Battle Experience from the 'Forgotten War'; Korea 1950-53 Part II

by James Goulty

Gathering information from purely British sources

When elements of the British Army were deployed to Korea in summer 1950, one issue facing the War Office was how to gather information from purely British sources, as opposed to that filtered through from the Americans. As my previous article explained, a Battle Experience Questionnaire (BEQ) was devised by the Directorate of Tactical Investigation, largely concerned with training, tactics and the performance of weapons and equipment. It employed a set of 10 (later 11) questions, and these were sent to a wide variety of officers, ranging from infantry subalterns to staff officers and those from support arms who served in Korea during 1950-52. Ultimately, the BEQ programme canvassed the opinions of around 200 officers of varying rank, who were encouraged to provide additional notes if desired. Completed forms were assessed by Major P. H. Godsal at the War Office, the idea being that BEQs would gather individual as opposed to official opinions, that could be used by the relevant Arms Branches and Schools, and potentially help prepare future drafts for Korea.

Korean War Battle experience part II
British positions photographed by Barry Tunnicliffe, a National Service officer with 61st Light Regiment Royal Artillery, note the typically hilly Korean terrain (Barry Tunnicliffe).

The enemy's apparent disregard for casualties

An impression of the usefulness of the BEQs can be gauged by Godsal’s correspondence with one respondent, when he stated: ‘… believe me, more information on Korea has come out of these questionnaires… than through normal channels.’ This article will provide more detail on what officers revealed regarding their Korean experience. To recap, they were asked for their name, unit and age, before addressing the following questions:


  1. What battle areas were you in and from what dates?
  2. In action did you experience any shortcomings in the training you received prior to going into battle?
  3. What enemy tactics, and/or weapons, took you by surprise or came as something quite unexpected?
  4. What general tactics were employed by the enemy? Were they orthodox by our teachings?
  5. Did the enemy possess any arms or equipment to which we had no answer?
  6. Were we short of any arms or equipment?
  7. How did the enemy manage to cope with our air superiority?
  8. What limitations, if any did our equipment impose upon our mobility?
  9. Were the normal methods of intercommunication satisfactory under all conditions?
  10. What enemy weapons had the greatest adverse morale effect upon our own troops and why?

In 1952 the following was added:

  1. Give a couple of tips which you think would help an officer of your rank when he is posted to Korea.  


As the previous article outlined, the BEQs produced much comment on North Korean and Chinese fighting methods, and notably officers with experience from Burma during the Second World War likened these to Japanese tactics, albeit in Korea the winter was an added burden. Even so, many were still surprised by the mass attacks during 1950-51, particularly the enemy’s apparent disregard for casualties, and his use of noise (bugles etc.) which could be difficult to counter. One officer noted, ‘The enemy was most excellent at night work. The lightness of his equipment and the simple way of feeding and living made him very mobile over mountainous country.’

Korean War Battle experience part 2
Barry Whiting experienced National Service with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Korea (Barry Whiting).
Centurion tanks of the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars wait with troops of the 1st Commonwealth Division to cross a pontoon bridge over the Imjin River. © IWM BF 10299

Soviet training methods

Contrastingly, by 1952, some considered enemy attacks then experienced were ‘orthodox,’ at least by their understanding ‘of Soviet training methods.’ Throughout the war the enemy made skilful use of mortars, and owing to their accuracy, these could have an ‘adverse morale effect,’ as did rockets because of their noise, although they weren’t nearly as accurate. Similarly, the enemy became proficient at handling artillery, so that by 1952 several guns might be concentrated on a specific objective. To counter UN air superiority, these were usually dispersed and/or made use of alternate well-concealed positions, often with significant cover e.g. ‘dug into hills.’ Likewise, SPGs proved hard to counter owing to being skilfully hidden, and their ‘low trajectory HE or AP fire’ was ‘extremely accurate and able to pierce any dug out.’

Another enemy weapon that drew much comment was the Burp gun, a form of SMG. One respondent noted that its high rate of fire gave the impression ‘that far too many bullets were coming roughly in your direction.’ Many officers also thought the enemy’s concealment was first class, in contrast to that of their own troops, and ‘supplies were all brought up at night.’ As the war progressed, ‘he constructed deep well built bunkers on his forward positions,’ and some observed that he had a propensity to employ small arms or significant levels of LAA fire against UN aircraft.       

Hong Kong ideally suited for infantry training

Many officers understandably appreciated the value of tough training prior to their deployment. It was widely recognised that units which had been in Hong Kong had an advantage. As T/Maj. A. J. Callan (1st Battalion Royal Leicestershire Regiment) explained, ‘Information was obtained from the Middlesex Regiment and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had returned from Korea, as to the best kind of training to do. This was carried out by company and the battalion, and proved to be of very good value. Hong Kong is ideally suited for all kinds of infantry training for Korea.’ Partly this was because it was hilly, and troops tended to be toughened by relatively Spartan living conditions, and on semi-active employment guarding the colony. Likewise, officers with knowledge of the Battle School in Japan heartily recommended its rigorous training regime.       

Contrast the above with the experience of units that underwent preparations in the UK. A company commander from 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, considered that: ‘Training in England did not prepare us for what we were to encounter. The period of training the Battalion was allowed in Norfolk before sailing was inadequate, and the ground [very flat] in no way resembled the ground over which we were to fight.’ Likewise, another officer bemoaned how the six week refresher course undergone in the UK by 29th Brigade in 1950 pre-embarkation, provided nothing like the necessary practice in individual skills, such as fieldcraft and marksmanship, so that much training had to occur when possible after arriving in theatre. Related to this some officers provided an impression of the hectic nature of the preparations their units underwent prior to Korea. Major A. L. Gordon (1st Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment-which deployed in October 1951) found that drafts were arriving right ‘up to the month prior to embarkation leave, and the Battalion was committed piecemeal (i.e. Company by Company) to the line in the two weeks arrival in Korea.’ As one of his fellow officers highlighted, this meant that they were undertrained, especially at battalion level, and this could ‘have had unfortunate results’ if they had faced ‘major action’ straight away, but fortunately they could ‘settle down and gain experience gradually.’ 

A lack of "battle inoculation"

As indicated above, individual training was important, but equally so was that done at a collective level. One respondent, who served in theatre as an infantry officer during 1951-52, reckoned: ‘Battalion schemes of a maximum of ten days duration, under rough and realistic conditions with the unit organised for war and with everyone taking the field, are worth more than weeks of individual training and are a remedy for faults’ such as poor staff work/organisation, inadequate communications and administration. Similarly, an officer who’d been in command of his battalion’s HQ Company and ‘A’ Echelon, stressed ‘the need in training in moving stores etc. about in all aspects of battle,’ something he considered was neglected. Units were aided by bands of South Korean porters but bringing supplies up hills and relief of units in the line was still awkward. Relations between the British and these Koreans appear mixed, one officer stating ‘…don’t trust the bloody porters!’

Experience varied depending on whether an officer was a regular, reservist or National Serviceman. One of the latter, who’d recently arrived in Korea straight from Eaton Hall OCS, explained: ‘I had only twice command a platoon in schemes’ and ‘there was no ‘‘battle inoculation’’ and I had no idea how near a bullet was or what it sounded like. There seemed to be too much emphasis on platoon training (platoon attacks etc.) and too little on company level.’ A reservist officer recalled in August 1950, similarly wrote: ‘I feel the nine days training I had at Stanford Training Area was insufficient to adapt me from two years of civilian life to an active unit command, especially as there were several new weapons to be mastered and new theories to be put into practice.’ Equally, some respondents identified that peacetime training failed to prepare enough junior regular officers to work as specialists, such as commanding a mortar platoon.    

Korean War Battle experience part II
Mortar trainng at the Battle School at Hara Mura, Japan (Thanks to Keith M. Taylor who served as a National Service officer with 1st Bn Royal Northumberland Fusiliers).
The 4.2 inch mortar proved highly effective in Korea, so much so that 61st Light Regt RA was built around this weapon (Barry Tunnicliffe).

A lack of junior NCO's

Respondents also commented on the state of training of their men. One company commander was concerned that reservists had ‘only had one month to pick up the threads after four years of civil life’ before deploying to Korea with 29th Brigade in 1950. Contrastingly, another found reservists ‘reacted magnificently,’ something he ascribed to their previous ‘battle experience.’ Others bemoaned the lack of adequate junior NCOs, which placed more pressure on platoon commanders. Several highlighted aspects of individual training that were deficient. This included the tactical handling of small arms, particularly the Lee Enfield Rifle and Bren light machine-gun, plus firing the Sten SMG from the hip, which required practice or else troops fired too low. Soldiers also exhibited inadequate knowledge of hand grenades, very useful weapons in a Korean hill fighting context, and the 2-inch mortar, which could have proved valuable but often its ammunition was defective. Likewise, some troops struggled to indicate targets accurately, had limited idea about infantry-tank co-operation, or knowledge of mines, flares, wiring and constructing defensive positions, which became increasingly important as the war continued. All aspects of night warfare, from evacuating casualties to shooting in the dark and patrolling, were highlighted as being essential for infantry to master as well.

The challenge of the Korean winter

The Korean winter was another challenge. One young second lieutenant observed, that ‘more emphasis should have been put on special precautions against the intense cold… many of our men suffered from frostbite and other ailments through a lack of knowledge of semi-arctic weather.’ Initially British winter kit was hopelessly inadequate, which didn’t help, but by 1951-52 better items were issued, and many units obtained cold weather clothing from the Americans.

Shortcomings in training didn’t just affect the infantry. An armoured commander felt that ‘more training of driving, shooting and wireless practice would have been most valuable.’ Likewise, Royal Engineer officers highlighted the requirement for sappers to have better knowledge of mines and mine-laying and road building, vital in an underdeveloped country like Korea. Many artillerists thought themselves well trained, but their BEQ replies still revealed issues, including the need for better recognition of minefields, and more emphasis on co-operation with other arms and the Americans. One subaltern thought there was ‘little provision in training’ on ‘experience in handling a complete position of billets, dug outs, field kitchens as well as guns.’ Others highlighted their lack of appreciation of how to construct gun/mortar positions and dug outs, although this was learnt by trial and error in the field.   

In terms of equipment, British troops were often the poor relation compared with their Commonwealth and American counterparts. Concerns in the BEQs ranged from awful boots, to the absence of the Energa grenade (anti-tank rifle grenade), that could have been useful against bunkers. The quality of vehicles, especially two-wheeled drive trucks that were unsuited to the terrain, received much comment. Captain T.G.W. Potts (Royal Artillery), who served in theatre from December 1951-October 1952, discovered that, ‘motor transport (MT) in many cases, was so ancient as to be quite useless if we were to fight a mobile battle. My Counter Bombardment section transport was looked upon with great amusement by the properly equipped Canadians.’ Another significant weakness identified by officers, particularly in infantry and armoured units, was a shortage of automatic firepower to counter mass attacks. One solution, as some respondents alluded, was to barter alcohol with Americans (who were dry) to obtain equipment. This included American M1 Carbines and belt fed Browning machine guns that could be mounted on tanks or used to bolster defensive positions.

Private Frank Holden of the 1st Battalion, The King's (Liverpool) Regiment, cleaning his .30 cal Browning machine gun in a trench on a freezing winter's day in Korea. © IWM BF 10896
Gunners of the 14th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, haul one of their 25 pounder field guns into position. © IWM BF 10793

Tips for fellow officers..."take a shotgun"

Communications was another key area. According to Major C.E.B. Walwyn (1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment), the 62 Set [HF band transceiver] ‘was very good,’ the 31 Set [short-range transceiver] ‘satisfactory at short distances’ and the 88 Set [Battalion HQ to sub-units] ‘useless except under very favourable conditions and over very short distances. All sets were used in MT and on a man pack basis.’

In answer to ‘Give a couple of tips which you think would help an officer of your rank when he is posted to Korea,’ numerous suggestions were made, varying from the need to ‘keep clean’ to making infantry ‘patrol minded.’ An artillery subaltern advised reading ‘Cry Korea’ and ‘Korean Reporter,’ both published by journalists during the war which he felt provided ‘a good general picture of the country and the problems of Korea.’ Others recommended ‘taking a shot gun.’ This might indicate the social background of many British officers, but was a highly practical idea, as pheasants ran rampant in Korea and could substitute the mess, plus shooting parties provided relief off duty. Notably, Second Lieutenant (later Major General) M.F. Reynolds (Royal Norfolk Regiment), stressed: ‘A man’s welfare is your primary duty, never neglect foot, body or weapon inspections and most important of all the time your men want you with them is not only when the sun is shining and there’s no danger, but when everything is at its worst and you feel like looking after yourself first.’ 

Battle Experience from the 'Forgotten War'; Korea 1950-53 Part I

To read Part I of this article click above

About The Author

James Goulty holds a masters degree and doctorate in military history from the University of Leeds, and has a particular interest in the training and combat experience of ordinary soldiers during the world wars and Korean War.

He has published numerous articles and written 5 books for Pen and Sword Ltd, including The Second World War through Soldiers’ Eyes: British Army Life 1939-1945; and Eyewitness Korea: The Experience of British and American Soldiers in the Korean War 1950-1953.

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