Making a heroic last stand for the Glorious Glosters - Telegraph
Today is the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Imjin River, the bloodiest day of the Korean War. Neil Tweedie meets one of the brave veterans making a final pilgrimage to remember the fallen.
Sam Mercer was 17 when he cycled from Cheltenham to Gloucester to join up. It was 1947 and the teenager was hungry for adventure. Told to list three regiments in order of preference, he put the Gloucestershire Regiment – the Glosters – first, followed by the Worcesters and the Warwicks. Mercer got his first choice thus ensuring his rendezvous with fate on a hill in Korea four years later. “Adventure? Oh I got that all right,” he says, a twinkle in his one remaining eye. “I got that in spades”.
Today, St George’s Day, Mr Mercer will be standing at the foot of that hill remembering those who fought and died there exactly 60 years ago. In 1951, at the height of the Korean War, it was Hill 235, a vantage point overlooking crossings on the Imjin River. That piece of high ground would soon earn a new name, Gloster Hill, as the scene of the most desperate action fought by the British Army since the Second World War.
The stand made by 1st Bn The Gloucestershire Regiment – the “Glorious Glosters” as headline writers called them – in the face of massed human-wave attacks by Chinese communist troops ranks alongside Rorke’s Drift as an example of steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds. For three days, between April 22 to 25, 750 men of the battalion repulsed successive assaults by a force seven times bigger. Surrounded, with no hope of rescue, running short on water and ammunition, the men from the West Country fought literally to the last bullet and grenade. Some 620 failed to make it back to friendly lines. A third of the battalion were killed or wounded, the survivors spending the next two years in Chinese or North Korean prison camps.
The destruction of the Glosters was the most dramatic episode during the Battle of the Imjin River, in which the 4,000-strong British 29th Brigade held off 27,000 Chinese attackers at a cost of 1,000 casualties over three days. Yet little attention is being paid to the 100 or so elderly men gathered in South Korea this weekend to commemorate the 60th anniversary.
“The British Army lost more men in Korea than in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined,” says Andrew Salmon, author of a book on the battle, To the Last Round. “Imjin River was the bloodiest British battle of the Korean War – an entire battalion was wiped out – yet it is dead to modern memory. The British public learn history from popular culture, and Imjin never featured in a film or best-seller.”
Mr Mercer, 81, is unconcerned. “This is a personal duty, probably my last chance to visit the battlefield,” he says. “I’m not interested in who turns up but I’m going to take the full roll of honour and read out all those names: Pat Angier, Philip Curtis, Richard Reeve-Tucker and the others.”
Part of the Japanese Empire, Korea was divided into the communist North and Western-backed South in 1945, an uneasy peace enduring until June 1950 when the Soviet-equipped army of Kim Il-sung flooded across the 38th Parallel. South Korean and American forces fighting under the UN flag were forced into a small pocket before an amphibious landing at Inchon wrong-footed the North Koreans, sending them back to the Chinese border. Victory was within grasp when Mao Tse-tung’s masses intervened at the end of the year, driving UN forces south once more. By the time of the Battle of the Imjin, the front had stabilised roughly along the line of the old border.
The UN armies were severely undermanned and 29th Brigade, operating under American command, was strung out in the hills north-west of Seoul, holding a front so wide that it required an entire division. Separated from the rest of the brigade by a gaping hole in the line, the Glosters were vulnerable to encirclement. Nemesis duly arrived in the form of the Chinese 63rd Shock Army, tasked with punching its way through the UN lines towards the battered South Korean capital. In preparation for their spring offensive, the Chinese had sent observers deep into the heart of the isolated British positions – so close that they were able to enjoy a Doris Day film being shown to troops.
“We were holding positions that the Chinese were determined to take, and they didn’t care how many men they lost to get them,” says Mr Mercer. “Mao Tse-tung was not one for public opinion.” The viciousness of the fighting matched anything seen at Imphal or Kohima. Two Victoria Crosses, one awarded to Lt-Col James Carne, commanding officer of the Glosters, testify to its intensity.
“The fighting in Korea was the most nightmarish British soldiers have experienced in recent history,” says Mr Salmon. “Close-quarter, at night, against the Chinese human wave. The trauma continues to this day: six decades on and veterans still sleep with the lights on.”
Mr Mercer does not suffer nightmares. “I was enjoying it. I know that is a strange thing to say but it was what I had joined up to do. We had a good battalion. Carne didn’t say a lot; he didn’t use three words when two would do – a rare quality – but it was all going on upstairs in his head. He was coolness itself under fire. We had our orders and, as one of the men said: 'Don’t worry sir, we’ll be like the Rock of Gibraltar’.”
Sleepless for three days, the young Private Mercer witnessed numerous acts of heroism as the battle raged around the shrinking British perimeter, but one incident stands out. On the first night of the battle, Lt Philip Curtis, 24, was confronted with a Chinese-held bunker which threatened his unit’s retreat to safer ground. Severely wounded during his single-handed attempt to storm the strongpoint, he was dragged to safety by his men. But he struggled free, advanced again and managed to lob a grenade into the mouth of the bunker – just as the machine gun cut him down. His gallantry earned him a posthumous VC.
“The feeling in the platoon was that the first time we hit serious trouble we’d lose Mr Curtis,” says Mr Mercer. “He preferred to lead from the front with rifle and bayonet rather than from the back with a revolver. He had lost his wife during childbirth and there may have been some other source of sadness. He was a good man.”
The battle ended for Mr Mercer on the third night when he was severely wounded in the eye and leg by a mortar round. Falling into a deep sleep at the dressing station, he awoke to daylight and silence. The battle had ended after Carne, his position untenable, ordered his men to escape through the Chinese lines. Few succeeded.
The young British soldier was discovered by two Chinese, one of whom shot him in the leg. Blind in one eye, he received little treatment during his captivity. Following his release, he was admitted to hospital in London, where doctors amputated his leg below the knee. The nurse who cared for him became his wife.
“I would not want to go through it again but I’m glad that I did. You learn a lot about human beings.” But to be maimed at such an age? “All part of life’s rich tapestry. I lost and eye and a leg but gained a wife.”
Members of other units, notably the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, have expressed frustration at the lack of attention paid to the sacrifices of their units. “It does rankle with one or two people,” says Mr Mercer. “I don’t know who thought of 'Glorious Glosters’ but it wasn’t us. It was a brigade battle and we were all in it together.”
So, what happened to the Gloucestershire Regiment?
The regiment was one of the British Army's most battle honoured units, and amalgamated with the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment in 1994 to form the 1st Battalion, The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment.
The regimental archives and memorabilia of The Glosters as well as their antecedents, The 28th and 61st Regiments of Foot are held by The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, which is located within the Historic Docks in Gloucester and available on-line at The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum.
In March 2005, it was announced by the socialist New Labour government that this regiment would merge with the Light Infantry, The Royal Green Jackets and the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment to form the 1st Battalion, The Rifles. At this time, the RGBW was made a Light Infantry Regiment, becoming the RGBWLI. This served to forge identity within the blandly named Rifles regiment.