Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Forgotten War
Korea 1950 to 1953


"If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location to fight this damnable war politically and militarily, the unanimous choice would have been Korea".
- Dean Acheson, U.S. Secretary of State 1949-53. 

For some reason the Korean War has never really caught on with wargamers as an option. The biggest draw for wargamers in the 20th Century is obviously WWII, but Vietnam, various African conflicts and even a fictitious WWIII in the 1980s, all have their followings, but Korea is for the most part ignored. I will not waste words on why this might be, but instead I intend to outline the war and suggest why it makes an excellent scenario for wargaming.

I have been wargaming off and on for almost forty years now and WWII has been a recurring interest for much of that time. Even as a child I was surrounded by WWII-related toys, typically in the form of model kits and toy soldiers. In more recent years the setting has paled somewhat, largely due to the 'Germans with everything' formula and instead my interests have largely shifted to either side of WWII, with the exception of Britain's war with Vichy France. 

A WWII scenario which did always appeal to me however, was that the Western Allies and the Soviets went to war after Germany was defeated. Like most alternative histories however, such a scenario has so much that works against it, that it becomes almost too ridiculous to seriously contemplate. The war in Korea however, is effectively just that same scenario, but with North Koreans and Chinese instead of the Soviets.

My rules of choice for most things 20th Century are Chain of Command by Too Fat Lardies. For me these currently provide the best simulation of infantry platoons and how they operate. With Bolt Action second edition appearing recently, I am also considering those for larger actions up to Company size, which in my opinion is their niche. Either way these are ideal for the Korean War and individual army characteristics aside, can be used without modification.

The War


After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Korea was partitioned into two occupation zones, with the Soviets in the North and the U.S. in the South. The 38th Parallel marking the border between the two areas. The intention was that at some future point, the occupiers would leave their respective zones and the country would be re-united following free and fair elections. No agreement could be reached on how the election was to be done and ultimately each region developed its own government, which each claimed to be the legitimate government of Korea as a whole.

The U.S. and Soviet occupation forces left after establishing indigenous military force in their respective zones, although advisers remained. Both regimes inflicted severe human rights abuses on their peoples, with the North Koreans killing somewhat more people than their neighbours. With the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, both the Soviets and Chinese were better placed to support North Korea. This was achieved by the supply of copious amounts of material from the Soviet Union and by the Chinese sending ethnic Korean veterans of their Liberation Army to Korea, supplying two complete divisions and the officers, NCOs and many of the men in the others; these were supplemented by ethnic Koreans who had served in the Soviet forces .

Following a series of border clashes, that were apparently instigated for the most part by South Korean forces, the North Koreans used this as a casus bellum for invading the South on 25th June 1950, in the mistaken belief that the U.S. would not intervene. Outnumbered and lacking anti-tank weapons, armour and artillery, the South Korean Army was effectively steam-rolled by the North Korean Army and flung into a headlong retreat to the South. On 27th June the United Nations passed a resolution to send military forces to aid the South Koreans.

While the U.S. was to contribute 88% of this force, twenty one countries in total were to contribute to the UN effort. By the time the first of these forces were to arrive in Korea, the South Koreans had been pushed back to the area of Taejon, a city in central Korea. U.S. troops from the occupation forces in Japan were the first to arrive, but thanks to Post-War cuts were both not up to strength and in some cases were even equipped with items salvaged from the WWII Pacific Campaign. For a time even the 308th Heavy Armoured Battalion, the only tank unit initially in Korea, consisted of a single company of M24 light tanks.

The initial forces suffered a series of set backs and were forced to retreat towards the southern port of Pusan, where a defensive perimeter was established. For a time it seemed like this could possibly be America's 'Dunkirk', but the daily arrival of new formations allowed the perimeter to be held and counterattacks to be mounted. In September 1950 an ambitious amphibious assault on the port of Inchon, followed by a inland push to Seoul, cut the North Korean lines of communication and forced a major retreat by them; the forces at Pusan also attacked and the North Koreans were driven northwards.

The U.N. forces pushed North, beyond the original border and some units only halted when they reached the Yalu River; the border between China and North Korea. China had previously stated that it would intervene if this happened, but U.N. intelligence doubted they actually would; they were quite wrong. An army of 'volunteers' 250,000 strong, was committed to their initial offensive, which resulted in a second retreat by U.N. forces. U.N. air supremacy was also challenged by the introduction of Soviet and Chinese MiG-15 jet fighters, which until the subsequent deployment of U.S. F-86 Sabres, mechanically outclassed anything the U.N. could deploy against it.

The U.N. retreat was halted and while both sides conducted offensives and counterattacks, the war was to become one of attrition after 1951. Rather than the continuous lines of trenches of the Great War, the front lines in Korea were marked by fortified strong-points on significant terrain features, surrounded by a cluster of smaller satellite outposts. Once peace talks began, it became clear that any agreed border would largely be determined on troop positions when a cease-fire came into effect; as a result there was no let-up in the fighting until the very moment the eventual cease-fire happened.

Wargaming The Korean War

Adarga Castings North Koreans in 28mm. I'm not sure of the trading status of this company. It is a small range like the 1st Corps one below, but who knows, perhaps interest and sales might encourage a range expansion. There are some nice photos of the owner's own Korean War toys on the site.  
For players of Chain of Command, Bolt Action and Flames of War (or similar sets), the Korean War is an ideal conflict for the tabletop; unless you like masses of armour. The Korean War was very much an infantry war, with armour playing very much a supporting role. Korea has some very rugged and hilly terrain and barring the plain on which the city of Seoul sits, has little ground that could be considered 'tank country'. Most roads were single-track and bordered by rice paddies in lowland areas and sheer slopes and drops elsewhere. Bridges tended to be weak and certainly not up to carrying the heavier of the armoured vehicles, except on major roads.

The U.S. Army recorded only 119 tank on tank actions in the three years of the war, with only 38 of those vehicles actually destroyed beyond repair. The British had none, barring that between a Cromwell that had been captured and a Centurion of the same unit. Armour largely acted in support of infantry, whether it was as semi-mobile defensive pill boxes, or essentially as assault guns. The early North Korean attacks were invariably headed by armour, but once U.N. air superiority was gained, their appearance was far less sporadic. At the 'platoon skirmish' level of gaming, two to three tanks is the realistic maximum and the bulk of engagements featured no armour at all.

Thanks to the movies we typically think of the typical Korean War battle as featuring stoic U.N. defenders in a defensive position, low on men and ammunition, facing unimaginative wave attacks, typically by the Chinese. The Chinese and many of the North Korean troops were initially veterans of both the Chinese Civil War and WWII. The later new formations were led by similar men and veterans of the early battles. While they would certainly consolidate forces for an attack on a major strong point, their typical tactic was platoon or company 'pepper pot' fire and movement with dispersed groups of two or three men. As a comparison the Chinese and North Koreans of 1950-51 would be roughly on a par with Soviet troops of 1944-45.

The U.N. forces were largely inexperienced conscripts at first, but became more effective as reservists, many of whom were 're-treads' of WWII, were called up in 1950. With these units being rotated out in 1952, the army of the later part of the war were as inexperienced as those who had been hurriedly sent to Korea in 1950. While major attacks were conducted by companies or battalions, the day to day patrolling and the manning of outposts, was conducted by individual platoons and their sub-units.

In summary therefore, both sides have a range of experience classes and unit types to choose from at the level of platoon or company. The more mobile and fluid campaigns of 1950-51 probably offers far more in the way of options for scenarios, but the more static war of 1951-53 still offers a reasonable variety too. I will admit that the array of 'toys' available to the Chinese and North Korean player is not that different to what a WWII Soviet player could utilise and is in fact somewhat more restrictive. The U.N. is much better served however and typically has the 'best of WWII' to choose from, plus vehicles like the Centurion that did not quite make it.

The Raw Material

1st Corps Chinese Infantry in 28mm. This is the current full range for the Chinese; one pack. There is also a single pack of British infantry, but I cannot say that I like them.
The standard Soviet infantry forces of WWII pretty much set the tone for the Chinese and North Koreans with some small variations. The bulk of infantry forces were Soviet-style, although SMG Battalions existed in each division. The standard armoured vehicle in divisions was the SU-76 self-propelled gun, but the 'Armoured Division' split its 150 or so T34/85s across the leading divisions. There was a single motorcycle and armoured car regiment, which used the BA-64 armoured car and the M-72 motorcycle combination (a copy of the BMW R75). The IS-2 was also supplied to both China and North Korea, but no reports of it being used in action seem to exist; presumably the North Korean ones were safeguarding their leader.

The United Nations were somewhat more diverse. The U.S. largely passed on the bulk of its WWII surplus and only retained what they considered to be the best. The M24 Chaffee light tank was ideal for Japan and provided the initial armoured forces for the U.N. effort. Both the M4A3E8 'Easy Eight' Sherman and M26 Pershing followed and ultimately M45 adn M46 'Pattons'. The British deployed the Cromwell, Churchill and the Centurion. Other forces had various late model Sherman tanks in the main, with Canada deploying some M10 Achilles tank destroyers as well.

The M8 Greyhound saw limited use, as did the Daimler armoured car and scout car. The U.S. did not deploy any armoured infantry units to Korea, but the Marines had their LVT-3, LVT-3C, LVT(A)-5 and DUKWs. M-16 halftracks with quad .50 HMGs saw extensive use, largely in the anti-infantry role, as did the M19 with its dual 40mm guns. The M39 Armored Utility Vehicle saw use as an impromptu convoy escort on occasion, beyond it usual use as a transport, or tracked 'Jeep'. Canada also deployed a few C15TA armoured trucks, while the British used Universal and other carriers in their respective roles.    

The more common vehicles are mostly available in all sizes, although 28mm is perhaps the worst-served. As I mentioned above however, vehicles and armoured vehicles in particular have less of a role to play. The most important detail is usable figures and dedicated ranges for the Korean War are scant and for me I cannot say that I like anything out there. The smaller size of figure you play with, the easier it is to proxy WWII figure ranges to provide what you need.

Carve away the leg straps and trouser cargo pockets and the Warlord Airborne Infantry make quite passable G.I.s for Korea. The mixing and matching of 'clean' helmets, arms and weapons from their U.S. Infantry box would add even more to the look. Judicious use of similar spares would also make the U.S. Marines in the same range fit for use as USMC for the first few months of the war.   
Where there is a WWII U.S. range with the M43 combat uniform, complete with boots rather than shoes and spats, you have it as good as it will get for U.S. troops. Winter clothing was significantly different to that of WWII, so great-coated U.S. infantry only have limited use. The U.S. Marines went to Korea in their WWII utilities, but by Winter 1950, these had been also been replaced. The Chinese and North Koreans are under-represented in terms of figures and I cannot say that I actually like much of what is available in whatever size it comes in.

The British were using the 'Turtle' helmet and the open-neck Post-WWII battledress, at least when they were not wearing KD uniforms and U.S. style Winter clothing. You might get away with WWII British infantry, but the PIATs had been replaced by 3.5" Rocket Launchers. Canadian troops looked quite like U.S. troops, but with British kit and weapons, while Britain's 45 (Independent) Commando were kitted out by the Americans and only retained their RM berets (although I imagine they wore wool 'commando' balaclavas on ops). Australian troops had their emblematic slouch hats, combined with their own uniform style and British webbing.

Someone might surprise us in the future and bring out a dedicated range for the Korean War, but at the present we have to live with whatever degree of proxying is acceptable to each of us as individuals. I do suggest investing in a box of Soviet WWII infantry and playing 'what if' Cold War scenarios based around 1948 in the meantime.

The War in the Air

One of perhaps the two iconic aircraft of the conflict, the F-86 Sabre.
I have not played many aerial wargames and I do admit to being a plane fancier on the quiet; especially in this era. The obvious first thoughts with regard to Korea is of dog-fighting MiG-15 and F-86 Sabres, especially if you recall the old Airfix 'Dogfight Doubles' set, or the movie The Hunters (1958). However there is far more scope to draw on.

The Korean War saw the F-4 Corsair and the AD-4 Skyraider with the U.S. Navy and Marines, and the F-51 Mustang and the B-26 Invader as the main types of ground support aircraft at the start of the war. North Korea was flying the IL-10 'Beast', essentially an upgraded IL-2 'Sturmovik', Lavochkin La-9 'Fritz', La-11 'Fang', as well as the Yak-9 'Frank'. Britain's Royal Air Force posted no squadrons to Korea, but Sunderland flying boats operated from Japan and individual pilots were attached to both U.S. F-86 squadrons and No. 77 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force, who flew initially flew Mustangs and subsequently added Meteors. The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, had Sea Fury and Firefly aircraft, with the RN FAA also operating Seafires.

This was very much the dawning of the Jet Age however and early models were deployed to Korea. The U.S. Air Force deployed F-80 Shooting Stars and F-84 Thunderjets, and the U.S. Navy and Marines had the F9 Panther and F-2 Banshee. Initially the U.N. soon gained air supremacy, but this was challenged by the arrival of Soviet and Chinese piloted MiG-15 fighters, which were able to attack high-level bombers and their escorts. While technically superior to the aircraft then deployed to Korea, it was by no means a one-sided conflict, but until the deployment of the F-86 Sabre the Migs had the upper hand.  

Korea on this Blog


I have already vaguely covered Korean War forces on here in the past, but with barely any depth. I also do not want to dive-in and just begin regurgitating what I have read in the various 'histories' of the war; if you are reading this, then you are quite capable of reading those. Instead I want to take an approach that is much more wargamer-centric and to focus on the fighting units themselves; their organisation, equipment and tactics. These are details that you tend not to find in the history books and which are far more valuable to us in terms of what we are doing in our games.

I tend to get very caught up with the minutiae of any period I am interested in; I want to know everything. The value of that hamster-like hoarding of detail in terms of the typical wargame, is of limited value. In other words the utility of knowing the make-up of a divisional artillery unit has no practical value to my usual in-game role of company or platoon leader. Essentially I want to know is; how my men are organised, what weapons they have, what are their capabilities, what support is available for them and of course what is the mission. I then obviously want to represent all this in the games I will be playing.

The missions will of course be presented in the form of the scenarios for individual games. The remainder however is represented by the rule sets used and the respective force lists for them. I am quite tied to Chain of Command as almost the perfect rule set, but I also recognise its limitations, at which point Bolt Action 2.0 looks like it could pick up the torch. So while I will be initially framing things in terms of Chain of Command, I also hope to expand into Bolt Action territory at some future point.