OPERATION FAUNA DECEMBER 1952
The Time,1000 hours (10 am) Wednesday 9th December, 1952. The Place, 355 "Little Gibraltar", B Company 1 RAR right forward Company under Major A S "Joe" Mann. A summons to Company Headquarters, a brief comment that B Company was to raid a Chinese Heavy Mortar position some 1,000 metres behind their Forward Defensive Localities (FDLs), a jeep ride to Battalion Headquarters, there to be greeted by an imposing group led by the Commanding Officer (CO), Lieutenant Colonel M A "Bunny" Austin, Battle 2nd in command (2IC), Major S P "Bill" Weir ( the "Black Prince"), Adjutant Captain P J "Peter") Cook and Intelligence Officer, Captain "Harry" Sayers. I had met them fleetingly upon my joining the Battalion ten days previously. With my grim-faced compatriots, Major "Joe", Lieutenant Bruce Boys, 5 Platoon Commander, Sergeant "Bob" Kavanagh, 6 Platoon Commander, we exchanged greetings, before being ushered to our places around an elaborate mud model.
The Commanding Officer. began the briefing stressing, the importance of taking a prisoner, the in depth detail being left to Major Weir. It would be superfluous to attempt to elaborate on the comprehensive Operations Orders. It was to be carried out to the letter with two exceptions. As the Operation Order anticipated, the timing of the approach was difficult to estimate. This is why the start line was so far forward. White smocks normally required in the event of snow falls were not used. My moment of truth had arrived, 4 Platoon was to lead the approach march and the assault. The group disbanded, a full-dress rehearsal being set for 1500 hours (3 PM). Section Commander briefings followed, then the men. We rehearsed under the critical gaze of the Brigade Commander, Brigadier T J "Tom" Daly. He was dissatisfied, we rehearsed again.
10th December, a fine clear day, temperature minus 2 degrees. We cleaned weapons, checked equipment, the men taken in pairs into the forward trenches, there to be shown the approach route, objective and way home. We were ready. 1600 hours (4 PM), A Company arrived on cue to take over our position. Dinner 1700 hours, 1745 hours, darkness. 2100 hours, the Chaplains arrived, Roman Catholic Father Frank Shine, Other Protestant Denominations, Padre McAdam. 2330 hours (11 PM), move to Forming Up Place, (B Company kitchen area, south east rear slopes of our position). 5 Platoon preceded us, moving off at 2340 hours to take up their firm base under the Chinese held position, "Julius", across the valley, our whispered "good luck" going with them.
The accuracy of the intelligence information available to Battalion Headquarters is worthy of comment. 1 Republic of Korea (ROK South Korea) Division, 800 metres to our right had engaged in heavy fighting, repelling massed Chinese attacks on the two previous evenings. Would this continue and divert attention from our pending fracas? It did. Surprise was complete, the Chinese Defensive Fire being concentrated east of us. It was certainly making its presence felt, stars shells providing brilliant illumination.
At 2400 hours(12 PM mid night) 4 Platoon, Company Headquarters, one section of the Assault Pioneers Platoon and 6 Platoon moved off in that order, single file, into the mine-field gap down the steep icy slope, slipping, sliding, inching our way, hand over hand on the barbed wire fencing. At last we reached the valley floor, passing the "Halifax" outpost manned by C Company 3 RAR. It took one hour to cover 700 metres with 3,000 to go. 1 Section under Corporal Noel Beresi led, in arrowhead, Private "Bill" Purcell, forward scout, "Stan" Norminton, 2nd Scout. They were three outstanding soldiers. Progress was slow, three inches of dry snow crunching noisily underfoot. The foot-long stalks of grass breaking with every stride with the crossing a part-frozen creek adding to our difficulties. The noise deadening snowfall we had hoped for had not arrived.
We pressed on, close to our firm base standing patrols dotting no-man's land. A challenge from 6 Platoon behind us. "Halt", the password with no response. We froze. A repeat muffled challenge and still no response. A burst from an Owen sub machine carbine, a squeal, an expletive, silence. We lay motionless. Ten minutes went past. Then a whispered command from "the Boss" (Major Mann) over my 88 wireless set, to proceed. We moved on slowly, deliberately. Later we were to learn that the challenge had come from Corporal "Dave" Young of 6 Platoon. The slightly wounded victim, one of our own supporting troops. We turned north between two Chinese-held hills, our objective, on FLORA, the right-hand one. We were well behind schedule. Still with 1,000 yards to go. There was no turning back, but we remained undetected. My job was to choose the correct re-entrant onto the ridge - line of the objective. Go too far north and we'd strike the main Chinese defences. To turn prematurely would have meant a totally fruitless mission. There was no margin for error. We turned right, reached the ridge and deployed into extended line with two sections astride the north/south eight-feet deep communication trench, facing South. My batman "Sam" Small and I linking the Sections. It was 0400 hours. We were two hours behind schedule, a factor which, whilst it caused initial concern, was subsequently of little consequence.
My memory is of the "pungent odour" of Chinese food. We were certainly in the right place. The dim outline of the enemy trenches, bunkers and weapon pits silhouetted sixty metres ahead. Behind us, 3 Section under Lance Corporal "Ken" Woodhart with my Platoon Sergeant John "Mac" McNulty positioned themselves. Company Headquarters followed. 6 Platoon, behind them, moved northward to attack their objective. It was unoccupied enabling two of their sections to join the main assault force. 4 Platoon advanced to within forty metres of the enemy. There was still no reaction. Then it happened. A mixture of "Burps" (Chinese sub machine carbines), potato-mashers (Chinese anti personnel grenades on a stick) and percussion grenades greeted us. We propped, some dropping to one knee to return fire. The platoon commander's job was to keep things moving so we pressed forward. We quickened pace firing from the hip, Private "Ralph" Townsend's Bren gun on the left flank never sounded better. Still the grenades came, their white trailing tape being clearly visible. Corporal Ron Porto of 2 Section dropped two men, Privates Albert Charfield and Keith Payne, into the blackness of the communication trench. One of them, Keith Payne, was later to forge a place in Australian military history, being awarded the Victoria Cross whilst on service in South Vietnam. They reported deep tunnels dug along the trench walls, into which grenades were promptly dispatched.
It takes intestinal fortitude "guts", of the highest order, to drop into the unknown, the "bottomless trench" of unknown enemy bunkers. There is no time to think about it. You jump, you hope, you move swiftly, you do your job, you get out. In this case on the end of a rifle dangled by a mate above. Behind us, shouts of "CHOH - CHOH CHOH" (Beware) could be heard as reinforcements poured from the tunnel network of the main enemy position. Withering fire from the two Bren guns of Corporal "Paddy" Crotty's section, 6 Platoon, positioned for such an eventuality, quickly dampened this enthusiasm. They went underground. Up front 4 Platoon cleared the objective disposing of all inhabitants, moved through it, reorganizing thirty yards beyond. Casualties, two missing, (one Private "Jim" Young was to return the following evening) and three wounded.
Back on the objective, Company Headquarters confronted the second wave. From the tunnel network came a further hail of grenades, Major "Joe" Mann, twice being blown off his feet. Captain John Salmon, our Artillery Forward Observation Officer (FOO), although peppered with fragments directed pre-planned fire tasks onto six areas located several hundred metres north, east and west of "Flora", The Chinese retaliated, mortaring our position. there was little point in staying, in fact our clear instructions were not to remain on the objective. The order came to withdraw. 4 Platoon leading down a spur to the east in an orderly manner, section at a time with "Sam" Small and I bringing up the rear. It was 0420 hours. We had not taken a prisoner, our primary task. In hindsight, an almost impossible mission. The Chinese didn't make a habit of being captured or leaving their wounded. The confusion of a close contact can tend to take precedence.
Caution wasn't a major ingredient of the withdrawal. We moved swiftly, reaching the minefield gap in thirty minutes. Again the Chinese reaction was predicted correctly. They would anticipate that we had come from the western end of 355 mortaring and shelling accordingly. On the eastern end we were struggling with our wounded. Private "Bob" Auhl, unconscious, strapped to a stretcher with rifle slings, was brought "home" by exhausted mates, on their hands and knees, clawing every icy metre up that gap. I had taken my turn and can still recall our race against the mortars which, by this time, had switched to our return route. Thankfully, though close, they were ineffective allowing us to reach our forward defensive line (FDL) by 0630 hours unscathed, there to be greeted by an exuberant and a relieved Commanding Officer. It was still dark and only then did I realise, very cold. In any action, the people who make the contact invariably receive the accolades. We certainly did. Spare a thought for the many unsung "diggers" who supported us. The firm base personnel from 5 Platoon, the fighting ambush patrols from every company who lay in the snow for four hours, numb, unable to move. They too deserved our praise and our thanks.
Operation "Fauna" was a success from many points of view. It is the story of a company, very well led by a great fighting soldier "Joe" Mann Distinguished Service Order (DSO)., a story of total co-operation between 1 Battalion and 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. It is yet another example of the discipline and courage inherent in every "Digger". For me, personally, it was the "baptism of fire" for a young platoon commander and an opportunity to lead a seasoned team of professionals. To cement an understanding and some friendships, many of which remain today. It is not complete, for, as the forward platoon commander, I had little first-hand knowledge of the events which occurred behind me. That matters not. If you were there that evening in any capacity you can feel justifiably proud.
Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Mann O.C. B. Company,
1952 on reviewing "Gus" Breen's Paper
The shooting of one of the 1 Battalion RAR standing patrol members forced me to send the Company Medical Corporal and stretcher bearers to evacuate the wounded soldier. I was conscious that it would deplete these resources but it was a deliberate decision
Speed of Movement
Comments have been made that the outward journey was too slow. I can assure you that the terrain, to say the least, was difficult. Iced pools of water in the paddy fields would break through as you trod on them and even a soft curse would travel some distance. Generally, the ground was iced-over and slippery and if a soldier fell and dropped his weapon it could ice-up. I had reports from previous patrols on this matter. As a matter of interest, after the operation some members of the Company suggested that one of the missing in action (MIA) had an "iced-up" rifle and couldn't fire.
It was difficult to find the correct re-entrant into which we turned right to reach the objective. I must say "thank you" to "Gus" for his good navigation. Too deep or even too shallow could have been catastrophic.
I believe that we achieved complete surprise and I did not appreciate the Signal Officer's, "Bruce" Rogers, request for a situation report (sitrep) just seconds before we made contact. I believe I was rather rude to him.
The Chinese opened fire and many of their bullets were over our heads. This confirmed reports from patrols which drew fire, that generally the fire was high. From later work with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, I would say that soldiers fire high and more so at night. Our answer was to concentrate on firing low. One over your head is disturbing but a close ricochet is terrifying.
When 4 Platoon fired, and it was on target, there was no return of fire for some seconds and then it was really on.
Although it was stated that the communications trench had been deepened, I don't think it was appreciated how deep. I would say nine feet. Members of the assault party who jumped into the trench had to be helped out by lowering a rifle muzzle first, then lifted out. I wouldn't recommend this from a safety point of view.
Various historians quote B Company casualties as 3 missing in action (MIA), 22 wounded in action (WIA), however, the 22 wounded included other 1 Battalion RAR casualties, 3 Battalion RAR, Royal Tanks etc. The 3 MIA was reduced to 2 MIA when Private Jim Young returned the following evening,
B Company/Assault Pnr Casualties were:
MIA Private R D Rootes 4 Platoon
MIA Private L J Griffiths Assault Parse
WIA Captain J R Salmon F.O.O.
WIA Sergeant R F Kavanagh 6 Platoon
WIA Private W J Young 4 Platoon
WIA Private R E Auhl 4 Platoon
WIA Private J H Gemmell 4 Platoon
WIA Private T J Williams Company Headquarters
One man from Standing Patrol 5 Platoon
John Salmon carried out his F.O.O., tasks well, John was a professional. "Gus", too, performed admirably.
The attack on Company Headquarters blasted me upwards and I landed on "Tommy" Williams, my Batman. Later, I said to Tommy "Well, I landed on you and I probably saved your life" , his reply, "You bloody near broke my back". When my head cleared, I realized that there was no chance of getting a prisoner and to stay would invite more casualties. We had destroyed what we could, so it was "Boomerang" back home. John Salmon should have been a stretcher case, but, as he could stand and walk I sent him out with my Batman with the comment "make the minefield gap".
I was at the foot of the feature instructing all troops to spread out, 10 yards between men, because of the Artillery and Mortar attacks. I found Sergeant McNutlty trying to get Sergeant Kavanagh, who was wounded, to move. He wanted to wait for Corporal Crotty. I then tried to contact Crotty with no response. The wireless had been blown up a couple of times with me, so I gave it an old-fashioned thump. It worked and contact was made. He "Wilco'd" (message received and will be complied with) and without releasing the handset said "Thank Christ the big bastard's OK". The next day I asked him what right he had to call me a "big bastard" ("Joe" was 6'3" and weighed around 16 stone).
The withdrawal was not a "bug-out". The gaps between the men, no bunching, and the faster speed of the return run ensured that there were no casualties during that phase. I then called company second in command (2IC), Captain Cyril Morahan, and 5 Platoon to move after Crotty's section was clear. As I neared the top of the minefield gap I saw John Salmon. Putting him across my shoulder, I took him to the R.A.P. where the Doctor, Basil Ireland, was waiting. John couldn't make the last few yards, his backside was one hell of a mess.
In the strict sense we had not achieved our aim, to capture a prisoner, but I can say with confidence that B Company will be remembered with pride in 1 Battalion's regimental history.
Footnote:1. Two daylight and one night rehearsal were held.
2. See para 5 1 RAR Intelligence Report No 39 for period 100700 hours to 1107000 hours December 1952. Also note par 4 Hostile Shelling from this Intrep which was above normal and added to casualties that night in 1 RAR Area.
Par 3 shows ranges at which vehicles were sighted during night 10/112 December, 1952 gives an indication of the importance of 355. From its top all 10 battalions of 1 COMWEL Division were visible and many from 1 ROK Div.
3. The Austin papers at War Memorial include a contemporary report on "Fauna" which recommended spare radio sets being carried. This applied to the earlier July raid on 227. Today's sets are more reliable but there is probably a lesson here nevertheless. Battalion "Rover Group" including C.O. Fd Bty Comd IO Sig Officer were on top of 355 to gain maximum wireless reception. Normal Comd Post 1.0 was manned by battle 2I/C and Adjt.
Most histories incorrectly list all 22 casualties with the raiding Company. The Regimental History, "Duty First" lists, 1 ROK on our left instead of right. The anticipated Chinese attack on 1 ROK on this night was of significance. We only had one ROK Liaison Officer and there was some debate as to whether he went to Battalion tactical Headquarters or stayed at the Command. Post (which he did).
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