Friday, March 20, 2015

British Cromwell Tanks Used by North Korea During Korean War

At the beginning of the Korean War, The Korean People's Army (KPA) invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950 with superior fire fires including T-34/85 tanks and multiple rocket launchers. At that time, the only armored vehicle power South Korea had was M8 Greyhound light armored car. With the surprising attack by KPA, South Korea retreated to south-east but later recaptured the capital Seoul with helps from UN forces.

North Korean troops came to Seoul with 150 T-34 tanks
In sometimes near 2011, three pictures were uploaded in Korean community sites and heated up people pretty good. Two pictures of them are British Cromwell tanks operated by KPA, and one of them is South Korean Marine Corps using the Cromwell tank.

There are a lot of talks about how North Korea obtained British Mk VIII, Cromwell light tank during the Korean War. While there were a lot of discussions and arguments over how KPA obtained the tanks that are not made in Soviet Union but made in Britain, several researches have done. This post is going to discuss the source and routine how KPA used British tanks.

During Korean War, though it has not yet confirmed, there is a story which British Centurion tank destroyed British Cromwell tank operated by the Communist Chinese Army (CCA) in early 1951 near the south of Seoul. No one could confirm the story since there is no recorded data or documents.

Weighted down with sundry items ranging from guns and trench shovels to a radio set, Sgt. Derrick Deamer, left, and Pvt. Clem Williams wear full battle gear as they chat on the British sector of Korea's Naktong River front in South Korea on Sept. 14, 1950. Both are with British forces fighting with United Nations' troops against the Chinese Communist troops. (AP Photo/GH)
This story is a bit confusing since there were absolutely no connections between CCA and Britain, and early CCA only brought light firearms such as machine guns and mortars. CCA later brought Japanese tanks and few T-34 tanks to the Korea but not in 1951. There was no possibility for CCA to bring such heavy weaponry in early 1951.

Centurion tanks of the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars wait with troops
of the 1st Commonwealth Division to cross a pontoon bridge over the Imjin River.
Imperial War Museum
During the Korea War, British considered sending one entire tank battalion to Korea. They were considering not to send any tanks other than Centurion heavy tanks since sending other light and medium tanks such as Cromwell tanks and Churchill tanks could make maintenance and supply difficult.

However, before the deployment of the tank battalion, the U.S. advised Britain that the road conditions in South Korea are challenging, and maneuverable road is so narrow, that light and medium tanks are also necessary for South Korea.

Britain took this suggestion and deployed Churchill and Cromwell tanks along with Centurion heavy tanks to South Korea.

While the Centurions were the primary gun tank used by the Brits in Korea, a platoon of Cromwells belonged to the 8th RI Hussars and some small number of the OP section of 45 Field Regt, RA. Further, C Co, 7thRoyal Tank Regt was equipped with Mk.VII Churchills, equipped with flame throwers, although they were never used as such. Neither type saw use after spring, 1951.

A British Churchill tank raises dust cloud as it shells the South Korean capital from its position across the Han River in Yondungpo, South Korea on Feb. 11, 1951. (AP Photo/Jim Pringle )
Now we know that British tanks entered South Korea and Cromwell tanks were of them. But, isn't it possible that Soviet Union gave Cromwell tanks to China?

Generally people believed that the Cromwell tanks are from Soviet Union. During World War II, Western Allied forces supported Soviet Union with military resources including tanks. It is possible that British also sent a few Cromwell tanks to Soviet Union as a lend-lease aid. After on, Soviet Union possible reinforced KPA or CCA with the Cromwell tanks.

However, this assumption of Soviet Union was wrong. The Cromwell tanks used by KPA was the ones that British tank battalion brought with. In the story of the Cromwell tanks, there is an unknown battle "Happy Valley Battle." This battle was the key to the mystery.

When researched these Cromwell tanks if Korean War with books written in the U.S., there were no mentions about the "Happy Valley Battle" or only a short descriptions were briefly mentioned in the book. The "Happy Valley Battle" is therefore known as a forgotten battle of forgotten war among British Korean War veterans. While the importance of this battle was significant, not too many materials nor archives are remaining.

The following is a link about Happy Valley Battle:

At Happy Valley or 'Go-yang'
Before The Third Battle of Seoul, UN forces retreated from Seoul in the threat of CCA forces using human sea wave tactics. To earn some times to safely fall back, the U.N. urgently dispatched British's Ulster infantry battalion to near 'Go-yang' and 'Nam-yang' provinces, north of Seoul. Ulster infantry battalion included British Royal Hussar Tank Battalion's 14 of Mk VIII Cromwell tanks.

For four days, British troops of Ulster battalion successfully resisted and earned time for the U.N. troops and Seoul civilians to retreat from Seoul. The day before January 14, 1951, Ulster battalion was ordered to retreat from the defense line to South and regroup with UN troops. However, CCA noticed the withdrawing plan and ambushed Ulster's battalion. 157 British soldiers were killed and 20 soldiers were captured. Moreover, all 14 Cromwell tanks were also captured by CCA.

After recaptured Seoul, British solders are checking the Cromwell tank
left in Happy Valley Battle.
The reason Centurion heavy tanks were not dispatched instead of Cromwell light tanks was because of the road condition. Routes near the front line at Happy Valley was too narrow that only cargo carts could barely manage to pass. This kind of road was impossible for Centurion tanks to cross, but Cromwell tanks could barely pass.

CCA using human sea wave tactic.
However, this became a significant disadvantage for the Cromwell tanks. With limited maneuvering capabilities in narrow and small roads, Cromwell tank crews could not operate the tanks effectively and resist well against a great number of CCA troops rushing toward Cromwell tanks like leeches. CCAs threw hand grenades in between tank's wheels and easily detracked the tanks to climb on the tanks. One Cromwell tank was destroyed in a tunnel which is now used as a subway tunnel.

Chinese captured 12 Cromwells from recce troop of 8th RI Hussars during battle in narrow valley near Ujiongbu in late November 1950. Column of this tanks was ambushed by Chinese Infantry and few members of their crews managed to escape.

An eyewitness of destroying Cromwell tanks later complained to researchers and historians that he could not do farming for three years because the destroyed tank's engine oil contaminated rice paddies. His story confirmed that one of the tanks was destroyed by a grenade thrown into the engine room of the tank by CCAs. Other witnesses said, after the U.N. forces recaptured Seoul and marched toward north again, all destroyed tanks were quickly collected by U.N. forces.

A destroyed Cromwell tank at the Happy Valley Battle
While a history of Korean War written by the U.S. did not have detailed information about this Happy Valley Battle, Korean War book written by Britain had somewhat detailed information about the battle of Cromwell tanks. Especially a part explaining British tanks discharging against Cromwell tank after recapture of Seoul is well written. The book explained this so called "The Battle of Cromwell Tank."
February 11, 1951, two British Centurion heavy tanks commanded by Captain Strachan and First Lieutenant Redford found an unidentified tank hiding under the right side of Han-river railroad bridge while supporting the U.S. reconnaissance company. The commanders order to engage and destroy the unknown tank. The AP shots shot through the side armor and destroyed it. Interestingly, when commanders checked the destroyed tank, they realized it was a British Cromwell tank. It was Centurion tanks "Cuaghoo" from 3rd squadron that destroyed the tank.
Today's view of under the Han-river railroad bridge.
It is road full of traffic right now, but it used to be a sandy beach
Probably CCA or KPA drove Cromwell tank down to Seoul and hid under the railroad bridge in case of airstrikes or U.S. tanks crossing the Han-river. However, unexpectedly, British Centurion tanks found the Cromwell and destroyed them.

A Centurion heavy tank firing
Then, a question arises here: was it CCA or KPA drove and used this Cromwell tanks? The answer to this question is later solved when South Korean Marines landed in Incheon (a city next to Seoul) and captured one of the Cromwell tanks.

1A Cromwell tank which North Koreans abandoned in Incheon beach.
A British soldier with beret is checking the tank.
Above picture is one of the three pictures that heated up Korean internet sites. During Korean war, Incheon beach was defended by KPAs, not the CCAs. If KPA defended the beach and the Cromwell tank was used to defend the beach, then KPA must used the Cromwell tank. However, the contradiction is that the Cromwell tanks were captured by CCAs.

2A Cromwell tank operated by North Korea soldiers with Soviet tank crew's helmets
Above picture is another of those pictures. It is very clearly seen that the tank operators are KPAs wearing Soviet's tank crew helmet. The uniforms soldiers are wearing in the picture also prove that they are KPAs. During the war, CCAs did not have uniforms with insignia. However, the uniforms in the picture have insignia, showing that they are KPAs.

On September 1949, Mao is inspecting Japanese Type 97 CHI-HA tanks.
CCA had tank forces but not so much during Korean War. Although CCA had quite a few Japanese Type 97 CHI-HA tanks, they did not have enough skills to use them for the war, and the tanks were inferior to most of tanks at the time. Later on, CCA imported very limited numbers of T-34 Soviet tanks to use though. However, it was in 1952 and 1953 when CCA sent tanks to Korean War.

CCA not only did not have firm tank battalions but also had lack of knowledge and skills on operating armored vehicles and tanks. The reason I am mentioning about CCA tank forces is because this relates to KPA using Cromwell tanks.

USMC passing by a destroyed North Korean T-34 tanks
Lieutenant General Robert P. Keller, USMC (Ret.)
Before the Korean War, KPA had several tank crews trained by expert Soviet tank instructors. A full brigade equipped with about 120 North Korean T-34/85s spearheaded the invasion of South Korea in June 1950. The North Korean tanks had overwhelming early successes against South Korean infantry.

However, majority of T-34 tanks were destroyed due to lack of experiences compared to those tank crews of the UN forces, and superior fire powers of U.N. forces such as the U.S. M26 heavy tanks and ground-attack aircraft, and the U.S. infantry anti-tank weapons. The M4 Sherman (M4A3E8 model) and British tanks such as the Centurion, Churchill, and Cromwell destroyed numbers of T-34/85 tanks too.

But still, during the early stage of the Korean War, several KPA tank crews remained in the war. Those KPA tank crews had basic knowledge on how to operate T-34 tanks but probably could also operate the British Cromwell tanks in similar ways. Thus, it is possible that since CCA troops did not understand and know how to use tanks, they handed the tanks to KPA to use against the U.N. troops.

The two pictures of Cromwell tank strongly support this theoretical assumption quite well. Thus, it is highly reasonable that the Cromwell tank destroyed by Centurion tank was operated by North Korean tank crews.

3A Cromwell tank with Korean saying "Marine Corps" at the bottom front of the tank
Above picture is the last picture that heated up the internet. Now, the tank is operated by the South Korean Marine Corps. In the picture, British officer on the right is talking to a soldier. The story with the Cromwell tanks get very confused at this point now.

South Korean Marines launching attack at Incheon beach 
The inference is that the South Korean Marines landed in Incheon and captured the tank from North Korean defense forces. This maybe the very first tank that is operated by South Korea by that time, since the very first South Korean tank company was founded on December of 1951 with helps from the U.S. Marine Corps.

Korean tank crews are learning about the U.S. tanks during Korean war.
To conclude, there were British tanks used by North Koreans during the war. Those tanks were captured by Communist Chinese Army at the Battle of Happy Valley. However, trained North Koreans operated these tanks instead of Chinese since Chinese did not know how to operate tanks. Although it is very interesting how North Koreans used the Cromwell tanks against UN forces, but we should not also forget the forgotten battle of brave British troops during the Korean War. In addition to this novel story of Cromwell tanks, I hope more people to remember the Happy Valley Battle, which British troops fought against Communist Chinese Army to earn times for UN forces to retreat.


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