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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Korean War

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Korean War.

When did this conflict occur?

25th June, 1950^ – 27th July, 1953*

^ – While the 25th of June, 1950 marks the start of the DPRK invasion of South Korea, British military forces only arrived on the 28th of August under the auspices of the United Nations. [1]

* – Following the signature of the Korean Armistice Agreement, British troops remained in South Korea until September of 1956 when the force, composed largely of national servicemen, was formally withdrawn. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

The Japanese defeat in the Second World War saw the division of formerly occupied Korea along the 38th Parallel: while North Korea, known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since 1948, fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Korea in the South relied on American, British, and Commonwealth support. North Korea’s offensive ground combat capability centred on the Korean People’s Army, a 223,000-man force with a core cadre of experienced commissioned and noncommissioned officers trained in the Soviet Union. [3] Growing political, ideological, and military tensions between the DPRK and ROK culminated on the early morning of the 25th of June, 1950, when the KPA launched a major combined arms offensive across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. ROK forces, lacking heavy artillery and anti-tank weapons, were quickly routed, and Seoul collapsed three days later on the 28th of June. [4] The UN Security Council decried the invasion, and an initial commitment of American troops to assist a beleaguered South Korean military saw the combined force pushed back to the port of Busan. An amphibious landing at Inchon by American, British, and Canadian forces succeeded in reversing the tide of the conflict, and the subsequent UN counteroffensive reached the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. [5] In response to an ever-approaching UN force, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched an intervention in November of 1950 and succeeded in forcing UN troops back across the 38th Parallel. These highly mobile engagements largely ceased following the failure of North Korean troops to capture Seoul in April of 1951, but the conflict remained active until the signature of the Korean Armistice Agreement in July of 1953.  

What role did British military forces play?

The British military contribution to UN Command, the United Nations force founded in June of 1950 to provide support to the Republic of Korea, centred on the 27th Commonwealth Brigade and combat arms personnel drawn from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. [6] Arriving in late August of 1950, as the Busan perimeter was reinforced, British forces took part in most of the conflict’s defining land actions. In October, the 27th Brigade took part in the UN advance into North Korea which succeeded in capturing the DPRK capital of Pyongyang; in November and December, as a Chinese counterpunch succeeded in grinding the UN offensive to a halt, the Brigade fought rearguard actions on the Chongchon and Han Rivers to delay the PLA advance; and in April of 1951, as Chinese troops sought to recapture Seoul, the 29th Brigade held its position on the Imjin River in the bloodiest engagement fought by the British Army since the end of the Second World War. [7] At sea and in the air, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm fighters operating from the light carriers HMS Triumph, Ocean, Theseus, and Glory fired more than 26000 rockets and dropped nearly 5000 unguided munitions in a relentless campaign of aerial interdiction against Chinese and DPRK forces. [8] Though mobile fighting largely halted following the Battle of the Imjin River, British ground troops and aviators continued to rotate through Korea until being finally withdrawn in 1957.  

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

No, a total number of civilian deaths due to British military action cannot be determined. In contrast, a confirmed total of 1129 British military personnel died in the conflict. [9]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

Estimates of civilian deaths as a result of the Korean War remain imprecise, and most figures place the number of non-combatant fatalities at higher than two million; of these, approximately 500,000 to one million were suffered by the ROK while the DPRK is believed to have lost more than 500,000 civilians due to direct combat. In the aftermath of the Fourth Battle of Seoul in 1951, one of the largest combined counteroffensives of the Korean War involving troops from the United States, United Kingdom, and Commonwealth, Labour MP Emrys Hughes posed a Parliamentary Question regarding the number of civilian fatalities caused by British military action. Hughes subsequently received two responses [10, 11]

  • Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs: “no such reports have been received from the United Nations since the military situation still makes it impossible to make any satisfactory assessment”
  • United Nations Secretary General: “we have no information to answer these questions available here […] the United Nations Secretariat cannot supply the answers and have issued no documents from which the information might be obtained”

Despite the absence of a concrete figure of civilian deaths resulting from British military forces, anecdotal evidence reveals numerous instances of non-combatant fatalities during the manoeuvre warfare-intensive periods of 1950 and 1951. This was particularly the case in the aftermath of the Chinese counteroffensive in November of 1950 which saw rules of engagement governing the use of close air support significantly loosened. The 27th Commonwealth Brigade’s War Diary, for instance, was noted as describing a new policy of striking “villages by day and buildings which might be harbouring enemy troops. When planes are in the area and cannot find a target, they are to attack any likely looking village.” [12]

No exact number of civilian casualties stemming from this directive exists, but the new directive was undoubtedly popular with the increasingly fatigued members of the 27th Commonwealth Division. As Second Lieutenant Alan Lauder of 1st Battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders explained:

“Given the option of going in with a bayonet and having bombers going in and flattening it, I’d prefer the latter” [13]

Endnotes:

[1] 1950: British troops arrive in Korea, BBC On This Day, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/29/newsid_3053000/3053107.stm

[2] United Kingdom, United Nations Command, 2017, https://www.unc.mil/Organization/Contributors/United-Kingdom/#:~:text=The%2027%20th%20British%20Infantry,British%20troops%20followed%20shortly%20after.

[3] Chung, Kiwon, “The North Korean People’s Army and the Party”, The China Quarterly 14 (1963): 105-124. https://www.jstor.org/stable/651346

[4] Koh, B C, “The War’s Impact on the Korean Peninsula”, The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 2,  no. 1 (1993): 66. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23612666

[5] Korean War Campaigns, US Army Center of Military History, 2022, https://history.army.mil/html/reference/army_flag/kw.html#undefensive

[6] Commonwealth Forces in Korea, UK Parliament, 1951, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1951/apr/12/commonwealth-forces-in-korea

[7] Korea and the entry of Britain into the war, The National Archives, 2022, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/korea-entry-britain-war.htm

[8] “British Commonwealth Naval Operations during the Korean War—Part VII”, Royal United Services Institute 99, no. 593 (1954): 102-112. doi: 10.1080/03071845409422230

[9] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[10] See primary source

[11] See primary source

[12] Salmon, Andrew. Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950 (London: Aurum Press, 2011): 471. 

[13] Salmon, Scorched Earth, Black Snow, 472.