The Korean War
Book review by Fred Lane
Catchpole, B. The Korean War 1950-53. Robinson: London, 2000. 368pp, $22.68.
Written from the viewpoint of a British National Serviceman, this book gives very detailed blow-by-blow descriptions of most of the important land actions in Korea. The author is clearly Army-aware but he is also very much cognisant of the naval and air contributions to the war.
The soft cover version of this book includes a thoroughly detailed index, notes and references for each chapter, together with thoughtful appendices listing common Korean language place name suffixes, national casualties in UN forces and the principal USA civilian and military leaders.
It starts logically at the beginning, with the notification to President Truman of the crossing of the 39th parallel border on Saturday 25 June 1950. It deals with actions as late as 1988, with an admission by North Korea that one of its submarines, caught in fishing nets, had been engaged in clandestine operations against South Korea. It shows how China asserted itself to international military prominence with decisive and surprising Peoples Liberation Army participation in the conflict.
The book is well-illustrated with photographs and reproductions of propaganda pamphlets. There are many maps and diagrams, but some of them fail to include all the place names used in the nearby text. This leaves the reader hunting from map to map seeking to obtain a better grasp of the action.
The army actions described are in strict chronological order and the author pulls no punches with well-documented criticism of sometimes poor leadership. He makes up for this, in one sense, by unstinting praise for units, including Australian units, who held on or took ground despite the odds or despite the ultimate strategic logic of the particular action.
He attempts to analyse the effects of naval and air contributions to the war. However, while correctly detecting shortcomings in the Operation Strangle strategy, to interdict supplies moving to the front line using land-based and carrier-based aircraft, he seems to record without adverse comment the overly optimistic claims of damage caused by destroyer and frigate naval gunfire support.
Not mentioned in the book are the losses in action of RAN pilots LEUT Keith Clarkson, SBLT Dick Sinclair and ASLT Ron Coleman, all 805 Squadron Sea Fury pilots from HMAS Sydney.
It is a tough job to keep track of all the ships involved, but the book contains a number of internal inconsistencies with ship deployment. There are even errors with major warships such as aircraft carriers. His RN/RAN sequence and aircraft identification is erratic. On page 315 Catchpole says on “29 October 1952 Fleet Air Arm Seafires machine-gunned the enemy”. On that date these must have been Sea Furies from the British carrier HMS Ocean, not the Seafires that were briefly employed only at the very start of the war.
Other than a brief description of Valley Forge, American aircraft carriers get very short shrift, despite them contributing by far the major share of naval ordnance and reporting greatest losses.
Indeed, many might argue that it was the USN’s decision to strike “strategic” targets, previously reserved for the USAF, that finally unstalled the Panmanjong Peace Talks.
Catchpole also makes no mention of the outstanding East Coast deployments by HMAS Sydney and her aircraft, one of which, on 10-11 October 1951, sucked in a probable whole division to defend against an amphibious landing feint in the Kojo area. The enemy received a severe mauling from the Sydney Air Group and big guns from ships including New Jersey, the 16-inch battleship.
While the battleships were both accurate and devastating, at ranges of 20 miles or more inland, the destroyers and frigates achieved little. The battleships were rarely more than 50 yards off target with their first ranging shot. The destroyers and frigates shot a lot of shell, but even after painstakingly getting their ranging shots to fall somewhere near the target, their fire for effect broadsides would typically fall in 150 by 50 yards patterns. Even then, it could be practically guaranteed that the centre of the pattern would drift randomly fifty yards or more during the fire for effect sequence. Fortunately, spotter RAN Sea Furies also carried three-inch rockets with 60-pound heads and 600 rounds of high explosive and incendiary 20 mm cannon. Between the aircraft and the ships most designated targets received at least a nominal pasting.
Mig 15s scout Ocean
Strangely, in the short “Naval Operations” chapter, despite noting the claimed Mig 15 shot down by LEUT Carmichael and his flight of four Sea Furies on 9 August 1952, there is no mention of the subsequent “pay back” that included a flight of Migs scouting Ocean. This at least contributed to, if not triggered, the wise decision to withdraw Ocean from her unnecessarily provocative North Yellow Sea position, back to the usual RN/RAN West Coast carrier spot, below the 39th parallel, out of Mig range.
The attention to detail and dramatic descriptions of land battles lend authenticity to Catchpole’s tales of action in Korea. The naval and air errors are disappointing, but they do not detract much from the book’s primary thrust, a meticulous description and analysis of the land battles of the Korean War. Catchpole’s expertise is clearly land-oriented and he makes the most of his Army-source material.