1st Battalion

The Argyll and Sutherland

Highlanders

Korea 1950 - 1951

Part 1 - The Battle for Hill 282

                                                     All photographs are the property of RHQ Argylls and may not be reproduced or copied without permission from RHQ Argylls.

          

On the outbreak of war on 25th June the South Korean Army was organised for defence only. It had some eight divisions scattered along the frontier, but it had no heavy artillery and no air support. On the other hand, the North Korean Army had carefully planned the invasion; it was well supported by artillery and mortars; it had about 100 tanks of Soviet manufacture and an efficient air-force. The nearest American forces were in Japan, and consisted of only two weak divisions on garrison duty. These were moved to Korea to assist the South Koreans, and other divisions were soon on their way from America. The South Koreans were unable to put up any prolonged resistance against the organised invader from the north. In five days the capital, Seoul, was in the hands of the enemy and the forces of the Republic were in full retreat to the south. The American troops, on arrival, had been thrown piece-meal into the battle to try and stem the speed of the invasion, and by the middle of August they were fighting desperately to hold the slowly shrinking bridgehead round Pusan, so that the reinforcements which were being rushed from America would have sufficient elbow-room to organise and manoeuvre on arrival.

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Back in Hong Kong the date of embarkation for the small British contingent had been fixed for 25th August, the Middlesex with Brigade Headquarters in the light aircraft carrier H.M.S. Unicorn, and the Argylls in the cruiser H.M.S. Ceylon. On 24th August a most gracious message of farewell from Her Royal Highness The Princess Elizabeth was received and communicated to all ranks. During the morning of the 24th General Sir John Harding, K.C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., M.C., the Commander-in-Chief of the Far East Land Forces, visited the Battalion and addressed all ranks. He exhorted them to maintain that great British military tradition of standing your ground when ordered to do so, he advised them not to worry if snipers slipped round their flank or guerillas attacked them from the rear, and he told them that the honour of the British Army and British people rested in their hands. He finished by reading out a message from General MacArthur, expressing his thanks and appreciation at the news of British reinforcements. General MacArthur's message ended in these words: 'They will add new lustre to British arms. They will have a warm welcome when they arrive here, and will receive my personal attention.The following morning the Battalion entrained at Fanling for Kowloon to embark in H.M.S. Ceylon, and in its ranks were 17 from the Royal Leicesters, 25 from the King's Own Scottish Borderers, 38 from the South Staffordshire Regiment and 53 from the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, all volunteers to bring the Battalion up to its Korean war establishment. The pipe band of the K.O.S.Bs. played at Holt's Wharf during embarkation, and there were many friends and well-wishers on the quay. At 6.30 p.m. on 25th August 1950 H.M.S. Ceylon and H.M.S. Unicorn sailed for Korea. The pipes and drums were drawn up on the quarter-deck of H.M.S. Ceylon alongside the Royal Marine band, and as the ship cast off, the regimental marches were played. The Battalion was commanded by Major K. Muir, as Lt.-Colonel Neilson had remained on shore to fly with an advance party the following day. The advance parties from both battalions and Brigade Headquarters left Kai Tak aerodrome in an American plane on the 26th and, after a night in Japan, flew on to Pusan on the 27th. From Pusan they were flown to Taegu, and there spent the night at U.S. Eighth Army Headquarters. After reconnoitring the concentration area, that of 1 A. & S.H. being at Kyongsan in the 24th U.S. Infantry Division area, and close to the forward Headquarters of that formation, the advance parties returned to Eighth Army Headquarters, but flew to Pusan on the 29th to meet their battalions on their arrival.

During the voyage in H.M.S. Ceylon a close bond of friend-ship had developed between all ranks of the Battalion and their opposite numbers in the cruiser, and Captain Thring of H.M.S. Ceylon paid the Battalion the remarkable compliment of flying the Battalion flag as the cruiser came alongside at Pusan. The ship docked at 12 noon on 29th August with the pipes and drums playing from the top of the after turret. A great welcome awaited the Battalion—there was an American negro band, a Korean band, and a large party of school children who sang 'God Save The King'. A large number of Americans and South Koreans had come to witness the arrival, and there were of course large numbers of Press correspondents. On disembarking, Major Muir was presented with a bouquet by two Korean children. As soon as the Battalion was able to free itself from the attention of all its well-wishers, it started to disembark, and in the words of Eric Linklater, 'they made a brave and soldierly appearance as they went ashore to the shrill welcome of Korean children and the clamour of an American negro band, and in the months to come both The Middlesex and The Argylls were to enhance the pride and reputation not only of The Diehards and 91st, but of all the Army' (Our Men in Korea).

There was now a sense of urgency in the air, for the position at the front was known to be critical. The American troops, many of them tired, were desperately defending the perimeter of the bridgehead, and it was soon clear to Brigadier Coad, after he had made a personal reconnaissance, that his Brigade must prepare for immediate action, even before the arrival of its vehicles, and the first step was to get it to its concentration areas. A train had been arranged for 11.30 p.m., but it was to need the combined efforts of both sailors and soldiers to keep to that time-table. The former voluntarily offered their services to assist their comrades in the Argylls, not only to unload the ship but also to manhandle the arms and stores from the dock to the train, for there was no other means of transport. This generous gesture on the part of the Royal Navy was much appreciated by all ranks, and all who were present will always retain the happiest recollections of their close and kindly co-operation. As the train steamed out, the officers and ratings of H.M.S. Ceylon were there to wave good-bye.

By the evening of the 30th the Battalion had been conveyed to and had settled in its concentration area near Kyongsan. The following day a serious attack on the front of the 2nd U.S. Infantry Division kept the Battalion on the alert and at short notice to move, but its services were not required. The next few days were occupied by many reconnaissances at all levels, chiefly in the area held by the 3rd Battalion 23rd Regiment. This unit belonged to the 2nd Division, but was located in the 1st U.S. Cavalry Division area. On 3rd September the Battalion was given a counter-attack role with 1st U.S. Cavalry Division, and, after briefing and reconnaissance, moved to an area north-west of Taegu. The situation, which had been critical, was finally restored without the help of the Battalion.

            It was not until 5th September that 27th Brigade took over responsibility for a section of the Allied line about 11,000 yards long, on the Naktong River south-west of Taegu, with 1 A. & S.H. on the left, and here it remained for about a fortnight, and it was here, only eleven days after leaving Hong Kong, that it was to suffer its first casualties of the Korean War. Some of the positions were very isolated and difficult to approach, especially those of 'C' Company on the left, who initially had to be kept supplied either by tanks or by air drop, as the only road to them ran in front of the position, close to the Naktong River and in full view of the enemy. Even at night, movement along it in soft-skinned vehicles was in-advisable. A jeep track into this position was started by the American engineers, but it was never completed. Later, carrier parties of Koreans were organised and worked well carrying heavy loads. The evacuation of casualties also presented a problem, which was only solved by conveying those from 'C' Company to the back areas by helicopter or in carriers specially fitted with stretchers. All the positions were perched on the tops of hills, but it was the same type of country as that over which the Battalion had been training in the New Territories; indeed, the Commanding Officer has described the New Territories as topographically a Korea in miniature. The hills therefore held no terrors for the Battalion, for all ranks were extremely fit, and the training they had undergone was quite excellent for the type of war in which they were now engaged. The main value of this first tour in the line was the opportunity it gave all ranks of getting to know their enemy, by studying their habits and by making contact with them by means of limited patrols on the open left flank. Opportunities of patrolling forward were limited owing to the close proximity of the Naktong River; in fact, only one such patrol was carried out, when Captain Penman and Pte. Mitchell swam the river to pinpoint an enemy machine-gun. It also gave them the opportunity of proving, and they were quick to take advantage of it, that their value to the United Nations Forces was far and away beyond that of a skeleton brigade. There is no doubt that all ranks of the Middlesex and Argylls were fully conscious of the fact that they were representing the British Army, and that the eyes of not only the American Command but of the whole world were upon them. It was in this spirit that they started the campaign, and it never flagged—indeed, it was passed on to their successors, and it was just that spirit that animated later the Commonwealth Division and made it the fine fighting machine it turned out to be.

           On the left of 'C' Company there was a gap of 6000 yards between it and the 2nd U.S. Infantry Division, an area that had to be constantly patrolled to watch for any attempt by the North Koreans to penetrate it. A special patrol was ordered by 27th Brigade for the afternoon of 6th September to find out if any enemy were lurking in the hills across the valley on the left of 'C' Company. The patrol was under the command of Captain C. N. A. Buchanan. It was not long before the patrol drew fire, for it had encountered a strong enemy post, possibly about a company. The heavy fire had provided the answer to the question asked by Brigade, but in finding it the patrol had suffered several casualties, including Captain Buchanan and his batman. When the time came to withdraw, Captain Buchanan could not be moved without endangering his men, so he ordered the sergeant, also wounded, to take the patrol back and leave him where he was. After the order had been repeated more than once, it was reluctantly obeyed, and the patrol withdrew, leaving him and his batman, Private Taylor, beside him.

          Many attempts were made to find them, but they were never seen again, until their bodies were discovered by a search party on 21st April 1951 in the area where the patrol had operated. For this very gallant action Captain Buchanan was awarded, posthumously, the American Silver Star. The citation says: 'His determination, courage and handling of the situation which confronted him are worthy of high commendation. The gallantry displayed by Captain Buchanan on this occasion reflects great credit on himself, his unit and the Military Service.' The patrol had cost the Battalion 2 killed and 5 wounded.

            For over a fortnight the Battalion occupied the same positions, incurring a few casualties, mostly in the exposed left-hand company positions, but giving better than they got. No. 1 platoon 'A' Company—which company had relieved 'C' on the left—was particularly successful on 19th September. Commanded by Sergeant J. Robertson, their position was attacked in the darkness of early morning, but they were not surprised, they held their fire until the last moment and killed ten of the enemy without loss to themselves.

            By mid-September the build-up of the United Nations Forces had reached a point which made offensive action possible and plans had already been made to break out of the bridgehead, cross the Naktong River and drive the enemy westwards and northwards in conjunction with the landing of other American Forces at Inchon. After a false start on 16th September, the Battalion was relieved on the night 20th/21st September by a unit of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment and moved into a harbour area between Taegu and the positions from which it had just been relieved. That afternoon the Battalion crossed the Naktong. The crossing facilities consisted of a footbridge and a ferry operated by American engineers. These were under very accurate and probably direct shell fire. The task of the 27th Brigade was to drive on Sonju (Map 17) and protect the left flank of the American drive. Sonju is eight miles north-west of the point where the river had been crossed, and between it and the town was a range of hills through which the road to Sonju runs. This range of hills was the first objective of 27th Brigade, for its capture would not only clear the road to the town but would also put a stop to some of the shell fire that was harassing the river crossings. The Middlesex were to cross first during the afternoon of the 21st September and attack Point 325 on the right of the road the following morning, 1 A. & S.H. followed the Middlesex and its objective was Point 282 on the left of the road. Priority on the ferry was given to vehicles of the Middlesex. The vehicles of 1 A. & S.H. had to remain on the far bank for the night, the mortars and machine guns being carried over by their teams. It was two or three days before the vehicles joined up with the Battalion again. The Battalion was lucky to cross with only two casualties, but the continuous shelling made it very unpleasant for the Quartermaster and his staff and for the M.T. staff responsible for ferrying the stores and vehicles over the river. Both staffs showed great resolution and succeeded, as they did on all occasions in Korea, in keeping the Battalion supplied with all it required to oppose the enemy.

            The following morning, 22nd September, the Middlesex attacked and captured, after a stiff fight, Point 325. They inflicted many casualties, but suffered few. It was now the turn of 1 A. & S.H. to attack the hill on the left of the road, Point 282. As a preliminary move, Lt.-Colonel Neilson sent 'A' Company (Major Wilson) off at 4.15 p.m. to seize a line of low hills some 1000 yards in front of the objective in order to secure a firm base and a good starting-line for 'B' and 'C' Companies' assault on the main objective. On his way forward, Major Wilson contacted a reconnaissance company of the 24th U.S. Infantry Division and arranged for it to co-operate in his attack with their tanks. This the American company did, and with its help 'A' Company was able to reach its objective without much opposition. It was just in time, for soon after its arrival signs of enemy movement to their front and left flank were noticed, but accurate mortar and machine-gun fire soon dispersed them. It was now clear that the light was not going to last long enough to allow for the capture and consolidation of the final objective that evening, so permission was obtained for the attack to be postponed until the early hours of the 23rd. At 10 p.m. 'B' Company (Major Gordon-Ingram) and 'C' Company (Major Gillies) moved forward to lie up in the area behind 'A' Company's position, while the mortar and machine-gun platoons, working throughout the night, took up position in the same area to support the attack. Artillery and tanks were also to support the attack, but the latter, owing to the nature of the ground, had to fire from static positions some two miles from the objective. At 4.45 a.m. on the 23rd 'B' and 'C' Companies formed up on their start line, a dry river-bed immediately in front of Hill 282, and at 5.15 a.m. both Companies, 'B' on the right and 'C' on the left, crossed the start line. The going was heavy until the base of the hill was reached, but apart from that and some slight loss of direction by one platoon of 'B', no difficulty was experienced and no resistance was met until the leading elements were within 100 feet of the summit; here the leading platoon of 'B' Company surprised a small force of the enemy who were having breakfast in their positions a short distance below the crest. After a sharp engagement the enemy fled, leaving 15 dead on the position.

       The only other opposition encountered was from a small enemy detachment which had been inadvertently by-passed in the dark; this party fought hard and inflicted 10 casualties on 'B' Company. There was no further opposition, and by 6.30 a.m. both Companies were on the crest and had started to dig in. Tactical headquarters was located in 'A' Company area on Point 148. Although the allotted objective had been captured, it was known to be more or less a false crest, for on the left of the position could be seen another feature, Point 388, which dominated the position captured by 'B' and 'C' Companies, and from which a counter-attack might develop at any time; even if no counter-attack developed, Point 282 was going to be an unhealthy position as long as the enemy occupied 388. The situation had been appreciated by Lt.-Colonel Neilson, who ordered 'C' Company, as soon as it could reorganise, to move on and occupy Point 388, but before this reorganisation could be completed the enemy started to move in on Point 282 from Point 388, and although this move offered no immediate threat to 'B' and 'C" Companies, it held up the projected occupation of Point 388. Meanwhile, a threat developed on 'A' Company's left, and it had to take up new positions to meet it, and this dispossessed the C.O. of the only available reserve to send to the help of 'B' and 'C' should they get into difficulties. Up on Hill 282, shelling and mortaring had increased and casualties were mounting, and the problem then was how to evacuate them. It was not possible to carry them down the steep hill on stretchers, the only practicable way was to carry them in groundsheets, but this required four men for each wounded man, and these men could not be spared, as every hand was required to strengthen the position against the expected counter-attack. O.C. 'B' Company therefore called on Battalion Headquarters for more stretcher bearers and also for more morphine syrettes, and meanwhile the wounded were concentrated and made as comfortable as possible. At 9 a.m. Major Muir, the Second-in-Command, arrived on Point 282 with a party of stretcher bearers and immediately started to organise their evacuation, but increased shelling and mortaring slowed down the work and increased the casualties, so that it became necessary to detach a section from 'C' Company's reserve platoon to assist.

            At 10 a.m. a serious threat developed on the left flank against one of 'C' Company's platoons, which had to be reinforced from time to time by both 'B' and 'C' Companies, so that by 10.45 a.m. the companies had become so mixed that it was clear they must come under one command. Major Muir, who had completed the organisation for the evacuation of the wounded, then assumed command of all troops on Hill 282. While all this was going on, matters took a serious turn, when at 10 a.m., without consultation or warning, all artillery support was withdrawn by the 24th U.S. Infantry Division. It was not possible for the mortars from their position to engage Point 388, although they could put defensive fire round Point 282, nor would the lie of the ground and lack of vehicles permit a move. Furthermore, owing to the flat trajectory of their guns, the tanks in support could not engage it either. Up on the hill, Major Muir had made some alterations in the dispositions and had reallocated the ammunition, which was beginning to run low, and he was constantly on the move encouraging all to even greater efforts. The danger from the left flank continued unabated, and without supporting arms there was no way of checking it; small arms ammunition had to be conserved until the enemy was close enough to ensure that every round found its mark. In these circumstances Colonel Neilson suggested an air strike on Point 388, which was agreed to and arranged for 12.15 p.m. The position was clearly marked with air recognition strips and all ranks settled down to hold the hill until the air strike came in. Punctually at 12.15 three friendly aircraft arrived overhead, and after circling the position three times, went into attack, but to the dismay of everyone they mistook their target and attacked 'B' and 'C" Companies on Point 282, first of all with napalm bombs, and then with machine-gun fire. The bombs struck the top of the hill right among the forward positions and inflicted some casualties. The attack was made a second time in spite of a very gallant attempt by Major Muir to prevent it, standing as he did on the top of the hill waving an air recognition strip.

The crest of the hill was soon a blazing inferno, and as it became untenable the defenders were forced to take up a new position about 50 feet below the crest. Down below, Lt.-Colonel Neilson with his tactical headquarters and the men of 'A' Company, whose leading positions were also attacked, were impotent spectators of these events. The position on the hill was now desperate, only 5 officers and 35 other ranks were left to carry on the fight. The remainder were casualties or employed in assisting in their evacuation, and there is no doubt that a complete withdrawal from the hill would have been fully justified, especially as 'A' Company was not available as reinforcements. Major Muir, however, thought otherwise, and when Lt.-Colonel Neilson gave him permission to withdraw if he felt that the position warranted it, he insisted that he could retake the crest, which he did not think had been occupied by the enemy. He immediately gathered together what fighting men he could find, reallocated the ammunition, much of which had been lost in the fire caused by the bombs, and led them, with a cheer, back to the still-burning hilltop, under a hail of small-arms fire.

       The assault succeeded, and for the next half hour this small party, inspired by Muir, held off a vastly superior force of enemy, in spite of a rapidly dwindling supply of ammunition. There was never any chance of holding the hill for any length of time, as the men were literally picking up loose rounds of ammunition from the ground in order to fire at the enemy and keep them at bay, but every minute was of value in evacuating the new casualties caused by the air strike. Major Muir's leadership and personal bravery had been magnificent throughout, but, in the closing stages of this action, it surpassed all that had gone before. He was continually moving round his rapidly diminishing force, cheering them on, while all the time exposing himself to withering fire, and naturally such heroism brought forth a magnificent response from all those who were left capable of bearing a weapon. At last, his ammunition exhausted, he discarded his sten gun, and with Major Gordon-Ingram loading for him, he continued to defy the enemy with a 2-in. mortar until mortally wounded by two bursts of automatic fire. As he was carried from the field, his indomitable spirit remained unshaken until he died, for his last words were: 'The Gooks will never drive the Argylls off this hill.'  It was now clear that the few survivors could no longer hold 282, so the Commanding Officer ordered Major Gordon-Ingram, who had assumed command of 'B' and 'C' Companies, to withdraw. It was a fighting withdrawal, some giving covering fire, while others assisted the wounded from the hill, always under fire, until at last all had reached 'A' Company area and all wounded were clear. It was only after arriving back in 'A' Company area that the survivors learnt of the tremendous efforts that had been made to assist them by the helpless spectators of the action, especially by the Middlesex Regiment, whose machine guns had helped to cover the withdrawal from the hill, and whose men were only restrained with difficulty from leaving their positions and going up the hill to help. Medical resources were immediately  made available and the regimental aid post of the Middlesex helped to lighten the burden that had fallen on the Battalion medical officer. 'A' Company, with the machine guns and mortars located in their area, had done all in their power to assist, and it was the concerted efforts of all that enabled the final withdrawal to take place with very few additional casualties. The total casualty list amounted to 17 killed and missing and 79 wounded. Some of these losses were incurred during the initial attack on the hill, some during the enemy counter-attack, some during the air strike and some during the withdrawal, but it is not possible to attribute with any accuracy a definite proportion to each event. The strength of the enemy force that delivered the counter-attack was about 400, and on it were inflicted a large number of casualties; in fact, it was so badly mauled that no attempt was made by them to follow up their advantage, and they eventually withdrew from the hill without a further fight and before another attack could be mounted against it. The Battalion made firm in 'A' Company's position for the night of the 23rd, and apart from a little shelling there was no enemy interference. 'B' and 'C' Companies were amalgamated under Major Gordon-Ingram.

      It was natural, with so many international observers in the field, that reports of this action became front-page news in many newspapers throughout the world, and, as Colonel Malcolm has said in his book The Argylls in Korea, the undersized and under-equipped British Brigade sprang into prominence. In its first action it had done even more than could have been expected of a brigade of experienced soldiers, and the Americans were unstinted in their praise. The Brigade had built up for itself a reputation which was fully maintained  throughout the rest of the campaign. It was natural, too, that the accidental air strike should feature prominently in the Press of the world, but both by those who had to endure it, as with those who had the misfortune to inflict it, it was recognised as an accident only too liable to occur under the stress and hazards of war. Mr. Holmes, the United States Minister in Charge, wrote to the Prime Minister to express the deep sense of sorrow of the United States Government and people over this tragedy, and at the same time Mr. R. L. Buell, American Consul-General in Edinburgh, wrote to Lt.-General MacMillan to express his deep official and personal regrets. In the field the Americans made almost superhuman efforts to mitigate the results of the accident. They rushed ambulances to the spot and refused to permit enemy shelling to interrupt the speedy removal and care of the wounded. Their stretcher bearers worked alongside those of the Middlesex and Argylls and they rushed the more seriously wounded 120 miles over mountain roads to the base at Pusan, and the wounded too had no word of criticism for the American airmen.

            Many letters of sympathy were received by the Colonel of the Regiment, from the Stirling County Council, from General Sir William Platt, G.B.E., K.C.B., D.S.O., an old friend of the Regiment, from the Colonels of the Royal Scots and Duke of Wellington's Regiment, from the Royal Leicestershire Regiment, the 6th Royal Battalion (Scinde) 13th Frontier Force Rifles and from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, and finally a letter was received from Colonel Charles W. Bicking, U.S.A.F. Commanding 93 D Bombardment Wing (M) (Rear), Castle Air Base, California, with which was enclosed a cheque for 883.85 dollars, a voluntary and spontaneous contribution from the personnel of that Wing for the benefit of the families of those soldiers killed during the incident. Colonel Bicking said: 'It will indicate in small measure our regret, as it will show our deep feeling for our comrades-in-arms.'

The incident closed with Lt.-General Sir Gordon MacMillan's reply, in which, after expressing great gratitude for the generous gift, he said:

            'I can assure you that we all understand too well how liable are such mistakes as that of 23rd September 1950 to occur under the stress and hazards of war. Every report I have received from the Battalion, both before and after the incident of 23rd September, has spoken in glowing terms of the wonderful co-operation afforded to them by the United States Air Force and no hard feelings have arisen as the result of this accident. 'I would ask you, therefore, to convey to all members of 93 D Bombardment Wing the assurance that not only has morale in the 1st Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders never been higher than during their period under U.S. Command in Korea, but also that the Regiment's friendship with the United States Air Force personnel can never be impaired by having suffered on one occasion from the risks which are inseparable from  operations in modern war.'

The one memory of this action that will never fade from the minds of those who saw it, was the indomitable spirit and leadership of Major Kenneth Muir. His personal courage and determination and the inspiration which they gave can rarely have been excelled in the annals of British military history. Major Muir was awarded the Victoria Cross (posthumous) and the American Distinguished Service Cross (posthumous).

Sources

History of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 1st Battalion 1939 -1954

The Argylls in Korea

Thin Red Line Magazines

Ray Vearnals, Harry Young

 

Korea 1950 – 1951 Part 2

 

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Updated: 15 March 2014