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British Battles

British Battles

Korea, 1951

The Korean War

In June 1950, just five years after the end of the Second World War, war erupted in Korea. United Nations forces, led by the USA, intervened on the side of South Korea, while the (then) USSR and (later) China supported North Korea. Although British forces only made up a small proportion of the troops involved in this conflict, they were involved in heavy fighting. This gallery focuses on the Battle of Imjin River in April 1951.

North and south

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Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, and its inhabitants responded by demanding independence. With Japan's defeat in the Second World War, Korea had been divided into two separate zones of occupation, the north controlled by the USSR and the south by the USA.

The United Nations (UN) attempted to hold elections in Korea in 1948, but the USSR instead established a Communist republic in the north known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Its leader was Kim Il-Sung. In the south, the American zone became the Republic of Korea (ROK) under Rhee Syngman. The dividing line between the two new countries followed the 38th parallel.

At 04:00 on 25 June 1950, North Korea, supported by the USSR, launched an invasion of the south. In response, the UN sent a mainly American force to help South Korea. The USA's president Truman regarded this attack as a challenge to American interests in the Far East; Britain, by contrast, had no direct interest in Korea but became involved through its alliance with the USA.

The opposing forces

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The Korean conflict would involve huge numbers of troops on both sides. Figures for North Korean and, later, Chinese forces vary, but in November 1950 it is estimated that some 150,000 North Korean and around 200,000 Chinese forces had been fielded. (By July 1953, combined Chinese and North Korean forces would be estimated at 1,200,000.)

The UN contingent included troops, not only from the USA and Britain, but also from Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Colombia, Turkey, the Philippines, France and many others. The USA made the largest contribution of troops and equipment; Britain the second. By Spring 1951, Britain's contribution to the UN forces was 12,000 strong. In 1950, ROK forces numbered between 80,000 and 100,000, increasing, according to some estimates, to 240,000 by Spring 1951. (UN and ROK forces combined would number 932,000 by July 1953.)

Across the 38th parallel

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During the summer of 1950, North Korean forces almost pushed the UN forces off the Korean peninsula. In September, however, the USA launched a successful counter-attack and, on 1 October, the North Koreans were pushed back over the 38th parallel. UN and ROK forces then advanced into North Korean territory in an attempt to reunite the two countries. Mao Tse Tung, the Chinese leader, fearing that UN and ROK forces would enter Chinese territory, launched a massive and successful attack in support of North Korea.

In January 1951, the Chinese pushed the UN and ROK forces back 60 miles south of the 38th parallel; however, during February and March, the Chinese and North Koreans were themselves forced back. The front line was now 45 km north of Seoul along the southern bank of the Imjin River. This defensive line became known as 'Kansas' and ran roughly along the 38th parallel.

The build-up to Imjin RiverGo to next topic