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Australia in the Korean War
The military history of Australia during the Korean War was very eventful. Japan's defeat in World War II heralded the end to 35 years of Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. The surrender of Japan to the Allied forces on 2 September 1945 led to the peninsula being subsequently divided into North and South Koreas, with the North being occupied by troops from the Soviet Union, and the South, below the 38th Parallel, being occupied by troops from the United States.
The Soviet forces entered the Korean peninsula on 10 August 1945, followed a few weeks later by the American forces who entered through Incheon. US Army Lieutenant General John R. Hodge formally accepted the surrender of Japanese forces south of the 38th Parallel on 9 September 1945 at the Japanese General Government Building in Seoul.
Although both rival factions tried initially to diplomatically reunite the divided nation, it was the Northern faction that eventually decided to try and do so with military force. Troops from the Soviet backed Korean People's Army (KPA) crossed the 38th Parallel on 25 June 1950 beginning a civil war.
The invasion of South Korea came as a surprise to the United Nations. The same day the war had officially begun (25 June), the United Nations Security Council immediately drafted UNSC Resolution 82, which called for:
- all hostilities to end and North Korea to withdraw to the 38th Parallel;
- a UN Commission on Korea to be formed to monitor the situation and report to the Security Council;
- all UN members to support the United Nations in achieving this, and refrain from providing assistance to the North Korean authorities.
The Liberal government of Australia, led by Prime Minister Robert Menzies, immediately responded to the UN resolution by offering military assistance. 17,000 Australians served in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, and they suffered 339 dead, and 1200 wounded.
With the commitment of Australian forces to the Korean War, the Australian government called for 1000 men who had prior military experience in World War II to enlist in the army for three years, with one year of overseas service in Korea. They were called Korean Force or K-Force. A portion of the force were recruited in Great Britain. At the end of their enlistment, personnel recruited from the United Kingdom could elect to be discharged in Australia, or returned to the UK. Their previous military experience would facilitate rapid deployment to Korea.
KPA forces continued south toward the port of Pusan, a strategic goal. In two days, the United States offered assistance and the UN Security Council asked its members to help repel the attack under the auspices of the United Nations Command headed by the US. Australia promptly contributed No. 77 Squadron RAAF and the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), both of which were stationed in Japan under the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF).
No. 77 Squadron converted to P-51D Mustang fighters before arriving in Japan in February 1946 to participate in the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. Occupation duties proved uneventful, and No. 77 Squadron was preparing to leave Japan for Australia when the Korean War broke out. 77 Sqn was quickly dispatched to Korea, where they became the first UN air unit to enter the war, primarily in ground support, combat air patrol and escort missions.
3 RAR was rapidly committed as Australia's main land force contribution to the UN forces. After a period of intensive training and reinforcement in Japan, the battalion arrived in South Korea in late September 1950. The battalion formed part of the 27th Commonwealth Brigade and took part in the UN offensive into North Korea and the subsequent UN retreat from North Korea following the Chinese People's Volunteer Army (PVA) offensive in the winter of 1950–51. It was one of three units to receive the Presidential Unit Citation (US) after the Battle of Kapyong.
In addition to combat personnel, the Australian military provided the majority of supply and support personnel to BCOF, which was superseded in 1952 by British Commonwealth Forces Korea (BCFK). Australian, British, Canadian, Indian and New Zealand units were part of BCFK.
Australia's military involvement
By the time 3 RAR arrived in Pusan on 28 September, the KPA was in retreat. Under UN Supreme Commander, General Douglas MacArthur, UN forces conducting a successful amphibious assault at Inchon and breakout from the Pusan Perimeter on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. A steady advance began, driving the North Koreans northwards towards the 38th Parallel. In October the UN forces began their advance into North Korea and 3 RAR was involved in its first major action near Pyongyang.
By 21 October, the US 24th Infantry Division, with the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade leading, crossed the Taedong River at Pyongyang and headed north. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were in the van, and by nightfall the Brigade halted on the outskirts of Yongyu, 21 miles (34 km) north of Pyongyang. A patrol from the Argylls entered the town and made contact with elements of the US 3rd Battalion, 187th Regimental Combat Team. The KPA attack on Yongyu came from the general direction of the road running southwest of the town. The Argylls met the fringe of the attack and beat it off. The attack on 3/187 RCT was stronger, and the KPA succeeded in entering the town before breaking off and moving away at 03:00. Next day the Australians of 3 RAR were to take the lead in the advance, and C Company was to be the leading company. The orders given in the early evening stressed the urgency to link up with the US Airborne. The company was not to be distracted at Yongyu, they were to press as quickly as possible as the Argylls continued to clear the town. The noises of the Airborne battles to the north were very close and could be heard clearly throughout the night.
C Company 3RAR was the only company to remain largely intact as the battalion hastily absorbed reinforcements from the rest of the regiment and K Force and came to strength. This, the newest 3 RAR company had been formed in late 1949 and early 1950 from the young men who joined the Regular Army after World War II. By the standards of the other companies C Company was very young and untested. Much of the banter within the battalion was directed at them. Good humoured as it was, when it continued once the battalion commenced operations the young regulars became all the more determined to show their mettle. C Company was a well trained sub unit and, unlike the other sub units still shaking down, was a cohesive team. The Non-Commissioned Officers and senior soldiers were experienced, competent leaders who had raised and trained the Company. As an unexpected luxury, a handful of K Force reinforcements joined the C Company during the advance and took it over strength; a state never to be attained again by any unit in the campaign. The platoon commanders were young and inexperienced, all from the 1948 graduating class from Royal Military College, Duntroon, the Company Commander, who arrived only weeks before the battalion sailed, was an experienced battle leader.
Battle of Yongju
At 07:00 on 22 October 1950, C Company 3RAR advanced with 7 Platoon leading mounted on tanks of D Company, US 89th Tank Battalion followed by the rest of the company in US troop carrying vehicles. At 09:00 and 1 mile (1.6 km)north of Yongyu, C Company came under fire from the apple orchard on the slopes of Hill 163 in YD 2354 (map grid location). It became apparent that C Company had driven into the KPA who were in the process of forming up to attack the Americans. At 09:30, 7 and 8 Platoons attacked the high ground east of the road, with 9 Platoon in reserve holding the road and northern flank.
The attacking platoons went in hard, uphill through the apple trees. Although outnumbered, the Australians pressed their attack fiercely. The platoons pushed on and in a stride were through to the vital ground. Even a bunker which threatened 8 Platoon provided only a momentary delay as the young men grenaded it and pressed forward. C Company's sudden arrival, even though it must have been expected to some extent, and the speed with which the KPA outposts were brushed aside, had completely surprised the enemy. They were caught with all their attention directed north to a final frenzied effort to break out past the American forces. Thereafter the KPA were incapable of presenting organised resistance to the vigorous thrust from the south.
The Australians reported approximately 150 KPA had been killed, 239 wounded and 200 captured as a result of its action at a cost of seven wounded. The operations in Sunchon had achieved much more. The American 187 RCT claimed, 3818 KPA prisoners, 805 KPA killed and 681 wounded for the loss of 46 jump casualties and 65 battle casualties. Despite heavy casualties several hundred KPA remained in and around the battlefield. However, with the link up complete, re-deployment for the continuation of the advance commenced. Within the British Commonwealth Brigade, 1st Battalion of the British Middlesex Regiment passed through and assumed the lead in the drive towards the Yalu River. The Americans reassembled and drove north to rejoin their regiment which returned to Pyongyang by the other route.
The UN offensive greatly concerned the Chinese, who worried that the UN forces would not stop at the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China, and extend their rollback policy into China. Many in the West, including General MacArthur, thought that spreading the war to China would be necessary and that since KPA troops were being supplied by bases in China, those supply depots should be bombed. However, Truman and the other leaders disagreed, and MacArthur was ordered to be very cautious when approaching the Chinese border. Except on some rare occasions, UN bombers remained out of Manchuria during the war.
China warned American leaders through neutral diplomats that it would intervene to protect its national security, however the American hierarchy felt these to be empty threats.
Despite this, on 8 October 1950, the day after American troops crossed the 38th Parallel, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the People's Liberation Army's North East Frontier Force to be reorganised into the Chinese People's Volunteer Army. Mao ordered the army to move to the Yalu River, ready to cross. Mao sought Soviet aid and saw intervention as essentially defensive: "If we allow the U.S. to occupy all of Korea... we must be prepared for the U.S. to declare... war with China," he told Joseph Stalin. Premier Zhou Enlai was sent to Moscow to add force to Mao's cabled arguments. Mao delayed while waiting for substantial Soviet help, postponing the planned attack from 13 to 19 October. However, Soviet assistance was limited to providing air support no nearer than 60 miles (97 km) from the battlefront. The Chinese were angered by the Soviets not offering more support, but Soviet MiG-15s provided many problems for UN forces. The Soviet role was known to the US, but it was kept quiet so as to avoid the possibility of escalating the conflict into nuclear war.
The PVA first engaged UN troops on 25 October 1950, with 270,000 PVA troops under the command of General Peng Dehuai, in the Battles of Onjong, Unsan and Pakchon much to the surprise of the UN, which had disregarded evidence of such a massive force. Following their initial intervention the PVA withdrew. UN confidence returned and the offensive was renewed on 24 November in what was called the Home-by-Christmas Offensive. This triggered PVA Second Phase Offensive which pushed the UN forces back in the west while in the east the UN forces were defeated at Chosin Reservoir. The UN forces began a retreat from North Korea and by Christmas held a line north of Seoul. On the east coast UN forces were evacuated by sea from Hungnam. The PVA launched their third Offensive on 31 December, pushing back the UN forces and recapturing Seoul on 4 January. The UN began a series of counteroffensives beginning with Operation Thunderbolt on 25 January, recaptured Seoul on 16 March in Operation Ripper and advancing the UN lines north of the 38th Parallel in Operation Rugged and Operation Dauntless.
The PVA began a new Spring Offensive in April 1951 as the weather improved, also referred to as the Fifth Phase Offensive, with the intention of recapturing Seoul. The PVA launched a major assault between 22 and 25 April that resulted in a victory in the Battle of the Imjin River. At the same time, the UN repelled PVA forces at Kapyong.
Battle of Kapyong
PVA forces of the 118th Division attacked the Kapyong Valley in force, and pushed ROK and New Zealand troops into retreat. Under heavy pressure, the ROK 6th Division broke, and the line collapsed. ROK soldiers poured through a gap under protective covering fire from Australians who were holding their section of the line despite heavy pressure.
Australian troops from 3 RAR, and Canadian troops from Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were ordered to halt this PVA advance. The mission of the men of the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade was to block the two approaches to Kapyong. In only a few hours, they managed to prepare defensive positions.
The PVA 118th Division engaged their two forward battalions on 23 April. In the early part of the battle the 1st Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and the 16th Field Regiment of the Royal New Zealand Artillery were all but cut off. The resistance of forward positions, held by the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI), and 3 RAR, permitted the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment to withdraw. It moved into place to provide a reserve.
The initial PVA attack at Kapyong engaged 3 RAR on Hill 504. The PVA then struck at the Canadian front. Wave after wave of massed PVA troops kept up the attack throughout the night of 23 April. After a night of fierce fighting Major Bernard O'Dowd, Officer Commanding, A Company, 3 RAR, managed to get through on a radio phone to a general of the 1st Marine Division. The general was incredulous, thinking it was an enemy agent speaking. He told O'Dowd that the unit no longer existed, that it had been wiped out the night before. The PVA had managed to infiltrate the brigade position by the morning of 23 April. The Australians and Canadians were facing the whole of the PVA 118th Division. Throughout 24 April the battle was unrelenting. It devolved, on both fronts, into hand-to-hand combat with bayonet charges. The Australians, facing encirclement, were ordered to make an orderly fall back to new defensive positions late in the day of 24 April.
2 PPCLI was completely surrounded. Captain Mills, in command of D Company, 2 PPCLI, was forced to call down artillery fire on his own positions on Hill 677 several times during the early morning hours of 25 April to avoid being overrun. It had to be resupplied by air drops during this desperate time. By dawn the PVA attack on the Canadian position had abated, and in the afternoon of 25 April the road through to the Canadians had been cleared of PVA, at which time the 2nd Battalion was relieved. The 16th Field Regiment, Royal New Zealand Artillery, also managed to withdraw and link up with the US Army's 72nd Heavy Tank Battalion. These units provided close heavy gun support.
During the withdrawal of the Australians, 4 men from B Company, 3RAR, formed a rearguard to hold off any flanking attacks. The four Australians held off three waves of PVA soldiers, killing at least 25 and wounding many more. After two days and two nights of fighting, the Australians had recaptured their positions, at the cost of 32 men killed and 53 wounded. For this contribution of stalling the PVA advance, 3 RAR received a United States Distinguished Unit Citation.
Despite their enormous advantage in numbers the PVA troops had been badly outgunned. Their courage and tenacity could not overcome the well-trained, well-disciplined and well-armed Australians and Canadians. The battlefield was littered with the corpses of PVA soldiers, a testament to the discipline and firepower of the defenders.
For their conduct of this engagement, Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Ferguson of Australia, and Lieutenant-Colonel James R. Stone of Canada were each awarded the Distinguished Service Order. For Stone, it was the second bar to the DSO he had first won during Operation Olive in Italy in 1944.
Battle of Maryang San (Operation Commando)
The second major battle the Australians fought in 1951 was Operation Commando. Operation Commando was the last major UN offensive thrust of the Korean War. It was an attack on a PVA salient in a bend of the Imjin River, designed to prevent the PVA/KPA from interdicting the UN supply lines near Seoul.
By July 1951, 3 RAR had come under the control of the 1st Commonwealth Division. Objectives of the 1st Commonwealth Division during Operation Commando, including the Australians, were Hill 355 and Hill 317.
The attack began on 3 October 1951 with the US I Corps (including four US Divisions, the 1st Commonwealth Division and the ROK 1st Division) seizing the Jamestown Line destroying elements of the PVA 42nd Army, 47th Army, 64th Army and 65th Army, and after five days of intense combat, eventually forcing the PVA into retreat. The operation was a success, and ended on 15 October, with a few hills south of the line still in PVA/KPA hands, requiring a follow-up operation (Operation Polecharge).
The official historian for the Korean War, Robert O'Neill, wrote of this battle: "In this action 3RAR had won one of the most impressive victories achieved by any Australian battalion. In five days of heavy fighting 3RAR dislodged a numerically superior enemy from a position of great strength. The Australians were successful in achieving surprise on 3 and 5 October, the company and platoon showed high courage, tenacity and morale despite some very difficult situations, such as that of D company when the mist rose on 5 October and those of B and C Companies when the weight of enemy fire threatened their isolation of Hill 317 on 7 October ... The victory of Maryang San is probably the greatest single feat of the Australian Army during the Korean War".
Australian casualties during Operation Commando were 20 dead and 89 wounded.
After 1951, both sides were in a type of combat comparable to the Western Front in World War I in which men lived in tunnels, redoubts, and sandbagged forts behind barbed wire defences. From 1951 to the end of the war, 3 RAR held trenches on the eastern side of the Commonwealth Division's positions in the hills northeast of the Imjin River. Across from them were heavily fortified PVA positions.
As the war continued, several other nations grew less willing to contribute more ground troops. Australia, however, increased its troop strength in Korea, by sending 1 RAR. This battalion arrived in Korea on 6 April 1952 and experienced its first major combat during Operation Blaze on 2 July. In March 1953, they were replaced by 2 RAR.
RAN in Korea
Royal Australian Navy vessels had been stationed in Japan following the Japanese surrender ending World War II. Following North Korea's invasion of the South, RAN vessels stationed in Japan were put on immediate alert.
On 29 June Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that the frigate HMAS Shoalhaven, stationed in Japan, and the destroyer HMAS Bataan, in Hong Kong would be placed under UN command in Korea. On 1 July, one day after President Truman committed American ground forces to Korea, the first Australian operation in Korea took place; HMAS Shoalhaven moved from Japan to Pusan escorting an American ammunition ship. On 27 July 1950, the destroyer HMAS Warramunga was also deployed.
During the landing at Wonsan on 26 October 1950, HMAS Warramunga provided gunfire support during the landing of US X Corps, however the landing was unopposed as ROK forces had already capture the area on 11 October. During the mass evacuation of troops and refugees in the city of Hungnam in December 1950, HMA Ships Bataan and Warramunga assisted in the evacuation. In October 1951, HMAS Sydney arrived in Korean waters to replace HMS Glory for a three-month tour. Sydney carried two squadrons of Sea Furies – 805 Squadron RAN and 808 Squadron RAN, and 817 Squadron RAN equipped with Fireflies. Sydney returned to Japan having lost only 9 aircraft, with 3 pilots killed, and having launched over 2,700 missions from her flight deck. Later in the war, 9 ships of the RAN participated in the naval blockade of North Korea.
RAAF in Korea
The Royal Australian Air Force was heavily involved in the Pacific War during World War II. Following the Japanese surrender, No. 77 Squadron was selected as part of Australia's contribution to the British Commonwealth Occupation Force and, after converting to P-51D Mustang fighters, arrived in Japan in February 1946. Occupation duties proved uneventful, and No. 77 Squadron was preparing to leave Japan for Australia when the Korean War broke out in June 1950.
No. 77 Squadron was committed to action over Korea as part of the UN forces, and flew its first ground attack sorties on 2 July 1950, making it the first UN unit to see action.
No. 30 Communications Flight, No. 491 (Maintenance) Squadron, and No. 391 (Base) Squadron were attached to the UN Command in Korea and grouped into No. 91 (Composite) Wing in October 1950. No. 91 Wing was based in Iwakuni, Japan.
No. 77 Squadron fully deployed to Korea in October to support the UN advance into North Korea but was withdrawn to Pusan in November in response to the PVA counter-attack.
The Squadron was withdrawn to Japan in April 1951 to re-equip with Gloster Meteor jet fighters and returned to action with these new aircraft in July, where they met with greater success against the Soviet MiG-15 pilots. However, the MiGs were still far superior to the Meteor.
Following heavy losses from MiG-15 fighters, No. 77 Squadron operated in the ground attack role from December 1951 until the end of the war; it remained in South Korea on garrison duties until returning to Australia in November 1954.
Battle of Sunchon
The Battle of Sunchon was an air battle fought near the city of Sunchon on 1 December 1951, 12 Gloster Meteor jets of the RAAF's No. 77 Squadron were attacked by 40–50 Chinese MiG-15s. Despite their Meteors having inferior manoeuvrability to the Soviet-built MiGs, the Australian pilots managed to score their first victories of the Korean War, for the loss of three aircraft. Accounts vary, with the Australians claiming at least 10 MiGs shot down, but Chinese and North Korean sources stated it was only one.
- Pohang 10/50 11/50
- Yonpo Airfield, North Korea 11/50 12/50
- Pusan East (K-9) Air Base 12/50 04/51
- Kimpo 7/51 03/54
- Kunsan 3/54 10/54
Cessation of hostilities
On 29 November 1952, US President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower fulfilled a campaign promise by going to Korea to find out what could be done to end the conflict. The Korean Armistice Agreement is signed on 27 July 1953, by the UN, North Korea and China, President of South Korea Syngman Rhee refused to sign the agreement. When the Armistivce Agreement was signed and the ceasefire came into effect he front line was back around the proximity of the 38th Parallel. Under the terms of the armistice a demilitarised zone (DMZ) was established along the front line, presently defended by North Korean troops on one side and by South Korean, American and UN troops on the other. The DMZ runs north of the parallel towards the east, and to the south as it travels west.
After the war ended, Australians remained in Korea for four years as military observers. Australia gained political and security benefits, the most important being the signing of the ANZUS Treaty with the United States and New Zealand.
Out of 17,000 Australians who served in Korea, casualties numbered more than 1,500, of whom 339 were killed.
Timeline of Australian involvement in Korea
- Australia in the Korean War 1950–53
- Australian Army battle honours of the Korean War
- Canada in the Korean War
- Korean War Memorial
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