The Centurion first saw combat during the Korean War of 1950-53. However, the mountainous terrain was totally unsuited to the employment of heavy armour and at 50 tons the centurion was the heaviest tank in theatre.
Under the auspices of the United Nations, a multinational army was assembled following the invasion in June 1950 of the Republic of Korea by the North Korean People’s Army at the instigation of Josef Stalin. The British committed the 27th Infantry Brigade to South Korea from their station in Hong Kong, soon followed by the 29th Independent Infantry Brigade Group.
The latter was supported by the Centurion tanks of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars and together they trained north from the port of Pusan to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang where they unloaded just as the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army entered the war.
There ensued what was known as the ‘Great Bug Out’ when UN Forces fell back in disarray. The two British Brigades retreated as well, but at no time were the tanks in contact with the enemy.
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During the bitter winter of 1950/51, the British awaited the inevitable Chinese offensive. As one junior officer observed on the 9th of January 1951: “This has been one of the bloodiest days I can remember … we have given up thinking about the Chinese … all we could do is throw snowballs at them … did a 2½ hour stag at 4 am in a state of numbness and semi-consciousness…”
Five days before, the Battle of Happy Valley had seen the Cromwell tanks of recce troop, 8th Hussars, and the Cromwell AOPs of 45 Regiment RA, fighting in support of the Royal Ulster Rifles while ‘C’ Squadron, 7RTR, supported the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. Casualties in men and machines were high.
With the coming of spring, the UN Forces began a series of concerted attacks that forced the enemy back to the 38th Parallel. On the 22nd of April, 1951, the Chinese Communist Forces and North Korean People’s Army launched their Spring Offensive. The full weight of the assaults fell upon the two British Commonwealth brigades on the Imjin River and at Kapyong.
Against the most fearful odds, the enemy was held long enough for further defence lines to be established as the communists came up against the British and commonwealth hilltop infantry positions in repeated human waves. Fighting on widely separated hills, the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, 1st Battalion royal Northumberland fusiliers and 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles fought against impossible odds of over 15 to 1.
Nevertheless, in defence, they exacted a staggering level of casualties on the enemy before withdrawing after three days and nights under the covering guns of the artillery and the Centurions of the 8th Hussars on the 25th of April.
The corps commander arrived at 29 Brigade HQ at 1000 hrs that morning and informed Brigadier Brodie that an attempt by the 65th Regimental combat Team to relieve the Glosters had failed. This left HQ open to attack, as the Belgian battalion protected the position was now heavily outnumbered. At 1030 hrs the brigade was ordered to withdraw as the enemy pressure was too great. Ammunition and water were running low and radio batteries exhausted.
The Northumberland Fusiliers started to withdraw under the covering fire of the tanks and escaped without further casualties. The first company of Ulsters also moved out without difficulty. The enemy threat from the northwest on the dominant feature of Kamak-San was very real and the road was under heavy and accurate mortar fire. The remainder of the Ulsters struck out southeast over the hills and so avoided the area of the pass.
1st Troop was now at the pass with the troop leader’s Centurion on top of a small hill firing down at the enemy who was building up in the southern re-entrant to the west of the road. This was the critical hour. A wave of Chinese swept down from the hills all along the west of the valley, forcing the tank commanders to close down. There was a very real danger that all the tanks would be trapped. The Centurions ran the gauntlet of the treacherous ground.
Meanwhile, 1st Troop was struggling to keep the pass open, ably supported by about 30 sappers and the Ulsters’ reserve company. As the last of the infantry moved through the pass, 1st Troop pulled out, bringing some of the Ulsters with them as well as the sapper escort. At this time the hard-pressed Belgians were ordered to withdraw under the covering fire of 2nd Troop, which had given them excellent support all morning. The rate of the withdrawal was slowed down to enable one of the Centurions, which was stuck in reverse, to keep up.
At the same time, ‘Ormrodforce’ had fought its way along the last part of the valley through the masses of Chinese, as 2000 or more swarmed down from the west in an attempt to cut them off. The Centurions surged on, crushing enemy soldiers under their tracks. Some tanks took to the paddy fields. Few of the infantry clinging on to the rear decks survived this death ride. The tanks finally left the valley and limped into the squadron leaguer area.
Major Huth ordered ‘Ormrodforce’ to pass straight through to seek help for the wounded while he organised the withdrawal of the remainder of ‘C’ Squadron. Joined by another Centurion the two tanks continued a delaying action until there was an acceptable distance between the retreating infantry and the enemy. The two tanks then pulled back rapidly half a mile down the road to a new crisis.
Exhausted and wounded Ulsters were struggling towards the road from the hills to the east. Ordering those thanks which had halted in the vicinity to load to capacity with the infantry and withdraw, Major Huth and Lieutenant Lindsey moved forward again in an attempt to push the enemy back. for almost an hour the two Centurions fought a brilliant and courageous rearguard action. Each time the Chinese infantry were about to outflank the point tank, it withdrew some 200 yards under the covering fire of the other.
Two other tanks eventually arrived to strengthen the rearguard, but not until the last infantryman was seen to reach the main supply route where more potent firepower was available to them, did Major Huth give the order to withdraw.
The last shot fired by Major Huth ended the Battle of Imjin River.
That night the Glosters received permission to break out, but, totally encircled by thousands of Chinese, few were able to do so and those remaining were captured. The brigade had lost a quarter of its strength but had it not been for the Centurions of the 8th Hussars it is unlikely that the Belgians, Fusiliers or Ulsters could have been saved at all.