The Battle of Imjin River

On 1st October 1950, 890 officers and men of 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment, led by Lieutenant-Colonel J.P. “Fred” Carne, set sail from Southampton bound for Korea. The Glosters formed part of 29th Independent Infantry Brigade Group, with 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, C squadron 7th Royal Tank Regiment, 45th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, 11th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery Royal Artillery and 170th Mortar Battery Royal Artillery, together with supporting arms and services. The formation was under the command of Brigadier Tom Brodie, and the men were a mixture of Regular soldiers, Reservists and National Servicemen.

When 29th Brigade Group arrived in Korea on 3rd November 1950, U.N. forces had already scored a striking success against the North Korean Communist forces and, after the Inchon landings, had advanced as far north as the Yalu River, close to the Chinese border. This advance had created its own very serious problems and brought Communist China into the war.

29th Brigade Group arrived at the front in early December, and took part in the withdrawal as Chinese armies crossed the Yalu into Korea. On New Year’s Eve the Chinese crossed the Imjin, and the Glosters were in brigade reserve as U.N. forces continued to fall back. Later, a counter-offensive was launched in February, during which the Glosters led the successful assault on Hill 327. On 1st April, 29th Brigade Group, under the command of U.S. I Corps, was back on the Imjin, deployed on an extended front which covered the direct approach to Seoul. The Chinese Spring Offensive saw a patrol from Chinese 63rd Army making first contact with the Glosters’ “B” Company listening post at Gloster Crossing on the Imjin River on 21st April. Twenty-five years later former Drummer Tony Eagles recalled:-

“. . . the three of us settled down for a long wait. It was a nice clear night and gave us a good field of vision for about half a mile east and west. We had decided that we would have two on observation and the other would sit with the ‘phone, changing each hour.

“Sometime within the next three hours, perhaps at about 2200, I whispered to ‘Scouse’ [Private Hunter] that I thought I saw movement on the other side of the river. He alerted George Cook who reported back [by field telephone] to the Adjutant [Captain Anthony Farrar-Hockley]. After a while we could discern fourteen figures that, by virtue of their khaki uniforms and rice bags slung like a bandolier, could only be Chinese troops. Suddenly, the sky was lit up as the Royal Artillery sent up floating flares requested by the Adjutant. We could see the others quite closely as they reached the point opposite us. The Adjutant told Corporal Cook that they must not be allowed to cross. ‘Scouse’ and I decided we would let them get about half way across, and then fire. If they succeeded in getting close enough, we would use our grenades.”

The terrain over which the Glosters were to fight over the next few days was ideally suited for defence, but the Glosters were very thinly spread on the ground. Colonel Carne had positioned his limited resources carefully. “A” Company under Major Angier was on the left, holding Castle Hill and overlooking Gloster Crossing on the Imjin; 1,500 yards to the south-east was Major Wood’s “D” Company at Point 182; further east was “B” Company led by Major Harding; “C” Company under Major Mitchell was in reserve near Battalion Headquarters at Solma-Ri with supporting mortars. Two miles to the Glosters’ right were the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (1 RNF), with the Royal Ulster Rifles (1 RUR) behind them in Brigade reserve. Ahead of 1 RNF on the north side of the river was the Belgian United Nations Command, which comprised of a Belgian battalion with a detachment of Luxembourg soldiers, attached to 29th Brigade Group. To 29th Brigade Group’s right was U.S. 65th Regiment, and to their left was Republic of Korea (ROK) 12th Regiment.

The Chinese offensive began in earnest on 22nd April, 1951. A battalion of 559 Regiment, 187th Division advanced across the river opposite Lieutenant Guy Temple’s ambush patrol from “C” Company at Gloster Crossing late that evening. The Chinese took heavy casualties from Temple’s men and supporting artillery until Temple was forced to withdraw as his party’s ammunition began to run out. Another battalion attacked “A” Company on Castle Hill and, when Temple withdrew, “D” Company’s position came under attack. By daylight on the 23rd April, the situation for 29th Brigade Group had become extremely hazardous. Colonel Carne could not withdraw his hard-pressed men without exposing 1st ROK Division’s right flank and any retrograde movement would also put 1 RNF at risk, as well as the Belgian Battalion which was itself under heavy enemy pressure. But the Glosters themselves were increasingly in danger of being surrounded. The summit of Castle Hill was captured by the Chinese at 07:30, and another Chinese regiment began to envelop the Glosters’ forward Company positions. Even after the loss of the summit of Castle Hill, “A” Company still stood and fought, while their numbers were being steadily depleted. It was at this time that Lieutenant Philip Curtis, on attachment from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was killed in a selfless act of heroism which would be recognized with the posthumous award of a Victoria Cross. At 08.30 “A” Company, now reduced to one wounded officer and 53 men, withdrew under heavy fire to Gloster Hill, west of the village of Solma-Ri, led by Company Sergeant Major Gallagher.

“D” Company, too, had been hard pressed. A National Service officer, 2nd Lieutenant Denys Whatmore, described the night fighting of 22nd/23rd in his book “One Road to Imjin”:-

“We began to run out of the precious parachute flares but, using the Company radio net this time (and, in the excitement, getting my procedures wrong, for which I was severely rebuked by the broad Gloucestershire voice of the Private at the other end) I asked 10 Platoon to fire some in our direction and they helped no end. 10 Platoon was not seriously engaged in their location but 12 Platoon behind me was blazing away as the Chinese infantry outflanked me and pressed on towards the South, clearly with orders to make as much progress into the UN lines as they could. On our front, however, we began to be seriously plagued by a Chinese machine gun; I believe it was this gun that killed three or four of No. 1 section and wounded others so that they had to be evacuated. I yelled to Private Andman, drawing his attention to the gun’s location, about 100 yards out on the occasionally illuminated ridge, its muzzle flashes giving it away. I wanted some 2 inch mortar high explosive bombs put down on it. Andman replied and within seconds had fired his mortar. It was the most amazing shot, for the bomb fell with a remarkably loud explosion exactly where the flashes had been seen, and the gun did not fire again. Fluke or skill, it did the job, and I yelled congratulations to Andman, into the din around us. It must have been soon after this that he was wounded.”

Colonel Carne had been forced to draw in his horns and concentrate his battered battalion around the Solma-Ri position in the morning of the 23rd. The Glosters’ flanks had been turned, and Carne’s isolated Companies were in danger of being overrun piecemeal by the seemingly inexhaustible reserves of men that Chinese 63rd Army were throwing against them. The Glosters, with the magnificent support of British and American artillery, had inflicted fearful casualties on successive waves of enemy attackers throughout the night and early hours of the morning and, by concentrating his battalion, Carne could still expect to further impede the enemy’s progress before they broke through. If nothing else, the sacrifice made by the Glosters would buy valuable time for the rest of I Corps forces to withdraw in good order.

“D” Company was pulled back alongside “A” Company on Hill 235 (Gloster Hill) and Battalion HQ, with Support Company to their front. On the eastern side of Solma-Ri, “B” Company was withdrawn to take position on the high ground of Hill 314 with “C” Company to their left. Daytime gave some breathing space, but now the Glosters were completely surrounded by the enemy’s 189th Division, which had taken the place of the mauled 187th. The rest of 29th Brigade Group faced the Chinese 63rd Army’s third division, the 188th, and the remnants of 187th. The assault on the Glosters recommenced with new ferocity in the late evening of the 23rd. Once again, successive waves of Chinese soldiers attacked through the night and uphill, taking heavy casualties while concentrating at first upon “B” and “C” Companies. The enemy managed to separate the two companies on Hill 314, driving “C” Company from its position around 3.30 a.m. Colonel Carne ordered an evacuation of Hill 314, and those men of “C” Company who were able made their way to Hill 235, where the Battalion would concentrate with “C” Troop 170th Mortar Battery. “B” Company continued to hold their ground, before those who could joined the rest of the Battalion on Gloster Hill later .

The fighting companies of the Glosters had been cut off from their rear support elements, “A” and “F” Echelons. Major Digby Grist, in command of “F” Echelon, conceived a plan with Major John Watkin-Williams of “A” Echelon and Brigade Major Kenneth Trevor:-

“. . . we hatched a plot to re-open the route to the Gloucesters. Soon after dawn on the 24th this scheme was put into action. We were a very mixed force; Centurion tanks of the 8th Hussars, Filipino infantry, American light tanks [M24 Chaffees of the Philippine 10th Battalion Combat Team] and the “rag-tag and bobtail” which I had managed to assemble from the remains of F. Echelon, trailing along behind.

“Our old position at F. Echelon was reached without difficulty; the enemy had abandoned it. Then the Filipinos disappeared into the hills and the mobile column moved up the track. Over the stream and up the hill, past Kwangsuwon and down into the gorge. At the very narrowest point, one of the light tanks was hit, swung across the track and blocked it. The mobile column was halted. In the hills, we could hear the Filipinos tackling more than they could manage. The relief column had failed.

” . . . With our tails between our legs we returned to Brigade headquarters to find that John Watkin-Williams with the Sappers were organizing a light-aircraft drop to the battalion. Requests had been coming over the wireless from the battalion for things they desperately needed; particularly ammunition and wireless batteries. The least we could do was try. Volunteers were required to act as “droppers”. It was a brave thing to do, fly low in a slow light aircraft over hills which teemed with enemy. But bravery was commonplace in those days.

“I heard one soldier say: “I’ve never flown in an aircraft, let alone drop anything out of one, but I’ll have a go. At least I’ll feel that I’m doing something.”

“It was this casual remark which made me realize how important it was to the soldiers whom I commanded that they should do something, should feel involved. Like me, they didn’t dare to think what was happening up at the battalion. Through the stories which the pilots brought back of the iron ring round the battalion we knew in our hearts that there was no way in and, what was worse, no way out!”

In the middle of the afternoon of the 24th April plans were being made to organize a much stronger relief effort to go to the aid of the beleaguered Glosters the following day but, in part at least, owing to a misunderstanding between the British and American commanders, this did not materialize. Instead, Colonel Carne had been ordered to hold his position, and at 15.10 he radioed back to Major-General Soule, commander of U.S. 3rd Division:-

“I understand the position quite clearly. What I must make clear to you is that my command is no longer an effective fighting force. If it is required we shall stay here, in spite of this, we shall continue to hold. But I wish to make known the nature of my position.”

A further air-drop of supplies and ammunition by two light aircraft took place, but most of it missed the intended recipients, and water, weapons, radio batteries and, especially, ammunition were critically low. In the evening of the 24th and throughout the early hours of the 25th the Chinese launched waves of new attacks against Gloster Hill, their trumpets blaring above the crackle of rifle and machine gun fire. Drum-Major Philip Buss, at the instruction of Captain Farrar-Hockley, replied with an extended repertoire of British bugle calls, except Retreat, to confuse the enemy and put new heart into the Glosters. The bugle, which had belonged to Drummer Eagles, was later blown up by him to prevent it falling into enemy hands. Colonel Carne’s calm and determined leadership also inspired his men to fight on, until the order was given for the breakout. The citation for the Victoria Cross, which would be presented to “Fred” Carne when he returned to England after the war, described his actions:-

“. . . Throughout the entire engagement, Lieutenant-Colonel Carne, showing a complete disregard for his own safety, moved among the whole battalion under very heavy mortar and machine gun fire, inspiring the utmost confidence and the will to resist, amongst his troops.

“On two separate occasions, armed with a rifle and grenades he personally led assault parties which drove back the enemy and saved important situations. However, Lieutenant-Colonel Carne’s example of courage, coolness and leadership was felt not only in his own battalion, but throughout the whole brigade.

“He fully realized that his flanks had been turned, but he also knew that the abandonment of his position would clear the way for the enemy to make a major break through and this would have endangered the Corps.

“When at last it was apparent that his battalion would not be relieved and on orders from higher authority, he organized his battalion into small, officer-led parties, who then broke out, whilst he himself in charge of a small party fought his way out but was captured within twenty-four hours. . . .”

The wounded were left behind under the care of Captain Bob Hickey, Padre Sam Davies and Sergeant “Knocker” Brisland, but of those who made the breakout, less than fifty were to make it back to U.N. lines, the majority of the others being captured. Captain Mike Harvey led a party of men back to safety, a journey that was not without many dangers. A Mosquito liaison aircraft watched and tried to help their progress, as Harvey described in his book “The War in Korea: The Battle Decides All”:-

“. . . We then saw UN tanks ahead, and crawled and ran in turn eagerly ahead and got to within five hundred yards of them, but they mistakenly took us for Chinese and opened rapid fire with HMGs and 75mm cannon, and our six leading men fell. Shouts from the rear of our thinning column told us clearly that Chinese were in pursuit and shooting and bayoneting the men at the tail, mercilessly killing what were now, unarmed soldiers. We were now compressed between the Americans and Chinese and halted, when we needed to move forward more rapidly to save the men at the rear.

“In near desperation I fixed my beret and face veil to a stick and waved it frantically at the tanks hoping it would be recognized? The next burst of fire shot it away! Hiding our identity leaving Gloster Hill had been sound, but now backfired as the Americans could not identify us either!

“The Mosquito pilot, horrified by this case of mistaken identity (the tank crews had no idea any friendly troops were still this far north) flew frantically towards the tanks, diving almost on top of them, but they continued to fire, adding to our casualties. Then, on the second pass the pilot dropped a streamered note. The tanks, suddenly aware of their error, ceased firing at us and redirected everything they had onto the Chinese along the ridge. Continuing through the now reduced hail of fire from the Chinese and unfettered, the column pressed rapidly on. We reached the tanks and took cover behind them, using them as shields, and moving when they did, to keep them between us and the intense fire which still poured onto the tanks, rattling like kettle-drums from the strike of the bullets.”

Captain Harvey’s group had descended Gloster Hill a hundred and four strong, but only forty-six managed to reach the safety of the UN lines.

Tony Farrar-Hockley was not as lucky as Mike Harvey. His own story of the battle, his capture and subsequent escape attempts, are told in fine style in one of the first memoirs to be published after the war, “The Edge of the Sword”. At one point, during their march into captivity, he and two other Glosters, Private Fox and Private Graham, were in the company of a Private Morales, a Puerto Rican from U.S. 65th Regiment, when they made their bid for escape from their North Korean guards:-

“All is quiet; not even the sound of distant gunfire breaks the stillness tonight. On tiptoe, we leave the village, pausing every few yards to listen for sentries. Someone coughs nearby. We freeze in the shadows that hide us, waiting for a challenge or a step towards us. A voice calls out in Korean. We do not reply. Apparently he is satisfied, for the challenge is not repeated. We reach the foot of the hill and begin the ascent. As we climb higher, the wind catches our hair and torn garments. Now there are torches flashing below; is our escape discovered? We hurry on, careless of the thorn bushes that scratch us as we force our way through them. Fox is calling me.

“Sir, sir; we’ve lost Morales!”

“I go back to look. There is no sign of Morales anywhere. I call his name quietly in the darkness; I go back through the bushes to the open slopes of the hill. The torches are still flashing below. We must go on. The inflexible rule of escapers, that an injured or lost man must be left, is invoked. Three of us continue to climb on to the wind-swept hill-top, hot tired, breathless; but we are free again!”

It was Brigadier Tom Brodie who was credited with coining the new name by which the Regiment would become famed around the world: “The Glorious Glosters”. And it was the award of the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation to the Gloucestershire Regiment and C Troop 170th Mortar Battery that would set the seal on that international recognition:-

“. . . These gallant soldiers would not retreat. As they were compressed tighter and tighter in their perimeter defense, they called for close-in air strikes to assist in holding firm. Completely surrounded by tremendous numbers, these indomitable, resolute and tenacious soldiers fought back with unsurpassed fortitude and courage. As ammunition ran low and the advancing hordes moved closer and closer, these splendid soldiers fought back viciously to prevent the enemy from overrunning the position and moving rapidly to the south. Their heroic stand provided the critically needed time to regroup other I Corps units and block the southern advance of the enemy. Time and again efforts were made to reach the battalion, but the enemy strength blocked each effort. Without thought of defeat or surrender, this heroic force demonstrated superb battlefield courage and discipline. Every yard of ground they surrendered was covered with enemy dead until the last gallant soldier of the fighting battalion was overpowered by the final surge of the enemy masses. . . . ”

General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, Adjutant of the Glosters at the Battle of the Imjin, ended his military career as Commander-in-Chief, Allied Forces Northern Europe. He concluded his analysis of the action in his Official History, “The British Part in The Korean War”:-

“After his orders to the battalion to break out, Brigadier Brodie entered in the Brigade operations log in a moment of high emotion, ‘No one but the Glosters could have done it.’ This was flattering but not true. The other members of the brigade fought no less well. Neither they nor the Glosters sought to be heroes; only to acquit themselves honourably and competently, one among another.

“That is the best of the soldier’s calling.”

Picture: – Glosters bring in a wounded man.