Tigers in the Hills
The Korean War was the first conflict of the Cold War. Egged on by the Soviet Union, Communist North Korea had invaded South Korea. The military assistance provided by the United Nations to the South to counter this aggression drove the North Koreans back almost to the Chinese border. This in turn led to Chinese intervention on behalf of the North. The war became a stalemate, characterised in many cases by trench warfare reminiscent of the First World War.
On 13 October 1951 a troopship arrived in Pusan harbour, to the sound of a US Army jazz band playing ‘Hold That Tiger’. The tune was particularly appropriate for the men on board were the 1st battalion Royal Leicestershire Regiment, and of their number perhaps 60% were National Servicemen. These 18 and 19 year olds, on a two year tour of duty, had left behind the safety of their homes in the midlands to fight for a country of which a couple of weeks earlier, few had even heard.
Just three weeks later, on 5 November, these men were in the thick of the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ battle, part of the last major UN offensive of the war. A major Chinese assault had thrown British and Commonwealth troops off Point 317, the hill known as Maryang San (above). The Tigers were ordered to recapture the position, and advanced into withering Chinese fire. Their objective was the ridge codenamed ‘United’, and by nightfall, after savage hand to hand fighting they had captured it. However, weakened by casualties, the Leicesters were not strong enough to hold on to the prize, and were ordered to withdraw to the hills codenamed ‘Italy’ and ‘Crete’.
On 17 November, however, the Chinese renewed their own offensive, and all along the Royal Leicesters’ front line that night Chinese attacks broke like waves against a cliff. Again and again they attacked, each time accompanied by bugles and fearful screams intended to terrify their enemy, but time and again the waves were beaten back by machine gun and mortar fire.
The battalion’s Support Company kept its six Vickers guns and 3 inch mortars in continuous action all through the night, but in spite of this, contact was lost with the troops holding the exposed position known as ‘Italy’. When the position was eventually retaken, the quantities of spent .303 cases told their own story – the defenders had put up a spirited fight. When those few men who were captured eventually returned from North Korean POW camps, they told how the position had been overrun by sheer weight of numbers, the Chinese even attacking through their own artillery barrage.