The North Korean Steamroller


NKPA T34-85 tanks on parade.


For the invasion of South Korea seven NKPA divisions were gathered under General Kim Chaek and grouped into the 1st Army, consisting of the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 6th Divisions as well as the 105th Armoured Brigade, and the weaker 2nd Army with the 2nd, 5th and 7th Divisions. The 1st Army was given the job of overrunning the Ongjin Peninsula and the South Korean capital Seoul.

It was the NKPA’s tanks that provided the key striking force. ‘The enemy, after penetrating the defences with his armour,’ General Matthew B. Ridgway, who commanded the US 8th Army in Korea, noted, ‘would envelop both flanks with infantry, surround artillery units, and roll on rearward.’

Crucially, the NKPA opened the war with about 150 T-34/85 tanks armed with the 85mm gun, which was superior to anything else in theatre at the time.The UN forces were to dub them ‘Caviar Cans’. While 120 tanks were deployed with the 105th Armoured Brigade, the NKPA infantry divisions’ self-propelled gun battalions fielded a total of 120 Soviet-supplied SU-76 assault guns. In addition to the tanks of the armoured brigade, the personnel from the tank training unit at Sadong with a further thirty tanks were assigned to the 7th Division. They deployed on the east-central front for the attack on Inje.

In the early stages of the fighting the North Koreans also used their tanks in built-up areas with some considerable effect neutralising UN defenders. During the assault on Taejon they moved in pairs or singularly carrying supporting infantry. Afterwards, though, they used their armour much more circumspectly because of improving US counter-measures.

After the capture of the South Korean capital the 105th Armoured Brigade became the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armoured Division and was strengthened with the 308th Self-propelled Battalion. The 3rd and 4th Divisions which were also involved were likewise given the honorary title ‘Seoul Division’. By 1953 the NKPA had seven tank regiments (104 – 107th, 109th, 206th and 208th).

During the battles for the Pusan pocket the NKPA received reinforcements including another eighty T-34/85, which equipped two new tank units, the 16th and 17th Armoured Brigades. Some were also sent to the 105th Armoured Brigade, but the UN’s air supremacy meant that many were destroyed before they could reach the front. UN estimates at the end of September 1950 were that the entire NKPA T-34 force (then believed to stand at 239) had been destroyed whereas UN forces had only lost 60 tanks.

While the Chinese Nationalist forces had created a mechanised division, equipped initially with Soviet and then US-supplied tanks, the Communists had never taken to armour and simply relied on manpower alone. Soviet assistance to the Nationalists stopped once Moscow had signed a non-aggression pact with Tokyo. The PLA produced a copy of the Soviet T-34/85 in the 1950s known as the Type 58, but few if any saw combat in Korea. It is likely that most of the Soviet T-34s supplied to the PLA were passed on to the NKPA.

Reports of Chinese tanks in Korea are non-existent. Although on 26 October 1950 when the Republic of Korea’s (RoK) Army’s 26th Division came up against the Chinese 124th Division, General Matthew B. Ridgway reported, ‘When the Marines came up to relieve the RoKs a few days later they met and destroyed Chinese tanks (the only ones the X Corps was to encounter) and picked up prisoners from a fresh Chinese division, the 126th.’ One can only assume that Ridgway was mistaken and these were supporting NKPA tanks, though it is always possible the Chinese brought a few with them.

China committed six armies each of three divisions in support of the NKPA in November 1950. Significantly, they had no tanks, vehicles or artillery, allowing these units to slip into North Korea largely undetected. The Chinese armies also lacked air support. To compensate for the lack of anti-tank weapons each platoon was issued with 2.25kg TNT satchel charges sufficient to take the track off a tank. It was not until the summer of 1951 that the Chinese began to deploy artillery and mortars.

In north-western Korea the PLA assembled the Chinese 9th Army Group under General Song Shilun. This was a new command consisting of 120,000 men who were tasked with taking on the US Marines around the Changjin Reservoir. Two of Shilun’s three field armies, the 20th and 26th, had been detached from the forces once earmarked to attack the Nationalist-held island of Taiwan; the 27th Field Army came from Shandong and each of the three were supplemented by one division from the 30th Field Army.

Facing the US 8th Army was the PLA’s 13th Army Group totalling 180,000 men and commanded by Lieutenant Li Tianyu. His forces initially saw action at Unsan, along the Chongchon River and in the area of the Changjin Reservoir. Tianyu’s original three field armies, the 38th, 40th and 42nd, were rapidly reinforced with the 39th, 50th and 66th Field armies.

Notably, the 50th Field Army consisted of former Nationalist troops who had surrendered in Manchuria in 1948. Their commander, Lieutenant General Zeng Zesheng, had spent most of his career fighting the Communists. Three years earlier he had worked with David Barr, the US advisor to the Nationalist forces, who now commanded the US 7th Infantry Division fighting on the other side. Zesheng’s former Nationalist Corps were almost wiped out in the final battle for Seoul.

As well as armour, artillery and fighter aircraft the PLA lacked even the most rudimentary logistical support. Soldiers were expected to carry what food and ammunition they needed to fight. Only 800 trucks belonging to the 5th and 42nd Truck Regiments were assigned to support the troops in Korea. Only 50 per cent were expected to remain operational. In addition, over ½ million coolies were recruited to carry supplies across the Yalu River, but they created their own logistical headache, as they had to be fed and housed over considerable distances. Many Chinese commanders considered them an unwanted distraction and a drain on resources.

Uncle Sam Holds the Line

In the wake of the Second World War much of the US Army was demobilised and sent home. At the outbreak of the Korean War it only had ten combat divisions including a single armoured division.The US presence in South Korea consisted of a mere 500 advisors who were busy training the RoK Army and advising on counterinsurgency operations. Although never deployed in large numbers, US armour was to be instrumental in providing fire support and static defence.

General Douglas MacArthur’s US forces stationed in nearby Japan were only equipped with M24 Chaffee light tanks as it was feared anything heavier would damage Japanese roads and bridges. In the face of invasion Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker’s 8th Army, which was on occupation duties in Japan, was put on alert. Four light tank battalions supported his infantry divisions; the 71st, 77th, 78th and 79th but each of these were only of company strength.

In response to the T-34 tank’s success in Korea the 8072nd Medium Tank Battalion (later re-designated the 89th) was quickly activated in Japan with fifty-four rebuilt M4A3 Sherman HVSS armed with a 76mm anti-tank gun. The USA quickly rushed this armour over to support their forces in South Korea in late July 1950.

In the meantime, Task Force Smith from the US 24th Infantry Division was hurried to the front on 1 July 1950 and held up the NKPA’s advance on Osan. This numbered just 500 men, consisting of 2 rifle companies, 2 platoons of 4.2in mortars, a single 75mm recoilless rifle crew and 6 2.36in bazooka teams. None of these weapons were capable of knocking out the NKPA’s T-34s. For several days they were the only US fighting force on the ground and had to contend with massed enemy troops, tanks and artillery.

On 5 July 1950 the NKPA’s armour first came up against the USA. Some thirty-three T-34/85s of the 107th Armoured Regiment took part in the attack. Advancing in groups of four T-34/85s with all guns blazing, the Americans were only able to stop two tanks using high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds. Only four were immobilised and after seven hours of fighting the USA was forced to withdraw with its tail between its legs.

‘At 8am on 5 July, the enemy attacked near Osan with 30 tanks and a strong force of infantry,’ General Ridgway later wrote. ‘Task Force Smith soon had to choose between retreat and annihilation. Having held their positions until their ammunition was gone, they withdrew in some disorder, receiving heavy casualties.’ At Taejon the 24th Infantry Division gained valuable time for the arrival of the 25th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions from Japan as well as the 29th Regimental Combat Team from Okinawa.

Five days later three of the completely inadequate US M24 light tanks came up against the T-34/85 at Chonui for the first time.They fared little better and lost two tanks, though they did manage to destroy a single T-34. The US government put three tank battalions on alert in the USA on 10 July 1950, the 6th with the M46 Patton belonging to the 2nd Armoured Division, 70th with the M26 Pershing and M4A3 Sherman and 73rd also with the M26 Pershing; the latter two were school troop battalions from the Armour School at Fort Knox and Infantry School at Fort Benning. They were the only armoured units in the USA combat ready and they arrived at Pusan on 7 August 1950.

It was not until late July 1950 that an effective infantry anti-tank weapon was supplied in the shape of the 3.5in rocket launcher known as the bazooka. The NKPA’s attack on the city of Taejon on 20 July saw ten tanks lost to this weapon the very first time it was deployed. However, in one case it took three rockets before the crew was killed and the tank immobilised.The victor was none other than Major General William F. Dean, commander of the 24th Infantry Division who was to later boast ‘I got me a tank!’

Three refurbished M26 Pershings (the only medium tanks in the whole of Korea) crewed by men from the 77th Tank Battalion engaged the enemy at Chinju on 31 July. A blown-up bridge cut off their retreat and they had to be abandoned – another humiliation for the USA. On 2 August the newly arrived M4A3 HVSS went into action for the first time with better results.

With the loss of Taejon the UN forces fell back to the Pusan perimeter.There US Marine M26s were used in a defensive role and in the battle of the Naktong Bulge, in which the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade under the 24th Infantry Division tried to destroy the NKPA 4th Division bridgehead over the river. The tide was about to turn against the T-34.

On 12 July Company ‘A’, 1st Marine Tank Battalion, which was used to the M4A3 but reissued with the Pershing, as well as units of the 1st Marine Amphibian Tractor Battalion sailed from the USA. The were committed first to the Sachon counteroffensive, then during the fighting between Observation Hill and Hill 125 a Pershing came face to face with a T-34 from the 107th Armoured Regiment.This and a second T-34 were knocked out by a combination of the Pershing’s 90mm gun and bazooka and recoilless rifle fire.

By the end of August the USA had over 500 medium tanks in Korea, including the M4A3 Sherman, M26 Pershing and M46 Patton. Over 400 of these were in the Pusan pocket, outnumbering the enemy by a least 4 : 1 . Although the NKPA received about 100 T-34 replacements, many of them were knocked out by air strikes before they could even reach the battlefield.

The North Koreans were in a race against time in trying to unify the two Koreas and anticipated completing this in about two weeks. Once the Pusan perimeter was formed they soon found themselves heavily outnumbered. By the time of the Inchon landings there were about 83,000 US troops and another 57,000 Korean and British soldiers facing the NKPA. Although North Korea raised the number of its forces along the front to 98,000, over a third of them were raw recruits.This meant that they were unable to withstand the two-pronged attack on Inchon and from Pusan when it came.

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