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Kapyong: My Experience

by Jeff Towart 27278 3RAR

The night of the 22nd April 1951 saw the beginning of the Chinese Fifth Phase Offensive, but it wasn't until the next morning that the 27th Brigade HQ received details of the attack. The Australian sector in the valley 40 miles NE of Seoul covered the junction of two roads and two rivers, the largest of which was the Kapyong. KVAA Inc. member, Jeff Towart who was present at the battle which followed takes up the story.

During the early part of the night of 23rd April 1951, the Chinese came over the river crossing in droves. Our Platoon Sergeant was killed and several others wounded. Although they lost a lot of men, the Chinese just kept coming until we set up two Bren guns in an attempt to force a halt. It did for awhile, until they discovered a two hundred metre gap on our left between us and Hill 677.

My weapon pit was on the east side of our platoon and from there it was about two hundred metres east to the base of Hill 677 which was extremely steep and high, and as far as we knew, wasn't our responsibility. At first light on 24th April, soldiers from the top of Hill 677 began firing down into our pits, but because of the distance were not very effective. We assumed they were Chinese but actually they were Canadian and they thought we were Chinese.

At this stage our position was far from ideal. Our rifle companies on Hill 504 were still holding their ground. To the north was the river and the Chinese; to the east was Hill 677 occupied by the enemy (or so we believed). This left the south as our only possible out, so we decided to have a sneaky look around. With the Owen gun on a shoulder sling, I wandered through the old mortar and assault pioneer area, then on to the American 4.2 Mortar Company who had departed during the night leaving the area a complete shambles with some vehicles half unloaded and some empty. I picked up a pair of new socks, a great find as socks were like gold in this "land of the morning calm."

Small groups of five or six Chinese were sitting, squatting or standing around and didn't seem in the least interested in me. I was wearing an old dog cap with the flaps down and a very dirty long duffel coat, so they may have thought I was Chinese or Korean. I had already decided if challenged from a distance I would casually wave and keep moving.

Reaching the BHQ area I found an Australian flag in the dust which had been run over several times by vehicles. [see box below]. This was the area where Slim Madden and Ken Parker were taken prisoner a few hours earlier. By now I was about six hundred metres from our platoon, so I slowly made my way home, keeping well wide of any enemy groups. The only information I could pass on was as far as I could see the valley south was occupied by groups of Chinese who didn't seem to be in the least interested in us.

The Kapyong Flag

I wasn't fully aware of the flag's significance until some years later when I produced it at an Eastern Command Sergeant's Mess Regimental dinner. As the only Australian flag flown at the Battle of Kapyong, a few of the eighty diners wanted to add their names to the three already there, but we (myself and one other) decided only those who had served with 3 RAR in Korea should place their name, campaign and date on the flag, a decision that didn't please everyone. Over the next twenty years a further fifteen names were added. Some of the names and campaigns made interesting reading as quite a few had served in wars both before and after Korea.

In April 2001, I returned the flag to 3 RAR. Although they were extremely proud to have it, I sometimes wonder if it would have been better with the Australian National Museum in Canberra in their Korean War display, where it could be seen by millions of people each year. It now resides in the 3 RAR museum and is only seen on special days such as Trooping of the Colours or Kapyong Day parades.

During the day of 24th April a decision was made have our platoon follow the river upstream as far as possible, then if necessary fight their way out. An attempt would be made to recover the two abandoned anti-tank guns from near the river by towing them out. Our rifle companies were to start withdrawing from their positions on Hill 504 at 1600 hours. The narrow winding uphill road meant the two trucks loaded with ammunition and towing a heavy gun would have a top speed of around forty kph through the four kilometres of enemy held territory. Sergeant Jeff Wells was to be an emergency second driver and ride up front with me.

To make ourselves a more difficult target, I attached the canvas side curtains that were normally used to keep out rain and snow. These were kept upright and held in place by thin strips of spring steel about an inch wide. Working on the old theory that it's difficult to hit a target you can't see, we felt quite secure in the truck cab.

Maybe those Chinese were not aware of this theory as they lost no time in firing through that curtain.

We had only gone a few hundred metres before passing the first Chinese who just stood and watched us pass, but word soon got around as the next group opened fire with several rifles. With the old truck flat to the boards we kept going as a much larger group opened fire with a machine gun and several burp guns. When the top half of my curtain fell down I said a few words of displeasure. A canvas curtain may offer little protection but you'd be surprised just how naked you feel sitting and watching a machine gun take aim and fire from only forty or fifty metres and not be able to duck or take cover.

Sergeant Wells 'enquired' if we could get a little more speed out of the old bus and I assured him she was already on the boards. Somehow the two trucks made it to the top with only one wounded. The second truck was being driven by a mate called Bomber Bloome who remarked, "Christ, you were slow. Just as well the Chinks were on your tail or we would never have got here." (His truck had just had a new engine after the old one had been damaged.) After closer inspection it was found that my curtains had fallen down because the steel strips had been cut in several places.

During the afternoon of 24th April, a call was made by Don Company for air support; however the small spotter plane dropped his marker flare on the wrong ground. He was followed closely by a flight of Corsairs who dropped their napalm bombs on the Australian position, ultimately killing two and injuring six others. Of all the weapons of war, napalm is probably the most feared by ground troops as the jellied petrol filled containers burst on contact spewing out burning liquid over an area of about forty square metres with heat of one thousand degrees centigrade. A good mate of mine, Harold Giddens, was one of those injured. He suffered burns to his nose, lips, an ear and fingers on one hand.

Late in the evening of 25th April 1951 on a hill overlooking Kapyong Valley, Brigadier Bourke presented the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade's Regimental flag to Colonel Ferguson, and at one minute past midnight the 27th Brigade ceased to exist and the 28th Brigade was born. The 27th Brigade was probably the most famous Brigade of the Korean War and certainly had the finest reputation. Having fought in almost every major battle and never defeated, it was the first in British history to take command in battle of units from Australia, Canada, Britain, Scotland, New Zealand and America.

The British Commonwealth Brigade was formed on 30th September 1950 at Waegwan, South Korea. The Brigade's three Infantry Regiments were the 3 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and 1st Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment. After seven months of almost continuous action including eight major battles, the Brigade was universally considered to be the finest fighting unit in the five hundred thousand strong international army. The Brigade was disbanded at Kapyong with the following battle honours: Sariwon, Yongyu, Chongju, Pakchon, Uijongbu, Chuamni, Machwa-san and Kapyong.

The following is part of an address delivered by a senior staff officer in November 1951: "In every battle the Battalion was outnumbered and frequently had to fight under strength. The casualty rate was high, and there was no room for passengers, every man was important and had to be dependable. Because of that dependence on each other the Battalion became more of a family to its members. The soldiers are intensely proud of their unit's reputation, reinforcements are aware of this for word has spread through the Army at home."

First Published in The Voice, August 2010