This story will be the closest yet in terms of my direct relation to the subject. Leonard Frederick Swatton, my uncle (my father’s older brother), had been demobbed for less than two years after serving in World War 2 and Palestine and was still in the reserves when the Korean War kicked off in 1950.
Recalled to the colours, (on August Bank Holiday, 1950) he was posted to 12 Platoon, D Company, 1st Battalion the Gloucestershire Regiment, commonly known as the “Glosters”. This was a regiment already with a proud tradition; it had more battle honours than any other regiment in the British Army, and had its origin with the 28th Regiment of Foot.
The 28th formed part of the British expeditionary force that landed at Aboukir Bay in Egypt in 1801 to oppose Napoleon’s Army of the East. On 21 March, during the Battle of Alexandria, French cavalry broke through the British lines, formed up behind the regiment, and began to charge. With the men still heavily engaged to their front, the order was given for the rear rank to turn about, and standing thus in two ranks back to back, the regiment successfully held the line. For this action the 28th Regiment was accorded the unique privilege of wearing the regimental number both on the front and the back of its headdress.
The Glosters formally came into being in 1881 with the amalgamation of 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot and the 61st (South Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot and, unbeknown to Len, they would enhance their fighting reputation in Korea beyond anyone’s expectations but at a cost beyond anyone’s wildest fears.
The Glosters’ Korean story began serenely enough as, with the rest of 29th Infantry Brigade, the regiment boarded ship in Southampton for the cruise to Korea. They embarked on HMT Empire Windrush in October 1950 for the voyage.
The ship is the very same one that was in the news in 2018 as it gave its name to the “Windrush Generation” of Caribbean immigrants who came to the UK in 1948 on the ship from Jamaica.
By the time the Glosters arrived in Korea, in November, the United Nations forces were in full chaotic retreat following the first major Chinese intervention in the war and their huge offensive that commenced that month. Only the winter, such a winter as the British Army had not had to endure since the Crimean War a century earlier, halted the Chinese advance. It was so cold that tea froze as it was poured into the mug. Even anti-freeze froze!
Come the new year (1951) with the Chinese over-extended and their logistics hampered by the sub-zero temperatures, the newly appointed UN 8th Army commander, Matthew Ridgway, counterattacked and the UN forces slowly began to push the Chinese back to the north.
The Glosters, in 29th Infantry Brigade, were attached to the US 3rd Division, part of 1 Corps, and by mid-April were holding a position on a bend of the Imjin River, north of Seoul, on a series of hills between the two major routes south towards the capital known as the Munsan and Uijeongbu “corridors”.
From intelligence gathered, UN commanders suspected a major Chinese offensive was being prepared and suspected it would strike the US 3rd Div and the Republic of Korea (ROK) 1st Div sitting astride the Munsan and Uijeongbu corridors. They also knew that the ability to hold these positions, or at least slow a potential Chinese offensive to prevent a quick breakthrough, was vital to the UN war effort.
A quick word on tactics…
The Chinese army was short on heavy artillery, tanks and, most significantly, airpower. They were a predominantly infantry-based army utilising small arms, machine guns and light artillery such as mortars. But what they lacked in military technology they made up for in numbers and the tactics they implemented sought to play to that strength.
Consequently, their approach to battle was to mass in secret, moving only at night so as to avoid UN air reconnaissance and when they launched an attack it was also inevitably at night to minimise the UN’s advantage of artillery and air support. Their tactics were to quietly infiltrate around the flanks of UN positions and then to launch mass “human wave” assaults on those positions, to close as fast as they could, and annihilate their opponents in close-quarters combat. Mao had said he would rather see a single enemy unit destroyed than see 10 defeated but allowed to retreat to fight again and the Chinese army faithfully adhered to this doctrine – infiltrate, surround, destroy.
…and a word on equipment
The battle was to prove to be one of close contact; that’s what the Chinese excelled at and they were better equipped for it than the British and their allies. The Chinese had superior automatic weapons, particularly the Type 50 machine gun. The British were still largely armed with the Lee Enfield rifle which was an excellent rifle but required aiming at specific targets; not easy at night. The Sten machine gun used by the British had a slower rate of fire than the Chinese equivalent and was prone to jamming. Thankfully each infantry section was also armed with a Bren gun which was very reliable and was used to devastating effect. Where the British had a distinct advantage was in the quality of their grenades – the fragmentation and phosphorous grenades the British were armed with had a much bigger kill radius than their Chinese equivalents and the British had an ample supply of them
The other advantage the defenders had was in air and artillery support.
45 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery attached to the brigade with their 25 pounder guns were to prove life savers many times during the battle, as were the air strikes the Glosters could call in from US Air Force fighter bombers, at least during daylight hours.
Lastly, a word on a specific weapon that is significant to the story – the 2” Mortar. This light mortar was very portable, weighing about 5kg and was fired by a two man crew – one to hold the tube and manually aim it, the other to load.
The guy second in line in the photo here is carrying one on his back.
Len Swatton was a section mortar firer in 12 Platoon, D Company.
The Eve of Battle
In the days leading up to the battle the Glosters and their companion battalions in the 29th Brigade had sent armoured patrols across the Imjin searching for the enemy and had come away empty-handed. The Chinese forces, experts at quietly assembling for an attack, evaded them and slowly but surely moved forwards to their jump off positions.
While the British suspected an attack was coming they thought the main body of the Chinese army was still 30 miles or so to the north. They had no idea an entire army comprising three divisions and totalling over 30,000 men would be launched at them.
The first night: Sunday, 22 April / Monday, 23 April
A patrol under the command of 2nd Lt Guy Temple sent down to the river ford (later known as Gloster Crossing) in front of the Gloster’s position detected Chinese troops wading into the river – these were the lead elements of the Chinese 187th Division. When the Chinese were half way across the river his men unleashed on them. Calling in artillery support from 45 Field Regiment they massacred the first wave of enemy troops. But the Chinese kept coming and eventually Temple’s troops ran out of ammunition and retired back to the main battalion lines.
The Chinese, now having crossed the Imjin, began to mass troops at the base of Hill 148 preparing to attack the Glosters’ A Company and across the Route 5Y below the Hill 182 occupied by D Company where Len was positioned. They also began to infiltrate around the battalion position to cut them off.
The Chinese launched their attacks on A and D Companies.
Both units poured small arms and mortar fire down their respective hillsides and called in artillery support from 45 Field Regiment. In between firing high explosive rounds, Len’s mortars fired parachute flares so that the British could see something to shoot at. The carnage on the hillsides was appalling but somehow a Chinese machine gun unit managed to infiltrate through the A Company barrage to site themselves high on the hill from where they could pour fire onto the paths linking the forward platoons of A Company with their company HQ stopping them from being re-supplied with ammunition and preventing casualties from being removed.
Lt. Phil Curtis led 1 Platoon in an attack on the machine gun position and single-handedly destroyed it but was killed in the process, posthumously earning the Victoria Cross.
As the Chinese massed for another attack on A Company they were hit by a barrage from 45 Field Regiment that broke up the assault. Now the focus turned to Len’s D Company on Hill 182. There the Chinese attacks got to within 35m of the British line before they were cut down. The attacks came in one after the other and the left flank 11 Platoon was hammered by particularly heavy attacks. Acting Company Commander Capt. Mike Harvey finally ordered 11 Platoon to fall back to a new line around the company HQ. By that time they had lost 23 out of 36 men in the platoon.
Dawn: Monday, 23 April (St. George’s Day)
A and D Companies had grimly held onto their positions on their respective hills all night but A Company could hold on no longer. Their CO Maj. Angier had been killed as had the Lieutenants in charge of 1 and 2 Platoons. All surviving officers were wounded and the company was now being commanded by the company sergeant-major.
Both companies were still in close combat with the enemy and aerial reconnaissance reported about 1000 more Chinese troops readying to join the assault with others outflanking their positions. The companies had to be withdrawn but that was easier said than done.
Colonel Carne, the Glosters’ CO, decided to pull back the companies one at a time with A Company the first to go.
While Len’s D Company poured in covering fire across the valley that separated them, the survivors of A Company retreated down their hill to rendezvous with Oxford carriers (lightly armoured, tracked troop carriers) sent forward from battalion HQ to help move them back to Hill 235 where the battalion was concentrating.
Just minutes after A Company evacuated their positions atop Hill 148 the Chinese had occupied them but these troops were obliterated by a napalm strike from American F-80 Shooting Stars called in to pound the hill.
With the remnants of A Company safely away D Company broke contact with the enemy and dashed down the rear slope of Hill 182 while every gun in 45 Field Regiment pounded the hilltop.
Whether because of exhaustion or the bombardment, the Chinese decided not to pursue the Glosters, and Len and his company reached Hill 235, soon to become famous as Gloster Hill.
C Company, not yet engaged in battle, occupied high ground directly to the front of Hill 235. B Company who would have been left isolated on their hill by the withdrawal of D Company were moved to Hill 314 a few hundred metres to the east of C Company on the same ridge line from where they had to drive away a Chinese occupying force with an old-fashioned bayonet charge. The whole battalion was now concentrated on high ground controlling route 5Y below them.
However, the Chinese had infiltrated around both flanks and now encircled the Glosters, cutting them off from all other allied forces. Carne discovered this when he sent for supplies from his rear echelon base 5 miles south to find it had been captured by the Chinese.
Knowing they were surrounded, the Glosters spent the day digging in for the attacks they knew would come after dark.
The second night: Monday, 23 April / Tuesday, 24 April
The fresh Chinese 189th Division arrived on the battlefield and began to launch attacks on B and C Companies.
The Chinese attacked in a human wave which the Glosters met with a hail of gunfire. As one wave would stall, they would fall back, re-group and come on again sustaining hundreds of casualties.
The Chinese broke through the C Company perimeter and overran 8 and 9 Platoon’s positions. Colonel Carne ordered C Company to retreat to Hill 235 which left B Company isolated and the Chinese immediately concentrated their attacks on that beleaguered unit which would continue for the rest of the night.
Dawn: Tuesday, 24 April
B Company had reached breaking point; low on ammunition and with so many wounded they were lying on the floor of company HQ.
The Chinese launched their seventh human wave attack, concentrating on 4 Platoon’s front where they outnumbered the defenders by ten to one and were able to overrun them by simple weight of numbers. B Company collapsed and was forced to retreat with every man fending for himself. Their route to the relative safety of the rest of the battalion was down the reverse slope of Hill 314, across the valley floor, crossing Route 5Y and up the steep slope of Hill 235. The other companies spotted the survivors emerging onto the valley floor and opened up a hail of covering fire on the hillside behind their fleeing comrades but just 15 men of B Company made it to the top of Hill 235. B Company was effectively destroyed as an effective fighting force.
Col. Carne consolidated his remaining force within a smaller perimeter at the top of Hill 235 where they spent the hours of daylight digging in, knowing that come the darkness would come the attacks.
The third night: Tuesday, 24 April / Wednesday, 25th April
The first attacks hit the sections of the perimeter being held by the depleted A Company and a scratch force made up of the remnants of B and C Companies. As the Chinese scrambled up the slope, Len’s D Company positioned on the ridge at an angle to their approach could pour enfilading fire into their flank as they attacked causing massive damage. The series of attacks was driven off.
The next series of attacks followed exactly the same pattern as before; massive human wave attacks supported by mortars and machine gun fire. This carried on throughout the night but each in turn was broken up by the stubborn Glosters.
Dawn: Wednesday, 25 April
Brig. Brodie, in overall command of 29th Brigade, radioed the Glosters’ command post and gave them permission to try and break out.
Col. Carne gathered his surviving officers and briefed them. They knew that because of the overwhelming numerical superiority of the enemy, trying to break out as a single unit would be easily spotted and destroyed. Instead, he ordered the men to try and make their own way back to UN lines individually and in small groups. He also ordered the wounded to be left behind. The Glosters had over 100 wounded at the Regimental Aid Post who were in no shape to break out from behind enemy lines. These men would remain and become prisoners. The medical officer, several medical orderlies and the battalion chaplain volunteered to remain behind to look after them, knowing they too would be taken prisoner.
For the unwounded the prospects were poor – all had gone for three days with barely any sleep; food and water had run out.
Meanwhile, the Chinese attacks had increased in ferocity again, falling on A Company’s sector. D Company assisted by continuing to rake the attackers’ flank with enfilading fire but the situation remained desperate until the early morning mist began to clear when the American F-80s screamed through the valley to drench the Chinese troop concentrations at the base of the hill with napalm.
With daylight and the threat of air strikes the human wave attacks ceased.
The Glosters began to evacuate the hill top.
Most men headed south but the Chinese on the hills surrounding could spot them moving along the valley floor. There were simply too many Chinese troops in the area and all the Glosters who headed directly south were captured quickly.
However, the fate of Len’s D Company was different.
Company CO Capt. Harvey decided to disregard the directive to split the men up and decided to keep his remaining 81 men together. He also decided to break out via a less predictable route – heading northwest further into enemy lines!
They scrambled down the steep scree slope below their position and formed a loose file with the best shots in the company at the front. After a few minutes five Chinese appeared in their path but the Glosters at the front of the file cut them down and the exhausted troops plodded on.
They turned south and channelled into a narrow defile through which a stream ran.
Suddenly machine guns opened up from the ridges either side of the defile they had entered. The men scrambled between rocks in the valley floor, their only cover. Some, who still had ammo returned fire into the hills but more and more started to be hit. The survivors couldn’t stop to help the wounded who had to be abandoned. They struggled on, gradually being whittled down. It began to look like none of them would escape the gorge but ahead they suddenly saw the valley widen and there, on the flatter ground, they spotted tanks – Shermans of the US 73rd Heavy Tank Battalion.
The remaining Glosters broke cover and started running towards the tanks who turned their turrets towards them and opened fire – they hadn’t expected to see friendly forces in this sector and assumed they were Chinese. A squad of Glosters were mown down while the rest dived for cover again.
Desperately, Mike Harvey waved his Gloster beret on a stick above his head and it was riddled with machine gun fire from the tanks. Miraculously, an American spotter plane circling overhead had seen the Glosters escaping from Hill 235 and now swooped down on the tanks – the pilot dropping a message attached to a streamer to inform the American tanks of the true identity of their target. Realising their terrible mistake the American tanks turned their turrets towards the ridges overlooking the gorge and pounded the enemy machine gunners whereupon the surviving Glosters made a final dash down the valley.
Running forward they crouched behind the tanks, using them as shields as they slowly withdrew out of range of the Chinese machine guns.
It must have been at this last moment that Len was wounded. He couldn’t have been hit earlier or he would have been left behind to be captured so it must have been in the final dash for the tanks that he was hit; a bullet in the leg and shrapnel in his arm.
Once out of range of the Chinese small arms fire the exhausted surviving Glosters clambered aboard the tanks… it was 12.30.
Of the 81 men of Harvey’s breakout group just 41 made it out and of those 16, including Len, were wounded. Just 9% of the battalion got out – effectively the Glosters had been annihilated. Capt. Mike Harvey was awarded the Military Cross for his leadership.
The news of the last stand and ultimate destruction of the Glosters spread around the world. Len appeared in the local newspaper back home when he was still recuperating in hospital.
For their heroic stand the Glosters were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest American award for collective gallantry in battle:
The Citation Reads
The 1st. Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, British Army and Troop C. 170th Independent Mortar Battery, Royal Artillery, attached, are cited for exceptionally outstanding performance of duty and extraordinary heroism in action against the armed enemy near Solma-ri, Korea on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th of April 1951.
The 1st. Battalion and Troop C were defending a very critical sector of the battle front during a determined attack by the enemy. The defending units were overwhelmingly outnumbered.
The 63rd Chinese Communist Army drove the full force of its savage assault at the positions held by the 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment and attached unit. The route of supply ran southeast from the Battalion between two hills.
The hills dominated the surrounding terrain northwest to Imjin River.
Enemy pressure built up on the battalion front during the day, 23 April. On 24 April, the weight of the attack had driven the right flank of the battalion back. The pressure grew heavier and heavier and the battalion and attached unit were forced into a perimeter defense on Hill 235. During the night, heavy enemy forces had by-passed the staunch defenders and closed all avenues of escape. The courageous soldiers of the battalion and attached unit were holding the critical route selected by the enemy for one column of the general offensive designed to encircle and destroy I Corps. These gallant soldiers would not retreat. As they were compressed tighter and tighter in their perimeter defense, they called for close-in air strikes to assist in holding firm. Completely surrounded by tremendous numbers, these indomitable, resolute, and tenacious soldiers fought back with unsurpassed fortitude and courage. As ammunition ran low and the advancing hordes moved closer and closer, these splendid soldiers fought back viciously to prevent the enemy from overrunning the position and moving rapidly on the south.
Their heroic stand provided the critically needed time to regroup other I Corps units and block the southern advance of the enemy. Time and again efforts were made to reach the battalion, but the enemy strength blocked each effort. Without thought of defeat or surrender, this heroic force demonstrated superb battlefield courage and discipline. Every yard of ground they surrendered was covered with enemy dead until the last gallant soldier of the fighting battalion was overpowered by the final surge of the enemy masses.
The 1st. Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment and Troop C. 170th. Independent Mortar Battery displayed such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing their mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set them apart and above other units participating in the same battle.
Their sustained brilliance in battle, their resoluteness, and extraordinary heroism are in keeping with the finest traditions of the renowned military forces of the British Commonwealth, and reflect unsurpassed credit on these courageous soldiers and their homeland.
BY COMMAND OF LIEUTENANT GENERAL VAN FLEET
Of course, the version I have presented here focuses solely on the Glosters. It would be churlish not to point out the desperate and heroic fighting undertaken by the other elements of the 29th Brigade – but theirs is another story to tell.
Similarly I have said nothing about the hundreds of Glosters taken prisoner at the Imjin who went on to spend two years as PoWs, 28 of whom died in captivity; thankfully that was a fate Len was spared.
I remember as a kid that Len rarely spoke of his time in Korea but in his later years he became much more involved with veterans’ associations and was lucky enough to make a trip to South Korea with other 29th Brigade veterans. Apparently their South Korean hosts treated them like royalty – I’ll bet Len loved it!