Is This the Battle That Turned the Tide of the Korean War?
The Chinese always attacked at night. It was April 22, 1951, and the Communists had just launched the largest offensive of the Korean War. Nearly 350,000 troops, spread out across the Korean Peninsula from the Imjin River to the Sea of Japan, slammed into thinly held U.N. positions. The heaviest blows fell in the west and west-central sectors, manned by the American I and IX Corps. The Eighth Army, a multinational force newly under the command of Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet, reeled southward in the face of unremitting pressure from Chinese human-wave assaults. The enemy offensive, although long expected, still unnerved a number of frontline units.
This was certainly true of the Republic of Korea’s 6th Division, stationed at the left of the IX Corps front, north of Route 3A and Line Kansas. The South Koreans disintegrated before the Chinese, retreating in disorder for 10 miles, then falling back another eight miles before attempting to regroup and move north again under orders to reoccupy Line Kansas. The New Zealand 16th Field Artillery Regiment and the U.S. 213th Field Artillery Battalion, escorted by the British 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, were sent north up the Kapyong River Valley to provide support for the embattled ROK troops.
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These units were attached to the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, which at the outbreak of the enemy offensive was standing in reserve at Kapyong, near the confluence of the Kapyong and Pukhan Rivers and astride one of the prime invasion routes to Seoul. During the day on April 23, Brig. Gen. B.A. Burke, commanding the 27th Brigade, received orders to occupy the high ground north of the town of Kapyong and move into position to control movement through the Kapyong River Valley. Burke put the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), on Hill 504 east of the river and the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, on Hill 677 west of the river. A distance of about 1.9 miles of open ground separated the two hills.
Despite the presence of the 27th Brigade artillery units, the ROK 6th Division proved unable to reorganize effectively and push forward. In fact, under enemy pressure, the South Korean troops began streaming farther southward in the late afternoon of the 23rd. Captain Owen R. Browne, commanding officer of the Princess Pat’s A Company, described what he saw. “I was witnessing a rout,” he said. “The valley was filled with men. Some left the road and fled over the forward edges of A Company positions. Some killed themselves on the various booby traps we had laid, and that component of my defensive layout became worthless. Between 1530 hours and 1800 hours all of A Company speeded up its defensive preparations and digging as it watched, helpless to intervene, while approximately 4,000-5,000 troops fled in disorganized panic across and through the forward edges of our positions. But we knew then that we were no longer 10-12 miles behind the line; we were the front line.”
Major Ben O’Dowd, commanding A Company of the Australian 3rd Battalion, observed the same scene from the vantage point of Hill 504’s forward slopes. “Soon the mob of ROK soldiers became thickened up with civilian refugees: men, women, children and animals, all bunched together in a confusing melee; screaming, shouting, crying children, with their cattle, with their goods on their back,” recalled O’Dowd. “We knew that the situation was getting dangerous and we had something to really worry about. I knew, from past experience, that Chinese soldiers would mix in with the civilians they had terrorized to clog up the roads. They would be in civilian clothes or in uniform, in the half light and be penetrating to the rear in numbers.”
Retreating along with the South Koreans were the New Zealand and American artillery units and the Middlesex Battalion. The Middlesexers were originally slated to take up positions on Hill 794, north of and across the Kapyong River from the Canadians on Hill 677. But orders had been changed, and the battalion moved through the valley and downriver to establish a position to the west of a big bend in the river, south of the Canadians and northeast of 27th Brigade headquarters. The New Zealand and American artillery set up in front of the Middlesex Battalion and behind the Australian battalion’s headquarters, which was located near another big bend in the river, just south of a ford and along a road leading north to the nearby village of Chuktun-ni. North of the village itself, B Company, 3 RAR, occupied a northeast-running ridge that stood like an island in the Kapyong Valley, an arm of land through which ran a road from the northeast. This subsidiary valley cut between B Company’s position on the island ridge and the main Australian positions on Hill 504. The 3 RAR headquarters was located about 1.6 miles southwest of the forward Australian companies.