HC Deb 22 October 1952 vol 505 cc1017-25
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence (Mr. Nigel Birch)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the military situation in Korea.

Since my statement on 1st July, there has been considerably more military activity, but that does not mean that there has been any great change in the general military situation.

During September and October the enemy have launched a series of attacks against a number of dominating features along the United Nations' front. These include some 40 hilltop positions, in advance of our main defence line, which the Communists were most anxious to include in their own lines at the time when we were negotiating with them about a cease fire line.

Many of the recent attacks were only in platoon or company strength and may well have been diversionary, but at several points the Communist troops pressed forward in a determined and often fanatical manner, and attacked again and again despite heavy losses. These assaults have been accompanied by very heavy artillery and mortar fire.

In some localities the United Nations Forces were forced to give ground initially in the face of these attacks, but generally they have been successful in winning back the ground lost in quick counter attacks. However, we have lost to the enemy a small number of these outpost positions in recent battles.

At no point across the entire front has the enemy managed to occupy any part of our main defence line. During one of the most determined of these attacks near Chorwon at the beginning of this month, Chinese troops did succeed in penetrating a small part of our main line for a few hours, but immediate counter attacks threw the Chinese out of these positions.

We are not sure of the reasons for these attacks. The Communists may have wished to strengthen their tactical position in one or two key sectors, possibly before an armistice is signed. On the other hand, they may well have taken the offensive for psychological reasons. So far, at any rate, the fighting has been local and on a relatively small scale. Last week, the United Nations Forces took the initiative and captured two hilltops to the north of Kumhwa; but in turn they have been heavily counter-attacked by the enemy.

There is no evidence of any abnormal movements which would suggest that the enemy are preparing for a major offensive, so the general situation remains much the same as when the last statement was made to the House. The enemy is capable of launching a major offensive at any time without advance warning. The opinion of the responsible commander on the spot is that the Communists could break in, perhaps to a considerable depth, but they would not be able to exploit a break-through.

They would be under constant attack from our aircraft, which are in command of the air over the battle front, although this does not mean that we might not have to cope with a surprise attack by the Communist air forces. The enemy supply lines would also be seriously interfered with by air attack. It is not unreasonable to assume that the Communists will think hard before undertaking a general offensive when they know it will cost them dear.

The enemy build-up continues. The Communist ground forces in Korea now number over one million men—quite apart from their air forces sheltering behind the Yalu River. Seven hundred and fifty thousand of them are Chinese troops. They have some 80 divisions, although these include artillery and anti-tank divisions and divisions employed on security and coastal defence duties. The enemy can, of course, always reinforce these armies with further divisions from China.

They are also improving the equipment of their forces. They may now have as many as 600 tanks and self-propelled guns; this is about 100 more than the figure given to the House in the spring. They are making full use of their increased strength in guns and mortars. In the first week of October, the enemy sent over an average of 27,000 rounds of artillery and mortar fire each day; enemy gun fire has never been so heavy before.

Although our troops are facing a formidable enemy, it must not be thought that this increase in military strength is one-sided. Our own Forces have continued to strengthen their main lines of defence across the peninsula.

It would be right to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the South Korean troops, who have recently shown remarkable improvement in battle efficiency, coupled with a fine fighting spirit. In the early battles of the war, they were on many occasions over-run and suffered heavy casualties because of their poor equipment and lack of training. As a result, their morale was low and the positions which they held in the battle line were vulnerable.

Now it is a very different story. The South Korean divisions have been given intensive battle training and have been equipped with artillery, mortars and tanks on a similar scale to American divisions. In the recent fighting they have shown themselves just as determined as any of the other United Nations troops in the face of heavy Communist attacks.

For 15 days at the beginning of this month in the Chorwon area, the South Korean 9th Division had to face repeated heavy attacks by Chinese assaulting troops. At first they had to give ground, although not without inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. Then they fought back and recovered almost all the ground that was lost, and in doing so, they are believed to have inflicted nearly 10,000 casualties on the Chinese forces.

Again, at the beginning of September, the South Korean Capitol Division withstood bitter and continuous attacks on Capitol Hill and Finger Ridge, near Kumsong. The fighting lasted 14 days and ended with the South Koreans still holding these lines. Their casualties were heavy, but enemy casualties were two or three times their number.

The British Commonwealth Division has not been involved in the recent fighting. They hold all the dominating features in a vital sector of the front covering the approaches to Seoul. They have continued to develop and consolidate both their forward positions and those in the main line of defence. They have, of course, been engaged in active patrolling, which has led to one or two small clashes, but the House will be glad to know that their casualties recently have not been heavy. We all recognise the outstanding leadership of the late commander, General Cassels, in welding the various Commonwealth units into such a fine team.

The Communist air forces continue to grow and they now have some 1,200 MiG 15s compared with the 1,000 jets referred to in the statement of May last. But our United Nations pilots have recently had notable successes against the MiG 15s. When my noble Friend returned from his visit to Korea, he reported that the Americans were confident that they were well able to hold their own. The recent successes of the Sabre jets show this to be true. In August and September, our aircraft destroyed or damaged some 200 Mig 15s. Sixty were destroyed in September alone. The losses in air combat were 10 to one in our favour. The R.A.F. pilots serving with the American air forces have also had a number of MiG 15s to their credit.

Probably the most effective weapon we can use to weaken the enemy is our air power. One of the main tasks of the United Nations air forces is to cut the enemy's lines of supply by attacking targets such as railway lines and bridges. In addition, a series of attacks have been made with the purpose of destroying enemy supply dumps and depots, communications facilities and the factories and plants on which the enemy rely for operations and for equipping their forces. To prevent supplies reaching the enemy front line troops, fighter bombers at last light create road blocks on the main and secondary roads leading down from Pyongyang to the battle area and across country to Wonsan. Then, during the night our night bombers attack the convoys of lorries caught in these congested areas. So the enemy are finding supply operations during the hours of darkness much more difficult.

It is not only in the air that the task is unremitting. The unspectacular daily work of the United Nations navies goes on without a pause. Commonwealth naval forces continue to play an active part.

Last week a naval task force carried out a mock landing below Wonsan. In advance, the guns of the American 7th Fleet and American aircraft destroyed coastal defence guns and other targets in the Wonsan area. The enemy were seen to be hurriedly digging coast defence positions. This operation brought home to them that the United Nations Forces with their naval and air strength can at any time carry out amphibious operations behind their lines. In addition, naval aircraft from the American carriers continue to cut the enemy supply routes daily along the east coast as far north as Chongjin.

The Royal Navy's main area of operations is the west coast, where with other Commonwealth naval forces they give active support to the land forces by firing on enemy troop concentrations, gun positions, and rail and road bridges. They are also regularly engaged in anti-invasion patrols. Our ships continue to play a vital role in securing our own sea lines of communication and, at the same time, preventing enemy movement by sea on the west coast.

Our carrier H.M.S. "Ocean" has so effectively cut the enemy supply route on the west coast from Pyongyang down to Chinnampo that by the end of September there was hardly one serviceable railway bridge along the entire line. It is not without interest to note that aircraft from H.M.S. "Ocean" have had their first contacts with the MiG 15s. They have come out of these encounters most creditably having shot down one MiG and damaged others with no loss to themselves.

The United Nations casualties since the beginning of the war, including those of the South Koreans, now amount to 350,000. Fifty thousand men have been killed. Since the armistice talks began, total casualties have been about 130,000. This means that the United Nations have suffered nearly 50,000 casualties since my last statement in July.

Our United Kingdom casualties since the war began are 3,400, including almost 500 killed. The other Commonwealth countries have had about 2,000 casualties, including 370 killed. The seriousness of these casualties must never be overlooked. I am sure the House will wish to join with me in expressing our sympathy with the bereaved and with those families who are anxious about prisoners, missing or wounded.

It is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to take every step in their power to bring the armistice talks to an early and honourable conclusion. Meanwhile, the United Nations Command, and our own Forces serving under it, are doing their utmost to maintain the position which they have won. It is our duty to give the Command all the support we can in their very difficult task.

Mr. Shinwell

I am sure that no hon. Member on either side of the House will extract any pleasure from the statement we have just heard. We should like to express our regret at the casualties sustained by the United Nations Forces and naturally, in particular, our regret at the casualties sustained by our own Forces. We should like also to extend sympathy, as the Parliamentary Secretary has done, to the relatives of those who have suffered.

I should like to put one or two questions to the Parliamentary Secretary who may have some little difficulty in replying, because they are very largely political, but I must put them—at least I feel that I must put them. Does he not agree that the statement which he has just read to the House would make it appear that, at any rate on the surface, we have reached a position of stalemate, and that while we in no way condone the act of aggression, it is essential that steps should be taken, perhaps through diplomatic measures not yet decided upon or not even thought about, in order to bring this affair to an end?

May I also ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is satisfied that the truce talks have made any contribution at all to the possibility of peace, and whether in fact they have not succeeded in enabling the Communist forces to build up their strength, so that they are in a much stronger position now than they were before?

I ask him to convey to the Government the desirability, as I see it, and as I feel many of my hon. Friends will see it, of adopting some new diplomatic device in order to bring this affair to an end.

Mr. Birch

I think that the whole House will agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the statement discloses a position of deadlock—as, indeed, did previous statements. It is certainly true that the Communists have used the period of truce negotiations to effect a very substantial build-up. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman will expect me to add anything to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary a week ago on the subject of the truce negotiations, but I will, of course, convey the views he has expressed to my right hon. Friend.

Sir D. Savory

Can the Parliamentary Secretary say what intimation he has had that these formidable weapons to which he has alluded are of Soviet origin?

Mr. Birch

I think that my hon. Friend is probably capable of guessing where the arms have come from.

Mr. Hamilton

Can the Parliamentary Secretary indicate whether his Department has any evidence of the presence of Soviet personnel in North Korea, and if so, are they fighting forces or technical people?

Mr. Birch

There are certainly technical and advisory Russian personnel in North Korea, but I do not think that there are any actual fighting forces, though the evidence is not conclusive.

Mr. Nicholson

The Parliamentary Secretary made passing reference to our prisoners. Has he any information to give to the House, obtained through unofficial channels, about the health of our prisoners or their general welfare?

Mr. Birch

So far as we know, there is no bad health. The health of the prisoners is all right.

Mr. Fernyhough

Can the Minister say whether there is any truth in the report that the Americans are canvassing the United Nations for a policy which would mean, in the event of the deadlock continuing, an ultimatum being delivered to the Chinese that unless peace negotiations were satisfactorily arrived at, the war would be extended to China; and if he has heard this report, will he give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will not subscribe in any way whatever to that policy?

Mr. Birch

I have not heard this report, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that that is a question which he should put to the Foreign Secretary.

Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport

Can the Parliamentary Secretary say how many of our casualties are National Service men, and how many of them are 20 years of age or under?

Mr. Birch

I think that if the hon. and gallant Member looks at some Written answers which I gave to the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) earlier this week, he will find the figures.

Mr. Noel-Baker

In view of the questions which have been asked, may I ask the hon. Gentleman if he will assure the House again that the course to which we are committed is an honourable truce and an honourable peace as soon as the aggression in Korea is ended, and as soon as Korea is given the peace and freedom to which, under the Charter, she has a right?

Mr. Birch

I am sure that the House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for expressing those sentiments.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Does the Parliamentary Secretary not agree that it is a misuse of language to talk about peace and freedom being brought to anyone in Korea by this war? He has given us a catalogue of senseless slaughter, and the great majority of our troops in Korea would come home, if they had the chance, tomorrow. What the country wants to know is when we are going to stop this bloody war.

Mr. Birch

I do not think that there is any record of peace and freedom being brought to a country by invading Communist soldiers.

Mr. Edward Davies

Would not the Minister agree that, while we have a duty to uphold the United Nations' position, it is a terrible picture to contemplate that the situation should be resolved, as my hon. Friend would regard it, by bloody slaughter of endless millions of people? Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us how many of the million men the enemy have are Chinese nationals—I am told that three-quarters are Chinese nationals—and whether the Government are having regard to that fact and considering, as my right hon. Friend, the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) has suggested, taking new diplomatic measures to establish what shall be the ultimate outcome when armistice conditions are considered? What is to be the position of this country so far as the recognition of China is concerned?

Mr. Birch

The hon. Gentleman has correctly stated that there are 750,000 Chinese soldiers in North Korea. Naturally the whole matter is under continual consideration, but what we should like to get first is an armistice. That is most important.