The Battle of the Imjin River

The Battle of the Imjin River is one of the most significant moments in the post-war military history of Belgium, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom.


On April 22, 1951 the Chinese Fifth Phase Offensive was launched. Chinese commander Peng Dehuai intended to push the entire UN army south across the entire line using overwhelming numbers. His objective was to capture Seoul, meaning that the Imjin River lay directly in the path of the Chinese army.

In the aftermath of the chaotic retreat from the North in late 1950, the front line had stabilised near the 38th parallel, marked on the eastern portion of the front line by the Imjin River valley.

The Belgians and Luxembourgers were attached to the the British 29th Brigade on 30th March 1951 following the battles at the Han River. On Friday 20th April, the Belgians relieved the 1st Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) in their position on Hill 194 at the north bank the Imjin River. The position had been well fortified by the Ulsters with barbed wire, however, the Belgian battalion with the Luxembourg detachment numbered just 600 men at this point, whereas the positions had originally been built for the 900 men of the Ulsters, meaning that the Belgians were very stretched over the 1.5 kilometre front. Two pontoon bridges spanned the river behind the Belgian position. Fortunately, the Ulsters left their spare ammunition, meaning that instead of the usual 150 rounds, the Belgians had over 300 per person. Lieutenant Colonel Crahay decided to put both B Company (to the north) and C Company (to the west) in the forward positions, leaving A Company in the centre in reserve, covering the Battalion HQ. The Belgians could also call on fire support from the 4.2in mortars of British B Troop, 170th Independent Mortar Battery, and the 25-pounder guns of the 45th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery across the river, five kilometres to the south.

29th Brigade at the Imjin October 1951

Behind the Belgian position on Hill 194, a company of 1st Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers (RNF) were in position on Hill 257 and 152 on the other side of the river from the other side of the river from the Belgians. Behind them, the Royal Ulster Rifles had been moved into reserve. Right to the left of the Battlefield, the Gloucestershire Regiment guarded a crucial crossing point of the river (known as "Gloster Crossing").

22-23 October 1951: The Start of the Battle

On April 22nd, 1951, increasing enemy activity was detected in the area. A patrol of A Company came into contact with the Chinese about 2km from the Belgian position. Enemy infiltration attempts were detected during the night of 22nd and were stopped by B and C Companies. The already under-strength C Company was attacked heavily from the south and west at 02h00 and 04h00. Bugles signalled the attack on B Company at 03h00 and the Chinese were forced back under heavy mortar fire. A patrol from both A and B Companies (under Commandant Poswick) from the north, and the RUR from the south, was sent to clear the two pontoon bridges to the rear of the Belgian lines to enable a withdrawal, however, the bridges had been captured by the Chinese and could not be retaken. In the process, six Belgians were taken prisoner. They would be later be found dead when the ground was retaken. From daybreak, C Company again came under heavy attack, and, though a platoon of C Company was forced back, the line was held. The battalion command post also came under Chinese mortar fire. Despite being surrounded, the Belgians were ordered to hold out in order to allow the Puerto-Rican 65th Infantry Regiment (1,500m away) to retreat.

At the bridges, tanks of the US 7th Infantry Regiment, requested by Major Moreau de Melen, arrived at Hantangang and secured the south bank, succeeding in stopping the Chinese crossing the river, though their tanks remained under heavy enemy fire. The remainder of Poswick's patrol helped to clear the northern bank of the river, to the rear of the Hill 194. All this time, C Company was under constant attack and, at one point, the Chinese were only driven back at bayonet point.

Afternoon-Evening 23 April 1951: Withdrawal

At 13h00, C Company fell back to the positions occupied by A Company and their abandoned trenches (now occupied by the Chinese) were bombed with napalm. Only at 17h15 when Colonel Oskoth from HQ arrived by helicopter were the Belgians given permission to withdraw across the river. The 7th Infantry would counter-attack the Chinese to allow the Belgians to retreat.

Several infantry sections withdrew carefully over the river while aircraft of the US Marine Corps dropped napalm on their abandoned positions. Under Major Vivario, the battalion's vehicles (about 80) with some of the tanks of the US 7th Infantry Regiment attempted to "Crash Out" of their positions across the Chinese-held bridges. Incredibly, despite being forced to abandon four of the vehicles, the withdrawal was made without a single loss of life. The evacuation was complete by 18h30.

Meanwhile, the Gloucester Regiment guarding the crossing over the river withdrew to Hill 235. The Chinese infiltrated through the gap in the UN line meaning that the British on what is now known as "Gloster Hill" were surrounded. Attempts by the M-24 Chaffee tanks of the Philippine 10th Battalion Combat Team (10th BCT nicknamed the "fighting Filipinos") and Centurions of the 8th (King's Royal Irish) Hussars failed when the lead tank was destroyed, blocking the road. The Glosters were cut off, and though they held out until the 25th, they were not relieved and most were killed or taken prisoner.

25 April 1951: Rear Guard

Once across the river, the Belgians took position on Hill 340 overlooking a key road junction (towards the rear) to recover. On the 25th, the Belgians were again moved to cover the RNF and RUR withdrawal. B Company was seconded to guard the Brigade HQ while a troop of 3 Centurion tanks of 8th Hussars was attached the Belgians. The Belgians came under heavy artillery fire at 12h30, but by 14h00, the British battalions had retreated enough to allow the Belgians to follow suit. Lieutenant Colonel Crahay - the commander of the battalion - was severely burnt when a Chinese bullet ignited a phosphorus shell on the side of one of the Centurion tanks. He was rapidly evacuated from the battlefield. Indeed, during the battle, US helicopters had made evacuating the wounded to field hospitals possible.

Albert Crahay (centre) & Georges Vivario on 8th Hussars Centurion
Albert Crahay (centre) & Georges Vivario (right) on 8th Hussars Centurion. Courtesy: 8th Hussars


The delaying action of the Belgians and the rest of 29th Brigade allowed the UN forces to withdraw to a defensive line further south. This meant that there was no rout (or "bug out") such as occurred to the US army at the start of the Chinese intervention in late 1950; the front was soon stabilised and Seoul was not captured by the Chinese.

Overall the Belgians lost 12 men at the Imjin - all during the actions on April 23rd.