Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910. The Koreans responded by demanding independence, but Japan at that time was the leading military power in the area. After Japan was defeated in the Second World War, Korea was divided into two separate zones of occupation, the north controlled by the USSR and the south by the USA and the United Nations (UN).
The UN attempted to hold elections in Korea in 1948, but the USSR instead established a Communist republic in the North, known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK): its leader was Kim
Il-Sung. In the South, the American zone became the Republic of Korea (ROK) under Syngman Rhee. The dividing line between the two new countries was called the 38th parallel.
At 04:00 on 25 June 1950, North Korea, supported by the USSR, launched an invasion of the South. In response, The UN Security Council recommended that troops should be sent to defend South Korea. The Soviet Union, which was boycotting the Security Council
at the time, was unable to veto the decision.
The revolution in China meant that China’s UN role was being led by the exiled Chinese leadership in Taiwan rather than by the Communist authorities on mainland China (who supported North Korea) therefore the exiled anti-communist Chinese authorities were able to support UN intervention.
Fifteen nations sent troops to Korea, where they were organized under the command of the American General, Douglas MacArthur.
The UN contingent included troops from the USA, Britain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Colombia, Turkey, Greece, the Philippines, Belgium, France and many others. The USA made the largest contribution of troops and equipment, Britain the second. By Spring 1951, Britain’s contribution to the UN forces was 12,000 strong. In 1950, ROK forces numbered between 80,000 and 100,000, increasing, according to some estimates, to 240,000 by Spring 1951.
UN and ROK forces combined would number 932,000 by July 1953.
Figures for North Korean and, later, Chinese forces, vary, but in November 1950 it is estimated that some 150,000 North Korean and around 200,000 Chinese forces had been fielded. By July 1953, combined Chinese and North Korean forces would be estimated at 1,200,000.
Across the 38th parallel During the summer of 1950, North Korean forces almost pushed the UN forces off the Korean peninsula.
In September, however, the USA launched a successful counter-attack and, on 1 October, the North Koreans were pushed back over the 38th parallel. UN and ROK forces then advanced into North Korean territory in an attempt to reunite the two countries. Mao Tse Tung,
the Chinese leader, fearing that UN and ROK forces would enter Chinese territory, launched a massive and successful attack in support
of North Korea.
In January 1951, the Chinese pushed the UN and ROK forces back sixty miles south of the 38th parallel; however, during February and March, the Chinese and North Koreans were themselves forced back. The front line was now 45 km north of Seoul along the southern bank of the Imjin River. This defensive line became known as ‘Kansas’ and ran roughly along the 38th parallel.
The battles along the Imjin River were some of the bloodiest of the war, with many British and American causalities. Norman ‘Taff’ Davies, a British serviceman, wrote about one of the battles:
“The unmistakable sound of the 4.2 mortars made everybody’s head turn in that direction. We did not know at the time but it meant that the enemy had encircled the Gloucesters and were getting between us and the infantry, bringing them in range of the mortars. These were the reserve troops of 170 Mortar Battery and were sited to the left of the Tactical Headquarters position. Also, in the distance, we could hear the 25 pounders of the 45th Field Regiment barking out what seemed a continuous roar. Later analysis of the battle showed that the guns fired more rounds per gun, the average
was a thousand rounds, than had been fired at El Alamein in World War II.”
(Extract taken from: The Korean War, Brian Catchpole, Robinson, London, 2001, p123)
The fighting continued for another two years along the border between the ROK and North Korea. American planes bombed the cities of the north and UN troops continued to engage with the enemy but very little progress was actually made.
The Korean War presented some of the most difficult combat conditions for all the UN troops. The winters in Korea are extremely cold and the summers very hot and ensuring that the servicemen were suitably dressed for both conditions was difficult. The troops were usually housed in tents in all weathers. In addition, the UN troops were often bombarded with Chinese propaganda — telling them to go home and that they were fighting a pointless war in a foreign land.
Back in the UK, the war had mixed support from both the British Government and from the British public. Some people could not see the importance of British troops being there when Britain was so stretched following the Second World War. However Britain was proving its commitment to the UN in order to show that the organisation would have force when needed. Britain, along with many in the Western world, also feared the spread of Communism and the Korean conflict was part of the global Cold War.
From as early as October 1951, armistice talks were periodically convened, but they always faltered. In November 1952, however, Eisenhower was elected president of the USA, replacing Truman.
Stalin died in March 1953 and within two weeks, the USSR withdrew its support from North Korea. That same year, the USA hinted at the use of nuclear weapons, and on 27 July, a ceasefire agreement known as the Panmunjom Armistice was signed by representatives of the UN, North Korea and China.
Officially the War is still on Ceasefire and therefore not over — there is still no peace treaty between North and South Korea.
The Korean conflict had been devastating for both sides. The civilian populations of both the ROK and North Korea had suffered massive social and economic dislocation; according to UN estimates, three million Koreans (soldiers and civilians on both sides) had been killed. Chinese deaths were estimated by the UN at 900,000; the USA reported 33,629 of its own dead. The UN also recorded the deaths of 686 British troops with a further 1,102 missing in action or prisoners-of-war. Many of those British troops that had fought in Korea were not professional soldiers but were young men, fulfilling their National Service.