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Soldier remembers grandfather who fought in Korean War 70 years on

On the 70th anniversary today of the agreement to end the Korean War, a British Army soldier shares the experiences of his grandfather who fought in the conflict.

WO2 Stewart Bell, of Newcastle-based 201 (Northern) Field Hospital, 214 Multi Role Medical Regiment, says,

“My grandfather, Brian Young, was a Royal Navy chief engineer in the Korean War.

“He was aged 33, on board HMS Alacrity when it became the first Royal Navy ship to be hit during the war.

“My grandfather wrote a letter home to my grandmother in Sunderland, saying that his ship had been struck by nine shells from a North Korean shore battery.

“One of the shells exploded three yards away from him but, luckily, he was unhurt and there were no casualties.

“At the time of HMS Alacrity being hit, my grandfather had been away from home, serving with the Royal Navy, for two years.”

27th July is the anniversary of the armistice of what many call ‘the Forgotten War’.

My grandfather, Brian Young, was a Royal Navy chief engineer in the Korean War. He was aged 33, on board HMS Alacrity when it became the first Royal Navy ship to be hit during the war. WO2 Stewart Bell, 201 (Northern) Field Hospital

The Korean War was overshadowed by the end of the Second World War and the subsequent ‘Cold War’.

But the sacrifice of the allied Armed Forces was extremely high, and its legacy still has a global impact.

Following the end of Japanese occupation in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea into two occupation zones.

What was intended as a temporary border resulted in partition: the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the American-backed Republic of Korea (South Korea).

The new governments claimed rule over all of Korea and neither accepted the border as permanent.

On 25th June 1950, after years of clashes along the border, the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea, overwhelming the South’s forces.

In response, the USA called on the United Nations Security Council to invoke the UN Charter and declare the North Koreans as aggressors.

This was the first war in which the UN took an active involvement and called on all members to help the South.

The USA was the first to send combat troops to support South Korea, followed by a further 14 nations, including the UK.

In August 1950 the first British ground forces arrived in Korea.

Soon after, Royal Navy ships took part in a counter-offensive that started with a South Korean and American amphibious landing at Incheon, behind North Korean positions.  

UN forces rapidly advanced north and crossed the border, capturing the capital Pyongyang.

By late November they were within 40 miles of the Chinese border.

Alarmed, China entered the war, sending troops that pushed the UN Forces back into the south in freezing winter conditions as low as -40 C.

In April 1951 Chinese forces launched an offensive focusing on Kapyong and the Imjin River to break the UN line, and then Seoul would be within striking distance.

On the night of 22nd April, the Chinese attacked, outnumbering UN forces three to one.

Chinese forces, numbering some 40,000, attacked the British 29th Brigade, which was supported by Belgian forces, along the Imjin River.

Despite being heavily outnumbered, troops of the 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, defended Hill 235 on the river for three days before they were forced to retreat amid heavy casualties.

Chinese forces took more than 500 prisoners. The 1st Battalion, a predecessor of the modern day The Rifles, was later awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation for their gallantry.

The Battle of the Imjin River was one of the bloodiest battles fought by the British Army since the Second World War.

The sacrifice of the British and Belgian forces gave the UN Forces the chance to retreat to a stronger defensive position where they eventually halted the North Korean and Chinese troops.

For the next two years troops faced a stalemate near the border; in trenches little more than a mile apart they withstood extreme conditions of cold and heat.

Finally, in July 1953 an armistice agreement was signed, although no peace treaty has ever been concluded, and thousands of former prisoners on each side were returned.

In total, about 60,000 British and over 50,000 Commonwealth service personnel served during the Korean War.

British casualties numbered more than 1,100 killed in action and over 2,500 wounded. Nearly 37,000 Americans lost their lives.

It is estimated that over half a million North Korean and Chinese troops were killed and at least half a million South Korean personnel were killed or injured.

The civilian cost of the war was extremely high. Estimates are that a total of two million North and South Korean civilians were killed.

Seven decades on, many veterans feel the war in Korea is the Forgotten War. But for those who served and their families, and who live with its legacy, it should always be remembered.

Stewart continues his grandfather’s story:

“My grandfather started his military service, aged 20, in July 1939 after an engineering apprenticeship in Sunderland.

“As well as Korea, my grandfather was in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945 when the atomic bomb was detonated over the Japanese city.

“He was also part of the Arctic Convoys that delivered essential supplies to the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

“I was very pleased to obtain his Arctic Star Medal for my mother, who's still alive.

“My grandfather survived the war and lived a good life, always happy to talk about his time in the military, before passing away aged 84 in 2002.

“I'm looking forward to attending an Armistice Service at the Saluting Battery in Valletta later this year.

“My grandfather was stationed in Malta as part of the British naval formation, Force H, during the Second World War.

“I will be taking his medals, which I’m proud to own, to Malta and will also hopefully lay a wreath on behalf of my unit.”

Stewart, aged 54, comes from Eyemouth on the Scottish Borders.

As an Army reservist, he provides logistical support to 201 (Northern) Field Hospital, 214 Multi Role Medical Regiment where he is a combat medical technician and a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) instructor.

In his civilian employment, Stewart is a healthcare support worker at a residential care home in Eyemouth.