In November of 1951 the Chinese military entered the Korean War and launched a massive invasion of the Korean peninsula in support of their communist ally North Korea. The overwhelming numbers of Chinese forces initially had a shocking effect on the US military and its United Nations allies. The Chinese military won victory after victory against the retreating coalition forces and eventually captured the then mostly destroyed South Korean capitol city of Seoul.
It wasn’t until February of 1951 that the 23rd US Infantry Regiment led by Colonel Paul Freeman and augmented by the French Battalion led by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Monclar, were able for the first time to stop the Chinese advance after the 23rd Infantry’s heroic stand at the Battle of Chipyong-ni.
In April of 1951 the United States military and its United Nations allies had begun to consolidate their gains against the Chinese Communist Forces by establishing a front line near the 38th parallel that had served as the pre-war border between the two Koreas. One of the United Nations forces manning this new front was the British 29th Brigade Combat Team commanded by Brigadier General Tom Brodie. The Brigade was composed of three British Battalions, the Gloucestershire Regiment, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, and the Royal Ulster Rifles. Additionally the brigade was augmented with one Belgian battalion.
The 29th Brigade was tasked to man a frontline along the Imjim River that stretched for 12 miles. Due to the length of the frontline and the number of soldiers available, General Brodie could not deploy his force in one consistent front against the enemy; he instead deployed each battalion to hold a strategic piece of ground opposite of the Chinese force, but this left gaps in between the battalions for the Chinese exploit. On the farthest left flank of the brigade near the village of Jokseong was the Gloucestershire Battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Carne:
LTC James P. Carne
The 45 year old, tall, and pipe smoking LTC Carne had served with the Gloucestershire Regiment for 26 years before finding himself in command of the unit he had long been part of, now in the far distant hills of Korea. He lived and breathed the Gloucestershire Regiment, which was credited with being the most decorated regiment in the entire British military with campaign streamers from other far off distant places such as Waterloo, Quebec, and Gallipoli. April 23rd was the British holiday of St. George Day and LTC Carne had an elaborate celebration planned to honor the British patron saint. Unfortunately the British celebration would never materialize due to roughly 30,000 Chinese party crashers that day.
Tea time for the soldiers of the Gloucestershire Regiment.
The Chinese Spring Offensive
On April 21, 1951 the Chinese launched what has now become known as the Chinese Spring Offensive. This massive offensive operation launched by the Chinese had the overall objective of recapturing the South Korean capitol city of Seoul. The Chinese believed that if they recaptured the city it would break the will of the United States and its allies to continue fighting what was quickly becoming an unpopular war. Capturing Seoul would put them in a position of strength during ceasefire negotiations that were sure to follow such a military success.
The offensive was launched all along the frontlines but the two most important objectives that the Chinese needed to achieve in order to march on Seoul would be to capture the Kapyong Valley to the north east of Seoul and to secure a river crossing across the Imjim River to the north. It was here along the Imjim River that LTC Carne and his men of the Gloucestershire regiment would go on to fight a battle that would make the veterans of Rourke’s Drift proud, against the vastly superior Chinese forces that would ultimately live forever in the anals of British military history.
The Battle of the Imjim Begins
The modern day Imjim River.
The Battle of the Imjim officially began on April 22, 1951 when the Chinese 34th and 29th Divisions assaulted the US 3rd Infantry Division located to the east of the British 29th Brigade. The 29th Brigade would not be assaulted until midnight on April 22nd. On that night the Chinese 187th Division exploited gaps on each side of the Belgian battalion to surround them and completely cutting them of from the rest of the brigade. The assault against the 29th Brigade continued to expand throughout the day and by the night of April 23rd the entire British frontline, including the Gloucestershire Regiment, were in full contact with the enemy.
The Gloucestershire Regiment initially enjoyed much success in rappelling Chinese attempts to ford the Imjim River at the one known crossing point. However, the Chinese discovered a crossing point to the northwest of the regiment that previous reconnaissance by the British had failed to reveal. The Chinese quickly took advantage of the undefended crossing point and poured troops across the river.
View from Kamaksan mountain of the Imjim River where the Chinese would have crossed north of Joeksong.
The troops of the Chinese 187th Division that had crossed the river were soon scaling the spurs of the hills being held by A Company soldiers of the Gloucestershire Regiment. Throughout the night and into the early morning hours the A Company soldiers held off the massive Chinese assault but they eventually had to withdraw from their position overlooking the river and back to supplementary position on Hill 235 to the south. In the typical understated British way the company’s radio man radioed LTC Carne to inform him their position was overrun by declaring, “We are overrun. We’ve had it. Cheerio.”
D Company located on Hill 182 held against the Chinese assault but with the withdrawal of A Company to their western flank D Company was also forced to withdraw towards Hill 235 as well so they would not be surrounded by the advancing Chinese. Their withdrawal was protected by heavy artillery and mortar fire as the British soldiers moved to Hill 235. The heavy artillery had stopped the Chinese momentum for the time being as sought shelter from the incoming rounds. This allowed the Gloucestershire Regiment to consolidate a front line with two companies holding Hill 235 and the other two companies holding a ridgeline based around Hill 314 just to the east.
Throughout the rest of the day on April 23rd the Gloucestershire Regiment held their positions against the Chinese probing attacks. However, the Chinese had not committed themselves to a full scale assault on the regiment because they were waiting for soldiers from the Chinese 192nd, 187th, and 188th Divisions to cross the Imjim River. The single British Regiment of 750 soldiers now found themselves opposed by three Chinese divisions numbering roughly 30,000 soldiers. With such a disparity in numbers the outcome of this impending final battle was never in doubt, it was only a matter of how long and the men of LTC James Carne’s Gloucestershire Regiment were going to make the Chinese earn every piece of ground they tried to take.
That night thousands of Chinese soldiers charged at the waiting guns of the Gloucestershire Regiment. Casualties were heavy on both sides with the Chinese taking the vast majority of the casualties. As the fighting continued through the night the soldiers began to run low on supplies and ammo. If they were not resupplied soon, they would be over run. LTC Carne had to organize a party of soldiers to assault into the Chinese lines to recover supplies from his regimental headquarters that had been over run by the Chinese earlier on the 23rd. The raiding party was able to successfully break through the Chinese lines and recover some supplies. The supplies ended up being enough to get them through the night, but would it be enough to get them through the next day?
Next Posting: The Fight for Hill 235