THE "STATIC WAR"
Major General Ronald Laurence Hughes CBE DSO graduated in 1939 as a subaltern in the Darwin Mobile Force, New Guinea and Tarakan campaigns. He later commanded 2 RAR in Puckapunyal and 3 RAR in Korea 1952-54. After a number of overseas and staff appointments he was appointed Commander 1 Task Force in South Vietnam 1967-68. Later he attended the Imperial Defence College and was Director of the Joint Staff 1971/73 and Commander 1 Division 1974-75 until retirement.
On 20 June 1952 I left Sydney for Korea to take command of 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR). I had just spent eighteen months at Puckapunyal commanding 2RAR which was engaged in training K Force and other Regulars as reinforcements for Korea. I traveled with Brigadier "Tom" Daly who was to become the first Australian commander of 28 British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade.
I arrived in Korea on 24 June 1952 to find the battalion in reserve but preparing to move into the line to relieve the 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment 1RCR) in a position known as the Songgok position. My predecessor, Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Frank Hassett, retained command of the battalion for the move into the line on 29 June 1952 and then handed over to me on 2 July 1952.
Unlike 1 and 2RAR who came to Korea as formed battalions and were relieved as formed battalions, 3RAR remained for ever in Korea and was reinforced continuously on what became known as the "trickle" system. This system has its advantages and disadvantages, but for me it had the advantage that I knew and had trained many of the officers, NCOs and men in Puckapunyal and most of the reinforcements joining the battalion in the next three months had been with me in Puckapunyal.
Immediately after we moved into the forward line the Brigade Commander made a number of changes in the Brigade dispositions. This enabled 3RAR to reposition D Company (Coy) into the forward left company area where it would be in close support of a very isolated platoon position we had inherited from 1RCR. As we moved into the line the rains came and so D Coy found digging the new company position relatively easy. The other companies however had difficulties with their weapon pits and hutchies because, due to a severe lack of timber, existing works were not very secure and under the influence of rain and Chinese shelling many of these fell in. It was necessary to rescue Major Ralph Sutton from a collapsed hutchie, but we suffered no casualties. 1RAR was not so fortunate. Later in the year the Engineers procured some very good eight inch timbers and very fine dugouts were built with excellent overhead cover.
The defensive lines of both the Allies and the enemy were built on ridge lines and tops of hills and in many places looked like sand bag villages. As we had air superiority there was little need on our part to worry about camouflage or not being seen walking around on the skyline. The enemy however was much more circumspect and whilst his defences were obvious he was rarely seen to show himself.
The routine within the battalion in the line was not unusual. We stood to just before first light and at last light. At night there were two sentries in each section while during the day there were two per platoon in the forward companies and one per platoon in rear companies. We also manned a battalion OP (observation post).
All defensive positions were heavily wired and all approaches had previously been mined. The minefields were fenced and red triangular markers were hung on the fences. The heavy growth of vines and grass and the regular enemy artillery fire constantly obscured or cut these fences and this caused us no end of worry, work and casualties. As part of our defensive routine we regularly inspected and repaired these fences.
Quite early in our tour in this position a patrol from A Company returning to base walked into one of our own mine fields and sustained very heavy casualties. The patrol was following a paddy bund which the patrol commander knew was crossed by the mine field fence. His plan was to follow the bund until he came to the fence, then turn left and follow the fence to the mine field gate. In the dark the leading scout did not see that the fence had been cut and lead the patrol into the mine field. Six or seven of the patrol were killed by the 'jumping-jack' mine. Recovering the casualties from the minefield in the dark was a very hazardous operation. As can be expected from then on it became patrol-drill that no patrol relied on the minefield fence for its navigation.
The war at this time was primarily a war of patrols and patrol clashes in no-mans-land. Our aim was twofold, to provide early warning of enemy attack and to dominate no-mans-land. In the summer and early autumn weather this was not a major problem and there was no restriction on the duration of the patrol or the length of time an ambush could remain in position. This changed dramatically during the bitter cold of winter. Patrols were at night and only twice did I have patrols out in daylight.
Apart from the two man patrols at the minefield gates there were normally several listening posts established on likely line of approach up the valleys between company positions. In addition, every night I sent out one or two fighting patrols and one or two reconnaissance patrols. The routes of these patrols were very carefully coordinated in place and time to ensure that even with faulty navigation there could be no patrol clashes. The fighting patrols normally set up ambushes on likely enemy lines of approach while the recce patrols moved from point to point so as to be able to detect enemy movement.
The Australian battalions always sent out more patrols than the British or Canadian battalions. The Divisional Commander once said to me "I always wonder how you find so many places to send your patrols to". I could have explained to him that it was not a matter of sending patrols "to places" but of having eyes to see that the enemy was not going to take 3RAR by surprise. 1RAR and 3RAR were never surprised, any potential attacks on our positions were broken up by artillery fire before they could develop. 1RCR and an American battalion that took over from 3RAR on Hill 355 (Little Gibraltar - Kowang San) were both jumped while occupying Hill 355 and both nearly lost the position which was the key to the whole divisional area.
During this tour in the line the battalion sent out only two deep penetration patrols. The first was tasked to locate a Chinese battery position and obtain as much information of the enemy dispositions as it could. The patrol penetrated the enemy FDLs and lay up near the enemy artillery position. The patrol commander discovered that he was very near to a Korean farm house. He investigated and discovered a Korean family of a father, mother, nineteen year old daughter and two sons about seventeen and eleven. There was also a donkey housed in the farm house. The patrol commander decided to take the elder son as a prisoner as he reasoned the son would be able to provide good intelligence information. While the attempt was made to take the prisoner who struggled violently the whole family set up a great outcry. Fearing that the noise would be heard by the soldiers at the nearby battery, the patrol beat a hasty retreat and returned empty handed.
Within the battalion great emphasis was placed on the passage of information and each morning the Intelligence Officer briefed representatives from companies on all previous night patrol activities and anything else of interest. The company reps returned to their companies and passed this information to platoons, and finally section commanders briefed their sections. The morning after this deep penetration patrol a section commander in D Coy was telling how the patrol commander had decided to bring the seventeen year old boy back as a prisoner. One soldier was heard to comment that it would have been better to bring the girl. The Company Sergeant Major (CSM) D Coy who was passing with a working party carrying wire and pickets and offered the thought that it would have been much more sensible to have brought the donkey.
Twice during this tour in the line we were ordered to take a prisoner. The first attempt was by a platoon of A Company. This was not successful and we had a lot of casualties including the platoon commander, missing, believed killed.
The second attempt took the form of a company attack by B Coy on the enemy FDLs. The direction of the attack was along the forward defensive lines (FDLs) from the flank of the enemy's main position.
The attack was fully rehearsed, except for the fire support, on a similar piece of ground in rear of the battalion position. The attack was to be on a one platoon front with a second platoon following immediately behind to mop up those positions overrun by the leading platoon. The third platoon was to form a firm base at the foot of the feature the enemy occupied.
On the night of the attack everything went smoothly and the leading platoon was soon onto the enemy position. The platoon moved forward close behind the close fire support which was being provided primarily by the tank guns of the 5 Dragoon Guards whose tanks were sitting on the ridge line on our side of no-mans-land. The guns were firing at right angles to B Coy's line of advance and our troops were able to move close up to the bursting shells. This was very effective as it kept the enemy's heads down and the leading platoon advanced quickly. The fire plan provided that when the guns reached the final enemy position within B Coy objective, the guns would lift their trajectory so that the scream of the rounds would be heard by the enemy in his pits but our infantry could close in for the kill without being hit by our own shells. This all worked to plan but the Company HQ which had been reporting progress suddenly lost contact with the leading platoons and we began to worry about what was happening. There was an urgent need for information so that the fire support plan could be adjusted. After some time with no reports coming back it appeared to us that the leading platoons were in trouble so I took the decision to drop the tank fire onto the enemy position again. Within a few seconds of giving that order, communication with the leading platoon was magically restored as they screamed for "cease fire". In their excitement they had forgotten to report they were on their objective.
The enemy fought fiercely and took casualties. He called down his own mortars on his position and B Coy casualties started to mount. The Coy Commander ordered the withdrawal. B Coy suffered one killed in action (1KIA), two missing in action (2MIA), and twenty four wounded in action (24WIA), some being wounded during the movement back to the battalion position. This operation did not achieve its main aim of taking a prisoner. These raids seldom did.
We were all issued with steel helmets but they were seldom worn. Tin hats were not worn in New Guinea, they were not suitable for night patrols and the Australian soldier tended to think it "sissy". No doubt because of the number of head wounds being evacuated through the medical system, the Divisional Commander ordered that helmets would be worn forward of BHQ at all times. I issued the order but wondered about how to enforce it. As it turned out I was lucky. That very night we received a very heavy shelling and in three separate companies men reported being hit on the helmet by shrapnel without suffering injury. After that we had no problems.
After 14 weeks in the line the battalion was pulled out and moved into reserve. We were allotted an area below Gloucester Hill which was south of the Injim River. Here we built a camp in a very pleasant area not previously used as a camp site. The virgin area, the very pretty autumn tints of the shrubbery, the quiet and the lack of tension after a very long period in action were delightful. The battalion was weary and this was a period of rest.
The Welsh Battalion was due to return to Hong Kong and they were being relieved in the Division by the Duke of Wellington's Battalion. In order to allow the new battalion to acclimatize and to carry out country training 3RAR was temporarily transferred from 28 British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade to the 29 UK Infantry Brigade to relieve the Welsh Battalion.
I would have been most upset at being ordered back into the line after only about three weeks in reserve if it hadn't been that we were to take over the Samichon position which was the quietest position along the whole divisional front. This new position was immediately west of the Songgok position where we had just spent 14 weeks so we knew the area fairly well. This position was up to 2,000 metres from the enemy FDLs and traditionally was very quiet. However, I was not about to let my defences down and I instituted a busy patrol programme. It was in fact a very good training area. We had very few if any patrol contacts, and company commanders were able to familiarize all their troops with patrol operations. It must be remembered that 3RAR was reinforced by the "trickle system" and we always had new and inexperienced troops. Patrolling was exciting but not too dangerous and even the Administration Company took their turn in patrolling.
After a few weeks we handed over to the Duke of Wellington's Battalion and reverted to under command of 28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade.
We moved to the reserve position known as Area 6 and became the Brigades counter attack force. Our role was to assist 1RAR hold Hill 355 in the event of a major Chinese attack.
Whilst in reserve this time I devoted a lot of our training time to mobile operations and infantry-tank cooperation. The battalion had been occupying defensive positions for so long that I was a little worried that the unit would not be able to operate efficiently in mobile operations if they didn't get a little practice. I always had the worry that if the enemy broke through the line anywhere we might find ourselves withdrawing down the peninsula as we had done after the intervention of the Chinese in 1950.
By this time we had been issued with our cold weather clothing which was a British pattern uniform. 3RAR retained the slouch hat as part of our uniform. 1RAR wore the soft cap which was part of the British uniform. The decision to wear the cap was made by the CO 1RAR. I understand because he couldn't get a slouch hat to fit him.
I had never previously experienced the cold that we were to cope with in Korea and I know most of the battalion had not experienced such cold either. I remembered a British Army gunner telling me of the effect of cold on his battery in the Appeninine Mountains in Italy in World War II when the members of the whole battery became useless and the battery non-operational because of the cold. I also noticed the paralyzing effect the cold appeared to have on the elements of the Divisional Engineers I had seen around the divisional area. I was satisfied that the cold produced both a physical and a morale downturn. I therefore issued orders that during daytime both the balaclava and the heavy outer parka would not be worn by anyone unless they were traveling in an open vehicle or standing as a sentry in an exposed position. The aim of these orders were to condition troops to the cold, persuade working parties to work hard to keep warm and to let them realize they still had another layer of clothing and so were not likely to freeze to death. I realized these orders would not be popular. This was confirmed some years later by my wife who had been chatting with her chiropodist who had been a member of 3RAR.
On 29 December 1952 we moved to Hill 355 to relieve 1RAR on the Divisional vital ground. 1RCR had nearly lost the position and 1RAR had fought hard and well to restore the situation. The enemy was still very active but he didn't dominate no-mans-land to the extent he had before 1RAR arrived. 1RAR had located and re-fenced the back side of the minefields and had located and fenced the minefield gates. Our job was to continue the patrol battles until we dominated no-mans-land, and to complete the wiring of the minefields. This latter job naturally fell to the Pioneers under Captain John Hutcheson. Hutch was an unusual person, he knew no fear and he always carried his toilet gear when on a minefield patrol because he couldn't bear the thought of not being able to shave if he was taken a prisoner. The Pioneers did a magnificent job in locating and marking the outer perimeter of the minefields. I always gave them protective patrols to help screen them, but in this position the FDLs were down to 200 metres and the outer minefield fence in one position was only 50 metres from the enemy positions.
Early one morning when returning through A Coy position, Hutcheson and his patrol were fired on by a trigger happy sentry, despite the fact the company was in radio contact with the Pioneers. Major Norrie the Coy Commander went down to apologies to "Hutch" whose only comment was "That man fires high and to the right".
The defences we occupied on Hill 355 were the best we had ever experienced. The engineers had built dugouts using eight inch timbers for uprights and beams. The roofs were sand bags and earth, sometimes up to eight feet thick. The communication trenches were about seven feet deep and the weapon pits had good overhead cover. Because the weather is dry in Korea the sides of the trenches would crumble a little every time someone brushed along them. It was a routine to sweep out dugouts and trenches every day and remove the resultant dust/dirt. The Operational Research Unit with the Division estimated that without this sweeping, the accumulated dust/dirt would raise the bottom of the trench 2 inches per week. At this rate it wouldn't be all that long before the soldiers head would show above the trench - hence sweeping was accepted with a good grace.
The third occasion I was ordered to capture a prisoner occurred in January 1953. A very full account of the operation is contained in the second volume of Bob O'Neill's official history of the Korean War (Pages 258-260).
The operation consisted of a small snatch patrol and two protective base patrols to give support after the snatch. The snatch was unsuccessful and the Chinese flooded the area with a large number of troops. The outcome was a lot of desperate fighting and a lot of casualties on both sides.
Three times I was ordered to take a prisoner and on all three occasions the snatch failed with heavy Australian casualties. This sort of operation invariably failed. Even when prisoners were taken they usually died before they could be interrogated. It is an operation to be avoided if possible.
Patrols in winter provided more problems than in the warmer months. In winter, even with all the excellent cold weather clothing and equipment we had, we could not leave a patrol in position for more than about 30 minutes. Ambush patrols were required to lay ambushes in several places because we couldn't afford to have them in position for more than 30 minutes, and man power and security wise we couldn't afford to send them out for just one 30 minute ambush. As a result I tended to ensure the battalions security by sending out a larger number of small recce (reconnaissance) patrols. In warm weather a recce patrol could stay out nearly all night. In the winter time I had to send two patrols, one before and one after midnight to ensure the same degree of surveillance and security.
At the end of January the whole of the Commonwealth Division, less some artillery units was relieved in the line by the 7th US Division. Before handing over all units were ordered to remove all British equipment and ammunition except for one first line of ammunition. This proved to be a major task as every unit had added to the stock of ammunition in the position. I think we removed from our position alone enough ammunition to keep the division going for a two week battle. I am sure all the other units had the same problem.
It was a great relief to pull back about 30 miles to a place known as Camp Casey where the whole Brigade concentrated and where for the first time we couldn't hear the guns.
While in Camp Casey, 2RAR arrived to relieve 1RAR. 3RAR continued on in Korea and was named "Old Faithful" by the Brigade Commander Brigadier "Tom" Daly. I also returned to Australia from Camp Casey.
|© Australian Album ©|