Dr Steven Paget of Portsmouth Business School reflects on the UK’s contribution to the Korean War
Tuesday 15 September marked the 70th anniversary of an audacious amphibious landing that helped turn the tide of the Korean War (1950-1953).
Korea has been labelled a ‘forgotten' war and while the Inchon landings – known as Operation Chromite – achieved fame, the Royal Navy’s contribution often gets overlooked. The Royal Navy played an important supporting role in the face of significant risks during General Douglas MacArthur’s masterstroke at Inchon, a port in South Korea’s northwest. Although not likely to ever receive the recognition of famous battles such as Gravelines, Trafalgar or Jutland, the proud traditions of the Royal Navy were maintained at Inchon. With the ‘special relationship’ under scrutiny, the operation also serves as a reminder of the UK’s enduring close military relationship with the United States.
The Korean War
The Korean War had been raging since the North’s invasion of the South on 25 June 1950. The rapid progress of North Korean forces saw the fall of Seoul, the South Korean capital, and United Nations (UN) forces being pushed back to the ‘Pusan Perimeter’. The situation seemed dire, but in conjunction with the resilience of UN forces at the Pusan Perimeter, Operation Chromite initiated the ‘second phase’ of the war, leading to North Korean forces being driven back above the 38th Parallel. Before the four-day battle involving 75,000 troops and 261 naval vessels on the UN side, which led to the recapture of Seoul, General Douglas MacArthur asserted: ‘The history of war proves that nine out of ten times an army has been destroyed because its supply lines have been cut off… We shall land at Inch’on, and I shall crush them [the North Koreans].’ The process of getting ashore required an invaluable contribution from the UN naval force.
The Royal Navy provided Britain’s first military response to the Korean War. Royal Navy ships under the command of Rear Admiral William Andrewes, a veteran of two World Wars including the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, were placed at the disposal of Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, Commander, US Naval Forces, Far East (COMNAVFE) in late June 1950 and were soon conducting operations.
The United States Navy was predominant when it came to operations at sea, but they operated alongside a range of navies from the UN coalition, including those from the Commonwealth and less traditional partners such as Colombia and Thailand. Anglo-American naval relations, in particular, were generally close throughout the Korean War, as demonstrated by the Inchon landings.
Planning the operation
British input into planning for a potential amphibious operation began at an early stage, with the UK Naval Adviser in Japan providing advice on British and Commonwealth capabilities. Rear Admiral Andrewes was also involved in the planning process during August and September as he was to command the Blockade and Covering Force (Task Force 91). British involvement in planning was important given the intended Royal Navy contribution. In addition to Task Force 91, Commonwealth naval forces were to contribute to the Screening and Protective Group, Task Group 90.7 (part of Task Force 90), and Task Group 90.6, the Gunfire Support/Advance Group.
United States Navy and Commonwealth ships shelled Inchon in August and September in order to normalise the bombardments and conceal the significance of the subsequent pre-invasion preparation operations. For example, HM Ships Belfast, Charity, Cossack and Kenya bombarded Inchon on 5 August 1950. In addition, HMS Triumph provided spotting aircraft to support bombardments in the Inchon area prior to the landing and British personnel flew in American aircraft to support the observation activities.
British forces were also involved in supporting diversionary operations in the run up to Operation Chromite, including HMS Whitesand Bay landing a combined Royal Marines, United States Marine Corps and naval force at a beach in the vicinity of Kunsan. Nine Americans were missing following a firefight during the raid and, despite the approach of daybreak and the resultant threat to the ship, her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander J.V. Brothers, refused to leave until the men had been accounted for. Seven eventually returned, with one having been killed and another remaining ashore wounded. It has been observed that it was only the ‘cool courage’ of Lieutenant Commander Brothers that prevented the remaining seven Americans from being killed or captured.
Supporting the landings
Two days of preparatory naval bombardments and air strikes were specifically conducted prior to the landings. When six destroyers were tasked to draw fire from the North Korean artillery pieces on Wolmi-do on 13 September so that they could be identified and destroyed, HM Ships Jamaica and Kenya were part of a four cruiser force, alongside United States Ships Rochester and Toledo, that were responsible for delivering long-range bombardments to prepare the area for the amphibious operation. Air strikes were also conducted by carrier-borne aircraft. The same force returned on the following day to continue the preparation. Triumph also provided air cover during this period.
Following air attacks on 15 September, the Naval Gunfire Support Group bombarded a range of pre-planned targets, with observation being provided for Jamaica and Kenya by three pairs of British Firefly aircraft. The cruisers targeted Wolmi-do, before adjusting their focus on to Inchon as the landing force approached the beaches. Wolmi-do was subsequently captured.
The success was quickly followed by disappointment for Kenya’s crew and her commanding officer, Captain Patrick Brock, who was later awarded the Bronze Star by the Americans for distinguished service in Korean Waters, as the ship was ordered to depart prior to the main landings at Inchon to ensure there was sufficient space for the amphibious ships. Jamaica continued to support the main landings, with fire being increased to weaken defences and restrict the reinforcement of Inchon. The role was a dangerous one and Jamaica and Rochester were attacked by two Yak aircraft on 17 September. A bomb bounced off Rochester, but did not explode. Jamaica managed to shoot down one aircraft, but was strafed and one sailor was tragically killed.
Jamaica continued to provide support until 19 September and was once again joined by Kenya on 17 September, with the ships providing bombardments to break enemy resistance ashore. Collectively, the ships fired 2,532 6” and 598 4” rounds in support of the Inchon landings. Operation Chromite was subsequently described in the House of Commons as ‘an audacious amphibious operation, executed most brilliantly’. General MacArthur himself heralded ‘the clockwork coordination and cooperation between the services involved’. The Royal Navy could be proud of its contribution to Operation Chromite and the role it played in supporting the success of the invasion. While Chromite was a predominately American endeavour, British involvement was noteworthy, not least as a demonstration of the close military relationship between the two countries.
Dr Steven Paget is a Reader in the Portsmouth Business School at the University of Portsmouth.
Image credit to the US National Archives: Inchon Invasion, September 1950; Korean Conflict 1950-1954; 80-G-423215; National Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC