HMAS Murchinson in the Han River (28 September 1951)
In July 1951 the Korean War was well into its static phase and armistice talks were under way in the western Korean city of Kaesong...
The Han River flowed through the only part of Korea south of the 38th parallel still in communist hands and the United Nations Command wished to demonstrate that they controlled this area. It was also thought that the sound of naval guns in Kaesong would emphasise this point to the armistice negotiators. The Commonwealth Task Group under Rear Admiral Scott-Moncrieff RN was chosen to provide forces to operate in the Han River Estuary and Commonwealth frigates were detailed for the task. Three at a time would penetrate the estuary.
On 24 July 1951 the Australian frigate HMAS Murchison (Lieutenant Commander Allan Dollard) entered the Han River for the first time. She found herself in a world of sandbanks, mudflats, narrow changing channels and a nine metre tidal range. Operations in these waters required precise navigation but charts were poor and ships had to feel their way with lead lines and echo sounders. Initially Murchison and her fellow frigates found little opposition as they navigated the estuary's narrow maze of channels identified by names such a Fork, Knife, Spoon, Woolloomooloo, Lambeth and Piccadilly.
On 28 September this changed. Murchison proceeded up through Fork, Lambeth and Knife to Knife Edge from where, directed by aerial spotting, she bombarded the Yonan railway yards eight kilometres away. Proceeding along Picaddilly and Pall Mall to the Yesong River, the frigate came under artillery and machine gun fire from hidden emplacements. Her 4-inch guns returned the fire but as she reached the mouth of the Yesong, the constricted waters forced her to drop anchor and turn on the current, a sitting target with her guns continually in action at short range. Murchison then retraced her course down the twisting waters at 15 knots, still under fire, her 40mm Bofors engaging dug-in infantry. She was hit four times but escaped serious damage. One crew member was slightly wounded.
Two days later Murchison was in action again. Dollard took her along Sickle to the Yesong, where the frigate turned and commenced a bombardment as it steamed back along its outward path. Again the communists returned a fierce, accurate fire from 75mm and 120mm guns as well as mortars, machine guns and anti-tank guns. The range was close, for Murchison's 4-inch and Bofors were firing over open sights, suppressing the Chinese batteries. The enemy gunfire weakened as Murchison ran into a squall that brought her to a halt. The squall quickly passed and the frigate steamed on. As she reached the western end of Sickle she again came under a heavy, accurate fire as Dollard calmly conned her through the river's tortuous course. She finally outran the guns and returned to the mouth of the river. She had taken seven hits and had a Bofors put out of action. One crew member was seriously wounded. She had destroyed a field gun, a mortar and a number of machine guns.
Murchison's hard fought actions showed that the frigates were being placed in unjustified peril. No matter how well they fought, it was probable that eventually crippling damage could be done and a frigate lost or run ashore, providing the communists with a splendid propaganda victory. Consequently the patrols were withdrawn to safer waters.
Murchison's men were widely commended. Dollard and, appropriately the Navigation Officer, Lieutenant J. M. Kelly, were awarded the DSC.