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Britain and the Korean War – 1950

Almost 100,000 British troops fought in Korea in 1950 and two Victoria Crosses, Britain’s highest military honour, were awarded. But many regard Korea as the forgotten war in British political and military history.

What caused the war?

When the Japanese forces occupying Korea were defeated in 1945, the country was “temporarily” split at the 38th Parallel – with US troops liberating the south and the Russians moving into the north.

Cold War issues postponed the re-unification of the country. On 25 June 1950, soldiers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched an attack on their neighbours to the south.

The United Nations Security Council (led by the US and in Russia’s absence) passed a resolution to begin a “police action” to help the south.

Why did Britain join the conflict?

In 1950, Britain was still recovering from the Second World War and Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s Government was struggling with a small majority of only five in the House of Commons. Regardless of this Britain was a member of the Security Council of the United Nations and this brought with it responsibilities, including those to the ‘Special Relationship’ with the US even if the strategic importance was not.

More than 90,000 Britons served in Korea, among them Fusilier Maurice Micklewhite (better known as Sir Michael Caine) and a large number were through conscription due to difficulties recruiting soldiers so close to the end of a major world war.

Other countries that took part

The United States was the major player but a wide range of countries were also represented including Cuba, South Africa, Ethiopia, Australia, Turkey and Canada.

About the campaign

The war was a mixture of large-scale offensives and battles of attrition but by 1952, the sides had fought each other to a standstill and were prepared to re-establish the 38th Parallel as the border between the Koreas.

The end of the war and still divided

Many thousands of troops from both sides were taken prisoner and how to manage this became a major sticking point politically. More than 1,000 British servicemen fell into enemy hands and some never returned home.

Britain lost over a thousand troops (1,078) and the United States many more (37,000) but Chinese, North Korean and South Korean military fatalities are estimated to be well over two million.

North and South Korea remain divided by the fortifications of the 38th Parallel.