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The Korean War

The Korean War

Russ Mallace writes: "unless your were a fan of the 1970’s US TV series M.A.S.H., today the war in Korea (1950-1953)  is probably little known to many in the United Kingdom; indeed fans of M.A.S.H. wouldn’t have known of the U.K.’s and our Commonwealth’s serious commitment to that conflict from that TV show.

In fact more British service personnel died in that war than any other since the Second World War, a total of 1,139. That compares with 456 in Afghanistan and 255 in the Falklands. The total that died on all sides in the Korean War was 4.5 million, a truly staggering number for what appears to have become a “Forgotten War”.

At the Yalta conference in the Crimea in February 1945 between leaders of the UK, Russia and the USA, Russia agreed to enter the war against Japan three months after the war in Europe ended. After victory over the Nazis had been secured, in July 1945 at another summit conference, this time in Potsdam, it was agreed that as a “temporary arrangement” the peninsula of Korea would be divided into two at the 38th parallel (of latitude). The Russians declared war on Japan on the 8th August 1945 and with little resistance from the occupying Japanese, rapidly advanced through Manchuria and Korea stopping as agreed at the 38th parallel. Japan surrendered on August 15th 1945 but the American troops did not arrive at the 38th parallel in Korea until September of that year.

In 1948, Russia’s Deputy Premier Beria “discovered” Kim Il-sung, and recommended Stalin install him as leader of North Korea. General MacArthur and President Truman of the USA installed Syngman Rhee as leader south of the 38th parallel. Syngman Rhee’s life up to then would have made a good political adventure novel but he was vehemently anti-communist and therefore acceptable to the Americans. Strangely in the very early years of North & South Korea’s existence as separate states, their situations now, were then almost reversed, with the north being prosperous and the south a repressive dictatorship.

Neither leader was ever happy with the concept of a divided Korea or how one ran the other and both had designs upon the other’s territory; because of this and the sometimes open aggression between them, to deter any escalation of conflict the Americans limited the South’s weaponry. Unfortunately however the Russians did not do the same in the North!

Over the next 5 years there were many arguments, disagreements and even outright bloodshed but the Americans did not believe that there would be any major incursion over the negotiated border and that any actual skirmishes would be “minor”; therefore when North Korea invaded the South on the 25th June 1950, it was completely unexpected.

The North Koreans swept through the south until the only area left in South Korea’s hands, with American support, was a small region around Pusan in peninsula Korea’s extreme south east corner.

Two days after the invasion a meeting of the Security Council of the United Nations (UN) was called. The UN had only been in existence since 1945 and had been formed after the overall lack of success of the League of Nations, which was created after the First World War with the express intention of avoiding open conflicts between countries. A motion was proposed and a Resolution (82) passed that called for the North Koreans to return north of the 38th parallel and that assistance should be given to South Korea to ensure this.

As it was a UN Security Council Resolution the Russians, a Permanent Member, had the power of veto but at that time they were boycotting the Council because of “procedural difficulties”, which was probably more to do with the Council’s recognition of Chiang Kai-shek’s government of China in exile on the island of Formosa (Taiwan) rather than Mao Zedong’s, whose communist People’s Republic government ruled mainland China after the Chinese civil war that had only just ceased.

As a result of this UN Resolution, the armed forces of twenty one nations once again found themselves involved in a war.

In September 1950 US General Douglas MacArthur launched an amphibious assault on Inchon, near the south’s capital Seoul coinciding with a breakout from the Pusan perimeter. The North was routed and withdrew in disarray. MacArthur persuaded US President Truman to allow him to carry on north of the 38th parallel and by October had they reached the Yalu River, the border between Korea and China.

China then entered the war with enormous manpower and drove the UN forces back to the south until Seoul was once again in the hands of the North. At this time Truman and MacArthur did not agree on the conduct of the war. MacArthur wanted out-and-out war against China; Truman wanted containment or a worst case scenario, abandoning Korea altogether. This power struggle resulted in the Commander-in-Chief (Truman) replacing MacArthur with General Matthew Bunker Ridgway.

In March 1951 UN forces counterattacked, retook Seoul and established a front line along the Imjin River, which was adjacent to the 38th parallel.

In April 1951 the Chinese launched their Spring Offensive. The breakthrough to Seoul was stopped by the British 29th Independent Infantry Brigade, which included a number of British battalions, including the "Glorious Glosters" (Gloucestershire Regiment) together with one Belgian regiment.

In particular the Gloster’s heroism in holding what was known as Hill 235 (subsequently Gloster Hill) for 3 nights was a major factor in thwarting the Chinese advance on Seoul. Two of the four Victoria Crosses awarded during the Korean War were won at that battle, one by the officer commanding the Glosters, Lt. Col. Carne and the other posthumously to Lt. Philip Curtis of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry attached to the Glosters. In that battle the Glosters lost 59 men; 180 more were wounded and 522 were taken prisoner including Lt Col. Carne. Later 34 of them died in captivity. The whole Regiment was awarded the United States' Distinguished Unit Citation for its heroic “last stand”.

Although the major battles were on land, where at times the conditions made people think of that terrible conflict only a little over thirty years before, the Royal Navy played it’s part but ironically, mostly in the air over Korea; despite Byfield being about as far from the sea as you can get in the UK, it was our Fleet Air Arm’s role that requires this story to be told.

The Royal Navy and the British Army made up the British forces fighting in that war but apart from the occasional pilot on secondment to the US Airforce, the RAF was not involved

The British Commonwealth Brigade consisted initially of troops from the UK, Canada and Australia. They were later joined by New Zealanders, Indian medical staff and South Koreans to form the Commonwealth Division.

The Royal Navy’s contribution principally consisted of the light fleet aircraft carriers “Triumph”, “Glory”, “Ocean” and “Theseus”, with associated escort destroyers all positioned in the Yellow Sea. They did six month deployments with 14 days on station and 14 off in nearby Japan. Their mission was to fly close air support for the Commonwealth Division, give air support in the defence of the South’s islands along the North’s coast and carry out interdiction missions over the west of North Korea. The planes were piston engine, as the Navy had no jets at that time. However the US 7th Fleet in the Sea of Japan off the east coast did have jets, Cougars and Panthers; the US Air Force had F86 Sabres up against Chinese/Russians Mig 15’s.

“Triumph’s” ‘planes were Seafires and Fireflies, the other British carriers had Sea Furies and Fireflies. Despite being only piston engined, 802 squadron based in HMS Ocean shot down a Mig when a flight of 4 was attacked by 8 of them.

The Royal Navy lost 32 aircrew during the war.

The Australian Navy carrier HMAS Sydney also did a 6 month deployment similar to the RN’s.

Other large ships involved were HMS Belfast (now on permanent public display on the River Thames near London's Tower Bridge). She was used for shelling gun positions on the coast near the offshore islands, with carrier aircraft directing the guns. HMS Unicorn, another light fleet carrier was also deployed but only used for deck landing practice for newly arrived pilots, and for spare part provision.

A cease fire was signed on July 27th 1953 but there is still no peace agreement."

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