HMAS Murchison - The Baron Of Han

 

BARON MURCHISON OF HAN

By RONALD McKIE

 

murchison.jpg

 

In Korea's Siberian winter the Han is a highway of ice almost all along the 38th parallel. In summer it moves, swift and black - a dirty evil river - through a hot dry countryside to the Yellow Sea.

 

But the Han does not merge with the sea as a river should. It loses itself in a spiderweb estuary of narrow channels, low islands and tidal mud banks. At high water - and high it is for the tide in the Han lifts 28 feet—the estuary is five miles across, but at low tide the water flows meanly among a wasteland of temporary islands and stinking mud.

 

The Han estuary is no place for ships, even baby ones, to move and manoeuvre, but in Korea, where many concepts of war had to be discarded, the Han became a mobile stage for some of the most unconventional and gallant actions in naval warfare.

 

The battles of "Operation Han" were unconventional because the ships which fought them ceased to be ships and became more like amphibious tanks than anything else. And the battles were brave because men fought at point-blank range against land armament which ranged from 75-mm. guns and heavy mortars down to light machine guns and small arms.

 

Murchison Gunners Hauling Back Barrels after action in the Han River Estuary.

 

"Operation Han" was no war of broadsides at ten miles. It was a Little Ship affair which began in July 1931, and went on for many months. It began when the Chinese pulled back beyond the line of the lmjin River and the Allied Naval Command decided to send their frigates into the Black Han, if they could get them there, to play hide and seek among the creeks and mud banks while bombarding across part of the Communist Yellow Sea flank.

 

Fourteen ships took part in this long, tedious and dangerous operation which was planned to extend the extreme range of Allied land bombardment many miles into enemy territory. The ships, all under the command of Rear- Admiral A. K. Scott-Moncrieff, R.N., were English, Australian, New Zealand, American and South Korean. They were the English "Bay" ships—Cardigan, Morecambe, St. Brides, Mounts—and Black Swan, Amethyst and Comas, the Kiwi frigates Rotoiti, Hawea and Taupo', the U.S. ships Abnaki and Weirs, and the frigates and patrol boats of South Korea. But the veteran of them all was the Royal Australian Navy frigate Murchison (Lieutenant-Commander Allen Dollard) which spent more time inside the Han than any other and brought great distinction to its navy and its country.

 

 

Murchison's story — One of the naval highlights of the Korean War -- began on 4 July 1951 when, after two monotonous months of patrols in the Yellow Sea, she riddled a Chinese tank, at a mile and a half, on the west coast of Haeju Peninsula. She was then patrolling on what was known as the "Cigarette Route"—all offshore channels were named after brands of cigarettes or tobacco—up the coast to Chinnampo. This was the first time the frigate had fired in anger. It was also the prelude to point-blank land-water battles to come, for the following day Lieutenant-Commander Dollard was ordered to join the English frigate Cardigan Bay, the South Korean frigate No. 61 and three patrol launches, to move into the Han.

 

Condamine Sailors ashore looking after some Korean Orphans

Although theoretically the Han was a suicide place for any kind of craft, and although there were no modern charts of the capricious river, the frigates and launches went in. They first tried what they thought was the entrance to the estuary. They moved in at night among the shallows, but in the morning found they were at a dead-end with mud banks almost surrounding them. They were forced to turn and try to get out but were soon lost among the sand, mud and conflicting channels. Cardigan Bay, which was leading, grounded three times before she finally called for carrier aircraft which came in from the Yellow Sea and sat above them and talked them between the banks and back to open water.

 

Next day, after being joined by another English frigate, Morecambe Bay, they tried what looked like the true entrance and with the ships' boats and South Korean motor launches in a fan ahead of them, sounding all the time, and with their own echo sounders double-checking, they moved slowly into the estuary. They had to tap their way along the winding practically uncharted channels like a blind man with a stick. And on a river which flooded and ebbed at eight knots and more, it took this little armada 40 hours to navigate 30 miles. No wonder the Admiralty later called this penetration of the Han "a daring operation under the noses of the enemy", and "one of the navigational feats of the, Korean War". Of course, against an enemy strong in the air these ships would never have survived even the entrance to the river. But fortunately the Allies owned the sky above the winding Han.

 

"Operation Han" really began when the Little Ships, 30 miles in from the Yellow Sea, reached a point where the river widened into a bowl, about four miles in diameter, between the Communist-held north bank and the south bank, which the South Koreans controlled. Along these banks the country was brown and fairly flat between grey mud-hut villages in the centre of green paddy fields. But, behind the river flats, the land lifted quickly into hills, grey and rugged and scarred with pale outcrops like gigantic bird droppings. The few trees on the flatlands were stunted, twisted and widely-scattered. The hills were mostly bare.

 

The bowl where the Little Ships anchored came to be known as "Fork", because it was the central point for long range bombardment on a wide arc and because from it radiated channels, between mud banks, which the frigates used for reconnaissance and close attack. From this advanced anchorage, eight miles west of the "Truce Talk" city of Kaesong, the ship's guns dominated a large area of the north bank of the Han. To the east, attack was limited by the neutral zone. But, to the west, troop concentrations, dumps, gun positions, tracks and the railway, as far inland as the big city of Yonan, were within range.

 

Before the Little Ships moved into the Han, there was danger that the Chinese might cross the river and attempt to occupy islands south along the coast. But when the frigates moved in and almost immediately began to plaster the country for miles around with shells, the Chinese were taken by surprise. They promptly pulled back from the river into the hills and most of them stayed there, with their heavy armament, during the early weeks of this daring occupation. This was, of course, a blunder and just what the Little Ships wanted, because it gave them time to explore, chart and buoy the channels which flowed into Fork from almost every direction. Day after day, during this early period, boats' crews and survey parties from the frigates, helped by Korean patrol craft, moved along the channels—sounding, map- ping and marking them so that the gun ships could use them later.

 

Sea Fury's and Fireflys on deck HMAS Sydney - Winter in Korea

 

Men in the survey boats often worked under fire, for the Chinese soon realized what was going on and sent patrols right down to the river bank. When this happened the frigates had to blast the north bank to cover their own men and to force the Chinese back. At low tide the resurrected mud banks gave the survey parties some protection, but often, when these banks were covered, a machine-gun burst lashing the water around them was their first knowledge that they were in the sights of a Chinese soldier hidden among the coarse grass or the tall reed clumps at the river's edge.

 

For weeks, on the steaming river under a cloudless sky, the charting went on, and on the frigates Allen names that meant nothing to a Korean peasant or a Chinese soldier began to appear on the new charts of the Han— Picadilly and Woolloomooloo, Lambeth and Pall Mall. That twenty-six miles of winding channels were charted, that 85,000 soundings were made, that thirty-three navigational buoys were anchored, means nothing unless you can relate these statistics to those sweating men in the small boats who worked for weeks knowing that a machine-gun burst or the crack of a sniper's rifle from the north bank could, at any moment, mean their extinction. But, all the time, the cunning enemy on the Han was the river itself, its rocks and tide rips, its sudden shallows and stinking mud. If a spirit of the waters lived in the Han he was a malign spirit who hated and rejected man, both white and yellow.

 

From time to time. Little Ships went down the river and out to the cleanness of the sea and back to their bases while others replaced them in the bowl called Fork, for in the long months of this Korean summer and autumn the occupation of the Han was as permanent as any naval occupation can be. H.M.A.S. Murchison, pioneer of the Han, was one of those which moved out for replenishment and rest, but she returned and slowly built up her record until in time, with sixty days up the river, she became the veteran of all those Little Ships which fought this very personal war.

 

Almost from the start of the occupation the Little Ships moved daily along the narrow channels seeking targets as far away as eight miles from the river. And at night, from their anchorage at Fork, they harassed the enemy. Some nights they fired two or three times, others they bombarded every 15 to 30 minutes. This was a war of nerves as well as shells, a war which made men jittery and bad tempered, a war of attrition by night and by day.

 

At first the Chinese took no counter-action, apart from sending patrols and snipers to the river and occasionally firing a few rounds from their 75's and then quickly withdrawing to the hills. But everyone on the Han knew this could not last, that the Communists must eventually dispute Allied control of the river. The occupation was damaging and disruptive. It was also bad for Chinese morale.

 

The first real attempt came at the end of September 1951. The second, when the Chinese took another hammering, came two days later. And it was Murchison which was responsible for checking these counter-moves, for Lieutenant-Commander Dollard had been expecting trouble and his ship and crew were ready for it.

 

Little Ships Operations in the Han Estuary 1951-52

 

Allen Nelson Dollard had his 34th birthday in the Han. He is a slight fair balding man with blue-grey eyes and a boyish sensitive face. He could easily, on first sight, be a university lecturer. But there is a resolute directness about him which suggests that he is more at home with facts and decisions than with abstract theories. His men liked and admired this captain of theirs who never got rattled and never showed fear. They regarded him as "a hell of a good bloke", a high compliment from Australians whose naive native characteristic is to criticize but seldom praise. They knew they served a man who had guts as well as efficiency, who would take them into trouble and get them out of it—if he could. But as Dollard took Murchison out of Fork that hot still afternoon of Friday, 28 September 1951, he hoped he wouldn't run into too much trouble because of the "Brass" travelling with him. This trip was supposed to be a Cook's Tour of the Han estuary. He had with him that day the Commander of the Korean Escort and Blockade Group (Rear-Admiral G. C. Dyer, U.S.N.) and two senior Royal Navy men under Dyer's command—Captain G. A. F. Norfolk and Commander D. G. C. Elder. Enough brass, as someone on board said, to upset any Gunnery Officer's gunnery.

 

With Dollard on the Compass Platform as they moved west along Lambeth channel was Lieutenant-Commander W. 0. C. Roberts, the First Lieutenant, who was to win his D.S.C. later on his second trip to Korea in H.M.A.S. Anzac, Lieutenant Pete Martin, who directed the Bofors fire; Lieutenant Maxwell "Ned" Kelly who had only just taken over from Lieutenant Pete Rees, Murchison's Navigator in the original entrance to the Han who did much of the fine survey work in the boats before being transferred. Lieutenant John Snow, a casual bearded giant with the face of a cheerful infant, was in the Operations Room; Commissioned Gunner Frank Smith, red faced and ever cheerful, was "Guns" in the Director Tower behind and above the bridge, with Leading Seaman Jock Chalmers and Able Seamen "Chris" Christison; Lieutenant Jack Scott-Holland, the Cable Officer, was on the forecastle; Senior Commissioned Engineer Officer Benny Martin was in the most important part of the ship, as every engineer knows; and at the stern, in command of the after twin four-inch, was Petty Officer Farrington—the "Buffer" who was to do mighty work in the next few hours and days. He was not the only one, for Chief Yeoman Terrey was to spot and report enemy activity with remarkable speed, and the coxswain, Chief Petty Officer Rowell, was to steer the ship with what officers called "immaculate precision".

 

Dollard took Murchison along Lambeth to Knife and finally anchored at Knife Edge, seven miles west of Fork, where Frank Smith, who already knew his targets, swung his two twin four-inch and waited.

 

At last Dollard gave the order.
 

"Stand by bombardment starboard."
 

"Ready to open fire, sir," reported Woe Roberts, the Principal Control Officer.
 

"Open fire."

 

The guns cracked and the shells went away—over the paddy fields, over the foothills, to burst on the railway yards at Yonan, five miles from the river. Smith could see the tall buildings of the town among the hills, but he could not see the fall of his shells. Then, from their naval spotting plane, came the word that he was right on the target, and after that he wasted no time. He put fifty-two shells into Yonan before Dollard lifted the anchor and headed back along Lambeth.

 

One of the problems in the erratic Han was that all patrol and bombardment trips along the channels had to be made on the rising tide and all return trips had to be completed before high water. This meant on average a frigate had about an hour and a half to do a round trip. Speed was therefore very important.

 

Back at Fork, Dollard swung north up Piccadilly and then made for Pall Mall along Sickle, bombarding into the foothills beyond Paekchon as he steamed at fourteen knots. He was nearing the mouth of the Yesong River, just north of Pall Mall, when aft and bridge lockouts reported:

 

"Gun flashes on the port bow."
 

"Action port," Dollard called. "All positions engage."

 

As he spoke enemy shells burst black in the mud of the river bank, then beat the black water into white columns as the Communist gunners found the range. And, with the shells, came long bursts from machine guns back from the river and bullets from riflemen, dug in along the bank, hammered the ship or ricochetted and whined away.

 

Murchison's four-inch and Bofors were pumping out shells as the frigate reached the mouth of the Yesong, anchored, swung to the anchor, and moved back along Sickle at fifteen knots. An enemy mortar bomb exploded near the stern and another alongside. Then a burst from a machine gun rattled the ship's side with die noise of a street drill, and rifle bullets scarred the deck and sprayed the bridge and Director Tower.

 

Fifteen hundred yards from the river enemy gun flashes were little scarlet stabs of colour across the flat paddy green. The guns were inside farmhouses and covered from the air. The muzzles pointed through broken walls. The shells came in and Dollard thought, "Thank God they're going over." And they did. Then more shells hit the bank and shrapnel cried above the bridge like kittens in a basket. Murchison put a broadside into one of the houses and an umbrella of greyish smoke opened above the roof. This was a direct hit on a T). Then another of her broadsides exploded in a trench, so South Korean guerrillas reported later, and the forty soldiers in it never knew what hit them.

 

While this was going on, the Bofors, coughing like noisy old men, were concentrating on the Chinese riflemen along the bank. Some were dug in, some lay in the grass. With glasses you could see the faces of some of them as they fired. One man came out of his hole and began to run, but he had moved only a few yards when a shell blew him to pieces. Then another soldier made for a patch of long grass but two Bofors fired at him and he disintegrated among the bursts. As Murchison went along Sickle enemy fire seemed to hesitate. Then it came on again in one final burst, which filled the air with lead and metal, before the ship moved out of range.

 

There was only one Australian casualty that afternoon. This was Able Seaman Chandler, on one of the Bofors, who was hit in the arm with a rifle bullet. His friends, however, wouldn't believe it. They said nothing could hit him because he was so thin he had to stand twice to even throw a shadow. But the Chinese were still not finished with the Australian frigate. During this Friday's action the English frigate St. Brides Bay, anchored at Fork, had been bombarding at extreme range over Murchison. But the New Zealand frigate Rotoiti relieved St. Brides Bay on the Saturday and Dollard, who was to take Murchison out of the Han on the Monday, agreed to show the channels to the Kiwi captain, Lieutenant-Commander Brian Turner.

 

On Sunday, 30 September, Murchison again went up Piccadilly and along Sickle. The afternoon was fine and steamy, with cloud banks, like dirty crumpled handkerchiefs, down river above the Yellow Sea. The hills seemed very close and above and beyond them, far inland, were specks that were planes. On one of the Bofors sailors were singing, with the irony of sailors, "Sailing down the river on a Sunday afternoon", but the singing suddenly stopped as the body of a Chinese soldier, in bleached khaki, his face paper white, his cropped hair very black, rocked gently in the wash and was left astern. "Poor bastard," one of the bridge lockouts said.

 

Korea medal (left) and United Nations Service Medal (Korea)

 

Dollard reached the Yesong, turned and gave the order to bombard as he began his run back along Sickle. But as the four-inch fired the Chinese replied with everything they owned--75's, 50-mm. anti-tank guns, mortars, machine guns and the rest. It was a repetition of Friday's battle, but enemy fire was much heavier and more accurate. An anti-tank shell went into Murchison but nobody heard it above the clamour of the armament. A 75 exploded in the engine room but did no vital damage. To Frank Smith, the shrapnel and bullets hitting his Director Tower was like someone belting nails into an iron roof. Then a shell—he swears it was 120-mm.—went through the radar aerials a foot above his head with a fluttering roar. Once he yelled for binoculars from the bridge and, as he swung his turret, he put his hand behind him to receive them. Instead, Woe Roberts put a lump of shrapnel in his hand. It weighed four pounds, it was jagged, it was still hot.

 

Part of the way down Sickle the enemy fire weakened and faded. Then Dollard had to reduce speed and almost stop as a stray rain squall came in from the sea across the river and spread grey drapes over the vital navigational buoys. For fifteen seconds Murchison was lost in the mist. Then the squall passed, the sunlight polished the wet ship, and Dollard was able to go on.

 

Murchison was nearing the western end of Sickle when, suddenly, the Chinese began again from a new cluster of guns, the nearest only 600 yards away. But as shells and bullets hit the frigate Dollard was too busy with his navigation to notice them, although he knew that one shell in his steering gear and he would be aground and being pounded to pieces. Like a native medicine man he kept up his monotonous chant:

 

"Steer one seven zero."
 

"Steer one seven one."
 

"Port fifteen." "Steady."
 

"Steer one six zero."

 

Once he noticed that the two leadsmen, abreast of the wings of the bridge, had ignored the enemy fire and were still calmly swinging and calling, although none could hear their reports above the gunfire.

 

"Lay in the lead and take cover," he yelled.

 

Then he resumed his chant.

 

Once he glanced up and saw enemy tracer shells, like flaming onions, rising incredibly slowly it seemed and in a high curve, and heard Turner, the New Zealand captain, call, "This lot's coming right on the bridge." But the shells went over, and behind and above in the Director Tower Jock Chalmers yelled "Mortars" to Smith and pointed. Four mortar bombs were dropping towards the ship and four more had just been fired. The four-inch swung. They fired. The two men watched the four tracer shells go out from the muzzles towards the land and explode, and in the black explosion stained with orange and grey four bodies jerked into the air and seemed to lie there before they slowly fell. And as the soldiers fell and disappeared from view white darts rose from the ground behind them and came swiftly towards the ship, and as they moved they got higher and whiter and Smith watched them coming and said to himself, "Bazookas".

 

During that Sunday afternoon run one sailor was seriously wounded and two were slightly wounded, and Murchison had seven shell holes in her, shrapnel and bullet scars all over her, and one of her Bofors damaged and out of action. In return she destroyed a 75, mortars and machine guns.

 

Later, when the New Zealander Brian Turner wrote his official report of that action he left no doubt what he thought of Dollard or his crew. In one part he said: "Dollard set an admirable example of coolness and concentration at a time when divided attention might have spelled disaster." In another part he had this to say: "Dollard's handling of his ship and general direction of the armament was faultless and imperturbable. The range was barely 600 yards, which reduced the accuracy of the four-inch armament even when it could bear. . . . The guns' crews and the control parties were admirable and this spirit . . . was right throughout the ship down to the engine room in which a shell exploded after having neatly drilled the ship's side and the reinforced corner of the watertight door. . . ."

 

No one was surprised when later Dollard and his Navigator, Lieutenant "Ned" Kelly, were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses.

 

There are many stories from the Han, but one of the best, largely because it gives a clear picture of Dollard the man, concerns Murchison's "Guns", Frank Smith. On one of many trips to Knife Edge, when only a few shots were fired against them. Smith saw an ox cart, which the Chinese used to carry ammunition and food, making for a village about 1,000 yards from the river. He fired the four-inch and missed, and as the shells kicked up the mud of a paddy field just ahead of the cart Smith could see the owner belting the ox with a stick. As the ox began to canter and then gallop he fired and missed again—and missed with every shot after that before his target reached the village. Twenty minutes later, on their way back from Knife Edge, Smith saw what looked like the same ox cart coming out from the other end of the village.

 

"I'll get the bastard this time," he yelped, still furious with his poor shooting.

 

But from the Compass Platform Dollard called: "No, Guns. You've wasted enough bloody ammunition. Let him go."

 

To Dollard, however, the most memorable day of the sixty he spent up the river was 31 January 1952. On that day the tall and elegant Rear-Admiral Scott-Moncrieff, whom the Australians admired tremendously, moved his flag from the cruiser Belfast to Murchison when the Little Ship made her final tour among the channels of the Han, and fired her final broadsides at the game Chinese. And when that day was over and Murchison was once more outside in the Yellow Sea, Scott-Moncrieff wined and dined Allen Dollard and his officers and later sent two farewell signals which Dollard has never forgotten.

 

The first read:

 

"I dislike the thought of continuing the war without Murchison but I will have to accept it now as a fact. You have been a tower of strength and your good name will always be associated with the infamous Han. No ship could have done better. For fine seamanship and steadiness under fire you have proved yourselves beyond reproach. Good luck in all your sailings and a happy home coming to you all."

 

The second was:

 

"For your long tenancy of the Han, for mastery of all insidious and doubtful delights, and for insecurity of tenure I think you should be created Baron Murchison of the Han, Lord Fork and Viscount Spoon."

 

Modified River Class (FF) Frigates - Korean Veterans

 

 

No. Ship Comm'd Decomm'd Sold Broken Up
K698 Condamine 22/2/46 2/12/55 21/9/61 1962
K408 Culgoa 1/4/47

15/4/54
Accom. ship 12/62

15/2/72 1972
K442 Murchison 17/12/45

Training ship
11/54 - 12/55

9/61 1962
K535 Shoalhaven 2/5/46 1956 1/62 1962