- A.N. Other
- Naval Aviation
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- 817 Squadron, HMAS Melbourne II, HMAS Sydney III
- December 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
During flying operations on 25-26 October, three of Sydney’s aircraft were shot down and a fourth badly damaged. One of these, a Firefly from 817 Squadron, piloted by SBLT Neil MacMillan and CPO Phillip Hancox was forced down in a frozen rice paddy 50 miles behind enemy lines. The two downed aviators resisted capture by enemy soldiers with the aid of an Owen sub-machine gun and a protective overhead umbrella provided by Sea Furies from Sydney and Meteor jet fighters from the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) 77 Squadron. The two airmen were later rescued by Sydney’s Dragonfly helicopter which had flown 172 kilometres to carry out the rescue at the limit of its endurance. It then recovered to Kimpo and returned to Sydney with its passengers the following day. The helicopter pilot, CPO Arlene ‘Dick’ Babbit, USN, was awarded the Commonwealth Distinguished Service Medal as well as the United States Navy Cross for his efforts that day, earning the distinction of being the only allied serviceman in Korea to receive the awards of two nations for the same action.
Sydney’s last raids were scheduled for 25 January 1952, striking directly on the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. However extremely poor weather caused the mission to be cancelled and Sydney returned to Australia a few days later via Sasebo and Hong Kong. Collectively, Sydney’s CAG had flown 2,366 sorties for the loss of three lives (all from 805 Squadron) and 14 aircraft (five of which were lost overboard or damaged beyond repair by Typhoon Ruth). Sydney had achieved an enviable operational record in Korea and it was noted that enemy activity decreased significantly in Sydney’s area of operations.
Sydney arrived in Fremantle on 22 February 1952 in the midst of industrial unrest on the waterfront. Union action meant that no tugs arrived to assist Sydney out of harbour on its departure date three days later. In response, the ship initiated an action known as ‘Operation Pinwheel’ whereby the Sea Furies of 805 and 808 Squadrons started the engines of the aircraft sitting on Sydney’s flightdeck and used their thrust to pull the carrier clear.
That October, Sydney participated in ‘Operation Hurricane’ the name given to the British nuclear tests in the Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of Western Australia. 817 Squadron, along with 805 Squadron, enforced a security radius of 72 kilometres around the test site. Sydney returned to NAS Nowra November 1952 before sailing in March 1953 for Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Fleet Review at Spithead with 817 Squadron embarked. The Coronation featured some 229 ships from around the world and the flypast, which included the Fireflies of 817 Squadron, was made up of over 300 aircraft from 37 squadrons. Sydney returned to Australia in August .
817 Squadron embarked for short time aboard HMAS Vengeance before de-commissioning on 27 April 1955 at NAS Nowra. The Squadron re-commissioned four months later on 23 August 1955 at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, equipped with Fairey Gannet AS.1 anti-submarine aircraft. The Squadron participated in the flying trials for the RAN’s new aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne and embarked in Melbourne for the carrier’s journey to Australia in March 1956, arriving in Fremantle on 23 April. The carrier disembarked most of its aircraft at Jervis Bay the following month before arriving in Sydney Harbour, with much fanfare, on 9 May 1956. The Squadron participated in various exercises before de-commissioning again on 18 August 1958.
On 18 July 1963, 817 Squadron again reformed at NAS Nowra this time equipped with Westland Wessex 31A anti-submarine helicopters. The Squadron embarked in Melbourne later in the year where the Wessex proved an instant success. Its dunking sonar made them the most effective submarine detecting aircraft yet seen in the RAN. The Squadron continued embarked operations in Melbourne until the carrier’s modernisation programme began, after which an element embarked in Sydney for anti-submarine escort duties during troop transport voyages to Vietnam, a responsibility it shared with 725 Squadron. While in the operational area, the normal routine was to have one Wessex screening the ship while another was fully armed and prepared on her deck. In addition to its Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) responsibilities, 817 Squadron also provided guard helicopters during the launching and recovery of Melbourne’s fixed-wing aircraft and also provided civil aid services when operating from NAS Nowra.