Anzac Day 2020: The 70th anniversary of the Korean War: a quick guide

15 April 2020

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David Watt
Foreign Affairs Defence and Security


This quick guide is one of a series of publications published by the Parliamentary Library for the commemoration of Anzac Day 2020.

The Korean War

The 70th anniversary of the act that precipitated the Korean War falls on 25 June 2020. On that day in 1950, seven infantry divisions, an armoured brigade and several independent regiments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Army in the north crossed the border, known as the 38th parallel, into the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south capturing the capital Seoul within the week and driving ROK forces down into the south-western corner (the Pusan perimeter).

Background and overview

The Korean War had its roots in the end of the Second World War. Korea had been under Japanese control since 1910 and had no existing government which could be restored to power. As a result the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) agreed during August 1945 to separate the Korean Peninsula into two administrative spheres at the 38th parallel, with the US occupying the south and the USSR the north. A plan to hold elections and form a unified Korean government could not be agreed and by 1947 the United Nations (UN) became responsible for resolving the Korean ‘problem’. During 1948 the UN had accepted that the south would have its own elected government and in August 1948 the Government of the Republic of Korea was formed with its leader President Syngman Rhee. There was continued tension and periodic violence across the border throughout this period.

Australia, keen to support the newly formed UN, had played a small but important role in the years before the Korean War and at the start of the conflict itself. Australia had been involved at the UN in attempting to find a way to reunify the two halves of the Korean Peninsula. Australia was one of nine members of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) and, after the election had taken place in the south, its successor the United Nations Commission on Korea (UNCOK). In March 1950 the UN requested that Australia provide two military observers (in their request they described the climate in Korea as temperate).[1] Australia agreed and in the period immediately before the invasion Major FSB Peach and Squadron Leader RJ Rankin were sent to the 38th parallel to report on the situation. They delivered a report the day before the attack that stated:

The principal impression left with the observers after the field tour along the parallel is that the South Korean army is organised entirely for defence, and is in no condition to carry out an attack on a large scale against the forces of the north.[2]

The Australian observers were the only UNCOK members at the 38th parallel when the north invaded the south on 25 June 1950. As such, their report to the UN was instrumental in proving the origin of the hostilities came from the north, which allowed the UN to intervene.[3]

US President Harry Truman decided quickly that the US would intervene militarily on behalf of the ROK and the UN Security Council adopted a series of resolutions about the invasion in late June and early July 1950. These resolutions were not vetoed by the USSR because it had boycotted the Security Council over the latter’s refusal to recognise the communist People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China and therefore as a permanent member of the Council. UNSC Resolution 84 passed on 7 July 1950 authorising the establishment of a multinational force known as the United Nations Command (UNC) in South Korea, with US leadership under a UN flag.

Australia became the second nation after the US to join the UNC, offering the services of the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) No. 77 squadron and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships HMA Ships Shoalhaven and Bataan, all of which were involved in the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) in Japan. Twenty-one nations contributed to the UNC in differing ways and strengths.[4]

On 30 June Prime Minister Robert Menzies gave approval for military action and moved a motion in the House of Representatives on 6 July seeking approval of the Government’s actions. Menzies justified Australia’s actions by invoking Australia’s responsibilities under the UN Charter:

If there is to be a world organization for peace there must be a world acceptance of the responsibilities to maintain it. In one breath to speak of our allegiance to the Charter, and in the next to ignore the resolution of the Security Council would be either hypocrisy or cowardice, of neither of which has Australia ever been adjudged guilty.

The increase in military forces by the US, the Commonwealth countries and others led to a second phase of the war. This involved the famous landings at Inchon that outflanked the North Koreans and the rapid pushing back of their forces into the northern part of the peninsula. In turn, the intervention of large numbers of Chinese troops (the Chinese People’s Volunteers) during October 1950 resulted in the United Nations forces being pushed back down the peninsula, and despite the so-called Fifth Phase offensive by the Chinese during April and May of 1951, a more static phase of the war.

Negotiations for a ceasefire commenced in July 1951 but it took most of two years to achieve an outcome. The armistice, signed on 27 July 1953 by representatives of UNC and military commanders from China and North Korea, suspended open hostilities and was only meant to be a ceasefire until a longer term peace settlement could be reached. It also created the infamous demilitarised zone.

Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)

As noted above the RAAF entered the Korean War in the first week and remained in action during the entire war.[5] No. 77 Squadron was the first Australian unit to be involved when it flew its first sorties on 2 July 1950. Airpower was critical in deciding the outcome of the war. Climatic extremes, such as the freezing cold Korean winters, and the high operational tempo (No. 77 Squadron flew over 15,000 sorties during the course of the war) made the RAAF task particularly difficult.

No. 77 Squadron initially flew P-51 Mustangs, which were robust and useful for ground attack activities at which the Australian pilots were skilled. However, once the Chinese military entered the war the Mustang proved unable to compete with the Soviet supplied MiG-15 jet fighters used by the Chinese. In response, the Australian Government ordered 36 Gloster Meteors during December 1950 and RAAF pilots were retrained and flew their first jet fighter in combat.[6]

Beginning in 1951, the RAAF Nursing Service (a branch of the RAAF since 1940) provided personnel for aeromedical evacuation flights from Korea to Iwakuni in Japan.[7] The nurses assisted with the evacuation of 12,000 patients until July 1956.

Royal Australian Navy (RAN)

The RAN deployed to the Korean War on 29 June 1950, four days after the war commenced. RAN action included the landing at Inchon in September 1950, the evacuation of Chinnampo in November 1950 and HMAS Murchison’s bombardment of enemy positions on the northern shore of the Han Estuary during July 1951. As with the RAAF, the cold of the Korean winters added to the challenges of the region, such as high seas, blizzards and extreme tidal conditions. RAN ships included HMA Ships Warramunga, Murchison, Shoalhaven, Bataan, Anzac, Tobruk, Condamine and Culgoa. HMAS Sydney with its air group served in Korean waters from October 1951 to January 1952, giving the RAN valuable experience operating an aircraft carrier in conflict:

There were armed reconnaissance flights, ground attack missions, rescue patrols, and defensive patrols around Sydney against a potential aircraft or submarine threat. Pilots generally flew only once or twice during the day and there was no night flying.[8]

This rate of work included 89 sorties in one day on 11 October 1951 and surviving a battering at sea from Typhoon Ruth just three days later.

Australian Army

The Australian Army also contributed to the defence of the ROK. Third Battalion (3RAR) was already based in Japan and, once it had been brought up to strength, commenced operations in early October 1950 as part of the 27th Commonwealth Brigade and remained in Korea throughout the war. The Commonwealth Brigade advanced north with the other UN troops, crossing the 38th parallel on 7 October and saw serious action during 1950 against both North Korean and Chinese forces. The latter had entered the war due to UN forces crossing into North Korean territory and therefore getting close to the Chinese border. 3RAR undertook battles during the mobile phase of the war at Sariwon, Yongju, Pakchon, and Chingju. On 5 November in Pakchon was the first time the Australians fought against a larger group of Chinese troops and the furthest north they would get before the combined Chinese and North Korean forces pushed the UN forces back down the peninsula.[9]

The entry of Chinese forces into the war caused grave concern in Australia and abroad. Menzies again addressed the House in December 1950, stating:

The entry into the contest of something like 250,000 Chinese Communist troops has presented new and tremendous problems of a military kind. It has, in fact, among other things, served as n timely reminder to us that even great superiority in the air and in ground weapons can be matched by large numerical superiority in point of trained manpower. The military problems will, of course, be dealt with by a very distinguished military commander. It would be difficult to run an effective campaign by committee. But I confidently anticipate that no military decision which might have international political implications will be made without full consultation between the governments concerned.

Above and beyond the purely military considerations, there are political implications in the Chinese intervention which are of great magnitude and delicacy. I would not assist in their determination by provoking any premature discussion about them. All I need say is that our own best endeavours will be in the direction of isolating the Korean campaign and making it abundantly clear to the Chinese people that the participating countries of the United Nations have no desire to inflict injury upon Chinese lives or property but are engaged in a military operation in which Chinese citizens can become involved only by their own choice. For myself, I have every hope that the meeting now proceeding between the leaders of the two great democratic powers in the world will materially help to produce a state of affairs in which, while the action taken by the United Nations is upheld and proceeds to success, there may be no unnecessary spreading of the conflict of such a kind as to involve the world in a great war, the very thought of which is detestable to the overwhelming majority of the world’s people.

What Menzies meant by a ‘great war’ was the possibility that the West could be drawn into a larger war with China and the USSR. Since the latter had developed its own atomic weapons by this point this was a source of some fear on all sides. The USSR provided support in various ways to the North Korean and Chinese forces but was careful not to do so in a way that might provoke direct confrontation with the US.

Two other battalions (1RAR and 2RAR) served on rotation from 1952 to 1953, although both served to train reinforcements for 3RAR before they were themselves sent. 3RAR fought major battles at Kapyong during April 1951 and Maryang San during October of the same year. The last 20 months of the war was more static and took place in tandem with ongoing efforts to negotiate an armistice between the two sides. One notable Australian soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel (later General) Frank Hassett compared this last stage to the First World War:

The soldier lives underground in a hole. The earth is red and soft and now in the rainy season becomes sticky mud. The soldier moves very little in the mud because he may be very close to the enemy.

He surrounds himself and his mates with barbed wire which lies over the hills of Korea like a blue mist. Extensive mine fields are everywhere. Most of the action takes place at night.

Korea cannot be clinched by either side grabbing more of what the soldiers call real estate.

The infanteer is almost exclusively the only soldier who gets hit in Korea to-day and almost all Australian troops there are infanteers. However, they are sticking it out cheerfully and will stick it out as long as they are asked to do so.

He added that Australian troops were "keen, intelligent and aggressive," well-equipped and lacked for nothing.[10]

Notable incidents include 1RAR’s attack against Chinese positions at Hill 227 (Operation Blaze) and Operation Fauna. In the days before the signing of the armistice 1RAR fought the last action of the War at the Hook when they were attacked by large numbers of Chinese troops.

During the course of the Korean War the army suffered 293 killed, 1,210 wounded and 24 prisoners of war.

Of the numerous battle honours won by the Australian Army in Korea, three major honours are emblazoned on Regimental Colours: ‘Korea’ 1950–53 (1RAR, 2RAR, 3RAR), Kapyong April 1951 (3RAR), and Maryang San October 1951 (3RAR).

Historical perspective

For Australians, the Korean War was more important than most realise. Firstly, it demonstrated that despite Australia’s cultural and social links to Europe, the strategic future of Australia was in its own geographic region of Asia. Secondly, it reinforced the importance of Australia’s alliance with the US (negotiations for the ANZUS Treaty took place during the early stages of the Korean War and the Treaty was signed in 1951). In one sense the Korean War set the stage for Australia’s subsequent involvement in the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

To the modern eye, Australians who served in Korea look not dissimilar to those who served in the Second World War and indeed many of them had done exactly that. In reality, the Korean War served as a link between Australians who had served in the earlier war and those who served in later conflicts—they certainly shared the difficulties, hardship and sacrifice of both. As noted by historian Michael Evans:

It was both an epilogue to the Second World War and a prologue to the new age of the Cold War, as the conflict reflected the old and the new ... The actual fighting in Korea seemed to recall not only the Second World War but also the First World War ... [Yet] the Korean War was the birthplace of the doctrine of limited war and was fought against a background of atomic weapons, new jet aircraft and new psychological warfare techniques.[11]

To most Australians the war was far from the national crisis that had accompanied the direct attacks of the Second World War or the high casualty rates of the First World War. The war did not excite the domestic opposition that accompanied the Vietnam War and, particularly once the more static phase of the war set in, received less media coverage as well. Soldiers returning from Korea gave a forewarning of the conditions that would once again occur with Vietnam, as soldiers returned home from the battlefront to a largely unknowing and sometimes seemingly uncaring public.

As noted by one veteran:

No one knew I was home from Korea. ‘What are those medals for?’—they just didn’t have a clue, really.[12]

After the signing of the armistice, Australian forces were gradually reduced, with 3RAR withdrawing during 1954 and 1RAR leaving in April of the following year. A small number of Australian personnel remained in Korea until 1957.[13]

Between 29 June 1950 and 27 July 1953, some 17,000 Australian military personnel served in the defence of the ROK. In total, Australia suffered 340 killed, 1,216 wounded and 29 prisoners of war.

Of the 340 listed as having been killed, 43 were listed as missing in action.

[1].   P Londey, Other people’s wars: a history of Australian peacekeeping, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2004, p. 31.

[2].   R O’Neill, Australia in the Korean War volume I: strategy and diplomacy, The Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra, 1981, p. 14.

[3].   Ibid., pp. 13–15.

[4].   Ibid., p. 462.

[5].   A Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, The Australian Centenary History of Defence Volume II, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2001, pp. 229­–234.

[6].   Ibid.

[7].   G Halstead, Story of the RAAF Nursing Service: 1940–1990, Nungurner Press, Metung (Vic.), 1994, p. 9.

[8].   K James, ‘Sea Furies and fireflies’, Wartime, 1 March 2019, p. 40.

[9].   J Grey, A military history of Australia, 3rd edn, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2008, pp. 209–215.

[10].   ‘Korea fighting like First World War’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 1952, p. 2.

[11].   M Evans, ‘Australia’s war in Korea: strategic perspectives and military lessons’, in The Korean War: a fifty year perspective, Army History Unit, Canberra, 2000, p. 163.

[12].   Sergeant (later Air Vice Marshal) Bill Collings, RAAF, as quoted in B Evans, Out in the cold: Australian involvement in the Korean War 1950–53, The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2000, p. 87.

[13].   R O’Neill, Australia in the Korean War 1950–53: volume II: combat operations, The Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Printing Service, 1985, pp. 586–588.


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