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Gun Battle on the Han

by Lt. Commander William O. Roberts DSC RAN

In the latter part of World War II, 12 British-designed frigate hulls were built in Australian shipyards. These were ships of 300ft overall length fitted with two triple expansion reciprocating steam engines giving a maximum speed of around 18 knots. Beyond these basic specifications, the ships were fitted out to local Australian requirements, eight of the class favouring anti-submarine capability whilst the remaining four were designated anti-aircraft frigates. The latter were armed with twin four-inch mountings fore and aft and with five 40mm bofors guns. Their anti-submarine armament consisted of a hedgehog forward and depth charges aft. They were named Condamine, Culgoa, Murchison and Shoalhaven. Because they were heavily armed for their size, cheap and therefore presumably expendable, these proved to be ideal ships for the peculiar circumstances of the Korean War of 1950-1953 where shallow draft and good endurance were of more importance than high speed and modern weaponry, and in this conflict all four vessels played a distinguished part. LCDR W. O. C. Roberts, DSC, RANEM, who joined the RAN in 1940 and retired in 1978 was Murchison's first lieutenant during her Korean deployment. Note: Cutlass, Pall Mall, Sickle and Woolloomooloo are all channels through the mud flats.

The New Year of 1951 found HMAS Murchison daily running out of Sydney training anti-submarine classes from Watson. The Navy was then, as it always seems to be, very short of hands, and although we were a fully commissioned ship with a laid down war complement of about 200, we were running in fact with a total complement of 60; that is Officers, Chiefs, Petty Officers and sailors.

Sixty! We could steam overnight, but only just.

Although the ship was designated and armed as an anti-aircraft frigate, her underwater detection capability was equal to that of the designated anti-submarine frigates; only the armaments differed. Murchison at this time was commanded by Lieutenant Commander A. N. Dollard, RAN, later Commodore DSC who remained with her throughout her time in Korea.

Then in April 1951, out of the blue as far as I was concerned anyway, the ship was detailed for service in Korea and allowed about four weeks to prepare. And now followed what I would honestly consider to be the most hectic four weeks of my life. The ship had settled down to a pleasant routine with sixty fellows on board, and quite naturally these had expanded to occupy all the available space, so the ship was nice and comfortable and everyone had the space of four, and the sailors reckoned this extra space was essential and there was no way they could do with less.

Furthermore, at some time a good half of the messdeck lockers had been landed, quite improperly, to increase the space and there was no record of where they were nor did any machinery exist for drawing new ones as they were ship's fittings. It was only with the co-operation of many friends in the Dockyard, after the exchange of much duty-free largesse, that replacements arrived in the nick of time just before we sailed. How on earth such matters are arranged these days when the unfortunate first lieutenant has to deal with a computer which neither drinks nor smokes, I cannot imagine.

Then came the manning problem.

This was solved by the authorities by means of a simple signal around the fleet saying words to the effect 'Ship X is to provide Y number of sailors in the following categories'.

Well! Naturally every ship in the fleet took this God-sent chance to rid itself of its King's hard bargains.

Thus in a few days we were brought up to nearly full war complement, with these characters arriving on board looking askance at their accommodation and amenities and many of them bearing with them the most spectacular conduct sheets. However, it is interesting to observe that this unlikely group developed into the keenest, liveliest and most efficient ship's company with which it has ever been my privilege to serve.


HMAS Murchison in Korean Waters, 1951

As I see it, in their former ships they were the above average intelligence type of sailor who found themselves bored rigid with peacetime routine. In an operational situation they found a meaning in the drills and discipline and responded accordingly.

Finally, early in May, we sailed from Sydney without any kind of work up, with stores still scattered around the ship, even on the upper deck and still twelve sailors short.

The manning authorities solved this problem by selecting twelve ordinary seamen from a recruit class in Cerberus, flying them up to Brisbane and sending them out in the pilot ship John Oxley whence we picked them up on the way past. It was twelve weeks from the day they had first donned Naval uniform; and in another twelve weeks they were to be in action.

The crew of a Mark XVI 4-inch mounting consists of a layer and trainer, two gun captains and twelve loading numbers. On our recruits we adjusted the quarter bill to make them the after 4-inch guns crew loading numbers, and together with the four senior rates making up the remainder of the crew, put them all in the one messdeck. It was a most successful arrangement; these sixteen, under the outstanding leadership of the Officer of Quarters, who was also the Chief Boatswain's Mate, became an excellent gun crew which was to perform brilliantly in the months to come.

Murchison proceeded direct to Hong Kong shaking down en route. On arrival the Royal Navy provided facilities for a few days simple work up exercises which were to comprise the ship's sole organised preparation for war before she found herself in the operational area.

The next stop was Kure in Japan, the base of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces. There Murchison relieved HMAS Bataan which had completed a year in the area.

Shortly afterwards she proceeded on her first patrol, an inshore patrol on the west coast of Korea.

Off we went, keen as mustard with our Captain, as forceful a press-on character as I ever met, fairly rearing to get to grips with the enemy. No sooner did we reach the operational area than we broke down - trouble with the fuel pumps: first one packed up then the other, with the Engineer Officer improvising like a man demented, and finally, both failed together so we were reduced to steaming by hand. It was very reminiscent of a century ago with relays of sailors manning the pumps, though of course then the object was to pump water out of the ship whereas now it was to pump oil into the boilers. Steaming by hand is not a very effective way of getting about the ocean.

The best speed we could make was four knots and in this fashion we made our way back to Sasebo in Japan to get fixed up. Then we found there were no spare parts available nor could any be made, and this really put our tail between our legs. So there we lay alongside for about a week or 10 days.

A few days after this we were on patrol along a part of the West Coast where undulating grass-covered country sloped gently down to the sea. We were possibly a couple of miles out when some shell splashes were observed, not very close but obviously directed at us because there was no other target around. A quick inspection revealed a couple of tanks having a shot at us with quite small calibre weapons. A truck was there too. Anyway we opened fire on them and we hit one of the tanks, which burned very nicely, and we hit the truck too. The other tank got over the hill and was not seen again. This was a most valuable little action from the point of view of the morale of the ship which thereafter never looked back. Bad luck for the chaps in the tank and truck though.

The following day the operations in the Han River commenced. Led by HMS Cardigan Bay, two Royal Navy frigates, a Republic of Korea frigate and Murchison, with ships boats out ahead sounding, we made the hazardous journey through the uncharted estuary of the Han River, eventually arriving in a broad basin where we came to anchor having covered 30 miles in 40 hours. At this stage of the war, for part of its course, the Han comprised no-man's-land between the Chinese forces on the north bank and the Allied forces holding the south bank. From this new anchorage the guns of the frigate could dominate a considerable area of enemy territory, including several fair sized towns and at least one important rail junction.

The Han River operations covered the period end of July 1951 to end of January 1952 with the ships rotating regularly, each spending 12 to 14 days in the river which was generally occupied by three ships at any time and never less than two. An interesting point is that such was the expenditure of ammunition that ships proceeding to the river would carry with them a complete extra complement of 4-inch ammunition stowed on the upper deck to replenish the ships already there but with a few days to go. The framers of that excellent publication "Naval Magazine and Explosives Regulations" must have turned in their graves at the thought of such reckless conduct, but its justification is that it achieved its object without incident.

On completion of their period in the river, ships would return to Kure or Sasebo in Japan for a few days' replenishment and unwinding before proceeding on a more normal type west coast patrol, so that generally speaking, periods in the river comprised every second patrol. Destroyers were not employed on Han operations but every available frigate had its turn or turns and it so happened that Murchison, with a total of 60 days in the river, took the record for length of time therein.

As a result of the frequent bombardments, Murchison became quite the best gunnery ship I have ever been in. Granted, her gunnery system was simple, but it just worked and that was that. Every other ship I have known always seems to have had some sort of hiccup. Comes the order 'Shoot' and nothing happens except lots of shouting, or you find the director is looking one way and the guns another, or when the Control Officer says 'Action Starboard' the whole lot train immaculately to port; but Murchison's gunnery was absolutely perfect, accuracy drill, mechanics, electrics, the lot. However, when one considers that she fired an average of something like 100 rounds of 4-inch for every day she was in the river, perhaps her excellence is not so surprising.

As the occupation of the Han progressed, with the ships expanding their patrol areas and bombarding daily, action firings became as routine to the ships as washing down decks or darken ship, and Murchison settled down into a smooth running machine, totally efficient to the limits of the sophistication of her equipment. Those majority of her company so readily discarded by their former ships proved, indeed, that any previous misdemeanours had been prompted by boredom and lack of purpose engendered in them by service in a peacetime navy rather than by any basic defect in character. A realisation of the vital importance of every man to the efficiency, and in the ultimate case, even the survival of the ship, and a rueful pride in a hard-driving fighting skipper, welded the ship's company into a rock solid unit of the highest efficiency and dedication.

On 28th September, Murchison was given the honour of showing around the river Rear Admiral G. C. Dyer USN, commander of the Escort and Blockade Forces. He arrived on board accompanied by a fairly high powered staff and the first leg took us to Knife where we anchored and fired 50 or so rounds; then up anchor and along to Woolloomooloo and Sickle to Pall Mall.

Han River

Han River Map

We were about half way along Sickle when shell splashes were observed in the mud at the water's edge about half a mile short of us. Almost immediately we located the offending gun flashes, which we engaged, whilst the enemy fire quickly became much more accurate and we found ourselves under what I suppose might be termed moderate fire, which shortly included heavy machine gun (.5 in) fire.

As the ship passed the promontory between Sickle and Pall Mall, about 100 yards off the shore, we could see quite a lot of soldiers in the long grass firing rifles at us, and our 40mm Bofors were able to stir them up pretty well. The heavy guns seemed to be concealed in farmhouses which, presumably, had been gutted to accommodate them. Having turned at Pall Mall, on our way back the enemy fire slackened considerably and by the time the ship had returned to Fork we were pretty pleased with ourselves. It had been nasty for a while and the ship had been hit by quite a number of splinters and bullets but we had had only one casualty - a bullet through an arm - and had more or less silenced the enemy. Our gunnery had been superb; everyone had acquitted himself well and the US Admiral told us he considered we had turned on an outstanding performance. It was an exhilarating moment.

For reasons to which I am not privy, the Command decided we should repeat this action two days later. Accordingly, at about 1500 on Sunday, 30 September, we weighed and proceeded to repeat the operation, except on this occasion we went the short way, via Piccadilly, which was just as well as it turned out. As soon as the ship was well committed along Sickle she came under the kind of fire which made it obvious that the enemy had been anything but idle in the past 48 hours, and had in fact increased his firepower by a factor of at least three.

As before, our gunnery was superb but this time the three second spaced broadsides of the 4-inch, aided by the roar of the Bofors, were insufficient to drown out the sound of passing shells and heavy bullets, especially as one by one the Bofors fell silent until all five had been put out of action by hits in their hydraulic lines. A number of armour piercing shells passed clean through the hull causing negligible damage. A bazooka hit was recorded as were several near misses by mortar shells which sprayed the ship with splinters; heavy machine gun bullets raked the ship and churned up the water around. It was too hot to last!

As the ship turned on the anchor at Pall Mall, the stern swung through the bearing of the enemy and the director became wooded. "A" mounting, no longer able to bear, fell silent, but a measure of the efficiency of our gunnery is that "X" mounting in the stern slipped into local control without missing a beat, with "A" gun chiming in again in perfect synchrony as the ship swung further and the director bore again.

I retain a vivid mental picture of this moment taken from my vantage point on the bridge looking aft. There is "X" mounting, the only guns in the ship in action for the moment, trained right aft, its crew working frantically around it, the flashes, the brown cordite smoke, the recoiling breeches, and most of all, the Officer of Quarters, the Chief Boatswain's Mate standing, straddle-legged, on a ready-use locker totally exposed and making no concession to the enemy fire which was churning the water beyond him into a lather whilst he urged the crew to greater efforts, for all the world like the coach of a tug of war team, using arms, body and voice to maximum effect although the latter, of course, was inaudible through the prevailing noise.

Also at this time occurred a remarkable incident: one of our recruit seamen crew of "X" gun had cradled in his arms a round of ammunition ready to thrust it into the breech, when a splinter cut through the brass cartridge case to such effect that the whole thing folded double in his arms and the cordite fell out at his feet. The remains were smartly dumped over the side, which was unfortunate as they would have made a fascinating museum exhibit, whilst the lad, completely unhurt, carried on with his job. It is interesting to speculate upon the path that a shell splinter would be required to follow in order to achieve this effect without harm to the holder of the projectile.

On the return journey, with the action running as hot as ever, a shell exploded in the engine room and a splinter cut the lagging of one of the main steam lines without touching the line itself. This was a close call. Had the line been fractured, the engine room would have immediately become uninhabitable and the ship would have lost all power on that engine. As at that time she was steaming at absolutely maximum speed, there is no question but that she would have developed a sheer which would have swung her into the river bank where she would have gone firmly aground. In this position, despite the rising tide, only a miracle of seamanship and fortitude could have re-floated her before her destruction by the enemy.

Eventually Murchison returned to Fork, the enemy fire ceasing as she pulled out of effective range. She was holed in several places and battered around the upper works and had suffered casualties, one at least serious, and only the four-inch armament remained effective. However, going around the ship immediately after anchoring I was astonished by the number of sailors who were fighting mad, demanding to know why we had retreated and why could we not return there-and-then for another run when they were sure we would teach the enemy a real lesson.

But there was no going back. The extra damage to be inflicted upon the enemy by a ship prowling around the channels in the river could in no way be equated with the possible, or even probable, loss of a frigate with much of her company. From that day on no ship ventured beyond Fork, and all bombardments were conducted from there.

The Command decision that the ships should cease their adventuring in the ill-charted channels of the Han estuary was quite inevitable. They carried no armour and their metal was bullet-proof at best. Indeed, here and there in Murchison were found .5 inch bullets which had penetrated her plates sufficiently to become wedged with the base sticking out showing they were only just lacking the force required to pass clean through.

It is of interest to note that the ship was hit only by armour piercing projectiles which literally went in one side and out the other. The exception, which exploded in the engine room, did so only after penetrating the ship's side, then a longitudinal bulkhead and finally the heavy "I" girder carrying the chain lifting tackle for starboard engine repairs. The explosion eventually occurred when the shell hit the port "I" girder. The fact that both "I" girders were involved is a measure of the flatness of the trajectory, hence the closeness of the engagement. Whether the enemy guns were supplied only with antitank ammunition or whether the enemy commander had a choice but assumed all warships must be armoured is open to speculation. If the latter was the case, then his decision was a fortunate one for Murchison.

On calm appraisal, the vulnerability of the ships was horrendous; the hedgehog ready-use locker containing at least half a ton of explosive stood totally exposed on the forecastle; ready-use ammunition lockers were dotted around the upperdecks; the disablement of the Captain on the bridge, the Coxswain at the wheel, the steering gear aft or an unlucky hit in the boiler or engine rooms, would have resulted inevitably in a high speed grounding and the almost certain loss of the ship as a result. Murchison was very lucky, but perhaps no luckier than she deserved.

Now winter was approaching and each patrol was noticeably colder than its predecessor. Eventually Murchison was forced to give in to the exigencies of the weather. With the onset of winter, the river did not freeze but the weather became very, very cold, and chunks of ice up to, maybe, motor car size began to appear racing down river with the outgoing tides. The temperature fell to 4 degrees farenheit, colder than inside a domestic deep freeze. Murchison, having been built in Australia for temperate to tropical conditions, was not arcticised in any shape or form and we felt the cold very badly indeed.

In temperatures such as these it is an entirely new world. Though packed with anti-freeze grease it was necessary to keep the guns in constant movement through their full limits as a five minute break would see them frozen solid, requiring hours of work with steam hoses to free them. Bare skin freezes to exposed metal, so gloves were obligatory. Food stowed in upper deck lockers froze solid followed shortly by the food stowed below. The water supply to the heads froze, so there was no sanitation, and the water providing pressure for the galley fuel froze so there were no cooking nor even thawing facilities. Thus, over a few days, life in the ship ground to a halt until there was no alternative but to proceed to sea where conditions were infinitely better in comparison.

The ship's side bulkhead of my cabin, in common with the rest of the ship, was not lined and over this period, despite the fact that there was a radiator constantly burning in the cabin, the condensation built up on the bulkhead until there was a good half inch layer of ice on it. Normal bedclothes were useless, but oddly enough, large sheets of brown paper placed immediately above the mattress and between the upper blankets turned the trick and made a snug berth despite the ice a few inches from my nose.

Murchison was unique in her discomfort. The Royal Navy frigates, having been constructed with Russian convoys in mind, suffered little more than mild inconvenience. An officer from one of them visiting Murchison just before she was forced to retire was appalled by the conditions he found on board and was vociferous in his praise of the way in which the ship's company had endured them so well.

Now the Han River operations were running down in any case, and shortly afterwards, the remaining ships were withdrawn and the estuary left to its mudflats and the birds. However, there was one final scene to be played. The date was 31st January, 1952. Murchison's last day on patrol on the coast before returning to Kure and thence home. We were in company with the cruiser Belfast flying the Flag of Rear Admiral A. K. Scott-Moncrieff, Flag Officer Second in Command Far Eastern Fleet, and Murchison's ultimate superior during the time of her Korean deployment.

The Admiral, who for some reason had always had a soft spot for Murchison, transferred his flag to us and we took him up to the old anchorage at Fork for a last look at the river. We carried out a shoot at some of the old targets and the clear, still afternoon was waning as we turned and proceeded out of the Han for the last time. As we moved away from the anchorage I was taking a last nostalgic look astern through binoculars when there appeared in my field of vision a very large shell splash - not the 3-inch or so which we had seen previously but something much larger, maybe even 6-inch. It was about a mile astern and more or less in the position of the anchorage we had just left. I reported it and for a while everyone on the bridge watched astern but there were no more splashes, and in the absence of any further evidence I think some people attributed it to an overactive imagination on my part, but I am sure of what I saw. My theory is that the Chinese finally positioned a long range gun which would dominate the estuary and had held their fire whilst we were at Fork hoping we would come closer and had only opened fire when they realised we were going away, by which time we were already out of range.

Murchison's Captain and officers were dined by the Admiral on board Belfast that evening, and the following morning as the ship made her final farewells there was received from Admiral Scott-Moncrielf a most astonishing signal which, bearing in mind the fact that Admirals in His Majesty's Fleet have a well established reputation for taciturnity, deserves to be quoted in full:

"I dislike the thought of continuing the war without Murchison, but I will have to accept it now as a fact. You have been a tower of strength and your good name will always be associated with the infamous Han. No ship could have done better. For fine seamanship and steadiness under fire you have proved yourselves beyond reproach. Good luck in all your sailings and a happy homecoming to you all."

And as a final farewell gesture one of our companion ships of the Han slipped a clandestine signal into the system: To: Murchison From: Kim II Sung (President of Communist North Korea) "Good-bye, good luck. We shall miss you as you have so often missed us."

This is a slightly edited version of the original 1979 piece.

First Published in Navy News, 23 February 1979
Excerpt Published in The Voice, October 2008