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  • Aug 20, 2014
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Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am

Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950
by Andrew Salmon
Arum Press

The men who fought the Korean war are still often bitter that their contribution to the conflict that showed the United Nations to be toothless remains overlooked by history. Speak today to veterans of the conflict - which broke out 61 years ago on June 25 - and they feel they are the forgotten men of a largely forgotten conflict.

These men endured some of the most brutal fighting and battlefield conditions in the history of warfare. Their enemy was implacable, ferocious and - after the Chinese People's Volunteer Army intervened once the North Korean forces had been routed - far more numerous than the men of the UN army. Tales of vicious hand-to-hand fighting, atrocities committed by North Korean troops and the deprivations of the men on the frontlines are legendary - but too frequently only among those who were there.

The book covers the experiences of the men of the 27th Infantry Brigade - a union of the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the 1st Middlesex Regiment and the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment - as they initially resisted the North Korean onslaught around Pusan, in the far south of the peninsula, before breaking out.

Based on the diaries, letters and interviews with 90 survivors of the conflict, the book skilfully melds those memories and impressions with the 'bigger picture' of operations and military aims on the peninsula with a nod to the wider implications of a polarised globe. This was, after all, the first UN war, the first and only invasion by forces of the free world of a communist state and the only battlefield clash of superpowers to date.

But that was all a long way away from the lives of British garrison troops in Hong Kong in the summer of 1950. They were unaware that they would soon be exchanging the bars and bright lights of Wan Chai for shell holes and snow-covered mountains, or that of the 63,000 British and 17,000 Australians committed, some 1,438 would be killed and a further 3,874 wounded.

The book details troops being deployed at a week's notice, woefully under-manned and under-equipped. Through the eyes of the men who were there, we learn of the heroic performance of the Argylls as they attacked Point 390 and Point 282 as part of the breakout from Pusan, and then endured enemy counterattacks and a cruel 'friendly-fire' incident in which they were on the receiving end of a napalm attack.

After the breakout from Pusan and the Inchon landings, American general Douglas MacArthur decided to push for a complete rout of the North Korean regime by driving beyond Seoul and the pre-war boundary on the 38th parallel and aiming for the Yalu River and the border with China.

Things were tough when the UN force was fighting the North Korean army, but that became much harder when the Chinese entered the conflict. Men who were there told Salmon that they 'felt' the change in the mountains around them.

The onslaught did not take long to materialise and is recounted in painful detail, of a headlong flight to the south, of lines of refugees heading in the same direction, of last stands that will never be fully recorded as there were no survivors.

The author is rapidly earning himself a reputation as a key chronicler of the years of the Korean war; this latest title is incisive, compelling and neatly crafted and will enhance that reputation further.

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