RUR in Korea, 1950-51


The following is an extract from the Regimental History of The Royal Ulster Rifles 1793-1960 by Lieutenant Colonel M J P M Corbally.


KOREA (1950-51)

In the rain-drenched dawn of June 25, 1950, North Korean Armed Forces crossed the 38th Parallel and began advancing into South Korea. So began a bitter and costly war which lasted just over three years and ended in stalemate. But it was the first of the United Nations wars, the first major war fought voluntarily by 23 nations allied together for no other reason than to stop an act of aggression that threatened world peace.

By the end of 1950 troops of most of these nations had arrived to strengthen the Army of South Korea which, joined to such forces as the United States could, in the first place, make available, had been in the early days outnumbered and hard pressed.

The British troops included the 29th Independent Infantry Brigade Group. This formed at Colchester and consisted of the 1st Battalion The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the 1st Battalion The Gloucestershire Regiment, and the 1st Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles with, under command, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars and supporting arms in proportionate strength.

When the 1st Battalion received their warning order their strength was less than half that of a Battalion at War Establishment. They were accordingly joined by four hundred reservists of the North Irish and the Lancastrian Brigades. Many of them were complete strangers to The Regiment and many were, in fact, Englishmen. None had expected to have to fight again. But they rose magnificently to the occasion, and with their experience of the Second World War, allied to their steadiness and determination, they quickly became Riflemen, heart and soul.

At the time the Battalion set sail the war appeared to be virtually over, for the powerful United Nations Army, mainly American, but including two British Battalions which had been promptly despatched from Hong Kong, had held and driven back the Army of the Communist Republic of North Korea. So nothing more than occupation force duties and minor anti-guerrilla operations were anticipated. But before the voyage was over the Chinese Communist “Volunteers” had surged across the Yalu River and thus the whole character of the war was changed.

In early November the Battalion disembarked at Pusan, and for a year were to fight in Korea, the land of scrub-covered mountains and dank, lush valleys, of Siberian cold winters and humid, tropical summers. They were railed north east to Suwon and thence transported forward to Uijongbu, where, under the direct command of Headquarters Eighth Army, they were committed to operations against the guerrilla forces which had been by-passed by the swift advance of the United Nations Army.

The next move was to Munsan-Ni, and by the end of November winter clothing had been issued. This consisted of a string vest, worn next to the skin, two heavy woollen pullovers, heavy woollen underwear, and oiled socks. On the feet, frost-proof ski-type boots. Over all, a loose windproof suit of light, very closely woven, camouflaged material. The trousers were tied close at the ankles and waist by cords. The jacket was pulled tight at the hips, buttoned close at the wrists and had a hood, the rim of which could be drawn tight around the face. An American ski cap with peak and ear flaps was eventually issued.

The war situation had by this time deteriorated. The Eighth Army had been rushing towards the Manchurian border and the 29th Brigade, now reassembled, had moved forward to Pyongyang, the Capital of North Korea, in reserve to the U.S. I Corps. But the United Nations Forces were met, checked, and split apart by the Chinese counter-offensive. The 29th Brigade occupied a blocking position and then withdrew, following the remainder of the Army south across the Taedong.

The withdrawal of the Eighth Army, which was, regrettably, a headlong retreat, completely outdistanced the Chinese advance, no attempt being made to delay or contest it. But by mid-December a defence line was being prepared on the south bank of the River Imjin, and to this line the enemy gradually closed up by the New Year. The 29th Brigade was in Corps reserve, and neither The Rifles, nor the other British Regiments, were favourably impressed by the psychology of withdrawal and the extensive preparations thereto. For there was no attempt made by the Higher Command to instil the will to stand and fight.

On the last day of 1950 the Chinese attacked across the Imjin River, penetrated the defences of the 1st Republic of Korea (R.O.K.) Division, and established a bridgehead from which they quickly broke out. So it was that on the 3rd/4th January, 1951, the Battalion fought the first of its two major actions in Korea, that of Chaegunghyon.

The 1st R.O.K. Division had virtually disintegrated, and it was here that the 29th Brigade took up its positions, prepared to fight a delaying action. This was the first contact with the enemy and all company localities were fiercely assaulted, to the sound of bugles. But the enemy came under heavy fire, from Battalion weapons, from supporting arms and from the U.S. Air Force, whose Shooting Star jets dived screaming on to the massing enemy, hurling rockets, napalm, and cannon shells. The enemy attack was halted and virtually destroyed. Casualties within the Battalion were light and morale was high. For the almost legendary Chinese enemy, whose ‘hordes” had sent the Eighth Army southward in headlong retreat, had been met, fought, and sharply defeated. The action, however, was followed by a withdrawal south of the Han River. This was a dangerous operation, and it was here that the Battalion met with severe casualties, a characteristic, too, of the Imjin Battle which was to be fought later in the year.

The withdrawal route was an ice-bound and treacherous track, along a river valley, overlooked by high curving cliffs. Despite appalling difficulties, the long, vulnerable column of men and vehicles was got under way and all was going well until flares dropped by friendly aircraft made the scene as bright as day. Heavy mortar and machine-gun fire rained down from the cliffs, the enemy closed in, and there was confused fighting on the track and in the river bed.

Major Blake, on whom command of the Battalion had temporarily devolved, was last seen trying to keep the column on the move and under control, and was subsequently reported as missing, believed killed. Many vehicles, ditched or driverless, had to be abandoned. The Battalion assembled at Suwon, when it was estimated that 208 officers and men were killed, wounded, and missing.

Thence they moved south again, mounted on the tanks of the 8th Hussars (which Regiment had, with the 83rd, been a component of the Rajputana Field Force in the Indian Mutiny) to Pyongtyak. There, exhausted and depleted in strength, they attempted to dig in in the soaking paddy fields, under wintry conditions so appalling that orders were given to shelter in dwellings in nearby villages, the trenches to be manned only in emergency. In these houses was found a crude, but effective, form of central heating by means of a small fire in an open hearth in the kitchen, from which hot air was led under the floors. This situation obtained for ten days, during which they wired and mined themselves in, and patrolled both forward (contact having been lost with the enemy) and to the flanks to gain touch with the American and Thai (Siamese) units on either side.

And, as in the Peninsula and both World Wars, the men of The Regiment became all too familiar with the sight and plight of the sad grey stream of the refugees passing south. They shuffled past unendingly in tens of thousands from Suwon, Seoul, and the cities of North Korea. Men, women, and children, in rags of clothing, starving, disease-ridden, and desperate, driven before the Chinese, but going nowhere. Hundreds died of cold and starvation on the roadsides and in the paddy fields. Hundreds more were killed by Allied aircraft attacking the Chinese columns. For it is on these, the innocent victims, that war lays its deepest imprint.

By this time the morale of the United Nations Forces was very low indeed, with the possible exception of the British and Dominion troops of the 27th and 29th Brigades, and with the exception, too, of the Turkish Brigade.

But the arrival of the American General Matthew B. Ridgeway to command the Eighth Army had much the same electrifying effect as had the arrival of General Montgomery to command the other Eighth Army in the Western Desert nine years before. He at once imbued all ranks of all national contingents with the offensive spirit and preached the doctrine of the employment of superior fire-power to destroy the superior manpower of the enemy.

So now it was the advance again. But not the roadbound advance characteristic of the campaign to date. Now, as the advance progressed, the ground was cleared and the enemy sought out in the most inaccessible parts of the hills. But the 29th Brigade was highly mechanised, so it was required to strip down to a purely “foot “ basis. Maximum loads were

worked out following careful trials, They included U.S. Army pack rations and 150 rounds SAA per man instead of the traditional 50, plus the maximum number of grenades.

No donkeys, as in Palestine, nor mules, as in Italy, so additional loads had to be “portered.” One complete Rifle company was allotted to this task until such time as sufficient South Korean porters were enrolled and trained. These were a great success, willing, cheerful, and loyal, organised under their own “ sergeant major” and “ NCO’s.”

The Battalion, thus reorganised, patrolled forward, scattered over a wide area, carrying out extensive sweeps, and “ clearing,” all the time advancing towards the Han River. They became involved in minor clashes and experienced some resistance but in early March they were withdrawn to Suwon into reserve.

Thus, with the line of the Han River secured by the U.S. 24th Infantry Division and the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, the Rifles were enabled to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in traditional style.

At the end of March the advance continued north of the Han River and the Battalion drove through the deserted streets of Seoul, past Ujongbu, and up to the line of the Imjin where the 29th Brigade, with flanking Allied formations, deployed for the defence of the river line.

The weather was by now warm and sunny, the mountain sides began to turn green, and flowering shrubs came into blossom. In the first week of April, the 29th Brigade strength was increased by the addition of the Battalion of Belgian Infantry, all volunteers, and a gay, swashbuckling outfit, reminiscent of P. C. Wren. Their fighting qualities, as it proved, in no way belied their panache.

The second of the two major operations in which the Battalion took part was the Battle of Imjin of the 23rd to 25th April, 1951. Although both the R.O.K. and U.S. flanking formations were heavily engaged the full weight of the attack of the Sixty-Fourth Chinese Communist Army was directed on to the sector held by the British 29th Brigade. The battalions of the latter were disposed on a very wide front. The Belgians were forward across the river. South of the river the 5th Fusiliers and the Gloucesters were right and left forward Battalions respectively, with a gap between them of four thousand yards.

The Rifles were initially holding a locality in depth but were moved forward, in support of the 5th Fusiliers. And, as at Stormberg Junction fifty years before, Riflemen and Fusiliers fought shoulder to shoulder. Both Battalions were hard pressed and some ground had to be given by the 5th Fusiliers but the local situation remained, in general, reasonably stable and the enemy, despite persistent assaults, was stopped. The Belgians, surrounded on three sides, resisted stubbornly and eventually managed to fight their way out across the river.

The situation of the Gloucesters on the left, however, became very serious. Under intense pressure they had been forced to pull in all companies on to a single feature (now known, immortally, as Gloucester Hill). They were thus by-passed and completely surrounded, their supply route cut, and their position dominated from the vital peak of Kamk San which lay behind and between the forward positions and from which the enemy could not be dislodged.

The withdrawal of the Brigade was ordered on the morning of 25th April as the enemy’s penetration on the western sector had become so deep as to threaten the encirclement of the whole Brigade. The Gloucesters were trapped and, after a gallant and glorious stand, which lived up to their finest “Back Badge “ tradition, were, in effect, annihilated.

And, again as at Stormberg, the 5th Fusiliers and Rifles withdrew as a point force. To date the Battalion had suffered no casualties but the withdrawal was a different story. The situation had by this time rapidly deteriorated. The withdrawal route lacked cover and came under heavy fire. The Chinese swarmed down and from every ditch, bank and building along the route poured in a murderous fire upon the unprotected Infantry mounted on the tanks of the

8th Hussars. The Brigade withdrew to a blocking position thence, in a state of utter exhaustion, to rest on the south bank of the Han River.

The Battle of the Imjin was over. The casualties within the Battalion were 10 officers and 176 other ranks, mostly missing. Although the enemy offensive had rolled to within five miles of Seoul, it had broken on the river line. The Gloucesters, in their epic action, had been destroyed. But the Sixty-Fourth Chinese Communist Army had been rendered virtually ineffective for an appreciable period. And Seoul, the South Korean capital, the prize for which the Chinese had gambled and lost, had been saved.

The 'Times' newspaper of London published a full report of the Battle which concluded with the words:, “The Gloucesters, for what they have done now and for what went before it, deserve to be singled out for honourable mention, but they did not stand alone. The Northumberland Fusiliers, The Royal Ulster Rifles, and other Commonwealth Units, each with a past to live up to, shared with the Gloucesters in this most testing of all hazards on the battlefield, attack by overwhelming numbers of enemy.

“The ‘Fighting Fifth,’ wearing St George and the Dragon, and the Irish Giants, with Harp and Crown, have histories that they would exchange with no one. As pride, sobered by mourning for fallen, observes how well these young men have acquitted themselves in remotest Asia, the parts taken by the Regiments may be seen as a whole. The motto of The Royal Ulster Rifles may have the last word, Quis Separabit?”

The United Nations Army now stood on the line of the Han River. But the impetus of the Chinese Spring Offensive had been lost so once more the Army advanced, forward again to the line of the Imjin.

At the end of May the 29th Brigade relieved the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division in the very same hills where the battle of the previous month had been fought. The Rifles were interested to find that the Cavalry Division (which under modern conditions was cavalry only by designation) included the 7th, the oldest Cavalry Regiment in the United States Army, famous for its fight under General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the Indian War of 1876.

The 7th Cavalry were originally recruited from Irish immigrants. “ Garry Owen” is their Regimental March. They are intensely proud of their Irish origin and still celebrate St Patrick’s Day as a Regimental holiday. The Rifles actually took over from a Greek Battalion with whose tough, cheerful, fiercely moustached soldiers the most cordial relations were quickly established. This picturesque Unit was permanently attached to the 7th Cavalry and had adopted the crest of the latter with the name “ Garry Owen” featuring prominently, if incongruously, on their Command Post.

It was by now summer and, in the blazing sun, stripped to the waist, the Rifles applied themselves to what was clearly defined as a defensive task. In the late days of May and the early days of June the programme was that of extensive digging, mining, wiring, and the clearing of fields of fire. The position thus prepared by the Army as a whole was known as the “Kansas” Line. The far bank was dominated by fighting patrols at company strength which had the effect of driving the enemy back from the river line.

In July 1951 there was formed the British Commonwealth Division, a formation unique in British Military history. It consisted of the 29th British Infantry Brigade (which ceased accordingly to be an Independent Brigade Group), the 28th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade (British and Australian Battalions), and the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade.

In August, with the coming of the monsoon rains, the Battalion carried out a large scale raid across the river with the Belgians and elements of the 28th Commonwealth Brigade and of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division. They found themselves temporarily marooned as the swift current of the rapidly rising river had torn away the pontoon bridges and sunk the rafts.

After three months work the defences of the “ Kansas “ Line had become very strong and long range patrol activity continued throughout August.

In September the Commonwealth Division established itself forward of the Imjin on the line “Wyoming.” During the month there was active patrolling by both sides which involved minor actions. In October the Rifles took part in their final operation which was an advance under command of the Canadian Brigade to secure some high ground forward of the main position. This was effected, fortunately, without opposition.

On 6th and 7th October the Rifles were relieved and in late October sailed for Hong Kong after a momentous year in which many sad losses had been suffered, many decorations gained, and the lustre of the Regiment enhanced.

As they sailed away from “The Land of the Morning Calm” their thoughts were with those of their comrades held in Communist Prison camps, subjected to indoctrination and brain washing, the survivors of whom they were not to see for another two years.

(Pat Corbally)