Global Korea Lecture: When whisky could buy you a jeep

Major-General Mike SwindellsTwo days before the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1874, the second of the Global Korea lectures at the Cultural Centre looked at another time, nearly 60 years ago, when the Korean Peninsula was at the top of the UN’s agenda.

It was a shame that a transport strike resulted in a reduced turnout for Major General Mike Swindells’s talk. Those who successfully arrived independent of the tubes were treated to a fascinating presentation. While billed as “a veteran’s perspective on the miracle on the Han”, the talk was focused on the War itself, and on the experience of veterans returning to Korea over fifty years later.

A technology glitch which prevented General Swindells from showing some 50 or so slides did not matter – his talk was vivid enough and did not need illustration, though we are promised that the photographs will be on the KCC website in due course.

The talk itself was highly informative, and equally interesting were the Q&A session and the informal talk over the buffet afterwards.

Swindells himself did not arrive in Korea until December 1951, after the truce negotiations had started. But despite the talks, the there were skirmishes and endless patrols as the Chinese and UN forces jockeyed for position. Swindells described his reconnoitre across a river, his trousers freezing within minutes of emerging from the water, making an embarrassingly loud noise as he walked.

Swindells had just finished reading David Halberstam’s Coldest Winter1, and recommended it for its examination of the relationships between MacArthur, Washington and the forces under his control. Other volumes on Swindells’s reading list are Max Hastings’s book and Michael Hickey (The West confronts Communism).

A Middlesex veteran was present at the talk. He was one of the first British troops to arrive in Korea from Hong Kong, on the HMS Unicorn. In training, they had all cursed their colonel, something of a stickler for discipline and hard work. But this training paid off in Korea, where the troops realised they were in much better shape than some of the US troops. And their respect for their colonel grew when he refused to put his man at risk by taking up dangerous positions on the orders of people who did not know the conditions on the ground.

For the British, the bitter fighting on the Imjin has gone down into memory, but equally significant was the fighting on the Kapyon River north of Chongchon-ri. While, under some accounts, the Imjin battle should never have happened, possibly more tragic was the fate of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders on hill 282 in the Busan perimeter. They seized the high ground and, on one version of events, were napalmed by US air support out of touch with conventional military tactics: surely only commies were sneaky enough to be on a hilltop?

On a happier note, we were told of the superiority of the Centurion tank, the pinpoint accuracy of the gun being of considerable benefit in supporting the infantry. The Centurion was one example of where the Brits were well equipped. Otherwise, the Brits had to take advantage of the fact that they had alcohol rations while the US infantry did not. A few bottles of Scotch could buy a US jeep, thus supplementing the official equipment of the British forces in Korea.

The regimental spirit formed between the British and Commonwealth troops was strong – in part because men spent five weeks in a troop ship getting there. And now, the bonds between the veterans at the monthly BKVA regional meetings across the country are equally strong. Veterans revisiting Korea are always gratified by the warmth of their welcome from the Korean authorities, and indeed for the support provided by ROK ambassadors in London, who always attend the main BKVA events, whether at the National Arboretum, St Paul’s or elsewhere.

The annual visits by British veterans generally take place in April, coinciding the anniversary of the Imjin battle. The itinerary, which usually takes in a visit to Panmunjom, to Gloster Valley and to the Commonwealth Cemetery in Busan (the US repatriated all their dead) offers plenty of painful memories.

Lee Dae-Joong, First Secretary at the ROK embassy, who chaired the evening, stressed the continuing bond of friendship and gratitude felt by the ROK government to the veterans and their families, and said this would continue well into the future.

The next instance of this ongoing friendship will be the wreath-laying ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral later this month, coinciding with the anniversary of the start of the war.

Mike Swindells gave the Global Korea lecture on 10 June 2009 at the Korean Cultural Centre. Thanks to Shin Eunjeong of the KCC for the photo. Mike Swindells is President of the British Korean Veterans Association.


Korean War reading list at

  1. Coincidentally, a review had appeared on LKL that very day []

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