At 11am on Thursday, July 27, the nation will be asked to pause and reflect upon the happenings of 70 years ago when hostilities in the Korean War came to an end. South Koreans call it the ‘625 War’ as it began on 25th June 1950 - here, it is known as the ‘Forgotten War’.

These days, few people under the age of 40yrs will know anything about it; those under the age of 60 may recall the American sitcom M*A*S*H which was set in that theatre, but probably will not know much about the war itself. Most likely, those who are aged over 80 may remember the political background of the situation, but only those who are approaching 90, and beyond, will have served in the conflict.

In 1950, most WWII food rationing was still ongoing, the first Sainsbury’s opened (in Croydon), USA beat England 1-0 in the World Cup and Princess Elizabeth was pregnant with her daughter Anne. King George VI died in 1952, and she was crowned Queen a few weeks before the conflict ended.

The war began when communist North Korean troops crossed 38th Parallel, the arbitrary line that divided the peninsula, and invaded South Korea. The US asked the United Nations to condemn the invasion, and called nations to help with a ‘police action’. In a global coalition to rebuff communism, about 15 countries sent troops, and 50 provided supplies.

The USA contributed the most servicemen by far, but Britain was the second largest force, and it is important to note that about 40 per cent were National Servicemen. The Royal Marines re-established 41 Commando, an independent force, which was embedded with US Marines and detailed to raid behind enemy lines. Three brigades of troops were deployed, from which was created the 1st Commonwealth Division - UK, Australia, Canada and NZ. At sea, the RN’s Eastern Fleet of two aircraft-carriers, six cruisers and numerous destroyers and frigates constantly rotated in and out of theatre, with other nations also providing ships. Most British flying missions were carried out by Fleet Air Arm personnel from the carriers, but the RAF had three squadrons of Sunderland seaplanes for rescue and reconnaissance.

Sidmouth's links with the Korean War 

Ray Collins of Woolbrook did not see combat, but a year after the armistice, in summer 1954, he found himself in Korea with the Dorset Regiment. For nearly a year, Ray’s battalion was based on the 38th Parallel - the re-established frontier agreed at the truce. There was tension, and sometimes NK troops provocatively crossed the border and there were shoot-ups, but overall, the freezing conditions were the principal enemy. Not long after his National Service ended, Ray became a leader of the Sidmouth Army Cadets, and was its highly respected warrant officer for over thirty years - his dedication and leadership earned him the British Empire Medal.

Another local boy, Dougie Farrant, was in the Dorsets with Ray. His experiences were similar. He is thankful for not having to fight, but also found the conditions very hard, particularly the paucity of the food, which was, ‘dreadful compared to what the Yanks gave their boys’. Nevertheless, he regards the experience it gave a ‘just young lad from Sidmouth as very valuable - and he also relished travelling to Tokyo and Hong Kong when given leave.

Manstone boy David Hamson did fight in the war but did not return home. He was born in Sidmouth in 1932 and his family moved into the lower estate when it was first built in 1938. Called up for National Service, he joined the Devonshire Regiment and his battalion was sent out to Malaya to combat communist guerrillas. Soon afterwards, volunteers to reinforce the operation in Korea, were called for, and David found himself with the Gloucestershire Regiment. In April 1951, the ‘Glorious Glosters’ were in the hills outside Seoul when China launched a 10,000-strong attack. The Glosters numbered just 750, but they held back the enemy for four days and four nights, giving the Americans time to reinforce the capital’s defences - this was the famous Battle of Imjin River.

In three years, roughly 1,250 British servicemen lost their lives - most were infantrymen - with over 30 men of 41 Commando killed, most fighting in North Korea at Choisin Reservoir, or succumbing to maltreatment as POWs. As for the RN, the enemy’s gunboats were dealt within the first weeks of the war, so very few sailors lost their lives, mostly to artillery fire or accidents; however, the Fleet Air Arm flew countless missions, and saw the loss of a few dozen men.

The background to the conflict

So what did young David and all those others die for? The answer is convoluted, in short: the Korean peninsula had been fought over for centuries. In the Victorian and Edwardian ages, the Koreans had been bullied and colonised by the Japanese, so when WWII ended and the Allies occupied Japan, Korea came with it. It was then used as a buffer against the Chinese and Soviets. By the same token, neither Peking nor Moscow wanted the West at their back doors. So a puppet regime was installed in North Korea, and the Americans put their man in Seoul. In 1948, the two Koreas were formally established and almost immediately began fighting each other. The North invaded believing that the South was weak, and that, so soon after WWII, the US would not go to war for this cause. This was a big error. Within months, the North was driven out of the South by UN forces; but then the bellicose General MacArthur made an even bigger error. He decided to invade the North - which brought China into the conflict, thereby prolonging the war by another 30 months.

MacArthur ignored China’s warning and crossed into North Korea, with threats of using nuclear weapons in support. In April 1951, he was sacked by President Truman for recklessness. His decision cost an additional 3.5m lives to those lost by the end of 1950. Nobody knows for sure, but estimations say 4.5m lives may have been lost in the war - the vast majority civilian. It is said that North Korea lost over 20 per cent of its population, as the USAF bombed the country mercilessly.

British forces acquitted themselves very well and were highly respected by all parties. Regrettably, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War would see an increasing number of ‘small wars’ as the world decolonised, and Moscow and Beijing sought to install Communist regimes into the various vacuums. Fortunately, Britain managed to avoid the worst - Vietnam - but would soon have problems much closer to home.

Anyone wishing to pay tribute to Korean War servicemen - to loved ones, to friends or to British forces in general - is most welcome to attend. They should be at the parish church for 10.45am on Thursday, July 27.