By Marc D. Bernstein
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.
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.
The Canadian positions on Hill 677 were more consolidated than the spread-out Australians. The three infantry battalions of the 27th Brigade were not within mutually supporting distance of each other—in fact, the individual companies within the Australian and Canadian battalions were hard-pressed to provide mutual support due to the nature of the terrain. A realistic appraisal of the situation allowed only for the occupation of strongpoints, with significant gaps remaining between units. The brigade’s fourth infantry battalion, from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers Regiment, had just arrived near the front to replace another unit and was being held in reserve. It would not participate in the coming action at Kapyong.
The Australians were in the most exposed position, and they were attacked first by units of the Chinese 118th Division on the evening of April 23. Beginning at about 9:30 pm, the Chinese launched a series of attacks within 30 minutes, the first against a platoon of Sherman tanks from A Company, U.S. 72nd Tank Battalion, that had located itself forward of B Company. Ensuing Communist attacks struck 3 RAR on the island ridge, and the forward platoon of A Company, 3 RAR, on the slopes of Hill 504 to the east; and one against 3 RAR headquarters south of Chuktun-ni.
The last attack was the most significant. Chinese were infiltrating through the open ground west of the river between the Australians and the Canadians. They also had moved between the Australian battalion’s headquarters near the river and the rifle companies on the high ground to the northeast. Lt. Col. I.B. Ferguson, commanding 3 RAR, found himself with grave communications difficulties. His telephone lines to all but one company had been cut, and his radio link to the forward units was inefficient. The supporting artillerymen came under small-arms fire and began to move their batteries southward, taking up new positions behind the Middlesex Battalion. This dislocation severely affected the availability of fire support during the night. Moreover, an American heavy mortar company that had been positioned near the artillery subsequently abandoned its equipment and 35 vehicles and retreated on foot all the way to Chunchon, 10 miles to the east. Well before midnight, the Chinese had succeeded in cutting off the Australians from the rest of 27th Brigade.
Another attack against the platoon of American tanks in front of B Company mortally wounded the platoon leader and caused the tanks to withdraw down the valley. B Company, on the island ridge, was assaulted by a large number of Chinese shortly before midnight. After two hours of intense action, the enemy withdrew with heavy casualties. The Australians suffered no casualties in the attack, but O’Dowd’s A Company was subjected to continued assaults throughout the night. He recalled: “The initial contacts in A Company came as a series of enemy probing patrols, bumping into our forward weapon pits at various points, searching for soft spots. Then the fight for our ridge line started in earnest with the Chinese blowing bugles and whistles. They used these sounds as signals to assemble their men. When the bugles and whistles stopped we knew that they were on their way. Some of the soldiers did not carry weapons—just bucketfuls of grenades. Our next indication of an assault was the showers of grenades that started exploding all around us. The Chinese grenadiers had the job of keeping my diggers’ heads down so the riflemen and machine gunners could rush in and get amongst us.”
Unlike B Company, A Company on the forward slopes of Hill 504 was absorbing heavy casualties in repeated Chinese attacks that caused the pullback of one platoon. Meanwhile, the battalion headquarters area near the river was in danger of being overrun; Ferguson issued orders for a withdrawal at first light. But some time after 2 am, the enemy broke contact and fell back to regroup. At about 4 am, Ferguson requested that a company from the Middlesex Battalion be sent forward to assist his threatened headquarters defenders. The Middlesexers subsequently cleared the high ground near 3 RAR headquarters, but were forced to withdraw after taking heavy fire from the higher ground to the west. Ferguson ordered B Company to withdraw from its position on the island ridge to the rear of Hill 504 with the coming of dawn. This proved to be a highly controversial decision—B Company had withstood the enemy onslaught from its isolated vantage point and remained in good condition. Many blamed General Burke for the order.
At dawn, Chinese mortars and artillery began pounding B Company as it prepared to move across the arm of the valley to Hill 504. Mortar rounds also started falling on A Company. The latter had suffered more than 50 casualties during the night. Nevertheless, A Company counterattacked the Chinese, who had occupied ground earlier abandoned by the Australians. Sergeant George Harris of A Company recalled: “Myself and a few others around Company Headquarters jumped up with the 3 Platoon blokes and we charged down at the Chinese. The Chinese just all of a sudden turned and ran away. They didn’t feel like fighting us any more. We were getting them in the back as they were running away.”
With daylight, the enemy was caught in the open, and the Australians cut them down as they scurried for cover. O’Dowd noted that “the situation rather resembled sitting in the middle of a wheatfield at dawn potting rabbits as they dashed hither and thither.” The Chinese in the valley near the road between the island ridge and Hill 504 were particularly exposed, and as the Australians poured fire into them, most of the enemy withdrew toward the north. Further attacks against B Company’s position had failed, and before leaving the island ridge, the company counted 173 dead Chinese. But groups of enemy troops were still holed up in the paddy fields and other spots on the valley floor.
As B Company came off the ridge and headed toward Hill 504, it captured about 40 Chinese. The prisoners proved well behaved—many Communists did not—and remained with their captors the rest of the day, even as B Company kept moving. First Lieutenant Kenneth W. Koch, commanding A Company, U.S. 72nd Tank Battalion, decided to withdraw his tanks that had continued to support B Company during the night for replenishment of fuel and ammunition. He claimed that his men had killed more than 500 Chinese, and that the enemy was not likely to advance back down the valley floor for a while. In fact, the Chinese had decided to change their axis of attack and hit D Company, 3 RAR, on the summit of Hill 504. At 7 am, the enemy struck 12th Platoon in a strong attack. The Australians threw back the attackers with the aid of all available artillery fire. Still the Chinese came on, mounting five more assaults before 10:30 am on April 24. After a brief lull, the enemy attacked D Company for another two hours until their efforts were exhausted. The Australians continued to hold their ground.
While D Company was engaged on the hilltop, a command decision was taken ordering B Company back to the island ridge. It is unclear whether this order originated with Burke or with Ferguson. In any case, the company began to return across the valley from the slopes of Hill 504 at 9:30 am. The U.S. 5th Cavalry Regiment had been ordered forward to assist the 27th Brigade in defending the Kapyong Valley. It was thought that the Australians could retake their old position, which was believed to be held only thinly by the enemy.
A reoccupation of the island ridge was welcome news to O’Dowd and his battered A Company, whose left flank had become dangerously exposed after B Company’s initial withdrawal. But B Company never made it back to the ridge; instead, it became engaged in a fight for a small knoll on the valley floor known as the Honeycomb. This knoll contained bunkers and was protected by a series of trenches. The men in B Company believed that only a small group of Chinese was positioned in and around the Honeycomb, but in fact there were more than 80 enemy troops within its defenses. An initial assault by the Australians was defeated, but a second assault in platoon strength carried the position.
Captain Darcy Laughlin, commander of B Company, described the action: “The platoon moved into attack from the right flank. When approximately 25 yards from the enemy position, a bayonet charge was ordered and the leading section led by Corporal Davie took the first enemy-held trench at bayonet point. Lieutenant Montgomerie quickly reorganized his platoon and, in fierce hand-to-hand combat, gradually proceeded to clear the defensive position—trench by trench. The might and the aggressiveness of the attack upset the enemy and some openly fled; the majority remained and fought to the death.”
It was past noon before the Honeycomb was cleared. The sheer volume of enemy fire from the ridge during B Company’s attack indicated that the Chinese held the position in strength. Ferguson, who had come forward in an American tank to assess the general situation, ordered an evacuation of wounded from A and B Companies. The colonel reassessed the wisdom of retaking the ridge, and received instructions from Burke indicating that his companies should withdraw because the 5th Cavalry had been delayed in arriving and the Australians would be very hard-pressed to withstand another night of Communist attacks in their exposed positions. American tank platoon leader 1st Lieutenant Wilfred D. Miller later wrote of Ferguson’s demeanor at the time: “He demonstrated great concern for his wounded and his encircled men and had no apparent regard for his own personal safety. He exposed himself to enemy fire by getting out of the tank, speaking to the wounded, and walking among his troops as if it was just a practice drill back in Australia.”
Ferguson’s arrival with American tanks at the forward Australian positions was accompanied by a much-needed resupply of ammunition, although this proved to be only Vickers medium machine-gun ammo that had to be stripped from belts before it could be loaded into rifle and Bren gun magazines. No medical supplies, food, or water had been brought forward with the tanks. Ferguson subsequently ordered a withdrawal along a ridge running southwest from Hill 504. After that, the companies crossed the Kapyong River at a ford near the Middlesex position. Ferguson made O’Dowd, the senior company commander, responsible for organizing the method of withdrawing.
O’Dowd faced several problems. The enemy now in place on the island ridge could observe any pullout from the forward positions on Hill 504. The Chinese engaged with D Company in the ongoing battle for the summit of the hill would follow up on any withdrawal, and other enemy troops might have already established a block along the withdrawal route. O’Dowd addressed these problems by initiating a phased withdrawal that involved the four companies leapfrogging from their forward positions back down the two-mile-long ridgeline. Heavy concentrations of artillery fire, including smoke bombs, were to be used to shield the infantry as they moved off Hill 504 toward the river. By 2:30 pm, O’Dowd had informed all the company commanders of the plan, and execution was to begin at 4 pm on April 24. B Company was to move first, carrying the remaining wounded, and it was charged with clearing the route down the ridgeline and securing the river crossing site. D Company was to move last.
Forty minutes before the withdrawal began, a friendly-fire incident occurred. Sergeant Ray McKenzie of D Company later remembered: “As I was leaving to return to my original position near the MMGs, I saw a U.S. Marine Corsair line up and start a run in on our position. I was angry about this because our marker panels were clearly visible. I saw the big silver bomb leave the plane and watched it fall in the D Company area, on 10 Platoon, where I had been two minutes before. The napalm exploded and took all the oxygen out of the air. I felt like I was just breathing heat.”
The napalm strike resulted in eight seriously burned men needing evacuation on stretchers. The Chinese observed the incident and immediately launched another attack on D Company, which successfully fought off the Communists. As the withdrawal commenced, the enemy pressed each company hard in turn, despite suffering heavy casualties due to the continuous shelling. O’Dowd kept constantly on the move looking for suitable positions for each company to occupy along the route of withdrawal. At one point he received a shock. “All of a sudden I found myself in the middle of a bunch of Chinese soldiers which frightened the hell out of me until I realized that they were our prisoners,” he remembered. “What really worried me was that they were carrying arms. I got hold of one of the escorts and said, ‘What the hell do you mean allowing these prisoners to carry arms.’ He said, ‘You do not expect the bloody wounded to carry them do you?’ By the time I had digested this piece of logic they had disappeared into the dark. He knew what he was doing and I had to get on with my job.”
In the meantime, B Company had discovered that the route to the ford was not blocked by the enemy—a rare stroke of good fortune. The execution of the plan was flawless. No casualties were incurred by the Australians, despite having to move at night and under constant Chinese pressure. Although not the last unit to pull out, A Company found itself the last to establish a temporary blocking position, and it needed to move quickly to avoid getting shot up while crossing the river. The artillery was crucial to the success of the withdrawal. O’Dowd wrote that “the fire put down on the Battalion’s left flank, in all likelihood prevented the enemy from establishing a blocking position and preventing the withdrawal of the rifle companies.” Lieutenant Koch’s American tankers added their firepower to the effort. Total Australian casualties for the battle at Kapyong came to 31 killed, 58 wounded, and three missing.
After the Australians successfully withdrew to the Middlesex position, the Chinese turned their attention to the Canadians on Hill 677. The Princess Pats were deployed to cover the northern approaches to the hill mass. Initially, A Company was on the right, C Company was in the middle, D Company was on the left, and B Company was in a salient immediately north of D Company. Battalion headquarters was located on a rear slope overlooking the village of Tungmudae. On the morning of April 24, infiltrating enemy troops had been detected in the rear of headquarters, and Lt. Col. J.R. Stone, the battalion commander, ordered B Company to take up new positions on a hill just east of headquarters. This provided good observation of the Kapyong Valley.
About 10 pm on the 24th, the Chinese opened an attack on B Company with mortars and machine guns. This was followed by an infantry assault by 200 enemy troops against the forward platoon, which the Canadians at first defeated. A renewed attack resulted in a partial overrunning of the platoon’s position, and it withdrew into the main company perimeter. At the same time, another 100 enemy troops attacked toward the battalion headquarters. A Canadian officer recorded: “The probe against battalion headquarters was a well organized and well executed attack in strength which I estimated at that time to be between one and two companies and which B Company was powerless to stop as it came in through our back door. It was a heartening sight to see the battalion 81mm mortars firing at their shortest range (200 yards) together with their .50-caliber machine-guns which literally blew the Chinese back down the ravine.”
More enemy troops attempted a crossing of the Kapyong River to the east and were pulverized by artillery. They fled from the area, leaving behind 71 dead on the river banks. Then the Communists launched a heavy attack against D Company’s position on the northwest face of Hill 677. The Canadians were hit by large numbers of enemy infiltrating from two directions. Enough Chinese reached the heights to force the company commander, Captain J.G.W. Mills, to call down artillery fire on his own position. The shells scoured everything above ground level, driving off the Chinese. Soon they returned, and more Allied artillery fire followed. In all, some 2,300 rounds hammered D Company’s position. Finally, with daylight approaching on April 25, the Chinese pressure relented. Mills subsequently received the Military Cross for his valiant action.
After an eventful night, the day of April 25 was relatively quiet. The Canadians were still subjected to heavy fire, but there were no more infantry assaults. The Chinese had managed to move behind the Canadians, however, and cut them off from the rest of the brigade. Stone requested an air drop of ammunition and rations, and at 10:30 am, four C-119 Flying Boxcars from a base in Japan delivered the supplies. By 2 pm, patrols reported that the road to the south was clear, and Stone requested further resupply by vehicle.
In the heavy fighting for Hill 677, Canadian casualties were 10 dead and 23 wounded. The Chinese absorbed many times that number in their futile attacks. Although the Canadians—and the Australians as well—had found it difficult to dig in to the rugged terrain in establishing their defensive positions, the combination of high ground and voluminous artillery support proved decisive. Enemy tactics were found wanting. One Commonwealth participant noted: “The Chinese telegraphed the direction and timing of their attacks by using MMG tracer ammunition for direction, sounding bugles as signals to form up on their start line and for their assault. This gave company and platoon commanders time to bring down accurate artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire on them. Before attacking in strength the Chinese did not accurately locate our defensive positions by patrolling nor did they give accurate artillery and mortar supporting fire to their troops. Their consistent attacks en masse on obvious approaches in an attempt to overwhelm our positions by sheer weight of numbers presented ideal targets for our artillery, mortars and machine-guns.”
The Canadians, like the Australians, were ordered to withdraw after higher authority determined that the 27th Brigade should move to the southwest in conjunction with the establishment of a new U.N. defensive line north of Seoul. The U.S. 5th Cavalry launched a counterattack in the Kapyong Valley on April 26, but after the American assault failed, the area was temporarily abandoned by Eighth Army forces.
The 27th British Commonwealth Brigade had done its job at Kapyong by interrupting the Chinese push southward and allowing the ROK 6th Division and the U.S. 24th Infantry Division to effect a successful withdrawal to the new defensive line. The enemy was soon running short of both time and supplies. As the Canadian official history observed: “There is no doubt that the stand at Kapyong stopped the Chinese advance in this sector of the front; for the rest of the offensive the enemy sought elsewhere for tactical gains.” The 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment; 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry; and A Company, U.S. 72nd Tank Battalion, each received a U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for their performance at Kapyong. The New Zealand 16th Field Artillery Regiment received a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation. American Lieutenants Koch and Miller received Distinguished Service Crosses, and both Ferguson and Stone were awarded Distinguished Service Orders.
In all, it is estimated that about 6,000 Chinese attacked the defenders at Kapyong. Although heavily outnumbered, the 27th Brigade and other allied units fought back with tenacity and bravery. The largest enemy offensive of the Korean War was blunted at a critical point, and the Communists never recovered from the setback in the Kapyong River Valley in April 1951.