“An outstanding feat of British arms and raw courage - the enduring requirement of success in battle - that allowed South Korea to remain free".
General Lord Richards of Hurstmonceux, former Chief of the British Defence Staff
In April 1951, United Nations’ forces charged with expelling the North Korean Army from South Korea had established two defensive lines known as Kansas and Utah both of which were held by the US Army’s I Corps. I Corps comprised elements of the US Army, South Korean Army (Republic of Korea), a Turkish brigade and the British 29th Infantry Brigade. 29th Brigade included the 1st Battalion the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the 1st Battalion the Royal Ulster Rifles, the Belgian Battalion, and 1st Battalion the Gloucestershire Regiment (the Glosters) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. Carne. 29th Brigade was also supported by twenty-five pounder guns of the 45 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, 4.2 inch mortars of 170 Independent Mortar Battery RA, 55 Squadron. Royal Engineers, as well as Centurion main battle tanks (MBT) of C Squadron, 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars. 29th Brigade’s mission was to defend a front some twelve miles (nineteen kilometres) in length. Such was the length of the front it was impossible for the Brigade to form a continuous defensive line so the force was deployed to defend key positions. The Glosters were on the left flank of the Brigade to the east of South Korean forces and had taken up a position close to a ford that crossed the Imjin River.
Unbeknownst to the British Chinese and North Korean forces were massing to the north with the aim of capturing the South Korean capital, Seoul, as a May Day gift to Chinese Communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong. Under the command of General Peng Dehuai the Chinese-led force comprised some 305,000 men poised to attack UN forces defending the Imjin River in three places.
On the night of 22nd-23rd April, 1951 Chinese forces first made contact with the Belgian Brigade on Hill 194 and threatened to take two bridges which, if successful, would have trapped the Belgians on the wrong side of the river. The Royal Ulster Rifles tried to block the Chinese but were unable to secure the bridges, enabling Chinese forces that crossed the river to then press home an attack on the Fusiliers, which led to a British retreat covered by the tanks of the Hussars.
Thankfully, a patrol of seventeen men from C Company, Glosters, to the left of 29th Brigade’s line ambushed Chinese forces and successfully prevented them from crossing the river on three separate occasion, significantly delaying their advance. However, with ammunition running low C Company was forced to conduct a tactical withdrawal across the river. Later that night both A and D Companies also came under attack. Massively out-numbered by dawn the Glosters had been forced out of their positions on Castle Hill. Whilst an attempt was made to retake the positions, during which Lt. P. Curtis was killed destroying a Chinese machine-gun position, for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Several further attempts were made on 23rd April by British and American forces to retake the lost ground, all of which failed. Meanwhile, the Belgians successfully withdrew and took up new positions behind (to the south) the Glosters and the Fusiliers and then withdrew further.
At 2030 hours, on 23rd April, after almost twenty-four hours of continuous, intense combat, A Company of the Glosters fell back to Hill 235 (still named Gloster Hill to this day). At that stage of the battle A Company had lost half of its strength with all of its officers either killed or wounded. Unfortunately, D Company's position also became dangerously exposed, and having lost a lot of its own men during the previous night, was also forced to withdraw along with B Company.
The worst was yet to come. Outnumbered some eighteen to one by Chinese forces B Company faced six determined assaults during the night all of which they resisted. At one point the company commander even called in artillery strikes on their own positions in order to stop one assault. However, again running low on ammunition, and having suffered many casualties, at 0810 hours on the morning of 24th April the Chinese finally forced B Company to abandon their positions and only twenty men were subsequently able to join up with their comrades on Hill 235. Later that afternoon Colonel Carne sent a famous message to Brigadier T. Brodie, Officer Commanding 29th Brigade which read as follows: “What I must make clear to you is that my command is no longer an effective fighting force. If it is required that we shall stay here, in spite of this, we shall continue to hold”. By late afternoon, Chinese forces threatened to split 29th Brigade between the Glosters and the Fusiliers and in an attempt to prevent that an attempt was made by US, British and tanks of the Philippine’s Army to relief the Glosters now effectively cut off on Hill 235, but it failed.
Two other attempts to relieve the Glosters also failed after which Lieutenant-Colonel Carne was told he could decide whether to try and break-out of their positions or surrender. At 0800 hours on the 25th April, the commander of US I Corps had been forced to abandon the Glosters and withdraw all UN forces to a new defensive line to the south of the Imjin River. The situation of the Glosters now looked hopeless with B and C Companies so reduced they were merged to form one fighting unit, whilst efforts to re-supply them from the air also failed. In spite of that, and in an incredible feat of arms, the Glosters had stubbornly resisted preventing the Chinese for taking Hill 235 for some two days, and crucially slowing the Chinese advance.
However, by mid-morning 25th April, it became clear that 45 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery were no longer able to support the Glosters and what was left of the regiment were told to try and make British lines “as best they could”. In the end, only some elements of D Company were able to escape, whilst Lt. Col. Carne and 459 men of the Glosters were taken prisoner. 29th Brigade suffered 1,091 casualties killed wounded or missing, of which 620 were from the Glosters, whilst Chinese and North Korean forces are believed to have lost over 10,000 men during the action.
Lessons from Imjin
Lessons for today? There are five lessons that are perhaps most current given the recent British defence review. First, mass has a quality all of its own, as the Chinese and North Koreans eventually proved. For a state like Britain striking a balance between mass (and thus strategic depth) and technology-enabled manoeuvre is an abiding and constant military-strategic challenge. It is also a challenge that must be met. Second, expect the unexpected. ‘Korea’ started out as a so-called policing mission, but turned out to be a full-scale war. Enemies do not always conform to expectations, and they certainly did not in Korea. Third, General Sir James Everard, until recently NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told me that soldiers will not fight this well unless they are well-led and well-trained. Imjin and the Glosters demonstrated the enduring importance of leadership, hard training and good discipline. He also made the point that a small number of brave soldiers can generate not only an operational, but also a strategic effect, as the Glosters most certainly did. Fourth, there can be no compensation for what Everard calls ‘field or turret time’. As George Patton said, “If brevity is the soul of wit, then, for the soldier, repetition is the heart of instruction”. Soldiers learn by being shown how to do their jobs, and then doing it over and over and as such the Glosters were the embodiment of tradition, training, discipline and willingness to self-sacrifice. Fifth, good soldiering can save bad strategy, but only to a point. Indeed, as Sir James rather pointedly said to me, “We are… reminded that the perfect discipline and unconquerable spirit of the Glorious Glosters at the tactical level also saved an imperfect strategy”.
The British regiment that saved South Korea
One only has to see the difference in quality of life today between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to understand what was at stake during the Battle of Imjin River. Moreover, the Glosters did not in and of themselves save South Korea. That achievement belongs primarily to the 600,000 South Korean troops and the 326,000 American troops who fought in the Korean War between 25th June, 1950 and 27th, July, 1953. The British force was only 14,000 strong. The South Koreans also lost over 162,000 soldiers (1 soldier in 4), whilst Americans killed in action totalled 37,000 compared with British losses some 1,200. Communist forces possibly lost over a million killed and missing. Tragically, between two to three million civilians are also believed to have been killed during a brutal war.
Equally, the Glosters’ feat of arms cannot be over-stated. For more than two critical days 29th Brigade, with the embattled Glosters at its core, delayed and utterly disrupted the Chinese battle plan forcing the offensive to stall. They also enabled UN forces to withdraw in some order to the so-called No-Name Line, north of Seoul, where the Chinese and their North Korean allies were eventually blocked. If the Chinese had successfully broken the UN line early on the night of 22nd April it is quite likely the entire defensive line would have collapsed. Seoul would have fallen soon thereafter and, quite possibly, the entire UN campaign would have unravelled as US allies began to question the cost of the mission. At the time, not all the European allies bought into Washington’s grand strategic idea of containing Communism and several were in Korea only out of a sense of Cold War obligation to the Americans and were far more concerned by the threat posed by Stalin’s Red Army in Europe. One paradox of the Korean War is that it also led to German rearmament.
The Glosters captured at Imjin endured a torrid time at the hands of their Chinese and North Korean captors and those that survived were not released until September 1953. On October 14th, 1953 the troopship SS Empire Orwell docked in the Port of Southampton. Still under the inspiring command of Colonel Carne they came home to well-deserved welcome. On November 21st, 1953 a Thanksgiving Service was given in Gloucester Cathedral at which Colonel Carne offered a small wooden cross that he had carved and which he said had sustained his faith. The cross can still be seen at the Cathedral to this day. On receiving the Freedom of the City of Gloucester Colonel Carne also said, “I doubt my own worthiness for such great honours, but of that part of it which is shared by the officers, warrant officers and men who served with me in Korea I have no such doubts”.
The City of Gloucester were not the only ones to recognise the bravery of the Glorious Glosters. Both the Regiment and 170 Battery of the 45th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation by US President Harry S. Truman. It read:
By direction of the President, under the provisions of Executive Order 9396 (Sec 1, WD Bul. 22.1943), superseding Executive Order 9075 (Sec.III, WD Bul.II, 1942) and pursuant in authority in AR 260-15, the following units are cited as public evidence of deserved honor and distinction. The citation reads as follows: The 1ST BATTALION GLOUCESTERSHIRE REGIMENT, BRITISH ARMY and TROOP C, 170TH INDEPENDENT MORTAR BATTERY, ROYAL ARTILLERY, attached, are cited for exceptionally outstanding performance of duty and extraordinary heroism in action against the armed enemy near Solma-ri, Korea on 23, 24 and 25 April 1951.
Sadly, the Gloucestershire Regiment was disbanded in 1994 as part of the shift away from county regiments to functional formations. As a teenager I worked behind the bar of The Ship Inn at Oldbury-on-Severn in Gloucestershire. Just up the road lies the village of Olveston from which Private William Lansdown left for the Korean War. He was killed in action on January 10, 1952, aged nineteen. Later in life I also had the honour of acting as Head of the Commander’s Initiative Group for Lieutenant General Sir Richard Shirreff, Commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. In October 2010 they moved back to the UK from Germany to their present headquarters at Imjin Barracks on the outskirts of Gloucester.
Look at a map of Korea today. The fact that there is a 38th Parallel owes much to the men of a regiment that rightly became known as the Glorious Glosters. Therefore, perhaps the most fitting way to end this tribute is in the words of the Glosters themselves and their regimental motto:
“By our deeds we are known”.