Gunners help turn the tide at Kap'yong

by Ian McGibbon

[Ian McGibbon is Senior Historian in the Historical Branch of New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs, and Editor of the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History, a volume that was published in April 2000. His latest history is New Zealand and the Korean War, Volume I, Politics and Diplomacy, and Volume II, Combat Operations.]

During the Korean War, New Zealand and American fire support units co-operated together on many occasions, but none was more important than the Battle of Kap'yong in late April 1951. Toiling Kiwi and Yank gunners helped stem the Chinese tide which threatened to engulf the UN positions.

The Chinese Fifth Phase Offensive, which began on 22 April, was designed to drive the UN Command into the sea. Between Hwach'on and Kaesong, some 270,000 Chinese troops were set in motion, their immediate objective to annihilate specific UN units and open up a decisive breach in the front. Other troops held back to the north would then be thrown in to complete the defeat of the UN Command.

Kap'yong, located at the mouth of a narrow valley leading north of the 38th Parallel, was well to the south of the front line on 22 April. The Commonwealth 27 Brigade had gone into reserve in its vicinity a few days before, while the South Korean 6 Division continued the advance into North Korea. The New Zealand 16 Field Regiment had remained up the valley to provide support until it found itself unable to keep within range of the infantry, as the road petered out in the mountainous reaches.

This regiment had been raised in New Zealand in 1950 following the government's decision to contribute a ground force to the UN Command. When volunteers had been called for, five men had come forward for every place available. The gunners had entered camp on 29 August, and spent next three months being trained, before leaving Wellington on 10 December. They reached Pusan on 31 December and joined 27 Brigade on 22 January 1951. A few days later their twenty-four 25-pounders were in action. During the next three months practice had greatly improved their capacity to support the infantry.

When the Chinese offensive broke the New Zealanders were already under orders to return down the valley to 27 Brigade near Kap'yong. The events at the front ensured that this move took place during the night, some hours earlier than intended. But next morning the IX Corps artillery commander ordered the regiment back up the valley to support the South Koreans, who were supposed to be making a stand after falling back a considerable distance in some disarray.

To provide additional support, the American 213 AFA Battalion, with its eighteen 105-mm self-propelled howitzers, was redeployed from the Hwach'on area. A National Guard battalion which had also been raised in the United States about the same time as the New Zealand regiment, it had enjoyed a much longer period of training and acclimatisation than had the New Zealanders, only reaching the front in April. It had fired its first shot in anger on 22 April. On the 23rd it returned to positions at Sindang-ni, on a tributary of the Kap'yong river, which it had occupied until being sent to Hwach'on three days before.

While it was hoped that the South Koreans would hold their positions up the valley, precautions were taken in case they did not. This entailed deploying 27 Brigade at the mouth of the valley, with a Canadian battalion and an Australian battalion occupying dominating hills on left and right respectively. The brigade's other battalion, the British Middlesex Regiment, had been sent up the valley to provide close protection for the New Zealand gunners. Both Canadian and Australian battalions had a company of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion in support, Co A with the former, Co B with the latter. These companies had been attached to 27 Brigade for some weeks before this crisis.

These precautions were timely, for it became evident during the evening that the South Korean division had virtually disintegrated. Panic-stricken Koreans made their way down the valley. The New Zealand and American gunners both experienced a hair raising withdrawal behind the Commonwealth infantry, the American regiment losing one of its pieces when a road gave way. The New Zealanders carried out the Middlesex infantrymen on their vehicles and guns.

When the Chinese assault began on the Australians around midnight, there were six batteries of artillery and Company B's mortars within range, but coordination was lacking mainly because of poor communications. There is evidence that the New Zealanders fired defensive support missions for 3RAR's B Company, and also that the mortars were in action, though Australian veterans nowadays tend to discount this support. The Australian A Company was heavily assaulted, but held its ground. During this period the New Zealand forward observation officer with this company was killed and his party separated from their radio, effectively ending any chance of co-ordinated defensive support from the New Zealand guns.

Meanwhile other Chinese troops had circled round to attack 3RAR's battalion headquarters. This was a dangerous development, and the New Zealand and American gunners were preoccupied with dealing with this threat until they, too, were troubled by Chinese infiltrators. Around 2 am the decision was taken to withdraw the artillery units to safer positions to the south. Both regiments pulled two of their batteries back immediately, leaving the other as a rearguard. These latter followed as day was breaking. At this point the Australian headquarters was overrun. The Mortar Battalion's Company B also tried to withdraw but was halted and, leaving their vehicles, retreated through the hills, as did a Middlesex company. Company A, 800 yards to the west, was forced to withdraw at about 6 am, losing three of its mortars. (The withdrawal of Company B has been unfairly misrepresented in Australian histories as taking place about midnight, and even the US official history of Army operations in Korea has followed this line.)

With daybreak on the 24th, the artillery support became more effective as co-ordination improved. The New Zealand regiment controlled the fire from both it and 213 AFA Battalion. A battery of 17 FA Battalion's 8-inch howitzers was on call from early afternoon, and 61 FA Battalion (105-mm howitzers) became available in the evening. New Zealand officers with radios sets were sent to the American batteries to facilitate the transmission of fire orders. This fire power was vital during the afternoon of 24 April as the Australian battalion's infantry companies were successfully extricated from the virtually surrounded position they found themselves in. Gunfire not only obscured the withdrawal from the enemy but also later prevented them from closing with the retreating troops.

During the night of 24-25 April the Chinese turned their attention to the Canadian battalion. The attacks were pressed home with great determination, and at one stage the Canadians were forced to call down fire on their own positions. But the massive artillery resources now available ensured the battalion's survival, though it too was virtually surrounded. Next morning, however, the Chinese were found to have pulled back.

The Commonwealth troops, now reinforced by two battalions of the 5 Cavalry Regiment, were ordered to advance during the afternoon of the 25th. The former Australian positions were reoccupied, but developments elsewhere led to them soon being abandoned as the whole of IX Corps was ordered to pull back to positions on the Han River. The New Zealand and American gunners covered the withdrawal of the infantry battalions.

The successful blunting of the Chinese offensive in the Kap'yong sector was a combined effort of British, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and American infantry, tankmen, mortarmen and gunners. Both the Canadians and Australians, as well as Company A, 72 US Tank Battalion, received US Presidential Citations for their efforts during the battle. The New Zealanders had to be content with the South Korean Presidential Citation, the differentiation reflecting the tendency to down play the importance of the artillery in halting the Chinese. Indeed, in Australian accounts of the battle 213 AFA Battalion does not even rate a mention.

This article was originally published in the January 1997 issue of The Red Dragon,
the newsletter of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion Association.

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