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His Majesty's Corsairs
By James P. Werbaneth
January 2009

The United States Marine Corps was not the only entity to view the Navy’s rejected fighter as something more promising. It was also used by British and Commonwealth forces early on. The Royal New Zealand Air Force acquired a total of 424 Corsairs through the war, even assembling its own after the initial deliveries. By late 1944, it equipped all twelve of New Zealand’s Pacific fighter squadrons, but unlike the Marines, these pilots never claimed an air-to-air victory, as they were close-support specialists. The Australians and Free French also received Corsairs.

The most important user in the British Empire though had to be Great Britain. The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Navy entered World War II relying on generally obsolescent or unsuitable aircraft. The Blackburn Skua, for example, tried to combine the functions of a dive bomber with those of a fighter, resulting in a modern-looking aircraft that did not perform as a thoroughly modern fighter. A variant with the machine guns mounted in a turret behind the pilot, dubbed the Roc, was so dreadful that it actually represented a step backwards.

Even adaptations of the Royal Air Force’s best fighters to service aboard carriers did not provide the FAA with the planes that it needed. The Sea Hurricane suffered from poor range and its service life was short. The Seafire, a navalized version of the Spitfire, had good performance, but again its range was wholly inadequate, its handling upon landing difficult, and its best role was as a fleet defense interceptor, not an escort fighter. In addition, it had such a fragile airframe that of 106 aircraft deployed during the landings at Salerno, 83 were wrecked or seriously damaged, mainly through landing accidents. It did well enough to remain in service until 1954, and yet the British remained acutely aware of its limitations.

Thus the Royal Navy had an early interest in America’s purpose-built carrier planes. It was an early adopter of the Grumman F4F, calling it the Martlet for a time before reverting to the American name of Wildcat.

When the Grumman Hellcat and the Corsair became available, the FAA acquired both. Then unlike the United States Navy, the British put in the work to make the Corsair a going concern as a carrier fighter.

Corsairs on flight deck
Corsairs on HMS Victorious, 1945.

In part they were aided by a design change that also benefited the Marines, as well as all future users. The 689th plane to come off of Vought’s assembling lines had a bulbous canopy to replace the original “birdcage” design, increasing visibility. That change persisted through the life of the type, and was also applied to planes manufactured by Goodyear and Brewster.

The British then used their own ingenuity. For example, when pilots reported that oil from the engine splattered the canopy, another blow to visibility, the FAA took to wiring the top cowl flaps shut, redirecting the fluids to the sides and bottom of the aircraft. The Royal Navy made many similar small changes that they relayed to the United States, and adopted.

There was one change that remained distinctive to the British. In order to fit the smaller spaces on Royal Navy carriers, FAA Corsairs usually had eight inches cut from the tips of each wing.

The British further developed new techniques to landing the F4U. They abandoned the normal straight landing approach in favor of a long, slow turn downwind, with the pilot keeping the Landing Signals Officer (LSO) in sight the whole time. Only at the very end, with the plane over the stern, would the pilot lose sight of LSO, putting the aircraft down and catching the arrester wire.

In consequence of Britain’s efforts, the first seagoing Corsair unit was 1834 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), based on HMS Victorious in April 1944. It would be another nine months before Corsairs would go to sea operationally with the U.S. Navy.

Although the Corsair is associated in many minds with combat against the Japanese in the Pacific tropics, its debut as a carrier plane was against the Germans in Norway. Operation Tungsten was a raid on 3 April 1944 against the battleship Tirpitz, holed up in a heavily defended fjord, conducted by planes from the Furious and Victorious. Embarked on the latter were 1834 and 1836 NAS, both equipped with Corsairs. Furious embarked Seafires, with Wildcats on a pair of escort carriers, and one escort carrier bore Hellcats.

Operation Tungsten was the largest Royal Navy carrier strike to date, and considered a major success, with fifteen hits claimed on the target. No Corsair pilots recorded any kills though.

The Royal Navy attacked the Tirpitz twice more during the summer, with operation Mascot on 17 July, the following month, Operation Goodwood (not to be confused with the identically-named armored offensive in Normandy). Again British Corsairs participated, taking up a new role: Flak suppression.

Meanwhile, other British units were operating against the Japanese. HMS Illustrious formed the core of a rebuilt Eastern Fleet, deployed to the Indian Ocean. Embarked on her were two Corsair squadrons, 1830 and 1833.

The British joined a battlegroup centered on the USS Saratoga, under temporary British operational control, and commenced operations on 19 April. To provide a diversion for American landings in New Guinea, the Allied navies struck Sabang in the Dutch East Indies, and in June planes from Illustrious attacked Port Blair in the Andamans as another American-requested diversion.

More Corsairs arrived in theater on HMS Victorious, 1837 and 1838 NAS. The Royal Navy returned to Sabang on 21 July 1944, in Operation Crimson, using both carriers, plus three battleships to provide a follow-up bombardment.

Operations in the Indian Ocean and Dutch East Indies continued through 1944. Frequently, the results were disappointing, and the blame fell on aircrews’ inexperience. However, a combination of training conducted around the British bases on Ceylon, plus combat experience, rendered the FAA a much more effective force. Meanwhile, British naval fighter pilots were scoring victories, especially with the Corsair and Hellcat.

Britain committed to an even stronger presence in the Pacific War, and accordingly on 22 November replaced the Eastern Fleet organization with the British Pacific Fleet (BPF), under Admiral Bruce Fraser. BPF’s aerial strike force centered on three armored fleet carriers: Illustrious, Victorious, and Indomitable, later doubled to six.

BPF’s focus continued to be the Dutch East Indies, especially petroleum targets. On 4 January 1945 all three carriers launched the successful Operation Lentil against Pangkalan Brandan’s oil facilities. Supporting it were highly effective fighter sweeps against Japanese airfields.

A fourth carrier, HMS Indefatigable, joined BPF for Operation Meridian I on 24 January, hitting Pladjoe. Corsairs and Hellcats provided escorts to the bombers, conducted offensive fighter sweeps termed “Ramrods,” and as in Norway, suppressed anti-aircraft fire.

Indian Ocean operations drew to a close. The British Pacific Fleet changed bases in February, relocating to Sydney to engage in operations in the Pacific Ocean, directly against Japan.

In the Emperor's Home Waters

The U.S. Navy qualified the Corsair for carrier deployment in April 1944, at about the same time that the Fleet Air Arm was embarking the plane on Britain’s carriers. However, two Navy squadrons had already adopted the Corsair for ground-based service; VF-12 in October 1942, and VF-17 in April 1943. However, VF-12 ended up passing its airplanes to the Marines, and VF-17 operated from shore on New Georgia.

Appropriately, when the U.S. Navy put its first Corsair squadron on a carrier, it was a Marine unit, VMF-213 on the USS Essex in April 1944. Other Marine squadrons soon deployed aboard ship as well, plus the US Navy’s own VF-12 (reequipped with new Corsairs), VF-17 and VF-301.

One major reason for the decision to send the Corsair to sea was the need to deal with the increasing threat of kamikazes, and ultimately the plane distinguished itself in just that role.

In addition, Vought introduced an F4U-2 nightfighter version, with a radome under the starboard wing. In the end though, only thirty-four F4U-1’s were converted to this standard, as the Navy preferred the Hellcat, with its better landing characteristics, for the nightfighter task.

Nonetheless, the Corsair continued to thrive not just as a dogfighter, but as a highly effective multi-role aircraft. Just as the Royal Navy demonstrated its ground attack capabilities in Norway, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force chose the Corsair as its standard fighter bomber, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviators confirmed its worth as a ground attack platform. In the Pacific, Japanese subjected to attack from Corsairs dubbed it “Whistling Death,” for the unique noise made by air entering the wing root air intakes at high speed.

The Corsair was an important component of the wide-ranging American carrier that marked the late stages of the Pacific War. Amphibious operations were, as a practice, supported by carrier strikes against more distant targets, to isolate the objective and neutralize threats to the invasion from elsewhere. For example, the preparation for invasion of Leyte included raids on Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyus in October 1944. American fast carriers hit Okinawa again, as well as adding Formosa to the target list, in January, this time in support of the liberation of Luzon.

Okinawa as the site of the Corsair’s most important work as an American carrier aircraft. The fighter intercepted kamikazes, and supported ground units, and consistent with earlier operations to retake the Philippines, struck the Japanese home islands, especially Kyushu.

But it was not just USMC and U.S. Navy Corsairs that rendered good service during the battle for Okinawa. Operating as Task Force 57, the British Pacific Fleet was an important component of the Allied naval effort. America’s last pitched battle of World War II was also Britain’s, and all four Royal Navy carriers ended up struck by kamikazes, though their armored flight decks limited the damage.

Following the victory on Okinawa, the American fast carriers of the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 58, along with the British Task Force 57, concentrated on the Japanese home islands, including the Tokyo area.

The total record for the American Corsairs for the Second World War is impressive. The US Navy and Marine Corps flew a total of 64,051 sorties, though only 15% were from carriers, indicative of a tardy shipborne deployment. There were just 189 Corsair losses, while the plane claimed 2,140 Japanese aircraft, an amazing 11:1 kill ratio for the Americans.

Corsair in color

Post-War Service

World War II marked the start of a new age in aviation, that of the jet. Most of the great piston-engined craft of the war either faded into obscurity, or disappeared altogether, as jet power marked a quantum leap in speed and overall performance.

The Corsair not only survived the transition, but thrived. Alhough it would never again be the killer of fighter planes that it was in World War II, it retained a place for itself as a valuable combat aircraft.

U.S. Navy Corsairs were involved in the Korean War from the beginning. This time the primary model was the F4U-4, featuring greater protection for the pilot, a four-bladed propeller, and an even more massive R-2800-42W engine capable of driving the plane at 451 miles per hour. This was so fast that Marine Captain J. Folmar of VMF-312 was credited with shooting down a MiG-15 jet fighter, a most unusual feat.

Some 297 F4U-4’s replaced their six .50 machine guns with four 20mm cannon, becoming the F4U-4B or -4C. Tthere were photoreconnaissance versions, and once again a night fighter variant, the F4U-4N. The vast majority though, 2,050 in all, were the standard F4U-4, all produced by Vought, with the last one delivered in 1947.

The first American carrier on station off Korea, at the start of the conflict, was the USS Valley Forge, embarking two squadrons of F9F Panther jet fighters, two squadrons of Corsairs, and a fifth equipped with the Douglas AD Skyraider, a rugged attack plane so effective that, despite being piston-engined, would further distinguish itself in Vietnam. By the end of June, it was joined by the USS Philippine Sea, bearing an identical air wing. A third fleet carrier, the Boxer, arrived in time for the Inchon landings in September, embarking an all-prop air complement of four Corsair squadrons and two of Skyraiders.

Carriers would rotate into and out of the war zone, but for the most part there would be four U.S. Navy carriers present, and usually one British carrier providing more distant cover.

The Navy Corsairs resumed the Pacific War function that had gained them the nickname of “Whispering Death:” Ground attack. Typically in the early months of the war, Panthers would provide fighter escort, while Skyraiders dropped the larger bombs, and Corsairs delivered the lighter ordnance.

Again as in World War II, the United States Marine Corps flew Corsairs, exploiting the plane’s ground attack capabilities for the Marine specialty of close support missions.

The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, commanded by Major General Field Harris, supported the 5th Marine Regiment; together they comprised the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade for the USMC’s contribution to defending the Pusan Perimeter. The Marine’s Corsairs arrived on a pair of escort carriers, the Badoeng Strait and Sicily.

Marine Corsair squadrons demonstrated both extreme effectiveness, and flexibility. With to the Inchon invasion and through the liberation of Seoul, they put on a clinic for effective air support, doing everything from dropping napalm to burn off vegetation, and cover for the enemy, on Wolmi-do island, to anti-tank strikes, countering a threat that the Japanese had seldom mounted.

When and where necessary, the Marine aviators operated off of their escort carriers. But if there were bases available on shore, they flew from airfields.

Marine Corsairs further proved their efficacy during the winter battles around the Chosen Reservoir in North Korea, and beyond. As at Inchon, Marine Corsairs repeatedly proved their worth, both to brother Leathernecks, and to Army units.

Korea was the last war in which the F4U served the United States in a combat role. Amazingly, it was not the Corsair’s final war, and despite the transition to jets, it even remained in production until 31 January 1953, for France.

The French navy first employed the Corsair in its war in Vietnam. The Aéronavale relied on two aircraft carriers, the Arromanches and Bois Belleau, the latter the USS Belleau Wood on loan from the US Navy. Both embarked air wings of American-built aircraft, with the 14th Air Flotilla on the Bois Belleau flying Corsairs.

Once more, the Corsair entered battle as a ground support aircraft, though too late to affect the outcome. When the Belleau Wood arrived on station on 30 April 1954, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu was raging for four months. The ship relieved the Arromanches, and the latter’s aviators, in part because the Hellcat pilots on the latter had suffered too many casualties, and absorbed so much combat stress that the Hellcat, Helldiver and Bearcat pilots on Arromanches could no longer function. In that context, it should be no surprise that the newly-arrived Corsairs were unable to stave off defeat at Dien Bien Phu, or in Vietnam as a whole.

The Corsair soldiered on with the United States until the mid-fifties, and France kept it in service until 1964. The after Dien Bien Phu, the French used it in the Suez in 1956, and then the Algerian war for independence.

Meanwhile, Latin America became the last place to acquire Corsairs. Benefiting from the Military Aid Sales program, the Argentine navy received ten F4U-5’s and F4U-5N night fighters in May 1956, and sixteen more the next year. Some were not in flyable condition, and were provided as sources for spare parts.

El Salvador received ten Goodyear-built Corsairs in 1957, followed by five ground F4U-1’s for parts. The last recipient was Honduras, taking a total of twenty F4U-5’s and night fighter variants between 1956 and 1959. However, none of the Honduran night fighters had the cockpit instruments to make use of radar, rendering it useless.

The last recorded combat missions flown by Corsairs occurred in 1969, during the Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras. Th met in air-to-air combat, and the Honduran Corsairs shot down two of El Salvador’s.

In a few years the Corsair, one of the most enduring combat aircraft in history, passed from the scene. The last Salvadoran plane flew in 1971, and Honduras retired its Corsairs between 1978 and 1979.

Corsair in flight
A preserved Corsair in flight.

Conclusions

Just in terms of longevity, the F4U Corsair has to rank as one of the greatest planes ever. Additionally, it showed a remarkable adaptability, always finding a way to be useful. First designed as a carrier fighter, when found wanting it became a superb dogfighter in the hands of pioneering Marine aviators. Then a Royal Navy, needful if not actually desperate for an effective carrier fighter, pursued the technology and techniques required to make it one. Finally, the United States Navy and Marine Corps operated it from America’s own aircraft carriers to great effect.

Yet the F4U was not the greatest carrier fighter of World War II; the rival Grumman Hellcat has to be granted that honor. Despite its undeniable assets the Corsair always had to compete for deck space with the F6F, in the Fleet Air Arm as well as the United States Navy. That fighter was undeniably capable, and its landing characteristics never demanded the kind of extra effort required of the Corsair.

The Corsair though proved itself not just a premier air-to-air combatant, but a premier ground attack machine. The last models were in fact produced as ground attack specialists, and a generation of soldiers, Marines, and French troops for that matter could attest to its impact on the battlefield. In World War II, the Corsair was a battle-winner when it had to compete for superiority with Japanese air power. After VJ Day, it was equally valuable when there were no enemy fighters with which it had to contend, or the skies were dominated by jets with which it could not. An enemy on the ground was still one that the Corsair could strike with deadly force.

The F4U proved a great fighter when flown from land by the United States Marines, and when operated from a pitching deck by the Royal Navy. It was just as good a strike aircraft, regardless of the platform from which it operated. Versatility and adaptability were at least as important as raw performance, enabling the Corsair to endure when equally famous aircraft had largely passed into history.

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