Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Stand of the Not-So-Light Brigade: Someone had blunder'd

By the spring of 1951, both sides of the Korean War - the United Nations (mainly the United States and South Korea) and the Communist forces (China and North Korea) had taken each other's measure. After the UN had driven Kim Il Sung's Communist regime - which had attacked South Korea - entirely out of North Korea, massive Chinese armies attacked across the Yalu River and drove the UN back. UN counteroffensives against overextended supply lines serving outgunned and outskilled (if far from outnumbered) Chinese forces prevented Mao Tse-tung from himself unifying Korea.

By Spring 1951, it had become clear that a northern Communist regime and a southern pro-Western regime would continue to "share" the Korean peninsula - the main issue was where their border would be drawn.

On April 22, 1951, around the 38th Parallel (the pre-war boundary) in Korea, the Chinese forces began their offensive to recapture Seoul, the South Korean capital, among other things. In fact, three divisions of the Chinese 63rd Army attacked across the Imjin River, just north of Seoul. On the other side: the British 29th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Tom Brodie.

Outnumbered, the British could not hold their positions, and Brigadier Brodie asked his superiors, the American commanders of I Corps, for help and/or permission to withdraw. He got very little of the former (no artillery support at all - and the 29th Brigade had inadequate artillery - no close air support on the first day and little thereafter) and none of the latter. The brigade was shattered - in four days of fighting taking 1,091 casualties, possibly 25% of its strength right before the battle.

Did the Americans understand the British 29th Brigade's desperate plight? The British had radios and could communicate the situation...or could they?

As historian Max Hastings points out in his book The Korean War, p. 218, quoting a British officer on the scene:

When Tom told Corps that his position was 'a bit sticky,' they simply did not grasp that in British Army parlance, that meant 'critical'.

In other words, the British Army suffered a stinging defeat, including hundreds of crack British troops trudging into Communist prison camps, because the British couldn't express themselves clearly and/or the Americans couldn't take a hint.

Epilogue: After the battle the British incorporated the 29th Brigade into a new Commonwealth Division - so that British commanders would be much less dependent on communicating with American superiors.

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