Length of War: 1950-1953
Numbers of Australians involved in the war: 17,000
Numbers of Australian troops who died: 339
Numbers taken prisoner: 31
Prime Ministers: Robert Menzies (Liberal) 1949-1966
The Korean War
The crisis in Korea originated in the closing phases of the Second World War, when control of the Korean peninsula, formerly occupied by Japan, was entrusted to the Allies.
The United States and the Soviet Union divided responsibility for the country between them at the 38th parallel.Over the course of the next few years, the Soviet Union fostered a strong communist regime in the north, while the US supported the anti-communist government in the south; by early 1950, tensions between the two zones, each under a different regime, had escalated to the point where two hostile armies were building up along the border. On 25 June 1950 the North Korean army finally crossed into the southern zone and advanced towards the capital, Seoul.
Within two days, the US had offered air and sea support to South Korea, and the United Nations Security Council asked all its members to assist in repelling the North Korean attack. Twenty-one nations responded by providing troops, ships, aircraft and medical teams. Australia’s contribution included 77 Squadron of the RAAF and the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), both of which were stationed in Japan at the time as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force.
When 3 RAR arrived in Pusan on 28 September, the North Korean advance had been halted and their army was in full retreat. The Supreme Commander of the UN forces, General Douglas MacArthur, was given permission to pursue them into North Korea, despite warnings from the Chinese government that it would not countenance any UN troops crossing the border. 3 RAR moved north as part of the invasion force and fought their first major action near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. As the UN forces continued their advance towards the Yalu River on the border between North Korea and Manchuria, a series of successes led many to believe that the UN forces would soon bring the war to an end.
At the same time, unbeknown to the UN commanders, the Chinese government had made good its threat and moved 18 divisions into North Korea. They struck with overwhelming force against US troops on 1 November and sent them into retreat.
The Chinese halted their offensive in January 1951, Seoul once again having fallen to the invading forces. At the UN headquarters in New York, efforts were made to conclude a ceasefire with the communist coalition, but negotiations broke down before any progress had been made.
On the evening of 22 April, Chinese forces attacked the Kapyong valley and forced South Korean and New Zealand troops into retreat; other UN troops, including Australians, were ordered to halt the attack. After a night of fierce fighting, during which their positions were overrun, the Australians recaptured their positions and stalled the Chinese advance, at a cost of only 32 men killed and 53 wounded. For their contribution to this action, 3 RAR was awarded a US Presidential Citation.
The second major battle for the Australians was Operation Commando, an attack against a Chinese-held salient in a bend of the Imjin, a river running north-south that crosses the 38th parallel just above Seoul. Here the Commonwealth Division, including the Australians, had two key objectives: Hills 355 and 317. The attack began on 3 October, and after five days of heavy fighting the Chinese withdrew. Twenty Australians were killed in the battle and 89 were wounded.
As the war settled into stalemate it became apparent that a negotiated truce was the only solution. As fighting continued, however, many of the UN combatants grew less willing to contribute more ground forces to the conflict. While some countries were keen to extricate their troops from Korea, Australia increased its commitment, and the government sent a second battalion, 1 RAR, which joined the Commonwealth Division on 1 June 1952. The battalion remained in Korea for twelve months, leaving in March 1953 and replaced by 2 RAR in April.
After two years and 17 days of negotiations, the UN and North Korean leaderships signed an agreement on 27 July 1953. This agreement technically brought the war to an end, but a state of suspended hostilities continued to exist between North and South Korea for many years, and even today the situation remains unresolved. In the three years of fighting 1,263 men of the Commonwealth forces were killed and a further 4,817 were wounded, while the US lost 33,000 men. Australian casualties numbered more than 1,500, of whom 339 were killed.