Gerry Van Tonder, Korean War Chinese Invasion October 1950 – March 1951 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In October 1950, the CIA reported to President Truman that there was little likelihood of a Chinese invasion of North Korea. They were very wrong. A month later, a tsunami of Chinese soldiers had poured across the border with the aim of extinguishing the United Nations forces, and they nearly succeeded. In his continuing series on the Korean War, Gerry Van Tonder brings us that story.
Van Tonder begins with a survey of the newly constituted Chinese army. This was a massive organization, full of veterans from the Chinese Civil War, though logistically deficient. And far from their tactics being mindless human waves, the Chinese used the Korean terrain to their tactical advantage to infiltrate and undermine their enemy. The Chinese presence was soon felt by the geographically divided UN forces as they advanced north. The Americans quickly took to the defensive backed by British and Commonwealth forces; the Republic of Korea forces meanwhile melted away under the initial onslaught. Van Tonder places significant weight on the air war that initially favoured the Americans but became more equal with the arrival of Soviet MIG-15s into the infamous Mig Alley. It would be well into 1951, however, before the Chinese found their feet in this new age of jet warfare. Back on the ground, the vainglorious MacArthur seemed to ignore the Chinese threat and pushed towards the Yalu river in his ‘home-by-Christmas’ campaign. But the Chinese lured them forward and hit hard, sending the UN forces back in what would become a full retreat, the most famous part of which was the incredible escape of the US 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir aided in no small part by American air superiority. Van Tonder describes the subsequent evacuation of UN forces as ‘MacArthur’s Dunkirk’. Despite suffering enormous casualties, the Chinese pressed on with a new offensive into the New Year with Seoul falling on 4 January, but the UN held their lines, just. A UN counterattack recovered Seoul and solidified along the 38th Parallel, and that is where Van Tonder leaves this book to begin his final volume in the series.
Like the other volumes in this series, Chinese Invasion is mainly concerned with operational matters peppered with lower level experiential stories to enliven the narrative. The latter is Van Tonder’s strength while for the larger history it is sometimes confusing when Van Tonder skips back and forward across the chronology to highlight different aspects of the fighting. I also found the inclusion of snippets from British newspapers an odd source when discussing American operations. Nevertheless, readers attracted to the Korean War will no doubt find this book interesting and a useful addition to their collection.