A Personal Perspective of the Korean War, 1950 – 1953
In three whirlwind years, Korea consumed the lives of more British soldiers than have fallen in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan combined, but today - to the disgruntlement of its dwindling band of veterans - it is “The Forgotten War
What little literature that does exist on the brutal campaigns fought over that barren peninsula, focuses largely on the period between June 1950 and June 1951. That year of maneuver war encompassed such high drama as Kim Il-sung’s surprise invasion; the desperate defense of the “Pusan Perimeter;” the masterly amphibious landing at Inchon; the UN’s doomed counter-invasion of North Korea; China’s shock riposte; the defeat of the UN Command; the hellish battle at Chosin Reservoir; the see-saw winter fighting; and the massive attack of April 1951, the centerpiece of which was the tragedy on the Imjin River.
For those who have only a cursory familiarity with this war, one might well believe that little else happened. In fact, though the war subsequently went static, it continued to smoulder and flare over Korea’s hills for another two years. The fighting was World War I-style: trenching, wiring and mining in defense, patrolling and sniping in offence. But these activities were interspersed with massed infantry attacks and artillery storms as the enemy attempted to wrest strategic features from the UN troops. It is this fighting which forms the backdrop to “Chinese Hordes and Human Waves,” by Brigadier (retired) Brian Parritt.
I should add some disclosure here: Though I don’t know him well enough to call him a friend, I have met Parritt in both Korea and the UK. However, I will leave judgment on his character to a Korean War vet of my acquaintance. That oft-disgruntled individual – a man who is no admirer of the officer caste - emailed me once to say, “I think I would like to have served under him.” Reading his book, one gets a sense of why: Parritt comes across not just as a competent officer, but an Englishman of the old school – in other words, a decent man.
His work is really two books rather than one. The first (and best) half is Parritt’s autobiographical record of his wartime service in Korea as a gunner subaltern with 20th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. The second half draws more from the experiences of his latter career, when he took a Mandarin course and directed the Intelligence Corps.
In the first section, Parritt describes Sandhurst, his training and then his deployment to Hong Kong and thence to active service in the last months of the Korean War.
There is plenty of military minutae here. Experiments with prototype flak jackets; patrols with war dogs; the dangers posed by potentially explosive piss tubes; wet towels bursting into flames when flung over the barrels of red-hot guns. Those who follow current affairs may be interested to read that the enemy tactic of firing artillery from cave mouths – as used in the combined artillery/rocket attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 – was perfected amid positional fighting in the war. And any Korea-based US troops who read this may reflect soberly that enemy positions were sometimes dug four stories deep.
Artillery played a major role in the positional fighting. Parritt supported the Duke of Wellingtons Regiment during the second battle of “The Hook.” 20th Field fired 13,609 rounds that night; his own Baker Troop firing nearly 2,000; RAOC ammunition suppliers were so overstretched that even the bewildered driver of a mobile bath unit was ordered to convey shells to the guns. For the infantry, the battle was a meat-grinder. They weathered barrages from both Chinese and their own guns, which bombarded overrun positions (Parritt’s “before and after” photos of the Dukes’ trenches are sobering) and fighting was at extreme close range. But when the smoke cleared, the Dukes still held the hill. “The Bloody Hook” marks the last battle (to date) in which British soldiers fought off a “human wave” assault.
Despite the intensity of the combat, there is no machismo in the narrative: Parritt is not “Bayonet Brian” or “Killer Parritt;” his nickname is the innocuous “Polly.” Even so, he was a young man with a sense of duty and a taste for adventure, who took part in one of the most famous actions of the last months of the war, a night raid carried out by 1st Kings on Chinese holding tunnels and caves in the “Warsaw” sector; a painting of this by war artist David Rowlands, who should be familiar to ARRSERs, graces the front cover. Parritt was the FOO on this raid, went in with the infantry, and was wounded for his pains. (He astonished my daughter by showing her his bloodstained pay book, a souvenir of that night).
It is not all action. There is plenty of day-to-day soldiering and plenty of humour, as Parritt recounts a number of the kind of incidents inseparable from British Army operations. Example? One night, Parritt and a pal make some modifications to their jeep before going out on the lash with Kiwi gunners. Later, they drive back to their own position, but the darkness proves so impenetrable that the pair are forced to lean out of the side or the jeep in order to see the sides of the tracks. They are halted by a US MP who tactfully suggests that the two might enjoy better visibility if they put their bonnet down…
Finally, Parritt’s account of the last hours before the armistice comes into effect is moving, and – as a record of the lunacy of young men unknown to one another doing their damndest to kill each other before meeting and discovering a shared humanity – deserves to be anthologized.
Thus the book’s first half. I have mixed feelings about the second half in which Parritt writes a potted history of the war. As a former intel expert himself, Parritt is scathing about the poor intelligence picture of Korea. US spooks did not identify Kim Il-sung’s pre-invasion force buildup, nor (even more disastrously) did MacArthur’s head shed believe China would intervene. These failings had catastrophic results. But this is ground that has been well covered by previous historians. There is nothing new here on the big picture, and until the Chinese and North Koreans fully open their archives (don’t hold your breath) there is unlikely to be.
Moreover, Parritt makes a number of errors. It was 3 RAR not 2 RAR which won a US Presidential Citation at Kapyong; nor did the Argylls fight there. “The Kennels” in which recalcitrant POWs were placed, were not underground chambers, they were upright wooden boxes. A closer reading of Farrar-Hockley’s superb official history (which Parritt cites among his references) would have obviated these niggling issues but as a scribbler myself, I know how well-nigh impossible it is to write an error-free account.
Even so, for those who have not read Hastings (the best overall account of the war for the general reader) or Millett (the best and most up-to-date for the specialist), this section paints a broad canvas of the conflict, and Parritt is fair towards the enemy. The Chinese, he points out, were both skillful and (on the whole) honorable opponents. But, in this reviewer’s opinion, it is Parritt’s personal reminiscences that justify the price of entry.
Korea is a black hole in British military literature. Parritt’s book helps fill this gap, but it is more than that. “Chinese Hordes and Human Waves” is a fine personal account of a hard war in a distant place, recorded in the kind of understated prose that once marked the writing of the British officer.
Given that Afghanistan is frequently cited as “the most intense combat British soldiers have engaged in since Korea,” the author’s penmanship invites comparison with the testosterone-drenched accounts generated by current theaters. Naturally, in six decades, the British nation has changed. So too has the British Army and its officer corps. Whether these changes are for the better, readers may judge.
Four Mushroom Heads
Andy_S Chinese Hordes and Human Waves
: A Personal Perspective of the Korean War, 1950 – 1953
Author: Brian Parritt. Publisher; Pen & Sword, 2011 Click here to buy from Amazon