The Korean War and the Commonwealth Dimension

Hello! Today we have a guest post to share with you by author James Goulty. Eyewitness Korea by James Goulty is out now: Eyewitness Korea

Today the Korean War 1950-1953 is largely remembered as an American affair. There is good reason for this, not least the fact that America led the UN coalition that fought the Communists, and suffered around 37,000 dead, and over 100,000 wounded, many seriously. American involvement in Korea has also been enshrined in popular culture, notably via the M*A*S*H television series and films, based around the activities of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Yet, over 145,000 troops from the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand served in Korea, together with a small number of South African soldiers attached to Commonwealth units, and non-combatant personnel from an Indian Army medical unit. Total British casualties have been officially determined as 1,078 dead and 2,674 wounded. This article will summarise the role played by British and Commonwealth ground troops during the Korean War, and their counterparts involved in the war at sea and in the air.

The UK was swift to commit forces from the Royal Navy (RN) to Korea, after the outbreak of hostilities in June 1950. This initially included the light aircraft carrier HMS Triumph and the RN was central to establishing the West Korea Support Group. Operating off the west coast was fraught with difficulties owing to the immense tidal variation, and outflow of major rivers that often shifted mud and sand, making inshore navigation particularly troublesome. The charts employed were based on Japanese hydrography, as Korea had been a Japanese colony (c. 1910-1945), and these constantly had to be updated as part of the general routine experienced by most ships at sea. Naval forces were significantly deployed for carrier based operations, bombardment work, patrol and escort duties, plus activities such as rescuing downed air crew or putting special forces ashore. As the war progressed the RN contingent received reinforcements/replacements from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, plus Holland, France and Columbia, thus highlighting the international dimension of Korean operations. Eventually 76 ships from the Commonwealth navies and auxiliary services would serve in the war zone, for varying periods of time.

UN naval capability was amply demonstrated during the Inchon landings in September 1950. Although deemed a risky venture by many, not least owing to the variable tidal conditions at Inchon, the landings passed off with comparatively few casualties, and have often been viewed as a ‘masterstroke’ on the part of the Far East commander General Douglas MacArthur. Many of the units involved were American, but HMS Triumph and other British and Commonwealth warships played a key role in supporting the operation. Similarly, to provide an impression of the contribution of British and Commonwealth navies to the war, consider statistics relating to one of the other carriers, HMAS Sydney that was deployed during October 1951 to January 1952. Over that four month period she maintained a sortie rate of 2,366, losing three pilots and nine aircraft in the process.

Typically, British and Commonwealth navies had to operate throughout the year in bitterly cold Korean winters or the tropical heat of summers, albeit ships were relieved after a tour of duty. Much of the naval work conducted, such as patrols or anti-submarine screening was tedious, especially when conducted over lengthy periods. In contrast, coming into contact with enemy aircraft, helping to recover downed UN aircrew or even attempting to capture a downed enemy Mig-15 fighter, could prove more dramatic and exciting, despite the dangers involved. Even with all the challenges associated with operating in a theatre like Korea, the morale of British and Commonwealth naval personnel seems to have remained high.

Another aspect of the naval war entailed the activities of 41 Independent Commando Royal Marines during 1950-1951. Raised as a specialist all volunteer raiding force, the unit was entirely equipped with American kit, weapons although they retained their greens berets. After completing a few raids, mainly against the east coast rail network, it was sent to serve alongside the American 1st Marine Division in north east Korea, where it gained a much respected reputation, eventually being awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for its part in the fighting during the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. Afterwards the unit was employed on raids on the east coast, where conditions were considered far more favourable for this type of activity. These helped tie down significant numbers of North Korean troops on coastal protection duties, and damaged the rail line bringing supplies from China and Russia to Communist units in Korea. As a side-line to this raiding, the Royal Marines were able to report whether targets were being hit accurately by aircraft and naval gun fire, and so help to minimise the risk of collateral damage.

British and Commonwealth personnel were involved in the air war as well. Notably both the South African and Australian air forces provided squadrons tasked with ground- attack or close air support. By September 1951, 2nd SAAF ‘Cheetah’ Squadron had flown 5,000 sorties using the F-51 Mustang, a Second World War vintage aircraft. Although slow, the Mustang could carry a heavy weapons load, plus drop tanks gave it endurance, making it useful in the ground-attack role. However, the exposed position of the radiator at the front of the aircraft made it susceptible to small arms and anti-aircraft fire, and if punctured this was usually fatal for the pilot, especially at low altitude. Similarly, 77 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force initially flew Mustangs and its call sign ‘drop-kick’ became a by word for accuracy.

Later, 2nd SAAF ‘Cheetah’ Squadron would convert to jets, and was re-equipped with American F-86F Sabre aircraft. In contrast, 77 Squadron RAAF was withdrawn in April 1951 and re-equipped with the British built Gloster Meteor Mk. 8, which in comparison to other contemporary jets, including the Sabre and Communist’s Mig-15 performed less well, especially at high altitudes, making it less suited to the air-to-air combat role. Consequently, in January 1952 the Australian’s resumed ground-attack operations using the Meteor fitted with rockets. By the July 1953 Ceasefire, 77 Squadron RAAF had flown 15,000 sorties in jets but lost 32 pilots, in addition to its earlier losses when deploying the Mustang.

As indicated above the Fleet Air Arm was heavily involved in Korea, and predominantly flew the prop-driven Fairey Firefly and Hawker Sea Fury. A pilot of one of the latter was even credited with shooting down a Mig-15 jet. During 22 April to 30 September, Firefly and Sea Fury aircraft from HMS Glory flew over 2,800 sorties, and during the war overall something like 23,000 sorties were flown from British and Commonwealth carriers.

A small number of light aircraft (Auster AOP 6) were operated by the British Army in Korea, and proved particularly valuable in working with friendly artillery to help locate and knock out enemy guns/mortars. Similarly, two squadrons from the RAF Flying Boat Wing, using Sunderland Flying Boats, provided a tool for reconnaissance missions, and a means of linking its base in Japan with the Korean coast and so forming a ferry service. Some RAF personnel also assisted the Americans as advisers, or gained experience flying with American units. Air-Vice Marshal J. E. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, for example, flew a twin-engine B-26 aircraft on numerous reconnaissance missions deep over North Korea. A number of British and Commonwealth pilots also flew Sabre jets with American squadrons, and engaged in dog fights with Mig-15s.

For both sides the first year of the Korean War was characterised by stunning success, followed by equally dramatic reversals, as the fighting ebbed and flowed up and down the Korean peninsular. Often conditions were confused, something that was exacerbated by the North Korean penchant for infiltration tactics, frequently employing refugee columns as cover for troops movements. During 1950-1951 British and Commonwealth troops fought as independent brigades under American divisional and corps commanders, an experience that sometimes proved less than satisfactory. The first British troops to arrive in August 1950 came from the understrength 27th Infantry Brigade stationed in Hong Kong, and consisted of the First Battalions from the Middlesex Regiment and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The Brigade lacked transport and supporting arms, but was very much deployed as show of solidarity with the Americans when they were hard pressed and fighting had converged on the Pusan Perimeter.

27th Brigade was involved in the fighting to break out from the Pusan Perimeter during September 1950, and the following month was strengthened by the addition of an infantry battalion from the Royal Australian Regiment. It crossed the 38th Parallel, the political divide between North and South Korea, and was involved in the advance on Pyongyang, often acting as spearhead to American units. Along the way, this included the impressive capture in one day of Sariwon. Subsequently, the Chinese entry into the war during November 1950 ensured the Brigade would be kept in Korea for longer than was originally anticipated. It was involved in heavy fighting with the Chinese, especially near Sinanju, as General MacArthur sought to push on towards the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and Communist China.

In late November, the Chinese mounted a massive attack against Eighth Army in North Korea, forcing it into headlong retreat. During the subsequent withdrawal to Pyongyang, 27th Brigade was often used as a rear guard, a testament to the high regard with which American commanders held the capabilities of British and Commonwealth infantry. It then became involved in the 120 mile march back to Seoul, the South Korean capital. The British and Australians didn’t necessarily view the Americans in a similar light, not least because of the tendency for some units to ‘bug out,’ often leaving much kit and equipment, rather than stand and fight. This situation starkly reflected significant doctrinal differences between the Americans and British/Commonwealth. The former favoured a highly mobile form of warfare which encouraged units to break contact with the enemy, and mount hasty withdrawals or ‘retrogrades,’ whereas the latter were prepared for a more methodical approach in which mounting a set-piece defence was a more practical option. Even so, British soldiers at all levels had a poor view of the Americans during 1950-1951, and overall American combat performance was mixed in this period. While criticism has been levelled particularly at American infantry units, owing to the ‘bug-out’ culture, it is important to recognise that other American units such as combat engineers and tank battalions performed in exemplary fashion.

During January and February 1951, 27th Brigade was significantly reinforced by 16th Field Regiment from New Zealand and an infantry battalion from Canada, giving it a much more balanced composition and enhancing its combat capability. In the spring it was involved in the series of limited offensives orchestrated by General Matthew Ridgway, who’d taken over as commander of Eighth Army when his predecessor General Walton Walker was killed in a road accident. These operations called for methodical advances and harnessed the firepower available to Eighth Army. As such they better suited the British/Commonwealth approach than that employed during the drive to, and subsequent withdrawal from the Yalu.

During April 1951, 27th Brigade was again involved in the fighting when it played a part in resisting the Chinese spring offensive around Kap’yong, one of the epic battles of the Korean War as far as Commonwealth forces were concerned. Initially much of the Brigade was deployed in IX Corps’ reserve, but 16th Field Regiment was involved in supporting a South Korean division, when it was heavily attacked by the Chinese on 22-23 April. Troops from 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment were then deployed to support the New Zealand gunners, as the South Koreans withdrew leaving them and the New Zealanders in an increasingly awkward position. Late on 24 April the Australian battalion had to withdraw behind the Middlesex, having withstood a divisional-sized attack by the Chinese. The Canadian battalion was forced to endure numerous flanking attacks, before facing a similarly large scale attack on 24-25 April. It was then surrounded and had to be re-supplied via American air drops, but fortunately the Chinese having suffered many casualties then chose to disengage, which allowed the Brigade to move back to its old positions. Having successfully withstood a large-scale Chinese attack, and determinedly and courageously defended its positions, the Brigade was relieved and moved southwards.

During October 1950, 29th Infantry Brigade arrived in theatre. It was officially designated an independent brigade group, akin to an American Regimental Combat Team (RCT), replete with supporting/logistical units as well as all the necessary combat units. During November/December, 1st Battalion Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (RNF) became the first unit from 29th Brigade to seriously engage the enemy, when they were attacked by around 1,200 ‘guerrillas’ at Sibyon-ni, and put up determined resistance, ably supported by a troop from 45th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. Although dubbed guerrillas in some sources, many were probably North Korean troops who’d ‘taken to the hills’ after UN forces broke out of the Pusan Perimeter, and proved well-armed and equipped. Afterwards villagers even told the Fusiliers that they thought Chinese troops as well as North Koreans had been involved.

Subsequently, 29th Brigade covered the withdrawal of I Corps through Pyongyang, and back towards the line of the 38th Parallel. Again this was a period dominated by defensive actions against the Chinese that highlighted the British aptitude for set-piece operations. As Eighth Army withdrew beyond the Han River in late 1950, 29th Brigade went with them. In January 1951, ‘Cooper Force’ an ad hoc unit comprising elements from 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars (8H), 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) and 45th Field Regiment RA was badly mauled by the Chinese, many of who were prepared to use pole charges against British tanks, or attack them by tying to leap aboard. Over 200 British officers and other ranks were thought to be killed, wounded or missing after the action. However, some did later return to their units having been treated by the American medical system and been temporarily unaccounted for.

In contrast with 27 Brigade, 29th Brigade was less heavily involved during General Ridgway’s limited offensives of spring 1951. Then in late April it played a pivotal role in thwarting the Chinese spring offensive at the Battle of Imjin an event that has entered the folklore of the British Army, especially the stand by 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. Contrary to the popular view of the ‘Glorious Glosters’ that the Battalion was ‘annihilated,’ it would be more accurate to say it fought with the utmost courage and skill, until out of ammunition when further resistance was futile, the bulk of the unit were compelled to lay down their arms and reluctantly became POWs.

The Brigade had been deployed with the RNF covering he centre, flanked by a Belgian infantry battalion the right and the Glosters on the left, with the RUR and a squadron of Centurion tanks from 8H in reserve. British patrols on 22 April suggested that a Chinese attack was imminent, and it came that night against the Glosters who were soon forced to take up new positions. Under mounting pressure against the numerically superior Chinese, the RNF were forced from their important position, and the left flank of the Brigade exposed by the withdrawal of a South Korean division. Under continued Chinese pressure the positioned of the Glosters became more precarious and the gap between them and the RNF widened. By 24 April they were forced onto a single hill area, attempts at their relief having failed, and the overall situation was deteriorating. The following night the Brigade was ordered to withdraw, something that was confusing and awkward to attempt, and the RUR and Belgians in particular suffered a number of casualties in the process.

The Glosters were now in a dire position, with dwindling stocks of supplies and ammunition, as American air drops failed to reach them, and their artillery support had to be withdrawn. The individual companies were then ordered by their CO to break out as best they could, and only one was successful, with around 40 men reaching friendly lines. Most of the rest became POWs and if they survived had to endure the harshness of camps in North Korea until 1953.

After Imjin and Kap’yong both the brigades had the chance to regroup and absorb reinforcements. 29th Brigade then took up defensive positions in area where the Battle of Imjin had occurred, while 27th Brigade was replaced by 28th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade. It had also been stationed in Hong Kong, where troops had engaged in relatively tough training and become acclimatised to Far East conditions. The Canadian battalion that had been part of 27th Brigade transferred to the recently arrived 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade.

While British and Commonwealth troops were engaged in Korea, much wrangling went on at an inter-governmental level that led to the establishment of a Commonwealth Division, incorporating the two British brigades (including Australian infantry) and the one from Canada. It was commanded by a senior British officer given that the UK was the major contributor to the Division, and officially activated in late July 1951. Simultaneously, peace talks had commenced between the American led UN coalition and Communist powers, and Washington was prepared to let Korea move towards a draw rather than risk it escalating into a global war. From the perspective of the soldiers on the ground this saw the shift by late 1951 from a war of movement, to one where the front was static, and where ultimately the aim became one of maintaining an ‘active defence’ that reinforced the status quo.

The establishment of 1st Commonwealth Division exploited the historic ties between the Commonwealth nations, and helped raise the profile of British and Commonwealth units in theatre. Crucially it met an understandable desire on the part of the Americans to see the British Commonwealth maximise its military contribution to the war as part of the UN coalition. Another facet of the Division was that it gave the member states, especially the UK, greater control over their forces in Korea, a welcome development given the mixed experiences of working under the Americans.

Initially 1st Commonwealth Division maintained positions on the Imjin River as part of I Corps under Lieutenant-General ‘Iron Mike’ O’Daniel, and was mainly engaged in mounting raids and patrolling. This was comparatively low-level activity, usually conducted by companies or smaller bodies of troops, but nonetheless nerve-wracking for the soldiers involved, especially if they made contact with the enemy. In October 1951, the Division played a prominent role in Operation Commando, a corps sized assault intended to secure an improved frontline that called for an advance of around 6-8,000 yards. It was heavily reliant on 28th Brigade and witnessed infantry assaults backed by significant artillery, as well as ground-attack aircraft and Centurion tanks. When the latter could successfully negotiate the awkward hilly, wooded and boggy terrain, they provided invaluable close support ensuring infantry were able to get onto their objectives with fewer casualties than might otherwise have been the case.

On the first day of the operation alone the artillery supporting 1st Commonwealth Division fired 27,000 rounds. Despite this lavish support few infantry units actually secured their first day objectives, although most were taken later. The Canadian Brigade made good progress, but 28th Brigade encountered determined Chinese resistance. Points 217 and 317 for example, held out and the RNF from 29th Brigade were brought in to mount attacks, suffering heavy casualties in the process, something that was especially galling for its personnel given that Battalion was due for imminent rotation.

After the operation the Division as a whole was able to consolidate its new hard won defensive position. In November 1951, the Chinese launched heavy localised attacks, particularly against 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade and 28th Brigade. During these the enemy proved adept at targeting positions on a narrow front with significant amounts of artillery, albeit single guns often had to be employed from well concealed locations. On 4 November it was recorded that approximately 10,000 shells fell in the Commonwealth Division’s area. During the fighting 1st Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers singled out for especially tough treatment, ‘pasted’ by enemy artillery and subjected to mass infantry attacks that eventually forced them from Points 217 and 317. British counter-attacks failed to dislodge the Chinese, despite artillery support, and poor weather started to turn the battlefield into a ‘mud bath.’ During this period the 1st Battalions from the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and Royal Leicestershire Regiment experienced tough fighting as well, often receiving support from Centurion tanks from 8 H.

For the troops from 1st Commonwealth Division, the Korean War had started to follow a particular pattern. Typically, infantry bore the brunt of the fighting with significant artillery support, plus the added firepower of ground-attack aircraft added into the mix, while tanks were employed entirely in infantry support, rather than as a tool of exploitation in their own right. Frenetic periods of combat, such as that endured in Oct-Nov 1951, were followed by prolonged periods of calm. As the war increasingly drifted towards static mode, movement became limited with most attacks launched on a local scale only. Nonetheless, this didn’t diminish the emotional cocktail of fear, exhilaration and close comradeship experienced by troops in the mud and blood of Korea.

During 1952 the war fully bedded down into a static affair, with little prospect of such conditions changing. Men lived in bunkers and manned trenches, and positions were frequently protected by significant amounts of barbed wire, mines and artillery. The sector held by the Commonwealth Division was comparatively calm and quiet, with the exception of the Battle of the Hook in November, when 1st Battalion Black Watch holding this key feature in the Samichon Valley, was heavily shelled and subjected to a large-scale attack.

The majority of activity was at company level or below. This included an extensive patrolling programme designed to combat the enemy’s patrol efforts, especially via ambushes; capture prisoners; sound out enemy defences; and protect friendly positions from attack by forming a screen in front of them. Often conducted at night, patrols could be nerve-wracking for the troops involved, but were an integral part of mounting an effective defence. There were casualties during this relatively low level activity, not least because as the war continued the enemy’s capabilities improved. Many British troops considered the Chinese to be a wily, tenacious foe who was good at fieldcraft and night movements. During the period 1 June-12 November 1952, around 190 soldiers from the Division were killed, largely as a result of this patrol warfare. Likewise, there were approximately 800 wounded and over 30 recorded as missing.

During early 1953, 1st Commonwealth Division spent a period out of action, in which to rest, regroup and train. It was then deployed to the same sector of front in April to continuing the patrolling and raiding warfare that characterised 1952-1953. In late May the Hook was once again heavily attacked, this time while being held by 1st Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. The enemy was able to concentrate significant numbers of guns and mortars on the target, and follow up their bombardment with a large-scale infantry attack. The battle was relatively short, but the ferocity of the fighting can be gauged by the fact that the British suffered around 150 casualties, and the Divisional artillery supporting the Hook fired in excess of 32,000 shells.

On 27 July 1953 a ceasefire agreement was signed. Operation Swanlake witnessed the withdrawal of the Division from the Demilitarised Zone around the 38th Parallel, to post-armistice positions near the Imjin River. Troops had to be prepared for action in case the Armistice Agreement failed to hold or was in any fashion violated. Individual units were rotated, and the commitment was gradually scaled down, although a British Commonwealth military presence remained in Korea until August 1957.

I hope that you have found this article of interest. If you would like to read further on the ground war in Korea during 1950-1953, please see my forthcoming book: Eyewitness Korea (Pen and Sword, 2018). Thank you.

James H. R. Goulty

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