Mostly Australian and Canadian troops backed by US tankers fight bitterly to blunt Chinese offensive...

Is This the Battle That Turned the Tide of the Korean War?

The National Interest•December 3, 2017

The Communists never recovered from the setback in the Kapyong River Valley in April 1951.

Is This the Battle That Turned the Tide of the Korean War?

The Chinese always attacked at night. It was April 22, 1951, and the Communists had just launched the largest offensive of the Korean War. Nearly 350,000 troops, spread out across the Korean Peninsula from the Imjin River to the Sea of Japan, slammed into thinly held U.N. positions. The heaviest blows fell in the west and west-central sectors, manned by the American I and IX Corps. The Eighth Army, a multinational force newly under the command of Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet, reeled southward in the face of unremitting pressure from Chinese human-wave assaults. The enemy offensive, although long expected, still unnerved a number of frontline units.

This was certainly true of the Republic of Korea’s 6th Division, stationed at the left of the IX Corps front, north of Route 3A and Line Kansas. The South Koreans disintegrated before the Chinese, retreating in disorder for 10 miles, then falling back another eight miles before attempting to regroup and move north again under orders to reoccupy Line Kansas. The New Zealand 16th Field Artillery Regiment and the U.S. 213th Field Artillery Battalion, escorted by the British 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, were sent north up the Kapyong River Valley to provide support for the embattled ROK troops.

These units were attached to the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, which at the outbreak of the enemy offensive was standing in reserve at Kapyong, near the confluence of the Kapyong and Pukhan Rivers and astride one of the prime invasion routes to Seoul. During the day on April 23, Brig. Gen. B.A. Burke, commanding the 27th Brigade, received orders to occupy the high ground north of the town of Kapyong and move into position to control movement through the Kapyong River Valley. Burke put the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), on Hill 504 east of the river and the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, on Hill 677 west of the river. A distance of about 1.9 miles of open ground separated the two hills.

Despite the presence of the 27th Brigade artillery units, the ROK 6th Division proved unable to reorganize effectively and push forward. In fact, under enemy pressure, the South Korean troops began streaming farther southward in the late afternoon of the 23rd. Captain Owen R. Browne, commanding officer of the Princess Pat’s A Company, described what he saw. “I was witnessing a rout,” he said. “The valley was filled with men. Some left the road and fled over the forward edges of A Company positions. Some killed themselves on the various booby traps we had laid, and that component of my defensive layout became worthless. Between 1530 hours and 1800 hours all of A Company speeded up its defensive preparations and digging as it watched, helpless to intervene, while approximately 4,000-5,000 troops fled in disorganized panic across and through the forward edges of our positions. But we knew then that we were no longer 10-12 miles behind the line; we were the front line.”

Major Ben O’Dowd, commanding A Company of the Australian 3rd Battalion, observed the same scene from the vantage point of Hill 504’s forward slopes. “Soon the mob of ROK soldiers became thickened up with civilian refugees: men, women, children and animals, all bunched together in a confusing melee; screaming, shouting, crying children, with their cattle, with their goods on their back,” recalled O’Dowd. “We knew that the situation was getting dangerous and we had something to really worry about. I knew, from past experience, that Chinese soldiers would mix in with the civilians they had terrorized to clog up the roads. They would be in civilian clothes or in uniform, in the half light and be penetrating to the rear in numbers.”

Retreating along with the South Koreans were the New Zealand and American artillery units and the Middlesex Battalion. The Middlesexers were originally slated to take up positions on Hill 794, north of and across the Kapyong River from the Canadians on Hill 677. But orders had been changed, and the battalion moved through the valley and downriver to establish a position to the west of a big bend in the river, south of the Canadians and northeast of 27th Brigade headquarters. The New Zealand and American artillery set up in front of the Middlesex Battalion and behind the Australian battalion’s headquarters, which was located near another big bend in the river, just south of a ford and along a road leading north to the nearby village of Chuktun-ni. North of the village itself, B Company, 3 RAR, occupied a northeast-running ridge that stood like an island in the Kapyong Valley, an arm of land through which ran a road from the northeast. This subsidiary valley cut between B Company’s position on the island ridge and the main Australian positions on Hill 504. The 3 RAR headquarters was located about 1.6 miles southwest of the forward Australian companies.

The Canadian positions on Hill 677 were more consolidated than the spread-out Australians. The three infantry battalions of the 27th Brigade were not within mutually supporting distance of each other—in fact, the individual companies within the Australian and Canadian battalions were hard-pressed to provide mutual support due to the nature of the terrain. A realistic appraisal of the situation allowed only for the occupation of strongpoints, with significant gaps remaining between units. The brigade’s fourth infantry battalion, from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers Regiment, had just arrived near the front to replace another unit and was being held in reserve. It would not participate in the coming action at Kapyong.

The Australians were in the most exposed position, and they were attacked first by units of the Chinese 118th Division on the evening of April 23. Beginning at about 9:30 pm, the Chinese launched a series of attacks within 30 minutes, the first against a platoon of Sherman tanks from A Company, U.S. 72nd Tank Battalion, that had located itself forward of B Company. Ensuing Communist attacks struck 3 RAR on the island ridge, and the forward platoon of A Company, 3 RAR, on the slopes of Hill 504 to the east; and one against 3 RAR headquarters south of Chuktun-ni.

The last attack was the most significant. Chinese were infiltrating through the open ground west of the river between the Australians and the Canadians. They also had moved between the Australian battalion’s headquarters near the river and the rifle companies on the high ground to the northeast. Lt. Col. I.B. Ferguson, commanding 3 RAR, found himself with grave communications difficulties. His telephone lines to all but one company had been cut, and his radio link to the forward units was inefficient. The supporting artillerymen came under small-arms fire and began to move their batteries southward, taking up new positions behind the Middlesex Battalion. This dislocation severely affected the availability of fire support during the night. Moreover, an American heavy mortar company that had been positioned near the artillery subsequently abandoned its equipment and 35 vehicles and retreated on foot all the way to Chunchon, 10 miles to the east. Well before midnight, the Chinese had succeeded in cutting off the Australians from the rest of 27th Brigade.

Another attack against the platoon of American tanks in front of B Company mortally wounded the platoon leader and caused the tanks to withdraw down the valley. B Company, on the island ridge, was assaulted by a large number of Chinese shortly before midnight. After two hours of intense action, the enemy withdrew with heavy casualties. The Australians suffered no casualties in the attack, but O’Dowd’s A Company was subjected to continued assaults throughout the night. He recalled: “The initial contacts in A Company came as a series of enemy probing patrols, bumping into our forward weapon pits at various points, searching for soft spots. Then the fight for our ridge line started in earnest with the Chinese blowing bugles and whistles. They used these sounds as signals to assemble their men. When the bugles and whistles stopped we knew that they were on their way. Some of the soldiers did not carry weapons—just bucketfuls of grenades. Our next indication of an assault was the showers of grenades that started exploding all around us. The Chinese grenadiers had the job of keeping my diggers’ heads down so the riflemen and machine gunners could rush in and get amongst us.”

Unlike B Company, A Company on the forward slopes of Hill 504 was absorbing heavy casualties in repeated Chinese attacks that caused the pullback of one platoon. Meanwhile, the battalion headquarters area near the river was in danger of being overrun; Ferguson issued orders for a withdrawal at first light. But some time after 2 am, the enemy broke contact and fell back to regroup. At about 4 am, Ferguson requested that a company from the Middlesex Battalion be sent forward to assist his threatened headquarters defenders. The Middlesexers subsequently cleared the high ground near 3 RAR headquarters, but were forced to withdraw after taking heavy fire from the higher ground to the west. Ferguson ordered B Company to withdraw from its position on the island ridge to the rear of Hill 504 with the coming of dawn. This proved to be a highly controversial decision—B Company had withstood the enemy onslaught from its isolated vantage point and remained in good condition. Many blamed General Burke for the order.

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