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Unit PME Package – Offensive Operations on the Korean Peninsula

The mission of the Australian Army is to prepare land forces for war in order to defend Australia and its national interests. To do this, the Australian Army must be able to respond rapidly to direction from government. Key to this rapid response ability is intellectual preparation – thinking about the tasks we might be asked to undertake. Preparing for possible tasks does not make those tasks any more likely, but intellectual preparation is an important part of the Army’s continuous Professional Military Education (PME) program.

This PME Package, which is built around a case study of 3 RAR at the Battle of Maryang San in 1951, aims to provide commanders with resources to support delivery of collective PME at sub-unit, unit and formation headquarters levels. It includes a summary, four readings, one video interview, and some suggested discussion points. It is not recommended that commanders require individuals to complete all of the readings – assigning specific readings to different sub-elements enables different points of view to be raised during group discussions. Alternatively commanders could assign only those readings that best reflect their unit’s mission. Similarly, as the discussion points listed below are quite comprehensive, commanders might choose to limit the discussion to one or two points. The discussion points could also be used as a guide for developing questions for their subordinates to address in essays or verbal presentations. The intent is to provide commanders with options to support their PME effort.

Summary – The Battle of Maryang San

In early October 1951, 3 RAR, in conjunction with British Commonwealth troops, attacked a group of hills near the Imjin River. The attack was named after the biggest of these hills and became known as the battle for Maryang San or “Operation Commando”.

The operation began on 3 October 1951 with a British assault on one of the other dominant features, Hill 355 (known as Kowang San or ‘Little Gibraltar’). Then, on the morning of the 5th, 3 RAR attacked Hill 317 (Maryang San). The Australian force approached Hill 317 through rugged countryside at 0400 hours, under a heavy cloak of mist. At 1000 hours, the mist began to lift, exposing the Australian advance. However, the communists briefly hesitated before firing, which allowed 3 RAR to capture the first line of defences in a fierce burst of fighting. The following morning 3 RAR drove the communist forces from their position atop the hill, but they had to resist enemy counter-attack. The crest of the Hill 317 was secured on 6 October, after which the Australians assisted the British to take a lesser feature, Hill 217. This was finally achieved on the morning of 8 October.

Operation Commando was strategically important to the UN forces, as the capture of Maryang San would force the Chinese back two or three kilometres, thus losing their view of the Imjin salient. The battle was also significant as it was thought to be the last chance for the UN forces to position troops before the ceasefire and armistice negotiations.

There had been two previous attempts to take Maryang San by American troops, both of which had been unsuccessful. However, over a fiercely fought battle, against superior enemy numbers, UN troops were able to gain and secure the hills 317 (Maryang San) and 355 (‘Little Gibraltar’).

The official historian for the Korean War, Robert O’Neill, wrote of this battle:

In this action 3 RAR had won one of the most impressive victories achieved by any Australian battalion. In five days of heavy fighting 3RAR dislodged a numerically superior enemy from a position of great strength. The Australians were successful in achieving surprise on 3 and 5 October, the company and platoon commanders responded skilfully to Hassett’s directions, and the individual soldiers showed high courage, tenacity and morale despite some very difficult situations, such as that of D company when the mist rose on 5 October and those of B and C Companies when the weight of enemy fire threatened their isolation of Hill 317 on 7 October … The victory of Maryang San is probably the greatest single feat of the Australian Army during the Korean War.

By 5 November, after the Australians were withdrawn to recuperate, Maryang San had been recaptured by the Chinese. It was a terrible blow to morale for those who had fought long and hard to capture it. The tactically important ground of Maryang San remained in the hands of Chinese forces for the rest of the war.

Readings and Resources

Cameron Forbes, The Korean War: Australia in the giants playground, Pan McMillan, Sydney, 2010, Chapter 28. The full text is available from the Defence Library Service.

Peter Thompson and Robert Maclin, Keep off the Skyline: The story of Ron Cashman and the Diggers in Korea, John Wiley and Sons Australia Ltd., 2004, Chapter Five: ‘At the Front’. The full text is available from the Defence Library Service.

Bob Breen, The Battle of Maryang San: Australian Finest Feat of Arms in the Korean War? presented at the Military History and Heritage Victoria Inc. Conference ‘A Hot Cold War: Korea 1950-1953’, 2015.

Maurie Pears and Fred Kirkland, Korea Remembered: the RAN, ARA and RAAF in the Korean War of 1950-1953, Wancliff Pty Ltd., Isle of Capri Queensland, 1997, Chapter Eight: Maryang San. The full text is available from the Defence Library Service.

Australian War Memorial Collection, Interview with Sir Francis Hackett (The Battle of Maryang San), 1994, from 23:42 minutes to 37:00 minutes.

Discussion Points

  1. In the video clip, General Sir Frank Hassett talks about the importance of the principles of war. How often do we incorporate principles such as concentration, surprise or security into our training? How can we do this better, both in TEWTs and FTXs?
  2. Discuss the tactic of ‘ridge running’. How would Army achieve that today? Are we lightly enough equipped to do so? Are we physically trained for this type of fighting?
  3. The plan called for 3 RAR to attack with a coalition unit, 1 KOSB, on its flank and for C Company to conduct a forward passage of lines whilst in contact. What are some of the considerations required to reduce friction, both with flanking units and internally? Discuss control measures, marking the FLOT and coordinating fire support.
  4. In the video, General Sir Frank Hassett talks through the fire plan in detail. What assets does a modern reinforced combat brigade have to provide fire support? How can these be best used? What limitations would a modern force need to mitigate?
  5. Sergeants were required to fill many of the platoon commander positions. Do we currently adequately prepare our SNCO to perform platoon commander roles? How can we better prepare junior leaders to step up when their superiors become casualties?
  6. Prior to the attack on Maryang San, 3 RAR was comprised of well-trained individuals but, after months of defensive operations, the unit was fairly unpractised in offensive operations. Is individual preparedness more important than unit preparedness or vice versa? How can leaders best use the strengths of one to make up for shortfalls in the other?
  7. The Australian Army in the Korean War depended heavily on Korean porters to manpack logistics to the fighting echelons, How would we logistically support ‘ridge running’ operations now? What are some of the considerations for ammunition resupply and CASEVAC? Do battlegroups have the integral combat service support assets to support fighting in this terrain?

Concluding Comments

The information in this package is designed to help commanders to develop and deliver PME in the unit environment. If there are suggestions for improvements – additional readings or reference material, alternative discussion points, new delivery methods – or if you just want to provide feedback, please contact the Cove Team via soldiercove@gmail.com.

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The Cove is a professional development site for the Australian Profession of Arms. The views expressed within individual blog posts and videos are those of the author, and do not reflect any official position or that of the author's employers' - see more here. Any concerns regarding this blog post, video or resource should be directed in the first instance to hello@cove.org.au.