22-25 April 1951: Imjin River


Book Reviewer
About 35 miles north of where I am typing this, 59 years ago tonight, the greatest communist offensive since the fall of Berlin was launched. 305,000 bayonets surged south along a 40-mile front.

The key breakthrough point was at the confluence of two rivers, the Hantan and the Imjin. This point was the objective of an entire Chinese Army - the 63rd - which was tasked to punch through and exploit.

Holding this sector was the UK's 29th Infantry Brigade, comprising the Belgian Volunteer Btn; 1 Glosters; 1 Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 1 Royal Ulster Rifles; C Sqdn, 8th Hussars; 55 Field Sqdn, RE; and 45 Field Regt, RA.

The battle that would take place on the nights of 22nd, 23rd and 24th April, and on the morning of the 25th, remains - to this day - the bloodiest fought by the UK's armed forces since WWII.

Glosters: Ambush Patrol

The Belgians: The Human Wave
Sergeant Armand Philips was waiting for a telephone call. On the western slopes of the Belgian position on Hill 194 north of the river, he sat in his slit trench among B Platoon, C Company. Next to him sat a field telephone. Its line ran approximately 1500 yards to a listening post, established following a patrol contact in the afternoon. The LP was on level ground, in front of the hill

Darkness had fallen. The night was silent. Suddenly, the telephone jangled. Philips answered immediately. “A Chinese section of 10–15 men – half armed, half carrying ammunition - is walking past my position, heading for the river!” Sergeant Leiding, manning the LP, hissed. Philips acknowledged the message and passed it to Company HQ, from where it was passed up to Battalion HQ. Minutes later, the phone rang again. Leiding whispered, “Now, there are 50 of them!” Philips passed the message along once more. Tense minutes passed. Then – again – the phone. “There are so many I can’t count!” the sergeant whispered urgently. Filled with foreboding, Philips passed the message up.

It was now 22:20. Fireworks burst over Philips’ head: star shells. The sector was bathed in sizzling white light. “It was very beautiful to see - they lit the whole landscape,” said Philips. As his eyes adjusted to the glare, he saw an astonishing sight. “There were Chinese everywhere – like mushrooms!” The riverside plain was swarming with men, while the river itself was “black with Chinese” – some wading, some crossing on rafts. This was the human wave.

The spectacle disintegrated into flashes and a thunderous crump-crump-crump: after the illumination, high explosive. A drumfire DF barrage detonated among the Chinese. Philips had no leisure to observe the effect of the fire: The eerie, discordant sound of bugles rose up through the darkness. “Now,” Philips said, “it was time to defend ourselves!”

The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers: Onslaught
Lieutenant Malcolm Cubiss’ first indication of imminent combat was a group of Fusilers tumbling through his position, shouting over their shoulders, “They’re just behind us!’” They were. Cubiss’ 4 Platoon was part of X Company, the Fusiliers’ left flank unit, dug in on a long, low hill overlooking the river. In anticipation of enemy patrol activity, the company had planted an LP on the riverbank. At 22:40, the LP men came belting through 4 Platoon. “The patrol were coming like the clappers,” said Cubiss, “and they were followed by people coming like the clappers.”

The shadowy figures of Chinese chased the retreating patrol right into Cubiss’ position. There was no warning from bugles or whistles – just the sudden thump of hand grenades landing among the slit trenches: “You can’t see them because it’s dark; you only see them when they go off.” The grenades detonated. Shooting broke out. Cubiss’ men killed three enemy within three yards of their trenches. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. There was a pause for about 10 minutes...

Royal Ulster Rifles: The Battle Patrol’s Last Drive
At 19:40, the Rifles, in brigade reserve down Route 11, had been ordered to stand by. The Battle Patrol - in their armoured Oxford carriers, the battalion’s most mobile unit - were put on half an hour’s notice as a quick reaction force. As the patrol’s 50-odd men rested by their vehicles, waiting for the order that would pitch them into combat, other members of the battalion became dramatically aware of battle’s imminence when the screen of the mobile cinema visiting the brigade, showing Tea for Two with Doris Day and Gordon Macrae, was shredded by a burst of gunfire.

The battalion’s officers had been celebrating news of recent gallantry awards – including a DSO for Major John Shaw, who had led the rearguard out of “Happy Valley” – and singing Irish songs when, one minute before midnight, the duty officer entered the tent, bearing news that the offensive had commenced: The Battle Patrol was to move up immediately. Their mission was to secure the bridges leading to the Belgians at Ulster Crossing. If pressed, the 50-odd men were to fight their way over the bridges and reinforce the Belgians...

...The patrol halted on the south side of “Ulster Crossing,” engines idling. All was dark across the river. The officers stood beside the forward vehicle, striving to see ahead. It looked “fishy,” but there was no choice. They pressed on. The men peered warily over the armoured sides of the leading vehicles as they clattered across the pontoon. They were trundling up the flood plain on the far bank when the blackness exploded around them. One carrier flared up, hit by a rocket. Then another. They had driven into an ambush. The Riflemen vaulted out of the vehicles, which were drawing fire. In the chaos, one carrier reversed, crushing the pelvis of a Riflemen lying behind it. More shooting broke out in the rear, by the bridges. The patrol was surrounded...

Yes I am the author.
Yes, book is out in paperback on April 25th
I remember chatting to one of the Hussars Troop Leaders - old and bold guest at dinner night. He talked about the Chinese swarming over their tanks like ants trying to find a way in. As they withdrew, they were literally hosing them off each others tanks with the co-ax machine guns.

Made the hairs on my neck stand up just litening to him!


Book Reviewer
April 23rd: St George's Day, 1951

Afternoon: The Belgians Pull Back
American tanks and artillery fire opened fire, pounding the now-abandoned position. Shells whistled over the men’s heads, then crashed as they detonated. Clouds of dust and smoke rose over Hill 194. The Belgians pulled back in two segments, under desultory mortar fire: the vehicles raced across the meadow behind their hill, where helicopters had evacuated their casualties earlier in the day, rattled across the pontoon bridge over the river, then drove through the cutting in the southern bank and onto the MSR under the protective guns of the American force.

Sergeant Andre VanDamme, driving a jeep over the bridge, snatched a glance over his shoulder and saw movement: the Chinese were advancing over the Belgians’ abandoned positions, but there was no panic among his men: “It is important to stay cool in such situations.” Meanwhile, the infantry, in long company files, entered the chest-deep water. Sergeant Lucien Senterre, with B Company, was apprehensive.. When the order to withdraw came, B Company’s platoons leapfrogged backward to ensure the Chinese did not overrun them on the retreat. Now, the hill behind Senterre was being ploughed up with artillery. Ahead, was the river. Senterre knew that he had to get across as fast as possible, but his height was a concern: “I am only five foot four, I am not a tall person!” he said. Holding his weapon up, Senterre waded into the current up to his chest. The Imjin proved shallow: He crossed to the shingle beach, and clambered up the river bank.

On the north bank, watching the battalion pull back, Wolfs with his rearguard felt a sense “more of bewilderment than fear.” He ordered a Browning machine gunner on his jeep to shoot a full belt into the hilltop, then to hold his fire unless he saw clear targets. The machine gunner let rip. He did not have to shoot again. The Chinese, taken by surprise by the fast withdrawal and, under heavy fire themselves as the Americans churned up the hilltop, kept down. Napalm strikes went in. Sergeant Cor Feyt looked back and saw distant Chinese soldiers writhing in the inferno...

Evening: The Death of B Coy, 1 Glosters

St George’s Day, 1951, was coming to an end. A bright moon rose. Yang’s offensive could recommence. An entire division, the 189th,was aligned against the Glosters.

B Company’s commander, Major Harding, sent a listening patrol to the foot of his hill soon after dusk. The men moved down in silence, then sank into cover at the bottom. After a while, they picked up a strange swishing sound. They had to listen intently to recognise what it was: the sound of the rubber-soled boots of men - hundreds of men - moving through the grass parallel to the company position. The patrol returned, silently, to their hilltop, and reported what they had seen and heard to the artillery FOO. Commands were whispered across the airwaves. Minutes later, shells came whistling over the treetops, impacting with flashes and crumps in the valley. But still there was no attack; the Chinese, moving diagonally across their front, appear not to have pinpointed the Glosters’ position. This luck could not last. A full regiment, 189th’ Division’s 559th, would be employed against Harding’s men, outnumbering them approximately 18-1. At around 23:00, B Company’s death struggle began.

Corporal Albert Perkins could not see his attackers, but could hear talking, spitting and chattering. “As soon as you heard a noise, you opened fire,” Perkins said. That was the probes. Then came the eerie, tinny bugles summoning company-level attacks, and the Glosters could see shadowy crowds pounding toward them. “They were running and firing,” Perkins said. “They could not see us.” At ground level, the Glosters were invisible to the Chinese. Shells hurtled in. As the rounds impacted with their sudden white flashes, earth was hurled up and rained down. The ground inside Perkins’ sangar vibrated...
Looks an interesting read.
"The Edge of the sword" by Sir Anthony Farrar Hockley gives his personal account of the battle and his subsequent capture/escape attempts.Well worth a look.


Book Reviewer
April 24th: Crescendo

The Royal Ulster Rifles Stand Fast
Mortarman Bob Nicholls of 170 Mortar Battery was on 398 with the Rifles, who, crouched in their slit trenches and behind the walls of the ancient keep, repulsed attack after attack. “The Ulsters knocked hell out of them,” he said. “They had an abundance of grenades – it is a good night-time weapon - and they were throwing them all over the place.” Working his Vickers section, Sergeant “Doc” Holliday swept cones of bullets over the attacking lines. Many Chinese, he noted, had no small arms, only grenades; the second wave picked up the weapons of the fallen. “If they wanted to commit hara-kiri, that was fine with us,” he said. “But I discovered then that there is a God: I called on him often enough.” There were few atheists in the Imjin trenches, and in battle, where courage is as infectious as cowardice, inspirational leadership strengthens morale. Defying incoming fire, Major Rickord toured his forward sections. “He was a rough man, a hard man,” said Farrell with D Company. “He came walking along – how the hell he wasn’t hit, I’ll never know. He paraded up and down, giving us a wee bit of encouragement. We thought he was a great man.” Farrell was finding it more effective to listen for “the pitter-patter of little feet” than to watch for the enemy in the visual confusion. With Chinese jumping up from cover and rushing forward – “You’d see them running at you – and they could run!” the shooting was “pop-up style.”

The Rifles Battalion HQ, in a re-entrant on the valley floor, was spotted. Mortar fire rained down, pulverizing the position. “You could hear it whistling in – then boom! You took cover,” said Corporal Norman Sweetlove. “There would be a flash of light, splinters and shrapnel. You don’t see it, you feel it!” Blast took his breath away; dust, dirt and scrub pelted down. Everybody was scrabbling, digging in deeper. Sweetlove’s mate Kelly told him, “Don’t dig down - dig in!” so the two tunneled into an earthen bank for overhead cover; McCord revetted his slit with wood from mortar ammunition crates. The bombardment lasted half an hour. When the smoke cleared, wrecked equipment and shredded tents were strewn over the cratered ground...

Z Co, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers: Hand-to-Hand
Even experienced soldiers were staggered at the ferocity of the assault. D-Day veteran and mortar man John Bayliss was in the rocks on the ridge with an American carbine in his shoulder, squinting down the barrel as crowds of attackers surged up the lower slopes. “I had never seen anything like it,” he said. “In World War II you used to see Germans from a distance, but out here, it was close up!” The density of numbers astonished him. “They’d come in with a platoon; if that didn’t work, they’d come back with a company,” he said. “They were like bees - they were coming at us like ants!” Bayliss and everybody around him was rapid firing as the range closed. Men furiously worked bolts; streams of cartridge cases poured from the smoking breeches of the Brens. Bayliss’ carbine overheated and jammed. More enemy. Grenades ran out - but there were substitutes to hand. As the Chinese stormed up, the Fusiliers stood among the rocks and volleyed ration cans into the attacking wave. Tins of bully beef and fruit pudding thudded into the enemy ranks. “They thought they were grenades,” said Bayliss. “It gave us a bit of respite.” The Chinese ducked into cover from the unexpected barrage - then charged again. Suddenly, they were among the Fusiliers...


Book Reviewer
25 April: The Last Hours

Fortress In The Clouds: The Glosters' Last Stand
On 25 April the sun rose at 05:43. Dawn cast light upon a battle tableau. In a ragged line around the battered brown hilltop, from under khaki cap comforters and dark blue berets, red-rimmed eyes stared out of blackened faces. Men licked cracked lips, but were unable to moisten throats - dry due to lack of liquid, the dust blasted up by guns and mortars, and the ever-present fear. And yet, from behind rocks, sangars, trench parapets and piles of pouches, the ragged line bristled with Vickers, Brens, rifles and Stens. All still spat fire. The battalion remained unbroken. The perimeter held.

On the pulverized, dusty slopes, in their mustard-colored uniforms, flapped caps and plimsol-style boots, lay dead and dying Chinese. Some - infiltrators – had died a lonely death. Others – assault squads – lay in bloody heaps where had been caught by automatic fire or artillery blast. Littering the slopes and gullies were gruesome chunks of human detritus, hurled this way and that by high explosive. Scattered around were abandoned weapons: Burp guns, Simonov rifles, the ever-present bundles of stick grenades. Patches of brushwood, ignited by tracer or phosphorous, smouldered. The Glosters’ last stand was taking place on a granite-and-earth fortress that appeared to be floating in the sky, for the lower slopes and the valley floor were obscured by the “Sea of Clouds” - the Imjin mist. Haunting notes echoed up from the fog. Bugles. Another attack was forming up. “Come on you bastards!’ shouted a Gloucestershire voice. “Come and get your breakfast!”

Death Ride: Breakout On The Eastern Flank
Preston-Bell and his Centurion crew, in position near the saddle, had finished adjusting the links on their track. With that task complete, the young Hussar was scanning the western hillsides when he was transfixed by a heart-stopping sight. “In England in those days, you’d go shooting in the morning, and you’d go over the brow of a hill, and that whole hill would be moving with rabbits,” he said. “It was just like that: Suddenly, the whole hillside was moving!”

Watching the British withdrawal from the high ground, the Chinese had been sniping, machine gunning, mortaring, infiltrating. Seeing their prey slipping through their grasp, their commanders made a bold decision. If they could get close enough to “grab the enemy by his belt” his air and artillery support would be rendered useless while their own short-range, automatic weapons would be maximally effective and their numbers would tell. For the first time in this battle, the enemy revealed itself in strength, in daylight. Along the western ridges, first tens, then scores, then hundreds, then thousands of Chinese soldiers broke cover. Dotting the slopes, they stood poised, en masse, then surged down onto the valley floor.

Whitamore, doubling along the valley floor with his platoon, thought he had left the enemy behind when the hills came to life. “It happened in seconds," he said. "It was absolutely terrifying - the realisation that we were doomed...”
At the same time as the battle was raging at the Imjim, not far away the 118th Division of the Chinese Army forced the 1st Bn Middlesex Reg and 16 Fd Regt Royal New Zaland Artillery to withdraw, and they did that through the lines of the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) and 2nd Bn Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry 2 PPCLI)

Those two battalions were able to hold the line against overwhelming number os chinese soldiers, and as a result of that action, both battalions, 3 RAR and 2 PPCLI were awarded the US Presidential Citation and the Korean Presidential Citation.

Kapyong Day is still commemorated in 3 RAR, wherever they are located, on 24th April each year, and at 3 RAR a Bn parade is held and the Kapyong Streamer is affixed to the Regimental Colours on that day, usually by a veteran who was present in the Bn at that battle, but they are dying out, not many of them left now. Our local branch of the Returned Services League of Australia holds a Kapyong Day commemorative service every year, and this year, as on previus years, there were a couple of Kapyong veterans of 3 RAR at the service.
Turns out the paper back isn't released here until 1st Sept, so think I'll be coughing up for a hardcover copy! Can't wait that long...


Book Reviewer

Eh? Paperback was meant to be officially released on 25 April. Hardback is sold out, AFAIK.


RE: Kapyong
Indeed. It is, I think rather sad that the A Company OC, Ben O'Dowd, who held the line at Kapyong and led a masterly retreat out over the hills while the CO was ineffective in the rear - at one point, his CP was overrun - did not get more credit for his role. Moreover, O'Dowd faced the enemy man-to-man: With the Kiwi gunners not ranged in, artillery was not available, and O'Dowd ruled out the use of flares or star shells as he did not want to ruin his men's night vision. Instead he relied on the musketry and bayonets of his Diggers to hold the position. That proved to be enough.

It is also a bit sad that the role played by 1 Middlesex at Kapyong - they escorted the Kiwi gunners down the valley and launched an abortive attack to cover the Aussie CP - is not even mentioned in most accounts of the action. Two weeks ago, I drove past the ridge where then 2nd-Lt Barry Reed won an MC forextricating his platoon, which had taken heavy casualties when it came under close range fire from enemy on a higher ridge.

There is (as of last year) a monument to the Diehards; it stands close to the Commonwealth memorial in the park in front of Kapyong library. The monuments to the Aussies and the Canadians are close to the positions they actually held, up valley; the Aussie memorial is right at the most narrow point of the pass.

Comparing Imjin and Kapyong, the scale of the peril was greater at Imjin:
At Kapyong, no company was in action for more than one night. At Imjin, all companies (bar the RUR, who were in reserve on Night 1) were in the line for three nights, and most came under attack twice or, for some, three times.
At Kapyong, the enemy was a single division against a brigade. At Imjin, it was an army (in the Chinese system, three divisions) against a brigade.
At Kapyong, the brigade successfully extricated down a valley that is about half a mile wide. At Imjin, it was a running fight down a valley that is 100-200 yards wide - and for the Glosters, down a valley (more of a canyon) that is, in many places, just a few meters wide.

But respects to 3RAR: In my opinion, they were the outstanding infantry battalion of the Korean War.
Bought and read your book. Excellent, worth every penny.
Andy_S said:

Eh? Paperback was meant to be officially released on 25 April. Hardback is sold out, AFAIK.
Sorry, I'm on the other side of the pond. They're still showing some hardback in stock (or available), but paperback release date is 1st Sept in the land of beavers, weak beer, weak coffee and moose.
blue-sophist said:
Decision ? ... buy hardback in the US next month, or wait for the paperback there in Oct, or buy in UK. Aaaarrgghh.
Buy it while it is to hand. Nothing worse than missing the last copy and having to wait for a reprint.

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