Here’s the first part of James Goulty’s latest guest post! Keep a look out for part two which will be landing on the blog later this week… enjoy!
By spring 1952, the ebb and flow of the first year of the Korean War had given way to static warfare, as nether side was prepared to risk seeking all out victory. Instead fighting continued while peace talks were held, and the ultimate object became maintaining the status quo, something many combat troops found deeply frustrating given the dangers they faced. The American led United Nations Command (UNC) was tasked with mounting an ‘active defence,’ broadly along the line of the 38th Parallel. This entailed being prepared to resist Communist attacks, and simultaneously maintaining an aggressive stance, despite the nature of the war. Troops lived in bunkers or ‘hootchies,’ normally situated on the reverse slope, and extensive trenches were dug. One American Marine found it felt as if the MLR (Main Line of Resistance) formed a ‘continuous avenue from coast to coast, cutting the peninsular of Korea in half.i’ Typically, snipers, tanks, artillery and airpower were deployed to destroy hostile defences, harass the enemy, and break-up his attacks.
Despite changes in technology, and the vastly different Korean terrain, frontline conditions in many respects bore a resemblance to the trench warfare of the First World War. The American approach was to position the MLR at the forward base of hills, and employ a linear defence with as few gaps as possible between units. In front of this was the OPLR (Outpost Line of Resistance), intended to provide early warning of enemy attack, and ‘roll with the punch,’ rather than be held at all cost. Yet, in reality some American commanders attempted to hold outposts and this caused heavy casualties, as well as destabilising the MLR owing to the need for counter-attacks. In contrast, British/Commonwealth doctrine espoused the employment of FDL (Forward Defensive Localities), situated in depth, capable of all round-defence, and sited on the crests or sides of hills.ii
Within the context of maintaining an ‘active defence,’ both the Americans and British believed in aggressive patrolling, and it fulfilled numerous functions. As the commanding officer of 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry (DLI) explained, the overarching intention was ‘to dominate no man’s land,’ and patrolling enabled UN troops to learn about the enemy’s positions and habits while preventing the enemy from doing likewise. Secondly, it sought to provide a protective screen in front of the main position, through which the enemy would have to risk passing if he was intent on an attack. Consequently, patrols would provide early warning of any attack that would enable friendly artillery to hit enemy troops as they formed up for an assault, and before they got too close to UN positions. These were invariably on steep slopes that offered some protection to the attacker, as owing to the topography only mortars could successfully engage them at close range.iii
Amongst some American commanders, patrolling was additionally viewed as a vehicle by which to keep men ‘sharp.’ As the American Official Historian commented, the planning and conduct of patrols ‘kept frontline troops alert and gave them valuable experience under combat conditions.’iv Such attitudes tended to be resented by the Marines and the British, who saw no need to mount operations and risk casualties for such reasons. In January 1953 GOC 1st Commonwealth Division stressed, ‘No patrols will be sent out without some specific object. On no account will commanders send out patrols for patrolling sake, nor will they order sub-units to provide so many patrols per so many days. Any form of routine patrolling is dangerous because it invites enemy ambush, it kills initiative, it wearies the men both mentally and physically and it achieves little.’v
Several types of patrol were employed by the Americans and British. Fighting patrols were intended to make contact with the enemy, and could even form firm bases from which to raid enemy positions. Usually, they were organised on an ambush basis, and targeted routes or terrain features likely to be used by the enemy. This acted as a means of countering Chinese or North Korean activity in no man’s land, and pushed them back towards their own defences. George Brown experienced fighting patrols as a National Serviceman with the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, towards the tail end of the war. He ‘felt very comfortable’ with this type of activity, despite the anxiety generated by leaving forward positions at night and potentially confronting the enemy. Typically, there were fifteen heavily armed men geared-up for close combat, plus an officer or sergeant leading the patrol. This often included two Bren gunners to provide automatic firepower, and men designated as ‘bombers’ who carried around ‘sixteen grenades, all primed, in extra water bottle holders,’ unlike anything he’d experienced previously during training.vi However, as former Marine platoon commander Howard Matthias recalled, enemy fighting patrols would attempt to mount ambushes and capture prisoners as well. Consequently, the Korean night became dominated by ‘a life and death game-who could gather the most information and who would be able to ambush the other.’vii
In contrast, reconnaissance or listening patrols relied on far fewer troops and were tasked with gathering specific information rather than making contact with the enemy. An American infantryman with 40th Division during spring 1953 in the Punchbowl area, recounted: ‘…our orders were to go out and recce patrol and try and figure out what the enemy were up to and how many there were. We would try to report how many we thought were there and we did not know. We knew we were outnumbered. But we had far superior firepower, better weapons and more of them. We thought we were outnumbered three to one, later on we found out it was probably more like twenty to one which was the scary thing. This went on for about six and a half months.’viii
A related form of patrolling was to employ standing patrols, consisting of only two to three men, as routinely employed by British/Commonwealth forces in front of their mainline instead of outposts. These acted like antennae, were in regular communication by radio or field telephone with the main position, and provided advanced warning of any attack. Stanley Maud, a National Servicemen with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, discovered on these patrols soldiers were supposed to ‘listen and you watch and if you see or hear any of the enemy then the Battalion is willing to sacrifice all three out there to get the rest of the lads standing-to.’ix However, as the GOC 1st Commonwealth Division emphasised, small patrols (2-3 men) stood a good chance of being able to ‘fade out’ on making contact with the enemy in a manner in which a section/platoon or larger body of troops probably couldn’t achieve.x
A sense of the scale of the nightly patrol effort by British units during 1952-1953, can be gauged from records of 1 DLI. Firstly that Battalion maintained a screen of standing patrols in front of its main position and in front of these one to three fighting patrols normally set ambushes. Additionally, several reconnaissance patrols usually operated, either independently or employed the ambushes as firm bases. Consequently, as many as 100 men were routinely required to operate ahead of the main position, and this was not uncommon. However, it risked weakening those defences and demanded that all troops constantly remained offensively minded, plus required a high level of leadership and training if such a screen was to be maintained successfully over a prolonged period.xi
A platoon commander from the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment considered the overall patrol situation analogous to ‘a game of chess.’ Under a patrol master, usually a company commander in a command post, ‘the standing patrols were the pawns, the recce patrols the knights, the smaller fighting patrols the bishops and the larger officer led sorties the queens.’xii Yet, most patrols were greeted with trepidation by participants and the hours preceding them, were filled with anxiety. National Serviceman Neville Williams saw action with the Assault Pioneer Platoon, 1st Battalion Welch Regiment. His was the most forward unit in his Battalion and frequently in contact with patrols. ‘Going out on one of these patrols the lads would often look cheerful, but at the same time were tense. Returning at daybreak they looked altogether different. Their eyes had a haunted look and their faces almost skeletal, as they plodded back wearily to their positions…suffering the after-effects of tension, fear, relief and utter weariness.’xiii
Raiding represented a logical extension of patrol activity within the context of the limited war that troops were being tasked to fight. These could vary in intensity and scale. First Battalion Duke of Wellington’ Regiment for example, often employed small ‘snatch patrols’ where troops entered enemy positions in order to capture prisoners, something that was frequently difficult to achieve successfully.xiv In contrast, during July 1952 near Panmunjom, a company sized force from 1st Marine Division, raided enemy positions destroying bunkers and killing several enemy troops.xv
An ambitious and highly successful daylight raid on an enemy position was also mounted by 1st Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment on 24 January 1953. Code-named ‘Full Moon,’ it took advantage of the early morning sun to dazzle the defenders, and resulted in the destruction of an enemy tunnel.xvi This was unusual as the majority of patrolling occurred at night. On occasion armour was even deployed successfully on raids by both the American and British, especially where terrain was favourable. During Operation Jehu (17 June 1952), Centurion tanks from 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards attacked Point 156, with some success, inflicting damage against Chinese defences.xvii
We hope you have enjoyed the first part in James’ latest guest post. Part two will be live soon!
Martin Russ, The Last Parallel (New York: Zebra Books, 1985), p. 82
ii Jeffrey Grey, The Commonwealth armies and the Korean War (Manchester: MUP, 1988), pp. 143-144.
iii Durham County Record Office (DCRO), Durham Light Infantry Archives, DLI 195/8, Commanding
Officer’s End of Tour Report, 1st DLI Korea 1952-1953, Section 8 Patrolling, p. 5.
iv Walter G. Hermes, U.S. Army in the Korean War: Truce Tent and Fighting Front (Honolulu: University Press
of the Pacific, 2005), p. 188
v The National Archives (TNA), Kew, WO 308/94, GOC Personal Memorandum No. 9: Patrol Policy, 1st
Comwel Div 23 January 1953, paragraph 4, p. 1.
vi George Brown in Adrian Walker, Six Campaigns: National Servicemen at War 1948-1960 (London: Leo
Cooper, 1993) p. 22.
vii Howard Matthias, The Korean War: Reflections of a Combat Platoon Leader (Tallahassee: Father & Son,
1993), p. 95.
viii Dan Pfeiffer Interview: Grand Valley State University (Veterans History Project).
ix Stanley Maud in Adrian Walker, A Barren Place: National Servicemen in Korea 1950-1954 (London: Leo
Cooper, 1994), p. 109.
x TNA, WO 308/94, GOC Personal Memorandum No. 9: Patrol Policy, 1st Comwel Div 23 January 1953,
paragraph 6, p. 2.
xi DCRO, DLI 195/8, Commanding Officer’s End of Tour Report, 1st DLI Korea 1952-1953, Section 8
Patrolling, p. 7.
xii 2/Lt. John Stacpole in A. J. Barker, Fortune Favours the Brave (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2002), p. 47.
xiii Neville Williams, A Conscript in Korea (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2009), p. 109.
xiv Stanley Maud in Walker, A Barren Place, p. 109.
xv Hermes, Truce Tent and Fighting Front, p. 297.
xvi See for example, ‘A Daylight Raid in Korea’ in The Iron Duke Volume 29, No. 88, April 1953, pp. 72-74.
xvii For further details on Operation Jehu see: Gen. Sir Cecil Blacker and Maj. Gen. H. G. Woods, Change and
Challenge: The 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, 1928-1957 (Colchester, 1978), pp. 105-108.