TARCAP in Korea

A TARCAP with Belfast

During the Korean War, HMAS Sydney supplied spotter aircraft for TARCAP (Naval Gunfire Support, shore bombardment). Early one day Belfast reported unfriendly fire from the Chinnampo Estuary area, so HMAS Sydney launched a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed “Duckshoot Alpha” Sub Lieutenant in the forenoon of 8 December 1951.

belfast
Belfast performs a RAS with USS Bataan in May 1952 off Korea.

The enemy guns had evidently been pulled back into mountainside caves by the time the Sea Fury arrived, but their positions were given away by distinctive black blast patterns in the freshly-fallen snow, suggesting four 88 mm or so guns, about 100 metres apart. It was rare to find such a juicy target and Belfast correctly repeated back the urgently generated fire plan.

chinampo
Chinnampo Estuary

MiG-15 vs Sabre dogfight

Unfortunately, just about this time, a dozen or so MiG-15s and Sabres started dogfighting 30,000 feet or more above Belfast and Duckshoot Alpha. The first indication of this was a shower of drop tanks flashing by the fat, dumb and happy TARCAP Sea Fury, tooling along at 800 feet or so. Looking up, the slack-jawed pilot saw jet aircraft dots at the head of semi-persistent white contrails that were embedded now and then with either the brown ripples of a Sabre’s .5-inch machine guns or the black blob, blob, blob of the MiG-15s’ big 37 mm cannon.

mig 15f-86 sabre
The MiG-15 (left) surprisingly outperformed nearly all other aircraft in the Korean theatre until the USAF introduced the F-86 Sabre (right).

Tallyho or bug out?

They were far too high for any Sea Fury to climb to help. The jets would have been out of fuel and long gone before the piston-engined aircraft lumbered through 20,000 feet. In any event, any Australian Sea Fury joining a dogfight like that, without radio communications, had a 100 per cent chance of being shot down by testerone-laden pilots from either or both sides.

 

sea-fury
RAN Sea Fury, with 805 Squadron (red spinner) and Korean War markings (less drop tanks and rocket rails).

Keeping the ship and land target in sight, Duckshoot Alpha discreetly withdrew a couple of miles to the southwest to avoid the cartridge cases and other debris raining down from above. One MiG-15 disengaged in a max rate descent to shoot north along the coast at low level but the Sea Fury was far too slow and distant to attempt an intercept. No other aircraft displayed any sign of damage.

Slow procedures

Frustrating at the time, but with a greater understanding of the situation later, Belfast took more than 15 minutes to process the fire plan. They made no effort to deploy their more than willing TARCAP as pure CAP, but it became evident that her “A Team” was busy observing the dogfight and standing by to repel a possible enemy aircraft attack. Eventually Belfast called “Ready” and the shoot proper began. But the “Fire for Effect” was not highly successful.

First of all, the Korean artillery were pinpoint targets and Belfast’s six-inch guns were only marginally less inaccurate than the destroyers, with a 150 metres or so fall-of-shot zone. (That’s one of the reasons sub lieutenants spotted for six-inch cruisers and destroyers, while lieutenants and above routinely worked the more precise battleships.) Then again, Belfast seemed distracted by the dogfight and it was difficult to have her adjust fall of shot in her usual crisp and consistent manner.

Finally, because Charlie time was fast approaching and fuel was running low, Duckshoot Alpha left each of the four emplacements with a presento pair of 60 lb rockets and about 100 rounds of 20 mm. Cave mouth hits were observed but, consistent with most of the targets engaged in Korea, nothing else. Belfast was ordered to “Record as Target”, so it is quite possible that she went back to have another go at the guns, but there is no handy data on this.