'The fog was so thick, as the battalion made its way along the Imjin River, that every man held onto the bayonet scabbard of the man in front of him.'
This terrifying description of the soldiers of 3RAR advancing to contact with the Chinese positions on Hill 355 (Kowang San) and Hill 317 (Maryang San) was recounted to me by Jim Hughes twenty years ago as he recalled the opening phase of Operation Commando. He had just taken command of 4 Platoon, B Company of the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR). The battle he was walking into was his first time under fire. In the final phase of the battle he would earn the Military Cross for leading his platoon in a grenade duel with an entire Chinese battalion.
The aim of Operation Commando was the capture of the strategic feature Hill 317 above a lazy bend of the Imjin River. Two British battalions had begun the assault with costly frontal attacks on Hill 355 and been driven back. Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Hassett of Marrickville, recently appointed CO of 3RAR, took his battalion on a flanking march along the river and up the ridges. On the day of the attack the impenetrable fog, that Jim Hughes remembered, filled the valleys. 3RAR was not deterred. C Company from 3RAR took Hill 355 from the rear and handed the position over to the British. C Company then crossed the valley, re-joined their mates, and, supported by Irish tanks, climbed the ridges to leapfrog with D and B Companies and capture Hill 317 while A Company attacked a spur to the south covering their flank. From 317 3RAR pressed on and consolidated their position, taking The Hinge. The Chinese counterattacked. Over the next three days the Australians beat back fanatical human wave assaults preceded by intense artillery barrages. Maryang San was held.
The brigade commander James Cassels, later knighted and eventually promoted Field Marshal, described 3RAR’s role in the battle as one of the finest battalion actions in British military history.
This week marks 71 years since 3RAR fought a battle that would rank beside Kapyong as their earliest battle honour. At his home in the Perth suburb of Wembley John Murphy is the last survivor of 3RAR to have fought in both of those vital battles during the Korean War. Wounded by a Chinese grenade at Kapyong, the K-Force volunteer soldiered on and fought with A Company, 3RAR, at Maryang San.