This article was first published in the September 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
At dawn on 3 July 1950, Seafire and Firefly aircraft took off from HMS Triumph to attack the North Korean airfield at Haeju. Thus, with the first carrier air strike of the conflict, Britain entered the Korean War. Today, some 60 summers later, no formal peace treaty has been signed. In fact, as the recent eruption of tensions over North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean vessel (the Cheonan) demonstrates, the peninsula remains very much divided.
At the end of the Second World War, Korea was split at the 38th Parallel, with the Japanese occupying forces replaced by troops from the USSR in the north and the USA in the south. However, as the Cold War’s icy chill began to spread east from Europe, Kim Il-Sung’s communist government in North Korea (in power since 1945) decided to take over the whole peninsula. When subversion failed, it began to plan for war.
Josef Stalin saw the offensive as a low-risk action offering rich awards – namely, dealing the west a bloody nose – and so decided to back North Korea’s war plan, supplying it with the tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery it would need to defeat the ill-equipped South. Stalin took his confidence from the American decision to withdraw troops from South Korea between 1948 and 1949 – a move that appeared to reveal a lack of interest. The Soviets were further emboldened by the successful test of their first atomic weapon and the victory of the communists in the Chinese civil war, both in 1949.
The United States had, however become ever more alarmed at what seemed to be an increasingly aggressive Soviet policy in Europe – and the ‘fall’ of China only made the international situation more disturbing. Though US policymakers initially believed the Soviet challenge could be met primarily through diplomatic and economic support to key allies, they were soon concluding that the only way to contain Soviet power was by flexing their military muscles. On 25 June 1950, when North Korea launched a massive invasion of its southern neighbour, these fears seemed to be confirmed. If South Korea were allowed to fall, the policymakers reasoned, how would any other country trust the US?
Washington looked to the recently established United Nations to lead the response. Here the United States was aided by a Soviet boycott of the UN Security Council (because of its refusal to include the People’s Republic of China), which removed the potential obstacle of a USSR veto. A series of Security Council resolutions was passed condemning the invasion, calling on members to provide military assistance to South Korea and establishing the United Nations Command to fight the war, with the US in the lead. American naval and air forces under General Douglas MacArthur (the US supreme commander in the Far East), were soon on the scene – swiftly followed by ground forces.
But what of Britain? Like Washington, London deplored communist aggression in the east. And, while its priority was Europe, there were also important interests at stake in remaining colonial possessions in the Far East to consider: Britain had since 1948 been fighting a communist insurgency in Malaya as well as maintaining a garrison in Hong Kong.
In short, the British government viewed the invasion of South Korea as a grave threat to the west. First, it confirmed fears that the communist bloc was on the offensive and, as was the case with appeasement in the 1930s, failure to confront this attack would only lead to further aggression elsewhere. Second, it was vital to the credibility of the UN that it did not fail its first test and become sidelined, as had been the fate of the League of Nations. Third, Britain was anxious to gain US support for waging the Cold War in the Far East, as well as convincing American leaders that Britain was a capable ally, despite its economic difficulties. Most of all, it sought an American military guarantee for the defence of western Europe and this seemed to require a quid pro quo in Korea.
Standing up to dictators
It is all the more striking that it was the Labour government of Clement Attlee that took the decision to support South Korea. Despite its focus on health and social policy at home, the cabinet was strongly in favour of taking the necessary action to meet the Soviet and Chinese challenge. It was supported in this by the bulk of the parliamentary party as well as by public opinion. That the war-weary British public, still coming out of wartime austerity, should support such an expensive commitment so far away shows the national consensus on the Cold War: the experience of the 1930s convinced the great majority of the need to stand up to aggressive dictators.
There were some voices against the war: a few were knee-jerk anti-American or pro-Moscow, while others believed that nothing should divert the government’s focus from welfare. Nevertheless, the cabinet not only committed British forces but announced a doubling of the defence budget.
Some support ebbed away when it seemed that the war might escalate, and there was concern over the resulting economic impact. In April 1951, Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the National Health Service, resigned from his post as Minister of Labour over the introduction of charges for glasses and false teeth. On the whole, however, British political and public opinion remained staunchly behind the war.
As in so many crises, the Royal Navy provided the first British military response. Elements of the Far Eastern Fleet were swiftly deployed and served alongside the US Navy throughout the war, blockading the enemy coast and shelling targets ashore. The lack of suitable air bases limited the RAF contribution to some Sunderland patrol aircraft, but combat airpower was provided by the Fleet Air Arm operating from aircraft carriers. The Royal Marines launched raids on the enemy coasts and also fought on land, notably serving alongside the 1st US Marine Division in the bitter fighting and breakout from the area of the Chosin reservoir in late 1950.
At first the chiefs of staff recommended against sending ground forces – not wishing to remove them from Germany, Malaya and Hong Kong. But as the situation deteriorated, the cabinet decided that the political benefits of doing so (not least the impact on American opinion) outweighed the military disadvantages. In August, an army brigade was sent from Britain. It was later joined by a second, as well as a Canadian brigade and troops from Australia and New Zealand to form the Commonwealth Division. These forces participated in a great deal of tough fighting in difficult terrain and a challenging climate. In doing so, they won the genuine respect of their American counterparts, not least The Gloucestershire Regiment – the ‘Glorious Glosters’ – who famously fought on at the Imjin River in 1951, despite being hopelessly outnumbered, until they were overwhelmed.
The swift commitment of US, British and other forces allowed the UN to create a strong defensive perimeter around the south-eastern port of Pusan. As the North Korean offensive slowed, MacArthur launched his military masterstroke in the form of an amphibious landing behind the enemy lines at Inchon in September 1950. This was a hugely risky move but its success brought an equally great reward, as the North Korean army was pushed into headlong retreat.
Yet MacArthur’s achievement led to over-ambition and over-confidence. The sensible aim of eliminating the continuing threat posed by the North Korean army expanded to the unification of Korea. Unsurprisingly, China was alarmed by the impending collapse of North Korea, its neighbour and ally, and began to plan intervention even before US and South Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel. As they neared the Yalu river in October, China attacked, and followed it up with a much larger offensive in November. Caught completely by surprise and over-extended, the United Nations forces were pushed back past the 38th Parallel once again.
By early 1951 the front had more or less stabilised near the original border and though both sides launched several offensives, the war became largely one of attrition. Armistice talks began as early as July 1951 but neither side felt sufficient military or economic pressure to make major concessions. And so the fighting dragged on.
Cold War allies
The Korean War was important in the developing relationship between Britain and the United States. During the Second World War, the two had worked together closely, developing a hugely effective machinery of coordination. Naturally they did not agree on everything and where there were disputes, the United States tended to have its way. Nevertheless, what is surprising is not the occasional friction but rather how successful the alliance was.
To some extent, the years immediately after the end of the Second World War saw the relationship weaken. The US was hostile to Britain’s colonial role, concerned at the apparent penetration of the British establishment by Soviet spies, and suspicious of the ideology of the Labour government that was elected in 1945. As the Cold War grew more bitter, however, Washington began to appreciate the international role that Britain could play; this process, culminating in the Korean War, forced the wartime allies to rediscover their partnership.
Again, the relations weren’t always serene. Britain was more wary than the US about the dangers of the war escalating, and notably more flexible in its policy towards the People’s Republic of China. Some commentators claimed to have spotted a potential split in November 1950 when President Harry Truman seemed to suggest that America was ready to use atomic weapons – a comment that had Attlee rushing out to Washington for consultations.
In fact, the difference between the two countries was slight: there was never any real prospect of an atomic attack on China, and the United States took great care to avoid the war spreading to Chinese territory. This was dramatically demonstrated in April 1951 when Truman, with the strong support of the joint chiefs, very publicly fired General MacArthur for his increasingly vociferous demands to escalate the war.
The forgotten war
The process of Britain retreating from empire had already begun before the Korean War – India had been given independence and Palestine handed over to the UN – and it would continue afterwards. Yet Britain’s role in Korea was a strong sign that it continued to seek a place on the world stage. While its military commitment was far smaller than that of the US, it was by some distance larger than that of all the other countries except South Korea. Britain had shown itself to be a reliable ally, which to a considerable extent shared common interests with the United States. While its voice was not decisive, its influence on US policy was far from negligible. Most of all, Britain was able to advance its foreign policy aims by its participation in the Korean War, not least coaxing a US military commitment to west Europe: the shock of the war led to NATO developing into a full military alliance, in which the US and Britain would collaborate closely.
The Korean War eventually ended with the signing of an armistice (but not a formal peace treaty) in July 1953. This termination of hostilities was made possible mainly by the death of Stalin in March of that year, and by the growing economic exhaustion of North Korea and China.
This conflict that few expected had an enormous impact on the Cold War, making it more of a global confrontation and focussing it more on military might. It was, however, a one-off in that the superpowers would never again fight each other directly, although there would be many more wars fought by proxies. It established the idea of a ‘limited war’ – in the nuclear age, neither superpower could aspire to a total victory.
The Korean War has faded from the public consciousness to a surprising extent, both in the US, where it is often referred to as ‘the Forgotten War’, and also in Britain. Perhaps the reason is that it was overtaken by the trauma of the Suez debacle in 1956, which was far more damaging to Britain’s international power and prestige.
Yet during the Korean War around 1,100 British military personnel were killed – more than in the counter-insurgency campaigns in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya, plus Suez and the Falklands War, put together. The campaign deserves to be remembered as a significant British military commitment, as well as for being the conflict that marked a new stage in the alliance between Britain and the United States.
Korea in flames: a timeline
1945: Post-war settlement
At the end of the Second World War, Korea is divided at the 38th Parallel, with the Soviet Union occupying the north and the United States the south.
25 June 1950: The invasion
North Korean forces invade the South, overwhelming the ill-equipped South Korean army.
25 June 1950:
The same day, the UN Security Council – in the absence of the USSR which is boycotting it – votes to condemn the North Korean invasion and calls upon member states to provide
military assistance to South Korea.
The West responds
The United States, Britain and others send naval and air forces, and then land forces, stabilising the situation around the Pusan perimeter.
15 September 1950: Inchon landing
General Douglas MacArthur launches a brilliantly successful amphibious landing at Inchon, west of Seoul, which leads to the rout of the North Korean army.
15 October 1950:
The war swings back the other way, as China intervenes to prevent the collapse of North Korea; initial attacks in October are following by a huge offensive in November which throws back the UN forces.
22–25 April 1951: Battle of the Imjin River
The ‘Glorious Glosters’, part of the British 29 Infantry Brigade, hold off a Chinese attack until overwhelmed, buying time for other UN forces to withdraw.
The front line stabilises
The Chinese advance, like the others before, runs out of steam, is halted and then pushed back, with the line between the two sides stabilising around the 38th Parallel.
10 July 1951: Armistice talks begin
The two sides start negotiations but these drag on – deadlocked over the issue of whether communist prisoners should be returned home against their will – and the fighting continues for two more years.
27 July 1953: The end of the war
The new Eisenhower administration taking office and the death of Stalin in March 1953 helps to break the deadlock, and in July 1953 an armistice is signed, ending hostilities with Korea still divided.
Dr Tim Benbow is reader in strategic studies, King’s College London. He is the author of Naval Warfare 1914–1918 (Amber Books, 2008)