The Battle of the Imjin River, also known as the Battles of Kumgul-san, P'ap'yong-san and Solma-ri or the Battle of Xuemali (Script error), took place 22–25 April 1951 during the Korean War. Forces from the People’s Republic of China attacked UN positions on the lower Imjin River in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough and recapture the South Korean capital Seoul. The attack was part of the Chinese Fifth Phase Campaign, also known as the Chinese Spring Offensive, the aim of which was to regain the initiative on the battlefield after a successful UN counter-offensive in March 1951 had allowed UN forces to establish themselves beyond the 38th parallel at Line Kansas.
The section of the UN line where the battle of the Imjin River took place was defended primarily by British forces of 29th Infantry Brigade. 29th Infantry Brigade consisted of three British and one Belgian infantry battalions (Belgian United Nations Command) supported by tanks and artillery. Despite facing a numerically superior enemy, 29th Infantry Brigade held its positions for 3 days. When the units of 29th Infantry Brigade were ultimately forced to fall back, their actions in the Battle of the Imjin River together with those of other UN forces, for example in the Battle of Kapyong, had blunted the impetus of the Chinese offensive and allowed UN forces to retreat to prepared defensive positions north of Seoul, where the Chinese were halted.
“Though minor in scale, the battle's ferocity caught the imagination of the world”, especially the fate of the 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment, which was outnumbered and eventually surrounded by Chinese forces on Hill 235, a feature that became known as Gloster Hill. The stand of the Gloucestershire battalion together with other actions of 29th Brigade in the Battle of the Imjin River have become an important part of British military history and tradition.
The battle took place during the Chinese Spring Offensive, aimed at recapturing Seoul. The Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese and North Korean Communist Forces in the Field, General Peng Dehuai, issued an operational directive that summarizes the initial objectives of the offensive as follows:
“First of all, we will mass our forces to wipe out the 6th Division of the Puppet Army, the British 27th Brigade, the American 3rd Division, the Turkish Brigade, the British 29th Brigade and the 1st Division of the Puppet Army [...].”
In order to achieve the objective of recapturing Seoul, it was necessary to overcome the resistance by those UN forces mentioned in the operational directive. Peng planned to converge on Seoul with III, IX and XIX Army Groups which had a combined strength of around 270,000 men. XIX Army Group was positioned on the left flank of the UN line. Its 63rd and 64th Army were to cross the Imjin on a twelve mile front and then to attack southeast towards Seoul. Three divisions of 63rd Army, the 187th, 188th and 189th Division, were involved in the attack on the British 29th Infantry Brigade’s positions on the Imjin river from 22–25 April 1951. 25 miles further to the east, other Chinese forces were involved in an attack on UN forces which included 27th British Commonwealth Brigade. That battle became known as the Battle of Kapyong.
At the time of the Chinese attack, 29th Infantry Brigade (commanded by Brigadier Tom Brodie) consisted of the 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment (also called "The Glosters"), under Lieutenant-Colonel James P. Carne, the 1st Battalion, The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (RNF) under Lieutenant-Colonel Kingsley Foster, the 1st Battalion, The Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) under the temporary command of Major Gerald Rickord and the Belgian battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Albert Crahay (700 men) to which Luxembourg's contribution to the UN forces was attached. The British soldiers were a mixture of regular soldiers, reservists and conscripted National servicemen. Their supporting units included 45 Field Regiment Royal Artillery, tanks from the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars and 170th Independent Mortar Battery, Royal Artillery which were attached to the brigade. The 29th Brigade was under the command of US I Corps and one of several UN formations responsible for holding the western flank on the lower Imjin river, the others being the 1st Republic of Korea (ROK) Division and the US 3rd Infantry Division (see map). The right flank of the ROK 12th Regiment, the nearest position of the ROK 1st Division, was a mile to the southwest of the Gloucestershire Regiment while the US 3rd Infantry Division stood east of 29th Brigade.
The deployment of UN forces meant that 29th Brigade with its four battalions had to cover a front of twelve miles. Gaps between units had to be accepted because there was no possibility of forming a continuous line with the forces available. "Brigadier Brodie determined to deploy his men in separate unit positions, centred upon key hill features" On the left flank, the Glosters were guarding a ford over the Imjin, known as Gloster crossing; the RNF were deployed near the centre, around two miles northeast of the Glosters; the Belgians on the right were the only element of 29th Brigade north of the river, occupying a feature called Hill 194. Their connection with the rest of the brigade depended on two pontoon bridges about half a mile apart. These bridges connected the Belgians with Route 11, 29th Brigade’s main line of supply and communication and thus made vehicular movement between the north and the south bank of the river possible. The Royal Ulster Rifles served as the brigade’s reserve and were deployed along Route 11 (see map showing the situation at 9 a.m., 25 April below for different routes in the area).
The scattered deployment was one aspect which complicated the defense of 29th Brigade’s position. Another aspect was the lack of heavy artillery. Fire support was provided by 45 Field Regiment, RA, equipped with 25 pounders under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel MT Young and by 4.2 inch mortars of 170 Heavy Mortar Battery, RA. No heavier artillery support was available. Further support was provided by Centurion tanks of C Squadron, 8th Hussars, under the command of Major Henry Huth and by 55 Squadron, Royal Engineers. However, defensive preparations were not carried out very extensively because the British expected to hold the position for only a short time. Neither minefields, deeply dug shelters nor extensive wire obstacles existed. The British position on the Imjin river "was deemed safe" but vulnerable in case of an attack.
The first night of attacksEdit
The battle opened on the night of 22 April 1951. A Chinese patrol on the north bank of the river moved around the Belgians on Hill 194 and continued to advance east towards the two bridges on which the Belgians depended. Elements of 29th Brigade’s reserve, the 1st RUR, were deployed forward at about 10 pm to secure the crossing, but were soon engaged by Chinese forces trying to cross the river. The Royal Ulster Rifles were unable to secure the bridges. This development meant that the Belgian battalion on the north bank of the river was in danger of being isolated from all other elements of 29th Brigade.
Chinese forces following the initial patrol either attacked the Belgian positions on Hill 194 or continued their advance towards the bridges. Those who were able to cross the Imjin attacked the Fusiliers’ right rear company, Z company, on Hill 257, a position close to the river and almost directly south of the crossings. Further downstream, Chinese forces managed to ford the Imjin and attacked the Fusiliers’ left forward company, X company, on Hill 152. The retreat of X company from Hill 152 had serious consequences for Y company which occupied the right forward position of what can be described as a squarish fusilier position marked out by four widely spaced company perimeters at the corners. Although Y company was not attacked directly, Chinese forces threatened its flanks by forcing Z and X company from their positions. After unsuccessful British attempts to regain those lost positions on Hill 257 and 194, Y company’s position was abandoned, the retreat being covered by C Squadron, 8th Hussars.
On the left of the brigade’s line, a forward deployed patrol of sixteen men repelled four attempts by a battalion of 559th Regiment, 187th Division to cross the river but was eventually forced to fall back after inflicting 70 casualties without suffering any loss. During the rest of the night, the Glosters’ right and left forward companies, A and D company, engaged Chinese units trying to cross the Imjin. By morning the next day, A and D company had suffered severe casualties; only one officer in A company remained in action. Casualties included A company’s commander, Major Pat Angier, who was killed during the night.
The Glosters' withdrawal to Hill 235Edit
On 23 April, attempts by the Fusiliers and American forces from the 3rd Infantry Division's reserve to regain control of areas lost during the night failed. A US attack by the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry on Communist forces near Hill 257 was ordered to support the Belgian withdrawal from the north bank of the Imjin River. Despite losing seven vehicles, the Belgian battalion successfully executed its withdrawal, which was coordinated with the beginning of the American attack on Hill 257. The Belgians escaped to the east and took up new positions south of the Glosters and the Fusiliers before moving to the vicinity of 29th Brigade's command post.
At around 8.30 pm on 23 April, the forward companies of the Glosters were withdrawn from their positions after suffering heavy casualties. Apart from A and D company, C company under Major Paul Mitchell retreated as well, but because of enemy pressure it was impossible for B company under Major Denis Harding to disengage and join the battalion’s remaining elements on and near Hill 235, a position between the Imjin and the Seolmacheon stream that became known as Gloster Hill. The men of B company (including a young Lofty Large) were able to drive off seven Chinese assaults on their position before they were also able to withdraw to Hill 235 the next morning. Only 17 men of B company remained in action after reaching the remainder of the battalion.
During the night in which the Glosters’ B company faced numerous attacks, the Chinese 188th Division crossed the Imjin and attacked the Fusiliers and the Royal Ulster Rifles on the right of the brigade’s line. The 187th Division also engaged the brigade’s battalions on the right, while the 189th Division kept up the pressure on the left. Most dangerous for the unity of 29th Brigade was the Chinese deep penetration of the line between the Gloucestershire Regiment and the Northumberland Fusiliers, cutting off the Glosters. In order to have additional forces available to counter the Chinese attack and to protect the Glosters from being completely surrounded, the Philippine 10th Battalion Combat Team (BCT) was temporarily attached to 29th Brigade. A combined force of M-24 tanks of the 10th BCT and Centurions of the 8th Hussars supported by infantry reached a point 2000 yards from Hill 235 on 24 April. The column failed to make contact however, as the lead tank was hit by Chinese fire and knocked out, blocking the route and making any further advance against heavy resistance impossible. At this point, according to an official American narrative of operations, "the brigade commander considered it unwise to continue the effort to relieve the Gloucester Battalion and withdrew the relief force".
Retreat of 29th BrigadeEdit
Continued Chinese pressure on the UN forces along the Imjin prevented a planned U. S. attack by the Puerto Ricans of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 65th Infantry to relieve the Glosters. When two further attempts by a tank troop to link up with the Glosters failed, Brigadier Brodie left the decision whether to attempt a break out or to surrender to Lieutenant-Colonel Carne. No further attempts to relieve the Glosters were undertaken because, at 8 am on 25 April, the I Corps issued the order to execute Plan Golden A which called for a withdrawal of all forces to a new defensive position further south.
In accordance with orders issued by I Corps and supported by C Squadron, 8th Hussars, and 55 Squadron, Royal Engineers, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Ulster Rifles, and the Belgian battalion tried to reach the safety of the next UN position. The Belgians occupied blocking positions west and southwest of 29th Brigade's command post in order to allow the other units of 29th Brigade which were still further north along Route 11, the main line of retreat, to fall back through the battalion’s positions (see map). However, the withdrawal while being under intense enemy pressure was made even more difficult by the fact that Chinese forces dominated parts of the high ground along the line of retreat and were thus able not only to observe any movements by elements of 29th Brigade but also to inflict heavy casualties on the retreating units. Among those killed was the CO of the Fusiliers, Lieutenant-Colonel Foster, who died when his jeep was hit by Chinese mortar fire. In the words of Major Henry Huth of the 8th Hussars, the retreat was "one long bloody ambush". When B company of the Ulsters, which had acted as rear guard during the retreat, reached the safety of the next UN line, all elements of 29th Brigade except for the Glosters had completed the withdrawal.
The Glosters on Hill 235Edit
The Glosters' situation on Hill 235 made it impossible for them to join the rest of 29th Brigade after it had received the order to retreat. Even before the failed attempts to relieve the battalion on 24 April, B and C company had already suffered such heavy casualties that they were merged to form one company. Attempts to supply the battalion by air drop were unsuccessful. Despite their difficult situation, the Glosters held the positions on Hill 235 throughout 24 April and the night of 24/25 April. In the morning of 25 April, 45 Field Regiment could no longer provide artillery support for the Glosters. Since Brigadier Brodie had left the decision whether to attempt a break out or to surrender to Lieutenant-Colonel Carne, the Glosters' CO "gave the order to his company commanders to make for the British lines as best as they could" on the morning of 25 April. Only the remains of D company under the command of Major Mike Harvey escaped successfully from Gloster Hill and reached the safety of friendly lines after several days. The rest of the battalion was taken prisoner, including Lieutenant-Colonel Carne.
Importance of the battleEdit
Had the Chinese achieved a breakthrough in the initial stages of their assault, they would have been able to outflank the 1st ROK Division to the west and the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division to the east of 29th Brigade. Such a development would have threatened the stability of the UN line and increased the likelihood of success for a Chinese advance on Seoul. Although the Chinese benefited from 29th Brigade's scattered deployment and a lack of defensive preparations, they were nevertheless unable to overcome the positions before UN forces could check further advances. In three days of fighting, the determined resistance of 29th Brigade severely disrupted the Chinese offensive, causing it to lose momentum, and allowed UN forces in the area to withdraw to the No-Name Line, a defensible position north of Seoul, where the Chinese were halted.Script error[page needed]Script error[page needed]Script error[page needed]
Casualties and memorialEdit
According to a memorandum presented to the British cabinet on 26 June 1951, 29th Brigade suffered 1,091 casualties, including 34 officers and 808 other ranks missing. These casualties represented 20 to 25 per cent of the brigade’s strength on the eve of battle. Of the 1,091 soldiers killed, wounded or missing, 620 were from the Gloucestershire Regiment, which could muster 217 men on 27 April.[lower-alpha 1] 522 soldiers of the Gloucestershire Regiment became prisoners of war.[lower-alpha 2] Of those taken prisoner, 180 were wounded and a further 34 died while in captivity. 59 soldiers of the Gloucestershire Regiment were killed in action. Based on estimates, Chinese casualties in the Battle of the Imjin River can be put at around 10,000.As a result of the casualties suffered during the battle, the Chinese 63rd Army, which had begun the offensive with three divisions and approximately 27,000 men, had lost over a third of its strength and was pulled out of the front line.
The Gloucester Valley Battle Monument was later built at the Gloster Hill , beside the Seolmacheon stream and the British Embassy in Seoul organises services for veterans on every anniversary of the battle. The annual service is officially called the Gloster Valley Memorial Service by the British embassy. In 2008, it took place on 19 April as part of formal commemoration ceremonies that were held throughout the period 14–20 April. The outline of the commemorations in 2008 encompassed a service of commemoration, including the laying of wreaths and the presentations of Gloster Valley Scholarships – financial assistance to deserving children in the area where the battle took place – as well as a picnic lunch that offered visitors the opportunity to mingle with veterans. About 70 British veterans as well as the British ambassador to South Korea took part in the event.
Awards and citationsEdit
In addition, several soldiers were awarded the Distinguished Service Order:
The Military Cross was awarded to:
Three Commonwealth Regiments were awarded the United States Distinguished Unit Citation for their part in the Battle of the Imjin River and the Battle of Kapyong:
On 8 May 1951, by the command of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, General James Van Fleet presented the President's Distinguished Unit Citation to the Glosters, together with C Troop 170 Heavy Mortar Battery, which had given invaluable support throughout the battle. The citation says:
The Belgian United Nations Command, which was attached to the British 29th Brigade and replaced the 900 men of the Royal Ulster Rifles on 20 April 1951, initially held the brigade's right flank on the north bank of the river. It also included a Luxembourg platoon. It fought the Chinese there and then conducted a fighting withdrawal, supported by U.S. forces, before taking position in the center of the brigade's line, ahead of brigade headquarters, for the attempts to relieve the Glosters. The Belgian battalion was awarded the United States Distinguished Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation for their conduct during the battle.