PATROL TO ICHON AND KAPYONG REVISITED
PATROL TO ICHON: 20 JANUARY 1951
For some time I have considered writing up this patrol action to Ichon as it had a deep personal impact on me. It was a quite normal patrol in all events except that I was forced to leave an officer and four fine soldiers behind, and they became Prisoners of War.
Any commander who puts his men in a position where they are taken prisoners by the enemy has a nasty time with his conscience but agonising over it then or since I don't see how I had a viable option. What prompts me to comment now is that recently, for the first time since that night, I met one of these fine men, Tom Hollis. Our meeting was cordial and included some very interesting discussion on life in enemy hands. However I was disappointed to discover that, understandably, he was not aware of the circumstances surrounding his capture. Subsequently, all through those dreadful years in enemy hands he had believed that I should not have withdrawn the company while the patrol was out.
Many soldiers will understand my dilemma. This is how it came about.
During 1950 the 3 Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment was left in relative peace north of Seoul at Ui Jongbu but New Years Day 1951 saw the Chinese Army on the offensive once more and the United Nations being driven south in a frantic retreat. By our teachings the description "retreat" was forbidden in favour of "withdrawal" which implied a more orderly process. I use retreat deliberately to describe the confused scramble which developed with no attempt to maintain contact with the pursuing enemy. The result was predictably obvious, the United Nations army kept withdrawing long after the Chinese had given up the chase. The rout eventually came to a halt at what became code name "Line D". The 27th British Commonwealth Brigade sector of which 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) was a member, was located in the area of Changhowon-ni, a small village.
Patrolling revealed that the nearest enemy was some eighteen to twenty miles away to the north. Extracts from 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment's War Diary give the lead up to the A Company patrol on the 20 January 1951, which is the subject of this record.
From the War Diary.
13 January 1951
14 January 1951
15 January 1951
16 January 1951
16 January 1951
16 January 1951
17 January 1951
17 January 1951
18 January 1951
19 January 1951
The site where the ICHON patrol base was to be established was sixteen or so miles north of the Battalion, a lot of " no man's land ".A communications relay station with telephone and high frequency radio was set up a mile or so to the rear of the patrol base. Here a small detachment, including a half Mortar Section was left to protect the group, some deployed on high ground to the east and the remainder along a creek bank to the west.
A deep blanket of snow covered the ground, the air was still and cloudless, promising a freezing night but excellent visibility from a full moon. This was the normal setting for Chinese night operations and the enemy telephone line laid forward was not good news.
At ICHON I contacted the Commander of F Company of the United States 5th Regiment who could provide no more information than I already had. Guides led my Platoons to the F Company positions for a relief in the line. This completed, they departed with hand shakes and the usual "Good luck Aussie". I then moved my headquarters to between the forward Platoons astride the road, at a cutting over looking the steep, wide valley and forward slope of the high feature opposite. 1 Platoon, under Lieutenant Angus McDonald , on the left, 2 Platoon commanded by Lieutenant John Church on the right with a Section of 2 Platoon commanded by Corporal Eveleigh, forward of the main body to give early warning of enemy approach. Lieutenant Harold Mulry's 3 Platoon was separate from the main body, sited to guard a road leading into our main position from the north east.
Part of my briefing by the Commanding Officer required that a patrol be tasked to establish whether the enemy had dug defences on the forward slope of the feature opposite to the one that the patrol occupied. This task I gave to Angus McDonald, a quiet but very experienced officer who had served as a Commando against the Japanese in New Guinea.
I had visualised this patrol to be of sufficient strength to fight if necessary but just before night fall Angus approached me with the proposition that he could do the task better with a small, easier to manage reconnaissance group and that he had four ex-commandos versed in this sort of thing. The request made sense and obviously McDonald was confident this was the way to tackle the problem. I agreed to the request. When briefing Angus I anticipated the company could be attacked whilst his patrol was out and it would be unwise to attempt to return through the enemy lines. Should the patrol hear or see evidence of such an attack I instructed they should take a wide detour east, and make their own way back to friendly lines.
Shortly after dark McDonald got under way. The patrol consisted of Lieutenant McDonald, Corporals Buckland & Buck and Privates Light & Hollis. We settled down to sit out hours of exposure to the bitter cold of a Korean winter night. At some time during the night my attention was drawn to a procession of tiny black dots in the snow way out to the west and moving in a southerly direction. I watched them for some time as they moved very slowly and well dispersed . I estimated about Company strength. The question of course, was what were their intentions?. I knew it wasn't a recreational stroll and reasoned they were aiming at our rear, to lay ambush somewhere on our route out. There were sixteen miles of snow between us and the Battalion and instincts warned me to get my command far enough back to be behind enemy reception parties. However, I had Angus and his patrol loose somewhere in the valley in front of us. I had to chew finger nails and hope they would show up in time.
At 0100 hours (1 am) the first indication of enemy intentions came when Eveleigh's forward outpost was attacked with Lance Corporal Andrew being killed in the opening shots. They fought off the attack and then withdrew back to 2 Platoon. The situation was quiet for a while then, preceded by bugle noises, an assault went in on the right of John Church's 2 Platoon. This was repulsed. The enemy then resorted to small arms, mortar and machine gun fire from a hill out to the left, spraying tracer in our direction.
I had been around long enough to recognise the old tactic of "fixing" the front while deploying a force to the flank or the rear. I now had a Company of men about to be caught in a trap so something had to be done and quickly. In snow, sounds travels a long way on a still night, that and tracer advertised our problem so I was confident that McDonald's patrol were aware that we were under attack and would make no attempt to come in behind it. I expected that they would circle away from us and head for home as instructed. I ordered withdrawal to the detachment at the communications relay station, reckoning that this would put us outside the range of a Chinese hook. From there we could watch the situation develop until dawn, then patrol to feel out the situation forward of us. The two forward platoons were ordered to pull back with John Church's 2 Platoon being the rear guard. A message was sent to Mulry for 3 Platoon to rendezvous at the relay station.
While the platoons were still in the process of withdrawing from their forward positions the detachment at the relay station drew fire from a small enemy patrol attempting to cross the creek. The detachment returned the fire and the enemy withdrew. As it turned out this was a Chinese reconnaissance patrol for a much larger body.
1 and 3 Platoons and Company Head Quarters arrived at the relay station at about 0300 hours (3 am) and looking back saw the fireworks of tracer and mortar fire from another enemy attack going in on the positions we had recently vacated. 1 and 3 Platoons were deployed for local protection. I called up the Commanding Officer and was briefing him on the situation and our intentions when the conversation was interrupted by an attack coming in from the west, supported by machine gun and a mortar illuminating the scene with flares. A confusing situation developed which was not easy to get a handle on.
2 Platoon was having a bad night. While approaching the relay area they ran into the fire being exchanged between the enemy and 1 and 3 Platoons and to avoid the cross fire they circled away to the east to regain the road south of the battle area. Two groups of enemy were reported, each about thirty strong so here we had the problem again. To permit ourselves to be pinned down here could invite the Chinese to set an ambush somewhere along the sixteen or so miles back to battalion lines. I sent the radio crews on their way then withdrew 1 and 3 Platoons and set off once more. Some distance down the road we stopped at a deserted village to wait for 2 Platoon to catch up. At this point I called the Commanding Officer and again reported the situation and requested transport.
For the next few days we kept hopes alive that McDonald and his team might show up, but with time, the best that we could wish for was that they were alive. Later, we were to learn, that while attempting to return to the Company's line at ICHON they became aware of Chinese soldiers on the road in front of them. The patrol backed off and hid in a deserted hut. Unfortunately, this move was observed by a civilian who reported it to the Chinese. The hut was surrounded and the whole patrol taken as prisoners of war.
I was surprised to learn that they had even contemplated rejoining the Company. The sounds of battle and the spraying of tracer warned of enemy on our door step, circumstances which should have indicated avoiding that area, even if I had not instructed it.
To site a patrol in "no mans land" sixteen miles from friendly troops and in close proximity to the enemy forward defences will always be a risky business. To repeat this eight nights in succession is deliberately provoking an enemy commander worth his salt into wiping it out. I have absolutely no doubt the trap was laid on for us that night and would have worked, had we not observed the enemy force going around us, silhouetted against a background of snow. We beat the trap by no more than five minutes. Delay of the initial withdrawal would have resulted in men killed and wounded, a long way from home for no useful purpose. There was nothing that we could have done to avert the fate of the patrol already in enemy hands.
Since writing "The Battle Of Kapyong : From the Inside", research by historians and general discussion with participants in the battle, have filled in puzzling gaps in events, clarified matters previously obscure. and revealed fresh material. The purpose of this rewrite is to up- date " The Battle of Kapyong: From the Inside". O'Dowd has only covered the actions of the four rifle companies with which he was involved. The Support Company Platoons, Assault Pioneer, Anti Tank and Mortar were sited to shield Battalion Headquarters and experienced fierce action in the rear. That is a separate story.
In April 1951 the traditional invasion route to South Korea was guarded by the 6th Division of the Republic Of Korea Army, astride the Kapyong Road.) On the 23rd of April the Chinese Army attacked and this division broke, disintegrated and withdrew in disarray, leaving the left flank of Seoul exposed to the enemy. To take advantage of this opening the Chinese Army Commander dispatched a division to spearhead the drive for Seoul. 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) took this formation head on, stopped it dead in its tracks then fought off attack after attack for the next twenty four hours, until ordered to withdraw. Then the Canadian Battalion took up the fight, delaying the Chinese a further twenty four hours, the enemy lost momentum and stalled. These battalions had bought time at great cost in Australian and Canadian lives, time which gave the United Nations Command the opportunity to position a force in the path of the Chinese Army. Seoul did not fall. In recognition of their stand these battalions were awarded the United States Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation.
This is the story of the 3RAR rifle companies' participation.
Mid April 1951 3RAR was enjoying an over due respite from operations, resting in reserve in a pleasant little wooded area not far from the town of Kapyong. Life was good, we were on fresh rations which we had not experienced for some time, a steady issue of beer was available and the tranquillity and warmth of early spring created a relaxed, holiday atmosphere. Soon we would be celebrating Anzac Day with the New Zealand Artillery and Turkish Infantry regiments. On the morning of the 23rd I lay stretched out on the grass enjoying a care free doze when my signaler abruptly destroyed the mood with a message ordering companies to be put on one hour notice to move and the Orders Group (O Gp) to assemble at the village of Chuktun -ni. I told Captain Bob Murdoch, my Second In Command, to prepare the troops, check out the F Echelon (Fighting) vehicles and stores and stand by .
At Chuktun-ni the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel I B Ferguson, briefed along the lines that the 6th Republic Of Korea Division (6ROK) was holding the line about twenty miles north of our position and under attack. We were to conduct reconnaissance for a blocking position to be occupied later, should this become necessary. We could then return to our rest area and get on with the tranquillity. There seemed to be no great urgency in the situation, particularly as the O Gp was being conducted on a small feature just forward of the 6ROK Divisional Headquarters.
By necessity the brigade was to be deployed over a wide area with frightening gaps between units. In turn the battalion had to accept an extended front with consequential gaps between sub units. The intended brigade lay out called for two battalions forward on dominating features each side of the Kapyong Road. 3 RAR on the right, from the road to hill 504, the Middlesex Regiment (1MX) was left (west) of 3RAR on the hill, Sudok San. The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Regiment (2PPCLI) was south of 1MX on Hill 677, guarding a road running in from the north west. 16th New Zealand Field Artillery Regiment was located to the rear of the PPCLI. Unsatisfactory as this intended brigade layout was, it became even worse. The New Zealand Field Regiment was ordered forward to support the 6ROK Division but because the ability of the ROKs to keep the Chinese away from the guns was suspect, 1MX was dispatched to cover the Kiwis. It so transpired that neither of these units returned in time to take up their battle positions.
The Middlesex not occupying their feature left 3RAR stuck out on its own like a sore thumb and with the guns not in position the battalion was to fight a major night battle without artillery support
While the O Gp was in progress, the order came through for the blocking position to be occupied. Discarding happy anticipation of more tranquillity we went to work on reconnaissance in preparation for the arrival of our companies.
The rifle companies were deployed : B Company, commanded by Captain Darcy Laughlin, on the left, responsible for the road and located on a low feature running parallel to it He put a standing patrol commanded by Corporal Clem Kealy on a small knoll forward of the company. A Company, my company, was across the road from B Company on a spur which climbed steadily from the road to the 504 metres peak where D Company, commanded by Captain Norman Gravener, occupied the vital ground. About half way down the ridge from D Company a secondary spur forked off to the south east, forming a reentrant between it and A Company. On this fork C Company, Commanded by Captain Reg Saunders, was in reserve. The A Company responsibility extending from the road to D Company was far too much ground for one Company, two would have had difficulty in covering it. At the O Gp I had requested an extra platoon, either the Anti Tank or Assault Pioneer Platoon but this was refused. However, Sergeant Lennie Lenoy's Medium Machine Gun Section (MMG) was allocated to provide some additional manpower. Having a responsibility to support B Company in denying the road to the enemy I concentrated the platoons opposite the road on the lower end of our feature. This left a tremendous gap between A and D Companies for which absolutely nothing could be done beyond registration of Defensive Fire Tasks (DF Tasks)
The lower end of our spur was reasonably level for about 125m and accommodated 1 and 3 Platoons, Company Headquarters and the MMG Section. The ground then rose sharply to a knoll overlooking 1 and 3 Platoons and here I established 2 Platoon to provide cover for them. The unoccupied rising ground between 3 and 2 Platoons was a problem but without more troops nothing could be done about it
The US 72nd Tank Battalion, (Shermans) provided a Tank Company of three platoons, each of five tanks and commanded by Lieutenant Kenneth W. Koch. An odd relationship existed between the tanks and 3 RAR. They were neither under command nor in support but merely in location. Koch operated completely independent of the Commanding Officer (CO) 3RAR or anyone else. Any direct assistance provided was either in response to a cry for help or unexpected involvement in our tactical situations of their own volition.
For the night of 23/24 April the tank commander deployed his platoons : one forward of B Company where the road crossed a ford., one on the road opposite C Company and the other back at Battalion Headquarters. These platoons were independent of the battalion and sited with no consideration of mutual tank--infantry cooperation Because the ROKs had a reputation for "bugging out" when pressed, without the formality of a good bye, the CO positioned our Intelligence Sergeant, Colin McGregor, in their Divisional Headquarters to give early warning of indications of ROK nervousness. It did not work ! Before our deployment was complete the Chinese had broken the ROKs and were on their way. We remained in blissful ignorance of this.
My Company came forward and was quickly put into position. On the left and nearest the road 1 Platoon took up defence. This platoon was commanded by Lieutenant Freddie Gardner, an experienced officer who had previously served in the British Army with the Gurkhas. I set the MMG Section and Company Headquarters personnel alongside 1 Platoon and 3 Platoon covered the remainder of the lower or main position. This Platoon was commanded by Harold Mulry, a tough, fearless warrior who led this platoon through many a dangerous situation during the previous six months. On the knoll overlooking our main position I positioned 2 Platoon, giving away the intervening ground. Their commander, Lieutenant Lou Brumfield (1) was a graduate of the Royal Military College and had only joined the Company a few days previously. This was to be his introduction to fighting. Sergeant George Harris was acting Company Sergeant Major responsible for headquarters personnel and ammunition supply. I had used George in various capacities, including Platoon Commander and he always served me well. Kapyong was no exception. (2)
Editors Note(1) Later Lou was to command the first battalion sent to Vietnam where he was awarded the DSO. He retired with a CBE.
(2) The CSM , WO2 Tom Muggleton , was in Japan on R&R Leave.
Occupation of a defensive position had developed into a routine process during the fluid operations of the past eight months. We had dug defences all over North and South Korea and by now section commanders had only to be given tasks and they would proceed without much supervision. They knew what was required and more to the point, they knew the penalty for getting it wrong. However the ground was not kind, still half frozen from the vicious Korean winter, it was hard digging and in places rock was just below the surface or outcropping.
A hot evening meal arrived and was disposed of. Having only fresh rations my Company Quartermaster could not issue the troops with usual twenty four hour combat rations packs and apparently unit administration was not up to delivering them to us. In consequence this was to be our last meal until the operation was over. With the meal out of the way "Bob" Murdoch unloaded our reserve ammunition from the F Echelon vehicles, cleared the decks of surplus items and dispatched the lot to the rear.
Coming on dusk we got first indications that things were starting to go wrong. ROK soldiers in a steady stream began making their way south down the road. No cause for panic yet. However, we soon had good reason to take another look at defence preparations when this stream developed into an unruly mob, running and shouting as though the very devil was on their heels, as well he may have been. A really ominous situation developed when civilian refugees became mixed in with the stream of ROKs. Women, crying children and old men, all carrying their pitiful possessions on their backs and leading animals. The familiar sight of a frightened population fleeing before the enemy. From past experience we knew that come dusk the Chinese would mix in with this mob and with them infiltrate to our rear. The road was B Company territory so I called up Darcy Laughlin and suggested he put out a filter to ascertain when the Chinese began to enter the area Then I could very effectively clear the road with Lenny Lenoy's MMG Section. Darcy obviously did not share my concern. As dark settled in I rang the CO and requested permission to open up with the MMGs anyway. This he refused on the grounds that I had not identified the enemy and ROKs could still be coming through. I wore this until the odd shot rang then repeated my request. The CO's replied, "O'Dowd, you are panicking." He got that right ! Never-the-less I derived little satisfaction from having my panic justified when firing broke out in the rear amongst the Support Company platoons shielding Battalion Headquarters.. We now had confirmation that enemy was behind us, we were isolated and would be attacked just as soon as it took the enemy to get organised.
Action in the forward area opened up with the tank platoon at the ford. Without infantry cover the Chinese were able to get among the tanks and it was fortunate they had no anti tank weapons. With poor night vision tank commanders had to direct fire from the open turret position and of course the Chinese shot them. The tanks then closed down and the enemy clambered all over, looking for opportunities to pop in a burst of small arms fire or damage tracks. To counter this the Shermans hosed each other down with machine gun fire then withdrew to the rear having accomplished absolutely nothing. There was complete ignorance of infantry-tank cooperation by both sides. What devastating damage could have been achieved with the tremendous firepower of those five tanks properly sited in conjunction with infantry. There must be a lesson there somewhere.
With the tanks out of the way the enemy continued probing forward, causing Corporal Kealy to pull his listening post back to 4 Platoon. The enemy located B Company and instigated a fire fight which Murdoch and I followed with great interest, hoping Darcy could keep the Chinese entertained for the rest of the night. It was not to be. The situation quietened down over the road and soon we became aware of the presence of enemy somewhere in the valley below us, making preparations for their next move. The main event was about to get under way.
At this time it would have been comforting to have artillery registered in so DF Tasks could disrupt the enemy in their assembly areas. I had with me a New Zealand 25 pounder, Forward Observation Officer (FOO), Lieutenant Dennis Fielden, and requested him to lay on certain Defensive Fire Tasks (DF Tasks) in areas where threats might develop.
Dennis informed me that he could not provide any sort of fire because the guns had gone in to position after dark and were not surveyed in (3)
I also had a US 4.2 Mortar Fire Controller (MFC) and a battalion 3in Mortar MFC, Ron Perkins. By the time the US 4.2 MFC joined me shooting had broken out and his gun crews took to the hills, leaving their mortars and vehicles behind. Ron Perkins had a problem also, our Mortar Platoon was very busily employed with fighting off Chinese. We had no wire or anti personnel mines. or anything else to interpose between attacker and defender. It was to be soldier against soldier at very close range in the dark and there was absolutely nothing I could do to help them, beyond walk up and down the line shouting encouragement when attacks came in.
The A Company battle opened with the usual Chinese gambit; probing patrols bumping into the forward weapon pits feeling for soft spots and the Diggers shooting them back into the dark. When the Chinese had had enough of this they adopted their usual attack routine which was repeated for the remainder of the night. Some where down in the gully below us there would be a discordant flurry of bugles and whistles as the commanders assembled their soldiers and organised them for the attack. Then, a period of silence, as they crept quietly up hill towards us.
Next a hail of hand grenades, designed to put the defenders' heads down. Then the assault would be launched with determination and ferocity, wave upon wave
Note (3) I had to believe him because he and one of his radio operators ( Gunner Ray Mulligan) were killed and the other (Gunner Dick Kemp) wounded during the night.
All hell broke loose as Diggers cut down the surge of attackers, directing into them as much rapid fire as their weapons could produce. the Owen Sub Machine Gun being the most effective weapon for this and the dear old single shot Lee Enfield the least. To prevent being over run all the killing had to be done in the brief period from when the enemy first became dimly visible from out of the dark until they reached the forward weapon pits, about ten to fifteen meters. When our firing had decimated the attack the remnants pulled back, giving a short respite from fighting. When the fighting subsided platoon and section commanders quickly organised removal of dead and wounded to the reverse side of the main position. Here "Bob" Murdoch administered and accounted for dead and wounded while his Medical Corps orderly, Corporal Nobby Clark, and stretcher bearers worked on the wounded. Meanwhile fit men would be repositioned so that each forward weapon pit was occupied by at least one man. Then these magnificent soldiers steadied themselves to meet the next onslaught. No sooner would reorganisation be complete than the bugles and whistles would open up again, heralding enemy preparation for the next attack.
The attacks went in generally across the front from 1 to 3 Platoon but 1 Platoon, being on the road end of the company received a lot of attention on the left flank in addition to their front. 1 Platoon soldiers put up a great fight, taking very heavy casualties until eventually "Freddie" Gardner had to inform me he did not have enough men left to stand off another attack. I gave away the lower end of ridge and brought what was left of his platoon alongside the MMG Section, arranging them to confront the recently vacated ground Predictably the Chinese occupied 1 Platoon's area with the next rush and held it for the remainder of the night. I now had the ludicrous situation of three platoons on the feature, one of them being Chinese and definitely not under command. This situation was precarious to say the least. Through attrition the forward pits were very sparsely manned. Had the enemy on our left attacked our flank in conjunction with a frontal attack we may have been in more trouble than we could handle. I waited in dread of this but inexplicably the occupants of "Freddie's" previous position did not attack. I could only conjecture that they did not have an officer to push them in.
From 0200 or 0300 hours the attacks became sporadic and less savage and we reasoned that the Diggers had done enough killing to take the the sting out of the force confronting us. However life was not made any more pleasant when they ranged in mortars on us, firing high explosive and incendiary bombs. The incendiaries set a low heather fire running through the defence with a thick blanket of smoke and exploding ammunition adding to the distress of he casualties.
Throughout the night I had been apprehensive about the gap on the rising ground between 3 and 2 Platoons. We would have a difficult problem if the enemy occupied it, cutting off 2 Platoon and threatening our main position. Just prior to dawn an enemy machine gun section became established there. They made life very uncomfortable by firing bursts of machine gun fire into us. More to the point their commander kept up repeated blasts on his whistle, drawing attention to his discovery and no doubt calling for reinforcements. I judged them to be immediately below 2 platoon and told "Lou" Brumfield to put down some searching fire to flush them out. This he did with such enthusiasm we got some of the overs. I ordered this to stop and told Lou to organise a fighting patrol to flush them out. He sent the acting platoon sergeant, Corporal "Jim" Everleigh with Corporal "Bill" Sinclair's 6 Section. They located the machine gun crew and in a neat little action wiped them out. However it was not without cost. On arrival at the headquarters Everleigh reported Private "Bill" ("Sailor") Jillet as lightly wounded but shortly after that I was informed, sadly, he had died. of his wounds.
It was now full daylight and I turned my attention to the uncomfortable situation of the enemy occupying 1 Platoons ground. I told Mulry to organise a counter attack from within his platoon resources. Harold was a great leader of men and an aggressive platoon commander, always ready to get stuck into it and there was never any doubt that he would hit hard. Quickly he selected a group of his troops and arranged them in attack formation, Harris and some others joined in uninvited. Harold's Diggers were in a pretty savage mood and charged in firing from the hip. Although they had superiority of numbers the Chinese offered little opposition to these angry men and wisely departed in the direction of the road. So far as ground was concerned we had restored the status quo but did not have the numbers to occupy it all.
On recovering 1 Platoon's position we were surprised to discover one of our wounded had been overlooked in the dark when Freddie's men withdrew the previous night and he was taken prisoner by the Chinese.. He told us that, when Harold's men came charging their way in, the Chinese pushed him into a weapon pit where he would be safe from our fire, before departing. A side of our enemy we had not expected to experience.
It was at this time that firing broke out all over our front and on investigation I discovered the Diggers having the time of their lives with a shooting gallery in the paddy fields in front of us. Daylight had caught enemy out in the open, behind tufts of heather, folds in the ground and so on. Every time one or a group made a dash for more secure cover the fun was on. I won no popularity points by ordering platoon commanders to get it stopped. We had used a lot of ammunition during he night, re-supply was by no means assured and the next move by the enemy could not be predicted.
During the night A company took heavy casualties, fifty dead and wounded including attached troops. Battalion Headquarters and the RAP had long since departed, moving back to a position about three miles to the rear. Nobby Clark and his bearers did all possible to care for them but the meagre resources of their aid bags were not designed for the situation which confronted them. Having only two stretchers meant most of the wounded had to be laid out on the frozen ground, exposed to a cold Korean night and though every effort was made to cover them it was impossible to get them warm. Nobby had no means for treating shock, no way of alleviating pain. Some who died would have survived had it been possible to evacuate them to the Field Ambulance unit. Some could have hung on if it had been possible to get them warm. . Casualty treatment was a very unhappy aspect of Kapyong, but all that could be done to save life and relieve suffering was done. I trust that a more enlightened approach has been taken towards this sort of problem for the company medical staff of a modern infantry battalion.
With the eviction of our over night lodgers I now, for the first time in twelve hours, had time to think of matters other than what was going on immediately around me. I had heard nothing from Battalion Headquarters all night and wondered how they had fared. My wondering was interrupted by advice that the CO had been on air to B Company and granted them approval to cross the road to join C Company in reserve behind me. I reacted sharply to this because enemy occupation of the feature across the road exposed my left flank and in his present location Ferguson was not in a position to appreciate the consequences of this decision. I called him immediately and insisted Darcy had to go back. He ignored this and requested a report on the local situation, which I gave. I also requested re-supply, I urgently required medical evacuation, ammunition, batteries, food water and medical supplies . He said he would see what could be done. The CO then reminded me I was the senior company commander, a reference to the Standing Operating Procedure whereby the senior company commander automatically assumed command when the CO was not in a position to exercise tactical control of the rifle companies. Cooperation from the other company commanders did not concern me as we were friends and comrades of long standing. Darcy and I had been close friends since the formation of the battalion in 1945. "Reg" Saunders had been one of my platoon commanders and later my Second in Command. Norman Gravener and I went back to the World War 2 days in 19th Brigade, he was RSM 2/8th Battalion when I was a CSM in 2/11th. I was Best Man at his wedding.
B Company crossed the road with two events worth reporting. The company had taken no casualties during the night and took their first during the crossing when Private "Tommy" Hayes was shot in the hip. Also on the way across they picked up about forty bewildered Chinese prisoners who we did not need at this time. I imagine this was the unfortunate group Harold Mulry's boys had been so rude to.
Note . (4) In some writings it is stated that communications between Headquarters and companies failed but this is not so. A telephone line was laid from Headquarters down the west side of the road to B Company and from there it crossed the road to A, C and D Companies. When the tanks withdrew they cut the wire across the road but the line remained intact all night between B Company and Battalion Headquarters. Laughlin's operator, Kevin Hatfield, states that Darcy frequently used the telephone that night in conversation with someone at Headquarters. By relay through B Company any other company could be contacted on the command radio net.
Shortly after this tanks rumbled into the reentrant behind A Company and Bob Murdoch with Nobby Clark's bearers set to work packing the wounded on to them. I was informed that the CO and Intelligence Officer were with the tanks and that I was wanted there. My initial reaction was that he had brought in a small Tactical headquarters to take over up front. At this conference Ferguson informed me that the Army Commander wanted to push a US Regiment (Brigade) forward to occupy the features on my left but this was totally dependent on our rifle companies holding the road from their overnight positions. He told me the Brigadier wanted B Company back on its feature and they were now in the process of returning. The question was " would I stay another night?" This put me in a rather invidious position and he was waiting for an answer. After some thought I told him we would but on the strict proviso that B Company was back and the Americans were in occupation of the features west of us, otherwise no way ! Also an attempt had to be made to extract the rifle companies. At the time I did not appreciate the party Gravener was having with the Chinese would escalate as it did, or the answer, there and then, would have been a very definite NO !
Battalion Headquarters was distanced from the battlefield and in the heat of battle battalion administration fell down completely. In addition to casualty evacuation I had requested re-supply of essential items, including ammunition. I received nothing but a couple of boxes of Mk VIII Z belted MMG ammunition dropped off by the tanks under the guns of the Chinese across the road. My acting CSM, George Harris took a party down and recovered it under fire and at considerable risk. Mk VIII Z is unsuitable for rifles and Bren Guns due to the possibility of jamming in the breach. Nevertheless Harris had the belts stripped and rounds distributed along with ammunition he had recovered from the casualties. I had thought that lack of re-supply was because tanks were the only means of getting through and running stores is not proper employment for tanks.. Later, I was shocked to learn that a GMC truck driven by Claude Boshammer under instructions of WO2 "Darky" Griffiths drove through and delivered ammunition to B Company. This demonstrated that soft skin vehicles could get through and we could see no obvious reason for not conducting normal re-supply.
The CO had called at B Company before coming on to me and ordered them to return across the road. This precipitated two disastrous attacks. At the south end of the B Company feature there was a low ridge which had been occupied by both sides at various times. In consequence it was riddled with weapon pits named by Diggers as the Honeycomb. 5 Platoon commanded by Lieutenant "Ken" McGregor had just completed crossing the road when Darcy ordered them to return.
Ken McGregor and his Platoon Sergeant, "Uki" Fraser led a section across to secure the honeycomb as the first objective. Approaching the feature in extended line they met a blast of machine gun and rifle fire which quickly produced eight casualties, dead and wounded. The company provided covering fire and extracted this small group.
B Company were now aware the Chinese were going to contest any attempt to regain control of the road. Next Darcy ordered Len Montgomerie's 4 Platoon to take the Honeycomb as the intermediate objective. They fixed bayonets and with a gallant fighting charge took the Honeycomb but again at a cost of wounded and killed. From there it became obvious the the Chinese were in occupation in strength on the main position and intent on staying there. The operation was aborted. It is understandable that Ken McGregor should go in unsupported because they had just come off the honeycomb in single file and imagined it to only be lightly held, if at all. However by the time "Monty's" boys were committed the enemy intention to hold on to their ground was clear. At this time the artillery available to B Company was a regiment of 25 pounders, a battalion of US 105 mm and a company of US 155 mms plus a platoon of 8 inch howitzers. Enough high explosive to lift the top off the hill and all available to Darcy's FOO, Don Scott. In addition there were fifteen US medium tanks in the area, a platoon of which could have walked the platoon on. But in spite of this preponderance of available support they went in unassisted, achieving nothing .
The battle on D Company hill now became the focus of attention. To compensate for lack of air or artillery the Chinese normally chose to attack under cover of darkness. However the tactical importance of feature 504 was such that they decided to attempt taking it in daylight. The first attack came in on Lieutenant Ward's 12 Platoon at about 0730 am and was repeated every half hour until 1030 am, then, for the remainder of the day attacks continued less frequently but with equal vigour. Where the narrow east- west configuration of my ground dictated linear defence, Norman's ground projected south-north toward the enemy, forcing him to employ a lay back, reverse slope formation with platoons one behind the other. Norm Gravener did not have a FOO but he was a very experienced officer who had served in the Middle East, New Guinea and with the British Army in Burma prior to enlisting for Korea. By daylight the 16th New Zealand Field Artillery Regiment was on line and he was able to very effectively register targets employing Line Observer Target Procedure. He laid down fire in front of 12 Platoon and adjusted from there for the remainder of the day. Each enemy attack was met with a devastating 25 pounder barrage, and with intelligent employment of artillery plus aggressive defence the platoons broke up each attack.
The D Company situation did become a worry when Gravener reported to me that he suspected the enemy was working around his right flank. This indicated they were getting close to what would be our escape route if ordered to withdraw. Not long after this we were intrigued to see a spotter aircraft fly over Hill 504 in company with three circling Corsair fighter aircraft, used in close support role in Korea. Interest turned to horror when the spotter dropped a yellow target indicating spigot on "Dave" Manett's 10 Platoon. The leading Corsair then swooped in releasing a napalm bomb, killing two and horribly burning others before realising its mistake and aborting the attack. It is difficult to comprehend how this mistake could have occurred while D Company was displaying fluorescent Ground To Air Identification Panels. Neither Norman or I had requested the air strike nor could we ever find anyone to admit to laying it on. The napalm attack brought confirmation that enemy was on D Company right flank. Hoping to take advantage of the strike the enemy attacked Lieutenant McWilliam's 11 Platoon but they picked the wrong objective and were severely dealt with.
Some time after that the CO came on air to inform me nothing would be coming to relieve us and I had approval to withdraw the rifle companies. Anticipating I would inherit this problem, withdrawal had been occupying my thoughts for some time. Regards route and timings, the only practicable withdrawal route was to follow the narrow, two to three mile long wooded ridge line which ran south from 504 to a ford just below the Middlesex. Of course there was always the possibility enemy had established a blocking force on it but there really was no alternative. Regarding time of withdrawal, I selected 4 pm. In this decision I was influenced by two considerations. The enemy had had all day to study us and it was an absolute certainty that come night fall he would resume his attack. This time he knew exactly where and how to hit and if we were still around when he struck there would be no possibility of withdrawal.
Secondly I wanted two hours of daylight fields of fire so the Diggers could keep the enemy cautious and well away from the rear guard. Hopefully long enough to get a clean break come dusk and disappear into the night.
There were threats which had to be provided for. Any movement of A, B or C Company up the hill had to be made in full view of the enemy on the low feature across the road. Without doubt they would follow up and attack our tail. Also D Company was very actively engaged with the opposition on 504. As soon as I extracted D Company there would be follow up and fire fights in our rear. Then there was the question of a blocking force on the withdrawal route. The enemy group, Gravener reported as going round his right flank, could easily have been sitting there or a force may have come across from the Chinese who tangled with Support Company at Battalion Headquarters the previous night. Not being aware that we had an FOO with B Company I requested Ferguson (the CO) to a arrange for the Battery Commander to neutralise the enemy across the road with a smoke screen to blind them with a generous dose of H E mixed in to anchor the enemy in their pits. The artillery to open up at 1600 hours. This was granted.
To clear the escape route I ordered Darcy Laughlin to beat his way down to the ford commencing 4 pm. If he encountered enemy he was to clean them out. If he couldn't dislodge them he was to keep them busy until I could get to him with a second company.
For the extraction of D Company I instructed that C and A Companies would be sited in defence behind D, preparatory to pulling D Company out. When it moved D Company was to take up defence behind A Company while C Company was extracted and so on, leap froging our way back to the ford. On receiving his orders Darcy came back with, " What do I do with my prisoners?" I had forgotten about this unfortunate bunch. Obviously the last thing one requires in the midst of the column in an opposed withdrawal is forty of the enemy, particularly come night fall. The alternatives were either to turn them loose, or take them with us. They had been observing us all day and knew too much to turn loose, so I got back to Darcy and told him to take them with him. He crossed me off his Christmas Card list.
To give me mobility and better control over the four companies I handed A company over to Bob Murdoch and created a small Tac HQ, employing our 3 inch mortar MFC, Ron Perkins, as my radio operator. By 4 pm all was in position and standing by, even the D Company enemy was cooperating with a lull in proceedings. I sent B Company on their way in anticipation of the artillery opening up. The minutes ticked by with no barrage banging away and in this unhealthy silence I got an uneasy feeling things were starting to go wrong. I tolerated the situation as long as I could then called up the CO (Ferguson) for an explanation of this dreadful hiatus. He said he would check and eventually got back to explain that wind change necessitated the point of emission for smoke to be re-registered. However valuable daylight time was slipping by so I decided not to wait, I had already declared my hand by dispatching B Company so I had nothing to loose by ordering Saunders to get C Company on it's way. By the time the tail of C Company was clear, tanks trundled into position on the road and manoeuvred to cover the enemy. I was not informed they would come to our assistance but could not have been more grateful for their intervention. I told Murdoch to get A company moving and hurried to catch C Company. Then the Kiwis let the smoke and high explosive shells (HE) fly in a great heart warming, thunderous thump and I knew the first phase would be completed without further hindrance.
On reaching the top of the hill I positioned C Company to discourage any follow up by the enemy when D Company came out, then told Gravener to withdraw. He replied that he could not . He was under attack again, so we had to wait impatiently while he did a bit of tiding up. Eventually he got an opportunity to thin out and took his departure. I took his Company back and positioned it behind A Company then told Saunders to withdraw C Company to be sited behind D Company and so on we rolled back down the hill, always one company in defence facing the enemy, one taking up the next fall back position and one in movement. However we could not deter the Chinese from following all the way down the hill. D Companies wounded and burn cases were taken over and transported by men from the other companies, assisted by our Chinese prisoners.
About nightfall very welcome news came through. B Company had reached the ford without locating enemy on the withdrawal route. This was a tremendous relief. During the withdrawal process an incident occurred which is worth reporting. Reconnaissance for fall back positions and settling companies in necessitated movement back and forth in the column. At one stage after dark I was horrified to find myself in the midst of a group of Chinese soldiers bearing arms . Before long I was relieved to identify them as our prisoners assisting the stretcher bearers. I stopped the first escort to come along and rather brusquely demanded to know why the prisoners were bearing arms. He came back immediately with, the short reply; "Well, you don't expect the bloody wounded to carry them. Do you?" While I was digesting this piece of logic they disappeared into the gloom.
Eventually I arrived at the ford where I found Lieutenant Jim Young, acting Second in Command of B Company, left to check the companies over. At this stage three companies were clear leaving Murdoch with A Company still in the last fall back position. I called him up to check the state of the game and got the unwelcome advice that the opposition were still with him. I told him to make for the ford and shake the Chinese off if possible as the ford was a broad expanse dangerously lit by a full moon. A fire fight while crossing would produce a lot of casualties. In due course Bob reported clear of his position and Jim and I waited, staring into the gloom in the expected direction of A Company approach. Eventually Lou Brumfield's 2 Platoon arrived and we passed them over. I grabbed a tail ender and requested information about the remainder of A Company and was informed they were behind him.
While Jim and I waited a few bursts of machine gun fire from the PPCLI seemed to be perilously close to us, giving the impression they were firing at A Company. I called the CO to get it stopped but I was assured the Canadians had Chinese in their sights. Then the balance of A Company appeared but completely from the wrong direction by ninety degrees along the river edge. Bob assured me he had lost the enemy so we passed them over as rapidly as possible. How Bob lost his enemy is interesting. He made a mistake at a fork in the track by taking the wrong fork, arriving at the river well short of the ford. Realising his error immediately he swung the company hard left until he found us. The Chinese in pursuit came to the river and finding no sign of the company assumed they had crossed at that point and plunged in after them. This is what attracted the PPCLI to open up with MMGs.
At the entrance to the Middlesex the CO and some others from the Headquarters, were checking troops into the area. I reported to the CO that the withdrawal was complete without further casualties.
Now it was all over, I think about 11 pm. Events since the afternoon of the 23rd had once again demonstrated the great fighting spirit of the Australian Digger. In A Company they had taken on a very determined and numerically superior enemy. They had taken him on in the dark without artillery, mines, wire or any deterrent to the enemy attacks, other than their personal weapons and guts. They had removed the dead and wounded and occupied their pits to calmly await the next enemy onslaught. Their was no discussion on being placed in forward weapon pits , no man backed away as the enemy rushed in. Next morning they were willing to go on with it and eject the enemy from our ridge. These men were splendid. The B Company men displayed the same unflinching gallantry when committed to two hopeless bayonet charges. In D Company the Diggers had to tolerate the nerve wracking experience of a full day of continuous attack, made even more unpleasant by a napalm strike in their midst.
Withdrawal was the test of morale. It is instinctive for a man to put distance between himself and danger with as much speed as possible. However in the withdrawal process, encumbered by wounded, this is disastrous and just what the enemy aims to achieve. The withdrawal at Kapyong was conducted by men who had been under extreme stress for a protracted period and a drop in morale might have been excused. No excuse was necessary. The men moved at a steady pace between fall back positions, they took up blocking defence without discussion and waited for the enemy to appear. There was no suggestion of haste. or a break in discipline. The withdrawal went off like a training exercise.
The men of Kapyong were magnificent.
They won the battle of Kapyong.
And was it all worth while?
On the 23rd April 1951 the 6th ROK Division broke and ran, giving the Chinese Army Commander what he hoped would become an open road to Seoul. At Kapyong his ambition was frustrated when 3 Battalion RAR took his leading elements head on, stopped them dead in their tracks and delaying the Chinese for 24 hours. This valuable time, bought at great cost to 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and later by Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry permitted the United Nations' theatre commander to reposition a force in the path of the Chinese Army, and Seoul was once again secure from that direction. In recognition of this battle the President of the United States of America awarded these units his Distinguished Unit Citation.
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