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The Korean War

Royal 22e Regiment mortar pit
credit: Library and Archives Canada

"Korea was a war of platoons and sections, not armies"
-Canadian author Pierre Berton

Recalled with bitterness by many veterans as the "forgotten war", defence of the Korean peninsula was the third largest military deployment in Canadian history.  26,791 Canadian troops served, and more than 500 died.  The terrain of the Korean peninsula was unforgivably rugged, and progress was halting in a conflict that ended in a stalemate, just as the "Great War" had ended.  The conflict was a United Nations mandated "peace action", directed by the United States and American General Douglas MacArthur, hero of the Pacific in the Second World War.   (from David Olive's column "Lest We Forget", Toronto Star, 2009).

The following, written by Patricia Giesler, and published by Veterans Affairs Canada in a 1990 publication entitled "Valour Remembered", briefly tells the story of Canada's involvment in the Korean conflict. 
On June 25, 1950, the forces of North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel into the Republic of Korea.  This marked the beginning of hostilities which were to rage for three full years and more, throughout that country known to its people as the Land of the Morning Calm.  The magnitude of the assault made it clear that this was a full-scale invasion.

This was the first open act of aggression since the establishment of the United Nations Organization and its actions were of great significance for its prestige and credibility - in fact for its very future.  The invasion was declared a breach of the peace, and 16 member nations joined forces to resist the aggresion.

Canada's contribution, exceeded only by that of the United States and Britian, demonstrated her willingness to uphold the United Nations ideals and to take up arms in support of peace and freedom.  All told, 26,791 Canadians served in the Korean war, and another seven thousand served in the theatre between the cease fire and the end of 1955.  The names of 516 Canadian dead are inscribed in the Korea Book of Remembrance.

Canadian participation in these hostilities marked a break with traditional policy.  It was the beginning of a new era of involvement in world affairs which saw Canadian troops deployed around the world in truce teams, peace commissions and emergency forces.  A new page in Canada's proud military history was written.

The Outbreak of War

The history of Korea is marked by successive conquest.  Long dominated by China, the peninsula had passed into Japanese control in 1910 following the Russo-Japanese war.

During the course of the Second World War the leaders of the Allied nations of Great Britain, the United States and China met to decide what would be the fate of Japan and her territories when hostilities ended.  In their Cairo Declaration of November, 1943, they promised that "in due course Korea shall become free and independent."

When the Japanese surrended in 1945, the Soviet Union occupied North Korea; The United States took over control in South Korea.  The 38th Parallel was chosen as the dividing line.  It was assumed that the occupation would be temporary and that a unified, independent country would eventually be formed.

Unfortunately, the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945 did not bring peace to the world.  The western allies soon found themselves engaged in a new struggle wtih their former ally, the Soviet Union.  As the Cold War developed in other parts of the world, in Korea the 38th Parallel gradually hardened into a permanent boundary.  In the north, the Russians established a communist regime which they proceeded to arm.  In the south, the United States set up a shaky democracy under the leadership of Syngman Rhee.  Complicated by the artificial boundary, the economic and political situation grew desperate, and by 1946 Syngman Rhee was appealing for an end to the division of his country.

In September 1947 the United States announced its intention of laying the whole matter before the United Nations.  The Soviet Union countered by suggesting that both sides withdraw their forces leaving the Koreans free to choose their own government.  The Americans rejected this proposal which would have left the South Koreans at the mercy of the heavily armed north.  They submitted the problem to the United Nations General Assembly.

The Assembly, on November 14, 1947, created a Temporary Commission to Korea to supervise free and secret elections and to oversee the withdrawl of the occupation forces.  As the Communists denied the commission access to North Korea, it was directed to implement the program in those parts of the country which were accessible.  On May 10, 1948, elections were held in South Korea; on August 15, the Government of the Republic of Korea was established.  This government was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly which recommended the withdrawl of occupying forces and established a new United Nations Commission.  The Soviet Union immediately created in North Korea the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea", under the control of a communist guerilla leader, Kim Il Sung.

In December, the Soviet Union announced that it had withdrawn its troops from North Korea and thus forced the U.S. to follow suit in South Korea.  The South Korean Army, armed with small arms and mortars and without tanks, heavy guns or aircraft, was left to face a large, well-armed North Korean force.

Trouble soon flared up along the border as both sides claimed the right to rule all of Korea.  North Korean patrols began to invade the southern Republic and the U.N. Commission repeatedly warned of impending civil war.

On the morning of June 25, 1950, the North Koreans invaded in force.  World reaction to this, the first open act of aggression since the establishment of the United Nations Organization, was swift.  At the request of the United States, the UN Security Council met on the afternoon of June 25.  It determined that the armed attack was a breach of peace and called for immediate cessation of hostilities, and the withdrawl of North Korean forces to the 38th Parallel.  Fortunately, the Soviet Union was boycotting all UN meetings over another issue and could, therefore, not exercise its veto power.

It was soon evident that the North Koreans had no intention of complying with the UN demands.  As their forces pressed southward, President Truman ordered the United States Navy and Air Force to support the South Koreans by every possible means.  On the same day, a second UN resolution called on members to "furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area".  This was, in effect, a declaration of war on North Korea.  On June 30, President Truman authorized the commitment of American troops.  Other UN member nations offered forces and the Security Council recommended that all troops be placed under a single commander.  Thus, a United Nations Command was established in Tokyo under General Douglas MacArthur of the U.S.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans were pushing rapidly forward through the valleys and rice paddies of the Korean peninsula.  The South Korean capital, Seoul, was occupied on June 28, and by the first week of August the UN forces were confined within the Pusan Perimeter, a small area in the southeast of the peninsula.  

Canadian Reaction to the Invasion

The Canadian government, while agreeing in principle with the moves made to halt aggression, did not immediately commit its forces to action in Korea.  At the close of the Second World War, the Canadian armed forces had been reduced to peacetime strength, and were specially trained for the defence of Canada.  The Regular Army was composed of three parachute battalions, two armoured regiments, a regular regiment of field artillery and a few basic supporting units such as signals and engineers.  This limited strength meant that it was not able to provide an expeditionary force without seriously weakening home defence.  Furthermore, the Far East had never been an area in which Canada had any special national interest.  While Canadian opinion supported the UN action, Canadian contribution to the conflict, of necessity, came piecemeal.

The first Canadian aid to the hard pressed UN forces came from the Royal Canadian Navy.  On July 12, 1950, three Canadian destroyers were dispatched to Korean waters to serve under the UN Command.  Also in July, a Royal Canadian Air Force squadron was assigned to air transport duties with the United Nations.  No. 426 Squadron, consisting of six North Star aircraft (later increased to 12), flew regularly scheduled flights between McChord Air Force Base, Washington, and Haneda Airfield, Tokyo thoughout the campaign.

The Canadian Army Special Force

Canadian Infantryman in Korea, by Ron Volstad

On August 7, 1950, as the Korean crisis deepened, the government authorized the recruitment of the Canadian Army Special Force (CASF).  It was to be specially trained and equipped to carry out Canada's obligations under the United Nations Charter, or the North Atlantic Pact.

The CASF was to be raised and trained as part of the regular army.  The new citizen volunteers, many of them World War II veterans, were enrolled for a period of 18 months, or for a further period, if required under certain conditions.  The new field units were established as separate units of existing Active Force regiments.  The ranks would be filled, where necessary, by Active Force members.  Later, as the requirements for overseas forces continued, important changes in policy were introduced.  A system of rotation was adopted which included the Active Force units.  These units proceeded to Korea and were replaced at home by volunteers from among the returning Korean veterans.

The original components of the Special Force included the second battalions of the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and Royal 22 Regiment; "C" Squadron of Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians); 2nd Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (RCHA), 57th Canadian Independent Field Squadron, Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE); 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade Signal Squadron; No. 54 Canadian Transport Company, Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (RCASC) and No. 25 Field Ambulance, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps.

On August 8, 1950, Brigadier General J.M. Rockingham returned from civilian life to accept command of the Canadian Infantry Brigade for service under the United Nations.  During the Second World War, Rockingham had commanded the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade in the campaign in Northwest Europe.

The Landing at Inchon

In mid-September, the military situation in Korea was dramatically reversed.  The UN forces, confined within the Pusan Perimeter, were still being hard-pressed when a daring amphibious assault was launched at Inchon, the port of Seoul.  Sailing from Japan, the U.S. 10th Corps landed on September 15 and quickly overcame all resistance in the seaport area.  By September 26 Seoul was re-captured.  Meanwhile, the Eighth U.S. Army had broken out of Pusan and had linked up with the 10th Corps.  By the end of the first week in October they were driving the shattered enemy across the 38th Parallel.

the United Nations forces then moved northwards, crossed the North Korean border, captured Pyongyan the capital, and advanced towards the Yalu River, the boundary between North Korea and China.  Following the Inchon landings and the UN successes of September and October, the end of the war in Korea seemed imminent.  These events appeared to reduce the need for additional troops.  It was, therefore, decided to limit the Canadian contribution to one battalion, to be used for occupation duties.  The remaining units of the CASF would continue training in Fort Lewis, Washington, during the winter.  The move to Fort Lewis was marred by tragedy when a train carrying troops of the 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, collieded head-on with another train on November 21, leading to the deaths of seventeen soldiers.

At Fort Lewis the units formed the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade, and this term was generally used in place of the "Canadian Army Special Force".  The battalion selected to serve in Korea was the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J.R. Stone.  On November 25, the PPCLI sailed for Korea with a strength of 927, including an administrative increment.

It was estimated that the battalion would be ready for action by March 15, 1951.  As it turned out, the unit went into the line a full month earlier, suffering its first battle casualties in the Korean hills on February 22, 1951.

The Chinese Intervention

When the Canadians sailed from Seattle on November 25, 1950, the war in Korea seemed to be nearing its end.  When they reached Yokohama on December 14 the picture had completely changed.  Communist China had intervened.  By the end of October, 1950, six Chinese armies had crossed the Yalu River, with an approximate strength of 180,000.  Conducted at night, with great secrecy, these large scale Chinese movements had gone undetected by UN forward troops and air reconnaissance units.  Unsupported reports by prisoners of a massive build-up were not believed.  On October 27, at a time when thousands of organized Chinese troops were pouring across the Yalu River, General Headquarters United Natons and Far East Command showed them still poised for action in Manchuria.

As the Chinese build-up developed, the UN forces continued their advance north, reaching the main enemy positons between Pyongyan and the Yalu River on November 26.  Then, the Chinese launched a massive attack which turned the UN advance into a retreat to new positons along the Imjin River, north of Seoul.  It was in this atmosphere of unexpected disaster that the 2nd Battalion PPCLI arrived in Korea in December 1950.  The occupation role, which they had expected to fill, no longer existed.  Instead, the emphasis had shifted to the speed with which the battalion could be thrown into action.  The Patricias began an intensive training period at Miryan near Taegu, as grim news continued to arrive from the north.

The New Year opened with another crushing offensive by the Chinese, which forced a further general withdrawl.  Seoul again fell to the communists on January 4, 1951.  A new line was established some 64 kilometers south of the former capital.  While these events were taking place the Canadian battalion underwent further training in weapons and tactics, required before they could be committed to battle.  They also carried out limited operational tasks, such as anti-guerilla patrols.

Canadian Troops in Action

PPCLI troops on the march, 1951
Library and Archives Canada photo


In mid-February 1951, the 2nd Battalion PPCLI entered the line of battle under the command of the 27th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade.  This formation, which had participated in operations in Korea since the early stages of the conflict, consisted of two British and one Australian battalion.  Artillery support was provided by a New Zealand Field Regiment and medical care by the 60th Indian Field Ambulance.  The arrival of the Canadians coincided with the second general UN advance twoards the 38th Parallel.  In this new offensive, the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade was to advance north-east to its final objective: the high ground north-west of Hoengsong.

Sharing the brigade lead with the British Argylls, the Patricias, on February 21 began to advance up the valley, north from the village of Sangsok.  Rain, mised with snow, made progress treacherous.  Fortunately, enemy opposition was light.  "D" Company made the first contact with the enemy when its leading elements came under fire from the high ground to the north-east.

In the days that followed, progress became more difficult.  Hills, ranging from 250 to 425 meters, rose on either side; hill positions had to be dug through deep snow; the weather was bitterly cold and enemy resistance increased.  On February 22, "C" Company sustained the battalion's first battle casualties when it lost four killed and one wounded in an attack on Hill 444.  The other Commonwealth troops encountered similar difficulties.  By the first of March, the brigade had advanced 25 kilometers over difficult country against a stubborn rearguard action.

On March 7, the advance was resumed.  The objectives were Hill 410, assigned to the Australians, and Hill 532, assigned to the PPCLI.  The valleys now ran east and west, cutting across the axis of advance and provided the enemy with a natural line of defence.  At first, resistance was heavy from the enemy who was well entrenched, and camoflaged.  The attack slowed down to a series of stubbornly fought section battles.  Then, suddenly, the enemy withdrew.  In the next several days, it became apparent that the Chinese were withdrawing all across the front.  On March 15, Seoul was liberated by the 1st Republic of Korea (ROK) Division.  Following a retreating enemy, the 24th US Infantry advanced towards the 38th Parallel, west of the Kapyong River, while the Commonwealth Brigade proceeded up the Chojong valley to its first objective, a massive hill called 1036.  By March 31, this objective was reached and the brigade was moved east to the valley of the Kapyong River.  On April 8, the Patricias successfully attacked objectives across the 38th Parallel.

Meanwhile, the question of crossing the 38th Parallel was being debated on both the military and political levels.  Two courses of action were open to the UN forces.  the first was to press for complete military victory.  This would require additional forces and the extension of the conflict beyond Korean borders into Manchuria.  The alternative was military stabilization combined with UN negotiations to end the conflict.  General MacArthur pressed for an allout effort to achieve victory even at the risk of open war with Communist China, and publicly expressed his dis-satisfaction with the UN and the Truman administration, which favoured negotiation.  On April 11, 1951, he was relieved of his command and replaced by Lieutenant-General Matthew Ridgway.

General MacArthur's dismissal did not mean an immediate reversal of tactics.  the advance, which had begun in February, continued.  By mid-April, almost the entire UN force lay north of the 38th Parallel.

The Action at Kapyong

Evidence accumulated of a formidable Chinese build-up for a counter offensive.  The earlier withdrawl had straightened the enemy's lines, placed his forces on high ground north of the Imjin River, and had allowed him to replace tired troops and reorganize his equipment.

On the night of April 22-23, 1951, Chinese and North Korean forces struck in the western and west-central sectors.  Both the 1st and 9th US Corps were ordered to withdraw.  In the 9th Corps sector the blow fell on the 6th ROK Division.  Overwhelmed and forced to retreat, it was in danger of being cut off and completely destroyed.  Fortunately, the location of the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, then in Corps reserve, was ideal for an escape route along which the South Koreans could withdraw.  The area lay in the valley of the Kapyong River near its junction with the Pukhan River.  Here the valley was some 2,800 meters wide.  to the north it narrowed and curved and was dominated by surrounding hills.  From these hills, the exits and entrances to the valley could be controlled.  A defensive position was established with the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment at Hill 504, the 2nd PPCLI dug in on Hill 677, and the 1st Middlesex Regiment south of the Patricias.

Canadian troops under fire at Kapyong

The Australians were the first to come under attack, and withstood a heavy engagement during the night of April 23-24.  The next day, the Chinese infiltration intensified forcing the Australians to withdraw under great pressure.  The Australian withdrawl exposed the PPCLI position to enemy attack.  The battalion defences covered the north face of Hill 677.  "A" Company was on the right, "C" Company in the centre, and "D" Company on the left flank.  "B" Company, which at first occupied a salient in front of "D",  was moved farther south to a hill immediately east of tactical headquarters.  From this location, it could observe the enemy build-up across the valley of the Kapyong to the north and east, near the village of Naechon.  At about 10pm, enemy mortar shells began to fall on the Patricias position, and shortly after, the forward platoon came under attack.  The platoon was partially overrun, but was able to disengage itself and move back to the main company position where counter-attack was organized.

While the attack on "B" Company was in progress, the enemy also attempted to infiltrate at other points, including a probe against tactical headquarters.  These attacks were driven off by battalion mortar and machine-gun fire.  "D" Company, in its exposed position to the north-west, bore the brunt of the next attack as the enemy assaulted in large numbers from two sides.  As one platoon and a machine-gun section were overrun and another platoon cut off, the company commander called for supporting fire on top of his own position.  After two gruelling hours, the enemy advance was stemmed.

Through the night the enemy persisted in his attacks, but each was driven off by artillery fire.  With the approach of daylight, the pressure subsided and "D" Company was able to re-establish its former position.  Although the Patricias had maintained their positions, the battalion was surrounded and the supply route was controlled by the enemy.  With ammunition reserves and emergency rations depleted, Lieutenant-Colonel Stone requested air supply.  The parachute drop was made within hours of the request.  By 2pm, the Middlesex Regiment had cleared enemy groups from the rear, and the road to the PPCLI position was re-opened.

The Canadians in this action had maintained their position - vital to the brigade defence - while at the same time inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy.  The relatively light casualties (10 killed, 23 wounded) which they, themselves, had sustained testified to the skill and organization with which the defence was carried out.  For their gallant stand at Kapyong, the 2nd Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry and the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment received the United States Presidential Citation.

By May 1, the enemy offensive had ended.  The 1st and 9th US Corps then held an irregular line some 30 kilometers south of the 38th Parallel, forming an arc north of Seoul.  Plans were begun at once for a return to the Kansas line, the code name for a range of hills just above the 38th Parallel.  At the same time, the defensive position was strengthened against a possible new Chinese offensive.  To the north, the Chinese shifted their forces eastward in preparation for an assault against the Eighth Army sector.

Arrival of the 25th Brigade

RCR machine gun crew, May 1951
Library and Archives Canada

On February 21, 1951, the Minister of National Defence, Brooke Claxton, announced the decision to send the remainder of the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade to Korea as originally planned.  The brigade landed at Pusan at the beginning of May and, after a short period of training, moved north to join the 28th British Commonwealth Brigade (which had relieved the 27th Brigade) on the Han River.  They came into the line as the United Nations forces began their third general advance to the 38th Parallel.  The artillery regiment was committed almost immediately in support of the 28th Brigade, north of the Han, firing its first operational round on May 17.

Since opinion in the UN still favoured stabilization of the military situation and negotiation, the overall aim of the new operation was to relieve pressure on the embattled sectors, while preventing communist armies from recovering their strength and launching a massive offensive.  Battle tactics and strategies were determined by the relative strengths and nature of the opposing forces.  With air supremacy and uperior material strength, the batlefield aim of the United Nations forces was not "to close with and destroy the enemy", but to force him back behind the mountain barriers along the 38th Parallel, using manpower sparingly.  On the other hand, Chinese tactics were dominated by their chief asset, manpower.  Thus, when an offensive failed to meet its objective, they tended to withdraw while reinforcements and supplies were brought forward for another attempt.

As a result, the UN operation was essentially a matter of regimental groups moving forward, singly or in conjunction with flanking units.  The action by Canadian troops was similar to that in other sectors along the front.  On May 24, 1951, the 25th Brigade was placed under command of the 25th US Infantry Division, and moved to an area north-east of Uijongbu.  The brigade's first operation, code-named Initiate, was an advance through a series of phase lines to the line Kansas, south of the Imjin River.  It was preceded by "Task Force Dolvin", a combined tank-infantry battle group designed to move rapidly forward to seize and hold the objective until the main force arrived to establish strong defensive positions.

The brigade's axis followed the valley of the Pochon River.  One battalion, supported by tanks and a detachment of the Royal Canadian Engineers, advanced along each side - the 2nd Royal Canadian Regiment on the left and the 2nd Royal 22e Regiment on the right.  Advancing in the face of light resistance, the brigade reached positions on line Kansas on May 27.  It took over from "Task Force Dolvin" on May 28, and the next day began an advance north of the 38th Parallel.  It halted near a burned out village at the foot of a formidable mountain barrier named Kakhul-bong (Hill 467).

The Attack on Chail-li

Kakhul-bong dominated the line of advance of the 2nd Royal Canadian Regiment.  Therefore, a battalion attack was organized against this feature and the village of Chail-li that lay beyond it.  the battalion plan was for "A" Company to seize the village to the north of the hill; "B" Company was to secure the left flank by occupying Hill 162 to the west; and "C" Company was to capture Hill 269 between Chail-li and Hill 467.  The main assault on Kakhul-bong was assigned to "D" Company.  The battalion was supported by the 2nd Regiment RCHA.

The operation began early in the morning of May 30 in a driving rainstorm.  "A", "B" and "C" companies reached their objectives with relative ease, but "D" Company met strong resistance and suffered casualties from enemy machine-gun fire.  Early in the afternoon, the Chinese, while still holding the hill, counter-attacked against "A" Company and the village of Chail-li, circling to the rear to surround and cut off the company.  Meanwhile, "C" Company, located on Hill 269 between the two points, was unable to provide aid to either.  Poor visibility made it difficult to identify the troops in the valley, and the distance was too great for company gun-fire to reach the enemy.

Kakhul-bong was vital to the Chinese supply lines and their system of communications across the Chorwon Plain and they strongly resisted "D" Company's advance.  Repeated attempts failed to dislodge the defenders who took advantage  of an extensive trench system and a well placed machine-gun on the pinnacle of the hill.  In addition the brigade's overall situation was precarious.  The advance had created a deep salient in the enemy lines leaving the brigade flanks without protection.  Since it appeared that the Royal Canadian Regiment could not continue to hold Chail-li or take Kakhul-bong, Brigadier Rockingham ordered a withdrawl in order to form an organized defensive position.  With the Chinese pressing closely, the RCR fought their way back to their new position.

The action at Chail-li was the brigade's first serious engagement and it had acquitted itself well.  The casualties of six killed and 54 wounded testified to the sharp engagement which had been fought.  On May 27, the 2nd PPCLI, which had remained with the 28th British Commonwealth Brigade during this period, moved south to rejoin the Canadian command it had left more than six months before in Fort Lewis.

Canadian Operations - June and July 1951

From June 2 to 18, 1951, the 25th Brigade remained in reserve south of the Imjin-Hantan junction.  At this junction, the Imjin River swings sharply south-west, creating a deep salient in no-man's land.  Control of this salient was vital since the tip lay close to the supply route from Seoul through Ujongbu to the Chorwon area.  During June, the UN Command dominated the area by strenous patrolling.  Later in the year operations would be carried out to remove the salient.

Almost immediately after rejoining the 25th Brigade, the 2nd PPCLI was again attached to the 28th Commonwealth Brigade and was assigned the task of establishing and holding a patrol base in the tip of the salient.  Patrol bases were defended areas of battalion or brigade size, set up in no-man's land at various distances ahead of the forward defended localities.  From these bases, troops could maintain vigilance over the area and probe deeply into the heights beyond.  On June 6, the Patricias set up their base.  They held it until June 11, when they were relieved by the Royal 22e Regiment.

Patrolling at Chorwon

By mid-June, the Eighth US Army had broadened its salient on the east coast and advanced about 16 kilometers up the centre of the peninsula.  This line was to remain substantially the same until the end of the war.



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