Meteor Operations in Korea
Kimpo, South Korea
At the end of July 1951, the Squadron returned to Korea and settled in at airfield K14 at Kimpo, near Seoul. The airfield was a sea of mud and living conditions were very uncomfortable. The Squadron had to maintain eighteen aircraft operational each morning and evening, and the ground crews worked long hours to keep the sixteen aircraft with two spares on line. 77 Squadron's first operational jet mission was flown on Sunday 30 July 1951 when six Meteors were tasked to fly a fighter sweep in the vicinity of the Yalu River.
The first casualties of the jet era were suffered on 22 August 1951 when two aircraft were
involved in a mid-air collision. A section of twelve Meteors were returning from a fighter
sweep and had just initiated a change from battle formation to line astern when Sergeant
R. Lamb (A77-354), a RAF exchange pilot, collided with Sergeant R. Mitchell (A77-128).
Both aircraft crashed eight miles north of Kimpo, killing both pilots.
China Joins the War
The entry of China into the war resulted in a complete change in the status of the communist's air power, the Chinese had introduced the Mig-15 high performance jet fighter. The Mig-15 had a performance equal to, and in some cases , better than the Sabre at high altitude, but suffered from a tendency to spin if not manoeuvred carefully at medium altitudes. The Meteor, if caught at altitude, did not stand a chance against the Mig-15.
The first encounter with the communist's jets finally came on 25 August 1951 when eight aircraft providing cover for a USAF RF-80 reconnaissance jet, sighted four Migs on patrol. Flight Lieutenant Scannell fired at one of the enemy jets at extreme range but was unable to claim any hits. The Migs flew back across the Yalu River where it was forbidden for UN aircraft to fly.
Four days later the Squadron had their second chance to fight it out with Mig-15s, however, this time the odds were stacked heavily against the Australians. Eight Meteors, led by Squadron Leader Dick Wilson were carrying out a routine fighter sweep near Chongju when they were attacked by over 30 Migs. Squadron Leader Wilson put his aircraft into a dive and was able to position himself behind one of the enemy jets. He had just opened fire on the enemy aircraft, when his Meteor (A77-616) was hit by cannon fire from both above and below. Wilson broke off the engagement and nursed his damaged Meteor home, where it was found that his port aileron had been almost shot away and another round had entered the rear fuselage, ricocheted across the top of the radio compass and entered the rear main fuel tank approximately twenty inches from the top of the tank.
At the end of the battle it was also discovered that Warrant Officer Guthrie (A77-721) was missing. Although no one had sighted him going down, an American flying in a Sabre at low level reported seeing an aircraft spiralling down on fire and a parachute descending. Guthrie was captured and interned as a POW for the next two years.
Squadron Leader Wilson had another lucky escape on 9 September when his aircraft was hit by a 20 mm armour piercing round in the cockpit. Wilson had been attacking ground targets near Pyongyang, when his aircraft came under severe anti-aircraft fire and was hit. On return to Kimpo it was found that the round had entered the cockpit just below the windscreen before breaking up, injuring Wilson in the arm and shoulder.
The Squadron, now under the command of Wing Commander G. Steede, had another inconclusive battle with enemy Migs on 26 September 1951. A formation of twelve Meteors engaged a large number of Migs over Anju with the Migs diving through the Australian formation scoring hits on Meteor A77-949 before the pilot, Flight Sergeant E. Armitt, had a chance to break formation. The dog fight continued and the Migs once again dove through the Meteor formation, the Mig leader broke for the safety of the Yalu River but his wingman broke the opposite direction exposing himself to the RAAF fighters. Flight Lieutenant C. Thomas attempted to cut off the Mig as it tried to turn north forcing it away from the safety of the Yalu. The Mig pilot turned into the sun and was lost by the Australian pilots. He had made his escape but it was doubtful that he had sufficient fuel to make it back to his base. Meanwhile Flight Lieutenant Dawson had managed to fire two long bursts of cannon fire into another Mig's wings. Several pilots claimed that they saw wreckage and what was thought to be fuel streaming back from the enemy aircraft. Subsequently Dawson was credited with probably damaging the Mig, this being the Squadron's first successful jet combat claim.
During this period the airfield at Kimpo received a number of nuisance raids from enemy light aircraft. The raids were normally carried out by a lone single engined aircraft, such as a Polikarpov PO-2 biplane trainer, armed with a couple of small fragmentation bombs. This type of raid was most common at night during a full moon period; thus the raiders were nick-named 'Bed Check Charlie'. During one such raid on 23 September 1951, Meteor A77-510, which was parked near some USAF Sabres, received minor shrapnel damage when a bomb exploded nearby. On the average, very little damage was caused by these raids.
On 1 November 1951 the Squadron was awarded the Korean Presidential Unit Citation for "Exceptionally meritorious service and heroism" on behalf of the Republic of Korea. Seven days later it was also announced that Squadron Leader Dick Wilson had been awarded the first British Distinguished Flying Cross of the Korean War.
Sergeant D. Robertson (A77-959) and Flying Officer K. Blight suffered a mid-air collision
while returning from 'Mig Alley' on 11 November 1951. Sergeant Robertson was killed.
Blight's Meteor was missing four feet of port wing and could only be controlled by applying
full power on the port engine with the starboard engine at idle. However, below 180 knots
the aircraft was uncontrollable and Blight was forced to eject.
First Mig Kill
77 Squadron finally achieved its first confirmed Mig-15 kill on 1 December 1951 when twelve Meteors were engaged by over fifty Migs in an epic dogfight over Pyongyang. In the opening attack, two Meteors were damaged with one, A77-559 flown by Flight Sergeant Bill Middlemiss, being forced to return to Kimpo. Flying Officer B. Gogerly (A77-17) latched onto the tail of one of the enemy jets, and watched as his cannon rounds sent pieces flying from the Mig's fuselage. The aircraft crashed in a ball of flames. Several other pilots had fired at Migs and a second aircraft was seen to hit the ground.
All pilots checked in at the end of the battle, however, ten minutes later when the order
was given to head for home, three Meteors were found to be missing. It is assumed that
they were taken by surprise as they turned for home. Two of the missing pilots Sergeant
B. Thompson (A77-29) and Sergeant V. Drummond (A77-251) were captured after having ejected
safely. The third pilot Flight Sergeant E. Armitt (A77-949) was killed when his aircraft
was shot down. The Squadron had its first Mig kills, but had paid a high price.
All I want for Christmas is my Wings Swept Back
The arrival of a second USAF Sabre Wing in the area made it apparent that the role of the Meteor would soon be changed. The air battle of December 1, with the loss of three Meteors, showed the superiority of the Russian fighter and that it would be foolish to continue using the Meteor on the fighter sweeps into 'Mig Alley'. A song often sung in the Squadron at the time summed up the situation aptly, "all I want for Christmas is my wings swept back". Thus in January 1952, 77 Squadron was assigned the role of area and airfield defence for both Kimpo and Suwon, leaving the Sabres to patrol the skies over North Korea.
During January the Squadron also adopted the role of ground attack, and it was in this role that the Meteor was finally able to find its niche in the Korean conflict. The Squadron flew its first ground attack sortie on the 8 January 1952, when four Meteors rocketed a water tower near a communist held town. Ground attack missions demanded that the Meteors be flown low over hostile territory and the accuracy of the enemy anti-aircraft weapons was soon realised when two of the four aircraft on that first mission were hit by light flak.
Flight Lieutenant V. Turner had a lucky escape from serious injury on 24 January 1952 when his aircraft, A77-741, suffered an engine failure and crashed whilst turning to make its landing approach. Although the Meteor was totally written off, Turner managed to escape the wreckage with only minor injuries.
The 27 January 1952 was a sad day for the Squadron when two pilots were lost within an hour of each other. Two sections of six Meteors attacked enemy positions in the Haeju area in what must be described as atrocious weather, overcast cloud at 2500 feet and light snow falling. During a strafing pass Flight Lieutenant M. Browne-Gaylord (A77-559) was hit by light flak knocking out his air speed indicator and altimeter. His flight leader, Flight Lieutenant W. Bennet attempted to inform Browne-Gaylord of his correct height but received no reply. It is assumed that A77-559 crashed into rugged terrain inland from Haeju whilst being flown 'blind' in bad weather. Less than an hour later, Sergeant B. Gillan (A77-726) was hit by flak in the starboard wing while strafing an enemy water tower. Gillan probably ejected from his crippled jet, although no parachute was seen by his wing man, and it remains a mystery as to how he met his end.
Accurate enemy anti-aircraft fire was becoming a major problem for the Australian pilots,
and on 6 February 1952, it claimed yet another Meteor; A77-616 flown by Flight Lieutenant
J. Hannan. A large search was launched for Hannan who had been seen to parachute safely,
but on landing in white snow, became invisible to the pilots overhead. Hannan was captured
by the North Koreans and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. One of the searching
pilots, Flying Officer R. Wittman (A77-774) had a lucky escape, when an enemy .25 calibre
slug passed through the aircraft's seat without touching him.
The RAAF pilots found the accuracy of the conventional bombing in the mountainous Korean
terrain left something to be desired and had a definite preference for the air-to-ground
rocket. Late in 1951, the RAAF developed a new type of rocket containing napalm, known as
the 'Flaming Onion', and after trials at Williamtown and preliminary testing in Korea,
the first examples arrived at 77 Squadron early in February 1952.
The Americans showed considerable interest in the new weapon, and on 8 February 1952, when
the napalm rocket was first used in combat, the USAF provided an RF-80 reconnaissance
aircraft to record the results on film for later analysis. The Squadron's new CO, Wing
Commander Ron Susans led four Meteors armed with the
new rockets in an attack on several buildings with 75% of the rockets
scoring hits on the targets, resulting in numerous fires. The new weapon was to prove
extremely useful against the enemy vehicle convoys and troop concentrations and soon
became the standard under wing weapon carried by RAAF Meteors, with each aircraft
capable of carrying eight rockets.
During the next few months 77 Squadron continued to fly the demanding ground attack missions as well as the area defence patrols, achieving excellent results despite the high losses. The Squadron lost two more pilots during March with both Sergeant I. Cranston (A77-920) and Sergeant L. Cowper (A77-120) failing to return from ground attack sorties; both shot down by enemy flak. An indication of how hectic March was is shown in the Squadron's operations sheets with 1,007 individual sorties being flown.
The communist ground forces soon began to feel the effects of the continuous attacks on their supply lines, and by early May, began to send their Migs south in the hope of intercepting the raiders before they could reach their targets. Once more, the Meteors were to clash with the Migs. On 4 May 1952 a patrol of two Meteors sighted a flight of nine Mig-15s south west of Pyongyang. The Migs immediately launched an attack, but on this occasion the odds lay with the Meteors. The Migs were forced to fight the Meteors at low altitude, thus relinquishing the Mig's high latitude performance advantage. A Mig latched itself onto Sergeant E. Myer's tail but was quickly shaken off, enabling his number two, Pilot Officer J. Surman, to fire two bursts of cannon fire into the Mig. The starboard tail plane and the starboard side of the Mig's exhaust port were seen to disintegrate in a flash of flame, and Surman was credited with probably having destroyed the aircraft as neither Australian saw the Mig impact the ground. Four days later, in the same area, a flight of four Meteors were intercepted by two Migs. Once again, the Meteors had a height advantage and Pilot Officer Bill Simonds (A77-385) was able to make a firing pass on one of the enemy jets. The Mig entered an uncontrollable spin, and the pilot was seen to bail out over friendly territory, resulting in the Squadron's ninth Mig claim since the beginning of the war.
The Mig pilots gained their revenge on the 2 October 1952 when Flying Officer O. Cruickshank, a RAF exchange pilot with the Squadron, was shot down in a surprise attack. A flight of four Meteors had carried out a successful rocket strike and were returning to Kimpo when two Migs jumped them from the 8 o'clock position. Sergeant K. Murray received a 37 mm hit in the port tail pipe during the Mig's first pass and observed Cruickshank bailing out of A77-436 over Cho'do. Unfortunately Cruickshank's parachute failed to open and he fell into the sea with no chance of survival.
With the onset of the Korean winter the Squadron's maintenance personnel once again found their task increasingly difficult. The sub-zero temperatures meant that fitters had to work with their gloves on at all times, as removing them for more than a few moments would invariably lead to frost bite. This resulted in making delicate operations all but impossible. The thick snow had to be removed from the Meteors before dawn each day and this proved to be a most unpopular duty. It is a credit to the fitters that even under these conditions the aircrew were provided with enough serviceable aircraft to enable them to fly 688 sorties in December.
On the 20th January 1953 Wing Commander J.R. Kinnimont handed command of 77 Squadron to Wing Commander J.W. Hubble AFC. Flying during the month was disrupted by continual bad weather although a few very successful strikes were carried out with a total of 50 enemy trucks and 48 buildings being destroyed. The Squadron lost one pilot during the period with RAF pilot Flying Officer F. Booth (A77-15) failing to return from an attack on two trains hidden in railway tunnels.
The Squadron carried out what was arguably its most successful mission of the Korean War when on 16 March 1953 an enemy convoy of approximately 150 trucks was devastated. Also during March the Meteors had their last contact with Mig-15s. On the 27th a flight of four Meteors on an armed reconnaissance mission spotted a Mig chasing two USAF F-80 Shooting Stars, with two more Migs appearing as the Meteors approached. Sergeant Dave Irlam (A77-446) received a major hit from one of the Mig-15's 37 mm cannons and had to break contact to nurse his jet back to Kimpo. Meanwhile, Sergeant George Hale (A77-851), using the weapons he had at hand, fired an air-to-ground rocket between the two Migs before engaging them with his cannons. Hale was credited with having probably shot down one of the Migs, damaging another and definitely scaring the daylights out of the two pilots he fired the rocket at.
Unfortunately the excellent results achieved during March were nullified to some extent by the deaths of three well respected Squadron pilots: Squadron Leader D. Hillier, Flying Officer R. James (RAF) and Sergeant P. Chalmers, all shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Sergeant Ken Murray was also posted back to Australia having set a record by flying a total of 333 sorties during his tour with the Squadron.
The effectiveness of the UN air forces attacks on the communist supply lines, forced the enemy to undertake most of its troop movements and resupply under cover of darkness. During the northern spring of 1953, 77 Squadron began to carry out night armed reconnaissance missions against enemy supply routes in the Pyongyang and Wonsan areas. These missions were normally carried out by a lone Meteor under the guidance of a ground controller, and although many attacks were made on enemy positions, it was hard to judge their effectiveness due to darkness. However, it was considered that the disruption to enemy communications caused by the presence of the Meteors made the project worthwhile.
The Squadron carried out an extremely successful interdiction rocket strike against an enemy troop concentration housed in 51 buildings north east of Chinnampo on 18 May 1953. Sixteen Meteors attacked the village, expending 125 napalm rockets on the target area and, despite the heavy anti-aircraft fire, were able to totally destroy all the buildings with no loss to themselves. The Squadron continued to fly interdiction missions during the next two months but with the arrival of the wet season, the number of days where the weather stopped flying increased dramatically. During June, twelve days flying was lost due to adverse weather, resulting in only 462 sorties being flown compared to the May total of 800 sorties.
The first few weeks of June, however, brought an increase in action and subsequent casualties. On 11 June 1953 Sergeant D. Nolan (A77-134) was killed when his aircraft disintegrated whilst recovering from a barrel roll and dive. Two days later, during an attack on a cable repeater station, Sergeant Bill Monaghan (A77-415) was hit by flak and was forced to land on a friendly island.
The Squadron broke its own sortie record on 15 June 1953 when it flew a total of 88 sorties in the one day, accounting for 90 hours and five minutes of flying time. The only 77 Squadron casualty sustained during these raids was Sergeant D. Pinkstone (A77-982) who was hit by anti-aircraft fire when attacking an enemy vehicle and was forced to bail out of his stricken jet. He parachuted to safety landing successfully in a nearby rice paddy. Other members of his flight saw Pinkstone fold up his parachute and run for the cover of some high ground near a small village. A rescue helicopter was called in but was forced away from the downed pilot by intense enemy ground fire, leaving Pinkstone to be captured and interned as a prisoner of war.
The war on the ground had stagnated into a stalemate over the past year with neither side being able to gain the upper hand. The UN air forces had definite air superiority but this alone could not win the war. The Korean War was formally ended at 1001 hours on 27 July 1953 when delegates from both sides signed an armistice at Panmunjom, with a cease fire commencing shortly afterwards.
The contribution made by 77 Squadron during the three years of the Korean War is totally out of proportion to its size. During the war the Squadron flew a total of 18,872 sorties, comprising of 3,872 Mustang sorties and 15,000 Meteor sorties. The effect this had on the enemy was devastating; 3,700 buildings, 1,500 vehicles, 16 bridges, 20 locomotives and 65 railway carriages destroyed. The outstanding results achieved by 77 Squadron, evidently much higher than usual for a single squadron, would not have been possible without the support of 391 (Base) and 491 (Maintenance) Squadrons. The level of technical support was outstanding, resulting in close to 100% serviceability for the Mustangs andMeteors. To achieve this, maintenance crews often worked up to sixteen hours per day under extremely harsh, and often wet, conditions.
It must not be forgotten though, that 38 personnel lost their lives and seven pilots were
captured serving their country.
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