Korea - 1951/53
Memoirs Of A British Royal Military Police Officer (RMP)
Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Colin Davey Of England
At the end of 1951 I set sail from Southampton in the Empire Fowey on the four-week journey to Japan. The ship was the best of the troopships then on the route and had undergone two refits since its original launching as The Amsterdam, a Dutch pre-war Cruise Ship, subsequently bought by Germany and incorporated as a Nazi "Strength through Joy" ship. Accommodation allocation was appropriate to that time, with officers and families in First Class, WOs and sergeants and families in Second Class and Other Ranks in dormitories of either standees or hammocks. The standard of catering in First Class had returned to those of pre-war "trooping". Lunch consisted of five courses, including a curry course and dinner provided up to six courses for those who wished to and could indulge themselves. The service was by turbaned Indian sub-continent P and O staff of great expertise and training. Our evening post-prandial entertainment was appropriate to the anticipated style of our eastern destination (we thought), with the subalterns organising concert shows, dances (there were families on board) and Tombola evenings: all rather quaint. We were all expected to participate! I shared a cabin with Lieutenants Duncan MacDonald (destined to be our RMP/SIB officer in Seoul), Derek ("Taffy") Evans, who was to be my opposite number in the RMP Base Company at Kure in Japan and a younger cavalry chap whom I never saw again.
Although seconded to RMP, I was still wearing my RWK badges and was therefore put in charge of a platoon of infantry soldiers. Possibly because of the ignorance of the ship's military staff, my name was assumed to indicate a Welsh origin but nevertheless I was delighted to discover that I had been given responsibility for a contingent of the Welch Regiment, which was without an officer of that regiment. As soldiers from Wales they were obviously of appropriate musical competence and my splendid choir, led by their sergeant with a fine tenor voice, practiced daily in the hold of the ship, and at the final concert of the voyage my charges took all the appropriate prizes. Even I joined in the Cwm Rhonda rehearsals, though not of course on the final evening.
The problems in the Canal Zone at the time of our arrival there did not allow us to go ashore at Port Said but our stops before that at Algiers and later at Aden and Colombo provided welcome breaks in our journey. The Colombo Club in particular offered Duncan, Taffy and me exceptional hospitality. At Singapore we went ashore to find a very different world from austere England, one of excellent service and entertainment at such international venues as Raffles and The Cockpit, places which I revisited 20 years later and found remarkably (and happily) little changed. At Hong Kong, our local Military Police officer, Captain Gerry Scott-Wiley was on the quayside to meet us and conducted us in his Jeep on a tour of the island followed by lunching at the RAF Club at the top of the Barclays Bank Tower building: a memorable day. The world was however about to change, not only climatically as we headed for Japan, and for some of us, from there to Korea.
The Empire Fowey arrived at Kure, Japan on a cold evening in early February 1952. The sun had already set and in the limited light of the dim dockside lamps, we disembarked and made directly to the military "ferry boat" that plied between Kure and Pusan in South Korea, conveying the luckless Commonwealth forces to their various forwar destinations. I waved goodbye to Taffy Evans on his way to a more congenial posting at the RMP Base Company in Japan, but not before I had received his assurance that he would ensure the safe custody of my baggage. I joined the far from sober ship's OC Troops, a relatively elderly British army captain, wearing a black beret and Royal Tank Corps cap badge, in the small smoky saloon located midships, as the only other (as far as I was aware) British officer on board. The other "passengers" were some individual British soldier reinforcements and a larger Australian army element, apparently officerless. There were two gangways, one for embarkation and the other for returning to shore. On being issued at the top of the embarkation gangway with a ration of half a loaf of bread and a tin of "Bully Beef" between two for the overnight journey, the Australians promptly descended the disembarkation gangway, loudly demanding better provisions. I was not at that time certain of the extent of my authority over soldiers of other Commonwealth forces and in any event was wearing cap badge and shoulder flashes of the RWK: even with my white webbing belt I would not have been recognised by them as RMP. I decided to withdraw from the bitter wind on deck to the relative comfort of the saloon and the doubtful company of the disinterested OC Troops. I slept not too soundly.
Early next morning, we arrived in Pusan, the main port in the south-east of the peninsular and still the temporary capital of South Korea, following the retreat from Seoul after the incursion by the North Koreans into the South a few months earlier. If sanity had prevailed we would have waited for the dawn before disembarking. What I did not know at the time was that the Americans had assumed "ownership" of the port and had already introduced contractors for its control. Incredibly, the British Government were, I was later told being charged demurrage on the length of time of occupation of berths in the harbour! There was a well-illuminated Italian Red Cross hospital ship also occupying space. I never discovered whether they too were also charged. We were therefore offloaded rapidly, and in the freezing cold of a Korean winter awaited transport to the British Transit Camp located on the outskirts of the town. I was now without the responsibility of soldiers and saw only one other British officer, an older captain wearing the cap badge of the Intelligence Corps. I had not seen him on board but later discovered that he had been unwell and had occupied the sleeping cabin of the OC Troops. The poor chap seemed even more bewildered than me: I sought my own salvation. This came in the unlikely form of a US Military Police corporal who after an exchange of civilities, invited me to share the warmth of the port guard room hut with him and his "snow drop" buddies, It turned out that they had never before met an English person for more than an exchange of greetings and I provided them, I think with enough material for them to dine out on for some time - in exchange for some warming coffee and a seat by the oil fired stove.
The arrival of the dawn coincided with the appearance of an American army band attired to my surprise in chrome-plated helmets. They entertained us in the short time before the arrival of an open 3 Ton truck into which we climbed, to be driven (and frozen) on our journey to the transit camp. The transit accommodation was in large corrugated iron huts, one of which had wooden trestle tables and benches and was designated "Officers Dining Hall". My breakfast was an early one and would have been a lone one had I not been surprised to be joined by another British subaltern who confided that he was on his way home - "and damned glad too!" I was even more surprised to discover that he was Jack Aspinall, the officer I was on my way to relieve in the Commonwealth Division Provost Company "up country". This was another of the many occasions in my military service where my predecessor had been dispatched before my arrival.
Having warmed up, cleaned up and slept a little, I prepared myself for the northbound American controlled night train known as the "Red Ball Express" but before that I listened to a catalogue of complaints from the Intelligence Corps Captain who assured me that he was not only too old for posting to "a young man's theater" but that he also suffered from back pain, rheumatism and goodness knows what else. His pleas for help encouraged me to seek out the camp quartermaster's stores and to persuade the corporal in charge to part with a couple of pairs of long john's for my new friend and a couple of British Army Parkas, one each. I later swapped mine for a more suitable Canadian one. I returned in triumph to my new charge and assisted him in donning his new garments. He visibly improved in health.
The military train, drawn by a steam locomotive of considerable proportions and antiquity, departed from Pusan station at 21.00 and was due at Seoul some time the next morning. There was of course no restaurant car, nor were there any other refreshment facilities but I was not to starve: I had been issued with a "Haversack Ration" (the ubiquitous army sandwiches, orange and piece of fruit cake) at the British transit camp. I was the only British person in the officers' accommodation coach, which was straight out of a pre-war American film with curtained two-tier bunks either side of a central walkway. It was known that North Korean infiltrators occasionally attacked the train and as the sole non-American, I was interested to learn more. Unfortunately, the balding captain I chose to question and who joined me for brief fresh, if very cold air on the observation platform at the rear of the coach had consumed most of the contents of the Jack Daniels whiskey bottle now tucked into his battledress blouse. It was all that I could do to save him from premature disembarkation. He confessed that to his shame he had "sold" his top bunk to a younger more amorous colleague who had designs on a WAC officer occupying the bunk below. About midnight there was sporadic firing at the train and before we disembarked at Seoul my new American friend, on collecting his belongings from his empty top bunk, discovered a spent bullet embedded in the pillow. It seems that both he and his amorous friend were excused their misdemeanours.
Following the North Korean invasion in June 1950, the "siege" of Pusan and General MacArthur's subsequent seaborne landing at Inchon in September that year, the North Korea Peoples Army (NKPA) had, as previously mentioned been pushed back to the Chinese border on the Yalu River. The Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV), the euphemistic term used by the North Koreans in an attempt to disguise the Chinese government's involvement in the war, had then attacked in force. By the end of 1951 a very much disputed no mans land had been established in our (1 Comwel Div) sector about 5000 yards north of the Imjin river and about five miles north of the 38th Parallel, the political divide between the South and the North. Jack Aspinall had told me in Pusan that our Company had recently been relocated on the north side of the river and forward of Divisional (Main) HQ, still established on the south side. My arrival at Seoul had somehow been notified by the Base Company in Kure, Japan or its detachment at Pusan, to Captain George Miles, Second-in-Command and OC British Element of our Company. A Jeep and driver were waiting to meet me at the battered railway station. The relief at the sight of a British "Redcap" was palpable!
Seoul City was the location of the British supply base known as the FMA (Forward Maintenance Area) supported from Kure/Pusan, and was/is the capital of South Korea. At the time of my arrival on 10th February 1952, it resembled one of the devastated cities of Europe after the Second World War. Most of the buildings that were still serviceable (and there weren't many) had been commandeered by one or other of the UN contingents, including the British one to accommodate depots, offices and staff. Our drive north took us through the centre of the city, my driver being obliged to manoeuvre the Jeep round craters, shell holes and other obstacles. Some weeks later I discovered that the width of a Jeep's track happily matched that of the city's surviving tram lines and even though a bit hazardous, it was possible to drive at some speed through the town, balanced on the rails. Subalterns will be subalterns!
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Web Master's Comment:
Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Colin Davey, a former member of the British Royal Military Police, recently communicated with me concerning a number of old photographs he had of former members of the Canadian Provost Corps whom he served with in Korea in 1951 - 53. At my request LCol Davey subsequently forwarded the memorable photos to me for posting on this web site, along with a copy of his indepth memoir of his experience while en route and deployed in Korea with the Commonwealth Military Police Company that was commanded by a Canadian officer, none other then, former member of the C Pro C, the late LCol (then Major) Bob Luker. An extract from LCol Davey's memoir was posted in the interest of portraying the close working relationship that existed between the Canadian Provost Corps and the British Royal Military Police since WWII .