ST GEORGE'S DAY ADDRESS - 2011
This is the day in our national calendar when we celebrate our patron saint, St George. There are many myths surrounding our saint - but the body of expert knowledge tends to suggest that he was a Roman soldier from Syria Palestine and a priest in the Guard of Diocletian. Whether it is fact or not, his reputation rests on the slaying of a dragon at Silene in the 4th century (and of contemporary interest, some believe that Silene was in what we now call Libya). We understand that he did this to save the King's daughter and that his actions led to the subsequent conversion of the King and his people in Silene to Christianity. The story is redolent with the triumph of good over evil, chivalry, selflessness, courage, honour and commitment. St George is regarded as the most prominent of military saints. This day has been a major feast and national holiday in England, on a par with Christmas, since the early 15th century; indeed traces of the cult of St George in England predate the Norman Conquest. From the earliest celebrations of St George's Day, it has been traditional to wear a red rose in one's lapel or to fly the St George's cross.
We are here today because, for us, St George is our Regiment. He graced the capbadge and colours of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers until that distinguished Regiment's amalgamation on 23rd April 1968 into the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. And from that date, St George's Day has remained our Regimental day and our emblem. So we gather together every year on this date to celebrate our Regiment. But here, in this company, there is an added poignancy and much on which to reflect. Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Imjin River - a ferocious, violent and bloody 72 hour battle. Each artillery gun fired a thousand rounds, as many as were fired in the entire Falklands War and approximately the same number as fired during the Battle of El Alamein; a battle that Andrew Salmon has described as the Thermopylae of the Korean War.
I feel somewhat under-qualified to stand here and speak
with authority on the Battle of the Imjin River. It took place thirteen
years before I was born. There are men amongst you that were there; many
of you have friends or relatives that fought there. But what I shall try
to do is to paint a picture which will allow those of us who were not
present to better appreciate the sacrifices and valour of those that were.
I do not intend to revisit the strategic geo-politics that led to Prime Minister Atlee's decision to commit British troops, but it followed hard on the heels of a United Nations resolution on 27th June 1950 which recommended that 'members of the United Nations furnish South Korea such assistance as deemed necessary to repel the armed attack of North Korea and restore international peace and security in the area'. 29 Brigade was warned for deployment on 27th July 1950 and ordered to be ready to move on 1st November. Manning the Brigade became its immediate focus - it only had two thirds of its war establishment strength. The British Army in the immediate post world war period was deployed across the globe, fighting insurgents in Malaya, garrisoning Germany and Austria and manning imperial bases from South America to Singapore. Moreover it had been decreed that national service conscripts were only to deploy to Korea if they were volunteers. Men were in short supply. Directives were issued to extend regular service and reservists were recalled to the colours. A shortage of NCOs and regular manpower in the 1st Bn Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment meant that it was replaced in the Brigade Order of Battle, at three days notice, by the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, who were the Infantry Demonstration Battalion in Warminster. The well-prepared and trained Battalion embarked at Southampton on 10th October 1950 and finally disembarked at Pusan in South Korea on Mon 20th November. At this stage its strength was 38 officers and 945 other ranks, and it was reinforced by a further 9 officers and 176 other ranks. The Battalion was organised into 4 rifle companies (W, X, Y and Z), a support company with specialist platoons of anti-tanks, assault pioneers, medium machine guns and 3" mortars, an Headquarters company and its supporting echelon. It was commanded by Lt Col Kingsley Foster, a son of the Regiment, who had deferred promotion in order to lead his Fusiliers in battle.
We must now fast forward through the ebbs and flows of the first five months of this campaign to 22nd April 1951. 29 Brigade had taken up defensive positions behind the Imjin River with the Glosters on the left, the Fusiliers in the centre, a reinforcing Belgian battalion forward right and the Royal Ulster Rifles in reserve. The Brigade was supported by 45 Field Regiment Royal Artillery and squadrons of the Eighth Hussars had been placed in support of the infantry battalions. Col Kingsley Foster had deployed X and Y companies (commanded by Majs Reggie Pratt and Robbie Leith-Macgregor respectively) in outpost positions on the low foothills of the river, forward left and right, with W and Z companies (commanded by Majs Charles Mitchell and John Winn) on the higher ground to their rear. Imagine four corners of a square with a company at each corner. On orders and as necessary the two forward companies (X and Y) would withdraw into secondary positions behind W and Z Companies stepping the whole square back, resulting in the whole Battalion positioned on a Brigade defensive line nicknamed KANSAS. At this stage there was approximately 1000 yards between Z company and the Belgian battalion on the right flank, but there was a 2 mile gap between the Fusiliers' left flank and the Glosters.
The Battalion had been preparing for its celebration of St George's Day. The Gloster's padre, Sam Davies, had been invited to preach to the Fusiliers on 22nd April at an altar which had been prepared behind Z Company's defensive outpost. I quote Andrew Salmon - "vague rumours of impending battle increased Davies' congregation. At the service the men's hymns carried up through the clear morning air. The Commanding Officer concluded the event by reading out the Fusilier's awards for gallantry conferred by the King for the battalion's winter actions. He then invited the padre back to his tent for a glass of sherry and the Fusiliers returned to their positions." Other preparatory activities for St George's Day were also underway. The red and white roses had been received, I think from Japan, and issued to each man. Beer had been stockpiled, regulated as ever to two bottles a man. Turkeys had been acquired and were to be roasted. A mobile cinema had been set up and the Ulster Rifles pipes and drums had been borrowed to 'Beat Retreat' that evening.
Meanwhile information was passing down the chain of command that a build-up of enemy forces on the northern side of the Imjin River was taking place. Air recce was reporting enemy groups, some numbering in their hundreds, and gun batteries heading south towards the river. But despite these reports, the higher chain of command believed that the main body of enemy forces was still some 15 miles from the river and that any assaults by the enemy that night were expected to be probes and not a full-scale attack. Nobody could have foreseen that the Chinese would strike along the entire front simultaneously that night.
An X Company listening post by the ford to their front reported enemy crossing at 1945 hrs that evening. From then onwards, throughout the night, defensive fire was brought to bear on this crossing. By 2200 hrs X Company was being attacked by what were believed to be probing attacks. In a lull Chinese voices could be heard calling on Fusiliers to surrender - you can imagine the response. The main attack then began and by 0245 hrs on St George's Day, X Company's position had become critical. Directed to withdraw at his discretion, Reggie Pratt did so and the Company withdrew in good order, as planned, to its secondary position.
At about 0300 hrs, the right hand platoon of Z Company was attacked on the extreme right rear flank of the battalion. This platoon position was on twin pinnacles 700 feet above the valley, Hill 257, and it looked down onto the remainder of Z Company and also onto Battalion Headquarters. Nobody knows how the enemy had infiltrated that deeply but they had done so effectively, taking the hill, dominating Z Company and Battalion Headquarters and cutting off Y Company who remained forward right. The Commanding Officer needed to both extract Y Company and clear the enemy off this dominating feature. Y Company was withdrawn with the support of the Hussars and in a bold counterattack by Z Company, supported by a platoon from W Company, the Battalion attempted to dislodge the enemy from Hill 257. Having scaled the summit in daylight and despite ferocious hand to hand fighting, the counter attack was repulsed by the Chinese. The Commanding Officer now withdrew Z Company from the rear right to take up a new defensive position on KANSAS in order to conform with the withdrawal of the Belgian battalion. At last light on St George's Day the Battalion had fought and manoeuvred in a highly respectable but difficult defensive battle in relentless terrain and against huge numbers of opposing Chinese. It occupied its positions on KANSAS with Y Company forward right, W Company on the left and X and Z Companies in depth. But that was only the first day.
As the 24th dawned, it became clear that the Glosters had been surrounded dangerously exposing the Fusiliers' left flank. Z Company was moved up to hold the forward left point of the Battalion's position leaving the Battalion with X Company in depth. This ridge was so rocky that in many places it was impossible to dig in. This astute repositioning of Z Company certainly prevented the Battalion from being outflanked and cut off. The enemy attacked Z Company in strength from 0810 hrs for the next 16 or so hours, attempting to force the Company off this Battalion vital ground. Different platoon positions were attacked from every conceivable angle. This was unremitting dirty, close, and deadly warfare. Even experienced soldiers were staggered at the ferocity - D Day veteran and mortar man John Bayliss said " They'd come in with a platoon; if that didn't work, they'd come back with a company. They were like bees - they were coming at us like ants." This position, if taken opened the way for the Chinese to turn the Battalion position. Grenades ran out, and Fusiliers hurled tins of bully beef and fruit pudding at the massed enemy ranks. As Andrew Salmon says - "grunting, straining men lashed out at each other with rifle butts, spades, boots." In the midst of this murderous struggle along the ridge, morale never flagged. Men urged each other on. Banter was tossed as lightly as a grenade. But this all requires rare and inspirational leadership that, in turn, demands personal presence - John Winn was hit three times but never stopped fighting. "Christ, I've been hit in the arse", one Fusilier yelled, "I've got one in the arse too, keep fighting" was John Winn's roar of encouragement.
By the early hours of the 25th it was clear that the pressure on Z Company had to be relieved. Y Company were flung into a counter attack. With 2 platoons deployed forward and one back, Robbie Leith-MacGregor and Y Company, assisted by a W Company platoon, advanced to the sound of the guns and assaulted into the rear of the Chinese who were forming up for a final push onto Z Company. Bayonets were fixed and the Fusiliers rushed the enemy, breaking their line and scattering them. Z Company was finally relieved. Winn walked unaided off the hill to be met by the Battalion second in command, Maj Miles Speer, who greeted him with typical English understatement - "Good morning, John. You are looking extremely untidy".
Orders were now received to withdraw the Battalion to Tokchon, 12 miles to the South-East. But numbers of Chinese had already infiltrated the withdrawal routes making movement rearwards akin to moving through a gauntlet of murderous fire. Supported by a Hussar squadron and a party of Sappers, the Battalion fought its way through ambush after ambush, breaking their way through Chinese roadblocks. Sadly it was during this final phase of the battle that Lt Col Kingsley Foster was killed. Many Fusiliers made their way on foot, alone or in small groups to the Battalion RV. Many made it, but some were captured. It is difficult for us gathered here to imagine the confusion, the fear, the fatigue and the relentless firing of rifles, artillery, mortars and tanks that would have accompanied this manoeuvre.
There were of course casualties. 34 Fusiliers, of all ranks, were killed, 91 were wounded and 39 were taken prisoner. The St George's gazette goes on to say "enemy casualties from artillery fire, mortar fire, air strikes and our own small arms cannot be estimated; they must have been stupendous .we know that three divisions were against us and there may well have been more; as they came on, so we killed them. Many acts of gallantry were performed, some personal, many collective. Some, in due course, will be recorded, many will go unsung. If it can be claimed during the seventy-two hours of the action that every man did his duty, nothing further need be added"
Some were singled out for individual honours. In the course of the Korean campaign , the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers were awarded 4 DSOs, 8 MCs, 5 MMs, 3 DCMs and of course, Derek Kinne was awarded the George Cross to mark his inspirational conduct from the moment he was captured at the Imjin on 25th April 1951 to the moment of his release on 10th August 1953. Subjected to extreme degradation and brutality, every possible method was employed by his captors to break his spirit, a task which proved utterly beyond their powers, to quote his citation.
There can be little doubt amongst us here today that the men did their duty. These men were regular soldiers, reservists, national servicemen, men from the North East, men who believed in their Regiment, who believed in comradeship, men who lived, loved and laughed together as part of the 'Fighting Fifth'. Men of whom a veteran Fusilier said, "The Geordie likes his sport - keen on football - but can become aggressive when roused". These men fought at Imjin, wearing their red and white roses, proud of being a Fusilier and proud of being an Englishman, and they still had their roses at battle's end. They faced their own dragons and showed the courage, selflessness and loyalty for which our Regiment is famed.
Sadly the deeds of these men can sometimes become overshadowed by more personal, and frankly, regrettable Regimental strife. I am sorry to note that there has been too much internal bickering and backbiting since 1968. There are those who would wish to have nothing to do with today's Fusiliers. It seems that for these individuals, history seems to have abruptly stopped in April 1968. But if history teaches us anything, it is that there is a thread of continuity that links past and present. It tells me that the remarkable men of the Fifth at Imjin are inexorably connected back through time and battles to the formation of the Irish Regiment in 1674 by Lord Clare. It tells me that their predecessors fought and died in the war of the Spanish Succession as the Fifth Regiment of the Line, fought in the Penisular War, the Indian Mutiny, the Sudan and the Great War as the Northumberland Fusiliers, fought in Palestine, the Second World War, Korea and Aden as the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and today fights in Afghanistan as the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
So on this St George's Day, let us wear our red and
white roses, and be united in a single family of comradeship. We may be
serving soldiers, veterans, relatives and friends of the Regiment. It
doesn't matter. What matters is that we stand shoulder to shoulder and
care for, nurture and take pride in being part of a Fusilier family, in
the same way that the men of the Fusiliers stood shoulder to shoulder
and watched out for each other at Imjin. What matters is that we never
forget the sacrifice of those who have gone before us, and what matters
is that we support, nourish and applaud those that will come after us.