Over five days in early October 1951 the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), won “one of the most impressive victories achieved by any Australian battalion”. So said Robert O’Neill, the official war historian for the Korean War, speaking of 3RAR’s effort to dislodge a numerically superior enemy from a position of great strength in the Battle of Maryang San, part of the broader four division British Commonwealth offensive known as “Operation Commando”.
Operation Commando was a general offensive aimed to push communist forces further north of the 38th parallel which was strategically important to the UN forces. If Maryang San (Hill 317) was secured the Chinese forces would be pushed back, losing their view of the Imjin salient. The battle was also thought to be the last chance for the UN forces to position troops before the ceasefire and armistice negotiations. Earlier attempts by US forces to take Hill 317 had failed.
The commander of 3RAR, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hassett drew on the Australian’s experience in New Guinea during the Second World War of “running the ridges” — which involved attacking along the crest of ridge rather than up the sides —in his planning for Operation Commando.
The strategy was successful. The Australians were able to surprise the Chinese forces on 5 October 1951 by running the ridges in heavy mist. Robert O’Neill noted in his account of the battle that “the company and platoon commanders responded skillfully to Hassett’s directions, and individual soldiers showed high courage, tenacity and morale despite some very difficult situations”. Maryang San was secured by Australian troops while British forces secured its neighbour “Little Gibraltar” (Hill 355).
The Australians held the summit throughout the next day against heavy Chinese fire and infantry attack. Early on 7 October “the Hinge” — a high point on the ridge west of the summit — was captured. The Chinese bombarded the Australians continuously throughout the following day and in the evening launched a series of desperate counter-attacks which failed to dislodge the 3RAR. The next morning the Chinese gave up and Maryang San was secured.
Twenty Australians were killed and over 100 wounded during the battle. The Chinese lost 340 killed and wounded. The 3RAR were eventually withdrawn to recuperate and replaced by British troops. Sadly by 5 November, Maryang San was recaptured by the Chinese, remained under their control for the remainder of the war.
Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hassett gave his troops full credit for the success of Operation Commando. Speaking in July 1952 he said the 3RAR had got no equal in Korea:
“They are wonderful in action for initiative, resourcefulness and gallantry. Their preparedness to fight is the best thing a commander can have. They are always ready to ‘have a go’.”