Warship Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020: A Snowball in Hell
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020: A Snowball in Hell
Here we see the crew of the Royal Navy light fleet carrier HMS Theseus (R64) tooling up snowballs while frosty Fleet Air Arm Sea Furies and Fireflies sit by in cold storage, some 70 years ago this month. Don’t let the snap fool you, the British carrier at the time was off Korea, which was ridiculously hot when it came to combat, and both her crew and airwing were doing their part.
Theseus was one of 16 planned 1942 Design Light Fleet Carriers for the RN. This series, broken up into Colossus and Majestic-class sub-variants, were nifty 19,500-ton, 695-foot-long carriers that the U.S. Navy would have classified at the time as a CVL or light carrier. They were slower than the fast fleet carriers at just 25-knots with all four 3-drum Admiralty boilers were lit and glowing red, but they had long legs (over 14,000 miles at cruising speed) which allowed them to cross the Atlantic escorting convoys, travel to the Pacific to retake lost colonies or remain on station in the South Atlantic or the Indian Ocean for weeks.
Capable of carrying up to 52 piston engine aircraft of the time, these carriers had enough punch to make it count.
The thing is, only seven of these carriers were completed before the end of World War II and even those came in during the last months and weeks. They effectively saw no service. Laid down beginning in 1942, most of the ships were launched but when the war ended, construction was canceled. Two were completed as a peculiar RN invention of a “maintenance carrier,” intended just to repair and ferry but not operate aircraft. Some were immediately transferred to expanding Commonwealth fleets. Suddenly, the Australians, Canadians, and Indians became carrier operators. The Dutch (then Argentines) and Brazilians soon followed. Class leader Colossus was sold to France as Arromanches.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Laid down 6 January 1943 at the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Scotland, the same yard that built the famous Cunard liners RMS Campania and RMS Lucania, the mighty 32,000-ton carrier HMS Implacable (R86), and two-thirds of the infamous “Live Bait Squadron” cruisers, HMS Cressy and HMS Aboukir, Theseus came too late for the war, entering the fleet 9 February 1946. She was the third RN warship to carry the name of the mythical Athenian king, following in the footsteps of a ship-of-the-line that fought at the Nile and a Great War-era protected cruiser of the Edgar class.
Originally assigned to serve in the British Pacific Fleet, she sailed for Singapore to serve as the flagship for the 1st Carrier Squadron in the Far East. The brand-new carrier made a splash in Australia and the Western Pacific on her arrival.
However, as soon as she arrived, the Admiralty was forced, due to dire post-war cost-cutting measures, to pull most of its capital ships back to Home Waters. Subsequently, the Fleet Air Arm Naval Air Bases in Ceylon and Singapore were closed, and Theseus returned prematurely from abroad.
Nonetheless, she would be back soon enough.
With the balloon going up at the 38th parallel, Theseus’s sister, HMS Triumph, happened to be in Japanese waters with the rump occupation fleet of Task Force 95 and soon, in conjunction with the American Essex-class fleet carrier USS Valley Forge (CV-45), was performing air strikes on North Korean airfields within a week of the outbreak of the conflict.
As for Theseus, she had served in UK waters as Flagship of the 3rd Aircraft Carrier Squadron, Home Fleet, and trained with Vampire jet aircraft. On 14 August, she cast off from Plymouth to relive the understrength and rapidly wearing-out Triumph.
HMS Theseus arrived in the Yellow Sea carrying 23 Furies from 807 Squadron and 12 Fireflies from 813 Squadron, 17th Carrier Air Group, beginning strikes on North Korean targets on 9 October 1950. The day before, RADM William Gerrard “Bill” Andrewes, a Jutland veteran on his third war, arrived aboard and raised his flag.
By 10 October, one of her planes, Sea Fury VW628, had been lost in a strike against the Chang-you railway bridge but its pilot, LT Stanley Leonard, was recovered by an American helicopter, a novelty, and returned (eventually) to the ship.
Speaking of helicopters, a U.S. Navy HO3S-1 (Sikorsky S-51) was assigned to Theseus to act as a ResCap plane guard in place of Sea Otter floatplanes, a mission they had also conducted with Triumph.
HU-1’s first RN plane guard detachment consisted of one helicopter a few mechs, who doubled as aircrew, and one pilot, a Chief Petty Officer, Aviation Engine Mechanic Dan Fridley. Fridley was called a naval aviation pilot, to distinguish him from a naval aviator. Naval Aviators were officers, and Naval Aviation Pilots were enlisted men. ADC(AP) Fridley went the whole hog for Theseus, painting the Union Jack, “ROYAL NAVY” and “HMS THESEUS” on the side. The British tars, having no previous close-up experience with this new-fangled thing called a helicopter dubbed her “The Thing,” an appellation Fridley and his crew quickly embraced, going so far as to add that name to the rest of the whirlybird’s livery.
As noted by a reunion site for the carrier:
The American helicopter rescue service cannot be too highly praised. Lts. Leonard, Humphreys, Keighley-Peach and Bowman were picked up behind enemy lines by these grand helicopter crews and Lts. Hamilton, Pinsent and Mr. Bailey and Acmn. II Loveys were picked up out of the sea by them. Lt.-Cdr. Gordon-Smith and Lt. Kelly were picked up by destroyers.
It was the stuff of newsreel footage.
The Thing was not the only American whirlybirds carried by Theseus. She also embarked helicopters from USS Worcester (CL-144) who specialized in counter-mine operations, another innovation.
By November 1950, with the North Koreans on the ropes, things kicked into high gear as hundreds of thousands of Chinese “Volunteers” poured across the Yalu River, starting an entirely new war for those tired of the old one.
And all of it in bitterly cold winter weather with snow and ice present.
Between 9 October and 5 November 1950, Theseus’ Furies (avg 19.3) made 492 sorties. From 5 December to 26 December, 423 Fury sorties were flown by an average of 19.6 aircraft. From 7 January 1951 to 23 March, 20.8 Furies flew 718 sorties, for a total of 1634 sorties over 98 days of operation (of which only 65 days were suitable for flying). All told, Theseus launched 3,500 sorties on 86 days during its seven-month deployment. During the first six months, Theseus’ air wing dropped 829,000 lbs. of explosives and fired 7,317 rockets and “half a million rounds of 20mm ammunition.” In recognition of these efforts, Theseus and the 17th Carrier Air Group was awarded the Rear-Admiral Sir Denis Boyd trophy for 1950 for “outstanding feat of naval aviation”
On 23 April 1951, sistership HMS Glory arrived from the UK to relieve her, with Bill Andrewes remaining behind to carry on the British efforts with the UN forces. Throughout the war, Commonwealth-manned Colossus and Majestic-class light carriers endured off the coast– the Admiralty tasking them rather than larger flattops to save money– with Glory being replaced by HMS Ocean and HMAS Sydney, while HMCS Warrior transported replacement aircraft from Britain. In all, FAA and RAN pilots flew at least 25,366 sorties from these budget carriers during the Korean conflict.
Her epic Korean tour over, Theseus sailed back for Portsmouth, arriving 29 May 1951, having been away from home for 285 days. In 215 days at sea, rotating back to Japan five times to re-arm and re-provision, she steamed 36,401 miles. She is mentioned extensively in the U.S. Navy’s history of the conflict.
Her Korean Campaign saw:
Number of Deck Landings: 4,594
Number of Catapult Launchings: 3,593
Number of Hours Flown: 10,189
Number of Flying Days: 114
Average number of Hours per Pilot: 268
Destroyed— 93 Junks, 153 Railway Trucks, 25 Railway Bridges, 485 Buildings, 73 Road Trucks, 66 Store Dumps, 6 Railway Tunnels, 17 Warehouses, 33 Gun Positions, 16 Road Bridges, 13 Railway Engines, 8 Tanks, 3 Railway Stations, 19 Factories, 5 Power Stations, 10 Command Posts, 4 Railway Sheds, 2 Jetties, 3 Cars, 1 Hangar, 5 Roadblocks, 12 Carts, 51 Barrack Buildings, 2 Steam Rollers, 2 Omnibuses, 1 Tug, 1 Excavator, 1 Floating Bridge, 1 “Bulldozer,” 1 Pump House.
Damaged— 18 Road Bridges, 77 Junks, 69 Railway Wagons, 1 Gun Position. 35 Buildings. 2 Store Dumps, 22 Warehouses, 34 Road Trucks, 1 Tractor, 15 Railway Bridges, 5 Railway Tunnels, 1 Airfield Runway, 4 Tanks, 18 Barrack Buildings, 1 Excavator, 4 Railway Sheds, 5 Factories, 10 Vehicle Revetments, 42, Sampans.
After an extensive refit and working back up, Theseus was assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet in February 1952 to relieve sistership HMS Ocean, which was being prepared for service in Korea.
In September 1953, she responded to the Paphos earthquake in Cyprus, which had left 50,000 without food or water. Her crews and embarked Dragonfly helicopters were just the ticket in the humanitarian crisis, buzzing around lending a hand while bringing aid and medical attention.
By January 1954, with a glut of flattops and peace in Korea, the Admiralty decided that Theseus and her sister Ocean should be re-tasked from operating fixed-wing aircraft and refitted for helicopters and a battalion-sized element of marines, then deemed “Commando Carriers,” a concept akin to a U.S. LPH.
This brings us to…
Suez Crisis: Operation Musketeer.
After Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, our two new commando carriers were part of the Anglo-French intervention, embarking troops and stores for passage to Cyprus and then on to North Africa. There, Whirlwinds and Sycamores from their decks took part in an early combat experiment in vertical envelopment from the sea, seizing Port Said.
After the Suez Crisis abated, she withdrew elements of the Army’s 16th Parachute Brigade from Egypt to Malta.
After spending another year at Portsmouth in the Training Squadron, Theseus was mothballed in October 1957, having served just 11 years with the fleet. Paid off the next year, she was laid up until sold to BISCO for breaking-up at Inverkeithing, arriving at the breakers yard on 29 May 1962.
The last of her class in the Royal Navy, Triumph, was kept around as a repair ship until 1975 then scrapped. The final vessel of her class sent to the breakers, the third-hand ex-HMS/HMAS Vengeance/ex-NAeL Minas Gerais, was sold for scrap by the Brazilian owners in 2004, torched to man-portable pieces on the beach at Alang.
Since 1958, there has not been a Theseus in the Royal Navy.
A memorial marker to the six men lost from Theseus in Korea is in Cobham Hall at the Fleet Air Arm Museum.
She is also remembered in maritime art.
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