Over the years, it has often been viewed as a purely US conflict, fought thousands of miles away in a virtually unknown land – the name of which at its outset, 61 years ago, many in Britain said they'd never even heard.
But whether through ignorance, insufficient media coverage or post-World War II conflict fatigue, such assertions mask the truly multi-striped nature of the Korean War (1950-53), which pitted the US-backed South against the Chinese-supported North in what was essentially an international war of ideology and geopolitics fought under the United Nations flag.
And, outside the US commitment, no country committed more troops than the United Kingdom, whose armed forces contributed to some of the war's bloodiest and strategically key battles. A new book on some of the most brutal warfare involving British soldiers promises to shed some light on the UN counter invasion of North Korea in the second half of 1950, and some of the war’s murkiest episodes.
Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950, by the British journalist and historian Andrew Salmon, chronicles the efforts of the 27th Commonwealth Brigade and 41 Commando, Royal Marines — the former including the first British troops to set foot on the Korean Peninsula.
‘British soldiers went into action at a week’s notice. Undermanned and underequipped, they lacked armour, artillery, transport and winter clothing. Yet in a barren, alien land, they undertook some of the war’s most critical missions: 27th Brigade won a South Korean Presidential Unit Citation; 41 Commando a US Presidential Unit Citation,’ a promotional release from the book's publisher states. ‘But beyond the glory, this would be one of the most apocalyptic wars of mankind’s bloodiest century.’
The first part of the book's title refers to the UN policy of laying waste North Korean villages, crops, and communications; the second to napalm strikes that turned white snow black.
‘1950 marked the only invasion the free world ever mounted against a communist state during the Cold War, when the United Nations counter-invaded North Korea. Veterans were in the eye of the storm at a pivotal moment in the 20th century: The moment China became a superpower as Mao unleashed his legions against the UN. That intervention resulted in the greatest reversal of fortune in modern military history,’ the release notes.
Indeed, it was a cause that took a heavy toll on British forces: More British lives were claimed in Korea than in Iraq, the Falklands and Afghanistan combined.
In an interview outlining some of the most intriguing material in the book, Salmon says he details evidence that the British government sought – unsuccessfully – to cover up one of the war's more infamous incidents: when Argylls, positioned on an elevation known as Hill 282, were strafed and napalmed by ‘friendly fire’ from US aircraft. Additionally, he says, the book sheds light on London's successful ‘whitewash’ of the dying words of the Argylls’ second-in-command, Maj. Kenneth Muir. The Englishman was awarded Britain's highest military award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross, for leading a charge against North Korean troops in the aftermath of the Hill 282 incident, an action which ultimately led to his death. ‘His citation did not report the full monty to avoid embarrassing the Americans,’ Salmon says.
The title of the book also addresses the man Salmon describes as Britain's most controversial figure in the war, the Scottish commando Andrew Condron, who defected to China at the war’s close.
The book is the latest of two volumes Salmon has written about the British involvement in the Korean affair. The first, To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951, records the role played by the Gloucestershire English regiment, which lost an entire battalion holding off Chinese soldiers at one of the Korean War's most pivotal moments.
Perhaps more than anyone in recent times, Salmon has been a tireless, almost breathless champion for the near forgotten men who fought – and gave their lives – for a cause they knew little about, but which had a profound impact on the shape of the world as it left the bloodshed of the 20th century behind.