The Korean War started badly for the U.S. Army, whose troops were ill-prepared and under-equipped despite the short interval that had elapsed since World War II. By September 1950, however, men of the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, could claim a wealth of recently acquired combat experience. Nevertheless, even old hands who had fought in World War II were surprised at the musical manner in which reinforcements came to relieve them along the Pusan Perimeter on September 4.
GIs with Scottish ancestry might have explained that the strange sound came from bagpipes playing the melody ‘Hielan’ Laddie. As described by the Saturday Evening Post in August, the bagpipe players were members of a kilt-wearing, proud Scottish regular army organization, the first of a small but militarily significant Commonwealth contingent — the 1st Battalion of the Argyll and Southern Highlanders (Princess Louise’s).
Across the Korean Peninsula and in the United States, American soldiers had been wondering, How long have we got to go this war alone? It was a fair question to ask of other members of the United Nations, in its first real military test of the Cold War.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, France, Turkey and other nations had come forward and promised support. In the British House of Commons on July 5, Prime Minister Clement Atlee assured, With the history of the last twenty years fresh in our minds, no one can doubt that it is vitally important that aggression should be halted at the outset. With a few exceptions, even many socialists inside and outside European governments agreed with the justice of the American cause in Korea.
Britain, however, had problems committing her troops to Korea. World War II had ended in an era of unprecedented economic growth in the United States, where in Britain the cost of the war had been enormous, and imports vastly outstripped exports. Wartime rationing would last for 10 years after 1945. These straitened circumstances affected the military budget as well as the rest of society.
In spite of its postwar withdrawal from India, the British empire was still extensive and required garrisoning. The so-called Malayan Emergency — a military struggle against Communist insurgents in the British colony of Malaya — had begun, and the stresses it created were compounded by the success of Mao Tse-tung’s Communists in China in 1949, an event that required the garrison of Hong Kong to be rapidly enlarged. Major General Geoffrey Evans was sent there to command the newly formed 40th Division. A veteran of Burma, Evans soon had his force in shape and felt confident in the men. One element, the 27th Brigade under the command of Brigadier Basil Aubrey Coad, was designated the United Kingdom Strategic Reserve, which meant that it was supposed to be ready to move anywhere in the world at 10 days’ notice.
Coad had no illusions about the grandiosity of the title or about service in the peacetime British army. The manpower demands of the early Cold War period for Britain meant that wartime conscription continued after World War II with the National Service Act, which formally instituted peacetime conscription for the first time in British history. Largely thanks to Evans’ demanding regime, however, the men of the 40th Division quickly reached a higher level of training and efficiency than that of British army troops who had faced the Japanese less than a decade before.
The National Service conscripts were from every conceivable background — blue collar, white collar, the sons of earls. Some had no desire to be there, others found military life surprisingly agreeable, and some asked to be selected for elevation to junior officer rank. Although the character of the army had changed, it retained something of the wartime spirit of everyone pulling together to get the job done, and this went a long way to make up for material deficiencies.
Deficiencies were painfully obvious. In August 1950, Coad was suddenly ordered to take a weakened brigade to Korea, consisting of the 1st Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own) and the Argylls. Instead of 10 days to prepare, he had one week. The arrival of his orders on a Friday gave him still less time, since most of his men were enjoying the fleshpots of Hong Kong after an arduous exercise, and it would be hard work indeed to recall them to barracks over a weekend. Since both battalions were understrength, it was necessary to augment their numbers from the other units in Hong Kong. Working with his brigade major (chief of staff), Douglas Reith, Coad tried to get some sense out of Headquarters, Land Forces. He asked about artillery support and was told, You’re not taking any — they say the Yank gunners are pretty good. Regarding transport, he was informed, You’re not taking that either. Won’t need any — the Yanks have got a vehicle to about every five men. He asked about rations and was told that you’ll be all right there — turkey for every meal.
Sounds to me like a Woolworth Brigade, Coad remarked.
That’s just about what it is. Damned good luck to you, Aubrey…
A clamor had begun in Britain and Parliament when the public learned that 19-year-olds would be fighting in Korea. As a result, the War Office issued an order banning soldiers under 19 from the war zone. This left the Middlesex understrength by some 150 men. Some of the youngsters ignored King’s Regulations and beseeched the CO, Lt. Col. Andrew Man, to be allowed to go. Man recalled the line of one young pup: I’m pretty sure I am 19, sir! But orders were orders. Some 250 men were needed from other units, and there was no shortage of volunteers from the Royal Leicesters, South Staffords and others — the 1st Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, volunteered to a man.
A regiment with a fine tradition from the west of Scotland, the Argylls had a particularly prickly esprit de corps. They were the original thin red line tipped with steel at Balaclava in 1854. They had fought the Germans to a standstill at Le Cateau in 1914, and their 2nd Battalion was the only British unit to fight with distinction in Malaya in 1941. The number of conscripted servicemen varied from unit to unit in the British army up to 50 percent (as with the Middlesex), but Argylls were predominately Regulars, which suited their CO, Lt. Col. Leslie Neilson. His adjutant, Captain John Slim, had an illustrious name to uphold — his father, Field Marshal Sir William Slim, having led the Allied forces to victory in Burma just five years before. So it was in the finest traditions of the British army, though preparations were hurried and improvised, that 27th Brigade went to war.
On August 29, Britain’s Fire Brigade — labeled by its men the Something for God’s Sake Brigade — landed at Pusan. They were greeted with a flurry of flags and bands. A comely American nurse, who had never seen kilted men before, turned to her neighbor and said, Now, isn’t that the cutest thing you ever saw? Then, after a difficult journey by rail and road, the brigade made camp at Kyongsang, where life settled down to being comfortable and dull. The U.S. Quartermaster Branch was generous with rations, as well as Lucky Strike, Chesterfield and Camel cigarettes. Asked if they had any complaints about rations, one Argyll replied to his officer, Aye, surr, too much f — ing turkey! British soldiers have long regarded their only privilege as being allowed to moan — regardless of whether there is anything to moan about.
The American commander of the Eighth Army, Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker, was under pressure and anxious to plug his sagging line with the British troops. Despite the lack of transport, Coad was assigned to the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division’s southern flank along the Naktong River southwest of Taegu. His frontage was some 16 kilometers with a gap of three kilometers to his left. The gap grew to eight kilometers, large enough for a North Korean division to easily slip through. Therefore, reconnaissance, fighting and standing (or ambush) patrols became essential. During a patrol on September 6, the Middlesex lost Private Reginald Streeter, a 19-year-old plumber’s mate from Guildford, the first British soldier to die in Korea. That same day, the Argylls also suffered their first losses, Captain Neil Buchanan and his batman, Private Tam Taylor. Buchanan had been a popular officer, and his death provoked the Scots to a cold fury. After two weeks of this steady work, 1st Platoon of the Argylls’ A Company ambushed a strong enemy force at dawn as it was returning from a nocturnal incursion, killing 10 North Koreans before the survivors were able to disengage. Enemy patrol, sir, reported Sergeant John Robertson simply, they were not liking it, so they left.
Thus far, the British had been only bit players in a much larger drama, but the war was about to enter Act II. While the U.N. invasion at Inchon was turning the flank of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA), on September 16 Walker’s forces assaulted North Korean positions on the Pusan Perimeter in a bid to break out and join up with the Marines, the 7th Infantry Division and Republic of Korea (ROK) troops to the north. The crossing of the Naktong was the first major operation undertaken by Coad’s brigade and was, in the words of one American officer, a rugged assignment. The U.N. forces expected the North Koreans to crumble, but instead they put up stout resistance. Only after Walker committed his reserve, the 24th Division, did the offensive begin to gain momentum. Coad was now attached to that formation, and on September 22, 27th Brigade crossed the Naktong on the heels of the retiring NPKA 10th Division.
On the far side of the river, along the road to Songju, was high ground. As directed by the commander of the 24th Division, Maj. Gen. John Church, Coad ordered the Middlesex to secure two elevated areas to the right of the road, one known as Plum Pudding Hill and the other, some 900 feet high, later to be called Middlesex Hill. The Argylls would take a similar area, called Hill 282, on the left side of the road. The only crossing point was a rickety bridge hastily erected by American engineers, passable only in single file. Under continuous fire from mortars and a self-propelled gun known as the Bastard, the Middlesex went across first, led by Colonel Man. Middlesex veterans, who had fought in North Africa, Italy and France, agreed that the battalion had never performed more coolly.
Attached to 2nd Lt. Christopher Lawrence’s platoon were two American tanks. Their commander, sporting a red baseball cap, cheerfully informed Lawrence, We’ll be in there slugging with you, Mac, and fired a burst of machine-gun fire at the top of Plum Pudding Hill for no apparent reason. Lawrence’s platoon was in the forefront, just as his father’s had been in 1916. Man described the assault as a most gallant affair and one of the most heartening sights of the entire campaign. A bayonet charge carried the crest, a few agonized squeals were heard as the steel was pressed home and the rest of the defenders fled down the far slope pursued by bullets and verbal abuse. Meanwhile, A and D companies, supported by the tanks, found the North Koreans on Middlesex Hill in no mood to make a concerted defense. As they also fled down the reverse slope, an American artillery observation officer exclaimed, Boy, ain’t that a honey of a target, and soon shells were landing among the enemy. The Middlesex lost one officer and six men killed, with seven men wounded. The officer was 2nd Lt. George White, seconded from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps to obtain experience with an infantry battalion before being posted to his unit. Instead of spending the war dealing with the usual ordnance-related routine of stores and endless paperwork, he was killed while recklessly exposing himself to fire at the moment of victory. He was posthumously awarded the U.S. Army Silver Star.
With the first two objectives secured by the Middlesex, it was now the Argylls’ turn. Hill 282 was to be assaulted by two companies, while a third would occupy another nearby hill from which they would provide support. The commander of the third company, Major David Wilson, could clearly see North Koreans on the summit of the hill he planned to occupy. Three American tanks unexpectedly joined Wilson and his Company A. He waved them down and asked if they could help. Man, you just got yourself some tank support, said the American sergeant major, and promptly proceeded to plaster the hill with fire. The North Koreans quickly gave it up. Nice job, said Wilson, thank you very much, and the tanks roared off around the bend. Wilson’s company was able to walk into the position unopposed and dig in. In the meantime, B and C companies were awaiting their H-hour: 5:20 a.m. on September 23.
Scrambling up hills covered with fir trees and loose rocks was precisely the sort of training the Scots were given in the New Territories of Hong Kong, and it took just under an hour to bring them to within 50 meters of the NKPA position. A foul smell of fish cooking for breakfast assailed the Scotsmen — one well known to veterans of Burma — but no breakfast was ever served. A wild charge brought the grenades, bayonets, rifle butts and hobnailed boots of the Highlanders within striking distance of the defenders. Fifteen NKPA troops were killed during the charge and another 15 were cut down as the defenders raced down the opposite slope.
One Scot was killed and six wounded — including both platoon leaders — in the initial assault, but in their eagerness to seize the summit, the Argylls had bypassed a small party of NKPA, who fired on the command post party and the 5th Platoon as they made their way up the hill. A swift charge led by 2nd Lt. David Buchanan drove those North Koreans from their entrenched position. For a total of 12 casualties the Jocks had secured Hill 282, and they now began digging in.
Soon afterward, the NKPA 10th Division’s response began with a mortar bombardment, killing four more Argylls and wounding nine. More serious, there was a higher position on Hill 282 still held by the North Koreans. Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Edington’s 7th Platoon of C Company was dug in closest to it. The company commanders, Major Jim Gillies of C Company and Major Alastair Gordon-Ingram of B Company, knew that the enemy would soon try to retake the key position they occupied. They also knew the value of shrewdly directed artillery fire for breaking up enemy concentrations before they got the chance to counterattack. At 8:45 a.m., as Jock Edington reported increased activity to his front, the two American artillery observation officers assigned to the Argylls received orders to return to their regiments. Protests were lodged all the way back to General Walker, but for the time being, the Jocks were on the hill alone. As the company commanders had expected, North Korean shelling and mortar fire increased, inflicting another dozen casualties. Now, deprived of much needed artillery, Gordon-Ingram remarked that it’s a great shame that the genius who gave that order isn’t up here with us.
Soon North Korean infantry began to advance. Thick vegetation made infiltration to within a few yards of the British position easy, and a steady stream of accurate fire engulfed the defense. Edington’s platoon was reduced to seven effectives in just half an hour. Buchanan’s platoon came up to reinforce it, but by 11 a.m. it, too, was riddled with casualties. In imminent danger of being overrun, the survivors, including a wounded Edington, withdrew into the main perimeter. Everywhere the situation deteriorated, but Gillies and Gordon-Ingram remained confident that the position would be held. The order had been given that it would be to the last man and the last round.
The most urgent problem was the evacuation of the wounded. The only route was down a 900-foot slope. Directing that effort was Company Sgt. Maj. Tom Collet. The return journey took at least an hour, and every man who helped to ferry the injured was thus not in the firing line, where manpower was desperately needed. But Collet was feared at least as much as the enemy, and he grimly informed his charges that he was timing them with a stopwatch. There will be, he said, no stopping at the bottom of the hill and lighting a fag, got it? No man did, and Gillies later said that Collet’s presence in the thick of the fighting had made up for the lack of artillery support.
The situation was helped when stretcher-bearers from the Corps of Pipes and Drums arrived, led by the battalion second-in-command, Major Kenneth Muir. Like so many others in this family regiment, his father had served as an Argyll before him. He now disregarded the routine requirement that seconds-in-command concern themselves with purely administrative matters; instead, he began to analyze the battle and to note problems. These he communicated to Neilson, who demanded to know what he was doing there, in the midst of the fighting. Just keeping in touch, sir, he replied, for which Neilson was grateful as the battle grew increasingly confused. The two companies had become hopelessly intermixed, so Muir reorganized them as a single force under his command and centralized ammunition resupply and casualty evacuation. His calm and decisive intervention gave all the men around him a renewed sense of confidence.
They needed that reassurance as they had been assaulted from the front and on the flanks. Kenny Muir’s grip was sure, and the enemy seemed to be losing momentum. Some 1,500 meters to the left of their position, however, a large body of NKPA troops could be seen forming along a ridge for a fresh attempt. Lacking effective fire support with which to break up that concentration, Muir asked Neilson for an airstrike. Quickly, the news spread among the men of the two battered companies that North American F-51D Mustangs were on their way. That’ll fix ’em, CSM Collet told his men, but it doesn’t mean that you lot can sit on your arses looking at the sky. Watch your front!
White recognition panels were laid out, and at 12:15 p.m., three Mustangs of No. 2 Squadron, South African Air Force (SAAF), attached to the U.S. Air Force’s 18th Fighter Bomber Wing, circled the position. Some of the Jocks stood up, waving their arms in greeting as each fighter swept in. Then things went horribly wrong: Napalm fell on the British positions, followed by machine-gun fire. Some Jocks were shot down before the welcoming cheers had left their throats, while others were roasted by the frightful petroleum jelly. The reserve ammunition also exploded among them.
Unknown to the Scots, the North Koreans had noticed their identification panels and had quickly laid out white panels of their own. The resulting confusion had been worth it from the NKPA viewpoint: Within two minutes, the whole of Hill 282 had been reduced to a fiery shambles.
As the shock began to wear off, the survivors who huddled on the ridge realized that they had lost their precious ground — something the Argylls considered a cause for shame despite the appalling events that had unfolded above them. Neilson was amazed that anyone had survived, but Muir and Gordon-Ingram were with them. Permission was given to withdraw, but Muir recognized that the effect of the airstrike had been at least as severe on the North Koreans in the vicinity as upon his own beloved Jocks. The hill was therefore unoccupied.
Then came the unmistakable rattle of a Bren gun from the top of the hill. Incredibly, there were men still holding out. This made it all the more imperative to regain the summit and save the wounded. Muir managed to round up 30 soldiers fit to return to the fray and gave them a stern talking to. Right, we’re going in, he announced, and set off at a trot, leading from the front and cheering his boys as they climbed the hill through a withering fire. Just 14 Jocks reached the crest, where they discovered five more led by Private William Watts — who explained that nobody had told him to leave and he still had two magazines for his Bren.
As the NKPA closed in from three sides, Muir helped hold them back until his Sten gun ran out of ammunition. He then fired a 2-inch mortar at them, with Gordon-Ingram acting as his loader, until he was hit by two bursts of machine-gun fire in the stomach and thigh. Still shouting to his men, he was carried down the hill. When he could not shout, he whispered, and when he could not whisper, he died. His last words were: The gooks will never drive the Argylls off this hill. Muir was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Gordon-Ingram took command, but found only 10 men in B Company left who could fight — and some of them were wounded. Worse, they were almost out of ammunition, and C Company was in little better condition. Neilson sent a new order: Damned well done, now get out of it. Having witnessed the misdirected airstrike, men of the Middlesex rushed from the neighboring hill to assist. Strictly speaking, they were guilty of deserting their own posts, but no one could censure them. Their officers were forced to order Stand fast.
Using the last of their ammunition to cover one another in an orderly retreat, the Argylls left behind only six rifles and two Bren guns. Their casualties totaled two officers and 11 enlisted men dead, four officers and 70 enlisted wounded, and two soldiers missing — almost half of those who had defended the hill. Their names read like a roll call from Balaclava: McNaughton, McDonald, McPherson, Ewan and Campbell. The last man down was Collet, carrying a wounded lance corporal who remarked on the incongruity of their situation. Blimey, he said, I never thought I’d have my arm around your neck. To which Collet replied grimly, It’s going to cost you a pint. Which it did.
The U.S. Air Force felt deep remorse over the tragic airstrike, which caused 40 percent of the Argylls’ casualties. The 93rd Bombardment Wing donated a check for the families of those killed and wounded. In response, the regiment’s colonel, Lt. Gen. Sir Gordon MacMillan, stated: The Regiment’s friendship with the United States Air Force can never be impaired by having suffered on one occasion from the risks that are inseparable from operations in modern war. Every report I have received from the Battalion…has spoken in glowing terms of wonderful co-operation, and no hard feelings must arise from this incident. Private Peter Sinclair summed it up from his stretcher. It couldn’t be helped, he said, it was just one of those things.
The retaking of Hill 282 stiffened the NKPA’s resistance to the 24th Division’s advance from the Naktong, but only briefly. General Church ordered Lt. Col. Morris Naudt to lead his 1st Battalion, 19th U.S. Infantry, south toward Songju and join up with the British. The battalion launched its attack on the night of September 23 and captured Songju at 2 a.m. on September 24. Upon meeting the 1/19th outside the town, 27th Brigade helped the Americans secure the area before being withdrawn from the 24th Division and returned to Eighth Army control. Still ahead lay the advance to the Yalu River and contact with a new enemy, the Chinese, in November 1950. But in all the battles to come, the British U.N. contingent would fight with the same professionalism and valor they displayed on Hill 282.
This article was written by Jon Latimer and originally appeared in the October 2000 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!