Forgotten heroes return to valley of nightmares

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The Independent Online
"When I finally left," says Phil Hawkins, "I hated this country and everything in it. I never wanted to see it again. Every year after I got home I used to have nightmares that the Chinese were coming up the hill for me, every April on the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th."

The minibus comes to a stop and Mr Hawkins peers cautiously out onto a narrow road between two steep rocky hills. "Welcome to my home in April 1951," he says.

Yesterday, along with 70 veterans of the Korean War and their families, Mr Hawkins visited the place where his bad dreams began.

Nowadays, it is a peaceful, wooded valley where some 300 people, including diplomats, generals and the Duke of Gloucester, laid wreaths and said prayers yesterday at an annual service of remembrance. Mr Hawkins' memories go back to his last visit here, and the battle which began 46 years ago tomorrow.

The Korean campaign, fought under the flag of the United Nations, was dominated by America, politically and militarily. The 87,000 British soldiers, sailors and airmen who came to Korea represented the second largest contingent in the 16-nation army, and nearly 4,000 of them were killed or wounded, with many more sitting out the war in Chinese prisoner of war camps.

But their contribution was eclipsed by the Korean and American armies, who fought the most famous battles and suffered the worst casualties.

Veterans, with more than a little bitterness, refer to the campaign as the forgotten war, and it is appropriate that the most famous British encounter was a heroic defeat, the last stand of the Gloucestershire Regiment at the Battle of the Imjin River. Barely five years after the end of the war in Europe, the fate of South Korea, and its unpredictable dictator, Synghman Rhee, meant little in Britain.

"We had a song that went 'We're fighting for that bastard, Synghman Rhee'," says Mr Hawkins, a craftsman in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, attached to the Gloucesters. "But no one had much idea what it was all about."

Len Swatton, a veteran of the Normandy landings, remembers being told that "this was the last chance to stop the communists before they got right to Australia".

In April 1951, 29 Brigade found itself on the hills overlooking the Imjin river. Of the 650 Gloucesters who began the battle, barely one in 10 walked away.

Unknown to them, their hills lay across one of the main attack routes of the Chinese "People's Volunteers", who had entered the war six months before in support of the North Korean army. On 22 April they attacked.

"It was like Wembley," said Len Swatton, who escaped form the battle with a bullet in his leg and shrapnel lodged in his arm. "You couldn't miss, there were so many of them and they were so close. I looked down, and there was a face sticking up out of the river, right in front of me. He got an army boot in the face. After that, we ran."

For four days, the units of 29 Brigade gradually withdrew, until only "Gloster Hill" was defended. The Chinese attacked at night, and in the most eerie fashion.

"There'd be no sound," remembers Mr Hawkins, who was 18 at the time. "And then they'd suddenly start coming up through the dark, blowing bugles, banging drums and gongs, and throwing grenades." Some of the British believed the Chinese soldiers were drugged because of the suicidal fearlessness with which they faced the mortar and artillery fire.

The official estimate puts the number of Chinese killed or critically injured at 11,000.

The Chinese passed around "Gloster Hill", cutting it off from the rest of the United Nations forces. The tanks which were sent through to relieve it were beaten back, and on 25 April the order was given to "exfiltrate" through the seven miles of enemy held ground. Sixty-seven men made it back alive, 59 were killed, 526 were taken prisoner.

The burned hills and muddy villages which Phil Hawkins remembers from 1952 are green and prosperous now. However, the war itself ended in an enduring stalemate - eight miles from Gloster Hill, within sight of yesterday's battlefield tour, is the demilitarised zone and beyond it North Korea, hardly less isolated than it was in the 1950s.

"It seemed like a complete waste of time," says Mr Hawkins. "What was gained? Why were we there? "But then you see how grateful the people here are, and how much better off they are than the ones in the North. And you think, it was worth it. And I will be back."