Battle of Chaegunghyon (Happy Valley)

Story
Map of Battle of 'Happy Valley'.

(This account of the battle is an extract from a regimental history and follows on from the event recorded for 3 January 1951.)

At 0315 hours, firing was heard in the distance to the northwest. Shortly afterwards the Americans reported that their outpost company at Koyang had been attacked and forced to withdraw. They also reported that their forward troops on the Rifles' left flank were in contact with small groups of the enemy.

At 0445 hours, it became apparent that something was brewing, and the Battalion stood to. Soon after 0500 hours, A Company observed movement along the wire in front of them and opened fire. In the light of 2-inch mortar flares a number of figures in civilian clothes were seen at the wire, but these were dispersed by fire from the machine, gun section with A Company. Very shortly afterwards B Company opened fire on enemy moving on their right flank.

The CO now decided to find out what was going on, and the Battle Patrol, under Capt G W H Cocksedge MC, was ordered to be prepared to move out at first light to reconnoitre the valley forward of A Company's position. In fact, this patrol did not take place, but at 0645 hours a reconnaissance patrol from D Company, under Lt Robin Bruford Davies, moved off from the company position down the hill to the west with the object of discovering whether or not the enemy had infiltrated into the low ground between D Company and the Americans. Some minutes after the patrol left the position, the explosion of a grenade, shouts, and a burst of automatic fire were heard by the Company. When Maj Gaffikin, the Company Commander, called the patrol on the 88-wireless set, he could get no reply.

The report of this incident had hardly reached the Command Post when B Company came up on the wireless to say that they were under attack and, a few minutes later, D Company also reported that they were engaged.

In both cases, as it later transpired, the enemy's methods were identical. Their approach up the rough scrub, covered hillside to B and D Companies' positions had been made under cover of darkness with considerable skill, and this initial assault was made from the very edge of the platoon positions. It is now quite obvious that the Chinese knew exactly where these positions were and that they achieved almost complete surprise in their attack.

The initial impact fell upon 4 Platoon, under Lt John Mole, in B Company, and upon 11 Platoon in D Company, whose position Lt Bruford Davies and his patrol had just left. The confusion of this sudden attack was increased by the trickery of the enemy who came on shouting, ‘South Koreans, we surrender’ and led by a man with a white flag, to the accompaniment of much shouting and blowing of bugles. Both platoon positions were penetrated in the enemy's first assault, and there was confused close, quarter fighting for some minutes, until both platoons were forced to fall back on to their respective main Company's positions. In point of fact, this meant that B Company was now holding the North East spur of Hill 195, while D Company held on to a spur running east down towards the Mortar Platoon position and Battalion HQ. A Chinese bugler, in quilted winter uniform and dog-skin cap, was seen on the very summit of Hill 195 sounding his success signal, and small parties of the enemy began to work along the ridge south and south-west, with the obvious intention of striking at the mortar position and Battalion HQ

The Battalion reaction to this sudden attack and initial success by the enemy was quick and determined. B Company was immediately ordered to hold on where it was. In D Company, Maj Hugh Gaffikin, with 10 and 12 Platoons, under Lts Benson and Colin MacNichol, fiercely engaged the advancing enemy and stopped them in their tracks. Both Maj Gaffikin and Lt Bob Benson were slightly wounded, but the position was held, and 11 Platoon was enabled to push back into the main Company position. Now the full firepower of the Battalion was brought to bear on the enemy on the hilltops. Heavy fire from the Field Artillery, the 4.2-inch Mortar Troop, and from the tanks of Cooperforce came down on the crests, and the Rifles' Y Mortar Platoon opened rapid and accurate fire with HE

The enemy, in fact, showed an immediate dislike for our 3-inch mortars, and Lt Alan Hill was forced to use his own pieces at less than the recognised minimum range, to engage parties of enemy working down the gullies towards his own position.

At 0900 hours an air strike, called up by the Americans on the left, came in; and, with great elation, the Riflemen watched the four Shooting Star jets circle once low overhead and then dive screaming into the valley, hurling rockets, napalm, and cannon shells upon the massing enemy.

In the meantime, the CO was rapidly planning a counterattack. A Company, who had not been engaged since opening fire just before dawn, was ordered back to an assembly area behind Battalion HQ, while a platoon of C Company took over its original position. The Battle Patrol, about 90-men strong, was ordered to move round to the rear and to attack from the south end of the main ridge northwards towards Hill 195 to secure a start line for A Company.

By 1125 hours the Battle Patrol had carried out its task and was in position some 200 yards south of Hill 195 itself. It had little difficulty in this advance but killed one Chinaman on the way up and wounded several more, with no loss to itself. Capt Cocksedge reported that, although scattered fire was coming from the direction of Hill 195, the ridge between that point and his position seemed fairly clear of the enemy, while there was only occasional slight movement on the scarred and smoking crest of the hill itself.

It now appeared that, owing to refusal of the Rifles to budge any further and the very heavy and accurate fire by the supporting weapons, the enemy had been halted and virtually destroyed where they stood. The CO ordered A Company to remain at readiness and told B Company to assault the crest of Hill 195. This they did, and at 1310 hours the position was regained without A Company being committed to the counterattack.

The battle was over, and a signal was sent to Brigade HQ - ‘Positions restored’. But, for some time afterwards, small groups of Chinese withdrawing northwards were raked by our artillery, and many more casualties were inflicted. A physical count showed about 30 enemy dead inside the Battalion position, and it is estimated that altogether some 50 were killed, with a proportionate number of wounded who were carried away. Two prisoners were taken, but only one lived long enough to be sent back to Brigade for interrogation.

On the Battalion's right, the Glosters had not been engaged. The 5th Fusiliers had fought a fierce battle further east and they too, after suffering penetration of their positions, threw out the enemy with heavy losses.

Casualties in the Battalion were light. They amounted to not more than 20 altogether, with only four killed.

The Brigade settled down to see what the night would bring, and throughout the Battalion morale was high. The Chinese, this almost legendary enemy, whose ‘hordes’ had sent the Eighth Army south in headlong retreat, had been met, fought, and sharply defeated in this action. The puzzled resentment of the British troops against a type of war in which they had done nothing but retreat ignominiously before an enemy they had never seen, changed now to a confident realisation that they, at any rate, were more than a match for their opponents. In this spirit, then, preparations for the continued defence of the position went on that afternoon, but even then, some amongst us realised that, should we be told to abandon the position and withdrawal to the south, it would not be the bloodless type of operation we had previously experienced. And at 1830 hours the same evening, this order was received. The Brigade was withdrawing south of the Han river, and the Battalion was to come down front its hills and move south by march route as fast as possible to a point six miles back, where transport would be waiting: Speed was essential. The Americans on the left flank had also been ordered to withdraw and, as they straddled the main road, they were likely to do so faster than the Rifles could.

It immediately appeared that the operation might be a dangerous one. The route of withdrawal lay first to the west behind the present positions of the 2/35th, and then south by a pass over a low range of hills. The track itself was icebound and treacherous, and for some distance was commanded by a high curving cliff overhanging the river bed along which it ran; the pass was a sheet of ice and only just negotiable by vehicles in daylight. Should this high ground be held by the enemy and not by the Americans, the valley would become a death trap.

A ‘scratch’ battalion of the no longer effective 1st ROK Division had been brought up during the afternoon and placed under command of 1 RUR. This Battalion, which had begun to dig in behind the Rifles on the south side of the main valley, was ordered to withdraw immediately, as it was considered that its presence in the withdrawal in darkness would be a hindrance rather than a help, especially as its morale and fighting efficiency were doubtful.

1 RUR was to cross the start point just south of Battalion HQ at 2100 hours, the order of march being B Company, A Echelon, Main HQ, C Company, less one platoon, D Company, A Company. Support Company, with the 4.2 Mortar Troop, was to follow A Company, while Cooperforce, with 7 Platoon of C Company under 2/Lt George Prescott-Westcar, mounted on the tanks, would bring up the rear. A section of the Battle Patrol, under 2/Lt Mervyn McCord, with a section of MMGs and one section of 3-inch mortars, all in carriers, were to establish a standing patrol on the track about 1,000 yards north of Chaegunghyon to cover the initial movement, and were to withdraw at 2230 hours.

The night was bitterly cold. In the faint starlight the track wound across the furrows of the snow-covered paddy fields beside the river bed. There was no sign of activity by the enemy, but the silence was broken by the continual crump of mortar bombs as the 3-inch Mortar Platoon fired off its remaining dumped ammunition into probable enemy assembled areas, and by the mutter of engines as vehicles were started up.

At 2100 hours the leading section of B Company passed the Regimental Policeman standing at the start point, and the Company filed silently down the track, through the icy ford, and on down the valley. Behind them the vehicles of A Echelon and Battalion HQ bumped and lurched at footpace through the snow, slithering almost uncontrollably in the darkness, but moving south. For half an hour the column wound out on to the track and southwards. As B Company reached the foot of the pass to the south of Pulmiji-Ri, startlingly and suddenly, flares broke out overhead, and the black column of men and vehicles was brilliantly illuminated against the surrounding snow. These flares were dropped by friendly aircraft, and an immediate request was wirelessed to Brigade to have the illuminations stopped; but the aircraft were not under Brigade control and, although the request was passed on, the damage was already done. For minutes more, the column moved on and its centre was beneath the cliffs, when as suddenly, but not as unexpectedly as the flares had appeared, a hail of mortar and machine-gun fire burst from the heights.

From this point onwards, the fighting which developed became confused: The attack broke on the centre of the column, while the Battle Patrol and Cooperforce at the rear had still not moved off. The only chance of extricating the rear of the column from the trap was for men and vehicles to keep moving. This in itself became more difficult as vehicles slid off the track in the confusion and blocked the way of those behind. The Battle Patrol section, returning from its standing patrol, found the tanks of Cooperforce engaging the enemy on the hills with their Besa machine guns and with their 75mm guns. The machine-gun section opened up with its guns still mounted in its carriers, and the enemy were kept busy.

In the riverbed the fighting was now at close quarters; the Chinese established a machine-gun post in the riverbed in front of Support Company and began to stream down from the cliffs using grenades and automatic weapons. Here Maj Blake and Maj Ryan were last seen making every effort to keep the column on the move and under control. A section of the Battle Patrol, under 2/Lt McCord, with Sgt. Campbell and Cpl. Blackstock, moved forward and grenaded the enemy machine-gun post out of existence, and then returned with one Cromwell [Cruiser] tank to help the main body forward through the gap thus made. A troop of Cooperforce under Lt. Godfrey Alexander, 8 KRIH, escorted by 7 Platoon of C Company, was ordered by Capt Astley-Cooper to try to break out along the river bed to the west towards the main road. The tanks came under very heavy and accurate mortar fire as they moved, and Lt Alexander was killed by a mortar bomb which struck his turret. 2/Lt Prescott-Westcar was also hit and was not seen again. None of the troop got through.

By now the last of the Rifle Companies had broken contact, not without loss, and were doggedly moving south. Maj Shaw, realising that the situation in the valley was beyond control, decided to gather together all the men he could find, and made a single determined effort to break clear, abandoning most of the vehicles, which were now either ditched or driverless. He succeeded in collecting together about 60 men, mainly of Support Company, and with these broke through the village of Pulmiji-Ri, now held by the Chinese, and out into the hills to the south. Those wounded who were able to walk were taken with this party, and together, slowly and painfully, they made their way south to the point on the main road where a delaying force from 25 US Infantry Division was still in position. These troops opened fire on the Riflemen as they approached but were eventually persuaded by the efforts of Sgt Campbell and Maj Shaw that the party was British. And so, in the cold dawn, this last party of the Battalion warily mounted the two vehicles which remained and drove south.

The remainder of the Battalion had marched in during the early hours of the morning to the embussing area and were by dawn back in the old billets at Suwon, where they were later joined by Maj Shaw's party.

Thus, on the 4th January the Battalion was assembled at Suwon, and the casualties were counted. That day there were 208 officers and men shown killed, wounded, or missing. During the next few days the figures dropped, as men made their way back, either from American hospitals where they were given treatment, or even from the area of Pulmiji-Ri, where an American helicopter pilot most gallantly landed on 4 January and brought out a total of seven survivors.

It was not till several months later that we knew the fate of many who did not come back that day. Among them, Maj Tony Blake and 2/Lt George Prescott-Westcar were killed, Maj Joe Ryan, Capt James Majury and Capt Sandy Ferrie, the MO, were prisoners; 2/Lt Robin Bruford-Davies and his patrol were captured. Capt Arthur McCallan was wounded, but rejoined shortly afterwards. Of the very gallant officers and men of Cooperforce, few came back, and Capt Donald Astley-Cooper himself was killed; Capt John Lane RA, of the 4.2 inch Mortar Troop, was not seen again.

As a result of this action, Maj H M Gaffikin and Maj J K H Shaw MC, were awarded the DSO [Distinguished Service Order]; 2/Lt M N S McCord was awarded the MC [Military Cross], as was 2/Lt Houston Shaw Stewart. Sgt Campbell and Sgt Cooke each received the MM [Military Medal], while Cpl Hunt, L/Cpl Watkinson, and Rfn Varley were ‘Mentioned in Despatches’.

On 5 January, the Battalion moved again, riding on the Centurion tanks of the 8th Hussars, and dismounted about forty miles south, at Pyeongtaek, there to dig in in a flat open plain to await the enemy's advance with the rest of 29 Brigade.

The Battalion was well below strength and weary from the efforts of the last few days. But one advantage had been gained: we now knew something about the enemy; we had learned that he was tough and cunning. He was able to march great distances in mountainous country without loss of efficiency. He carried his rations (rice, oatmeal, dried peas or beans) in a cloth bandolier slung round his body and could thus carry sufficient food to last him for ten days. His intelligence and use of agents were excellent, as was his fieldcraft by day and his control by night. But he was not well armed: In a section of ten men, for instance, four or five might be carrying nothing but ammunition and grenades, under orders to pick up the first weapons they could find on the dead.

As an individual the Chinese soldier did not seem intelligent; there were those, who said that on the night of 3/4 January his assault troops were drugged or drunk. Certainly, their reactions were slow, and they seldom got in the first shot at close quarters.

By and large, he was an enemy, to be treated with respect in mobile warfare and at night; but, man to man, the Rifleman was his better, and in a straight fight we felt we should always win.

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