Gerry Van Tonder, Korean War Imjin River (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In Korean War Imjin River, Gerry Van Tonder concludes his serialization of that war with a narrative of the bloody fighting from April 1951 to the ceasefire in July 1953. It is a story of heroism and sacrifice, but also futility and waste in a war that simply had to end, though it never quite has.
The action opens with the US on the offensive in January 1951, bringing them to the 38th Parallel, splitting Korea in two. In April, however, the fortunes of war were about to swing again as the Chinese prepared to launch a quarter of a million soldiers at the UN forces. They were spurred on by MacArthur’s belligerent foolishness that got him fired by President Truman and General Ridgeway placed in charge. All this high politics meant little to the British 29th Infantry Brigade tasked with holding the Imjin River against ten-thousand Chinese. Van Tonder describes the desperate action in detail, highlighting the heroic but hopeless defence of the ‘Glorious’ Glosters. Elsewhere, the South Koreans exhibited rather less resilience and retreated in panic from Chinese forces, causing chaos behind them, and leaving Commonwealth forces to again stem the tide backed by the Americans. Such sacrifices gave the UN forces time to consolidate a strong line across the peninsular while the Chinese offensive lost steam. That line varied little until the ceasefire that ended the war, but in the two years it took for that to happen there were several more bitter clashes, many of them up and down well-defended hills for limited gains. In those, the Chinese might have had the numbers, but the UN had the airpower, though that evened up as the war dragged on, and artillery to smash Chinese assaults. The armistice was signed in July 1953. Van Tonder brings the conflict up to date, concluding with the depressing thought that Korea remains a hot-spot and more war is the most likely outcome.
Imjin River is a worthy final instalment in Van Tonder’s series on the Korean War. As with his other books, Van Tonder weaves an operational overview with the action on the ground in a story that rattles along without getting bogged down in too many stuffy details. His description of the fate of the Glosters in particular is full of tension and drama. Van Tonder is supported by many useful supporting maps and photographs, some of them in colour. Above all, Van Tonder reminds us that the Korean War was a proper war not just a sideshow in a larger struggle and it deserves our attention to prevent it happening again as much as anything else. For those unfamiliar with the Korean War, or just military history enthusiasts in general, this series of books from Pen & Sword’s Cold War 1945-1991 stable is an excellent starting point.