Korean War

Propaganda leaflet, distributed to the Army of the Republic of Korea, encouraging them to surrender.

Division

At the end of the Second World War (1939-45), American and Russian concerns over ‘spheres of influence’ led to the partition of Korea. The country was split into the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the American-backed Republic of Korea (South Korea).

In 1949 both the Soviet Union and the United States withdrew their military forces from Korea, but the mutual antagonism between the North and South only deepened.

At 4.00am on 25 June 1950 the North Korean Army launched an all-out offensive against the South. The United Nations (UN) Security Council called upon its members to support the Republic of Korea and American forces were quickly sent to the country. They were later joined by troops from many other nations, including Britain. 

British troops board HMS Unicorn at Hong Kong for the voyage to Korea, 25 August 1950

Escalation

At first the North Koreans made rapid progress, quickly taking the South Korean capital of Seoul and driving South Korean and American troops back to the southern port of Pusan.

General Douglas MacArthur managed to hold them off after the Waegwan bridge over the Naktong River was blown up on 3 August. UN forces then began to resupply and fortify their position with a defensive perimeter.

The first British troops landed at Pusan soon after. They were immediately sent into battle on the Naktong, on the western part of the Pusan defences. Once reinforced, they and the UN forces counter-attacked.

Russian Maxim machine gun captured by British Forces at the Pusan bridgehead, September 1950

'Why anybody in the world would want to fight over it [Korea], if it was mine I would have gave it away.'
Trooper Jarleth Donellan, Royal Tank Regiment, 1988

American soldiers march north, 1950

15 September 1950

Battle of Inchon

South Korean and American forces undertook an amphibious landing at Inchon, 150 miles (240 km) behind enemy positions. The landing cut the North Koreans’ communications and allowed the UN forces to break out of the Pusan bridgehead.

19 October 1950

UN forces take Pyongyang

UN forces, including 27th Commonwealth Brigade, rapidly advanced north and crossed the border into North Korea, capturing the capital Pyongyang. By late November they had moved up to within 40 miles (64 km) of the Chinese border.

November 1950

China declares war

President Truman had dismissed Chinese warnings that the advance of US troops towards its borders would result in war. But in November 1950 the Chinese People’s Liberation Army intervened on a massive scale, halting the UN advance. Although the 27th Brigade held them off from their positions on the River Chongchen, the Chinese broke through elsewhere.

Winter 1950

Retreat to the South

In freezing conditions the UN forces carried out a fighting retreat across North Korea, abandoning Pyongyang. Eventually they established a defensive perimeter around the port of Hungnam where over 100,000 soldiers and 90,000 civilians were evacuated by sea.

Members of The Middlesex Regiment, wrapped against the bitter Korean winter, draw water from a well, 1951

During the retreat, British forces acted as a rearguard until a defensive line was established on the River Han. They had to fight in freezing weather, with heavy snow, icy winds and temperatures as low as -40C.

January 1951

China takes Seoul

After crossing the border the Chinese and North Koreans captured Seoul in early January. The setback prompted General MacArthur to consider using the atomic bomb against them. But the enemy offensive ran out of steam and the front line stabilised, largely thanks to the new field commander, US Lieutenant-General Matthew Ridgway, who revived UN morale.

March 1951

Counter offensive

A UN attack recaptured Seoul. After the fourth conquest in a year, the city was left in ruins. The pre-war population of 1.5 million had been reduced to 200,000 people, the majority of whom were starving.

Spring 1951

Buffer

As winter cleared, the UN forces dug in close to the North-South border and advanced a few miles north in order to create a buffer in front of Seoul.

Roll call for Gloucester survivors after the Battle of the Imjin River

The Battle of the Imjin River

In April 1951 the Chinese counter-attacked, aiming to break through to the South Korean capital again. They were held up by the UN forces near Kapyong (22-25 April) and on the Imjin River (22-25 April).

The line at Imjin was primarily defended by British 29th Brigade. The enemy were numerically superior, but the brigade held its position for three days, before being forced to retreat.

'We were holding positions that the Chinese were determined to take, and they didn’t care how many men they lost to get them.'
Private Sam Mercer, veteran of the Gloucestershire Regiment, 1988

The 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment’s last stand at Hill 235 on the Imjin helped break the Chinese advance, but resulted in heavy casualties. Only the remains of ‘D’ Company, under the command of Major Mike Harvey, escaped to reach UN lines. The rest of the battalion, including its commander Lieutenant-Colonel James Carne, was captured. 

The 1st Battalion was later awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation for their gallantry. 

Letter sent to Private Sam Mercer while a POW in North Korea. He was captured at Imjin.

Letter sent to Private Sam Mercer while a POW in North Korea. He was captured at Imjin. 

Metal spoon used by Private James Wood of The Gloucestershire Regiment, while a POW

Imjin River was the bloodiest engagement fought by the British Army since the Second World War and one of the most decisive defensive battles the army has ever undertaken.

The actions blunted the Chinese offensive and allowed UN forces to retreat to a stronger defensive position north of Seoul where they eventually halted the enemy.

US map of Korea showing Allied and enemy dispositions on 30 May 1953.

Stalemate

The fighting at the Imjin marked the end of the mobile phase of the war. Stalemate ensued alongside the strategic bombing of North Korea and the implementation of a naval blockade on the country. In June the Soviets indicated they were willing to seek a settlement through arbitration.

Armistice negotiations began at Kaesong in July 1951. But a deal could not be reached, partly due to disagreements over the issue of prisoner-of-war exchanges.

Two years of static fighting followed, often in conditions of extreme cold and heat. Commonwealth troops were deployed on a rotational basis, defending hill positions and carrying out patrols.

Although the war fronts were now static, set-piece operations did occur from time to time, as both sides sought to control key areas of terrain and win a success that might improve their negotiating position. From July 1951 British forces formed part of the 1st Commonwealth Division under Major-General James Cassels.

A Royal Artillery 25-pounder field gun in action in Korea, 1951

The Hook

In October 1951 the 1st Commonwealth Division took part in Operation Commando, a limited offensive designed to disrupt the Chinese potential for attack, dominate the routes across the 38th Parallel and extend diplomatic pressure. The main area of activity was around a ridge overlooking the Imjin River known as ‘the Hook’.

In November 1952 The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) repulsed a Chinese attack there. In May 1953 it was again successfully defended, this time by The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding).

A tank crew from the 8th (King's Royal Irish) Hussars make a meal during their service on the Imjin, 1951

  • Around 60,000 members of the British armed forces served in Korea, many were National Servicemen.

  • British forces: over 1,100 killed and 2,600 wounded.

  • American forces: nearly 37,000 killed and 92,000 wounded.

  • South Korean forces: at least half a million killed or wounded.

  • Chinese forces: over 110,000 killed and 380,000 wounded.

  • North Korean forces: at least half a million killed or wounded.

  • Estimates suggest that at least two million North and South Korean civilians died.

United Nations Korea Medal 1950-1954.

Resolution?

On 27 July 1953 an Armistice was finally signed at Panmunjon. But Korea remained a divided nation. In 1954 the 1st Commonwealth Division was reduced to brigade strength before finally being withdrawn in 1957.

To date, the Korean War has not officially ended, skirmishes still occur along the 155-mile (248km) border, which is the most heavily militarised frontier in the world. Tensions remain high between North and South Korea. 

North and South Korea have followed very different paths since 1953. South Korea has become an important economic and industrial power in Asia, embracing foreign culture and ideas. It is a successful capitalist country, with huge corporations exporting goods all over the world.

North Korea remains a Communist country. Its economy is focused on supporting one of the world’s largest standing armies. The North Korean nuclear weapons programme has drawn criticism from the United Nations.

'North Korea is the most dangerous and urgent threat to the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific.'
US Vice President Mike Pence, 19 April 2017

Dedication of the British Korean Veterans Association, Aldershot, 20 October 1996

Legacy

The Korean War was one of the 'hot wars' of the Cold War era. Between 1950 and 1953 the Korean Peninsula was the focus of tensions, but thereafter American and Russian rivalry was played out elsewhere. The conflict ultimately had little impact on the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Korea was the first and only test for the United Nations as a military entity. It was also the last time that the British Army fought as part of a joint Commonwealth force.

Korea remains a forgotten war in public memory. It is overshadowed by the Second World War and overtaken by subsequent events of the Cold War. But its significance is not lost on those who experienced it and those who live with its legacy today.

'The first night I got home I went out with my father to a pub… and a fella said to me, "I've not seen you for a while, where've you been?" I said, "I've been to Korea." And he said, "Oh really, did you have a nice time?"'
Fusilier Mike Mogridge, Royal Fusiliers, 1988

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