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Murchison Made Her Mark
by John Bates
North Korea in winter is no place for anyone. In the winter of '51 HMAS Murchison was the only Australian vessel out of the 14 United Nations ships - and one of the biggest - taking part in the treacherous "Operation Han", deep in the tidal mud flats of the Han River. Sitting ducks for the cold lead of the Chinese artillery.
The forward twin four inch Mk 19 mounting on HMAS Murchison swung rapidly to port as LCDR Dollard called "Action port, all positions engage".
The fire gongs rang and with a sharp crack and a shudder from the ship, two four-inch shells sped the 1500 yards to the small group of farmhouses.
Enemy gun muzzles protruded from their broken walls. The return shells went high - Dollard winced as they screamed over. "Thank God they're high."
The salvo from HMAS Murchison was not high. A cloud of grey smoke rose from one of the buildings - "scratch another 75mm!"
Along the boat deck nests of single 40mm Bofors were coughing in five round bursts. As every spasm left the ship another was kicking up steps of dust as they "walked" towards a group of Chinese men along the bank.
A hail of rifle fire was hitting the ship - bullets whined off the heavy steel of the director control tower and the bridge sides.
A cloud of dirt erupted from the bank and a rifleman fell out, another started running - straight into the next burst of 40-mm rounds.
HMAS Murchison was in a bad position - she could be in real trouble and she was on her own. How good her gunners were and how well her crew stood the battle would decide her fate.
Lynchpin of the operation was LCDR A. N. Dollard RAN. A slightly built 34 year-old, Dollard was the kind of officer sailors like. No bull and no false airs. A man who stood up well to the searching and often uncanny scrutiny many officers never overcome from lower deck men.
He was a man with guts and efficiency - if anyone could get them out of this he could!
North Korea in winter is no place for anyone from a warmer climate. It is bitterly cold and swept by storms and strong winds. It is a little better in the heat of summer!
No place is worse than around the area around the Han River, running roughly along the 38th parallel to the yellow sea.
The Han does not flow directly to the sea like most rivers. It becomes a web of narrow channels; an estuary of tidal mud flats and banks; of little islands - all wrapped up in a tide fall of around 30 feet (9 m). At high tide the area of the mouth is about 5 miles (9 km) across - and at low tide the proverbial 'stones throw'.
The object of the operation was to smash Chinese troop concentrations and disrupt supplies.
Operation Han was an unconventional battle. The ships were wheeled and worked in waters no wider than Sydney Harbour or in places, the Brisbane River. It took cool, calm handling skill to navigate in these conditions and to do so knowing the ship was often within pistol range of the enemy.
The operation began in July 1951, and went on for several months. Fourteen major naval vessels were involved, all under the control of Rear Admiral Scott-Moncrieff RN. There were ships from the Royal Navy, from the RAN, New Zealand, the United States and South Korea.
The British Bay class frigates: HMS's Cardigan Bay, Morecambe Bay, St. Brides Bay and Mounts Bay were backed up by the older frigates Black Swan and the legendary Amethyst, with the destroyer Comus being the 'big guns' of the RN force.
From New Zealand came the Loch class ships: HMNZS's Rotoiti, Hawea and Taupo with a force of frigates and patrol boats from US Navy and South Korea.
Daddy of them all was HMAS Murchison. This frigate spent more time on the Han River basin than did any other and her depredations earned her many battle honours.
On July 24, 1951 Murchison, after two months of coastal patrol in the Yellow Sea, battled a tank on the West Coast of the Haeju Peninsula. It was the ship's baptism of fire and tank didn't survive. Next day new orders came for the Australian ship. She was ordered to join a force of United Nations frigates and go into the Han River.
This was almost suicide for big ships. There were no charts and no markings in the area. The muddy river allowed no conning of ships by looking for discolouration. Small launches were sent in first. They tried to survey the entrance, but drew heavy small arms fire.
The big ships went in. Gun crews closed up, lookouts scanning the shore. Three frigates crept into an arm of the river. They twisted and turned looking for a path and finally had to admit that not only could they go no further, they could not find their way out.
Carrier aircraft were called in and they were able to 'con' the ships clear of the area.
It was a lesson for the UN ships. If the enemy had been strong in the area or had commanded a strong air force, none of them would have got out.
The next day, with small launches sounding in front of them, the frigates tried once more. It was like a blind man tapping his way through mud! Echo sounders giving slight assistance the group moved in - guns at the ready.
It took more than 40 hours, to move 30 miles (48 km) up the river. Flood tides in the river moving at more than 7 knots didn't help. As they moved in, the carrier-borne air cover kept with them - without it there could have been a UN disaster.
Many small channels radiated from the 'Fork' as the area was known. The ships based themselves at this anchorage, only 7½ miles from the town of Kaesong, to attack enemy operations as far west as Yonan. Railways, troops and ammunition dumps were all fair game for the bigger ships - but they were fair game for the initially surprised Chinese army. Taken by surprise in the early stages, they pulled their main forces back into the hills beyond range of the frigates' fire. This allowed the frigates to chart the area.
More than 25 miles of winding channels were charted and the men in the unarmed small boats took more than 80,000 soundings. Thirty navigational buoys were anchored and the read was ready for the small ships to fight - at least on their own terms.
During this 'peaceful' time, the ships steamed out and were replaced by others but Murchison, after steaming out for a rest, steamed back. She spent more than 60 days up the Han - a record not even approached by the others.
In September 1951, the crunch came. Chinese artillery opened fire on the ships - and then died away. False alarm.
The battle resumed two days later - a bad day for the Murchison. She was doing a 'show-boat' trip. Taking visiting brass around the area by ship - "so they wouldn't get their shoes dirty and would earn combat pay" as the crewmen mumbled. With an Admiral and other naval brass aboard, it was a bad day for a fight. But they got it.
Murchison was working along Lambeth to Knife - all channels were given English names - with the intention of anchoring at Knife Edge, 7 miles (11 km) west of Fork. They were to bombard the railway yards at Yonan, 5 miles upriver. A naval spotting plane was above giving corrections and with its aid Murchison put more than 50 shells into the town.
With the disruptive strike over, the anchor was weighed and Murchison headed home - no time to relax - she was still a sitting duck, moving like a target at a fairground shooting stall.
From the farmhouse, flashes of fire indicated more than rifle shots. The four-inch twin mountings and the Bofors, under the overall command of Lt. Martin, were soon running hot.
Each four-inch barrel was capable of putting out 17 rounds a minute with good crew - that meant a total of 68 four-inch rounds - more than 1 every second heading for the enemy guns.
Murchison moved out of range, leaving a shambles behind her - she had one casualty - a rifle bullet through the arm of an Able Seaman, but it wasn't over yet.
The Kiwi ship Rotoiti relieved one of the British frigates and Dollard agreed to take her commander along the river channels to "show him where to go". Back along Piccadilly and Sickle went the Australian ship.
At the Yeson Junction, Dollard turned the ship and gave the order to bombard. The first 4-inch rounds screamed away and the Chinese opened up with everything. It was the earlier battle all over again but this time the enemy was firing 75-mm and 50-mm mortars, machine guns and a volume of light arms fire.
This time the enemy fire was accurate. One 75-mm shell passed through the frigate's thin sides into the machinery spaces. Bullets hailed down on the director control tower but none went through. A bigger shell, probably a 120mm passed through the radar antennas above.
As the ship moved along Sickle the fire died, just as a squall came in. Navigation markers were obscured and Murchison slowed. The cloud lifted and at the other end of the Sickle, a new Chinese attack began.
At a range close enough to have bazooka and mortar shell hit the ship, Murchison fought her way clear. Only one sailor was seriously wounded and two others suffered minor wounds. There were seven shell holes in the ship and hundreds of shrapnel scars. One gun was out of action but the ship was in all respects, ready to fight on.
It was a good introduction to the area for the New Zealand captain and as one crewman said: "Every time we take passengers, we hit trouble."
Months later Dollard and his navigator Lt. J. M. Kelly were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
First Published in The Voice, December 2003