanese a lesson for destroying their Pacific Fleet in 1904. They thought these old ships would help Rozhdestvenski. What they arrogantly failed to consider was that these old coastal defence ships were just cannon fodder for the more modern Japanese battleships and armed cruisers.

Finally, it should be noted that Rozhdestvenski himself was an early Tsushima casualty. He was knocked unconscious by an early shell and suffered a serious head wound that incapacitated him for the rest of the battle. The captain of the destroyer to which he was ultimately evacuated said that he surrendered primarily to seek medical aid for the unconscious admiral.

During the initial battle, the two opposing lines of battleships stabilised at about 6,200 yards and exchanged fire. The Russians had not improved their gunnery since the Dogger Bank debacle. On the other hand, the battle-hardened Japanese kept in constant practice, with sub-calibre shoots. They hit their targets more often and their “shimose” (melenite) filling reliably exploded on contact. The Russians employed armour-piercing rounds that rarely hit and even more rarely caused significant damage.

Togo sank four Russian battleships during the first day, at the cost of some comparatively minor damage to his fleet. Later that evening, massed attacks by torpedo boats and destroyers settled the fate of two more Russian battleships and two armoured cruisers. The next day, four Russian battleships surrendered and they scuttled another.

Most of the rest of the Russian fleet was picked off one by one. A handful of small ships, including three cruisers, escaped into internment. Only two destroyers and the fast armed yacht Almaz (classified as a second class cruiser) reached Vladivostock.

It is clear that Rozhdestvenski was poorly served by his superiors in that he was set a virtually impossible task with the wrong weapons. However, he failed to exercise his fleet in the essential arts of naval warfare during the long transit voyage and he failed to communicate his plans for action with a Japanese battle fleet. For this he must accept some blame.


Busch, Noel F. The Emperor’s Sword: Japan vs. Russia in the Battle of Tsushima. New York: Funk & Wagnall’s, 1969.
Hough, Richard A. The fleet that had to die. New York. Ballentine Paperbacks. 1957 republished 2001.
Pleshakov, Constantine. The Tsar’s last Armada: The epic voyage to the Battle of Tsushima. Basic Books: New York 2002.

Baghdad, First strike report: 2003

 Baghdad: First strike report

(This second-hand download, datelined Saturday May 2003, is attributed to an “L. Weeks”, who is not prominent in senior US naval aviation circles. The report rings true in many respects and it reads as though written by the CO of the Prowler detachment, but it might just as well be apocryphal.)

The sister-ships USS Constellation (foreground) and Kitty Hawk steam together in the Persian Gulf. Both commissioned in 1961 and were hard-driven. Who said carriers were not durable? (USN photo by PH2 Timothy Smith.)

 15:45: Time to get out of the rack. After five hours of tossing and turning, I brief for the most important event of my career, the opening strike of the “Shock and Awe” campaign. After a quick bowl of oatmeal I head to the Ready Room to check on our aircraft status and make sure everything is still on track for the big night over Iraq.

When the Ground War started we got the word that Air Day would be two days later. It so happened that the Air Wing Commander was given the overall lead for the first strike. So, I was given charge of the entire Suppression Effort. That’s the EA-6B Prowlers specialty, keeping the enemy’s air defences, their Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs) and their radar from targeting our strike aircraft. Our first wave had about 80 aircraft directly involved.

That’s huge.

To provide protection, we planned for Prowlers from five different squadrons (three aircraft carriers and two shore-based), lots of anti-radiation missiles from Navy and Air Force jets, and lots of standoff weapons deployed from outside the SAM engagement ranges.

a-6 prowler
Grumman built 77 EA-6B Prowlers, like this one, which has twin cockpits to accommodate a pilot and three ECM operators. The EA-6B, first delivered in May 1969, is powered by two Pratt and Whitney J52-P408 engines. Its underwing stations typically carry electronic pods, such as the AQL-99 and USQ-113, also fuel tanks and armament such as the HARM (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile). It launches at a maximum weight of around 61,500 pounds (27,900 kg). Since the demise of the USAF’s F-111 near equivalent, the Prowler is in very high demand in every likely shooting context. (Grumman photo)

 Of course, the plan looked great on paper but no one knew how Iraq would counter. War is like a football game, lots of reacting, improvising and changing on the fly. Now the pre-game planning was done. We were ready to go.

16:45:00: CAG (Commander, Carrier Air Group) starts the brief right on time even though the Admiral hasn’t arrived. Our shoe (non-aviator) Admiral is also fighting in a different war. He is charged with defending over one hundred Coalition ships in the Arabian Gulf.

That keeps him busy.

CAG’s brief has evolved into more of a pep talk. He’s long-winded but I somehow manage to keep attention. Then I hear CAG scream “Hey, somebody wake him up!” I elbow the shoe Admiral out of his coma. He sits up and says: “Harrumph, harrumph. Go get ‘em.”

(Not much help, but we all know the plan.)

18:00: It’s time to walk (out to the planes). I sense that my crews are a little concerned. I’m flying with Creepy, Jersey, and Donny. We’ve trained long and hard, worked up since June and yet no one knows exactly what will happen (during execution). I have a very competent squadron, so I’m not worried.

Preflight inspection

18:20: I salute my plane captain (PC) and preflight my jet. Realise it is pitch dark out so even with my state-of-the-art government issue D-cell flashlight, I can’t see much. The flight deck is a hazardous place, especially at night. My jet is parked so close to the round-down (back edge of the carrier deck) that I can’t even walk under its tail for fear of slipping over the side of the ship. How embarrassing would that be? “CNN report at 11. First casualty of war. Navy pilot falls off USS Constellation lost at sea.”

Eerily lit by the carrier’s artificial moonlight system, Prowlers (right) prepare to start up aboard USS
Theodore Roosevelt for the opening salvo of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Provided the wind is in the right direction and the clouds hold off, this carrier had a near-commander’s moon, at least for the launch. (Peter Wiezoreck photo reprinted with permission, The Hook magazine)

So, I carefully climb into my jet and wait.

18:35 Exactly 40 minutes prior to launch, the loudspeakers blare the mantra that brings kinship to every past and present Tailhooker. It is more of a prayer than a warning:

On the flight deck. Aircrews are manning for event one.
Case three launch. (Night or bad weather.)
All unnecessary personnel must leave the Flight Deck.
Those remaining get in complete and proper flight deck uniform.
Helmets on and buckled. Goggles down. Sleeves rolled down.
Check one last time for chocks and chains and loose gear around the deck.
Now, start all the go-birds.

I close the canopies and light off the engines. At night the PC and I communicate via light signals. My eyes haven’t fully adjusted so I see only his wands. After checking our systems, we are ready to go. The yellow wands signal our taxi. The superstructure’s ambient light aids in judging motion, but it’s still very treacherous, moving a 27-ton aircraft around without any perception of depth, or speed. I move slowly at night since the non-skid has worn off from five months of flight ops. It is not unusual to slide about ten feet before stopping.

I follow the director’s wands to the catapult. The Prowlers will be launched first tonight, kicking-off Operation Iraqi Freedom for the Constellation Battle Group.

19:10: Weird things come to mind while sitting there on a catapult at night. Very few things frighten me. Of course, I’m not counting those loser boyfriends my daughters dated, but luckily just the sight of a groomed, employed man scared them off. Perhaps helpless is a better description of how I feel, even after 300 night cat shots. There’s no doubt in a Tailhooker’s mind that if something goes wrong during that stroke – engine failure, generator failure, gyro failure, or worse yet, a cat malfunction – he is merely along for the ride.

Most daytime catapult emergencies would be child’s play for us Navy flyboys. But at night, if my copilot God doesn’t grab the stick, our skill probably won’t be sufficient to fly up and away from the water.


19:14:25: The director’s yellow wands signal “take tension” to the catapult officer and I feel the tug of the shuttle on my launch bar. I smoothly advance to full power and hear the roar of my two engines. “There’s one, two, three good caution light wipe-outs, oil and hydraulics in the O.K. band, RPM, EGT, fuel flow in limits. Ready? (Consent by silence from my three ECMOs)

“Lights are on!”

I signal my launch by turning on the exterior lights. I watch the Catapult Shooter dip his wand down to signal our shot. “Here we go,” I say, just prior to bracing.
There’s nothing outside, so I fixate on my attitude indicator and grunt “good shot” as we get slung into the black. I can tell a good shot because my head and torso are pressed back into my seat so hard that I can’t lean forward. It’s the most comforting uncomfortable feeling in the world.

“We’re climbing” is my call after I rotate the aircraft, still staring at my instruments. In fact, there’s no reason to look outside until I am well above 2,000 feet high. That’s also when I start to breathe again.

19:20: Northwest bound with wingman in tow. We have an appointment with a refuelling tanker about 250 miles away.

I can see tons of aircraft while driving up the “ocean parkway” (name given to the route we take to Iraq). A few years ago, I would have been able to see only some stars and oil platforms. But now we all fly on Night Vision Devices (NVDs).

Night vision goggles

It is nothing like seeing in the day and they don’t work through clouds. Everything appears greenish. But they are sensitive enough to pick up headlights, campfires, etc. from miles away. I can see other aircrafts’ lights from over fifty miles. And on a moonlit night, it’s easy to make out ground features such as fields, roads, rivers etc.

20:15: We arrive at the tanker’s track. Rendezvousing on the tanker is usually the most dangerous part of the mission. There are airplanes all over the place. There is high potential to collide with someone else because lots of planes are arriving from different altitudes and directions. It gets real sporty when the weather is bad. But tonight is clear. I avoid a few planes, and join up as number four in line for gas.

20:35: Finally, my turn behind the KC-10. I “smoothly” make a last minute full cross-controlled rudder slam to get the fuelling probe into the basket. Ten thousand pounds of JP kerosene later we are topped off and on our way north; next stop Baghdad.

21:15: Somewhere just south of Baghdad. There are scattered clouds below us but I can clearly see the capital. I can see bright Tomahawk cruise missile explosions all throughout the city. To the right and left I can see trails, like Roman candles, streaking toward Baghdad. I cannot see the aircraft launching the missiles because, of course, all of us had our lights turned off so the enemy could not optically target us from below.

Fox News shows bombs exploding randomly for hours and it may appear to be a free-for-all, similar to a “food fight”. But there is very little randomness in the military.

In fact, the larger the strike, the more precise. So, as I watch six anti-radiation missiles fired from two Hornets 10 miles to my right, and I see the F-14 Tomcats above me tapping burner to accelerate at the Ingress Point. I know our execution is on time. I also know there is no evil empire on this earth that can defeat our awesome Jedi forces. All is good and right.

SAM salvo launched

There’s still plenty of work left for my crew and I as we watch streams and streams of AAA rising from downtown and suburbia. We see numerous SAMs being launched. But none will guide because our ten venerable Prowlers are obliterating all enemy radar with a relentless storm of ’trons. On the other hand it is still unnerving, especially when we see a salvo of SAMs launched near us.

prowler back seats
The Prowler’s rear cockpit, where the two ECM operators not only detect hostile electronic emissions, but proudly boast they could “write their names on your TV set,” if they wished.
(Grumman photo)

My heart stops beating until we determine that nothing is tracking us. Seconds later Creepy calls “Break left,” directing me to turn the plane as hard as aerodynamically possible. Seems as if a barrage of AAA was exploding outside our starboard canopy. For over one-half hour we jammed, dodging fountains of AAA and sporadic SAMs, watching explosions decorate Baghdad like mosquitoes flickering into a bug zapper, protecting coalition brethren from all over the globe. It seemed like only minutes.

22:20: There’s not a lot of cockpit chatter on the way home. Of course the radios have been squawking non-stop all night. The hundreds of planes airborne tended to make our controllers very chatty. I fly quiet. The satisfaction of surviving is enough to keep us comfortable as we head out to sea.

Feet wet, I remove my goggles to regain 100 per cent night vision. I need all the help I can get on night trap for landing. If I were only in the Air Force. Aside from not knowing my parents, I would have no problems, just a simple landing on a two-mile long runway. But some idiot wanted to sail the world. After de-goggling all I see is black.

Tonight there is no Commander’s moon. In fact, it’s – darker than fresh cow dung on a moonless prairie night – darker than a dead witch’s hat – darker than a black hole – darker than the backside of the moon – not my lines, but you get the point, it’s damn dark.

22:56:00: “503 commencing descent, altimeter 2-9-8-7,” calls Donny as we push downhill out of the marshal stack point. I ease our rate of descent as we pass through 5,000 feet. I don’t want to add my name to that sad list of navy pilots who started their approach and continued their descent right into the water. Believe me, it’s not a far stretch. There’s nothing to see outside except black. I padlock on the instruments. I level off at 1,200 feet. Jersey asks, “Hey Germ, do you have your cheaters on?” After my laser surgery I could see 20-15 in both eyes, but it’s been three years so I need cheaters (glasses) to see 20-20. Around the boat, vanity is not a welcome sidekick.

Landing stress

They’ve done studies on stress and found that carrier landings at night increase a pilot’s heart rate more than any other flight task. You think it would be cake after 18 years, but in truth it was easier when I was young and fearless. At least now I am smart enough to know I’m not great, so I don’t believe the seat of my pants (at night it will kill you) and I listen to the Landing Signal Officer (Paddles), who watches and waves us aboard.

I am only ten miles behind the boat but Donny doesn’t see it. After lowering the flaps and landing gear, we slow down to 136 knots. I drive into three miles and begin my descent. Donny says, “I got the boat, we’re lined up a little left.” “Thanks Donny, let me know when we hit centreline.” Donny can look out the windscreen at the laser line-up lights and also the carrier droplights, which depict centreline. I have to “stay inside” on the gauges because every night carrier approach is like landing with near-zero visibility because there is no horizon, no approach lighting, and no frame of reference. Try turning off all the lights then staring at a small point source. It will start to move, or does it? Or are you? That’s why I stay inside on the instrument approach needles until just prior to touchdown.

“Five-oh-three, on glide slope, on course, three-quarter mile, call the ball,” says the approach controller. In case you were expecting the “Maverick has a ball” quote from Topgun, “Five-oh-three, Prowler, Ball, 6.8” is the correct call as Donny states our side number, aircraft type, Ball – meaning he sees a landing source light (meatball) on the glide slope lens, and our fuel state is 6.8 thousand pounds.

I stay inside the cockpit on the needles but start peeking outside. When I can’t stand it anymore I look outside and tell my crew “I’ve got a Ball, three down and locked.”

I’m looking at a postage stamp with blinking centreline lights. I work my butt off to stay on-speed, line-up, and glide slope. I hear paddles click the mike and before he even asks for “a little power” I’ve already jumped on the throttles. Now I’m too high and fast, better than low and slow, but still not pretty. I squeak off some power until I see the ball starting to settle lower. Experience tells me I’m over the ramp. I add some power to break my descent, accepting a slightly low ball so I don’t bolter and miss the trap.

The jet touches down. I go to full power while simultaneously getting thrown forward into my harness straps. In seconds, we come to a stop and get tugged back by the wire. I quickly cut the throttles, turn off the landing lights and raise the flaps and hook.

As we taxi out of the landing area I finally take a full breath and tell my crew “good job, guys.” Knowing we did a good job is all the gratitude any of us need.

Post flight

23:30: After post-flighting for battle damage and thanking our fine sailors I make my way downstairs. Smiling ear to ear, I get stopped by a group of reporters in the P-way. If you saw the clips, you know it’s true:

“What was the scariest part of the flight?” “My landing.”
“How do you feel?” “I’m hungry. I’ve been waiting all night to grab a slider.”

(A slider is a hamburger; it’s tradition to eat a slider after a tough night trap.)

00:55: There is a powerful energy throughout the ship. And everything is going well. We will be launching and recovering planes until this afternoon, eighteen straight hours of flight operations. And we’ll get up and do it again and again.

Constellation syd harb
On a less warlike mission, USS
Constellation rounds Bradleys Head, 5 April 2001. She decommissioned 7 August 2003 after 41 years and 21 hard deployments. Sister ship Kitty Hawk decommissioned 12 May 2009 after nearly 49 years commissioned service. (USN photo Thomas Northrop)

No planes shot down yet. That’s what I care about. Slider and Free-dom (non-French) fries on a plate, I take my seat. Smiling, messy haired, red mask-faced, sweaty-collared pilots are enjoying lunch. The wardroom is bustling with combat accounts. Moving their hands the pilots’ wrist watches are being shot down from all directions. Old folks like myself taking it all in while big-eyed twenty-somethings struggle to contain themselves. This is what the tailhook Navy is all about. It is a night to recall … but not a life experience to dwell upon.