THE FOO RECALLS OPERATION "FAUNA"
A career officer with 37 years in the Australian Army. Educated at Geelong College then the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Long Gunnery Staff Course (UK), the Australian Staff College, the Joint Services Staff College (UK) and the Royal College of Defence Studies (UK). Service with BCOF (Japan), Korea, BOAR (Germany), Malaysia and Vietnam. He was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1972 and retired in 1981 with the rank of Brigadier after being Commandant of the Australian Joint Services Staff College. He now lives in Cook, ACT.
I was the FOO (Forward Observation Officer) with B Company 1 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) on Operation "Fauna" in the Korean Winter 10-11 December 1952. Unlike some others, whose accounts are full of detail, I kept no notes or diary while in Korea commanding D Troop, 162 Battery, 16 Field Regiment RNZA (24 x 25 pounders) which I joined about mid 1952. Being over 40 years ago there were serious gaps in my memory but, for reasons that follow, some moments during the operation are still all too vivid.
In a visit to 1 Battalion RAR about mid October, during a short respite granted 28 Commonwealth Brigade, I met Major A.S. "Joe" Mann briefly. I already knew two 1RAR company commanders well, having spent weeks "on the hill" with Majors David Thomson and Bruce Hearn. Captain Kayler Thomson always gave me a cheery wave as I passed but I regarded the very efficient Major "Bill" Weir, the battle second in command with awe. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel "Bunny" Austin, had been my popular small arms instructor at Royal Military College in 1945-46.
In late October 1952, I occupied the left forward Observation Post (OP) on Hill 355, "Little Gibraltar". It was a real "eagle eyrie" with a magnificent view of the whole divisional front, from the Samichon River on the left to Hill 317 on the right. Located on the forward slope just behind the western company, the OP's "zone of observation" included Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (Hill 227and west), the valley floor and all the features leading up to 317, including Flora, a spur reaching out towards Number "55" OP, from the main feature. That was why the my OP was visited by so many senior officers , Divisional Commander, Brigade Commander and Chief Of Staff, in the early hours, invariably just after morning stand-to, when I was trying to get some sleep. Although my OP had a magnificent view of the approaches, due to the steep convex slope, there was some dead ground within and just forward of the left forward company position. This, B Company had re-occupied after the Chinese on John (on the 227 ridge line) had dealt severely with 1 Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). In fact, it was a shambles, bodies in half filled trenches, weapon pits caved in, wire chopped about, minefields unmarked and hygiene, well! Late mornings or early afternoons I scrambled down to "Joe" Mann's Company Headquarters to discuss support for patrols that night or to register targets in dead ground from the OP. One afternoon he came with me while I adjusted a regimental close Defensive Fire (DF) in the wire lest the enemy again attempt what they had done to the Canadians, fully aware that a large proportion of shells would fall within our Forward Defence Line (FDL). Over those weeks I formed a great admiration for Joe Mann, grey with weariness but ever the leader, restoring the company position, despite being overlooked by an enemy still shelling, mortaring and probing his position and out-posts. In my view, Joe had already earned a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) before his company was moved to the more secure right flank of 355 and we were warned for Operation "Fauna".
On the morning of 10 December 1952, Captain "Danny" Danskin, from the Royal Artillery (RA) 4.2 inch Mortar Light Battery, relieved me in 55 OP. With my OP assistant, Lance /Bombardier John Bright, a truly "bright" Kiwi sheep farmer and Gunner John (?) Burgess, my radio operator, I set off for Battalion Headquarters. The model was accurate, the briefing clear but I experienced a growing dread as the orders unfolded.
I had gazed down at the very ground we were to cover, day and nights for more than six weeks and I did not like the odds on such a large group getting to "Flora" undetected by the enemy positions overlooking it. Surprise would be essential! What had happened to the doctrine of secure start lines etc. A dicey do! John Bright quietly voiced his misgivings. Thank goodness we were going with big Joe Mann!
After the Orders (O) Group, the Commanding Officer 16 Field Regiment Royal New Zealand Artillery (RNZA), Lieutenant Colonel "Pat" Patterson and Battery Commander 162 Battery, Major Trevor Acherley explained the fire plan to me in more detail., The whole divisional artillery (with 16 Field Regiment on call in direct support) and two platoons of United States 155mm howitzers! Wow! But my role was strictly limited. The targets had been selected from those previously registered by me and others in the preceding weeks; shooting into the general area that day was strictly taboo to maintain surprise. Having been told my tasks were to provide an alternative communication link, and call for the fire plan 'CAPSTAN' when OC B Company was ready or surprise lost, to adjust, (if I could see anything), to help with navigation if necessary, they wished me "good luck". I felt I would need it.
After being relieved in the OP, and as I was not needed for the rehearsals, a shower seemed in order, especially as I had not had a proper wash for about three weeks. The Mobile Bath Section was near Brigade Headquarters and I bumped into Captain "Alby" Morrison who invited me to lunch. Captain John Stevenson, an old friend, had recently arrived and he joined us. (Both later became Major-Generals). Brigadier (Later Lieutenant General Sir Thomas) Daly spotted me and being aware of my role that night, asked what I was doing. Of course I had not mentioned the operation and he readily accepted my explanation without question. Then the long slow climb back to Hill 355. From my OP I identified the targets, marked them on a clean map section that would fit in my pocket, and checked the route on the ground before briefing Bright and Burgess from the OP. The usual checks of radio and equipment followed. The bullet and shrapnel proof vests arrived, the first time I'd worn one.
At 1700 hours (5 PM) we joined B Company on the right of 355 and were welcomed with a hot meal. Then a chat with Joe Mann in his bunker. Major Eric Smith, OC A Company, was already there, having relieved B Company earlier in the afternoon. We yarned. I had a nap, having decided there was nothing more I could contribute at this stage. I was only dozing and recall Eric's remark about the "sleep of the innocent". Little did he know of my concerns. The move down the slope of 355 was tediously slow. The snow on the track had been packed to ice and, despite rope handholds in places, it was hard not to fall, let alone fall quietly. Each fall added to the delay so we were late reaching the valley floor. Then it was slow moving over the cracking ice paddy fields, in the sub-zero temperature. But the noisy 1st Republic of Korea (ROK) Divisional battle on our right was good cover and a real bonus. Yet, when the unfortunate friendly contact occurred, it was hard to believe the din had not been detected. What with the delay, surely the raid would be called off now. Joe Mann again checked with Battalion Headquarters. To my surprise, we went on, periodically checking navigation and communications as quietly as we could, but, not quietly enough for the Company Commander who had some words with my radio operator.
As we penetrated between the menacing spurs I expected we would be detected and fired on at any minute. At last we reached the correct re-entrant, climbed towards the snow covered "Flora" ridge where B Company sorted themselves out. I drew my pistol. I could see the outline of the trenches to our north but still all was quiet. Suddenly, there were shouts and shots. I called for 'CAPSTAN' (the code name for our supporting fire) and down it came, shells swishing overhead to land to all three sides, to west, north and east as we set off south along the ridge away from the exploding shells. I followed Joe Mann as closely as I could, keeping the communication trench leading up to the enemy outpost which was our objective, on our right. Against the snow on the ridge it looked black and bottomless. I was determined not to fall in. By the time we reached the bunkers and trenches which formed the objective it was pretty noisy, small arms predominating. From what I could see and hear, the fire plan seemed to be working OK. The Company Comd collected situation reports (sitreps), having difficulty raising some who were too busy to reply. Enemy mortar bombs began falling and Joe and I had a short sharp discussion on the difference in sound between rounds going out and coming in.
He suggested we get down while we sorted things out. I had no sooner hit the deck than something big thumped me hard in the chest. A grenade! I rolled super quickly and felt something like a "cat of nine tails" thrash both upper arms, shoulders, lower back and buttocks as the bottom of the vest jammed into my spine. I called to Joe that I had been hit. His immediate response was "Can you walk?" Half stunned, I called back "I can't get up!" A big paw hauled me to my feet, Joe obviously did not relish the prospect of carrying me home. Just then another grenade landed about five yards in front of me, and a piece punched into my right thigh. We had been lying over an occupied bunker. Joe saw where the grenade had come from, moved towards the bunker opening and emptied his Owen machine carbine inside. No more Chinese grenades!
After another radio check it was time to move out. With Bright under one arm and Burgess under the other we set off after Joe Mann, striding down the slope. He soon outdistanced us so I took a compass bearing, which I had recorded in preparation, and headed for the minefield gap near Halifax outpost. At some stage I called for a "Repeat" of the fire plan. Along the way the medium 155 mms firing north of check point "Julius" seemed very close and I asked for them to be lifted further up the slope. It was slow going but we polished on. There were no complaints from Bright and Burgess who could not have been more supportive. Occasionally, we dimly glimpsed other groups heading the same direction but at better speed. We hit the minefield gap right on the nose, the silhouette of 355 having been a big help in keeping direction. There was Joe Mann waiting to check us in. He and some of his chaps helped with the long slow slippery climb back onto the summit of 355, taking turns with the two Kiwis. Some steep pinches were so icy that progress on hands and knees was the surest way, particularly, as I found falling pretty uncomfortable. It was daylight when at last we reached the top. Bright and Burgess took my vest, webbing and pistol and headed back to 55 OP. The vest was shredded from top to bottom but nothing had entered my chest and back above the waist. Whether Joe Mann helped me or carried me to the forward Regimental Aid Post (RAP) I can't remember as I was pretty much "all in" by this time, All my clothes were cut off and I was put face down on a stretcher with a blanket over me. Then followed the rough jeep ambulance ride down 355 to the Battalion RAP where the Indian Field Ambulance had set up a Casualty Clearing Point (CCP).
After some medical probing and prodding I was given a blood transfusion followed by a shot of morphine and began to feel much better. Captain Peter Cook, Adjutant 1 Battalion RAR, who had been my Section Commander at Royal Military College, showed up over my misty horizon. He asked if I needed anything. By this time I felt pretty cold so I answered "Yes, your jumper", He took if off like a shot and tucked it around me. I still owe Peter a jumper! Then the medical evacuation system , but that is a story on its own. Sufficient to say here that the system in the Indian Field Ambulance, Norwegian Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), Seoul, Kure and Concord looked after me magnificently and relieved me of seventeen grenade fragments. (There are still five in my pelvis area, much to the surprise of radiographers).
My assessment of Operation "Fauna"? A risky but well planned operation, professionally executed by some very brave men. I cannot speak too highly of those who entered the Chinese trenches and bunkers. I don't believe it was their fault we did not get a prisoner , given the depth of the bunkers and tenacity of the Chinese. The fire plan worked well as far as I can tell. The whole divisional artillery and two platoons of 155 mm mediums, 84 guns in all, is the sort of support an infantry company deserves when engaged in such a hazardous operation in close contact with a resolute enemy. As we move further in time from conflict this is too easily forgotten and we seem to be returning to the folly of expecting infantry to move bare-chested into battle without adequate supporting fire. My two gunner colleagues were great, typically pragmatic Kiwis. I have seen neither since that night despite efforts to locate them when in New Zealand, but I have always been conscious of the debt I owe them.
My admiration for Joe Mann is boundless. Without his cool, calm leadership the operation could not have been even a limited success. He gave everyone confidence and was the cement that held it all together. The epitome of the good commander! Personally, I learned a lot from him in those early weeks on 355 when he was at his best. Then, I would have followed him anywhere.
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