HMAS Sydney was laid down for the Royal Navy as HMS Terrible. She was one of six Majestic class light aircraft carriers laid down in 1943. In 1947, when the Commonwealth Government decided to acquire two carriers for the Royal Australian Navy, none of the Majestic class had been completed, construction having been suspended in May 1946. Ultimately five of the ships (including Sydney) were completed. These were Hercules (completed 1961 as Ins Vikrant for the Indian Navy), Magnificent (completed April 1948), Majestic (completed November 1955 as HMAS Melbourne (II)) and Powerful (completed January 1957 as HMCS Bonaventure for the Royal Canadian Navy).
Sydney commissioned at Devonport, England, on 16 December 1948 under the command of CAPT Roy R. Dowling DSO RAN. However, she was not accepted for service until 5 February 1949, some modifications having been necessary. The ship, the first aircraft carrier of the Royal Australian Navy, sailed from Devonport on 12 April 1949 and arrived in Australian waters the following month with 805 Squadron (Hawker Sea Furies) and 816 Squadron (Fairey Fireflies) embarked.
Following service in Australian waters, Sydney returned to England in July 1950 to embark two further RAN air squadrons, 808 Squadron (Sea Furies) and 817 Squadron (Fireflies). After working up exercises she proceeded to return to Australia in October, arriving at Sydney on 8 December 1950.
From January to September 1951 Sydney was occupied with exercises in Australian waters. In September 1951 Sydney, under the command of CAPT David H. Harries RAN, relieved HMS Glory as the carrier representative of the British naval forces in the Korean theatre. It was an historic occasion, being the first time that any Dominion carrier had gone into action.
Squadrons embarked at the time were numbers 805 (Sea Furies), 808 (Sea Furies) and 817 (Fireflies). In addition the United States Navy had loaned Sydney a helicopter and crew members.
Sydney began her first patrol of the Korean War on 4 October in the western theatre, transferring four days later to the east coast for special operations on 10/11 October. On 11 October, operating against troop concentrations and suspected store dumps on the east coast, Sydney created a light fleet carrier record by flying 89 sorties, making a total of 147 sorties in two days of operations.
On the last patrol on the second day twelve of her Sea Furies caught more than 1,000 troops engaged in ‘digging in’ on the hills covering beaches and killed or wounded some 200 of them. The high standard of bombardment spotting by Sydney during the two day operation gained favourable comment from the United States battleship New Jersey.
On 14 October 1951 Sydney was lying at anchor in harbour at Sasebo, Japan, replenishing for her next operational patrol. Warning had been received the previous night of the approach of Typhoon ‘Ruth’. In view of the restricted and crowded nature of the anchorage Sydney and other large ships were ordered during the morning of the 14th to put to sea. Sydney experienced the most critical phase of the typhoon from 5:00 pm to midnight on 14 October, winds exceeding 68 knots being encountered (the true wind recorder failed at 68 knots).
During the storm, a Firefly aircraft, a 16′ motor dinghy and a fork lift truck were lost overboard from the flight deck, along with various other stores and equipment. Other aircraft secured on the after end of the flight deck were damaged. Despite the severity of the typhoon, injuries suffered by members of the ship’s company were confined to cuts and bruises.
On 18 October Sydney began her second patrol on the west coast (Task Element 95.11) in Tactical Command, west coast Korea.
Trafalgar Day was celebrated by highly successful strikes against junks believed to be concentrating in the Yalu estuary for an invasion of Taehwa Do Island. For the remainder of the patrol, Sydney provided close air support for the Commonwealth Division attacking enemy communications with considerable success. On 23 October, in addition to the normal days flying programme, the carrier provided air search for ditched American airmen in the north east of Korea Bay. One Sea Fury pilot detected a survivor and towards dusk a Firefly dropped a dinghy and supplies. Succour eventually reached the man in the shape of a boat from the frigate HMAS Murchison.
On 25 October a Sea Fury piloted by LEUT C.M. Wheatley RAN was hit by flak off Chinnampo and forced down. He was promptly rescued by helicopter and safely landed at Kimpo. A second Sea Fury, piloted by Lieutenant Commander J.L. Appleby RN, was hit whilst operating over the front line but managed to reach Kimpo field. A Sea Fury crash landed on the south bank of the Han River and in this case the pilot, SBLT N.W. Knappstein RAN, was rescued unharmed by a boat from HMS Amethyst.
Operations against the enemy communications continued throughout 26 October. A flight of five Fireflies made a determined attempt to block a railway tunnel between Chaeryong and Haeju. The primary objective was unfortunately not achieved, but the line was effectively cut.
During the operation intense light flak brought down a plane piloted by SBLT N.D. MacMillan RAN. When news of the plane’s loss reached Sydney, it was apparent that a rescue by the ship’s US Navy helicopter in the brief remaining daylight would be an extremely hazardous undertaking. Nevertheless the risk was considered a justifiable one and happily was successfully carried out. Just after the pickup had taken place a North Korean soldier who was menacing the helicopter was shot dead with an Owen gun. A landing at Kimpo field was made at 1830 in fast fading light, escorted by two Sea Furies.
On 27 October USS Rendova relieved Sydney as CTE 95.11 bringing to an end the latter’s second operational period. In company of HMCS Athabaskan she arrived at Kure on 28 October. During the two operational periods 474 offensive sorties had been flown for the loss of three aircraft (two Sea Furies and one Firefly) with 28 aircraft damaged by flak. Targets for Fireflies had been chiefly against land communications whereas the Sea Furies had confined their assault to coastal shipping and troop concentrations, carrying out two strikes a day in the Han River area. On the second patrol (18 – 26 October) a total of 389 sorties were flown for an ammunition expenditure of 96,280 x 20mm rounds; 1,472 rockets; 8 x 1000-lb and 174 x 500-lb bombs.
On 3 November Sydney left Kure to renew west coast operations, assuming command of Task Element 95.11. Screened by HMC Ships Athabaskan, Cayuga and Sioux and United States Ships Hanna and Collett, she began operations early on 5 November. The preliminary sorties of the operation brought her first casualty. LEUT K.E. Clarkson RAN was killed when his aircraft failed to pull out of a strafing dive against enemy transport.
During the following days, and in spite of bad flying conditions, Sydney maintained a high sortie level against enemy lines of supply and communication. She provided patrols for United Nations surface craft. On 12 November the ship reached her thousandth sortie in 18½ flying days since her arrival in Korean waters.
On 13 November, the single clear day of the patrol, Sydney was joined by USS New Jersey wearing the flag of Vice Admiral E.M. Martin USN, commanding the United States 7th Fleet. It was the last day of the patrol, successful in spite of the weather. As her Commanding Officer commented, ‘I am pleased to be able to say that on 13 November no railway line was serviceable in the area covered by my aircraft’. A total of 401 sorties were flown during the period of the fourth patrol. Selected targets received 186 x 500-lb bombs.
On 18 November Sydney sailed from Sasebo forming part of Task Group 95.8, under the command of Rear Admiral A.K. Scott-Moncrieff DSO RN in HMSBelfast, for a coordinated strike against the industrial centre of Hungnam on the east coast.
Shortly after dawn on 20 November the guns of the fleet opened fire on known anti-aircraft positions as a preliminary to the first of ten attacks by Sydney’s aircraft, with barracks, industrial plants, stores and rail communications targeted. More than 100 sorties were flown during the two day operation. Sydney detached on 21 November and screened by Constance and Van Galen proceeded for the west coast theatre.
Snow and high winds prevented the resumption of flying operations until 24 November and in succeeding days of the patrol severely limited activity. It was not until 27 November that conditions improved sufficiently to bring the enemy’s respite to an end. The following day Sydney’s patrol ended. During this patrol sub-zero temperatures were experienced and a total of only 270 sorties were flown on both eastern and western Korean coasts, with four days operations cancelled.
On 7 December Sydney returned to the west coast from Kure, again representing the Carrier Element of TE 95.11. Flying began shortly after first light and the day, according to her commander, ‘proved rich in results’. Unfortunately the success of the day’s sorties was marred by the loss of a second pilot from her complement. SBLT R.R. Sinclair RAN, operating a Sea Fury north west of Chinnampo was hit by flak and although successful in baling out, died from injuries inflicted by his falling aircraft’s tail. Four other aircraft were hit on this day and one Sea Fury was forced to land on Paengyong-Do with its wheels up.
Profiting from a spell of fine weather which continued unbroken until 14 December, Sydney’s aircraft maintained a high rate of attack. Troop concentrations in the Changyon Hanchon areas, the Chinnampo waterfront, coastal small ships and rail communications all received attention. On the morning of 13 December a Sea Fury was shot down to the westward of Pyong-Gang and in the afternoon a second Sea Fury was shot down off Ongjin. Both pilots were rescued, the first by a United States helicopter from Paengyong and the latter by a friendly junk.
The closing days of the patrol were occupied in support of incoming convoys and CTE 95.12, in his anti-invasion operations in the Chodo-Sokto area, including the provision of a constant daylight patrol over the ships in the vicinity. The patrol ended on 18 December with a tally of 383 sorties. Twenty-five aircraft suffered flak damage including five lost. The majority of hits were sustained in the heavily gunned Angag Peninsular area.
A brief respite at Kure ended on 27 December when Sydney sailed to relieve USS Badoeng Strait on the west coast. Operations began in bad flying conditions in the early morning of 29 December. In the two succeeding days cover to outbound convoys from Inchon was the main task. On New Year’s Day 1952, the carrier’s aircraft reassumed the active offensive role, giving assistance to United Nations troops on the island of Yongho-Do which had been invaded early that morning.
A total of 362 sorties were flown during this operational period, an average of 50.3 sorties per flying day. On 2 January 1952 the ship suffered her third fatal casualty when an aircraft piloted by SBLT R.J. Coleman RAN dived into the Yellow Sea.
On 16 January Sydney assumed command of TE 95.11 for the last time when she took over the west coast patrol from USS Badoeng Strait. Screened by United States Ships Hanson and Radford, HMCS Sioux and HMAS Tobruk (I), she began her last series of sorties in bad weather on 17 January.
Operations continued until 25 January, Sydney’s last day of participation in the Korean War. During the period of 17 to 25 January a total of 293 sorties were flown including one day on convoy escort and two days when weather conditions prevented flying. Sasebo was reached on 26 January and the following day, screened by the destroyer HMAS Tobruk (I), the ship sailed for Australia.
Sydney spent 64 days in the operational area (not including passage from Sasebo or Kure) mainly as the British Commonwealth carrier of the west coast patrol. Of these days 9.5 were taken up by replenishment or passage between the west and east coasts. Bad weather accounted for 11.7 flying days, leaving a total of 2,366 sorties flown. The average daily sortie rate was 55.2 per full flying day. Ammunition expenditure during the course of Sydney’s seven patrols totalled 269,249 x 20mm rounds; 6,359 rocket projectiles; and 902 bombs of 1,000-lb and 500-lb weight.
Sydney was present at the Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia, when the first British Atomic Test took place on 3 October 1952.
In March 1953 Sydney left Australia for England via Suez with the Coronation Contingent (Navy, Army and Air Force) on board, returning to Australia via the United States (Baltimore 2 July 1953 and Pearl Harbor 26 July 1953) and New Zealand in August.
On October 27 1953 Sydney departed Fremantle for her second tour of duty in Korean waters. The July 1953 ceasefire meant that the deployment should have been a comparatively uneventful affair. However, the deaths of two pilots (one from 805 Squadron, the other from 850 Squadron) and the serious injury of an aircraft handler would mar the deployment. 850 Squadron pilot Sub Lieutenant Michael Beardsall, RN, was killed when his Sea Fury crashed into the sea about 15 kilometres ahead of the ship on 29 December 1953. 805 Squadron pilot Sub Lieutenant John McClinton was killed on 12 January 1954 when he walked into a rotating propeller on Sydney‘s flight deck. Naval Airman Hazel, a ‘Hookman’ whose duty was to race out from the catwalk to secure a landed aircraft once it had caught a wire, appeared to either misjudge a landing or the aircraft slipped a wire and caught a later one. In either case, Hazel ran onto the flight deck too early and an arrestor wire nearly severed his legs. They were saved by a US Army doctor. The incident highlighted how dangerous naval aviation could be for all involved. Sydney departed for Australia on 4 May 1954 and arrived in Fremantle, via Hong Kong and Singapore, on 2 June 1954.
805, 816 and 817 Squadrons disembarked from Sydney to the Royal Australian Navy Air Station at Nowra, HMAS Albatross, on 22 April 1955, heralding the impending change of the ship’s role from an aircraft carrier to a training ship. During the period of 26 to 29 April 1955 preparations were made for the change of role. On 2 May the ship sailed for New Zealand on her first training cruise.
Sydney remained in commission until 1958, conducting training cruises around the Australian coast and to New Zealand, and took part in one SEATO exercise in Far Eastern waters in September and October 1956. Her role as an aircraft carrier ended when she paid off into Special Reserve in Sydney on 30 May 1958 after steaming 315,958 miles since commissioning.
Sydney recommissioned as a Fast Troop Transport on 7 March 1962 and after refitting in Sydney came into operational commission in July 1963. After taking part in exercises in her new role she proceeded on a cruise to Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands with the Governor-General as a passenger. In June 1964 she sailed for South East Asian waters, visiting Jesselton, Singapore and Penang, before returning to her home port in September having steamed 27,812 miles since recommissioning. Sydney became part of the Australian Training Squadron in September 1964.
In November 1966 Sydney stood by the United States Submarine TIRU which had gone aground on Frederik Reef, rescuing one sailor who had been washed over the reef in an inflatable life raft.
Interspersed with training and exercise duties, Sydney visited Vietnam transporting troops and equipment on 24 occasions, commencing in June 1965 and ending with the visit in February 1972.
In July 1971 Sydney visited the United States and Canada on a training and logistic cruise. At Esquimalt, Vancouver Island, she took part in the British Columbia Centennial Naval Assembly. On her departure for home she was carrying ten additional Skyhawk aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm, which had been embarked at San Diego.
Following her return to Australia Sydney carried equipment to Singapore in September 1971 for the Australian component of the newly formed ANZUK Force. In October, November and December 1971 Sydney embarked Australian troops and equipment (Army and RAAF) at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, for return to Australia.
On 29 February 1972 Sydney sailed from Vung Tau on her last voyage from Vietnam with troops and equipment. This was the final withdrawal of Australian forces from Vietnam with the exception of a group of Army advisers. Sydney arrived at Sydney on 12 March 1972. In April 1972 she visited New Zealand and from 22 May to 20 October 1972 she was under refit in Sydney.
In November 1972 Sydney carried a defence aid cargo for South Vietnam to Vung Tau. Leaving Vung Tau on 24 November she set course for Hong Kong. En route the ship took in tow a disabled Panamanian merchant vessel, Kaiwing, and towed her to Hong Kong. After her visit to Hong Kong, Sydney returned to Australia.
After visiting Singapore in March 1973 and participating in an exercise after her return to Australia, Sydneyproceeded to New Zealand, where she made calls during April to Wellington and Auckland. On return to Australian waters the ship took part in a joint services exercise.
On 20 July 1973 the ship’s company was informed that it had been decided to pay off Sydney instead of proceeding with the planned refit. On 12 November 1973 the ship paid off for disposal. When she finally paid off Sydney had steamed 395,591 miles since recommissioning as a Fast Troop Transport. Since first commissioning in 1948 she had steamed 711,549 miles. On 28 October 1975 Sydney was sold for scrap to Dongkuk Steel Mill Company Limited of Seoul, South Korea. The ship left Sydney under tow on 23 December 1975.