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Korean Operations

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 16 November 1950

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3.45 p.m.

As my right hon. Friend the Lord President said in the House on 9th November, it is proposed, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, to make a statement in the House from time to time on the course of operations in Korea, with particular reference to the part played by British troops.

On 28th June my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that British naval forces would be placed at the disposal of the United States authorities to operate on behalf of the United Nations. Following on this announcement those H.M. ships cruising in Japanese waters were placed at the disposal of General MacArthur. Australian ships attached to the occupation forces in Japan were similarly made available by the Australian Government, while New Zealand and Canadian naval vessels sailed for Korea on 3rd and 5th July respectively. During the five months of the campaign there has generally been a carrier, two or three cruisers and some eight destroyers and frigates of the Royal Navy in the area.

The first contact with the enemy was made at dawn on 2nd July, when an Anglo-U.S. Force including H.M. Ships "Jamaica" and "Black Swan" sank all but one of a force of six North Korean M.T.B.'s. The next day British naval aircraft went into action for the first time. Subsequently the duties of our naval forces have consisted of attacks on land targets, such as airfields and communications, blockade of the Korean coasts, provision of escorts for the supply lines between Japanese ports and Korea, and cover for the landings which took place at Pohang, Inchon and Wonsan.

The naval operations to which I have referred have been supported since early in July by two squadrons of R.A.F. Sunderland flying boats. These squadrons, operating from Japan, have maintained constant patrols in search of submarines, shipping and mines.

I now turn to the course of land operations. The South Korean capital, Seoul, fell on 30th June and the situation in the South grew increasingly serious every day.

In view of the deteriorating situation, I announced to the House on 26th July that His Majesty's Government had decided that a self-contained British land force should be prepared and despatched from the United Kingdom as soon as possible to reinforce the United Nations forces. The preparation of the British force, 29th Brigade, involved the recall of reservists, and time was required for their equipment and training. The force sailed at the beginning of October, and the leading elements of it have now arrived in Korea. It is concentrating in South Korea and will be moving northwards shortly to take part in the main operations. One battalion is already actively engaged against guerrillas.

By 3rd August almost all the territory west of the Nakton river had been abandoned and a critical stage in the campaign had been reached. Despite the arrival of reinforcements from America, the United Nations land force was heavily outnumbered and throughout August it was subjected to incessant attacks launched by the North Koreans across the Naktong river and against Pohang in the north. These assaults were beaten back but the position of the bridgehead remained serious.

In the light of this situation and in response to a request from the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Forces in Korea, His Majesty's Government announced on the 20th August a decision to send an infantry force from Hong Kong to Korea immediately, in advance of the force being prepared in the United Kingdom. This force, 27th Brigade, comprised two battalions—the 1st Middlesex Regiment and the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders—with supporting services. It arrived at Pusan, after a journey of some 1,300 miles, on the 29th August, nine days after the decision to send it had been announced. This force thus became the first ground contingent to join South Korean and United States troops in Korea.

On 3rd September General Walker, Commanding the United Nations Ground Forces in Korea, decided to put one of the battalions in the line, and two days later the Brigade was ordered to take over a sector of the Naktong River line approximately eight miles south-west of Taegu. General Walker showed every consideration in enabling the Brigade to become gradually acclimatised to battle conditions in Korea at a time when American forces were very hard pressed. About a fortnight later, during the breakout battles from the Pusan bridgehead, which followed the Inchon landing on 14th September, the 27th Brigade provided flank protection to the main American thrust towards Seoul. An Australian battalion arrived in Korea from Japan on 28th September and a few days later joined the 27th Brigade, which was then engaged in mopping up operations south of Seoul.

By the end of September the whole of Korea south of the 38th Parallel was virtually under United Nations control. General MacArthur's surrender terms were not accepted, however, and the advance continued. The 27th Brigade played a prominent part in the battles which culminated in the capture of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

After the capture of Pyongyang the British Commonwealth Brigade led the advance along the West Coast road. After a series of difficult river crossings it advanced towards Sinuiju, on the Manchurian border, the temporary seat of the North Korean Government. During the past three weeks resistance has stiffened and it was decided that the United States and Commonwealth forces should take up a position along the Chongchon River. At the present time the British Commonwealth Brigade is holding a bridgehead across the River, and is actively patrolling beyond it.

In all these operations our total casualties to date have been about 51 killed, including died of wounds, 158 wounded, and five missing. I should like to take this opportunity of paying my tribute to those who lost their lives and to express to their families the deep sympathy of His Majesty's Government, and, I am sure, of the whole House. All reports speak in glowing terms of the high morale, splendid bearing, and battle efficiency of the Commonwealth Forces. General MacArthur has expressed his appreciation of their achievements on more than one occasion. Furthermore, the relations which have been established between all ranks of our own Forces and the Americans have been particularly cordial.

Our task is now to bring hostilities to an end as soon as possible and to promote the establishment of a unified and democratic Korea, and we shall continue to do all we can to attain this object.

As is well known, however, the Unified Command has recently reported the presence of Chinese troops in Korea in strength. These reports, which raise issues of international importance, are now before the Security Council. This is the appropriate body to deal with such questions. His Majesty's Government are, of course, keeping in close touch with Commonwealth Governments, as well as with the United States and other friendly Governments, and will continue to do all in their power to bring hostilities to an early conclusion and to limit the extent of such hostilities.

We all thank God our losses have been no heavier than those mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. We certainly concur with him in expressing a tribute to those who lost their lives, and the deep sympathy of the whole House to their relations and families. In view of the fact that the United States losses have been perhaps 200 times as great, would not it be well also for us to express our sympathy with their families and relations in the great sacrifices they have made in the common cause?

I am sure that the House is extremely gratified to hear the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, and we shall certainly be in accord with the views he has expressed.

May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he and the Foreign Secretary will constantly bear in mind the great importance of our not becoming, and of our Allies so far as we can influence their actions not becoming, too much pinned down in China or in the approaches to China at a time when the danger in Europe is undoubtedly occupying all our minds?

The declaration by my right hon. Friend that the purpose is to secure a united and democratic Korea will, I am sure, be welcomed by the whole House; but I should like to ask him if he feels that that high purpose can be secured under the Presidency of Mr. Syngman Rhee?

I should imagine that that question does not arise from the statement I have made.

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that our leading troops, to whom he has referred, the 27th Brigade, now believed to be in an area of terrible weather conditions, are suitably provided with clothing and vehicles and weapons which will work in the extreme freezing conditions which we are told exist today?

So far as weapons are concerned, I am advised that all the equipment required is on hand. As regards the provision of winter clothing, we are very conscious of the need for this and I can inform the House that special cold weather clothing for the 29th Brigade Group and supporting base units has already arrived in Korea. Stocks have also been dispatched for the 27th Brigade and are expected to arrive almost immediately. Meanwhile the United States authorities have been only too willing to assist in this matter and have made provision accordingly.

I have no reason to believe that there is any inadequacy as regards that type of vehicle.

Will the Minister tell us whether he is able to indicate to the House what British influence there is in the administration of Korea at the present time in connection with Syngman Rhee?

Can the Minister say whether the numbers given of the British personnel who have been killed included the loss of life through accidental bombing by American aircraft?

Would the Minister tell us if he has any figures of losses sustained by the population of South Korea? Is he aware of the statement made by Mr. William Foster on behalf of the United Nations Commission in New York last Sunday that 200,000 homes of ordinary people have been destroyed and one-tenth of the schools, and hospitals in South Korea have been destroyed; and would he be prepared to give to this House a broad human picture of the human misery which has been caused?

I am not aware of the statement to which my hon. Friend has referred and if he desires information on any relevant matter he ought to put down a Question.

As it was at my suggestion that this statement was made, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will give consideration to a further proposal which I put before him, namely, that he should broadcast through the B.B.C. so that the public may be made aware of the most valuable and valiant contribution which this country have made to the fighting in Korea? Is he aware that it would have the further psychological effect of diverting the attention of the public from such internal controversy as that of whether the Festival of Britain should be open on Sunday to the sombre, grim situation with which we are faced in Asia?

Can my right hon. Friend say whether any instructions were at any time given to the Commander-in-Chief in Korea as to the line, if any, at which military operations should cease—whether the 38th parallel or any line in Korea beyond that, or the Manchurian frontier, or any line of any kind? Will he also say whether, in view of the fact that the Commander-in-Chief is also de facto the Government of Japan, any steps have been taken to avoid the two functions getting mixed up?

I cannot speak about the latter part of the question; I imagine that is a matter for the Foreign Secretary. Regarding the first part, of course, instructions are issued from time to time to the Commander-in-Chief.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if British Red Cross units have accompanied the troops in Korea; if they are well supplied with medical equipment and if British medical personnel is also provided? Also if N.A.A.F.I. organisations are set up as well?

As regards the provision of canteens, which presumably is what the hon. Gentleman is referring to in the later part of his question, the answer was given by the Secretary of State for War the other day. Regarding the provision of Red Cross and ambulance equipment, I should require notice of the question.

Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance on behalf of the Government that every endeavour will be made through the Security Council and the United Nations for a new democratic machine to be set up in Korea to take the place of the now defunct and discredited Syngman Rhee regime?

Would the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is a matter of deliberate Government policy that troops sent from this country were to be equipped with American equipment on arrival in Korea; and if not, is he aware of the very disturbing reports we have received of equipment with which they were issued when they left?

I am not quite clear to what the hon. and gallant Member refers when he says, "reports we have received."

Reports received by some hon. Members—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where from?"] The troops in Korea.

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman has received information from the troops in Korea which has not yet been made available to any Service Department, perhaps he will be good enough to let me have it.

Can my right hon. Friend say to what extent and in what way he has been consulted as to the conduct of the campaign in Korea.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether winter clothing is available for the British troops in Korea, particularly in the front line; and will he also consider looking into the question of pay and allowances to National Service men serving in this area in order that they may be on a comparable level with Regular troops?

Apparently there is some misunderstanding, and I must make it clear that the provision of winter clothing has been made available. The last shipment will arrive on 22nd November, and will be immediately shipped to the troops. The front line troops have already been provided with what is required. As regards the last part of the supplementary question, I replied to that the other day.

Has my right hon. Friend any doubt at all that the original act of aggression which caused all this slaughter and misery was the work of Soviet Russia?

Referring to the question put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer), will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House to what extent the British contingent has had to rely on the American forces for guns, transport and equipment, or are our forces adequately supplied?

I cannot answer that question without due notice, and if the hon. Gentleman will put a Question down I shall do my best to give him the information.

In view of my right hon. Friend's statement, that instructions were from time to time given to the Commander-in-Chief about the line at which hostilities would cease, would be tell us when such instructions were given, what was the line beyond which hostilities were not to go, and whether the instructions given were always fully understood and complied with by the Commander-in-Chief?

Would it not be very much better to reserve these questions which touch on foreign policy, for the debate we are going to have on that matter?

Something of the sort had occurred to me. It is impossible for me to satisfy my hon. Friend's desire for information without proper notice.

I do not know how far my right hon. Friend's answer was influenced by observations from the other side, but my question was not a question about foreign affairs at all; it was a question about military operations, and I should have thought that my right hon. Friend when he came here to make a statement about the course of military operations would have been prepared for questions of that kind.

My hon. Friend is wrong. I was not prepared for the type of question which my hon. Friend has thought fit to put to me. Might I add that I do not require to have my mind influenced by anything said on the opposite side of the House.

Could the right hon. Gentleman clarify the figures with regard to casualties? Do they relate only to the ground forces, or do they cover the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as well.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that adequate arrangements now exist for the speedy notification of casualties to the next-of-kin in this country, and also for the transmission of mail to and from the troops in Korea.

Could the right hon. Gentleman say whether our troops in the front line got their winter clothing before or after the cold weather started? Could I have an answer?

With all this talk about winter clothing, may I ask the Minister if he has satisfied himself that the men in Korea have got a reasonable supply of good rum?

Has my right hon. Friend any information about the number of North Korean prisoners of war, and if so, can he say if there is any evidence of their Communist training?

I have got some information about this matter, but I have not got it here.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say what proportion of the British casualties were National Service men; and, secondly, in view of the reports that the North Koreans are operating jet aircraft, can he assure the House that the United Nations aircraft are equivalent in performance?

As regards the first part of the supplementary question, I am afraid I could not give the information offhand. I cannot give the difference between National Service men and Regulars, but I should be glad to provide the information if the hon. and gallant Gentleman put it down. As regards our aircraft position and their operation in the area, they are giving a very good account of themselves.

Referring to the latter part of the statement made by my right hon. Friend, upon which apparently he was inviting questions from the House, could he say whether it is his view that the proper body for issuing instructions to the Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations in North Korea as to where hostilities should be ended, is the Interim Committee which was set up under the Eight-Power Resolution of the United Nations; and could he say whether any such instructions have been issued, and if so, what are the dates?

I am afraid that that is the type of question which ought to be put to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Could the Minister give any information as to the number of British or United Nations prisoners of war and their treatment by the enemy?

Could the Minister give the House any idea of the forces available to the United Nations command in addition to the British Commonwealth, American and South Korean forces? Are there any other nationals there?

Yes, there are other nationals, but I could not give all the details without a Question being put on the paper.

Could the right hon. Gentleman give us information as to the strength of the Chinese troops encountered?

Various figures have been presented to us from time to time, but the latest figure is between 60,000 and 70,000.

Does my right hon. Friend's reply to my previous question mean that he, as Minister of Defence, responsible for the British troops in North Korea, has had no communication with the Interim Committee of the United Nations Commission which is supposed to be issuing instructions on this matter?

I am not in personal communication with the body to which my hon. Friend refers.

Everybody has had his question answered or practically answered or has been given some kind of answer, but I have had none. Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether our troops in the front line got the winter clothing before or after the cold weather started?

Could the right hon. Gentleman either confirm or deny reports that have appeared that the jet aircraft operated by the enemy are faster than the aircraft available to the United Nations forces?

I hardly think it would be to the advantage of the House, the country or our troops in Korea to enter into details on a matter of that kind.