Book review: Chinese Hordes and Human Waves by Brigadier Brian Parritt

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For many, the bitter Korean War of 1950-53 is now just another forgotten conflict.

But for ex-Brigadier Brian Parritt, memories of the horrific conditions faced by British and other United Nations troops are as vivid today as they were when he set out for Seoul as a rookie Gunner officer in 1952.

The North Koreans’ attack on their Southern neighbours in 1950 came as Europe was already in the grip of the Cold War. The Korean fighting rapidly escalated with China soon heavily involved on one side and the UN, including Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans, on the other.

The 80-year-old’s gripping and insightful account of a civil war that shook the world takes us into the heat of battle and the heart of the war’s causes and effects.

It’s an eye-opening and thought-provoking story for subsequent generations who have never faced the responsibilities of National Service or the dangers of a war zone.

‘Polly’ Parritt, as he was known in his army days, was born to be a soldier. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served with the Royal Artillery and when Parritt was called up for National Service in 1949, he soon took up a full-time commission and trained as an officer at Sandhurst. It was just the start of a 35-year military career which culminated in five years as Director of the Intelligence Corps.

Part of the 20th Field Regiment, he arrived by boat at Pusan in 1952 where they were greeted by the bizarre sound of the marine band of the Republic of South Korea playing in raunchy Glenn Miller style the 1950 hit ‘If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake.’

A train journey through scenes of devastation took the men to their base at Tok Chon, north of Seoul. On the battlefront, the fighting by this time had assumed an uncanny resemblance to the Western Front of the First World War.

A heavily fortified front line had been established with interlocking defended positions, deeply dug and strengthened with minefields and barbed wire. Between them and the Chinese troops was just a strip of no-man’s-land.

From these positions, patrols were sent out to capture prisoners, disrupt the enemy, make occasional attacks and seize hills of tactical importance.

Apart from the NCOs, the troops were all National Servicemen whose service had been extended from 18 months to two years because of the war. For many, there was a sense of pride that they were following a tradition and unlike the enemy of the Second World War, they felt no hatred for the Chinese who only a few years earlier had been Britain’s ‘gallant allies.’

On winter nights, it was so cold that a mug of steaming tea left for two minutes would become frozen to a vehicle tailboard and it was not good country for moving tanks as roads were narrow and flanked by paddy fields.

In one encounter, as the tanks advanced in single file, they became surrounded by Chinese infantry who used long bamboo poles with a crude explosive charge tied to the end as a primitive but effective anti-tank weapon.

In June 1953, Parritt was injured by both a bullet and shrapnel when a soldier stepped on a mine and it detonated, killing three and wounding eleven.

His detailed book reveals what it was like to be at the infamous Battle of the Hook, where UN troops held off ferocious massed attacks by the numerically superior Chinese.

Through his experience as a qualified Chinese interpreter and intelligence officer, Parritt also provides an illuminating analysis of the causes and implications of the war, the plight of prisoners-of-war, held with no regard for the Geneva Convention, the reasons for the Commonwealth becoming involved, the failure of intelligence and how the bravery of American troops on the ground counter-balanced errors of policy in the conduct of the war.

Korea, he declares, was a worthwhile cause as it halted the militant Communist dictatorship of Stalin and the ideological dictatorship of Mao.

The war is remembered still by the people of South Korea, he says, unlike many other now independent countries ‘where the sacrifices of the British servicemen have been white-washed from local history.’

(Pen&Sword, hardback, £19.99)