Battle of Yongju
The Battle of Yongju, also known as the Battle of the Apple Orchard, took place from 21 to 22 October 1950 as part of the United Nations Command (UN) offensive towards the Yalu River, against the North Korean forces which had invaded South Korea during the Korean War. The battle was fought between the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade and the Korean People's Army (KPA) 239th Regiment which was encircled east of Yongju, where it was attacking the US US 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team (187 RCT). On 20 October the 187 RCT had parachuted ahead of the advancing UN spearheads into drop zones in Sukchon and Sunchon, 40 kilometres (25 mi) north of the capital Pyongyang, with the objectives of cutting off the retreating KPA forces that were withdrawing up the west coast of the Korean Peninsula and releasing US and South Korean prisoners of war. Although the airborne drop itself was a success, the operation came too late to intercept any significant KPA elements and the US landings initially met little resistance. However, on 21 October as the 187 RCT began to advance south to the clear the Sukchon to Yongju road towards Pyongyang they came under heavy attack from the KPA 239th Regiment, and requested assistance.
The 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, which was leading the US Eighth Army general advance, was subsequently ordered forward to assist the 187 RCT. The British and Australians crossed the Taedong River at Pyongyang at noon on 21 October, and moved north on the main highway to Sukchon with the task of reaching the Chongchon River. The 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment (1 ASHR), subsequently pushed up the road until fired upon by KPA forces in the hills to the south of Yongju. By nightfall the hills were cleared by the Argylls, while the 3rd Battalion, 187 RCT occupied Yongju. Cut-off, about midnight the KPA 239th Regiment attempted to break out, resulting in heavy fighting. The KPA attacks drove the 187 RCT from Yongju, forcing them back onto the battalion's main defensive position to the north. 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) was ordered to take the lead the following morning. By dawn the Americans again requested assistance. At first light on 22 October, two companies of Argylls advanced into Yongju, before the Australians passed through them riding on US M4 Sherman tanks. Now leading the brigade, at 09:00 the Australians came under fire from a KPA rearguard position in an apple orchard on their right flank.
An encounter battle developed as 3 RAR carried out an aggressive quick attack off the line of march from the road, with US tanks in support. Despite fire support from mortars and artillery being unavailable due to the location of the 3/187 RCT being unknown, the Australian attack succeeded and the KPA were forced to withdraw from the high ground, having suffered heavy casualties. Meanwhile, 3 RAR's tactical headquarters came under attack and was forced to fight off a group of KPA. Having been forced off the high ground, the KPA were now caught between the advancing Australians and the 187 RCT to the north. Attacking the KPA from the rear, 3 RAR subsequently relieved the 187 RCT, with the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade linked up with them by 11:00. Following three hours of fighting the battle was largely over by midday; however, many of the KPA that had been unable to escape continued to refuse to surrender, hiding or feigning death until individually flushed out. The Australians then proceeded to sweep the area, kicking over stacks of straw and shooting the KPA soldiers they found hiding in them as they attempted to flee. The KPA 239th Regiment was practically destroyed. In their first major battle in the Korean War where the Australians had distinguished themselves, and the battalion was later praised for its performance.
The Korean War began early in the morning of 25 June 1950, following the surprise invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK) by its northern neighbour, the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Numerically superior and better-equipped, the KPA crossed the 38th Parallel and rapidly advanced south, easily overcoming the inferior Republic of Korea Army (ROK). In response, the United Nations decided to intervene on behalf of South Korea, inviting member states to send forces to restore the situation. As a consequence, American ground forces were hastily deployed in an attempt to prevent the South Koreans from collapsing, however they too were understrength and poorly equipped, and by early August had been forced back by the KPA to an enclave around Pusan, known as the Pusan Perimeter. Key US allies—Britain, Canada and Australia—also committed forces, although these were initially limited to naval contingents and were largely viewed as token efforts in the US. Under diplomatic pressure the British agreed to deploy an infantry brigade in July, and would later dispatch a second brigade as the crisis worsened. The Canadians also agreed to provide an infantry brigade, although the first battalion would not arrive until December 1950. A total of 21 UN member states eventually contributed forces.
Australia was one of the first nations to commit units to the fighting, playing a small but sometimes significant part in the UN effort, which was initially led by General Douglas MacArthur. Forces deployed in Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force formed the basis of the Australian response, with P-51 Mustang fighter-bombers from No. 77 Squadron RAAF flying their first missions on 2 July, while the frigate HMAS Shoalhaven and the destroyer HMAS Bataan were also committed to naval operations. During this time the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), which had been preparing to return to Australia prior to the outbreak of the war, remained in Japan, however on 26 July the Australian government announced that it would also commit the under-strength and poorly equipped infantry battalion to the fighting, following a period of preparation. Training and re-equipment began immediately, while hundreds of reinforcements were hastily recruited in Australia as part of K Force; they soon began arriving to fill out the battalion. The battalion's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Floyd Walsh, was subsequently replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Green. An officer with extensive operational experience fighting the Japanese in New Guinea during the Second World War, Green took over from Walsh due to the latter's perceived inexperience.
On 23 September 1950, 3 RAR embarked for Korea, concentrating at Pusan on 28 September. There it joined the British 27th Infantry Brigade, a garrison formation hurriedly committed from Hong Kong by the British as the situation deteriorated around the Pusan Perimeter in late August to bolster the US Eighth Army under Lieutenant General Walton Walker. Commanded by Brigadier Basil Coad, the brigade was renamed the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade and consisted of the 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment (1 ASHR), the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment (1 MR) and 3 RAR. Understrength, the two British battalions had each mustered just 600 men of all ranks, while the brigade was also short on transport and heavy equipment, and had no integral artillery support, for which it would rely entirely on the Americans until the 16th Field Regiment, Royal New Zealand Artillery arrived in January 1951. As such, with a strength of nearly 1,000 men, the addition of 3 RAR gave the brigade increased tactical weight as well as expediently allowing the Australians to work within a familiar organisational environment, rather than being attached to a US formation. Also under the command of the brigade were a number of US Army units, including 155 mm howitzers from the US 90th Field Artillery Battalion, M4 Sherman tanks from the US 89th Tank Battalion and a company from the US 72nd Combat Engineer Battalion.
By the time 3 RAR arrived in the theatre, the North Koreans had been broken and were in rapid retreat, with MacArthur's forces conducting a successful amphibious assault at Inchon and breakout from the Pusan Perimeter on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. A steady advance began, driving the North Koreans northwards towards the 38th Parallel. The 27th British Commonwealth Brigade was airlifted from Taegu to Kimpo Airfield north of Seoul on 5 October, however its vehicles had to move by road, driving 420 kilometres (260 mi), and did not arrive until 9 October. It was subsequently attached to the US 1st Cavalry Division, under the command of Major General Hobart R. Gay. On 16 October the brigade took over from the US 7th Cavalry Regiment as the vanguard of the UN advance into North Korea, its axis intended to take it through Kaesong, Kumchon and Hungsu-ri to Sariwon, then through Hwangju to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Although the North Koreans had suffered heavily in the preceding weeks, they continued to resist strongly, while a lack of accurate maps and the narrowness of the roads made rapid movement difficult for the advancing UN forces. During this time 3 RAR had a platoon of US M4 Sherman tanks attached and a battery of field guns in direct support.
The 27th British Commonwealth Brigade subsequently moved 70 kilometres (43 mi) from Kumchon, with the Argylls capturing Sariwon, an industrial town 54 kilometres (34 mi) south of Pyongyang, on 17 October. Supported by 3 RAR and US tanks, the Highlanders killed 215 KPA and took several thousand prisoners for the loss of one man killed and three wounded in a one-sided action. Prior to the attack the Australians had moved through the town to establish a blocking position 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) to the north. During the evening 3 RAR encountered a KPA force withdrawing north. Using the same road and moving in the same direction, the KPA mistook the Australians and Argylls for Russians in the poor light and were bluffed into surrendering, with the Australians capturing thousands of KPA and their weapons and equipment following a brief exchange. Mounted on a tank, the 3 RAR second-in-command, Major Ian Ferguson, captured over 1,600 KPA soldiers with just an interpreter. Australian involvement had been limited, however, and they regarded their first exposure to the fighting in Korea as a relatively minor incident. Pyongyang fell to US and South Korean troops on 19 October. The 27th British Commonwealth Brigade then passed to the command of the US 24th Infantry Division on 21 October, under the overall command of Major General John H. Church, while the US 1st Cavalry Division remained in Pyongyang to complete its capture. Coad had hoped to rest his men at Pyongyang; however, the advance continued north with little respite and the brigade moved through the village of Sangapo. The British and Australians were subsequently ordered to seize Chongju.
The previous day the 187 RCT had parachuted ahead of the advancing UN spearheads into drop zones around Sukchon and Sunchon, 40 kilometres (25 mi) north of the capital. Commanded by Colonel Frank S. Bowen, the paratroopers were tasked with the objectives of cutting off the retreating KPA forces that were withdrawing up the west coast of the Korean Peninsula and releasing US and South Korean prisoners of war. The plan envisioned the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 187th RCT dropping southeast of Sukchon to seize the town, before establishing blocking positions on the two main highways and the railway to Pyongyang. The 2nd Battalion, 187 RCT would then be dropped near Sunchon, 24 kilometres (15 mi) to the east to block another highway and railway line. The US paratroopers would then hold their positions while the US Eighth Army pushed northwards to link up with them, a task which was expected to be complete within two days. US intelligence indicated that a trainload of US prisoners of war was moving north by night from Pyongyang, and Bowen hoped to intercept their train and release the men. As the Eighth Army crossed the 38th Parallel MacArthur had held 187th RCT at Kimpo Airfield near Seoul as the theatre reserve, with the intent of using them as a blocking force to prevent the anticipated KPA withdrawal. Yet anxious not to expose the lightly equipped paratroopers by projecting them too far forward of the advance, MacArthur kept them back, and after changing the date twice, they were not dropped until 20 October. By this time the bulk of the KPA had succeeded in withdrawing safely behind the Chongchon River. Only the KPA 239th Regiment remained, having been ordered to delay the UN forces as they attempted to follow up. With a strength of 2,500 men the regiment subsequently occupied positions on the high ground astride the road and rail lines east of Yongju, 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of the US drop zones at Sukchon.
187 RCT airdrop at Sukchon and Sunchon, 20–21 October 1950
Beginning at 14:00 on 20 October, 1,470 men from Lieutenant Colonel Harry Wilson's 1/187 RCT, Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Company, as well as supporting engineer, medical and logistic elements, were flown by C-119 Flying Boxcar and C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft from Kimpo Airfield. After forming up over the Han River, the force was parachuted into a drop zone southeast of Sukchon—designated Drop Zone William—supported by US fighter aircraft which rocketed and strafed the ground in preparation for the landing. The Americans subsequently met occasional sniper fire, experiencing only limited resistance. US casualties included 25 men injured in the jump, while one group which landed 2.4 kilometres (1.5 mi) east of the drop zone lost a man killed in his parachute after being attacked by the KPA. The heavy equipment subsequently followed the initial airdrop, including seven 105 mm M2A1 howitzers and their ammunition from A and C Battery, 674th Field Artillery Battalion. One of the guns was damaged in the drop, however, and was unable to be used. 1/187 RCT subsequently moved west, capturing Hill 97 east of Sukchon and Hill 104 to the north, before clearing the town itself and setting up a roadblock.
Wilson dispatched patrols to the river in the vicinity of Naeman-ni, and prepared to move south towards Pyongyang. A platoon of engineers reached Songnani-ni at 15:30 but was delayed for 45 minutes by KPA fire. Capturing 15 prisoners, the platoon then moved to Namil-ni where it was further engaged, killing five KPA and capturing another 16. Meanwhile, Bowen established his command post at Chany-ni on Hill 97, along the dykes of the Choeyong River, and was dug-in by 16:00. 3/187th RCT—under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Delbert Munson—jumped into Drop Zone William shortly afterwards, before turning south and adopting a defensive position on the low hills 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) south of Sukchon, where they established roadblocks across the highway and railway. Seizing their objectives by 17:00, the US paratroopers killed five KPA and captured 42 others without loss. Preparing to attack south along the railway and highway, Munson subsequently dispersed his battalion along the high ground south of Sukchon, with Company I on the left and Company K on the right, where they set up a blocking position on the Sukchon–Pyongyang Road. 2/187 RCT—under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William J. Boyle—jumped into Drop Zone Easy, 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) southwest of Sunchon at 14:20 and although the battalion suffered 20 men injured in the drop, it secured its objectives by nightfall almost unopposed. B Battery, US 674th Field Artillery Battalion was also dropped in support. Two companies then established roadblocks to the south and west of the town, while a third company married up with elements of the ROK 6th Infantry Division at Sunchon, which was pushing towards the Chongchon River.
MacArthur had flown from Japan to watch the drop from the air, and after observing the landing aboard a US bomber accompanied by a number of war correspondents, he subsequently flew to Pyongyang where he announced to the press that the operation had achieved complete surprise. Estimating that 30,000 KPA troops—perhaps half of those remaining in North Korea—had been caught between the 187 RCT in the north and the US 1st Cavalry Division and ROK 1st Infantry Division to the south at Pyongyang, he predicted that they would soon be destroyed or captured by the UN advance. Yet, while the air drop itself had been a success, despite MacArthur's optimistic predictions the operation came too late to intercept any significant KPA elements and the US landings initially met little resistance. Indeed, most of the KPA had succeeded in withdrawing north, and had crossed the Chongchon River, or were in the process of doing so, while the government and most important officials had moved to Kanggye in the mountains 32 kilometres (20 mi) southeast of Manpojin on the Yalu River. Most of the US and ROK prisoners had also been moved to more remote parts of North Korea, and were unable to be rescued.
In total, during the operation approximately 4,000 men and more than 600 tons of equipment and supplies were dropped by the Americans at Sukchon and Sunchon on 20 October and the days that followed, including twelve 105 mm howitzers, 39 jeeps, 38 1/4-ton trailers, four 90 mm antiaircraft guns, four 3/4-ton trucks, as well as ammunition, fuel, water, rations, and other supplies. Although sound in concept, the operation may have had more chance of success had a complete airborne division been employed. The following morning 1/187 RCT captured the high ground north of Sukchon and established a blocking position on the main highway running north. However, strong KPA rearguard forces held the next line of hills to the north. While at Sunchon, 2/187 RCT had heard reports that a number of US prisoners had been murdered nearby by their North Korean captors as the KPA retreated. It became apparent that the train carrying the prisoners north from Pyongyang had halted in a railway tunnel on the 20th to conceal itself as 187 RCT jumped into the area, and that while there, many of the men aboard had been shot by the KPA guards them as they waited for their evening meal. Sixty-six bodies were later recovered, as well as those of seven more who were found to have died of disease or malnutrition. Twenty-three starving and emaciated US survivors were found nearby; however, many were badly wounded and two later died. The US paratroopers were subsequently ordered to return to Pyongyang.
KPA 239th Regiment is encircled, 21 October 1950
At 09:00 on 21 October, 3/187 RCT began to advance south to clear the Sukchon to Yongju road towards Pyongyang. The US paratroopers advanced on two fronts, with I Company moving along the railway line and K Company along the highway. At 13:00 I Company reached Opa-ri, where it encountered a strong KPA force estimated as a battalion, equipped with 120 mm mortars and 40 mm guns. I Company was caught in an ambush. The KPA subsequently attacked the paratroopers and after a battle lasting two-and-a-half hours, they overran two US platoons. I Company was forced to withdraw west of the railway to Hill 281 having suffered 90 men missing. Despite their success, the KPA subsequently withdrew to their own defensive positions in the high ground around Opa-ri. Amid the fighting, a US medic attached to I Company, Private First Class Richard G. Wilson, was killed while attempting to reach a wounded man who had been left behind, and he was later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Wilson had repeatedly exposed himself to KPA fire to render aid to the wounded, and later helped many to safety following the order to withdraw. On hearing that one of the Americans previously thought to be dead had been seen attempting to crawl to safety, he went back to the battlefield to search for him and had disappeared. Two days later a patrol found Wilson lying dead beside the man he had returned to rescue, having been shot while trying to shield him from further injury.
Meanwhile, during its advance along the highway, K Company encountered a battalion-sized KPA force, 1.6 kilometres (0.99 mi) north of Yongju. Following a sharp fight the Americans forced the KPA to withdraw to defensive positions on the high ground to the south and east of the town, as K Company continued into Yongju, where they established a position on Hill 163, immediately to the north, digging-in. The distance separating the highway and the railway which ran north either side of Yongju was larger at that point than anywhere else between Pyongyang and Sukchon. The US companies now occupied positions roughly opposite each other—at Yongju on the highway and Opa-ri on the railway—yet these positions were now almost 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) apart and they were unable to mutually support each other. Elsewhere, elements of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 187 RCT successfully linked up at Sunchon that afternoon.
The KPA 239th Regiment had subsequently established defensive positions on a line of hills extending southwest to northeast across the highway at Yongju and the railway at Opa-ri, on ground which offered the best defensive terrain between the capital and the Chongchon River. The last KPA unit to leave Pyongyang, the Regiment had been tasked with fighting a delaying action against UN troops as they advanced north. Yet as a result of the unexpected US airborne assault, the KPA 239th Regiment was subsequently encircled and found itself unexpectedly attacked from the rear. Already under threat from the UN advance north from Pyongyang, the KPA subsequently reacted vigorously to the Americans as 3/187 RCT began to move south, and heavy fighting ensued 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) north of Yongju. The US paratroopers subsequently requested assistance from the US 24th Infantry Division, to which it was temporarily attached. Meanwhile, as the fighting at Yongju continued, 2/187 RCT had remained out of contact at its drop zone at Sunchon as the ROK 6th Division completed the clearance of the town and its surrounds of KPA stragglers.
British and Australians advance to Yongju, 21–22 October 1950
In the days prior, US I Corps had continued its movement northward as part of the general advance of the US Eighth Army. Following the capture of Pyongyang, the corps commander, Major General Frank W. Milburn, ordered the advance to continue to the MacArthur Line, running approximately 35 kilometres (22 mi) south of the Yalu River. The US 24th Division, to which the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade was then attached, was ordered to lead this attack. On the division's right flank three ROK divisions, the ROK 1st Division, under US I Corps, and the ROK 6th and 8th Divisions under the control of ROK II Corps, were deployed to the east and would also be committed to the attack northwards. The British and Australians had covered 122 kilometres (76 mi) in the previous two days, advancing rapidly until slowed by rain. A Company, 3 RAR was subsequently engaged by snipers from a nearby village without suffering casualties. The Sherman tanks proceeded to heavily engage the KPA positions in the village, which was then cleared by the Australian infantry who killed five KPA and took three prisoners. As the rain ceased a KPA T-34 tank, which had remained concealed during the earlier fighting, engaged D Company, 3 RAR and was subsequently knocked out by the US tanks. An unmanned SU-76 self-propelled gun was also located nearby, and neither it nor the tank were found to have any petrol. Meanwhile, 187 RCT's request for reinforcement had been received by the headquarters of the US 24th Infantry Division in Pyongyang. Yet, with the US division still well to the rear, the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade was the closest formation, and it was subsequently ordered forward to assist the US paratroopers.
Now the vanguard of the Eighth Army, the British and Australians crossed the Taedong River using a sand-bag bridge at Pyongyang at noon on 21 October, moving north on the main highway to Sukchon with the task of reaching the Chongchon River. Meanwhile, elements of 3/187 RCT occupied Yongju. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Nielson, 1 ASHR subsequently pushed up the road until fired upon by KPA forces in the hills to the south of the town, with snipers engaging the column as it turned west out of the river valley around 16:00. Encountering only light resistance from a small KPA force of approximately 75 men which was then scattered by tank fire, the Argylls successfully cleared the foothills by last light on 21 October. Approaching Yongju, Coad decided to halt for the night. The Argylls subsequently sent a patrol into the town, establishing initial contact with 3/187 RCT, marrying up with K Company which was established in a number of houses on the northern edge of Yongju and on Hill 163 immediately above their position. A strong KPA force was believed to be nearby, however, with at least 300 men thought to remain in the town.
North Koreans attempt to break-out, 21/22 October 1950
Cut-off, about midnight the KPA 239th Regiment attempted to break out to the north, launching a number of attacks against the Americans. During the first attack a small group of KPA succeeded in infiltrating the K Company command post at Yongju. In the close-quarter fighting that ensured Captain Claude K. Josey, the US company commander, tackled a KPA machine-gunner, and despite being wounded twice he succeeded in disarming him before collapsing from his injuries. Josey was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. As the fighting continued the K Company executive officer was also wounded, yet the Americans eventually drove off the KPA, many of whom were subsequently killed. Nearby, the British and Australians could hear the sounds of heavy fighting between the Americans and KPA 1.6 to 3.2 kilometres (1 to 2 mi) to the north. Half an hour later a small group of KPA attacked A Company, 1 ASHR with grenades, killing two men and wounding two more before being repulsed having suffered one killed and one wounded. A large concentration of around 300 KPA were subsequently observed assembling in Yongju by the K Company forward observer, however the US artillery had relocated during the fighting and was unable to engage the target. Two guns from C Battery, 674th Artillery Battalion were ordered to reposition south of Sukchon to support 3/187 RCT. Following two more KPA attacks the Americans near Hill 163 were forced to abandon the roadblock after running out of ammunition. Detecting the withdrawal, the KPA attacked again at 04:00. Meanwhile, after forcing their way through heavy KPA machine-gun and rifle fire the two US howitzers were successfully redeployed, coming into action at 04:15. To the south, the British and Australians could hear the sounds of renewed fighting, and they began to fear that the Americans had been overrun.
The KPA attacks drove K Company from Yongju that night, forcing them back towards the battalion's main defensive position 3.2 kilometres (2.0 mi) to the north. Yet the paratroopers managed to reform into a tight perimeter on the northern edge of Yongju. Renewing their attack at 05:45, the KPA then assaulted the command post of 3/187 RCT and the L Company perimeter, but suffered heavy casualties from US enfilade and direct fire. During this action a column of KPA had moved towards L Company just before daybreak, singing as they approached. Dug-in on the forward slopes facing the road, the 3 Platoon position gave the Americans a good field of fire overlooking the rice paddies and they began to engage the KPA with machine-guns. Meanwhile, 1 Platoon and Company Headquarters also began to fire in support. Yet in the darkness the attackers claimed to be ROK and the Americans subsequently held their fire until the light became sufficient to confirm their identity. An US 57 mm recoilless rifle subsequently destroyed a KPA truck at the head of another column as it moved up the road. The KPA then attempted to move a machine-gun forward, but were thwarted as the Americans killed a number of men and took over the weapon. Under heavy fire the KPA attack was broken up, with many of the survivors attempting to take cover behind the raised road. Meanwhile, the howitzers had continued to support the paratroopers, and by 05:50 the two guns had fired 145 rounds. During a single fire mission 54 KPA were killed, while by the time 3/187 RCT was finally relieved later that day C Battery, 674th Artillery Battalion had accounted for more than 200 KPA.
In spite of these losses the KPA assaulted the US positions again, with a force of 300 men falling on L Company and a further 450 men assaulting Headquarters Company. At the bottom of the slope the KPA knocked out a US machine-gun, hitting three of the crew in quick succession. The Americans responded with .50 caliber heavy machine-guns, while a 3.5-inch bazooka engaged the KPA in a culvert as they attempted to overrun the L Company position. Master Sergeant Willard W. Ryals subsequently moved forward down the hill under heavy fire to man the now silenced machine-gun, and proceeded to engage the attackers. For his actions he was later awarded the US Silver Star. Hard-pressed, the beleaguered Americans again requested assistance. Overnight Coad had ordered 3 RAR to take the lead the following morning and Green subsequently decided to send a company through Yongju to advance north as rapidly as possible, intending to push through the Argylls which were tasked with clearing the town. By dawn, the KPA and Americans had fought each other to a standstill after heavy fighting overnight and the previous day; the KPA 239th Regiment was almost exhausted, yet, in danger of being destroyed, it prepared for a final attempt to break out.
At first light on 22 October, A and C Company, 1 ASHR advanced into Yongju, before the Australians passed through them. Elsewhere, the Middlesex battalion took up defensive positions to the north of Yongju. The Argylls then moved through the town, using high explosive and white phosphorus grenades to flush out the remaining KPA snipers, setting fire to many of the buildings. As planned, at 07:00, 3 RAR was ordered to move through Yongju towards Sukchon to link up with 187 RCT and close the gap between the two forces. C Company, 3 RAR under Captain Archer Denness subsequently passed through the burning town mounted on M4 Sherman tanks from D Company, 89th Tank Battalion. Now leading the brigade, at 09:00 the Australians came under small arms and light mortar fire from a KPA rearguard position in an apple orchard on their right flank, having moved just 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi). The Australians had driven into the rear of the KPA 239th Regiment as it was forming up for a final assault on 3/187 RCT. The strong KPA force of approximately 1,000 men subsequently allowed C Company, 3 RAR and the battalion's tactical headquarters group to pass before engaging them. The KPA-held features lay between the advancing Australians and the US paratroopers, blocking any relief attempt. Yet rather than preparing a deliberate attack and potentially allowing the KPA time to organise their defences, Green chose to force his leading company through at once in order to seize the initiative and continue the pursuit. An encounter battle developed as 3 RAR carried out an aggressive quick attack from the road, with US tanks in support.
Fighting in the apple orchard, 22 October 1950
Preparing for the assault, Green informed brigade headquarters of his plans and was advised that 187 RCT was believed to be about 1,500 metres (1,600 yd) further north; however, as the exact location of the Americans was unclear the indirect fire available to support the attack would be limited. The US tanks were also initially under orders not to fire for fear of hitting their own men. With mortars and artillery unavailable the Australians proceeded to attack regardless, with the tanks carrying C Company turning east towards the KPA positions in the apple orchard. 7 and 8 Platoons were subsequently committed to the attack, while 9 Platoon—commanded by Lieutenant David Butler—was left near the road to protect the Australian flank. Supported by 18 Sherman tanks, the Australians dismounted close to their objective, charging the position with bayonets, Bren light machine guns, Owen guns, rifles and grenades as the tanks opened up with their main armament and machine-guns. In the face of this determined attack many of the KPA left their pits in an attempt to move to safety, only to suffer heavy casualties after exposing themselves to the fire of the two assaulting platoons and the US tanks and flanking platoon in support. The speed and ferocity of the attack surprised the defenders, and the Australians quickly overcame the KPA outposts despite the lack of indirect fires. The KPA, many of whom were recently trained conscripts, were then forced to withdraw for the loss of only four Australians wounded. For his leadership in co-ordinating the assault Denness was later awarded the Military Cross, while Private Charles McMurray received the Military Medal for bravery.
More than 70 KPA were killed in the initial attack, while a further eight or nine were killed as the Australians cleared the position, setting fire to the KPA dug-outs and forcing the remaining defenders to flee. As the KPA broke, Green pushed A and B Company onto the higher ground to the right of C Company with the intention of clearing the ridge overlooking the highway, while D Company moved forward on the left of the road towards 9 Platoon. Meanwhile, the battalion tactical headquarters, which had followed closely behind C Company as they assaulted, came under attack in the apple orchard east of the road and was forced to fight off a group of KPA, with the regimental police and the battalion signallers fighting back-to-back to defend themselves. Withstanding the attack, the Australians eventually killed 34 KPA for the loss of three men wounded. Yet despite becoming personally involved in the heavy fighting, Green continued to skilfully control the battle throughout. D Company was subsequently ordered to clear the KPA threatening battalion headquarters, as well as sending a platoon forward to re-establish contact with the Americans. Running low on ammunition, 3/187 RCT had been in contact throughout the morning and continued to suffer casualties. However, having been forced off the high ground, the KPA were now caught between the advancing Australians and the US paratroopers to the north.
Unable to move north, the KPA attempted to breakout across the open rice fields to the west, through the gap between the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade and 187 RCT. The KPA again suffered heavy casualties, with many cut down by tank and rifle fire from C Company, 3 RAR. Some of the survivors took refuge among a number of haystacks and rice stooks in front of 9 Platoon, from where they engaged the Australians with sniper fire. Others fled east, escaping to the higher ground where they dispersed. D Company, 3 RAR was subsequently ordered to clear pockets of resistance remaining within the battalion position. Meanwhile, the Middlesex battalion passed through the Australians and, with the tanks, linked up with 187 RCT at 11:00. Following three hours of fighting the battle was largely over by midday; however, many of the KPA that had been unable to escape continued to refuse to surrender, hiding or feigning death until individually flushed out. After clearing their objectives 7 and 8 Platoon had moved forward towards 9 Platoon, which then clashed with a number of KPA stragglers in the paddy fields. C Company, 3 RAR subsequently deployed in an extended line and a substantial action soon developed. In a scene Coad later likened to driving snipe, the Australians subsequently proceeded to sweep the area, kicking over stacks of straw and shooting the KPA soldiers they found hiding in them as they attempted to flee. For his leadership Butler was subsequently awarded the US Silver Star, while Private John Cousins received the US Bronze Star for his role in the action.
Despite the uncertain situation and the lack of indirect support, Green's tactical handling of the Australian battalion had been bold, and his decision to move quickly through Yongju and to attack off the line of march proved decisive. Preoccupied with fighting the Americans to their north, the KPA were unprepared for the Australians to attack from the rear. Caught between the US paratroopers and the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, the KPA 239th Regiment was practically destroyed. KPA casualties in the apple orchard were 150 killed, 239 wounded and 200 captured, while Australian casualties numbered just seven men wounded. Including those engaged by the Argylls, total KPA losses during the fighting with the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade exceeded 200 killed and 500 captured. The survivors subsequently fled westwards. In their first major battle in Korea the Australians had distinguished themselves, and the battalion was later praised for its performance. The action became known as the "Battle of the Apple Orchard", while the Royal Australian Regiment was later granted the battle honour "Yongju". Boosting their confidence, the success prepared the Australians for the battles which they were to face in the months that followed. Meanwhile, 3/187 RCT reported killing 805 KPA and capturing 681 in the fighting around Yongju. Altogether, US casualties during the Sukchon-Sunchon operation were 48 killed in action and 80 wounded, and a further one killed and 56 injured in the jump. 3/187 RCT and the 2nd Section, Antitank Gun Platoon, Support Company were both awarded the US Distinguished Unit Citation.
That afternoon 3/187 RCT returned to Sukchon. The Middlesex battalion was subsequently ordered to push on to Sukchon, and after successfully relieving the Americans in place by nightfall, the battalion occupied a defensive position 1.6 kilometres (0.99 mi) north. 187 RCT returned to Pyongyang by road on 23 October, moving through Sunchon. Shortly after they went back into theatre reserve. Meanwhile, the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade and US 24th Division continued their advance up the highway. Intending to defeat the KPA and bring the war to a close, the UN forces pushed towards the Yalu River, on the Chinese border. However, resistance continued to be met as the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade crossed the Chongchon River, and they now moved towards Pakchon. On 24 October, MacArthur had removed all restrictions on the movement of his forces south of the Yalu River and prepared for the final phase of the UN advance, defying a directive of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and risking Chinese intervention on behalf of North Korea. An intense period of fighting followed and the Australians were involved in a number of major battles over the coming days.
On the afternoon of 25 October a platoon from 3 RAR was fired on by two companies of KPA as they crossed the Taeryong River to conduct a reconnaissance of the west bank, and although they were subsequently forced to withdraw, the Australians took 10 prisoners with them. Acting as the forward elements of the brigade, that evening Green sent two companies across the river to establish defensive positions, and they subsequently broke up a frontal assault on their positions with mortars while the KPA were in the process of forming up. Sixty KPA supported by a T-34 tank then attacked the forward Australian companies at Kujin early the following morning, resulting in Australian losses of eight killed and 22 wounded. However, the KPA suffered heavy casualties including over 100 killed and 350 captured, and the Australians subsequently succeeded in defending the bridgehead after the KPA withdrew. Intelligence indicated that the British and Australians were facing the KPA 17th Tank Brigade, which was preparing a last line of defence at Chongju, 70 kilometres (43 mi) away. With the war considered all but over the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade continued to pursue the KPA towards Chongju; however, the advance increasingly encountered strong resistance as they approached the Manchurian border.
- The 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, attached the US 24th Infantry Division, would link up with the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 187 RCT at Sukchon, while 70th Tank Battalion would advance from Pyongyang to link up with 2/187 RCT at Sunchon the day after the jump. See Flanagan 1997, pp. 157–158.
- The US official history lists KPA casualties during fighting with the British and Australians as including 270 killed and 200 captured, see Appleman 1998, p. 660.
- During the operation, 187 RCT had faced an estimated 8,000 KPA troops. KPA losses were estimated at 2,764 killed and 3,818 captured, see Flanagan 1997, p. 167.
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