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Korean War 1950-1953

 

Only five years after the end of the Second World War, Australia became involved in the Korean War. Personnel from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), and the Australian Regular Army (ARA) were committed soon after the war began and would serve for the next three years in the defence of South Korea.

Prelude to war

The origins of the Korean War can be traced back to the end of the Second World War, when the Allies were entrusted with control of the Korean peninsula following 35 years of Japanese occupation. The United States and the Soviet Union accepted mutual responsibility for the country, with the Soviets taking control of the country to the north of the 38th Parallel and the Americans taking the south. Over the next few years, the Soviet Union fostered a communist government under Kim Il-Sung and the US supported the provisional government in the south, headed by Syngman Rhee. By 1950 tensions between the two zones had risen to the point that two increasingly hostile armies had built up along the 38th Parallel.  

In the pre-dawn hours of 25 June 1950 the Korean People’s Army (KPA) launched a massive offensive across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. They drove the Republic of South Korea’s (ROK) forces down th peninsula, capturing the capital, Seoul, within a week. South Korean and hastily deployed United States Army units fought delaying actions as they were forced further down the Korean peninsula, which allowed defensive positions to be set up around the port city of Pusan.

Australia commits

Within two days of the war’s beginning, US President Harry S. Truman committed US navy and air force units to aid South Korea. By the end of the month, he had authorised US ground forces to be deployed to the peninsula. The United Nations Security Council asked its members to assist in repelling the North Korean invasion. The Security Council was aided by Russia boycotting the UN over its lack of recognition of the communist Chinese government. With the Russian delegate absent and unable to veto any resolution, the UN was able to act decisively and commit forces from willing nations to the aid of South Korea. In all, 21 nations committed troops, ships, aircraft, and medical units to the defence of South Korea. Australia became the second nation, behind the United States, to commit personnel from all three armed services to the war.

Australia, with its commitment to the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, had two readily deployable RAN vessels, HMAS Shoalhaven and HMAS Bataan (which was on its way to Japan to relieve Shoalhaven), as well as No. 77 Squadron, RAAF. The 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) was also available, but it was understrength and ill prepared for a combat deployment.

On 28 June Prime Minister Robert Menzies committed Australia’s RAN assets to the Korean War, followed several days later by No. 77 Squadron. It wasn’t until 26 July that 3RAR was committed to ground operations in Korea.

First to fight

On 1 July HMAS Bataan and HMAS Shoalhaven left Japanese waters escorting US troop ships to Pusan. The following day, No. 77 Squadron, led by Wing Commander Lou Spence, flew the first ground support operations over Korea, becoming the first British Commonwealth and United Nations unit to see action in the Korean War.

3RAR deploys 

In mid-July General Douglas MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of United Nations forces in Korea and wasted no time in requesting the deployment of 3RAR to the peninsula. The Australian government agreed, but stipulated that the battalion would deploy only when fully ready. The battalion was brought up to strength over the next month and a half with reinforcements from K Force, an Australian government initiative calling for volunteers to serve a three-year period in the army, including a year in Korea. In early September, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Green took command of the battalion and put his men through an intensive training program.

In a brilliant master stroke, General MacArthur landed marines of the 1st Marine Division at Inchon on 15 September. Two days later, ROK, US, and British troops took part in the breakout from the Pusan perimeter. One week later, Seoul had been recaptured and UN units began their advance towards the North Korean border.

On 27 September 3RAR embarked from Kure, Japan, and arrived at Pusan the followng morning. The Australian battalion was taken on strength of the British 27th Brigade, joining the 1st Battalion, Argyll and Southerland Highlanders, and 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. The brigade was renamed the 27th Commonwealth Brigade to reflect its Antipodean addition. 

3RAR’s first battle

As UN forces neared the North Korean border, China warned them not to cross into North Korean territory, and that such an incursion would not be tolerated. General MacArthur received permission to pursue the fleeing North Korean forces and shortly after crossed into North Korea. The capital, Pyongyang, fell soon after. 

China enters the war

The battle of Pakchon marked the furthest point that the Australians reached into North Korea. It was also the first time Chinese forces were encountered in large numbers. Unbeknownst to UN intelligence sources, Chinese troops had been infiltrating North Korea across the Yalu River, and in late October they began an offensive against, annihilating several UN divisions and badly mauling others before seeming to melt away. The ensuing weeks saw an eerie quiet settle over the battlefield.

A new warhorse

No. 77 Squadron, RAAF, flew their last operations in Mustangs in early April, after which they returned to Japan to begin conversion to the Gloster Meteor F8. Four RAF pilots had been sent to Japan to train the Australians and were taken on strength of the squadron. In all, 37 RAF pilots would fly on operations with the squadron, six of whom were killed and another of whom was shot down and taken prisoner. The squadron returned to combat operations in July and after some disastrous air-to-air battles with MiGs the squadron reverted to its former role of ground attack, carrying out many successful operations during the next two years

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K

apyong

On 22 April, the Chinese launched their spring offensive, routing the South Korean 6th Division and driving them back down the Kapyong Valley. The 27th Commonwealth Brigade advanced forward of the town of Kapyong. The 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and 3RAR dug in on the high ground on either side of a seven-kilometre wide valley. The following day, the Chinese were engaged by the Australians and Canadians as well as a troop of US Army Sherman tanks and New Zealand Artillery. Two nights and days of close fighting followed and on the evening of 24 April the Australians were forced to withdraw from their positions and, with the support of the Canadians and New Zealand artillery, fought their way down a ridge, rejoining the majority of the brigade in the Kapyong valley. The Chinese were stopped in their tracks and Seoul was saved from being attacked once more. The men of 3RAR suffered heavy casualties, with 32 killed, 53 wounded, and three taken prisoner.

Negotiating the peace

On 10 July peace negotiations began between the warring powers in the town of Kaesong. Negotiations were suspended in August after the building used was reportedly bombed. Talks did not resume until October, and from then on were held in the village of Panmunjom. 

HMAS Sydney commences operations

HMAS Sydney arrived in Korean waters in early October and began operations immediately. On board the carrier were three squadrons of the RAN Fleet Air Arm, Nos 805 and 808 squadrons, flying Hawker Sea Furies, and No. 817 Squadron, flying Fairey Firefly aircraft. The Sydney undertook numerous patrols in Korean waters during its deployment and its aircraft flew over 2,000 sorties, including ground attacks, artillery spotting, and escort missions. It incurred the loss of three crew and 13 aircraft. The Sydney returned to Australia in January 1952.

An armistice at last?

On 19 July an agreement for an armistice between the UN and the Communists was reached. The date for the signing was set for the 27th of July.

Is it really over?

The armistice was signed at 10 am on 27 July 1953. Sporadic fighting continued throughout the day, but as evening fell the guns fell silent. The armistice came into effect at 10 pm, ending three years, one month, and two days of war in Korea. The end came so suddenly that some soldiers took some convincing that the fighting was really over. The former belligerent nations each withdrew two kilometres in accordance with the armistice agreement, forming the Demilitarized Zone which still exists today. Australian Forces remained in Korea as part of the multi-national peacekeeping force until 1957. 

Over 17,000 Australians served during the Korean War, of which 340 were killed and over 1,216 wounded. A further 29 had become prisoners of war.

References:

Source: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/atwar/korea (accessed 28 June 2019)