Two old soldiers from Northern Ireland have returned to the scene of the Korean War’s bloodiest battles for the first time in 60 years.
The glittering banquet hall of a deluxe hotel in Seoul was packed with 268 Commonwealth veterans of the 1950-1953 war, attending a dinner held by the South Korean government in their honour.
Speaking for the veterans was Belfast native and retired Royal Ulster Rifles Colonel Robin Charley.
It was a fitting end to the trip of a lifetime for Robin.
Not only was Monday his 87th birthday, but he and another RUR veteran, ex-Rifleman Henry O’Kane, had earlier that day separately visited the regiment’s two key battlefields of the Korean War.
Although those two actions remain to this day the two bloodiest battles fought by British soldiers since 1945, the RUR — today, the Royal Irish Regiment — has received little recognition.
The Korean War — where more British soldiers died than in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Falklands combined — is almost unknown to the British public.
As part of Britain’s 29th Brigade, 1st Battalion RUR landed in South Korea in November 1950.
American-led UN forces had defeated Kim Il-sung’s North Korean army, which had invaded South Korea in June, and the RUR were expecting to spend the winter mopping up guerilla holdouts.
Instead they would be pitched into severe battles as China stormed into the war.
New Year 1951 found the RUR deployed north-east of Seoul as 267,000 enemy charged into South Korea.
The UN line broke and the RUR was engulfed. Robin led the lead company down-valley after nightfall, but behind him US aircraft mistakenly dropped flares.
By their light, Chinese spotting the RUR pullback, charged down among the Riflemen.
Battle became melee. The RUR lost 157 men and the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars lost six tanks.
“Next morning we had a parade,” said Robin, who, in the lead company, missed the disaster. “Only then did we realise what had happened the previous night.”
The Koyang battle would become known, with grim irony, as “Happy Valley”.
Meanwhile, China was massing 300,000 troops for the greatest onslaught of the war; their key breakthrough point was the Imjin River.
After dark on April 22 the hammer dropped. The Chinese charged en masse.
“I could not see enemy, just their tracers as they fired,” said Henry (80). “You had to keep firing.”
Other units were overrun, but the RUR held their positions until morning when the entire UN line started to retreat. Seeing their prey escape, the Chinese surged down the hillsides into the British. For the RUR, it was “Happy Valley” all over again.
Their stand had bought critical hours for South Korean refugees to escape, saving countless lives.
Andrew Salmon is the author of To The Last Round, the only full account of the Happy Valley and Imjin River battles. His second Korean War history, Scorched Earth, Black Snow, is published next month by Aurum.
A history of being at sharp end of fighting
By Anne Madden
The Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) was a British Army infantry regiment formed out of the Royal Irish Rifles when the Irish Free State was established in 1921.
However, the RUR continued to accept recruits from all over Ireland so that almost 50% of the soldiers who fought in the regiment in Korea in the 1950s were Southerners.
The 2nd Battalion RUR was part of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk during World War II.
The division of Korea by the Allies at the end of the war sparked the Korean conflict from 1950-1953.
This was a conflict between South Korea on one side, supported by the United Nations, and North Korea on the other, supported by China and the Soviet Union.
The 1st Battalion RUR valiantly fought in South Korea where they took part in two famously bloody battles.
RUR veterans returned to the country this week to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the battles of Imjin and Kapyong in 1951. In total, the brigade lost 1,091 men.
A battle monument commemorating the sacrifices of the RUR was relocated from Korea to Northern Ireland in 1962 and now stands outside Belfast City Hall.
The Royal Ulster Rifles Museum is located in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.
In 1968, under reforms of the Army, the Royal Ulster Rifles became part of the Royal Irish Rangers and is today subsumed in the Royal Irish Regiment.