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Hill 355

The original 16th Field Regiment as seen from the front-line trenches

Korea, March 1953

by SB Matthews

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The specially raised volunteer unit, New Zealand K Force, comprising 16 Field Regiment and 10 Transport Company that kept the Regiment supplied with ammunition etc., had an effectiveness out of all proportion to its size. With a strong representation of Duntroon graduates and WW2 veterans, plus a few Regular Army Officers and senior NCOs and perhaps most importantly, a large slice of Kiwi ingenuity and enterprise, they took the field of battle with an open mind and an original approach to problem solving.

Early in 1953 the Brit Com Div was relieved for the first time since its conception in 1951. Once it was formed from the various British Commonwealth units that had been sent to the war by their respective countries, there was no other British formation of equal size or organisation to relieve it.

Finally in early February 1953, a deal was struck with the Americans, who were running the war under the United Nations flag. The American Army would provide the 9th US Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division to relieve us, on one condition. That the New Zealand Field Regiment stayed in the line, keeping its gun-line in place to cover Little Gibraltar, the massive Hill 355. The Americans got their way, they knew what they were doing as far as artillery was concerned. As it turned out, during March the Kiwi Gunners fired thousands of rounds in support of the Americans on Hill 355.

Anti-tank Ridge was a low spur at its western end, which we had held with a heavy weight platoon. The Americans also appreciating its importance to the security of the big hill, put a company on it. Unfortunately they did not patrol around it. At 2000 hrs one night in early March, it was suddenly overrun by two Chinese companies. The story given out was, that during previous nights the Chinese had dug a sap across no-mans-land to the barbed wire.

The position was held all night by the Communists who were supported by very heavy mortar and artillery bombardments. The NZ Gunner Regiment fired DF and counter battery tasks but no counter-attack was mounted by Americans until first light. As they moved in again, the Chinese were withdrawing. Once the shooting stopped, some South Koreans soldiers attached to the US unit, emerged from a bunker where they had been hiding all night, they were promptly shot by mistake by the hyped up men of the relieving force.

A week later the position was lost again. This time a counter-attack from Hill 159 was ordered. It did however take a fair while to organize. As was the American style, the company strength counter-attacks was led by the Battalion Commander. This counter-attack not only failed but the CO didn't return. Again the New Zealand Gunners played a big part in the action.

A second attempt at first light was successful as the Chinese were pulling out anyway. To their amazement, the relieving force found their Commanding Officer alive though wounded. A big Negro soldier armed with an M1 carbine and a Garand automatic rifle, was standing over him. There were 17 very dead enemy lying in a circle around the officer and his guardian. Who could guess how many wounded Chinese may have been dragged away by their comrades.

On the night of the 17th March 1953, a battalion size attack overran the left forward American company on Hill 355 adjacent to Anti-tank ridge. The enemy came up our own communication trenches within the position, so the Arty defensive fire was not so effective. However, NZ 16th Field's Captain Vem Duley, controlling the fire from his OP on the centre company's position on the top of the hill, harassed the Chinese all night.

Monitoring the Chinese radio net he realized that they were assembling a major assault force behind the Chinese held feature known as John, only a hundred and fifty metres from 355's forward company, to follow up and exploit the initial attack. He put an Uncle Target on to the lower ground on the north side of John just out of sight of 355. Intercepted messages indicated that the intended full scale attack was broken up on the startline (See Note). This time the Regiment fired 4600 rounds during the night inflicting heavy casualties. The situation on the left forward company was not restored until 1000 hours. 3 RAR, still in strategic reserve was put on standby and B Coy was sent forward accompanied by our CO, his New Zealand Adjutant Dick Stanley-Harris and our senior Mortar Fire Controller Jack Spiers. Another Kiwi.

There is no doubt that if our gunners, whose OPOs were so familiar with the Big feature and its environs, had not still been in the line. The strategic feature Hill 355 would have been lost, causing a breach in the line that would have had serious consequences for the whole United Nation's effort.

Note. I am not sure whether this was the occasion that led some Americans to the belief that the NZ 25 pounder gun-howitzers were magazine fed.

Bruce Matthews
May 2000
During the Korean War, Lt Matthews was a NZer seconded to 3RAR.

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