We were running for our lives

In June 1950 Britain sent over 80,000 men to serve in the Korean War. Second Lieutenant John Bowler was part of the deployment and on 3 May 1952, he led an attack on Hill 355. This is his story.

I was 19 when we landed in Korea. Nearly all the soldiers were National Service and quite outstanding. We’d trained for combat in the flat fields of Norfolk – but unfortunately Korea is enormously hilly! I’ve since learned that in the three years of the war, the country suffered its worst weather of the century.

John Bowler in Korea in 1952

John Bowler in Korea in 1952

The first time I came under fire, I only had my pistol in hand. I never allowed that to happen again; it was a Lee Enfield rifle with a bayonet for me from then on.

The line was static between the two large armies and all the front-line platoons fought the Chinese in No Man’s Land. No 3 Platoon carried out 15 patrols and met the Chinese on eight occasions.

The Chinese had been carrying out much work on a high point on a ridge (named ‘The Diggings’) half a mile inside their lines, and we decided we should ‘upset’ them. Division would supply a napalm air strike in the afternoon which would include the Chinese strong points on the two neighbouring ridges. We would then raid the Diggings that night.

"We opened up with rifles, Bren, grenades."

The plan was to take 21 men, dropping 10 off as a Firm Base at the edge of No Man’s Land, while the remaining 11 would go along the ridge half a mile into the Chinese lines and raid the Diggings. The 24 guns of 14th Field would cover the withdrawal.

It was a clear moonlit night. The men moved brilliantly and silently; they were very experienced by then. The Chinese were on ridges on either side of ours as we climbed, chattering away to each other. If they had been watching, they would have seen 11 men from the Welch Regiment silhouetted in the moonlight.

We settled into position 10 yards from the Chinese trenches. The men in them seemed to be washing up with much banging and shouting. Lance Corporal Hannam went over to a nearby crater, looked in and returned to say, “There are two Chinese in it, playing dice.” I said, “Good – drop a grenade in and we’ll use that as the signal.” So he did and we opened up with rifles, Bren, grenades. There was total silence from the Chinese for 30 seconds or so, then they responded with machine guns, automatic rifles and grenades of their own. There was a lot of lead flying around for some time, but then I heard the ‘pop’ of a small mortar. I knew how dangerous they could be from a previous patrol. It was time to go.

I shouted, “Run like hell!” and counted the men out one at a time. When I came to the  wireless operator – Private Devlin – I found a Chinese grenade had blown him over and the radio handset, which was separate from the radio, had come out of its housing. It was gone, and I wasn’t going back to look for it!

British soldiers during the Korean War

Lance Corporal Hannam, second left, and others forming up

We were now totally out of touch with our artillery, our Firm Base, our whole battalion. As I counted the last man out, I glanced back at the Chinese trenches. To my horror, I saw 30 to 40 Chinese troops pouring over the top of their trenches firing as they came after us. As we ran flat out down the ridge path, we came under fire from our pursuers and also from the ridges on both sides. We were running for our lives. I knew we had to become a fighting force again, but how to stop 10 frightened men?

Army discipline had to be the answer, so I shouted at the top of my voice, “Patrol halt! Number from the front!” And these 10 wonderful men shuddered to a halt – with bullets zipping past their heads – and barked out their number from one to ten. I had control again, and we trotted back to the Firm Base as a fighting force. Discipline had always been strong in the Welch.

"We came under fire from our pursuers... we were running for our lives."

The Firm Base had another radio, so we were able to call the guns down on the ridge. The 14th Field were fantastic and the ridge disappeared in yellows and reds as 254 shells fell on it. Then a group of Chinese attacked the Firm Base but Corporal Davies and his men drove them off. We returned quietly to Hill 355. We had three wounded, but none seriously – we were so lucky.

The following night there was suddenly much firing at the Diggings as they fired on one of their incoming patrols. We had no patrols there, so 14th Field joined in. Thirty-six hours later there was a Chinese Captain on our wire at dawn. We took him in, looked after him, and sent him through to Division. He revealed his superiors were holding him responsible for the deaths of 32 Chinese. They gave him the choice of a court martial, after which they would shoot him, or leading a daylight fighting patrol against the Welch on Hill 355. They gave him time to consider, so he hopped it. He told Division everything he knew.

Korean War Memorial, London

The inscription on the Korean War memorial in London.

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