From the Archive


By Commander T D Handley

An unusual view of a Seafire Mk 47 at an unidentified Royal Naval Air Station in about 1947

Sembawang was a small grass airfield which had been built by British prisoners of war under the direction of the Japanese occupying forces. Not quite finished when the war ended it was completed by the British and handed over to the RN. We put down Sommerfeld tracking, which were long strips of metal plating secured together to form a semblance of a runway. Our accommodation was in Japanese ‘Basha’ huts, which were made of wood with a wooden floor, and when my Chinese steward by the name of Chan Fukoi (pronounced as spelled) and wearing wooden flip-flops came to call me in the morning I could hear his footsteps miles away. I did not care for my first few trips from Sembawang in a Seafire 47. It was a very hot and humid climate and one never stopped perspiring, and it just got worse getting into a very hot metal aircraft that had been standing in sun for a while. The noise of the aircraft wheels on the metal Sommerfeld tracking had to be experienced to be believed. Also when airborne it took a while to become acquainted to flying over thick jungle instead of the lovely English fields, villages and countryside.

After a few weeks the squadron embarked in HMS Triumph, together with a Firefly squadron, and we made our way up to Hong Kong. Entering the port and suddenly turning the corner to see Victoria Island on the port side and Kowloon in the New Territories on the starboard was quite awe inspiring and a never to be forgotten sight.

Seafire 47 in HMS Triumph in Grand Harbour, Malta, in 1949

In late March we heard we were to go to Japan for three months to be temporarily part of the Allied occupation forces. This was all exciting stuff, but we were a little apprehensive; after all we had been at war with the Japanese less than five years before. Our last port of call was to Ominato, on the northernmost island of the three that go to make up Japan. It was the Japanese Scapa Flow, from whence their fleet set out to make the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Back onboard there was a great atmosphere, our foreign meanderings were over and we were starting on our way back home to the UK and family – or so we thought. We were off the most southerly of the Japanese islands when we heard on the BBC World Service that war had broken out between North and South Korea, just a couple of hundred miles way. As we had a drink in the wardroom that night we all agreed this was the one war that we, the British Empire, the Royal Navy and certainly HMS Triumph would not be involved in. So we had a second gin, a good supper, and a good night’s rest. Everything looked rosy. At breakfast next morning we all heard that we were no longer bound for Hong Kong and during the night the ship’s course had been altered to head for Okinawa. It appeared we were going to be involved after all. Shall we say a little despondency set in. We were ordered to proceed to Okinawa some 400 miles south of the bottom end of Japan, the island that had been the scene of some bitter fighting between the Americans and the Japanese immediately before the atom bombs were dropped. We were to join up with the USN aircraft carrier Valley Forge and await instructions. Just before arriving we separated, having been given our respective targets, and we prepared for our attack on Kaishu airfield.

Kaishu airfield was on the coast on the western side of the front line between the opposing forces. The targets were to be aircraft on the ground, the hangars and control tower. Twenty-four aircraft took part in the raid, twelve Fireflies and twelve Seafires. The Seafires were to be the covering force and to defend the Fireflies in case of enemy fighter attack, but we were carrying six 60lb rocket projectiles each, so we could have a go at the airfield should no enemy air opposition be encountered. None was forthcoming and as we neared the airfield there were no aircraft on the ground either, so we all carried out attacks on the hangars, workshops and control tower. An air of mystery prevailed: where was the enemy? In the reconnaissance photos taken by the Americans a few days earlier there had been plenty of aircraft on the airfield. They had probably all been flown elsewhere along the front line.

800 Squadron pilots on board HMS Triumph (Left to right) Lieutenants Tommy Handley, Ian Berry and John Treacher. (Photo courtesy of the author, originally published in “Seafire from the Cockpit, No 13” by Eric Brown.                                                 )

For the next week or so my flying logbook shows I was employed on combat air patrol whilst the Fireflies carried out sea patrols. The Americans employed us in a defensive role for the fleet, as at this stage it was uncertain as to whether the Chinese, or even the Russians, were going to join forces with the North Koreans. As no enemy appeared on the sea or in the air it was decided that Triumph’s aircraft would attack any waterborne targets that could be found plus a few special missions. During the next ten weeks I flew some thirty-five sorties. One of the targets we found was a water-pumping station, and we left it in a pretty parlous state. Quite amazing, during this sortie we never saw an enemy aircraft or ship, and yet we had ventured some 200 miles into North Korean territory and not so very far from Communist China.

During our time in Korea we used Sasebo in southern Japan for rest and recreation and here we had the first class facilities of the US Navy including their officers’ club. It was in the American sector and the Yanks, God bless ‘em, had their feet well and truly ‘under the table’. A lot of them had taken up with the local populace and I once saw an enlisted soldier with a young Japanese lady on each arm. Such virility!

When we entered the Korean War the front line was about the middle of the country. In the early weeks the Allies were pushed down to the south-eastern edge, and then General Macarthur, once his reinforcements arrived, took the initiative and it ended up with the Allies in North Korea not far from the Chinese border. We thought it was all over and Triumph was released from the conflict. Our successor, HMS Theseus, waited for us in Hong Kong to conduct a turnover. Our spirits were on the crest of the wave and we told them that they had ‘missed the boat’ and we had had all the glory. Little did we realize at the time that things were to go wrong for us, the Chinese gave their backing to the North, Macarthur asked permission to use nuclear weapons and was refused, and there was a retreat to the original front line. Theseus was called to the action and endured a real conflict.

The Korean War was the Seafire/Spitfire swansong. We had flown the last operational missions in this very famous aircraft. However, although the Spitfire was a fine aircraft in the air, it was sadly lacking in deck-landing capability. It had been built to have a high top speed and performance and for operation from shore airfields. It was not robust enough to withstand the stresses and strains of deck operation. The aircraft skin between the cockpit and the tail plane used to wrinkle if a deck landing was heavy or off the carrier centre line. During the war the ship’s air engineer officer in the interests of keeping them flying had turned a blind eye to the laid down regulations and acceptable limits for safety. As soon as the last operational sortie was flown he grounded every Seafire onboard. Thus we had no aircraft to fly during the passage home even if we had wanted to. So I read The Forsyth Saga and thoroughly enjoyed it