Battle of Sariwon


Australian troops riding on a US Army Sherman tank at Sariwon in October 1950

Sariwon, a bizarre one-sided action which occurred on 17 October 1950 during the United Nations (UN) counter-offensive launched against North Korean communist forces which had invaded the southern Republic of Korea. By 16 October the North Koreans were in rapid retreat and struggling to concentrate on their capital, Pyongyang, while American troops had occupied the village of Sohung little more than 70 kilometres directly to the south-east. The 27th British Commonwealth Brigade (which included the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, or 3 RAR) was ordered to take over the advance the next day with the object of capturing Sariwon, an industrial town also reputed to be an important military training centre, located about 40 kilometres by road to the west of Sohung and only 54 kilometres south of Pyongyang.

The brigade set off at 6.40 a. m., with two British companies of the Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment in the van sitting atop of Sherman tanks and riding in trucks. Virtually no opposition was encountered until anti-tank and automatic fire was received from an enemy road-block six kilometres east of Sariwon. This resistance was quickly swept aside in a copybook attack by the Argylls, who then entered the heavily bombed and largely deserted town; while one company established a strongpoint, the other fanned out across the northern suburbs. Ordered to pass through and cut the road north-west of Sariwon, the Australian battalion advanced a further eight kilometres across the rolling plain country through which the road passed before taking up a defensive position at last light.

Many North Korean units, falling back under pressure from the 24th US Infantry Division on the left flank, clearly had no idea that UN forces had taken Sariwon or even that they were in the area. Throughout the day large numbers of enemy continued to enter the town by the truckload and on foot from the south and south-west. The arrival at 6 p. m. of the main body of 27 Brigade was several times followed by scenes of absurd confusion, with trucks of both sides sometimes parking on opposite sides of the street without either being immediately aware of the other’s identity. At least one party of Argylls was mistaken by North Koreans for Russian allies before the error was discovered and shooting began at very close quarters.

Groups of enemy who either escaped contact with the Argylls inside Sariwon or else bypassed the town began blundering into the blocking position established further along the road by 3 RAR. The commander of the Australian battalion, Lieut.-Colonel Charles Green, was preparing to launch a coordinated attack on enemy positions in front of him early next morning, but instead found himself obliged to turn around his reserve company to face the way they had come to deal with enemy contacts at both ends of his perimeter. Meanwhile, a marching column of North Koreans stumbled upon 3 RAR’s second-in-command, Major Ian Ferguson, who was waiting with a party of six guides in an apple orchard between the battalion position and Sariwon for the arrival of the unit’s ration vehicles. Again, the enemy at first took the strangers to be Russians, but shots were soon fired and the enemy column dispersed to adopt fire positions.

After Ferguson radioed for assistance, B Company under Major George Thirlwell was sent out to help clear the enemy presence away from the battalion’s rear. Upon the arrival of these troops, Ferguson mounted a tank with Thirlwell and an interpreter and drove down the road calling on the North Koreans to surrender as they were surrounded. Deceived by this bold bluff, more than 1,500 enemy soldiers were taken prisoner-Ferguson later claimed the total figure was 1,982-along with their weapons, which included some anti-tank guns, many automatic weapons and mortars.

At 11 p. m. a convoy of the 7th US Cavalry Regiment, their vehicle lights turned on, drove into 3 RAR’s lines from the north. This unit had followed tracks to the east of the 27th Brigade’s advance and reached the main road again at Hwangju, a few kilometres north of the Australian road-block. The American movement had trapped further large numbers of enemy, and after a brisk fight another 1,700 prisoners had been taken, with whom the 7th Cavalry returned.

The capture of Sariwon, and the accompanying North Korean losses of at least 215 personnel killed and a large number of prisoners, had been accomplished at a cost of just one man killed and three wounded (all among the Argylls). Although warmly praised for their part in the highly successful action by Major-General Hobart Gay, commander of the 1st US Cavalry Division under whom the 27th Brigade had been placed, the Australians themselves understandably regarded the action as a pretty tame affair.

Robert O’Neill (1985) Australia in the Korean War 1950-53, vol. 2: Combat Operations, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service

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