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Canadians in Combat

By: Brad St. Croix

Brad St. Croix

Historical Contributor

Brad St. Croix is a freelance historian and researcher. He earned his PhD in history from the University of Ottawa. His dissertation examined the legacy of the Battle of Hong Kong in Canada. He has also written numerous articles for the Juno Beach Centre and the Canadian Military History Journal. He has worked on public history projects with several organizations including the RCAF Foundation, the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum, the Canadian War Museum, and Project 44. He runs the OTD Military History social media accounts and YouTube channel.

Introduction

The Canadian involvement in the Korean War has rightly been called “a war of patrols.” Of the three branches of the Armed Forces, the Canadian Army made the largest contribution to the United Nations defence of South Korea. There were few of the “major” battles that had marked the Canada’s experience in the world wars. The Canadian troops mostly held static positions of the front line across from the enemy, much like the notorious trenches of the First World War. Conducting constant patrols to gain intelligence on enemy positions and strength was a must.

These positions were often located on strategic hilltops, which were identified by a number that referred to the metres of the peak above sea level. These hilltop positions were often exposed to the elements and covered in low scrub bushes. Other hilltops were located nearby, frequently connected by a somewhat lower, flat piece of ground known as a saddle. Control of the peaks was critical for holding the surrounding area, because if the enemy took a higher peak, it could subject one’s lower position to intense fire. 

Despite the static warfare that defined the Canadian experience, the Canadian Army did fight a few battles in Korea. While Communist forces, both Korean and Chinese, were the overall enemy, in practice the Canadians faced Chinese forces in these battles.

Battle of Kapyong, April 22–25, 1951

The 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI) was the first Canadian unit to fight in Korea. During their training, elements of 2 PPCLI fought North Korean guerrillas near their training area between Busan and Miryang-si in southeast South Korea. 

Once their training was completed, 2 PPCLI moved to the front lines and joined the 27th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade in February 1951.[i]  They first encountered Chinese troops on February 21, 1951, during small firefights at Hill 419. They were withdrawn from the line on March 13. 

In mid-March 1951, Communist forces launched another offensive intended to recapture Seoul. The advance was successful at first, pushing the UN forces back from the front lines, but subsequently the UN forces were able to push the Communists back. However, the Communist forces were retreating only to gain strength for another attack. As the UN forces continued their advance, 2 PPCLI was assigned to hold a height of land that was named Hill 677, near the modern South Korean city of Gapyeong-gun. 

The fighting that took place there in April 1951 came to be known as the Battle of Kapyong. The troops of 2 PPCLI were positioned five kilometres from those of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, who were on Hill 504. The Australians were the first to be attacked by Chinese forces, around midnight on April 24. They held out against some of the Chinese attacks but were forced to retreat from their positions toward the end of the day. 

2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in combat area, Korea, April 23, 1951. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

The Canadians were exposed by the Australian retreat, and late on April 24, around 9:30 p.m., about 5,000 Chinese soldiers launched an attack on 2 PPCLI’s positions. It quickly became clear that the initial attacks on 2 PPCLI’s “B” Company were only a diversion. The main target of the Chinese assault was “D” Company, which was in an exposed position to the northwest. It was attacked by large numbers of the enemy from two sides.[ii]

Chinese troops broke into the Canadian positions, but an artillery barrage called down on the Canadian position, where the Canadian troops were dug into the ground and so had some protection from the artillery shells, aided in slowing the Chinese advance. After two hours of combined artillery and small arms fire, the enemy’s advance stalled. Chinese attacks continued, but each was driven off by artillery fire. The troops of 2 PPCLI held their position in the face of these waves of attacks and heavy enemy artillery fire. 

David Crook, who fought at Kapyong with 2 PPCLI, recalled it as “a harrowing three days, I guess. From sheer boredom to sheer terror. At times it didn’t stop. And then you’d get lulls where the enemy would be regrouping for another attack so we’d get a bit of a breather to think a little bit. But, most times it was just non-stop.”[iii]

While holding the position, the Canadians were cut off from the rest of the UN forces in the area. Ammunition and supplies began to run low. The only way to supply the cut-off Canadians was by airdrop. Supplies of ammunition and rations were dropped on 2 PPCLI’s positions by 10:30 a.m. on the 25th. At 2 p.m., a patrol from “B” Company reported that the road to the rest of the UN forces was open once again. More supplies began to come in by road.

By late afternoon on the 25th, the area was quiet, with no more Chinese artillery or infantry attacks. The troops of 2 PPCLI had held their positions and taken only light casualties, with 10 killed and 23 wounded. Fifty-one dead Chinese were counted amid the Canadian positions. On April 26, 2 PPCLI was relieved by the US 1st Cavalry Division. The stand had helped to slow the Chinese offensive, which ended by May 1, 1951.

The ferocity of the Chinese attack left a mark on those who fought there. Phil Burke, also of 2 PPCLI, later recalled that “I’ve been in the service for twenty-five years and I’m retired now, but I can still remember that morning as if it were yesterday. It’s something that sticks in your memory for ever.”[iv]

The First Battle of Hill 355, November 22–25, 1951

By November 1951, the fighting in Korea had bogged down into static warfare near the 38th parallel. The Korean winter was difficult, and the morale of UN troops suffered from the unpleasant conditions. As a result, both the United States and Britain created policies to rotate their troops in and out of combat in Korea. 

The Canadian government followed suit and introduced a system of rotating the units fighting in Korea. As well as the morale issues, this policy was also started because more than 4,000 of the Canadians in Korea were serving under the UN Special Force enlistment term of 18 months, which would expire in February 1952. More Canadian infantry battalions were brought to Korea, while 2 PPCLI was sent home. 

One of the new Canadian units was the Royal 22e Régiment, commonly known as the “Van Doos,” the nickname derived from the pronunciation of “22” in French. It would soon face combat at the First Battle of Hill 355 from November 22 to 25, 1951. 

Hill 355 was nicknamed “Little Gibraltar” by UN troops because of its prominent size, reminiscent of the famous landmark on Spain’s south coast, and its many defensive positions. The hill is located about 40 kilometres north of Seoul and was considered very important because it was the highest ground overlooking the surrounding front lines and supply routes. Known as Kowang Sa to the Koreans, today it lies within the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, west of Yeoncheon-gun, South Korea. 

Little Gibraltar (Hill 355), Korea, c. 1943-1965. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

Just as the Van Doos were settling into their new positions near Hill 355 on November 22, 1951, the Chinese began an intense bombardment that continued into the next day. Once the artillery barrage stopped, Chinese soldiers attacked the Van Doos on the afternoon of the 23rd. The wet snowy weather turned the battlefield into a muddy mess.

Nearby, the Americans and Chinese were fighting over control of Hill 355 itself. The Americans were pushed off the hill, leaving the Canadians exposed to even more fire from the enemy-held summit overlooking their defensive positions. The Americans retook Hill 355 on November 25, and the Chinese attacks came to an end. The Van Doos had fought off seven attacks over three days, suffering 63 casualties during the action: 16 killed, 44 wounded, and three taken prisoner. 

Second Battle of Hill 355, October 22–24, 1952

The fighting in November 1951 was not the last time Canadians fought at Hill 355. The 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment (1 RCR) fought in the Second Battle of Hill 355 from October 22 to 24, 1952. 

The troops of 1 RCR had held their position on Hill 355 since early September 1952. On October 17, the Chinese began a heavy artillery barrage against 1 RCR’s positions. By October 22, their defences were badly damaged, forcing some of them to be abandoned. 

Private John Lewis, one of the survivors of the Chinese attack on “B” Company, 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment positions on Little Gibraltar Hill, Korea, October, 1952. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

Chinese infantry attacked in the early evening of October 23 behind yet another artillery barrage. Keith Sherritt, who fought at Hill 355 with the 2 Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, recalled how ferocious the Chinese attack was: “I moved into the bunker there and the night we got surrounded, they hit the RCRs on the spur, the little hill down below us, and they killed a bunch, captured a bunch and they broke through. And one artillery officer, not mine, called down fire on our own position because we were surrounded, and they pounded fire in there, right on our own position.”[v]

Some of the Canadians were forced to abandon their defensive positions, allowing the Chinese troops to take them over. Supporting UN tank and mortar fire was turned on the captured areas. The UN artillery enabled a counterattack to take place, which forced a Chinese withdrawal. The Canadians reoccupied their positions in the early hours of October 24. As a result of this action, the Canadians suffered 18 killed, 35 wounded, and 14 taken prisoner.

Battle of Hill 187, May 2/3, 1953

As the war dragged on into 1953, new Canadian infantry units were brought in to fight in Korea. The 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment (3 RCR) arrived in Korea in March 1953 and was soon sent to the front lines.

The Battle of Hill 187 began when a 3 RCR reconnaissance patrol from “C” Company ran into a Chinese attack on the night of May 2/3, 1953. A fierce firefight broke out between the two sides. Half of the 3 RCR patrol was either killed or wounded. Another patrol was sent out, but it too was ambushed. 

Following these fights, the Chinese attacked “C” Company’s positions. A heavy barrage of artillery and mortar fire was immediately followed by waves of assaults against the Canadian defenders. Donovan Redknap of the 81st Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery recalled the Chinese tactics: “the patrols came back in, and the Chinese lifted their barrage and then they swarmed in. The Chinese . . . in those days, they had no regard for casualties, didn’t matter. They just attacked en masse.”[vi]

Once in the trenches, Chinese soldiers destroyed defensive works and took prisoners, quickly sending them back to their own lines. But, as with many of the Canadian battles in Korea, heavy machine gun, mortar, tank, and artillery fire broke up the Chinese attack. The Chinese suffered heavy losses but continued their attack. After fierce resistance, however, they eventually withdrew, and the Canadians reoccupied their positions.

The Battle for Hill 187 was the last Canadian battle in Korea and one of the last battles of the war before the armistice was signed. 3 RCR lost 26 men killed, 27 wounded, and seven taken prisoner. Two gunners from the Royal Canadian Artillery and two men from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were also killed in the fighting.

Other Canadian Military Contributions

Despite the Army contributing the largest number of Canadian personnel to the fighting in Korea, the initial Canadian contributions came at sea and in the air. Three Royal Canadian Navy destroyers (HMCSs CayugaAthabaskan, and Sioux) were deployed to Korean waters in July 1950. These were the first of a total of eight Canadian warships to serve in the Korean War. Their duties included blockading the coast, preventing enemy amphibious landings, protecting the UN fleet (including aircraft carriers), bombarding onshore targets such as enemy trains, and providing humanitarian aid.

The Royal Canadian Air Force began to support the UN forces in Korea early in the war. Starting in July 1950, RCAF 426 Transport Squadron ferried people and materials across the Pacific Ocean. By June 1954, when it was withdrawn from Korea, the unit had flown 600 round trips over the Pacific, carrying more than 13,000 passengers and 3,000,000 kilograms of freight and mail, without loss.

426 “Thunderbird” Transport Squadron, c. 1950-1954. Image courtesy of the Korea Veterans Association and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Twenty-two Canadian aviators also served with the US military, taking part in combat missions above Korea. These pilots were credited with destroying or damaging 20 enemy jet fighters as well as the destruction of several trains and vehicles. Ernest Glover was credited with shooting down three enemy aircraft during his service in the war, the most of any Canadian pilot.[vii]

Conclusion

The armistice of July 27, 1953, ended the combat phase of the Korean War. By that point, approximately 27,000 Canadian military personnel had served in the region: 23,000 Canadian Army, 3,000 Royal Canadian Navy, and 1,000 Royal Canadian Air Force personnel. Of these, 516 lost their lives. All these Canadians had contributed to the preservation of South Korea as an independent nation. Despite the end of active fighting, Canada maintained a military presence in a peacekeeping role in Korea after the armistice and well into the 1950s.

2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Korea, c. 1943-1965. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

Additional Resources

David. J. Bercuson, Blood on the Hills: The Canadian Army in the Korean War (University of Toronto Press, 1999, 87).

Herbert Fairlie Wood, Strange Battleground: The Operations in Korea and Their Effects on the Defence Policy of Canada(Department of National Defence, 1966, 88–89).


[i] David. J. Bercuson, Blood on the Hills: The Canadian Army in the Korean War (University of Toronto Press, 1999, 87).

[ii] Herbert Fairlie Wood, Strange Battleground: The Operations in Korea and Their Effects on the Defence Policy of Canada(Department of National Defence, 1966, 88–89).

[iii] The Memory Project, “David Crook (Primary Source)” 

[iv] The Memory Project, “Interview with Phil Burke” 

[v] The Memory Project, “Keith Duke Sherritt” 

[vi] The Memory Project, “Donovan Redknap (Primary Source)” 

[vii] Valour Canada, “Korean War: Ernest Glover”