In September 1951 the 1st British Commonwealth Division, made up of British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops received orders to push forward from the line Kansas to conform to the overall advance of the Eighth Army.
"Commando" was the name given this operation, in which the 28 British Commonwealth Brigade was destined to play the major part and bear the brunt of the actual fighting done by the Division. 28 Brigade consisted of The King's Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI), The King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) and 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (RAR).
3 Battalion RAR had not previously fought a major engagement as part of a Brigade. It had of course been campaigning for just on a year in Korea and was rated by many senior officers to be one of the best, if not the best, fighting unit in the Eighth Army.
Let me sketch briefly the aim of Operation Commando, and the method by which it was to be carried out. In the West Central Sector of the front, just west of the Imjin River and about ten miles north of the 38th Parallel, there were two dominant hills identified respectively as Hill 355 ( "Little Gibraltar, Kowang San)and Hill 317 (Maryang San). These two hills were a vital part in the Communist western defences and were assessed by Intelligence to be part of the enemy's main winter defence line. The aim of Operation Commando was to seize these two features.
The attack was to be carried out in two phases.
Phase One, the capture of Hill 355 by the KOSB, supported on the left by the KSLI and on the right by 3 RAR.
Phase Two, the capture of Hill 317 by 3 RAR, supported on the left by 1 Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers (NF).
Phase One was only a secondary role for 3 RAR; the Battalion's main effort was the capture of Hill 317. It was the capture of this feature that routed the Communists from this section of the front.
D Day - D Day was 3 October 1951
On 1 October the Brigade moved to assembly areas west of the Imjin River to permit a short approach march and to avoid a long move on the day prior to the actual attack. At 0330 hours (3.30 am) on Wednesday 3 October Phase One of Operation Commando began. B Company 3 RAR, led by Captain "Wings" Nicholls of Melbourne moved to Hills 159/199, which was to the north-west of Hill 355, permitted the Company to give valuable fire support to the KOSB from first light onward. At 0430 hours, A Company, led by Captain "Jim" Shelton of Melbourne moved off, followed by B Company, at first light, which was about 0600 hours. The two Companies came under enemy artillery shelling, and a little later made contact with an enemy patrol, which they quickly dispatched, one prisoner of war was taken. The shelling was not unduly heavy and only slight casualties were suffered. At this time two tanks of the 8 King's Royal Irish Hussars were moved forward to join the two Companies; the giant Centurions clambered up seemingly impossible slopes to rake enemy positions with 20 pounder high explosives and machine gun fire. The tanks were used much more in this operation than at any previous time, and their value as pin point artillery, at point-blank range, was quite a considerable factor in the capture of a number of positions. The KSLI made steady progress on the southern flank, and throughout the day the KOSB attacked up the central line of approach to Hill 355. The enemy however, had made a determined stand, and nightfall 3 October found the attackers still short of their objective. The Brigade consolidated for the night and prepared for attack at first light the following morning.
To the north of the main objective, Hill 355, there was a sizable feature held by the Communists. During the previous day, the enemy had been able to bring flanking fire from there on to the KOSB attacking from the west. Hence it was decided that C Company 3 RAR, would capture this feature simultaneously with an attack by KOSB onto Hill 355. C Company, under the command of war wise soldier, Major "Jack Gerke" of Western Australia, moved off at dawn. Under the cover of the heavy morning mist, which filled the valleys, C Company crossed the dangerous, low lying ground and commenced the climb up to the steep objective. The approach route selected was up the steepest part of the feature, and before the Chinese realized their danger, the Australians were attacking. Enemy mortars began pasting C Company, but nothing now could stop the momentum of the attack. Major Gerke himself participated in the final grenade and machine gun battle. Private "Jimmy" Burnett, a young Bren-Gunner from Queensland, climbed on to a dominating portion of the feature and firing from the hip carved a gap through the ranks of the surprised enemy. C Company quickly consolidated its first advantage, the enemy broke and scattered in hasty retreat. In the meantime, the KOSB, its flank freed from danger by C Company's successful attack, made rapid progress and by early afternoon Hill 355 was in our hands.
Hill 317 - A Tough Nut to Crack
Now that the Chinese knew our intentions, the utmost speed was essential to maintain some element of surprise, so it was decided that on the following day 3 RAR would attack and capture Hill 317. Hill 355 had been hard going, but with some element of surprise now lost as we moved further into the enemy's defence line, it was expected that Hill 317 would be even more strongly held and a tougher nut to crack.
By evening, 4 October, all was ready. The plan briefly was that A Company 3 RAR was to make a feint attack up a ridge line from the east, to occupy the enemy's attention and draw his fire. B Company and D Company were to move by a spur line from the north-east. B Company to clear the lower features and D Company to pass through and capture Hill 317. C Company would remain in reserve The move commenced at 0400 hours 5 October. First light came, and a heavy mist lay in the valleys which sheltered the toiling Companies during the approach march. By 0930 hours, B Company had cleared its features more than halfway to the objective, and D Company was moving up on the left of B Company when suddenly the fog lifted. B Company, under cover of the mist, had secured a commanding feature further to the north, but D Company was dangerously exposed to the Chinese positions. D Company Commander, Major "Basil" Hardiman of NSW, did the only thing he could do with any hope of success, he attacked.
In the history of 3 RAR assault actions in Korea, there had been nothing to equal the Hill 317 for the good leadership by section, platoon and company commanders and for the fine support by the 16 New Zealand Field Regiment and the rest of the divisional artillery. Above all it was the courage of the men who, in the final analysis, wrenched victory from the startled Chinese.
The Battalion, at that time, had been largely reinforced, and many of the older, experienced members had been relieved. This made not the slightest difference. The youngsters gained inspiration from the old hands and nothing could stop them. Early in the attack, Major Hardiman was seriously wounded in the leg. Lieutenant "Jim" Young, the senior Platoon Commander, took over the attack, and never faltered. There were four distinct features to be cleared. When the first feature was taken, the Commanding Officer (CO) asked Young, "Can you go on ?". The answer was " Give me fifteen minutes of artillery and we will be ready to move". The artillery fell on the objective. D Company attacked again, and the second feature fell to Lieutenant "Algie" Clark's 11 Platoon. Corporal Black, a veteran from Melbourne, was in charge of one of the leading Sections. He was blown from his feet by a grenade and seriously wounded in the left arm by machine gun fire. Unarmed, he continued to lead the attack, shouting encouragement to his men. 12 Platoon, under Sergeant Bill Rowlinson (later awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal [DCM]) moved through 11 Platoon and continued the attack. In half an hour of taking the first objective the features were ours, and a Chinese Company ceased to exist. It was a mighty effort.
At this point, the CO, Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Francis "Frank" Hassett, (later General Sir Francis AC., KBE., CBO., DSO., LVO) made one of the decisions which was responsible for the final victory. The two assaulting Companies, B and D, could not continue immediately on to Hill 317, both having suffered losses, and the men were exhausted from the tremendous effort. C Company, ten men light from its battle on Hill 355, was ordered to move through D Company and take Hill 317. Knowing that speed was the essence of the contract, Major Gerke raced C Company up to D Company and through. Before the Chinese realised what had happened, Hill 317 was in our hands. It had all been brilliant work, the men were magnificent, the planning and the execution left nothing to be desired. A Company, all this time, had occupied the enemy on the eastern ridge line, being battered by his artillery, engaging him with small arms, making a show of strength, so that not until C Company arrived on the high point behind them did the Chinese realize what was happening.
This, however, was only the beginning; the point consisting of three main features. That night, C Company held a very tight perimeter and absorbed probing attacks.
The next day the Northumberland Fusiliers were to attack up a ridge line from the south and capture the most western of the three pimples; in conjunction with this attack C Company 3 RAR was to probe forward from Hill 317 itself. 8 Platoon, under young Duntroon graduate, Lieutenant Arthur "Bushy" Pembroke, fighting his first big battle, moved off at 0700 hours on 6 October.
It moved unopposed on to the central feature. The Chinese, in that strange, illogical way that they have, had permitted 8 Platoon to occupy, unopposed, a feature that they could have held. The Platoon had only just moved on to the feature when the Chinese, realising their mistake, counter attacked, but they were no match for the Australians and, after a fierce hand-to-hand engagement, they conceded the victory and withdrew.
During the day the Northumberland Fusiliers attacked again and again from the south, but the Chinese, from strongly dug positions, resisted, and by nightfall 6 October no progress had been achieved.
The Northumberland Fusiliers had been badly battered during that day, so it was agreed that on 7 October, 3 RAR should complete the task attacking from Hill 317.
The objective, the last key to the line of features, was called The Hinge, and once it was secured, the Chinese were beaten. B Company was given the task. On the evening of 6 October B Company moved into a position on the centre feature, taking over from Lieutenant Pembroke and his 8 Platoon. At first light, Lieutenant Colonel Hassett (CO) moved his Tactical Headquarters to Hill 317 and from there conducted the battle through the day of 7 October, a day that would be remembered by those who experienced it as one of the hardest that the Battalion had to endure. At 0800 hours (8 am) B Company attacked with two platoons forward. The Chinese permitted the two leading platoons to go through, and then, coming out of concealed positions, attacked Company Headquarters and the reserve platoon. It was a bitter fight and one of the decisive battles of the operation. The reserve platoon and Company Headquarters suffered heavy casualties, but the enemy suffered more and finally broke and scattered. Captain Nicholls quickly consolidated his position and the Company prepared for a counter attack. Several engagements occurred that day, but after a time it was obvious that the enemy was waiting for nightfall to make his main effort. By this time, enemy artillery was falling with dreadful accuracy on Battalion Tactical Headquarters, with C Company on Hill 317 and on B Company on The Hinge. It was unceasing throughout the day and casualties were heavy.
Colonel Hassett calmly directed the battle from his precarious position. He was an inspiration to all ranks. Later, troops back in casualty clearing stations, wounded as a result of the devastating artillery throughout the day of 7 October would ask "How is the CO?" It was the Colonel's first major action with his Battalion, and as a result of it he earned their complete confidence and respect, an important morale builder in the hours to come.
The problem of re-supply and evacuation was a big one. The stretcher bearers worked constantly with complete disregard for their own lives to bring the wounded back to safety. The signaler line-men struggled in the open throughout the day to maintain line communication as enemy artillery blasted great lengths in the cable. The Korean Porter Train escorts urged their wearying charges up the steep and dangerous slopes, carrying urgently needed ammunition and supplies to the rifle companies. Late in the afternoon the shelling slackened somewhat, allowing the toiling signalers to complete the mending of their shattered cable between Battalion Headquarters and the two forward companies. For the first time in hours we were able to converse with a freedom that wireless does not permit. Jack Gerke (C Company), Nick (B Company) and I spoke quickly of the many problems to be dealt with, rations, supplies, ammunition, evacuation of the wounded, artillery Defensive Fire tasks (DF's) for the night and many other things that are vital at such times. A joke or two, in spite of the fatigue of a long and heavy day. The CO had another word with his Commanders, everything was ready, ready for the attack which we knew must come.
Chinese Big Artillery Effort
From 1930 hours till 2000 hours an ominous silence pervaded the battlefield and at 2000 hours (8 PM) it came, the heaviest and most concentrated enemy shelling, chiefly on the two forward companies, that the Chinese had yet produced. For thirty minutes it continued, the nerve racking thunder of exploding shells. The telephone cable was blasted in the first volley of shells; hundreds of rounds fell in the Chinese' biggest artillery effort of the war. At 2030 hours the shelling eased and lifted, and the Chinese attacked.
They attacked on three sides, expecting a dazed and battered enemy. Instead, they found an enemy resolute and confident; they attacked not against disorganized defences , but against a blazing perimeter of Australian rifles and machine guns. Again and again they attacked, but, in vain. Our own artillery, by this time was in full swing, and the Chinese were sent reeling back, their hopes of speedy victory completely disillusioned. Three times that night they attacked with blind courage, but could not hope to succeed. Later, it was estimated that the greater part of two Battalions were used in this attack and they lost a very large part of this force in their futile attempts to regain their lost position. By dawn of the morning 8 October 1951 the battle was over, and another victory had been won. Our troops were weary and heavy eyed from the strain of a long fight, but it was a proud moment.
Congratulations came from Army, Corps, Division and Brigade, but the finest tribute of all came from the Commanding Officer, Frank Hassett, when in his official report of the operation, he said of his men ;
And so ended one of the epics of Australia's part in the Korea War of 1950-1953, to be added to an already proud tradition.
Proud as I was of the Battalion in this magnificent engagement, my mind at times went back to the earlier battles at "Sardine "Salmon" and "Kapyong"
Hill 410 March 1951
I was the Officer Commanding D Company 3 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) on 7 March 1951. Our objective then was a high steep ridge-line, crowned by two hilltops which had been given the identities of Hill 532 and Hill 410. These two hills were part of the defensive positions of the 124th and 125th Chinese Divisions which they had been continually preparing and reinforcing. 2 Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) was to capture Hill 532, which was to the left of our front and 3 Battalion RAR objective was Hill 410 located to the right of our front. At first light both Battalions crossed the start line (SL). The leading Companies immediately came under heavy and concentrated machine gun and rifle fire. A Company 3 RAR was pinned down approximately one third of the way up the spur line leading to the apex of Hill 410. Our artillery and mortar support was unable to locate the positions that the enemy was firing from. A Company spent a difficult and hazardous time on the slopes that were so precipitous that further movement was severely hampered. At 1000 hours (10 am), D Company was to commence the climb along a parallel spur. We would be supported by artillery and mortars. Our plan was simple. After a brief reconnaissance the orders were ;
Attack with one platoon forward up the left-hand ridge to Bald Knob (Hill 410).
This would relieve the pressure on A Company and at the same time, open the way for a concerted effort by the two companies to capture the objective. The enemy was well aware of our intentions. Hostile fire from mortars, machine guns and rifles increased considerably. Quick movement by D Company was essential. 11 Platoon led, followed by Company Headquarters, with 10 Platoon right and 12 Platoon to the left. We lost no time. 11 Platoon moved out from the small creek which had given us momentary protection. With one section forward in extended line, 11 Platoon commenced its move across dangerous open space. D Company had already suffered casualties but 11 Platoon was fortunate in this stage of its advance and crossed the open space without further losses. Supporting fire from our artillery and mortars had all this time been plastering the ridge line up which our attack was to be made. This fire lifted and moved up along the ridge as the leading Platoon approached. To move close in behind supporting fire in this manner is the key to successful support. 11 Platoon used it to the fullest advantage on this occasion.
Immediately 11 Platoon had consolidated on the lower slope of the ridgeline, the remainder of the Company moved off, suffering several casualties crossing the open ground. The 12 Platoon "runner", moving with Company Headquarters, was wounded and died before he could be taken to the rear. Two other lads were hit by rifle fire but were able to make their own way to the Regimental Aid Post (RAP). At last we were across the clearing. Meanwhile 11 Platoon was moving cautiously up the ridge and we followed, hand over hand, up the precipitous ridge line to the round bald knob above. Enemy opposition increased dramatically as we inched our way upwards. Time and again we hugged the earth as small arms fire cracked over our heads. We watched fascinated as bullets shattered bushes immediately over our heads. Two Americans were with Company Headquarters, to pass orders for the mortars that we had in support. Half way up the ridge both were wounded and a bullet snapped off their radio aerial. By this time we were too close to our objective to risk direct support from the mortars.
As we clambered upwards, the exertion made us sweat profusely, despite the snow and the cold. The dirt of the hillside clung to our damp clothing. Thirst tickled our dry throats and our stomachs yearned for food. Considering the intensity of the enemy's small arms fire and mortar shelling our casualties were extremely light, one killed in action and several wounded.
Meanwhile 11 Platoon had moved to a position from which it could strike. Then occurred one of those incidents of chance which afflict all armies in the field. A phosphorous bomb intended for the enemy dropped short and landed only a yard or two from the Platoon Commander (Lieutenant R "Dick". Battersby), spraying him and other members of his Platoon with burning phosphorous. Fortunately, he had rolled just as the bomb landed and escaped with minor burns on his hands. Showing great calm he rallied his forces and reported himself ready to proceed with the attack. 11 Platoon moved into the attack with supporting fire from 10 and 12 Platoons on the left and right, while A Company edged forward as best it could from its exposed position. After a brief sharp struggle 11 Platoon overcame the demoralized enemy. Three were bayoneted and several others shot as they made their last desperate bid to escape over the hilltop.
Consolidation was proceeding rapidly when fate again dealt a cruel blow. A wandering shell, its origins never fully explained, landed in the midst of 10 Platoon. It may have been a drop short from some of our own artillery, or a mortar bomb off course, or a fluke enemy shell, but there it was to cloud a triumphant day with the knowledge that three of 10 Platoon were killed and three were wounded at the very moment of our Company's success. The assault had cost 3 RAR twelve killed and twenty four wounded.
I well remember the incident referred to by Corporal "Joe" Vezgoff as the Fun Run. It was just after New Years Day 1951 and all Company Commanders had been summoned to the rear to meet the CO, at a rendezvous, to reconnoitre our new defence line. We were actually on Jeeps heading south when the Chinese and the North Koreans attacked. There was considerable confusion and at least two of our Companies were spread-eagled across the paddy fields seeking shelter behind earth walls which surrounded the paddies.. I said to" Arch" Denness who was the Senior Company Commander;
Arch pointed to one Company that was spread out across the paddy fields and said ;
It turned out to be C Company and as Joe recalls, I moved in along side to the nearest high position and developed a defence line through which the other Companies leap-frogged. Just for two or three glorious hours, I commanded 3 Battalion RAR as I directed all Companies on their southward move. We withdrew satisfactorily and rejoined the Battalion at a multistory building that had been lit by fires built in 44 gallon drums. It was a wonderful sight as we approached the northern edges of Seoul to see the lights glistening in the windows and reflecting on the snow that surrounded the building. We had a few good hours sleep that night and moved on towards Seoul in the morning.
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