THE MILITARY TEAM
General Sir Francis Hassett AC KBE CB DSO LVO (RL) was born in Sydney Australia 11 April 1916. He attended Canterbury High School and entered the Royal Military College Duntroon in 1935. He graduated with distinction to the Darwin Mobile Force in 1938 followed by a distinguished war career until 1942 at the age of twenty three he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the youngest in the Australian Army. There followed a round of important military postings during and after the war until in July 1951 he was appointed Commanding Officer of 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in Korea, an appointment he filled with great honour and affection from his troops. On return to Australia he completed numerous Staff and Command appointments culminating in 1973 as Chief of the General Staff followed by 1975 as Chief of the Defence Force Staff the first Australian to command all three services. The General is a man of unusual stature, integrity and passion, a born leader who maintained a high regard and affection for the Australian soldier. This has always been reciprocated. He was and will remain the soldier's General for those who served with him.
The Korean War was a war of almost continuous contact - something like World War 1 as opposed to World War II. It was the last time that Australians fought a conventional war as part of a brigade, a division and a corps with all that implies in terms of large scale operations, with supporting arms also on a large scale. The supporting arms, particularly the artillery played a major role in our battalion's operations.
Australia's contribution to the Korean War was, basically, two infantry battalions supported by other arms and services. Nowhere in an Army is there a greater requirement for courage than in front line infantry. Our battalions, throughout the whole war, were well trained, well led and fought with great courage whether in attack (Maryang San) defence (the Static War) or in tactical withdrawal (Kapyong). Their record speaks for itself. In all the writings about the Korean War by other participating nations, the Australians have been highly praised.
Much has been written of the tactics of battle, such as the importance of manoeuvre, speed and surprise, the need for a firm base, for flexibility of thought as the battle unfolds and the value of accurate and timely supporting fire. These are all ingredients for success but experience shows that they are all of small consequence in the face of poorly motivated or badly led soldiers.
Many of my memories of Korea revolve around the personal qualities of 3 RAR soldiers which enabled them to succeed in spite of, at times, almost insurmountable odds. Most wars are won in the end by the front line "digger". If he lacks the courage or spirit to continue then the battle is lost. If leadership fails to promote this spirit of "mateship" and "teamwork" then it is bad leadership. Korea was a classic example to me of the importance of generating and supporting "mateship" and "teamwork" through good leadership at all levels.
The teamwork displayed in 3RAR in Korea by individual soldiers and officers was superb - at all the team levels from the unit down to the two forward scouts. As well as good leadership there are other qualities which help to create the successful military team. There are four which had a special application to the Australian soldiers in Korea and made them outstanding as fighting troops. These were courage, commonsense, initiative and concern for his fellows - "mateship". Qualities that seemed to come naturally to the well trained Australian soldier.
Courage is usually held to be the most important quality on the premise that, without it, other soldierly virtues do not really matter. There is no place for a cowardly soldier in any army. Further, Australian troops expect to be led from the front. As Field Marshal Slim once said, it is not a case of "go on" but "come on". I believe that physical courage is much to the fore in the Australian soldier. If an Australian soldier knows what he has to do - and why - then he will do it. He respects courage as soldiers do the world over. The biggest problems in the battalion team arise when troops are tired - exhausted by the strain, noise and sights of battle. Inertia and lethargy set in, even though all are aware that inaction could be highly dangerous. That is when a good leader is effective - not by oratory or histrionics, but by quiet reasoning and example he can bring the team together.
As a commander, one should not forget that too much battle stress, for too long, will render soldiers incapable of efficient performance. The signs are there when good officers and men begin to do the wrong thing or fail to react effectively. Sometimes troops have to be driven beyond this point but the commander must know that there is a price to pay.
I have seen much courage in Australian soldiers, but little cowardice. There have been rare instances, throughout our history, where our soldiers have not performed well, but they have occurred when other factors have been paramount, such as inadequate time for training, shortage of equipment, low morale within units, lack of sound planning and indifferent or bad leadership. The fall of Singapore is a classic example of this.
I understand that I am quoted as having said of the soldiers at Maryang San that "their sheer guts is beyond belief". This is unusual language for me to use but it is a true quote. It was an emotional reaction on my part to having seen remarkable courage, widespread, not just isolated instances - in the fighting lasting for six long days, with often the same people backing up, yet again, for the next hazardous mission. I have seen courage in action at other times and other places, but, the courage displayed at Maryang San had, for me, a stunning and enduring impact.
One can condense a lot of qualities under this one heading - judgment, responsibility, intelligence, knowledge and so forth. There is not much to say about this basic quality except to emphasize that most Australian soldiers I knew in 3RAR were down to earth, sensible men and possessed common sense to a large degree.
The Australian soldier has always scored heavily in the quality of initiative and it helps lift him to the top of the worldwide soldiering tree.. Soldiers' initiative played a big part in the winning the Maryang San battle. There were times when issues hung in the balance. The lead taken at such times by individuals, irrespective of rank, swayed the issue. The Chinese forces in Korea were brave, hardy and prepared to die, but less effective because of lack of initiative or restraints imposed at the various levels of command. The Australian soldier, in all our wars, has been highly rated for his initiative - and rightly so.
Mateship is, of course, concern for your fellow soldier. The Australian soldier in Korea as he has done in other battles and other wars, fought better because he was part of a team of mates - a team which would come to help him, whenever it was practicable, when he was in trouble. He gained strength from them and they from him. The many arduous and hard fought battles in Korea owed their success to the strong Digger spirit of mateship which existed within the battalions, notably at the platoon and section level - subaltern, sergeant, corporal and infantryman.
Good leadership embodies all the personal qualities already mentioned plus much more and is essential to the success of the military team. We tend to forget that leadership is not confined to senior command level. Every member of the team from the commander to the private soldier must be able to lead and influence his own particular group.
Our young leaders in Korea fought well, some were outstanding. The troops which formed the team were initially K Force and young regulars. A potent force when well led. The troops expected good leadership and this expectancy was a big incentive for the young leaders to meet the challenge. I believe those going into action for the first time, concerned about their performance under fire, found that they had to think quickly about what had to be done and then see that it was done. Their minds took over as they concentrated on the task in hand and they could disassociate themselves from whatever unpleasantness was happening around them. They showed courage in battle, an answer to the question all leaders ask of themselves - "How will I perform when I come under fire?"
The job of the junior leader is very rewarding. He should appreciate his men and respect them, care for their well being and give it a higher priority than his own. However in war he must take hard decisions if necessary and get rid of any poor soldiers. There can be no passengers in an infantry platoon in action!
My company commanders in Korea were young men, two were about thirty, one younger and one older but he was outstandingly fit. Thirty is the upper age limit for regimental officers in wars as fast moving and physically demanding as was the Korean War, particularly in its earlier phases. Company Commanders at Maryang San had an exacting job. Not only were they responsible for directing their company but they were usually dangerously involved personally being well forward with their lead platoon. a battalion commander must select his company commanders carefully. He cannot risk a weak officer in these key appointments. The company commander is about the highest level of close, direct personal contact with soldiers. It is a big job for a young man, responsible at times for the lives of a large group of soldiers. If I had to nominate the four key appointments supporting me at Maryang San I would say "...the four rifle company commanders." This does not imply lack of recognition of the other courageous and able officers I had supporting me. They had the ability and wish to command, as demonstrated a decade or so later when a number commanded battalions in Vietnam. But the company commanders I had at Maryang San were "in situ", so to speak, when I took command. They would not have remained long as company commanders if their performance had fallen below the standard I required. Harsh judgment must apply when selecting those directly responsible for the lives of soldiers.
One is indeed fortunate to have command of a good battalion in action, particularly if it is involved in a major battle, such as Maryang San in my case. Very little can match the wonderful feeling that existed within the battalion after the Maryang San battle. Congratulations poured in but the soldiers themselves knew that they had fought well - they could see just what they had achieved. They knew C Company had cut in behind the Kosbies ( KOSB - Kings Own Scottish Borderers) and taken the division's first major objective, Point 355, Little Gibralter, Kowang San. They had watched, as one soldier described it, D Company "tear the heart out" of the Chinese defences forward of the division's second major objective, Point 317, Maryang San. D Company men had cheered C Company as it went through it to take 317 itself. A Company had taken some twenty casualties in tying up the Chinese on the south eastern approaches to 317 and was quick to push a platoon forward to join C Company on 317. The whole battalion had been involved in B Company's capture of "The Hinge" and its desperate defence against heavy counter attacks. As well as recognizing the objectives gained, the men had noted the courage shown by the members of their teams and could not fail to be impressed.
It is a strange statement, perhaps, to say that there was a wonderful feeling within the battalion after Maryang San - that matters such as death, mutilation, stress, fear, fatigue, hunger, thirst, grief - could be thought of, even remotely, as a wonderful, not to be missed experience. It is as hard to understand, I suppose, as are - at a much lesser level - rock climbing, caving or diving amongst sharks. But we go to war to defend our country. Once committed it becomes a case of kill or be killed, and this calls on our inner strengths in a way never experienced in peace time. Certain things happen which a soldier remembers with pride, either in his own actions or the performance of others. Maryang San is my supreme example of this.
Some time ago some Korean veterans put together the two monographs "Kapyong" and "The Battle of Maryang San", describing battalion battles in the Korean War. It is well known that Australian soldiers talk little about their experiences and innermost feelings in battle, except amongst themselves when relaxed at reunions and such. On this occasion they wrote freely. Here are some excerpts. I am quoting these to give a small indication of what infantry fighting is like but, more so, to bring out the initiative and leadership shown at the junior levels - the sections and the platoons. I believe these comments epitomize Maryang San and the soldiers involved. There is also a fine photograph of the men of 5 Platoon B Company on the back page of the monograph, "The battle of Maryang San". It shows a battle weary platoon, twenty strong at the beginning of their attack and now down to fourteen men, (2 killed and 4 wounded), exhausted but deservedly proud of their achievements.
It is this sort of
atmosphere, this sort of teamwork, mateship and
leadership, which builds fine battalions. Robert E. Lee,
that great Confederate leader who embodied all the
soldierly qualities I am attempting to describe, said: "It
is well that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond
Korea was a cauldron of
success for those who took part, a glorious example of the
Australian soldier in action. Mateship, courage and
initiative at its best; the principal fighting
characteristics of the Australian "digger" then and
The Korean War is very much
"old hat" now, but what I see and read of soldiers today
indicates to me that the principles and lessons of
yesteryear still hold good. Nor does the calibre of
today's soldiers seem any less high. In 1996 there
was a training tragedy involving SAS and Blackhawk
helicopters. The courage, initiative, commonsense and
mateship displayed by the survivors and helpers reinforces
my Korean experiences that the Australian soldier, man for
man, is the best in the world.
|© Australian Album ©|