A British Centurion tank similar to those used at Maryang San
George Taylor, C.O of 5/DCLI seen here as a Major with the Worcester Regiment.
The Battle of Maryang San
‘Am writing these notes in a special aircraft. Felt very important when it was sent until I remembered that the last special aircraft was to remove a Brigade Commander who was getting the sack!’ Thus wrote Brigadier William Pike in a letter home from Korea on 10 November 1951. He was commander of the 1st Commonwealth Division artillery and had escorted Brigadier Taylor to Major General Cassels for his final interview, from which he did not return.
After the Second World War, Korea, a Japanese colony since 1910, was to be occupied north of the 38th parallel by Soviet Russia. The South would be under United States administration. In the North, the Soviets backed a Stalinist regime under Kim Il-sung and created the North Korean People’s Army, equipped with Russian tanks and artillery. The American-trained South Korean Army was limited to a lightly armed gendarmerie, with no tanks or combat aircraft and only a small amount of field artillery. After several years of frontier incidents along the 38th parallel, the Republic of Korea was invaded by the North Korean People’s Army on 25 June 1950.
As the North Koreans swept south, overwhelming all opposition, the US successfully called on the United Nations Security Council to invoke the United Nations Charter and label the North Koreans the aggressors. Member states were urged to send military assistance. American troops were immediately deployed to stiffen the resolve of the South Koreans. The British responded similarly with ships of the Far East Fleet. The North Koreans advanced rapidly south, aiming to take the vital port of Pusan. American troops initially fared badly against the North Koreans, but General Walton Walker, commanding the Eighth United States Army, managed to hold the Pusan perimeter securely enough to allow reinforcements to arrive. In August 1950, the first British troops—the 1st Battalion The Middlesex Regiment and 1st Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders—landed at Pusan and were immediately sent into action.
In mid-September, General MacArthur, in a spectacular indirect approach, landed two divisions behind enemy lines at the port of Inchon. The landing was a decisive victory, and X (US) Corps quickly overcame the few defenders and threatened to trap the main North Korean army in the south. MacArthur recaptured Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and the North Koreans, virtually cut off, rapidly retreated northwards. A few weeks later, following the landing at Inchon, UN forces broke out of the Pusan bridgehead and quickly advanced north. Joined by the 3rd Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment, the British units formed the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade and took part in the pursuit of the enemy into North Korea. Meanwhile, a strong brigade had been mobilised in England and several thousand reservists were recalled to active service. The 29th Brigade set sail in October 1950, reaching Korea a month later.
The Eighth (US) Army, with the South Koreans, drove up the western side of Korea and captured Pyongyang in October. By the end of the month, the North Korean army was rapidly disintegrating and the UN took 135,000 prisoners. MacArthur ordered pursuit across the 38th parallel and deep into North Korea. As UN forces drew near the Manchurian border, there were strong indications that Communist China would intervene to defend its area of influence. The Chinese, with some justification, did not trust MacArthur to stop on the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. Indeed, many in the West thought that spreading the war to China would be necessary and that since North Korean troops were being supplied from bases in China, they should be attacked. In October, MacArthur met President Harry Truman to persuade him that a massive UN effort would conclude the war by Christmas.
No sooner had this offensive been launched in November than the Chinese strongly reacted by invading North Korea on a massive scale. The 27th Brigade held them off from their positions on the river Chongchon but the Chinese broke through elsewhere. In freezing conditions, the UN forces carried out a fighting retreat across extremely difficult terrain. On 25 December 1950, the Chinese entered South Korea and in early January they captured Seoul. The 27th Brigade was now joined by the 29th Brigade, comprising the 1st Battalions, The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, The Gloucestershire Regiment (Glosters) and The Royal Ulster Rifles, together with the tanks of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars and the guns of the 45th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. The two brigades acted as a rearguard until a defensive line was established on the river Han. The UN forces withdrew in disorder and, by New Year 1951, were defending a line well to the south of Seoul. Morale sank to a dangerous level but the new US commander, General Ridgway, revived spirits and, encouraging his army, advanced slowly north. In March 1951, a UN counter-offensive pushed the Chinese back and recaptured Seoul. As winter cleared, the UN forces dug in close to the 38th parallel and in early spring advanced a few miles north in order to create a buffer in front of Seoul. On 22 April, the Chinese counter-attacked, aiming to break through to the South Korean capital. They were held by the 27th Brigade near Kapyong and by the 29th Brigade on the Imjin River, where the last stand by the Glosters helped to break the Chinese advance but resulted in heavy casualties. The UN line held, then moved north again, the position stabilising in the general area of the 38th parallel.
Armistice negotiations began at Kaesong in July 1951. Largely static fighting then followed. British troops were deployed on a rotational basis, defending hill positions and carrying out patrols. However, set-piece operations did from time to time occur, as both sides sought to control key areas of terrain and win a success that might improve their negotiating position. On 28 July, the 1st Commonwealth Division, comprising the 28th Commonwealth Brigade, 29th Brigade and 25th Canadian Brigade, was formed under the command of Major General James Cassels.
Cassels was an inspired selection. He had fought during the Second World War in north-west Europe, being awarded a DSO for his leadership of a brigade in operations around Le Havre, the Ardennes, the Reichswald, the crossing of the Rhine and the advance into northern Germany. After the war, he commanded the 6th Airborne Division in counter-insurgency operations in Palestine. As a major general, he was appointed Chief United Kingdom Liaison Officer in Melbourne, Australia, in December 1949. With a tall, commanding presence, ‘Gentleman Jim’ got on easily with his Australian colleagues and soldiers, often through his love of and skill at cricket.
Despite his natural good manners, he found the Americans in Korea difficult, mainly through the differences in planning and procedures. Often the poor relation, his division lacked numbers of men, serviceable equipment and robust transport, much of which dated from the last war. Thus he was forced to rely on American largesse and boost his numbers with South Koreans. His relations with corps commander Lieutenant General John W. ‘Iron Mike’ O’Daniel were uneasy. Cassels once described him as a ‘“Two-Gun Patton” type . . . always wanting to undertake foolhardy stunts which had no serious military purpose. . . . On many occasions I was ordered, without any warning, to do things which I considered militarily unsound and for which there was no apparent reason. . . . I am being harassed and ordered by Corps to produce a prisoner every third day, regardless of cost. As we know quite well what enemy divisions are in front of us I cannot see the point in this and have said so.’ On 4 September 1951, O’Daniel addressed his divisional commanders and staff in the following terms, ‘Everyone must continue to be alert, sharp. Men must be made to eat, sleep, live “killing” so as to be able to destroy this barbaric, cunning enemy whose wish is to “distribute poverty”. This enemy will bring us down to his level if he can.’ O’Daniel was later reassigned to a less stressful appointment.
It was vital to deny the enemy access to ground strategically important to the armistice talks. Cassels’s orders were to ‘restore international peace and security in the area’. To do this he decided to establish patrol bases on the far side of the Imjin River. Once he had secured the crossings, he moved the division across and established defensive positions from which he could dominate no-man’s-land with patrols. Unfortunately, the Chinese 191st Division was able to maintain observation not only over the crossings and no-man’s-land but also all along the front held by the US I Corps. It became essential therefore to occupy the entire area up to and including the line of ridges from which the Chinese could overlook the area. This ridgeline contained two formidable hills—Kowang San at 355 metres (1,165 feet) and Maryang San at 317 metres (1,040 feet). To take these objectives, Operation Commando was planned with some urgency.
But what of the man who was to not only lead his brigade in this operation but also be sacked as a result? George Taylor was born on 17 September 1905, the fourth of six sons of Colonel Thomas Taylor. In 1929 he was commissioned in the West Yorkshire Regiment, then stationed in Northern Ireland. Taylor went with the West Yorks to the Caribbean, then Egypt and on to Quetta, where a massive earthquake occurred in May 1935. Throughout the 1930s Taylor, very fast for his bulk, played rugby for the army, for Lancashire and finally for the Barbarians, which brought him an England trial. At the outbreak of war in 1939, he joined the BEF in France. In 1940 he became embroiled in the ill-fated Norwegian operation. He was a staff officer in 1942 in Madagascar with the Combined Operations Reserve Force, which was soon sent to the North-West Frontier.
This was a frustrating period until, to his delight, he managed to get himself posted as second in command to the 1st Worcestershire Regiment in the 43rd Wessex Division, which landed on the beaches in Normandy on D-Day. He was still in his thirties, experienced but never having been under fire until then. His moment came after four weeks, when two commanding officers of the 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (5 DCLI) were killed and the battalion decimated. Taylor became their third commanding officer since landing in Normandy. His priority now was to absorb reinforcements, galvanise the survivors and create an effective fighting force from disorder. Taylor, an experienced trainer of men and a charismatic leader, set about the task with vigour and panache. He then led 5 DCLI with an outstanding record until the end of the war. The Wessex Division lost thirty-six commanding officers during that time, but he was never a day out of the line until the Armistice. Taylor’s intelligence officer, David Willcocks MC, who had been with 5 DCLI since 1940 described ‘not only his great courage and inspiring leadership, but also the care with which we reconnoitred and planned every attack or defensive engagement, in order to minimise casualties . . . his courage and concern called forth in all ranks a deep loyalty and affection’.
The first Tiger tank ever to fall into British hands was captured by 5 DCLI in one of Taylor’s initial night battles, conducted with cunning after careful daylight reconnaissance. German self-propelled guns, tanks and personnel fell into 5 DCLI hands. Taylor was awarded an immediate DSO and began to acquire a reputation for coolness under extreme stress, and for communicating that coolness to his men. Taylor’s second immediate DSO came through his actions in Arnhem in September. Working furiously to close the gap between its own column and the beleaguered parachutists, 5 DCLI ultimately linked up with the Polish Parachute Brigade, after being infiltrated by German Tiger tanks. Despite this, the Battalion managed to supply the Poles with much-needed rations, ammunition, petrol and medical stores.
Taylor was a man of drive and daring rather than caution but knew what he could ask of his men, and they responded to that. Interestingly, this was not just confined to his own battalion—his fellow commanding officers also held him in high regard and had great respect for him. His delightful autobiography of his wartime experiences, Infantry Colonel, demonstrates a straightforward, uncomplicated man with a love of soldiering and a deep respect for his men.
In 1950 Taylor was promoted temporary brigadier to command the 28th Infantry Brigade in Hong Kong; from there, in April 1951, he took the brigade to Korea where it became the 28th Commonwealth Brigade in the 1st Commonwealth Division. General Sir Brian Horrocks, Taylor’s old corps commander in the drive for the Arnhem bridges back in 1944, wrote to him on 17 July on being told of Taylor’s promotion to command the brigade, ‘I can think of no better choice, as nobody knows more about the sharp end of the battlefield than you.’ The brigade then consisted of the 1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (1 KSLI) (Lieutenant Colonel Barlow), the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers (1 KOSB) (Lieutenant Colonel MacDonald) and the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) (Lieutenant Colonel Hassett).
Taylor had an unusual relationship with Field Marshal Sir William Slim, then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, with whom he exchanged personal letters. Nowadays, senior officers might find it irksome to the chain of command for a commanding officer to write directly to the chief but no harm was done and Bill Slim, of course, being very much a ‘front line’ soldier himself probably relished the direct and unvarnished reports from the fighting edge. However, it might be relevant to what happened later. The following is an extract from a letter Taylor wrote to him on 18 May 1951:
My Dear Field Marshal,
I took over the Commonwealth Brigade in the closing stages of the Kapyong battle, when the 27th saved the day for the 9th Corps.
My two Battalions, 1 KOSB and 1 KSLI, have joined us from Hong Kong and we are now 28th British Commonwealth Brigade. Both Battalions are finding their feet and morale is high, and they will soon be as good, or even better, than the fine 3 Royal Australian Battalion, who fought like tigers in the last action (One Section killed 55 Chinese).
We are under command 24 Division and get on well with the Americans, but there is something the matter with them. They have as an Army lost confidence in themselves and it is rather pathetic to see the trust and confidence they have in our two small Brigades. Van Fleet seems a good man and a sound General, and there are other good fighting men in the ranks, but not enough. We seldom get a ‘Warning Order’ and they have little conception of the time and space factor. They are apt also often to be ‘Yes men’ and they do not query unsound orders from above.
As regards ourselves, these are some of the conclusions I’ve rapidly come to:
1. No unit should be asked to serve more than nine months in this theatre, or an individual more than a year.
2. Carriers are of little use, they are always having track trouble. The Jeep and trailer is the answer for this boulder strewn country.
3. (a) The Sten is too unreliable to trust men’s lives to. The Australian Owen’s gun is a much better weapon.
(b) We require in defence an extra 4 Brens per company to meet the Mass Night Attacks. This is based on the Australians experience, who have extra weapons.
4. I require a Deputy Commander. I am fairly fit and robust, but the physical strain, not to mention the mental side, is very great. I insist on seeing the forward companies and the ground in some detail. This means a lot of hill climbing, even though one tries to cut this down by flying in a light plane or helicopter. He should be on the young side, under 40, have been a Commanding Officer in World War II.
5. Half of our transport inherited from 27 Brigade is in a very poor condition owing to hard usage.
We expect to fight a big battle in a few days time. There are signs of the enemy’s approach. He is about 10–20 miles to the north. I’m confident that the Brigade will do well. I am getting the Battalions to go in for night patrolling which people seem afraid of doing. With skill and luck hope to catch the mass night attacks forming up, with our artillery. The enemy put in a strong attack last night on the US Regt on our right.
With every good wish
Yours most sincerely
Field Marshal Sir William J. Slim GCB. GBE. DSO. MC.
Chief of the Imperial General Staff
The War Office
P.S. Please do not from the above remarks consider I’m Anti-American, far from it, my personal relations with them are good. In spite of expressing my opinions in an outspoken way, where operational matters are in dispute. We must as two Nations stick together. Aubrey Coad who arrives home early June would give you valuable information about the Korean campaign.
Characteristically, on 31 May, Slim replied: ‘I have heard excellent reports of your Brigade and am glad all goes well’, with assurances that he would take up Taylor’s points.
To return to Operation Commando, Cassels’s plan was to carry out the attack with the Commonwealth and Canadian Brigades, each reinforced with a battalion from the 29th Brigade, the remainder of which was to be kept in reserve. The Commonwealth Brigade would lead the assault on the northern flank to take the ridgeline including Kowang San (Point 355) on D day (3 October). The following day, the Canadians would take the lower-lying hills overlooking the Sami-chon valley. By having two phases, Cassels could support both brigades on each day with the complete divisional artillery. On D+3, both brigades would secure the remaining features which, for the Commonwealth Brigade, included Maryang San (Point 317). The Brigade was to be reinforced for Operation Commando by elements of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars (8 H) (Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Lowther) in Centurion tanks and the 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (1 RNF) (Lieutenant Col Speer). Indirect fire support was to be provided by the 16th Regiment, Royal New Zealand Artillery (16 RNZA) (Lieutenant Colonel Moodie).
In outline, Taylor’s brigade would take Points 210 (689 feet) to 355 on D day, with 1 KSLI on the left, 1 KOSB centre and 3 RAR on the right. On D+1, they would take Point 317.
On what was to become, as described by Professor Robert O’Neill, the official historian of Australia’s involvement in the Korean War, probably the greatest single feat of the Australian Army during the Korean War, it is instructive to hear the views of the Commanding Officer (CO) of 3 RAR prior to the attack:
I thought the Brigade plan was good tactically, if ambitious. I kept my reservations to myself as there was no point in disturbing others. Not so my fellow battalion commanders.
In later years the Brigade Commander told me that each had separately protested, one claiming that the Brigade would suffer a thousand casualties. I thought the Brigade Commander to be an experienced infantryman and skilled tactician. If he set ambitious tasks then one had the comfort of knowing that he knew what it was all about and would not ask for anything that he was not prepared to do himself.
This is a good illustration of the isolation of command. The Brigadier had been told to take 355 (Little Gibraltar) and 317 (Maryang San). He had given his plan. Nobody came up with anything different. He had two concerned COs. The third, myself, was still a ‘new boy’, still under scrutiny. In the event, the matter was sorted out with the British COs. I was not involved.
At first light on 3 October, 1 KSLI moved to secure the ridgeline between Points 210 and 227 (745 feet). The battalion initially made good progress but their supporting tanks trailed behind due to the difficult going. Taylor told them to push on without them; they were always considered a bonus anyway. By the end of the day they had covered 12,000 yards in twelve hours. Taylor was disappointed but told them to go firm and complete their tasks the following day. In the centre, 1 KOSB was not so lucky in trying to capture two intermediate features to cover the eventual assault on Kowang San. This resulted in one of its companies having to withdraw in order to resume the attack later in the day. Well forward as was his style, Taylor visited both commanding officers in their command posts to give them direction and encouragement. Additionally, he managed to speak twice to Cassels on the telephone but not over the radio. By the evening the south-west spur of Kowang San had been captured and 1 KOSB was able to reorganise and rest before continuing the next day. 3 RAR had set off at three o’clock in the morning to capture Point 199 (653 feet) as a preliminary to assaulting Maryang San on 5 October. It took five hours to go 3 miles but success was achieved when it deployed its reserve company and could then support the KOSB attack on Kowang San with its heavy machine guns. The accompanying Centurions of 8 H could bring fire to bear on the two 220 Points (722 feet).
Taylor issued clear orders for operations on 4 October by signal at 6.20 that evening. But Kowang San was still in the hands of the enemy by D+1, making life difficult for the Canadian Brigade, so, at Taylor’s request, Cassels delayed their start time by five hours to enable his artillery to continue to support the Commonwealth Brigade in its final push onto its objective. Under pressure of time, Taylor ordered 3 RAR to take the twin Points of 220 on 4 October to assist 1 KOSB in its attack on Kowang San. This was not popular. Hassett wanted to preserve his battalion’s energies for the attack on Maryang San on 5 October, which he knew was going to be a struggle. However, he did not want to approach Maryang San with Point 355 still occupied by the Chinese artillery observation posts, which could bring fire down on his assault troops. So at three in the afternoon on 4 October, the Australians advanced to the north-east to the first of the two 220 Points and, having taken that, moved onto the second.
Meanwhile, one company of 1 KOSB had pushed up the spur south-west of Kowang San by first light on 4 October. Unknown to them, the Australians having successfully dealt with Points 220 had established themselves on the eastern slope of Kowang San and cleared the enemy from there by 1215. So, although not entirely planned like that, the outcome was a highly successful pincer movement. 1 KSLI had taken Point 210 by 1010 hours and Point 227 by the evening. Taylor thought it was slow but said, ‘after the battle I let the cloak of victory obscure this stickiness’. The Commonwealth Brigade’s occupation of Kowang San (Point 355) was now complete. At the same time, the Canadian Brigade had a relatively easy time in the Sami-chon valley.
Maryang San (Point 317), as everyone anticipated, was going to be a very difficult task. The feature was steep, riddled with spurs and ravines and false crests. The Chinese had dug themselves in well, making much use of reverse slope positions, in order to catch their enemy coming over the crest. They had considerable artillery and mortar support and were known to have brought up large quantities of ammunition. This, clearly, was going to be too much for one battalion, so Taylor reinforced 3 RAR with 1 RNF.
Dawn on 5 October was heavy with mist, making direction-finding difficult, and life was made more stressful by unreliable radios. The two leading companies of 3 RAR came under heavy effective fire and, at one stage, when he could get through to his commanding officer, one company commander had to admit he was lost. Hassett realised the threat to his men and reinforced with his reserve company. This enabled the exhausted battalion to get onto a feature about 1,000 yards east of the objective, which finally fell to the Australians at five in the evening.
The Chinese were still in possession of the south-west spur, however, and forced 1 RNF back under heavy fire onto its original start line, carrying its casualties with it. Consequently, the men had to reorganise themselves and Taylor ordered them to take Point 217 (712 feet) on 6 October. He then instructed Speer to pass one company through 3 RAR and exploit to the head of Point 217 spur from the north. The commanding officer realised this would mean a very difficult approach through deep gullies and ravines and raised his objections. Taylor accepted his view and the order was rescinded.
The Chinese put in strong counter-attacks onto the Australian positions on 6 October and early the following morning Hassett ordered an attack on the Hinge, a feature directly above Point 217. This achieved success, with heavy artillery and tank support, by 0920 hours. One Australian was heard to comment, ‘I’ll never be rude about Gunners again.’ Possession of the Hinge was vital—without it the Chinese would not be able to recapture Maryang San.
1 RNF again had a go at Point 217 but was forced back without success, sustaining heavy casualties when caught in the open once the mist cleared. While the least effective of the battalions in the brigade in this particular operation, the Fusiliers had been in Korea a long time and were on the point of going home which may have made them, understandably, more cautious. Nevertheless, they had, although repulsed, occupied a significant number of Chinese for two days, who, without their attacks, would have been deployed elsewhere. On 9 October, 1 KOSB relieved the weary 3 RAR on Maryang San and then realised the Chinese had abandoned Point 217, so sent a company to occupy it. The final tally was 58 killed and 257 wounded against the Chinese of 474 killed, 241 wounded and 93 taken prisoner.