Chinese troops in dense formation charge over the Imjin River in April 1951, in what is likely a posed photograph. The battles fought in South Korea between January and May of that year were the biggest of the war, but the Chinese would not enjoy the same success here as they had in North Korea, where they routed the U.N. Command.
/ Courtesy of the National War Memorial of Korea
By Andrew Salmon
On Jan. 4, 1951, air strikes screamed overhead, pounding the blackened city north of the Han River. On the river’s southern bank, American and British engineers feverishly laid charges.
A final locomotive, overloaded with desperate refugees, wheezed across the rail bridge.
Then orders were passed, plungers pressed. In a great cloud of smoke and dust, the central span of the bridge collapsed onto the frozen river.
US-led United Nations Command (UNC) forces were defeated. For the second time in seven months, communist troops were entering Seoul. The winter of 1950-51 would be the darkest hour for free world forces in Korea.
War had been raging since Kim Il-sung’s June 25, 1950, invasion. The September counterattack at Incheon, orchestrated by Washington’s Far East Commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, routed Kim’s army.
South Korean President Syngman Rhee ordered his troops north over the parallel on Oct. 1. MacArthur approved. By late October, UNC forces were approaching the Yalu River, intent upon unifying the peninsula.
MacArthur’s Tokyo-based staff downplayed any possibility of Beijing’s intervention. This proved to be a catastrophic misanalysis.
Two shock Chinese offensives cleared the UNC from North Korea by mid-December. On the 14th, the U.N. requested a ceasefire. On New Year’s Eve, the UNC’s worst fears were realized when Chinese Commander Peng De-huai delivered his answer: 237,000 communist bayonets surged into South Korea.
That attack across the 38th parallel ― Peng’s “Third Offensive” ― heralded a six-month period which encompassed the largest battles of the Korean War.
In the fighting in North Korea, when the UNC had been charging northward, the Chinese had covertly infiltrated around their flanks through high ground, and then decimated them when they broke and retreated down roads.
The January-June 1951 phase of the war, with the UNC in an east-west defensive posture, rather than on a north-bound offensive axis, would be different.
Peng would employ the so-called “human wave,” a frontal attack to overrun a defensive position, while the sides of the “wave” curled around to isolate and surround it.
Some historians have questioned whether the term “human wave” reflected the reality. Veterans have no such doubts.
Typical quotes ― “More enemy than I had ever seen in World War II”; “Like a crowd pouring out of a football stadium”; “No formation ― just mass”; “Suddenly, the whole hillside stood up” ― graphically illustrate its veracity.
While UNC troops attempted to obliterate enemy manpower with firepower, the Chinese assaulted at close range, en masse, and under cover of darkness, giving the 1951 battles a particularly nightmarish quality.
Peng’s Third Offensive punched through the best of the ROK Divisions ― the 1st at the Imjin River. “I found the shock of defeat unbearable,” wrote its commander, Gen. Paik Sun-yup. “It was a nightmare.” The UNC rearguard at Goyang narrowly escaped annihilation as Seoul was abandoned.
But Peng’s Fourth Offensive, launched on Feb. 11 and designed to drive the UNC into the sea, was less successful.
With his supply lines overextended, Peng was facing reinforced UNC firepower. In the past, UNC units had “bugged out” before attacking Chinese, but at Jipyeong-ni on Feb. 13, the 23rd U.S. Regimental Combat Team and the French Battalion, denied orders to retreat and stood fast.
When the Chinese sounded bugles and swarmed forward, the French activated a siren and counterattacked with bayonets. The garrison thwarted their attackers before a relief column broke through on the 15th. The victory invigorated UNC morale.
On March 14, Paik’s rejuvenated 1st ROK Division retook the ruined Seoul, its streets a spider web of fallen power cables.
For the first time, the UNC had mastered a Chinese offensive. They advanced cautiously north, while Peng pulled back over the 38th parallel to lick his wounds and plan the largest offensive of the war.
The Fifth Offensive’s 305,000 troops ― 100,000 more men than the Germans used to seize Stalingrad in 1942 and twice as many as the allies had when they landed on D-Day in 1944 ― jumped off on April 22. Their objective: Stab through the U.N. line at critical points, roll it up from the flank and annihilate major units and recapture Seoul by May Day.
The offensive’s shock phase was stemmed in two critical battles. At Gapyeong, the ROK’s 6th Division collapsed; the 28th Commonwealth Brigade was shoved into the gap. Outnumbered 3 to 1, Australian and Canadian battalions fought furiously to stem the tide.
On the Imjin River, the 29th British Brigade battled for three nights against 7 to 1 odds. By the 25th, the brigade’s Gloster Battalion had been surrounded on Hill 235, three miles inside enemy territory.
U.S. units ordered to its relief were re-tasked to clear their own rear. In one of the war’s most tragic episodes, the Glosters shot away all their ammunition before trying to break out. Only 63 men from 650 made it, but their lonely stand captured the imagination of the world.
The Gapyeong and Imjin actions bought time for the UNC to withdraw though a series of phase lines, chewing up the enemy as they went. On April 30, Peng’s offensive ran out of steam five miles north of Seoul. Again, the Chinese faded into the landscape.
Battered but unbroken, Peng’s last major throw of the dice was the Sixth Offensive, from May 16 to 23. This time, it was the previously unreliable ROK 6th Division that earned the glory: It held against 3 to 1 odds near Mt. Yongmun and major Chinese units were encircled.
By early summer, both sides, appalled at the expenditure of blood, pulled back from the brink. Armistice negotiations began on July 10, 1951.
The mobile phase of the Korean War was over. It had progressed from a civil war on an unknown Asian peninsula to a U.N. “police action,” then morphed into the Cold War’s first “hot” war and almost escalated into World War III. Combat would continue across the pulverized hills for two more years, but with talks underway, each side was now jockeying for short-range gains, not war-winning breakthroughs. This was “limited war.”
Savior of the South
Credit for holding the line in the face of the war’s biggest attacks must go to a much rougher diamond than MacArthur.
Gen. Matthew Ridgway had taken over the position of U.S. 8th Army Commander in Korea from Gen. Walton Walker following the latter’s death in December.
Walker’s offensive dash ― he was a protege of mobile operations maestro Gen. George Patton ― had contributed to the UNC catastrophe in North Korea.
Ridgway, a paratrooper, insisted that troops dismount from vehicles, leave roads and dominate high ground. His tactics were more cautious than Walker’s, but more successful.
Moreover, unlike the ambitious MacArthur in Toyko, who was relieved by U.S. President Harry Truman in April, Ridgway fully endorsed Washington’s aims, accepting “limited war” rather than the outright victory sought by MacArthur and Rhee.
This may explain why a handsome memorial to MacArthur stands in Incheon, but Ridgway ― that tough professional who held the line when the UNC teetered on the brink of collapse ― is little remembered today in South Korea.
Seoul-based reporter Andrew Salmon is the author of “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951″ and the upcoming “Year of the Tiger: The Commonwealth versus Communism, Korea, 1950.”
Seoul-based reporter Andrew Salmon is the author of “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951” and the upcoming “Year of the Tiger: The Commonwealth versus Communism, Korea, 1950.” He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.