The Imjin and Kapyong Battles, Korea, 1951

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The sacrifice of the "Glorious Glosters" in defense of the Imjin River line and the hilltop fights of Australian and Canadian battalions in the Kapyong Valley have achieved greater renown in those nations than any other military action since World War II. This book is the first to compare in depth what happened and why. Using official and unofficial source material ranging from personal interviews to war diaries, this study seeks to disentangle the mythology surrounding both battles and explain why events unfolded as they did. Based on thorough familiarity with all available sources, many not previously utilized, it sheds new light on fighting "the forgotten war."

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1. Imjin The First Day

ePub

 

We saw the Chinese advance . . . they were so numerous!

THEODORE DROOGMANS, Platoon B, Company C, Belgian Battalion, c. 10:30 PM, 22 April1

The bastards must be breeding over there!

LEN ALLEN, 7 Platoon, C Company, 1st Glosters, c. 11:30 pm, 22 April2

As eighth army intelligence had rightly predicted, the Chinese People’s Volunteers were preparing to launch a major offensive in the spring of 1951 under the overall command of Peng Te-huai. What was less clear was when, where, and in what strength the enemy would strike, and what he would seek to accomplish. As it happened the ultimate objective remained to drive U.N. forces from the peninsula and unite Korea under Kim Il-sung. The immediate aims of the Fifth Phase offensive included the recapture of Seoul and the destruction of no less than three U.S. divisions, two ROK divisions, the Turkish brigade, and both 27th Commonwealth Brigade and “the British 29th Brigade.”3

 

2. Imjin The Second Day

ePub

 

They’ll give up at dawn. Mark my words, sir; they’ll go back across the river.

RSM Jack Hobbs, in conversation with Padre Sam Davies, 1GLOS HQ , c. 6 AM, 23 April1

As I sit talking to Richard, I wonder if he realizes how gravely we are situated: a vast body of enemy pushing south; our flanks open; the road cut behind us.

CAPTAIN TONY FARRAR-HOCKLEY, with Captain R. A. St. M. Reeve-Tucker, 1GLOS HQ , c. 3 am, 24 April2

The coming of spring daylight to the land of the Morning Calm on Monday, 23 April revealed just how serious the situation was becoming for 29th Brigade after a night of hard fighting. The Chinese, instead of slackening their assaults, seem to have redoubled their efforts to break resistance, and not without effect. The decisions made by those in command in the next few hours would help save one battalion but contribute to the destruction of another.3

 

3. Imjin The Third Day

ePub

 

This is not the way to run a war, it is most ungentlemanly!

MAJOR, 45FR, re. Chinese infiltration tactics1

You couldn’t sleep, there was so much noise going on, and you were on the move, and you were concerned with whether or not positions had to be adjusted, so very few people slept.

MAJOR PATRICK “SAM” WELLER, OC Support Company, 1GLOS2

As dawn crept in from the east on tuesday morning, the most pressing problem along the brigade front was unquestionably the precarious position of the Glosters. Forced to abandon successive company hill positions, cut off for more than fifteen hours, losing comrades one after another, and running low on supplies, the surviving Glosters could not hold out forever against Chinese attacks.

The commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.P. Carne, had already decided that his battered and dwindling battalion would have to concentrate on a single feature, so as soon as there was enough daylight he ordered B Company to cross the valley and join the other companies on Hill 235. The order came none too soon, since the isolated B Company was almost at the end of its rope.

 

4. Imjin The Final Day

ePub

 

They’re coming on all sides.

WARNING FROM RSM JACK HOBBS, Gloster Hill, c. 6:00 AM, 25 April 19511

Come on then, you bastards, and get your breakfast.

ANONYMOUS SOLDIER, Gloster Hill, c. 6:00 am, 25 April 19512

At first light on wednesday there was no appreciable letup in Chinese pressure on either side of Kamak-san, with fighting going on around as well as to the rear of all three British infantry battalions as the night gave way to dawn. On what would turn out to be the concluding day of battle for the brigade, there would be alternating scenes of heroism, cowardice, tragedy, and farce.

Just after six in the morning, Brigadier Brodie contacted Colonel Carne by radio and made it clear that the relief column promised the day before effectively had been canceled. What remained of the relief force after other parts had been shifted elsewhere by General Soule, namely the tank platoon from the 65th Infantry, would go through the motions of trying to get through a couple of hours later, but as the regiment’s commander, Colonel William H. Harris, admitted, “we all knew that that was sending too little too late.” The fact that they were not going to be extracted after all was certainly very bad news for the Glosters. According to Carne, the brigadier “left it to me to decide whether to surrender on the spot, fight it out to the end or slip away.” Not surprisingly the colonel favored the third option, but that would be impossible unless the enemy could first be driven back.3

 

5. Kapyong The First Day

ePub

 

A bit of a sticky wicket is developing at the front, gather all Brigade officers and return [to Brigade HQ] at once.

Telephone instructions from 27BCB Duty Officer to 2PPCLI Liaison Officer during farewell party for departing 1A&SH, evening, 22 April 19511

IX Corps ordered 6 ROK to hold this line [KANSAS]. It however became more obvious as time went on that the 6 ROK Div was incapable of holding any line.

16FR War Diary, situation c. 3:30 AM, 23 April 19512

On sunday, 22 april 1951, most of the men of 27th Brigade were if anything even less concerned about the prospect of battle than their counterparts in 29th Brigade. After all, when they had departed the front line a few days earlier for a couple of weeks of well-deserved rest and reorganization in IX Corps reserve, the Chinese were still withdrawing. Arrayed by unit north of the village of Kapyong in relatively idyllic surroundings variously dubbed “Sherwood Forest” and “Happy Valley” – located at this point over twenty-two miles behind the front – soldiers for the first time in weeks had the opportunity to properly bathe, play soccer, watch films, drink their beer ration, and generally put themselves at ease. “Life was very relaxing and pleasant,” Bruce Ferguson, the CO of the Australians (3RAR) recalled. “The weather was warm,” Mike Czuboka of the 2PPCLI mortar platoon remembered, also noting how he and his fellow Canadians “appreciated getting periods of uninterrupted and peaceful sleep” along with hot meals for the first time in weeks.3

 

6. Kapyong The Second Day

ePub

 

We were in a rest area; and then they broke through, and they just pulled us off rest, shoved us back up, and said “here, hold this,” you know, that was our position.

2PPCLI veteran, 19761

You’re sitting there, you’re listening to all these noises of rifle fire, grenades going off, artillery shells going off, the whistle blasts, the bugles, the screams . . . it’s the noise, it’s like, it’s like a symphony of war . . .

3RAR veteran, 20002

Having been alerted by ix corps to the possibility that his brigade might have to assume a blocking position, Brigadier Brian Burke had to decide how best to deploy his units. Topographically the most secure defensive position appeared to be just over three and a half miles north of Kapyong, where three major features dominated the valley floor through which the Kapyong River sinuously curved its way southward and down which any enemy was likely to come. On the western side the irregular high ground peaked at Hill 677 opposite, the hulking form of Sudok-san (Hill 794) to the north, and Hill 504 to the east. With a frontage of almost four and a half miles to defend, a mere three infantry battalions were not going to be able to form a continuous line, but if they each held one of the three main hill features they could collectively still dominate the valley floor. This was likely what was running through the brigadier’s mind when he called an O [Operations] Group of his unit commanders around 9 AM. If the call to arms came, the Middlesex would occupy Hill 794, the Patricias Hill 677, and the Australians Hill 504.3

 

7. Kapyong The Third Day

ePub

 

For the guns, now like an orchestra, their targets they engage, With a symphony of anger, a cacophony of rage.

Maurice Gasson, 16 FR, 20031

There’s dirt, there’s dust, there’s people hollering, there’s people dying on both sides, you can hear them. It was terrifying . . .

DON HIBBS, 2PPCLI, 19992

As daylight crept across the kapyong valley on Tuesday, the 24th of April, the Chinese found themselves exposed. Without the protection offered by darkness, infantry on the move could be seen at more than a few yards’ distance, which in turn opened up decent fields of fire for those Australians in range. There was no compunction about taking immediate and full advantage of this turn of events; as Major Ben O’Dowd of A Company 3RAR later explained, with those enemy soldiers caught in the open “the Diggers were having the time of their lives potting them all off all over the place.” Now that they could easily be seen, groups of Chinese forming up for assaults could also be broken up by artillery bursts.3

 

8. Kapyong The Final Day

ePub

 

What are those blinking white lights sparkling on the ground?

LIEUTENANT ROD MIDDLETON, 2PPCLI, to U.S. helicopter pilot above Hill 677, 8:00 am, re. Chinese anti-aircraft fire1

It was the most beautiful sight I can ever remember seeing.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER, 2PPCLI, re. 10:30 AM supply drop2

If the 118th CPV division renewed its vigorous attacks on Hill 677 in the hours after dawn, then the chances of survival for the Patricias would be lower than they had been after midnight. “By that time our Mortar Platoon was almost completely out of mortar bombs,” Private Mike Czuboka remembered. “The rifle companies were also down to a few rounds of ammunition. Our food and water was almost gone.”3 Some of the badly wounded, to be sure, could now be evacuated by two American helicopters, but ground fire from the Chinese as the machines flew in was a reminder that the enemy still surrounded the battalion and could close in again.4 After a night of sometimes quite vicious hand-to-hand fighting one or two soldiers found they were unable to switch off their bloodlust. Decades later PPCLI veterans could claim that they had felt no hatred for the enemy, but early Wednesday morning after the fighting had died down two Patricias, discovering a pair of wounded Chinese forward of their position, first rummaged through their possessions and then deliberately picked them up and threw them to their deaths down a steep slope.5 Other soldiers maintained a remarkable sang-froid in the face of imminent danger. “I responded to the desperate situation as soldiers are wont to do when they can’t do anything about it,” Corporal John Bishop of 2 Platoon later wrote. “I got my head down and fell into a comfortable doze.”6 But there was no doubt in the mind of the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Stone, that if the enemy kept pushing, “in all probability the 2 PPCLI would have been annihilated.”7 Or as an unidentified Patricia reflected a quarter century later, “what happened to the Gloucesters could easily have happened to us.”8 That it did not was due to the actions of both friends and enemies.

 

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