Sea Fury

Sea Fury: Australian War Memorial

sea fury 109
The RAN Hawker Sea Fury Mk11, airframe number VW232, side number 109, on display in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, has an interesting history. Although painted in 805 Squadron Korean War colours and sporting repairs consistent with possible ground fire, other evidence points to it never having served in Korea. (Australian War Memorial photo)

As part of its “Air Power in the Pacific 1941-53” display, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) restored an RAN Sea Fury to the AWM typically “better than new” condition. The paint scheme is a faithful representation of an 805 Squadron aircraft that served in the Korean War. The fuselage also sports repairs of what looks like a couple of holes similar to those caused by small calibre ground fire, damage common to nearly all of Sydney’s Korean Sea Furies. Unfortunately, from an authenticity viewpoint, the aircraft lacks an armour plate under the engine oil cooler. Additionally, two mission markers, now virtually hidden under the new paint, are not of a pattern used by RAN aircraft in Korea.

The armour plate under the oil cooler was an important modification applied to all Korean War Sea Furies. The air-cooled Bristol Centaurus Mk 18 engine was very powerful (2,500 hp) and normally reliable, but it had a sleeve valve design and it was particularly sensitive to oil pressure problems. A drop of five to ten psi from a normal operating oil pressure of 95 psi was enough to risk seizure or engine fire within 30 seconds or so. The armour plate gave limited protection to the big oil cooler in the port wing root from small arms ground fire and self-inflicted rocket/bomb shrapnel and ricochet damage.

817 Squadron Fireflies

This was in contrast to the Rolls Royce Griffon Mk 74s of the Fairey Fireflies of 817 Squadron which, together with 808 (Sea Fury) Squadron, made up the Sydney Carrier Air Group. The Griffons brought their aircraft home time and time again despite massive battle and other damage. It was a very reliable engine, liquid cooled and with conventional valves. In one instance in Korea, due to the supply of some dodgy camshafts, a connecting rod sheared and actually penetrated the crankcase and engine cowling shortly after launch. The engine lost all oil pressure immediately, but the remaining operating cylinders and brilliant airmanship brought the aircraft and its very shaken crew back to a hairy but safe deck landing before it quit.

The Sea Fury normally carried eight ballistic three-inch rocket projectiles in Korea, each with a 60-lb Semi Armour Piercing (SAP) warhead. It also had a very effective set of four 20-mm cannon shooting ball, SAP and incendiary ammunition and it normally carried two 45-gallon drop tanks for extra range and endurance. For one or two special missions the drop tanks might be replaced by bombs. Each sortie typically consisted of a strike against a pre-briefed primary target, such as reported troop concentrations or stores, followed by armed reconnaissance hunting for targets of opportunity along roads, railways, rivers and canals. Other sorties included direct support of Australian and Allied troops in front line trenches, as well as Naval Gunfire Support, where pilots spotted fall of shot and directed main armament shoots from battleships, cruisers, destroyers and frigates against targets ashore.

The enemy was expert at camouflage and always difficult to see. They were there, however, as witnessed by the frequent small arms ground fire damage inflicted upon our aircraft and the secondary explosions that frequently rocked targets after our attacks. The Fireflies concentrated on bombing rail and road bridges and tunnels. They became so adept with their ASW-shallow dive attacks that bridge spans at both the primary and secondary targets might be dropped during the one strike by six aircraft. Unfortunately, the enemy were equally adept at building, rebuilding and camouflaging temporary bridges.

Naval Officer Club members and 805 Squadron Korean War Sea Fury pilots Ian Macdonald (left) and Fred Lane inspect the War Memorial’s Sea Fury. (Photo Dean McNicoll,
Canberra Times 18 April 2000 p.2)

However, it is the authenticity of VW232 that is a question. As well as the oil cooler armour plate discrepancy, there are faint outlines of a pair of odd-looking mission marker bomb and rocket icons under the paint just forward of the cockpit, port side. Similar-looking icons were painted on Korean Furies, but they were nearly all rockets, they were a cleaner design, stencilled in batches of five, and nearly every surviving aircraft had dozens of them. It is possible that the aft fuselage section, with a probably valid airframe number stencilled on, was mated at some stage to a different wing and forward section.

It is also possible that both the airframe and engine were salvaged SAM-E aids used to train young navy aircraft mechanics.

Unfortunately, when mounting the Sea Fury exhibit in the Australian War Museum, it was found that someone had not taken the arrester hook into account. Alas, the solution was not to alter the floor plan by a couple of inches, but to saw off part of the hook. The poor aircraft, Korean heritage or not, stands forever emasculated.