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Background to NZ's Involvement in the Korean War

Background to New Zealand’s Involvement in the Korean War

At the end of World War ll the former Japanese colony of Korea was divided into two occupied zones along the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union controlled the North, and the United States the South. Both sides wanted the country reunified under their respective influence.

After years of tension between the North and South, North Korea attacked the South on the morning of 25 June 1950. The superior North Korean army completely overwhelmed the South’s forces, and within hours were deep inside South Korea. With South Korea completely unable to halt the advance of the North Korean troops and armour, the South Korean President, Syngman Rhee, turned to the United States for military assistance. The United States acted quickly and within 24 hours United States President Harry Truman had authorised involvement by United States forces.

The United Nations Security Council also acted quickly to the North Korean invasion and condemned the invasion, the Soviet Union’s absence preventing it from vetoing the measure. Two days later the Security Council, again with the Soviet Union absent, called on member nations to support South Korea. It later conferred operational leadership of the UN’s response on the United States. Sixteen nations, including New Zealand, answered the Security Council’s request for combat forces, and five others provided non-combatant assistance.

On 29 June 1950, four days after the war broke out, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Sidney Holland, committed two naval frigates to the UN war effort. A few days later the HMNZS Tutira and Pukaki departed Auckland bound for Korea. These ships were to be the first in what was to become a major commitment for the small New Zealand navy. Over the next four years all of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s (RNZN) six frigates and over 1,300 personnel would take turns supporting the UN in Korean waters.

New Zealand also agreed to provide an artillery unit, the 16th Field Regiment RNZA, and supporting elements. On 27 July 1950 volunteers for the new force, known as Kayforce, were called for. In ten days 6,000 men had applied to serve with Kayforce, six times the number needed. Many of them were seeking overseas adventure, or to follow in the footsteps of relatives who had served in previous wars. Others were veterans of World War ll.

The North Koreans continued their rapid advance and within three days of the invasion the South’s capital, Seoul, had been captured. The United Nations forces were unable to halt the North Korean advance and by August 1950 were fighting a desperate defensive battle for survival in the southern part of the country around the port of Pusan.

The North Korean advance had become over extended. The long supply distances had caused a chronic shortage of fuel and supplies for its tank and motor convoys. These critical shortages delayed the North Korean advance and allowed more UN reinforcements and supplies to arrive. This enabled the UN to halt the North Koreans. With the North Koreans unable to advance and the UN forces unable to break through it appeared a bitter stalemate would set in.

To break the deadlock the UN Commander, General Douglas McArthur planned an ambitious and risky counterattack, a marine amphibious landing well behind North Korean lines at Inchon, near the capital Seoul. The New Zealand frigates Pukaki and Tutira were involved in the invasion fleet. They escorted the convoy and then guarded the approaches to the invasion beach against enemy air and sea attacks.

The surprise landing was a success. UN troops captured Inchon on the first day and then began advancing towards Seoul. Less than two weeks later the capital was liberated and the UN forces began an offensive that would take them past the pre-war boundary of the 38th parallel and deep into North Korea. In six weeks virtually all of North Korea was under UN control.

Across the border from North Korea, China was alarmed by the UN’s rapid advance. It could not allow its communist neighbour to collapse and feared that the conflict would spread to its own borders. The Chinese secretly massed an army of 100,000 along its border with North Korea.

The Chinese deployment of these troops in Korea in late October 1950 took the UN forces by surprise. Outnumbered, they were soon forced into a desperate retreat. In early January 1951 Chinese forces took Seoul, the third time the city had changed hands during the war. After again being pushed back deep into South Korea, the UN forces finally checked the Chinese advance.

After several months of intensive artillery training in Waiouru 1056 members of Kayforce embarked on board the SS Ormonde and left from Wellington on 10 December 1950. Arriving at Pusan on New Years Eve 1950 the New Zealanders of Kayforce found the UN Forces defending desperately against the advancing Chinese. After hasty preparations, the force travelled, in a long convoy some 200 miles over narrow, twisting mountain roads that were not designed for heavy vehicles. Four weeks later Kayforce was committed to action for the first time in support of the 27th Commonwealth Infantry Brigade near Naegon-ni. Adding to the dangers faced by Kayforce was the bitter cold of the Korean winter. With temperatures dropping to below minus 30 degrees Celsius the New Zealanders quickly found that their equipment and clothing was completely unsuited to the sever conditions. Many men suffered from frostbite. Problems also arose when Kayforce’s vehicles proved unable to deal with the freezing conditions.

For the New Zealanders, the Battle of Kap‘yong would be its most critical action of the war. On April 22 1951, as UN Forces began to push the Chinese armies back, the Chinese launched a massive counter attack to halt the UN advance and to turn the tide of the war. A Chinese force numbering 270,000 advanced towards Seoul, while another powerful Chinese force launched an attack in the direction of the Kap’yong Valley.

The Chinese objective was to destroy the UN forces to the South, including the British 27th Commonwealth Brigade. At 3am on 22 April 1951 the New Zealand gunners were awoken and ordered to pull back immediately. The Chinese had broken through a South Korean division at the front and were now heading towards the New Zealand positions. The New Zealanders pulled back down the valley to the 27th Commonwealth Brigade. The New Zealand Artillery and the United States 213 AFA Battalion gave artillery support to the 27th Brigades British, Canadian and Australian infantry battalions. The Chinese attack on 27th Brigade began at around midnight with an attack on the Commonwealth positions. The New Zealanders kept up the artillery barrage for four days and nights without pause. Although the Chinese made repeated attempts to break the UN lines, the combination of accurate artillery and small arms fire was able to repel the Chinese attacks.

The successful halting of the Chinese advance at Kap‘yong marked the 27th Brigade’s finest achievement of the war. The New Zealanders’ continuous and accurate artillery fire was a major factor in the success. Their efforts along with their comrades in the British, Canadian and Australian infantry battalions had brought an entire Chinese division to a standstill. The New Zealanders’ conduct and professionalism during the battle earned them a Presidential Unit Citation from the South Korean President Syngman Rhee.

In July 1951 the 28th and 29th Commonwealth Brigades and the 25th Canadian Brigade combined to form the 1st Commonwealth Division. As well as artillery, New Zealand also contributed a substantial proportion of the division’s signallers and a transport company. These extra commitments led to the expansion of New Zealand’s commitment to Kayforce by about 300 bringing it to strength of 1500 personnel.

Costly battles such as that fought at Kap’yong helped convince both sides that neither side could win without suffering heavy casualties. Peace talks began, and as they dragged on, the war turned into a stalemate with neither side willing to risk unnecessary casualties in a war that would now be decided at the peace table, rather than at the frontline.

Throughout the war, the New Zealand naval vessels continued to operate in a variety of roles in the waters off Korea. Initially they were used to escort the convoys carrying vital war supplies to the UN forces. As the UN gained complete control of the sea-lanes, the New Zealand ships were released from convoy escort for more hazardous duties such as conducting shore raids behind enemy lines and engaging shore targets such as trains and bridges. Later on in the war the New Zealand ships sailed deep inside North Korea’s river systems so as to engage targets up to 16 miles inshore.

At 10pm on July 27th 1953 an armistice was signed which brought the war to an end. Both sides withdrew to opposite sides of the 38th Parallel. The New Zealand guns eventually fell silent after having fired some 750,000 artillery rounds during the war, the highest of any UN artillery regiment. In the tradition of New Zealand involvement in previous wars, Kayforce acquitted itself extremely well and earned the respect of the both the Commonwealth and United States forces they served along side.

During the war over 4,700 New Zealanders served with the UN as part of Kayforce, and a further 1,300 served on board RNZN vessels. A total of 33 New Zealanders lost their lives during the war in Korea and 81 were wounded. The New Zealand casualties were relatively light in the context of the war. Korea was one of the bloodiest wars of all time. Nearly four million Koreans and Chinese died; over half of them were Korean civilians. UN losses amounted to more than 37,000, mostly United States service personnel.

The Korean War can be said to have ended in a bitter draw, given neither side had lost or clearly won the war. Although the UN had certainly not won a decisive victory, it had achieved the initial objective of preserving the freedom of South Korea. For the last fifty years a stable, but uneasy peace, has existed between North and South Korea.

Reading List

Boag, Stuart (ed.) (2000). Ice and fire: New Zealand and the Korean War, 1950-1953. Wellington: Agenda.

Breen, B. (1992). The Battle of Kap’Yong: 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment Korea 23 – 24 April 1951. Ventura Publishing: Victoria.

Carew, Tim, (1967) Korea: the Commonwealth at War. London: Cassell.

Evans, B. (2001). Out in the Cold: Australia’s involvement in the Korean War 1950 – 53. Department of Veterans’ Affairs: Canberra.

Gallaway, Jack (1994). The last call of the bugle: the long road to Kapyong. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Grey, Jeffrey (1988). The Commonwealth armies and the Korean war: an alliance study. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hickey, M. (1999). The Korean War: The West Confronts Communism 1950 – 1953. John Murry: London.

Hopkins, G.F. Commodore (2002). Tales from Korea : the Royal New Zealand Navy in the Korean War. Royal New Zealand Navy Museum. – Auckland: Reed.

Marshall, S. (1963). The Military History of the Korean War. Franklin Watts.

McGibbon, Ian (1992). New Zealand and the Korean War: Volume I Politics and Diplomacy. Auckland; Wellington: Oxford University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Dept of Internal Affairs.

McGibbon, Ian (1996). New Zealand and the Korean War: Volume II Combat Operations. Auckland: Oxford University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Dept of Internal Affairs.

McGibbon, Ian (ed.) (2000). The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Auckland: Oxford University Press.
Some Useful Internet Sites - Korean War History - America’s Official Korean War 50th Anniversary site. - Korean War Education site - Details of the NZ Military Units in Korea. - Korean War Fact book - NZ Artillery Operations in Korea

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