It’s foolish but it’s fun

This blog was prompted by my cataloguing of the papers of Air Vice Marshal Sir John Whitworth-Jones and his son Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Michael Whitworth-Jones, which included two photographs albums of Michael’s service with No. 77 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during the Korean War. This also being the 70th anniversary year of the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, I thought I would research the contribution made by the small number of pilots who served with No. 77 Squadron in Korea.

No. 77 Squadron had an eventful war, in a little over three years the Squadron flew over 18,600 sorties, over 15,000 in the Gloster Meteor, 30 aircraft had been lost to enemy action, 22 to accidents, 40 pilots were killed, during which the squadron had destroyed ‘3700 buildings, 1408 vehicles, 98 railway trains and carriages, sixteen bridges and at least five MiGs’[1], expending over 34,000 rockets and 700,000 rounds of 20mm ammunition.

No. 77 Squadron’s involvement in the war began a week after the invasion on 2nd July 1950, initially flying North American P-51 Mustangs on ground attack and bomber escort operations from Japan where they had been stationed as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. In October the Squadron moved to Korea in order to reduce the burden on aircraft and men, it was also the same month in which United Nations (UN) forces pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th Parallel and that China entered the war.

Pilots of 77 Squadron RAAF standing by a P-51 Mustang at Taegu, Korea, 1950 (AWM P00716.035)

China had been sending signals that it would not tolerate American Forces on its border, however, the warnings went unheeded and it came as a complete surprise to UN forces when they encountered the Chinese, not only on the ground but also in the air. Until this time UN air forces had enjoyed air supremacy, this all changed on 1 November when MiG-15s were sighted for the first time. The MiG-15 was a swept wing jet, technologically superior to any UN aircraft then in theatre. Its appearance shocked the UN air forces.

 

 


Mig 15 in USAF markings, this MiG was flown to South Korea after the war in Spetember 1953, when Lieutenant No Kum-Sok defected (RAFM X003-7892/001/002)

 

The RAAF and the Australian government were concerned about the safety of No. 77 Squadron’s pilots and aircraft in the face of the new threat. Air Marshal George Jones, the RAAF’s Chief of the Air Staff stated that it was ‘suicidal’ to
allow Mustangs to face MiGs in air-to-air
. The Australians quickly sought to reequip No. 77 Squadron with a jet aircraft, their preference was for the North American F-86 Sabre, however, no F-86s were available as all production was required by the United States Air Force (USAF). The Australian Air Board were advised ‘that you re-equip No. 77 Squadron with jet aircraft from British sources as early as you can do it ‘. [2]

The British Government quickly approved the sale of 36 Meteor F8s and four T7 Trainers on 6 December and arrangements were made for the despatch of the first aircraft to Japan. In the interim No. 77 Squadron continued operating the Mustang in ground attack operations in Korea.

In preparation for the arrival of the Meteor a technical team visited Britain and a training team of four experienced RAF Meteor pilots was sent to Japan to assist in the conversion to the Meteor. The first to arrive were Flt Lt Frank Easley from No. 63 Squadron and Flt Lt Colin ‘Joe’ Blyth of No. 203 Advanced Flying School (AFS) who joined the squadron on 1 March 1951, they were described as

‘An adventurous pair, bursting with enthusiasm and energy, and quickly talked the commanding officer into letting them fly the Mustangs in combat over Korea…. Because, at the time, there was a shortage of Australian Mustang pilots, and a lot of close air support work was called for from the “ground pounders”, they managed to get in a lot of missions.’ [3]

Flt Lt Max Scannell from HQ 12 Group and Flight Sergeant (FS) Reg Lamb also from No. 203 AFS arrived a little later. Max Scannell, the leader of the team, was a New Zealander who had joined the RNZAF in the Pacific theatre. He joined the RAF in 1947 and was posted to No. 247 Squadron with Meteor F4s, Scannell was an exceptional pilot and represented the RAF in aerobatic competitions. Scannell and Lamb were equally keen to gain combat experience and they ‘flew every day they could get a ride’. No. 77 Squadron’s commanding officer, Dick Creswell recalled ‘we had four excellent bloody RAF instructors, they were marvellous’ [4]

Joe Blyth recalls the nature of operations in which he flew the Mustang,

‘We mainly carried out close-support and interdiction. I also did escort to photo reconnaissance planes and was involved in support of downed pilots… We carried, most often, rockets and napalm. It was usually necessary to light the dropped napalm with machine-gun fire, since they did not explode… I picked up some damage from ground fire but was lucky not sustain anything too harmful.’ [5]

So keen was Blyth to fly on operations in Korea that he was mentioned in a song,

Now one newcomer’s keen to fly,
It’s Flight Lieutenant Joey Blyth
Two hundred hours a month he’d try,
It’s foolish but it’s fun [6]

Group portrait of the RAF training team. Left to right: Flt Sgt Reg Lamb, Flt Lt Max Scannell, Flt Lt Joe Blyth and Flt Lt Frank Easley. (AWM P03119.001)

On 6 April 1951, No. 77 Squadron flew their last Mustang operations and the squadron left Korea for Iwakuni, Japan to begin conversion training to the Meteor. Conversion comprised a series of lectures given by the RAF team and the engineers who had travelled to Britain earlier in the year. Flying training began with two flights in the T7 with an RAF instructor before a pilot soloed on the F8. In addition to learning to fly and operate the Meteor, pilots took time to practice asymmetric flying should an engine fail and also were required to develop instrument flying and ground controlled approach an area that Cresswell had noted was not being taught adequately to Australian pilots but an essential skill due to the poor weather often experienced in Korea.

Cresswell also managed to loan from the USAF an F-86 Sabre, a swept wing fighter similar in performance to the MiG, it was piloted by Flt Lt Steve Daniel, an RAF pilot who had just completed a tour of operations with the United States Air Force (USAF). Daniel used his experience and knowledge of flying against MiGs to simulate their tactics against the Meteor, which was most often flown by Scannell. Four days of trials began on 18th May, the Squadron’s diary recording ‘The first trial was carried out in the afternoon, Flt Lt Scannell flying the Meteor which compared very well.’ Despite this encouraging assessment what the trials established was that in climbing, turning and zooming below 25,000ft (7,620 metres) the Meteor was superior, but above this altitude the F-86 and therefore the MiG was superior in all aspects.

F-86 Sabre of the 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Kimpo, circa 1953 (AC81/1/2/9)

By July 1951 it was felt the Squadron was ready to return to operations in the air-to-air fighter role, the work of the RAF training team now over and they became exchange pilots serving as members of the squadron and like their Australian colleagues were eager to see how the Meteor would compare in combat with the MiG. A fighter sweep along the River Yalu on 29 July 1951, marked No. 77 Squadron’s return to operations. The Yalu river was the boundary of UN air action, UN military action was confined to the Korean peninsula only, limiting air operations as was noted by another RAF exchange pilot with the USAF, Flt Lt R Lelong

‘The Yalu restriction allows the communist airforce complete freedom of action north of the river. They can take off, climb to altitude on their own side of the river, choose their own time and place to cross and engage in air battle. It appears that they are always GCI (Ground Controlled Interception) controlled, which enables them to come across the river with an altitude advantage over the patrolling United Nations planes who are not GCI controlled.’ [7]

It also allowed communist aircraft the ability to dive for sanctuary over the border if required. However, the communists limited their action to the north of the 38th Parallel, these self-imposed limitations concentrated a lot of jet air operations in an area of North West Korea which became known as MiG Alley.

For the first month back on operations No. 77 Squadron flew a mixture of uneventful fighter sweeps and bomber escort operations. On 22 August, Sgt Lamb of the RAF training team was returning from a fighter sweep when his Meteor collided with that of Sgt Ron Mitchell, neither pilot was able to eject, and both were killed. Lamb was the first RAF casualty with No. 77 Squadron, but the deaths of Lamb and Mitchell brought the total number of casualties on No. 77 Squadron during the war to 15.

Gloster Meteor F.8 (A77-15), No. 77 Squadron, RAAF, Korea, circa 1952 (RAFM PC93/32/61)

On 25 August, No. 77 Squadron had its first fleeting and inconclusive contact with MiGs while escorting two Lockheed RF-80 Shooting Stars on a photographic reconnaissance operation near the mouth of the Yalu. Four MiGs were spotted at 25,000ft (7,620m), they dived on the eight Meteors firing at two aircraft as they passed through the formation before heading back to the sanctuary beyond the Yalu. Max Scannell managed to fire his canon at one at extreme range but saw no evidence of it hits.

The next meeting with MiGs occurred four days later when conducting a fighter sweep in the Chongju area along with 16 F-86s, after making a diving attack on the F-86s, the MiGs entered cloud and when they re-emerged they sighted the Meteors flying at 35,000ft (10,668m), the flight commander, Dick Wilson, then spotted two MiGs below him and decided to attack, as he closed on the MiGs his aircraft began to receive hits, the two lower MiGs it was thought had been decoys for this manoeuvre. Wilson managed to break away, while the other two members of the flight chased Wilson’s attacker away, meanwhile the other flight of four Meteors had turned to attack a flight of MiGs heading for the border, 5000ft below, as they turned to attack the last man of the flight WO Guthrie was jumped from above and behind, with his aircraft controls unresponsive he ejected and became a prisoner of war.

A week later the Meteors clashed again with MiGs on the 5th September while escorting two RF-80s near Sinuiju in MiG Alley. Two flights lead by Joe Blyth of the RAF and Vic Cannon, were attacked by a larger formation of MiGs who dived from 39,000ft (11,887m) in well-disciplined passes one of the Meteor’s was badly damaged but managed to return to Kimpo. Four of the Meteors including Blyth had managed to get shots at the fast moving MiGs but with no observable results.

Gordon Steege, the squadron’s new commanding officer, was greatly concerned for his pilots safety following these engagements that he visited 5th Air Force Headquarters on 6 September to discuss the future role of the Meteor. 5th Air Force agreed that No. 77 Squadron would no longer operate in MiG Alley, it would fly no further north that the Chongchon River, limiting itself to bomber escort, combat air patrols over aircraft attacking main supply routes, some fighter sweeps and an increased role in the air defence of Kimpo.

Despite the change in role No. 77 Squadron were still busy as all aircraft were needed in response to growing MiG activity which had expanded south from MiG Alley and was contesting the skies south of the Chongchon river. The fight for air superiority in North Korea now meant that the Meteors were still coming into regular contact with MiGs and nearly always heavily outnumbered. Two large air battles took place in late October when Meteors in conjunction with Republic F-84 Thunderjets flying escort to Boeing B-29 Superfortresses encountered formations of between 70 and 90 MiGs. Although outnumbered and fighting off sophisticated attacks, the fighter screen was not penetrated and no aircraft were lost, Joe Blyth reported hitting a MiG in the encounter on 24 October.

The RAF Training team’s time with the Squadron was now coming to an end, Frank Easley left in September, Joe Blyth after completing 105 sorties on 18 November and Max Scannell the last to leave after flying 107 sorties (21 on Mustang) on 7 December. The Squadron had a celebration not only to farewell Scannell and Vic Cannon on completion of their tours but also to celebrate the shooting down of two MiGs, the Squadron’s first MiG victories, however, these victories came at a cost.

The victories came on 1 December, a date that the Squadron’s diary described as ‘a disastrous day for the squadron’. It has come to light with the end of the Cold War that a plan was devised by the Soviet Air Force to ambush No. 77 Squadron and use the superiority of the MiG in an effort to destroy the Squadron and cause damage to Australian and British prestige and relations between these countries and the United States.

12 Meteors in three flights were flying a fighter sweep near Sunchon, at 19,000ft (5,791) when 24 MiGs dived from 30,000ft (9,144) onto the formation, there ensued a fast and confusing air battle, Max Scannell who was a flight commander quickly found himself under attack from two MiGs and he climbed into the sun forcing the MiGs to break off, turning back into the battle to assist a Meteor under attack. He himself was attacked again this time. He dived down to 10,000ft (3,048m) to escape the attention. In the battle Bruce Googerly shot down one MiG, another was claimed by the Squadron but for the loss of three Meteors.

No. 77 Squadron could not know that they had been singled out for attention, but the attack on 1 December led to another re-evaluation of the role of the squadron, with growing numbers of F-86Es arriving in theatre the following day it was decided that the squadron would no longer fly fighter sweeps or combat air patrols over North Korea. Due to the Meteor’s excellent climbing abilities, the squadron was assigned the role of airfield defence for the remainder of the month.

Airfield defence required two pilots being sat in their aircraft at five minutes readiness at all times of the day from 30 minutes before dawn to 30 minutes after dark, waiting for a possible scramble that would almost inevitably be a friendly aircraft. Having been such an active squadron, the switch to airfield defence in the cold of a Korean winter was not welcomed and consequently morale fell.

‘Air defence of an area is “soul destroying” at the best of times’ wrote the new Squadron commander, Wg Cdr Ron Susans, who arrived on the Squadron in late December. He quickly suggested changes to give the Squadron a more active role in the air war. He suggested that No. 77 Squadron would always maintain a patrol of two aircraft during daylight hours instead of aircraft waiting at readiness. Having recently attended an RAF day-fighter leaders’ course in which he flew jet aircraft in the ground attack role, Susans also suggested that the Squadron undertake some ground attack operations in Korea with the Meteor. 5th Air Force agreed to try the new arrangements, and on 8 January the Squadron led by Susans flew its first rocket-firing ground attack operation, each aircraft was armed with 8 x 60lb rockets. The sortie proved successful and the squadron began to undertake more ground attack operations in addition to its other commitments. The more active role led to an improvement in the Squadron’s morale and its reputation in Korea.

77 Squadron Meteors shortly after take-off at Kimpo, February 1953 (RAFM X003-7892/001/002/001)

After a seven-month hiatus since the departure of Max Scannell, No. 77 Squadron was experiencing a shortage of trained pilots coming from Australia and it was agreed that the RAF would supply volunteer exchange pilots to help man the squadron. The first six of 26 pilots who would eventually serve with No. 77 Squadron arrived at Kimpo on 20 July, flying their first familiarization sorties the following day, they were Oelof Bergh, Ernest ‘Martin’ Chandler, James Cruikshank, Bill Holmes, Albert ‘Butch’ Hoogland and Jon Mellers.

Although peace negotiations had been under way for over a year, the air war in Korea was still intense when the RAF pilots joined the squadron. The squadron’s tactical report for August-November 1952, records a total of 1906 sorties being flown in the period, 850 of which were rocket attack, over 530 armed reconnaissance, the rest being made up of air defence and bomber escort.

Visible in the centre of the image is the Meteor piloted by Ron Susans making a napalm rocket attack on buildings in North Korea, February 1952 (RAFM AC81/1/2/9)

The Squadron’s focus of attacks was on the Communists Main Supply Routes to the front. So effective had the UN air campaign been that all movement was now undertaken at night; during the day troops, vehicles and supplies were dispersed and camouflaged in villages, caves, tunnels, wherever they could be hidden along the length of the supply routes. The squadron would undertake armed reconnaissance sorties at dawn and dusk in the hope of catching some movement. Rocket attacks were made largely against troop concentrations or supply dumps.

The new ground attack role, kept Meteors for the most part away from MiGs, ground fire was now the main threat, as one RAF pilot, John Price, remembered,

‘Pilot losses… came almost entirely from ground fire, often untrained, but always heavy, from the Chinese and North Korean troops, who were present in very large numbers, around every target-and everywhere else, for that matter.’ [8]

Price reiterates how important was the ‘flak map’ which would be updated daily

‘I spent hours making and updating mine and never flew without it…There was considerable emphasis on never flying on the same heading or at the same height for more than a few seconds, apart from when tracking a target, of course, so as not to give the AA gunners a steady aim.’ [9]

John Price (on the right) relaxing with LAC Bob McLean at Kimpo, 1953 (AWM JK0830)

Keith Williamson, remembered the risk taken by the pilots involved in rocket attacks.

‘…the gyro gunsight required, I remember, us to have five seconds continuous tracking of the target before releasing the rockets from about 2000ft down to 800ft, which was just the most lethal range of the enemy anti-aircraft fire.’ [10]

On 27 August, Oelof Bergh, a South African serving with the RAF, became all to aware of ground fire

‘As we swept in low over the target, the enemy put up a fierce barrage from the ground. My Meteor was hit in the starboard engine… then a shell shattered the side of the cockpit…I pulled her out of the dive, and as I did so, there came a sudden roar, the starboard engine had exploded. Despite slight burns, I managed to bale-out. As far as I can recall, I must have gone through or out with the canopy as the aircraft was nearly on its back. My parachute opened about five seconds before I hit the deck.'[11]

Without food or water, Bergh managed to evade capture for eight days. He was eventually caught and became a Prisoner of War. Bergh was deemed by his captors to be ‘uncooperative’ and he spent five months of his captivity in solitary confinement which he described as a hole in the ground in which he could neither stand up nor lie down properly.

Despite intense ground fire, the Squadron was still encountering MiGs on occasion. On 2 October, a formation of 16 Meteors had just completed a rocket attack on a troop concentration and were returning to Kimpo, when a MiG, possibly two, made a climbing attack on the formation. Targeting the aircraft of Yellow section which included RAF pilot Oliver Cruikshank, the section broke away, one Meteor received hits, but damage was slight. The MiGs made only one pass and the Meteors continued their flight south. Cruikshank became detached from the formation during the break, he reported he was low on fuel but his aircraft was not damaged. The last that was heard from Cruikshank was his engines had cut and he was baling out over the sea, a Grumman Albatross on rescue duties observed Cruikshank eject but tragically his parachute failed to open.

Michael Whitworth-Jones, the prompt for the writing of this blog, joined No. 77 Squadron on 7 November 1952, during which he would fly 123 sorties, 84 of which were ground attack. John Price recalls

‘In an effort to add more pressure on his supply routes some road-recces were flown at night if the weather and moon-phase were co-operative. Ground-attack at night in areas with 8,000ft. mountains was certainly character forming. One flew singly round the track with about 10 minute spacing between four aircraft looking for lights on the ground and attacking them with rockets and guns. One night I was following two RAF pilots (Charlie Babst and Mike Whitworth-Jones) when I heard Mike’s cultured and somewhat pained English tones enquire, ‘Charles, what have you bin doin’ to these people – there’s flak everywhere.’ But Charlie was not the culprit – Mike had left his downward ident light on and so was providing a nice target for all the Flak.'[12]

Portrait of Michael Whitworth-Jones while serving with 77 Squadron RAAF, circa 1953 (AC81/1/2/9)

Sgt Billy Hicks, an Australian pilot recalled that Whitworth-Jones was always keen to press on ‘when all others reported that they were low on fuel, he would always want to make another pass on the target, and always counted twice as many trucks than were actually present.’ [13]

Michael was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service with No. 77 Squadron, his citation noting

‘Despite extreme hazards of ground fire, mountainous terrain and treacherous weather, this officer has always displayed a conspicuous determination to inflict damage on the enemy and, through his skill and personal courage, has been outstandingly successful.’ [14]

The last few months of the war were to prove some of the most dangerous, a sixth of the Squadron’s losses to enemy action occurred in 1953 and the RAF pilots were not immune, Francis Booth was listed as missing in action after making an attack on railway tunnels. Taffy Rosser was killed on 28 March 1953, flying his second armed reconnaissance sortie of the day, he was not seen again after strafing camouflaged trucks and was assumed killed. Tube James’ Meteor was hit during a rocket and napalm attack on a building on 7 April and his Meteor was seen to crash and burst into flames. George Doolittle was unable to pull out of a dive during a rocket attack on troop concentrations on 17 May. Lastly during a ground rocket strike at Paeguri on 22 June, the Squadron experienced heavy flak and the Meteor of John Coleman was hit, he managed to fly the damaged aircraft back to friendly lines before ejecting at 15,000ft (4,572m), he was later picked up uninjured by helicopter and was back on operations three days later.

Group portrait of 77 Squadron pilots. RAF excahnge pilots are easily identified by the lighter coloured unifroms worn, Michael Whitworth-Jones is seated front row fifth from the right (RAFM X003-7892)

On 20 July 1953 the Squadron flew its last operation of the war, a rocket strike on buildings, a quarter of the pilots on this operation being RAF exchange officers, seven days later the armistice was signed. John Price recalled talking to a senior RAF officer in the 1980s who said to him, ‘Of course, the RAF pilots only got to 77 when the war was over and you just sat around for six months.’[15] The evidence proves otherwise, of the 30 RAF pilots who flew with No. 77 Squadron, five were killed on operations, one became a prisoner of war, six were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven mentioned in despatches, five would achieve air rank, including Keith Williamson a future Chief of the Air Staff.

The RAAF and RAF benefited from the experience of those who served with No. 77 Squadron, in providing their air forces with a cadre of experienced fighter pilots who would help develop fighter tactics in the coming years, their experiences would also inform future aircraft requirements. Tragically Michael Whitworth-Jones was killed just over a month after returning to Britain in July 1953 when the de Havilland Venom he was flying broke up in the air at Holbeach Range.


Nominal roll of RAF pilots who served with No. 77 Squadron (RAAF) in Korea.

 

Footnotes

  1. 1.Hurst, D. (2008). The Forgotten Few, Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, p.229
  2. 2.White, T. (1950). Proposal to purchase Meteor Aircraft from the United Kingdom for re-arming of No 77 Fighter Squadron RAAF in Korea. National Archives of Australia, NAA: A4639, 236. Canberra
  3. 3.Odgers, G. (1953). Across the Parallel. Melbourne, William Heinemann Ltd, p.231
  4. 4.Cresswell, R. (2006). Wing Commander Richard C (Dick) Creswell DFC (Ret) discusses his career in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), 1938-1957, in a talk to the Australian Aviation Club. Australian War Memorial, S04239, Canberra
  5. 5.Cull, B. (2000). With the yanks in Korea. London, Grub Street. P.119
  6. 6.www.pprune.org, (2012). Obituary for Sqn Ldr Joe Blyth DFC* AFC*, joined up at 15 [online] Available at: https://www.pprune.org/archive/index.php/t-482195.html [Accessed 2/6/2020]
  7. 7.Lelong, R.(1952) Report on temporary duty with the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, Kimpo, Korea. The National Archives, AIR 20/10169. London
  8. 8.Price, J. (2000). With the RAAF in Korea. Royal Air Force Historical Society Journal, Volume 21, p.66
  9. 9.Ibid
  10. 10.Williamson, K (1988). RAF CASPS Historic Interview | Sir Keith Williamson.

    Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcM7zbf4-Cw [Accessed 2/6/2020]

  11. 11.Bergh, Oleof (1954). Captive in Korea. RAF Flying Review, January 1954, p.21
  12. 12.Price, J. (2000). With the RAAF in Korea. Royal Air Force Historical Society Journal, Volume 21, p.71
  13. 13.Wilson, D. (1994). Lion over Korea. Belconnen, Banner Books, p.139
  14. 14.Whitworth-Jones, J. (1842-1980) Distinguished Flying Cross-Flight Lieutenant Michael Edward Whitworth-Jones. Royal Air Force Museum, AC81/1. London
  15. 15.Price, J. (2000). With the RAAF in Korea. Royal Air Force Historical Society Journal, Volume 21, p.72
About the Author

Andrew Dennis: Assistant Curator

I work in the Museum’s archive and library and am also the curator responsible for the Museum’s fascinating periodicals collection. This collection encompasses a wide variety of station and unit magazines, aircraft manufacturer’s in-house journals as well commercially produced magazines. I joined the Museum in 2009.