KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 349

Between Following and Leading : The Royal Navy and Coalition Operations in the Korean War

Department of King’s College London
Dr. Tim Benbow

When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, the British contribution to the United Nations campaign initially focussed on naval power.  At the time of the North Korean invasion, the Royal Navy’s Far East Station, based in Singapore, comprised 22 warships including a light fleet carrier, three cruisers, 15 destroyers and frigates and several auxiliaries.  As a result of the low priority given by the government of the time to defence in general and to the Navy in particular, this fleet was underfunded and undermanned.  Nevertheless, it played a major role in the naval campaign, second only to that of the United States and far ahead of any other Navy.

In common with other forces committed to support South Korea, the first priority was to stabilise the situation, stopping the Communist advance and establishing UN land and air forces securely on the peninsula. The Royal Navy therefore worked with the US Navy to transport friendly forces into South Korea, to prevent the enemy from using the sea, and to attack enemy troops and supply routes ashore.

As the campaign stabilised, the Royal Navy task group (under US command) was given responsibility for operations off the west coast of the peninsula. The British fleet was allocated the warships contributed by other members of the multi-national coalition and coordinated their logistical support.  The force therefore routinely included warships from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands as well as the US Navy and Republic of Korea Navy, at times joined by French and Colombian escorts and Japanese minesweepers. Warships from the Western and US-led Eastern task groups frequently operated on exchange with the other, with US and British warships serving under commanders from the other navy, to improve mutual understanding and interoperability.  The Western force typically took the form of a British light fleet carrier (rotating with a US Navy light carrier), screened by four destroyers, providing cover for an inshore unit comprising a Royal Navy cruiser, four escorts, US minesweepers and ROK patrol craft.

The Western task group operated in challenging conditions including shallow waters, shifting mudbanks and fast currents, often in difficult weather (fog, blizzards, even typhoons) and further complicated by the presence of many small islands and large numbers of neutral vessels.  It had a number of roles. First, it had to enforce the blockade, preventing the enemy from using the sea to transport troops or supplies; this activity included gunfire and air strikes against targets associated with the war at sea, such as coastal artillery, airfields and minelayers. Second, it supported UN forces ashore with gunfire and air strikes against enemy forces and their supply lines, particularly railways and bridges.  This involved occasional participation in the strategic bombing campaign, though less than the naval forces off the east coast. Third, during the war allied forces occupied several small offshore islands, either to use as forward bases for raiding forces or to deny them to the enemy.  Naval forces supported these operations and helped to supply and defend the garrisons.

The enemy threat at sea was limited.  The war saw one serious surface engagement when in July 1950 a Royal Navy cruiser and frigate and a US Navy cruiser intercepted a North Korean force of four torpedo boats and two motor gunboats, sinking five enemy vessels. There was a limited air threat and none from submarines, though with Chinese and Soviet naval and air bases so close, precautions were constantly taken in case the conflict should escalate. The principal impediments to coalition use of the sea were coastal artillery and, particularly, mines. According to Rear-Admiral Andrewes, the first in-theatre commander of the British force: ‘In a major amphibious operation our powerful fleet lost command of the sea for ten important days through the laying of enemy mines from fishing boats.’  He added, ‘it is clear that our enemies and in particular their sponsors are fully aware of the effectiveness of mine warfare against a nation that relies on its sea power, and they will take every opportunity of embarking on a mining campaign.’ Lessons from the conflict, as well as technical intelligence from some modern Soviet mines that were captured (showing that the USSR had drawn on German wartime expertise) raised the profile of mine counter-measures in the British rearmament programme that resulted from the Korean War.

Carrier-based air power showed its value and its advantages over airfields ashore that were immobile and could be overrun by enemy forces. Further, the coalition campaign confirmed the ability of British and US carriers to work together closely, which had already been demonstrated in postwar exercises in the Mediterranean and off the Philippines. The conflict revealed the deficiencies in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm caused by prior lack of investment and the low priority it had been given. Yet it still conducted 23,000 sorties during the war and made an invaluable contribution, without which the west coast force would have needed the full-time commitment of US carriers. At a time when the future of the Royal Navy’s carriers was seriously threatened, this campaign helped demonstrate their value. In terms of amphibious warfare, Britain had rapidly run down its capability since the war – as the Suez crisis would shortly demonstrate – but was hugely impressed by the US ability to launch major operations at short notice. British forces supported the major US landings and withdrawals, and conducted many raids, which had a useful effect in harassing the enemy, gathering intelligence, destroying specific targets and also in tying down large numbers of enemy forces – all classic benefits of amphibious capability.


Key lessons and their contemporary relevance

The most striking aspect of the naval campaign, with major implications for later operations, was its multi-national character.  Andrewes noted that his first report, in March 1951, covered, ‘a number of British Commonwealth and Allied ships who formed a task group under British Command within an overall American Command.  In this respect, the campaign was probably unique in that ships of seven nationalities were, with minor exceptions, operationally interchangeable, a state of affairs which was developed very quickly and harmoniously.’

The British-led force was thoroughly multi-national, taking on nearly all the non-US naval forces.  The fact that most of these warships were from Commonwealth navies, sharing both culture and recent experience of working together (as they all did with the US Navy) during the war and in postwar exercises facilitated this but contingents from other navies also proved able to fit into the group with few problems. Read-Admiral Scott-Moncrieff, the second commander of the British fleet, praised the South Korean crews that came under his command: ‘They were as brave as lions, and extremely keen and willing’ – though he noted that, like his force, they were under-resourced and that there were some difficulties with language and communications. Still, efforts to established effective cooperation succeeded and he suggested that the work with local navies was ‘well worth further study’ for lessons that could be applied elsewhere. This smooth cooperation demonstrated something that has often been experienced subsequently, namely that navies can work closely together fairly easily, and represent a good way for states to contribute to an international effort, without some of the friction that can apply to land-based forces.

That said, this level of cooperation and even integration did take some effort – less within the British-led force than between it and the US Navy. There were some clashes in terms of command culture between the US and Royal Navies, with the latter feeling that the former was excessively rigid and centralised and did not allow enough freedom of action to forward commanders. While shared doctrine and a common understanding were important, the key driver proved to be the personality of the overall US Navy commander: one in particular caused a fair amount of friction but others were a little more flexible in their approach, and even the most challenging commander modified his behaviour; as so often, personal relationships and mutual trust were essential, and time devoted to developing these was well spent.  This did not only apply to the key commanders but also to other figures: the strong relationship between the British Ambassador to the US and the Secretary of State was an important foundation, while the Royal Navy officer who on his own initiative arranged an attachment to the staff of the US naval headquarters in Japan built a close relationship with key individuals in the US Navy Far East command structure and enjoyed significant access and trust as a result – more so than the other British services or other allies. Further, all of the commanders of the British naval contingent emphasised how smooth cooperation was overall.

There were some problems in relationships between services but these were less often between warships of different nationalities than between naval forces and other components: for example, some US Air Force aircrew found it difficult to distinguish Fleet Air Arm aircraft from those of the enemy, even after Normandy-style black and white stripes were introduced to aid recognition; while several problems (including friendly-fire incidents) occurred between naval forces and the multiple clandestine forces operated in their area by the US forces who proved oddly reluctant to coordinate their activities with other UN forces.

The Korean War and the Royal Navy’s involvement in it provided a timely demonstration of the enormous value of naval power – which was important, given that at the time there were suggestions in some British circles that it was on the wane.  It also offered a reminder that British and European security can be seriously affected by events in the Indo-Pacific, giving value to an ability to deploy military, and particularly naval power to coalition operations there. It also showed the folly of focussing defence policy on a single, narrow scenario – an error which would unfortunately recur in British strategy.  In terms of capabilities, it showed once again the huge value of carrier-based air power and of amphibious forces, especially in a theatre that is predominantly maritime.  The other key lessons focussed on multinational naval operations; while the postwar years had seen the initial stages of institutionalised cooperation between the allied navies, the experience of the Korean War – and also the greater impetus given to NATO as a result of its outbreak – pushed this further along. It showed the ability of the RN to play an important role within a US-led alliance while acting as a convening power to facilitate and support the contribution of smaller navies.

Bowers, I. (Ed.). (2024). Coalition Navies during the Korean War: Understanding Combined Naval Operations (1st ed.). Routledge.

  • The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS. 

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