Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Oct.5, 2022: Hoagy, Shmoo, Winkle and the Forgotten Ocean
Above we see the crew of the British Colossus-class light aircraft carrier HMS Ocean (R68) on deck for an inspection by Field Marshal Earl Alexander, the British Defense Minister, on 14 June 1952. Ocean was at the time off the Korean coast– a peninsula where she was highly active some 70 years ago– and she has Hawker Sea Furys of 802 Squadron and Fairey Fireflys of 825 Squadron aboard. It looks like the light cruiser HMS Belfast (C35) is off her stern.
Ocean is often forgotten when it comes to British carriers, as it seems everyone just cares about the ones that were active in WWII and the Falklands and forgot about everything between 1946 and 1982, however, she was important in naval history– being the first flattop to host a jet (intentionally) as well as probably the last to have a combat-ready biplane take off from her deck. As you can tell in the above, she also saw a good bit of combat as well.
Ocean 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 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 45 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 (later passed on to the Argentines) and Brazilians soon followed. Class leader HMS Colossus was even sold to France as Arromanches.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Our Ocean, a long time coming
The fifth HMS Ocean in the Royal Navy since 1761 was laid down in Scotland on 8 November 1942 at Alexander Stephen & Sons Limited in Glasgow. However, she was a slow build-out and wasn’t launched until after D-Day, with the Australians showing an interest in acquiring her. (While the Australian deal fell through, they did ultimately operate no less than three of her sisters after the war.)
Ocean was captured by noted English painter, Sir Henry George “Harry” Rushbury, at the time, while Sir Henry was working as an official war artist– a job the 56-year-old had done in the Great War as well– around the port of Glasgow.
This left the Admiralty to commission Ocean on 8 August 1945, three months after the war ended in Europe and just a week before the surrender of the Empire of Japan in World War II was announced by Emperor Hirohito on 15 August.
Although it had been intended to rush her to join the British Pacific Fleet as a dedicated night fighter carrier in the last push to take down Japan, that plan evaporated soon after she was commissioned and Ocean, therefore, spent the rest of 1945 in home waters at Rosyth as a trials ship, including the final embarkation of the iconic Fairey Swordfish “Stringbag” torpedo bomber that had won laurels at Taranto and against the Bismarck early in the war.
She was also the trials ship for the new twin-engine De Havilland Sea Hornet F.20, with prototype PX219– the full naval version– conducting carrier deck trials on board Ocean in late 1945 with renowned test pilot Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown at the controls. The plane was notable for being the fastest production piston-engine aircraft ever put into service.
Winkle Brown also made a bit more history on Ocean in 1945, just before the year was out.
On 4 December 1945, he made the world’s first carrier landing by a jet, bringing the second prototype De Havilland DH.100 Sea Vampire Mk.10, No. LZ551, aboard HMS Ocean.
Deployed to the Mediterranean Fleet in late 1945 with a wing of Seafires and Fireflys, Ocean left her aircraft behind in Malta to run troops to Singapore the next summer, then responded that October to the stricken destroyers HMS Saumarez (G12) and HMS Volage (R41), both of which had been damaged by Albanian infernal devices while conducting mine-clearing operations in the Corfu Channel.
In 1948, Ocean covered the British withdrawal from their troublesome Palestine mandate-– leaving the Jews and the Arabs to fight it out in the war that followed.
With the balloon going up at the 38th parallel in June 1950, Ocean’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. By October, another sister, HMS Theseus arrived in the Yellow Sea to join her, with her two dozen Sea Furys logging almost 500 sorties a month by December and a whopping 3,500 sorties in just 86 days.
Soon, Ocean was being prepped to head to the Pacific to give her sisters some relief.
Her first tour off Korea would run from May to November 1952, with Sea Furys of 802 Squadron and Fireflys of 825 Squadron embarked.
On 9 August 1952, FAA LT Peter “Hoagy” Carmichael, who flew Corsairs at the end of WWII, was at the controls of his Sea Fury and logged the only official victory of a piston-engine aircraft over a jet fighter during the Korean War. His four-plane section was attacking railroad facilities near Chinnampo when they were jumped by eight MiG-15s, leaving at least one of the latter burned into the countryside and two others reportedly smoking. While today the kill is usually credited to Carmichael’s young No. 4, Sub-LT Brian “Shmoo” Ellis, the fact remains that on that day a Sea Fury from Ocean bested a MiG and all four British aircraft returned safely to their carrier, where they received a “pretty euphoric” welcome, whereas the MiGs could not say the same.
From 802 Squadron’s War Diary for the Day:
Lieutenant Carmichael, Lieutenant Davis and Sub-Lieutenants Haines and Ellis started the ball rolling this morning by flying the first AR of the patrol. By 0600 they had entered the area and had commenced their Hanchon and Pyongyang to Chinnampo rail search. By 0630 they had reconnoitered as far south as Chinji-ri, a small village about 15 miles north of Chinnampo. As they meandered down the line, checking the bridge state as they went, they suddenly saw eight jet bogies to the north. Almost immediately the bogies were identified as MiGs – and were closing. By this time drop tanks were fluttering earthwards and the flight had assumed proper battle formation and No.4 – Sub Lieutenant Ellis – had noticed a shower of red tracer streaming past both sides of his fuselage. He cried “Break” over the R/T and the flight commenced a “Scissors”. It was soon apparent that four MiGs were after each section of two Furies but by continuing their break turns our aircraft presented practically impossible targets to the enemy who made no attempt to bracket.
‘On one occasion a MiG came head-on to Lieutenant Carmichael and Sub Lieutenant Haines – they both fired – it broke away and proceeded to go head-on to Lieutenant Davies and Sub Lieutenant Ellis – they both fired and registered hits. On another occasion, a MiG pulled up in front of Ellis with its air brakes out and he was amused to find the range closing. He gave a long burst and noticed hits on the enemy’s wings. The aircraft then proceeded northwards and a reduced speed with two other MiGs in company. Meanwhile, the flight, still in its battle formation, managed a dozen or so more firing passes at the MiGs head-on. The dog fight lasted 4-5 minutes and then the MiGs disappeared as quickly as they had arrived – as they departed an aircraft was seen to crash into a hillside and blow up. At first Lieutenant Carmichael thought it was one of his flight and ordered a tell-off. However when No.4 came up “loud and clear” it was realized that the Royal Navy had shot down its first communist aircraft. Lieutenant Carmichael as flight leader is being credited with its destruction officially but the rest of the flight are claiming their quarter as well’
In all, Ocean would log 5,945 sorties in her first Korean tour, dropping 3,884 500/1000-pound bombs and launching 16,490 rockets– not bad for a light carrier with just two squadrons of single-engine aircraft embarked.
After some downtime, she would return to Korean waters from May to November 1953 with two new squadrons aboard– 807 (Sea Furys) and 810 (Firefly).
The British and Australians would keep a light carrier or two off Korea throughout the conflict, all from the same class. Besides Theseus, Triumph, and Ocean, HMS Glory would clock in for a tour in 1951 while the Australian HMAS Sydney would also get into the act. Lending a hand, the Canadian sister, HMCS Warrior, transported replacement aircraft to Korea from Britain. Another sister, the Centaur-class maintenance carrier HMS Unicorn (I72), spent most of the war ferrying aircraft, troops, stores, and equipment in support of Commonwealth efforts in Korea and became likely the only aircraft carrier in history to conduct a shore bombardment when she engaged North Korean observers coastwatchers at Chopekki Point with her QF 4-inch Mk XVIs.
In all, FAA and RAN pilots flew at least 25,366 sorties from these budget flattops during the Korean conflict.
One last hurrah for Empire!
By January 1954, with a glut of flattops and peace in Korea, the Admiralty decided that Ocean and her sister Theseus 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. CVHE of the period or later LPH.
This brings us to the 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.
With the Egyptian affair wrapped up, the British chose to pull back “West of Suez” in 1956 and, other than a Baltic cruise that gave the Soviets some heartburn when she called at Helsinki, just over the horizon from Leningrad, Ocean’s days were numbered. Just 13 years old, she was laid up in 1958 and soon nominated for disposal, being sold for scrap in 1962.
Few relics of Ocean remain today.
She is remembered in maritime art.
- 802 Squadron would fly Sea Hawk FB5s from HMS Albion on top cover during Suez and was then disbanded in 1959.
- 807 Squadron would upgrade to Supermarine Scimitars and became well-known for running their new jets hot in airshows across the UK. They would also fire the first British Sidewinder in 1961.
- 810 Squadron would fly Hawker Sea Hawks from HMS Bulwark in the Suez, ending several Egyptian MiGs on the runway. Later flying Fairey Gannets before transitioning to become a rotary winged unit, they would fly Sea Kings as late as 2001.
- 825 Squadron became a helicopter squadron in 1960 and, after flying Sea Kings during the Falklands, is still around as the Royal Navy’s Operational Conversion Unit for the new AW159 Wildcat.
As for Ocean’s sisters, the last of her class in the Royal Navy, Triumph, was kept around as a repair ship until 1975 and then scrapped. The Australians kept HMAS Melbourne (R21)/ex-HMS Majestic, on hand until 1980, including using her with A-4 Skyhawks and S-2 Trackers in the Vietnam-era (her bones, sold for scrap for a paltry A$1.4 million, would be slowly picked over by the Chinese for 15 years, jump-starting their domestic carrier program). The third-hand ex-HMS/HMAS Vengeance/ex-NAeL Minas Gerais, also a Skyhawk/Tracker carrier, was sold for scrap by the Brazilian owners in 2004, torched to man-portable pieces on the beach at Alang. The Indian ex-INS Vikrant/ex-HMS Hercules, which has used Sea Harriers as late as 1997, was saved briefly as a museum ship and then scrapped in 2014 ending the era of these well-traveled light carriers. While no less than five American carriers of the same vintage are preserved, there are no British-built carriers as museum ships.
The Admiralty in 1993, perhaps in recognition of Ocean’s work as a commando carrier at Suez, named the new 23,000-ton Vickers-built one-of-a-kind helicopter carrier HMS Ocean (L12). Although not capable of launching heavily loaded Sea Harriers due to the fact she didn’t have a ski-jump, the new Ocean would for a time be the only British flattop in operation, following the decommissioning of the old Harrier carrier HMS Illustrious (R06) in 2014.
Decommissioned in 2018, both Brazil and Turkey wanted the ship with the former winning out. She currently operates as NAM Atlântico with an airwing of EC725s, S-70B Seahawks, and AS350s.
The Royal Navy has not had an “HMS Ocean” since, something that should change, in my opinion.
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