Battle of Kapyong - Dr Adrian Threlfall

Korean War (1950-53)

For 2 days in April 1951, the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment fought a heroic rearguard action and helped to stop a massive Chinese force at the gates of Seoul. Dr Adrian Threlfall explores Australia’s largest post-Second World War battle.

Dr Adrian Threlfall has been a member of the Shrine Education Team since 2011 and is a regular contributor to Remembrance. A military historian, he is currently working on a book about the combat operations of the Australian Army during the Cold War.

Adrian’s first book, Jungle Warriors: From Tobruk to Kokoda and Beyond, and his second, Reg Saunders:  An Indigenous War Hero, are available in the Shrine bookshop.



Welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance podcast, exploring all facets of our wartime history. Today’s podcast is presented by Dr Adrian Threlfall, speaking about the Battle of Kapyong. Adrian is an historian and author, and one of our Education Officers here at the Shrine. He’s the author of two books: Jungle Warriors, which explores the Australian Army’s preparation for war in the Pacific during the Second World War; and Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero. This talk was recorded in April on the anniversary of the Battle of Kapyong.

Dr Adrian Threlfall

Thank you Leigh, and thank you everybody for coming along. We thought… often we remember things like Gallipoli, the big battles, but we thought it was appropriate at this time—we’ve just had the launch of an exhibition about the Korean War, which you can see in our Gallery space—thought it was appropriate as this battle, for the Australians, began on this day, as you can see up there, in 1951. It lasted less than 48 hours. In fact, the Australian direct combat involvement in it you could argue is almost less than 24 hours. But it was an extraordinary battle, even if little remembered. Some people would argue that whole war is little remembered.

It is called the Forgotten War by many people and beginning only 5 years after the Second World War and a decade prior to the far more controversial and longer Vietnam War, this conflict seems, for many people’s minds is almost a footnote in history. But, for 2 days, as you see there, 23rd, 24th, into the 25th of April 1951, 3RAR (3rd Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment) fought a pretty heroic rear-guard action and helped to stop a massive Chinese force at the gates of Seoul. A lot of Australians have served in dozens of conflicts and peacekeeping operations in the years since. This is the largest, and arguably the most important battle the ADF has fought since 1945. I know, people mention the Battles of Fire Support Bases, Coral and Balmoral in May and June 1968, or even if we go back to 1951, in October 1951, the Battle of Maryang San. Important, yes, definitely, critical battles. But I would argue that this one is even more important. The Australian casualties are similar in the Battles of Coral and Balmoral as they are to this one, but there’s qualitative and quantitative differences. Those battles can be the subject of another talk if they invite me back again. 

I’m going to try and start, I guess, briefly by contextualising in terms of the broader Cold War, to hopefully make this battle a little bit more explicable in how it fits in what’s happening around the world. So we’ll go back to the beginning, because I’ve been told all stories have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I’m going to primarily concentrate on 3RAR, at the unit level and sub-unit level. As you know, battalion level, which for this battle was approximately 910 men, and then down to the sub-units, as in rifle companies, of approximately 180 men. Down to battalion headquarters and the support companies, because there are more than 16 small battles happening for 3RAR. You’ll see what I mean in a little while. So, I’ll move from the level of politics and strategy down to the operational level, then down to the tactical level. Hopefully, it will make sense.

Even before the Second World War came to an end, it was pretty clear to everybody that tensions between the erstwhile Allies in that conflict were flaring up. The United Kingdom, the USSR, and the USA in the process of defeating the Axis Powers had been Allies, clearly, but as the war was coming to an end it was clear this was not going to be the case after the war. The focus of the tensions was in Europe, particularly Germany and Poland, and the divisions of those countries. What the post-war map of Europe was going to look like. But, in Asia, how the spoils of war would be divided up was also a focus.

On the day that Nagasaki was bombed, so the 9th August 1945, the Russians launched one of the largest offensives of the whole of the Second World War, that nobody’s ever heard about. They absolutely obliterated the Japanese forces in Manchuria. Secretly, over about six weeks, they had moved the vast majority of the Red Army from the Eastern Front all the way across Russia because they wanted to be in at the kill. They were getting ready, preparing their political gambit, I guess. There was no need, militarily, for the Red Army to be over there defeating the Japanese. With the end of the War in the Pacific it was clear that the Japanese were going to surrender, particularly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the Russians were preparing a long game. So, this extraordinary offensive was launched, obliterating Japanese forces. Tens of thousands of casualties within a week.

On the 24th August, only a few weeks after this offensive had begun, they entered Pyongyang and took over the northern part of Korea. So, the line, the division of the 38th Parallel happens at about that time. Ironically, two young American officers, a Major and a Captain, had a copy of the National Geographic magazine, and they’re asked by a Commanding Officer to divide Korea, and they get the magazine out and choose the 38th Parallel. The negotiators go back to the Russians and say, ‘is this acceptable?’ The Russians say ‘yes’, and thus the 38th Parallel is created, from pencilled scribbles on the National Geographic.

But as we know, many other conflicts occurred throughout our region. When the British returned to Malaya in 1948, fairly soon thereafter, the Malayan Communist Party launched a guerrilla war. At the same time obviously the French are returning to ‘Indochine Française’—French Indochina—and we know that the Viet Minh fairly soon thereafter start resisting the return of their old colonial masters. Obviously, 20 years after this, us and the Americans and many other nations would be involved in the Vietnam War. Not really fitting into the timeline of an anti-communist struggle, the ‘Konfrontasi’—Confrontation with Indonesia—sees Australian infantry battalions and the SAS deployed between 1963 and ‘66 in Indonesia, particularly on the island of Borneo, Kalimantan. Operations across the border into Sabah and Sarawak, into Indonesia, and of course, the Vietnam War. 

But back to Korea. I could have had about 14 of these different maps, where this war bounces north and south for quite a long time. By early April 1951 the 900 men of 3RAR had been in action for virtually eight months. They had fought dozens and dozens of battles, some offensive, some defensive. They’d advanced more than 300 kilometres, as it shows over here, maybe, maybe not. You can see the 38th Parallel, and you can see the massive advance launched by the North Korean forces and their divisions on June 25th, 1950. Pushing the Americans in particular, and South Korean forces down into the Pusan Peninsula. Then, the advance had turned around pushing the North Koreans back north, almost to Manchuria, almost to the Yellow River.

3RAR had suffered more than 300 casualties in these retreats and advances, including their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Green. They were a battle-hardened unit. The vast majority of them had served in the Second World War. Yes, there was a leavening of new recruits who’d come through, who’d served mostly as part of BCOF, the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan, and soon in 1951 some new young recruits from Australia, but the vast majority of them were seasoned soldiers. They were battle-hardened. They were rather cynical about their Allies. They had been involved, as you can see, in an advance and a huge retreat, and an advance again. But they were supremely confident in their own abilities, and in the brigade that they were part of. Just before he died, on 30 October 1950, Lieutenant Colonel Green said,

After this, they can send them by divisions. This battalion will hold on.

And it did.

The war had reached another crucial phase by 11 April 1951. General Douglas MacArthur was sacked by Truman, by President Truman. MacArthur probably didn’t actually want to invade China, but he had made rather off-the-cuff remarks to a number of journalists, about the best way to stop the Chinese entering this war was to detonate between 26 and 32 tactical nuclear weapons along the border between North Korea and China. This would irradiate that area and stop the Chinese crossing that land for the next 60 years. End of problem, according to General Douglas MacArthur. Truman, funnily enough, didn’t really agree or didn’t like one of his commanders speaking on that level of policy and contradicting comments that Truman had made. So MacArthur was recalled. So it’s in a state of flux at this time. The same day, 11 April 1951, in the hills to the north of Kapyong, so near the border of the 38th Parallel, 3RAR was caught in a pretty extraordinary electrical storm. Four men had to be evacuated because of lightning strikes. Terrain and weather can be formidable opponents, just as the enemy can. Then snow began to fall, even though this is obviously coming out of that long, bitter winter.

Two days later, so on the 13th, along with the rest of the 27th British Brigade, and accompanied by the US 7th and 8th Cavalry Regiments, the Australians crossed the Parallel moving north once again. By the 15th they were a couple of kilometres north of the 38th Parallel, launching company-sized attacks on two North Korean Army positions Salmon and Sardine. One of the two British regiments that they were serving alongside in this brigade, 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, had just launched two unsuccessful attacks on Hill 951, otherwise known as Sardine.

Two excellent officers, and veterans of the Second World War, led the two 3RAR companies who were tasked with taking these two objectives. Major Ben O’Dowd was in charge of A Company, and Captain Reg Saunders in charge of C Company. Despite fierce resistance on Sardine, O’Dowd’s men had seized their objective allowing the next morning, Reg Saunders’ company, C Company, to assault through and attack Salmon. But as they were moving forwards the North Korean defenders retreated, left their positions, allowing C Company to move in virtually unopposed. Reg Saunders and Ben O’Dowd had both served throughout the Second World War. Reg in the centre there, handing over his position, as it says there, to the members of the 6th Republic of Korea Division, South Korean Division, was the first Indigenous Australian to become commissioned officer in the Australian Army. Soon as the Korean War broke out he re-enlisted. At the start he wasn’t allowed to, being indigenous, but fairly soon thereafter they changed policies and allowed Indigenous soldiers to serve and be deployed to Korea. 

The terrain, as you can see there, lots of small hills. This isn’t the Andes, this isn’t the Himalayas, but there’s an awful lot of hills and an awful lot of valleys and ridges going up to four, five, six, seven, sometimes 800 metres. So, for infantry it is a lot of work, a lot of slogging up and down hillsides, as you can see. The weapons, and arguably the training and tactics, are very similar to that being employed throughout the Second World War. But as I said, these are very, very experienced soldiers. They are combat veterans, they know what they are doing.

The Australians were then withdrawn, after handing over those positions to the South Korean division. Withdrawn back south of the Parallel, back down near the village of Kapyong. They’re going to spend at least a week, they hope longer than that, in a period of R and R (Rest and Relaxation). Instead of C-rations, American C-rations, which they had basically existed on for the whole of their campaign, they would get hot meals provided by their cooks. A movie projector was set up. Various sporting contests were organised. Commanding officers believe that soldiers who’ve got time on their hands get up to mischief, so you need to keep them occupied with either training or sports. You could argue whether this was a positive or a negative, a generous beer ration also arrived, and I’m sure the majority of the soldiers were happy to see that happen.

But at the back of everybody’s mind there was little confidence amongst the men of 3RAR that the ROKs, as they would have called them, the Republic of Korea soldiers, would be able to hold in the eventuality of another attack. They had seen, the Commonwealth Brigade had seen both American and South Korean forces crumble, and it seemed their brigade, having to be the last line of defence on many occasions. Indeed, on one of the retreats back through Seoul, 3RAR was the last battalion defending the city of Seoul before the whole Commonwealth forces moved further south. So they enjoyed it, the sunshine. It was still cold, but it was coming through. The snow had stopped. They had hot meals, hot baths, which I’m sure would have been very welcome also. But the war was going to catch up with them again very, very quickly.

In 24 hours, the war turned on its head. Firstly, by the United States Army attack, launched on the 21 April, by the new United States 8th Army Commander, General James Van Fleet, another Second World War veteran. Just coincidental, but within 24 hours the Chinese launched their massive Fifth Phase offensive. The Americans did know, in South Korean intelligence and American intelligence did suggest that the Chinese Communist forces were preparing an assault, that one was on the cards but not exactly sure when. The Americans launched on the 21st. Less than 24 hours later, on the 22nd, the Chinese launch their offensive, thus the two sets of little lines there—I know it might be a bit hard to see, I admit. The Chinese offensive was far, far more massive. It battered along the whole of the line.

I’m going to put up a map that’s going to confuse everybody. That’s ok, you’ll get the drift. The red lines are the enemy. This is what—they say that 700,000 Chinese forces attacked. In the actual first assault, probably about 350,000, which is still an extraordinary assault. It cut through those defences like a hot knife through butter, on most of this front-line area here. The blue lines are obviously the defensive lines of the Allied forces. As you can see—very, very quickly, those Chinese forces had completely blown through the defences. 

The first check to their advance brought about by the British. My pointer’s not working very well. The Gloucesters, 1st Battalion of the Gloucesters, here, fights to the death, fights to the last man. About 42 of them, out of the battalion of 800 get back to Allied lines. They fight their guns to the gun barrels, but that stops this advance. Obviously, the advance is targeted upon Seoul, that is the first major place they are checked. That battle really lasted the 22nd until the 24th, and the other brigade is fighting here. The attack that eventually will come down on the Australians is down through here, Chuktun-ni, then down to Kapyong. 

But in the day before, so on the 21st and into the 22nd, the Australians, as it’s recorded, are gathering azaleas for Anzac Day, to make wreaths. Among the chestnut trees, a flagpole had been erected. Rock-edged paths were laid. There’s an old saying in the army that ‘if it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t, paint it.’ So, lines of white rocks were laid along the path. An invitation had been sent both to the Kiwis, there was a New Zealand artillery regiment working with this brigade, the British brigade, and also a Turkish brigade is serving in the area. This is going to be the first time since the Great War that Australians, New Zealanders and Turkish soldiers are going to be able to commemorate Anzac Day. So that invitation has been sent out and everybody is looking forward to the 25th. Things intervene, obviously.

At 8.30am on the 23rd April the Brigade was warned it may need to provide a blocking force to the rear of the 6th Republic of Korea Division. So on a lovely spring morning their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Ferguson and his intelligence officer, Lieutenant Alf Argent—his daughter works with us here at the Shrine, she’s not here today—drove north to reconnoitre the proposed blocking position. Their impressions were not positive as the area was far too large for a battalion to hold, but, as it was all hypothetical, no one was overly worried. There were a whole division, or at least one division to their north, and the front line was more than 40 kilometres away.

A leisurely lunch followed but at 1415—so quarter past two—things began to change as Brigade Headquarters ordered 3RAR to move forward and occupy a defensive line immediately. Soon thereafter three platoons, so fifteen tanks of A Company, United States 72nd Heavy Tank Battalion

arrived to take up defensive positions throughout the Kapyong Valley. You can see part of the valley here, they’re moving towards the Australians, the Australians at the front here. The Australians moved forward, but it was clear that no one really believed an attack was imminent. How do we know this? No extra ammunition at all was issued and hard rations were not carried. If they had known what the New Zealand 25-pounder Regiment gunners were facing, they would not have been so complacent.

Twenty-two hundred hours, on the 22nd. Yes, going backwards, 2200 hours on the 22nd April, the night before. The New Zealand 16th Field Regiment which was in support of the 6th Republic of Korea Division recorded in their unit war diary that from what they could see, the Koreans would not hold and within a few hours, this was true. South Korean stragglers started to make their way back through the Kiwi gun positions, throwing away their weapons as they moved. The Kiwis started to pack up their gear and limber up, so attach the trucks to their artillery pieces.

The trickle soon became a flood, and the Kiwis began to move to the rear. Initially the Kiwis are up here, firing in support of the Republic of Korea’s forces. But very, very soon, as I said, as soon as your infantry start moving back through your positions, if you’re an intelligent gunner, you leave, because there’s no point firing in support of somebody when they are leaving and they’re behind you. So, the Kiwis quickly limber up their guns and head off down through the valleys, moving back. The black lines are the lines of retreat, where the South Korean forces and some American forces also intermingled, start moving back down the Kapyong Valley, over here. The red lines are the assaulting lines of the Chinese forces following very, very closely. Soon, the trickle of retreating forces has become a flood. By midday on the 23rd of April the Republic of Korea Division was no more, it had disintegrated. No blocking was happening, no formed units at all. It was just a mass of men running. Exactly how bad things were became very clear to 3RAR very soon, as soldiers, South Korean soldiers, American soldiers, started flooding back through 3RARs forward companies as they were beginning to dig in. 

We don’t have any colour images of this battle, the battle area, so Ivor Hele, one of the Official Australian War Artists, both in the Second World War and in the Korean War, has to provide us with his rendering of what the battlefield looked like in the area of the Kapyong Valley. As I said, as the Australians are digging in South Korean soldiers and civilians begin to scramble past, and of course the Australians then start digging faster. Dozens, then hundreds, and then soon thousands of panic-stricken people moving along the valley heading south-west. The Australians know from bitter experience that North Korean and Chinese infiltrators would be hidden among them, ready to take out hand grenades and sub machine guns once they get out into the rear area and cause chaos.

I’m going to jump—hopefully I haven’t been jumping too fast—but I’m going to move between some black and white images taken in 1952. Almost basically a year after this battle, the Australian Army sent some photographers up to this battle area and took a range of photos, so we have—admittedly as I said it’s a year after the battle—but in April 1952 we have a range of photographs taken of the battle area. I’m going to try and make a little bit more explicable what is happening as these forces come through. The other problem, the vast majority of this battle occurs at night-time, so we can’t obviously have any decent images of this very, very dark, black night.

As they’re digging in the worry is starting to grow for a number of reasons. As I said, they had not been issued with extra supplies of ammunition. Defensive fire tasks had not been targeted in, because their artillery support are miles to the north of them. So that Kiwi regiment had originally been stationed behind them but had been ordered forward to help support the South Korean soldiers. In a defensive position, for an infantry regiment, your main weapons of support—if you have it—air support, obviously, but artillery to provide fire on any attacking force coming towards your positions. And if you’re any good with maths, you have to be out there, your gunners, your support, hopefully have pre-registered defensive fire tasks so they know where they’re going to be firing. The gunners don’t have to see the battlefield. They can see their map, and they know: when the Australians call in and say we need artillery support on our front, or in front of this company, or in front of that company, the defensive fire tasks are already zoned in, already mapped in, and are ready to go. This did not happen. They had no barbed wire, they had no land mines. If you’re going to defend an infantry battalion in a position for an extended period of time, you want to have both of those things, or three of those things with the artillery support.

This battle is going to be fought with infantry weapons, and the very useful support of those tanks, but at times they confuse the issue and make things even more muddled as this battle expands. Because the tanks were not under control, nor under command of the Australians, so it was up to the Commander of the tanks to deploy as he saw fit and operate how he wanted to. So, as I said earlier, there’s a multiplicity of small battles occurring throughout what’s called the Battle of Kapyong. At times those American tanks fired on enemy forces attacking themselves, so attacking the American tanks. At times, American tanks fired upon Chinese and North Korean soldiers attacking the Australian positions. At times those American tanks were going back to get resupplied and come forward again. At times they were able to return the Australian wounded back behind the lines. So, this is a confusing battle on many, many levels.

One of the other issues which we can see up here, the red lines are obviously the lines of advance and attack. The commander, the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ferguson, sited Battalion Headquarters nearly one point eight kilometres behind his rifle companies, which meant he was for a lot of this battle out of communication with his rifle companies. They fought individual battles. So,

these little green shapes here are the individual rifle companies. Each of them is sited to basically provide all round defence, because they have to do that. The North Korean forces and the Chinese forces attack each of these positions in turn. Infiltrators also get through to 3RAR and extend eventually as far as the Middlesex, down here. Only in small groups. This is not a wave of soldiers coming out of the trenches in the First World War and moving towards the enemy—here’s lots of small pockets, small groups. Ten, 20, 30, 50 men attacking different objectives, and the defence is like that. At times you can support other companies, but at times you cannot.

On the other side of this rather large valley are the Canadians. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battalion, and the same thing, about 24 hours after the attack on the Australians, will happen to them. After the Australians blunt the initial attack, they will then turn their attention to the Canadians. So this becomes the complete infantry war because medium machine guns, some two-inch mortars, not enough, Bren light machine guns, Owen submachine guns, short magazine Lee-Enfields, hand grenades, fists, bayonets, knives. It turns into a completely extraordinary battle which we’ll try and understand in a little while.

Between 2000 hours, so between 8pm and 11pm, on the 23rd the stragglers or deserters, whatever you want to call them, coming through the Australian position turned into a stream. Eventually soft skin trucks and then some armoured fighting vehicles start coming through. The Australians have to duck down, throw themselves into their positions as trucks run over the top of them, beside them, vehicles get bogged and are abandoned. They get into the river and creeks and streams, people are just running through, and of course as I said the enemy were amongst the stragglers, and confusion reigned.

Fighting actually broke out first around Battalion Headquarters. They did not attack those rifle companies. I’ll show you a couple of photos in a little while of those rifle companies. Enough infiltrators got through to here, Battalion Headquarters, because there’s a village here. They got into some of the houses around Chuktun-ni and set machine guns up in houses and started firing on Battalion Headquarters. Back at Battalion Headquarters, as I said the Commanding Officer, but also the support companies, the Australian support companies are there. The Assault Pioneer Platoon, the Anti-Tank Platoon, the Mortar Platoon are situated, or co-located with Battalion Headquarters. For most of this battle they have to fight as infantry, defending Battalion Headquarters from attack. No contact at this time, up until 2300 hours, is happening, with the infantry companies located further forward. One of the main issues is that line had been laid, the Australian Signallers were on the job, they had laid line from Battalion Headquarters through to the rifle companies. But the tanks, going backwards and forwards, had churned up and ripped up all those lines. So had the sporadic North Korean and Chinese artillery fire which was falling all over the place, not in any concentrated manner, but just enough to confuse the issues.

As I said earlier, this is a massive battlefield, a very, very broad battlefield, down a very large valley. The line of advance, as you can see there, is looking from the enemy’s positions, or looking from the enemy advance. There are no positions, they’re just coming forward in waves. Obviously it’s always an advantage to have the higher ground, and this proves the case, because you have to force the enemy to obviously exhaust themselves in attacking upslope, uphill. But this is night-time, so you can’t see. The only light that you have to see is the light of occasional flares going off and the light of weapons-fire happening, from either the Australian side, from the American tanks driving around the valley floor, or the Chinese and North Koreans attacking from the south-west here.

Reversing the view, this image here now shows the advance looking down on probably the unluckiest of the companies, B Company. A, C and D at least were vaguely co-located. B Company is down across that valley. Along, just sort of along the ridgeline, so just below the tree line, sorry not the ridgeline, along the tree line there. North Korean forces, Chinese forces are flooding down through there, going past, so they are caught by enfilade fire. The Australians standing where this p