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Sea Fury - A New Perspective on a Famous Dogfight

by Rowland White

This story originally appeared in Fly Past magazine and has been reproduced here with the permission of the author, Rowland White, please take a moment to look at his books:

Vulcan 607
Phoenix Squadron

The story is well known, its appeal obvious: the plucky Brit underdog bloodying the nose of an enemy who should have known better than to pick a fight. It goes something like this: On August 9, 1952, at the height of the Korean War, Commander Peter 'Hoagy' Carmichael led a flight of Hawker Sea Fury FB11s from 802 Naval Air Squadron on a patrol inland between Chinnampo and Pyongyang. They were jumped by eight MiG-15s and, so the story goes, Carmichael shot one down in the ensuing dogfight before all four Sea Furies returned safely to HMS Ocean and a 'pretty euphoric' welcome. The episode provided the Navy with a propaganda coup and Carmichael was sent home early to be feted and to prevent his exposure to any further danger.

Sub-Lieutenant Brian 'Schmoo'Ellis was the youngest member of the flight. His memory of the action over North Korea and its aftermath suggests that this version of events may be at best foolishly over simplified and, at worst, plain wrong.

I recently met Ellis at his home in Surrey. His white beard and hair give him the reassuring appearance of a kindly uncle. Only the framed print of a Sea Fury bearing Korean War identification stripes hanging in the corner of his study visibly connects him with what we're here to talk about.

Now retired from a career with the Civil Aviation Authority that followed flying with the Royal Navy, Ellis still talks fondly of the Sea Fury: 'I cannot think of another piston engined aircraft that really got the better of us, it was extremely good at low level. Being in fighters meant taking as many opportunities as you could to practice dogfighting. For instance during our passage in HMS Ocean to the Far East we exercised with the RAF who were flying Hornets out of Hong Kong. One of the exercises involved us making a simulated strike on the Colony, as it then was. It was very stoutly defended! I still remember now flying up and down the streets of Kowloon with a couple of Hornets after me - in those days low flying wasn't as sensitive an issue as it is now! It was tremendous fun.'

Brian Ellis's recollection of his 1952 tour in Korea is detailed and precise, vividly bringing to life events that took place nearly fifty years ago. Describing a ditching forced by the total failure of his Sea Fury's temperamental Centaurus engine he points out that 'you feel you've hit the water and stopped when you haven't. You get two impacts. The first when the tail goes in and the real impact when the nose goes in. The thing that still sticks in my mind about that one is, as the nose went down, watching those five prop blades peel around the cowling. They were big metal blades and they just stopped and came back like a sort of claw. It was an incredible sight, but I didn't stay around long to watch it! I felt fortunate I was so close to the carrier. I was back on board and off on the next sortie within an hour. He chuckles, adding 'I didn't have any counselling that's for sure!'

His sanguine good humour is hard to shake but, when I ask him about the shooting down of the MiG, the mood changes a little. He pauses before committing himself, then immediately becomes more animated.

'I have a lot of trouble with this. I suppose you have to think back to when it happened. I was twenty-one and quite glad I'd got away with it. Everything else became sort of irrelevant. But over the years I suppose I've got rather angry about the incident in that the truth was never given any room. Hoagy was credited with the kill, but the trouble is that over the years he began to believe his own propaganda'

'Hoagy' Carmichael died in 1997 aged 73. When Naval Historian John Winton wrote his obituary for the Daily Telegraph he used Carmichael's own description of the day's action.

'We had been in the area for about 20 minutes when Sub Lt Carl Haines called out "MiGs 4 o'clock". I turned the formation to meet the attack and saw eight MiGs coming straight at us. Lt Toby Davies and Sub Lt 'Smoo' Ellis broke away from the flight to fend for themselves as four of the MiGs decided to look after them. We, as usual, were flying at about 4000 feet. Suddenly a MiG came down behind me: I turned towards him and, as he flew past me, I noticed he had his air brakes out. He made the mistake of trying to dog-fight with us. I put my gyro sight on him and started to fire. At this point he realised he was in trouble and put his dive brakes in and started to accelerate like mad. I held him quite easily and my bullets started to hammer him. He started to roll over on his back and crashed into the ground with no attempt to bail out.'

Yet John Winton wrote to Brian Ellis shortly before writing the obituary asking for his comments on the MiG kill. As he'd done before when asked, Ellis suggested Winton read the relevant passage in the official 802 Squadron diary, a copy of which is kept at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton. He may have done so, but it was not reflected in what was subsequently published. In fact, the Squadron diary - written by Sub Lt Ellis himself - gives an account of the dogfight that is pointedly different from Carmichael's own:

'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 airbrakes out and he was surprised to find the range closing. He gave a long burst and noticed hits on the enemy's wings. The aircraft then proceeded northwards at a reduced speed.'

There is only one occasion in any account of the story where a MiG, with its air brakes open, is closed down and fired on by a Sea Fury yet it's described by two different pilots. Ellis says the truth is straightforward: 'He [Carmichael] had redone it so that what I ascribed to to my own experience had come out as Hoagy's experience. Which is quite wrong. What happened to me became grafted on to what he did.'

To hear Ellis tell the whole story of the battle lends weight to the feeling that the positive propaganda enjoyed by the Navy by presenting Carmichael as their hero was was at the expense of he truth. Ellis is measured in what he says, not wanting to make any claim on his own behalf that he believes is unsustainable. But what emerges is both a clear sense of the disorientating speed at which the dogfight unfolds and the difficulty there is in being sure of anything, let alone Carmichael's reputation as the only Fleet Air Arm pilot of a piston-engined aircraft to shoot down a jet.

'Carl Haines, Hoagy's No.2, who had extremely good eyesight, reported 8 bogies. Carl saved us. He saw something move against a pale daylight moon which gives you an idea of how sharp he was. If you want somebody who needs a lot of credit, there's the first guy. So we immediately got into pretty fair battle formation. There was about 400 yds between us and we started rubbernecking, looking for these things. I think almost simultaneously as I got my head round I saw something out there getting very close, very fast and a stream of tracer went past. So I called "break", which was the second thing positive thing the flight did. "Break" without "left" or "right" meant you did a scissors, you went in towards each other, which almost instantaneously put us head on to a group of MiGs. they were the first ones that shot through. We got rid of our drop tanks - one of mine wouldn't go so I fought the rest of the engagement with about 30 gallons of fuel on one side, but that didn't seem to be too much of a worry at the time. We continued hard turning. Hoagy and Carl - I didn't see what they were up to - but I think they just stayed in pretty tight turns. Briefly we rolled out head-on to the next group of MiGs as they approached, got a few shots off and, as they shot past we did another very tight turn to try keep them in sight. The MiGs were rather disorganised. What they should have done is left a couple of pairs above us to come in and pick us off at the appropriate time. They seemed to be very uncoordinated . They were coming at us four at a time. It's all happened very, very quickly. And I can understand why there are so many disputes about aerial combat. As we did another hard turn one shot past me. It had obviously almost got on my tail, but hadn't. We had done a hard break and this MiG came round on the outside of the turn with its airbrakes out. I just rolled and to my amazement I was actually getting closer to this guy. And that was when I started rattling stuff in. It was like World War Two footage, you know, bits were flying off the damn thing It didn't blow up or anything like that. It didn't spin in, but a little later I saw one go away very much slower towards the North with two others in company. They clearly had not worked out how to do it. They had no answer to our defensive tactics.

I don't think anybody else actually had a stern attack on anybody. They all said "Oh we hit them when they were coming head on". Over the years I have come to doubt this. The chances of getting an effective burst in with head on closing speeds approaching 800-900 mph are remote. What we thought were hits head on were more likely to have been flashes and smoke from the MiG's armament as they fired at us. You just can't get a steady bead on them at that speed. You have collisions head on, but you stand very little chance of shooting any one down that way.'

If doubts are raised about who should be credited with the kill - or even whether or not there was a kill at all - it's unsurprising. Without the conclusive proof a gyro gun sight camera could have have provided it seems impossible to be sure, yet Ellis says with emphasis 'I don't believe, I know, that Hoagy didn't shoot that aircraft down' His certainty springs from a detail that has until now gone unremarked on.

'The reason I'm so positive is that although we weren't specifically recording it at the time in the squadron diary, the amount of ammunition we expended on every flight was being noted. Hoagy went back with as near as damn it 90% of his ammunition left, but he was the only person who, on the way back said "Oh, I'll just have to whip down to make sure my guns are alright"'

It had become something of a habit for returning Sea Furies to test their cannons by firing them into a small uninhabited island and checking the patterns of the shells in the sand. Flying back from the dogfight with the MiGs, Carmichael peeled off from the flight and let off a stream of shot into the island. Ellis is certain that 'every shot he fired that morning was directed onto that beach because he had so much of his ammunition left when he got back to the ship. He must have had 100% of his ammunition before going to that island'

I asked Ellis why he hadn't joined Carmichael in testing his guns.

'Well, I'd run out of ammo ...'

One gets the strong sense that Ellis's anger about the way which the story has been portrayed is born not of a desire for personal glory or of bitterness towards Carmichael. 'At the time it didn't seem to matter to me very much. We all contributed to the success of getting home and saving ourselves and that was what it was all about. And a quarter each would have been more than satisfactory, but that's not the way things work. In that particular Squadron, it was very odd how we had twenty odd pilots and none of the junior ones got any recognition at all as far as I could see.'

It appears that the Navy wanted a hero - one pilot, one kill - and it picked the most senior man. It can't have been easy for Carmichael either. On a number of occasions he made the point that credit should go to the flight and not just to him, but it was never a message which people wanted to hear. Particularly from him, perhaps.

'I wouldn't want to upset people' Ellis continued 'particularly his relatives because he was a nice enough chap. He just got trapped in this set of circumstances. He used to phone me here occasionally before he died. I think, possibly to talk about it, but he never actually said what he wanted to say. He would always make excuses about trying to get in touch with somebody else. I think possibly ...' he paused, 'No, I don't think there's any chance of putting the record straight. People aren't interested in straight records, they're interested in mythology.'

Copyright: Rowland White 2001

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