Sometimes, the Korean War doesn’t get the acknowledgement it deserves in Canada with the World Wars often taking most pages of the history books. During the war, 26,000 Canadians would travel to the Korean Peninsula to fight in the war. During that war, 516 Canadians would die, 312 of which would be in combat. Roughly five per cent of those deaths would come from one battle, one of the bloodiest battles for Canadians during the war. The Battle of Hill 187.
Having taken over Hill 187 on the Jamestown Line, the Third Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment would be forced to hold the hill while faced with a huge Chinese assault troops who were heading towards the hill to retake it.
The battle was one of the last engagements before the end of the Korean War, and most of the soldiers who fought in the battle had only arrived in Korea a few weeks previous.
Today, the battle is mostly forgotten, an unfortunate fact considering its importance and the number of Canadians who died.
The Third Battalion of the Royals landed in Korea on March 23, 1953, and within a few weeks they would get an intense taste of battle. Most of the men were new but some were from the First Battalion of the Royal Regiment, who did not have enough time in Korean service to return home, along with a few volunteers who had experience but opted to stay in Korea. The Battalion was led by Lt. Col. KL Campbell and none of the company commanders in the battalion had been with the battalion before the summer of 1952.
As for the Hill they would come to, it was located in the centre of the First Commonwealth Division front. The Chinese had failed in their attack at Pork Chop Hill, and they would turn their attention to Hill 187 as a result.
Upon their arrival, the men were deployed in four rifle companies spaced over 2,400 yards. For Company C, they were the most vulnerable, sitting the closest to the enemy lines. A Company would be the farthest from the Chinese. Only B Company would be able to supply supporting fire towards C Company to help defend them.
The area is related by Captain Ross Appleton.
“The terrain was made up of steep-sided hills joined by steep-sided ridges and separated by valleys varying from narrow bush-chocked ravines to wide flat bottomed valleys floored with rice paddy. Because of the width of front allocated to a battalion, usually 2500 to 4,000 yards, the defensive position usually consisted of platoon positions on the more prominent hills loosely grouped into company positions suited to the ground pattern.”
In the evening of May 2, 1953, Lt. Gerry Maynell was out on patrol with his unit when they were suddenly under attack. He would be killed, along with having half of his men killed or wounded. The surviving men retreated to Hill 187 and found that the Chinese were about to begin unleashing an overwhelming attack against them.
Donovan Redknap would relate the beginning of the battle in this recording from the Memory Project.
Kenneth Himes adds his own recollection of taking part in getting to the wounded from that ambush.
The shells and bombs began to fall slowly at first and were spaced out so the Canadians did not know when the attack was coming.
Gerard Becigneul speaks about that barrage.
Throughout the night and into the next day, the Chinese would throw wave after wave of men at the Third Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, while also hammering them with artillery fire.
Eventually, ammunition would run out and the men would engage in hand-to-hand combat with the Chinese, while grenades were being thrown constantly. One Royal Canadian Regiment platoon estimated they threw 350 grenades alone. Lt. Ed Hollyer, a platoon commander, would see his men dealing with 800 Chinese troops swarming and would call down an artillery bombardment on his own trenches to disperse the Chinese offensive.
The decision to fire on their own position is again related by Redknap.
Becigneul adds to the story about the barrage on their own position.
For his actions, Hollyer would be awarded the Military Cross.
According to one soldier, there were three waves of attacks by the Chinese. The first wave blew gaps in the wire, the second wave threw grenades and the third wave was the assault group.
Don Sudden had volunteered to serve overseas and would find himself at the Battle of Hill 187 serving as a front-line gunner. He would say in his recollection, “You’re so busy, you got an enemy soldier coming at you and he’s got a bayonet, he’s ready to tear your ribs out. So, you’re going to do something about that guy there. You don’t care too much about either side and so you’re dealing with the person in front of you.”
George Browning was just a young man when the battle happened. He would say, “When I was just 18, I buried 26 of my friends in one night after the Battle of Hill 187”
Himes speaks about the battle itself.
Bill Jardine had enlisted at the age of only 15, saying his age was 18. He would have the highest rifle range score in the company during training and before long he was on his way to Korea and Hill 187. When the Chinese attacked, Jardine said they came in huge waves and, in his words, were “swarming like ants”.
In later years, he would say “In Canadian history, it may have been a minor incident but to the young men of Charlie Company, it was a defining moment. They sacrificed their lives and should never be forgotten.”
In speaking with the Frontenac News, Bill Robinson recounted that the attack was the fiercest he ever experienced in Korea. A shell would hit the corner of his trench, sending him through the air. Thankfully, he survived with just a concussion and an injury to his ear that would leave him with dismissed hearing in that ear for the rest of his life. Unlike many of the troops in the Battalion who had only arrived a few weeks earlier, Robinson had been in Korea for eight months and was assigned to the Battalion because it was low on men.
The regiment would hold the hill, but it came at a cost of 26 Canadians dead, 27 wounded and seven taken prisoner. Brigadier General Jean Allandale, who was in charge of the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade, did not see the battle as a victory. For him, it was the enemy who had won considering the heavy losses by the regiment. He would use the battle as a reason to whip the new arrivals into shape.
When the battle was over, little press about it made it home to Canada and what did was published several weeks later and had been censored before it made it into newspapers. This would put the battle as something very few Canadians knew about, or even know about today. For the soldiers in the battle, there would be two Military Crosses emerged, three Military Medals and five Mention In Dispatches.
On July 27, 1953, only a few weeks after the battle, the Korean War would come to an end.
FrontenacNews, the WarTime Heritage Association, The Pembroke Observer, CTV, St. Joseph’s Health Care London, Canadian Veterans Advocacy, RCR Association, Maple Ridge News, Canada’s Three Korean Wars, the Memory Project, Veterans Affairs