11 DEC 1952: The Korean War and the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment begins Operation Fauna, its objective is to capture prisoners and destroy enemy defences. Operation Fauna was a major trench raid on Chinese positions near Hill 355 to snatch a prisoner. Although no prisoners were taken, Chinese dispositions near Hill 355 were seriously disrupted.
At 2400 hrs 10th December 1952, 4 Platoon, “B” Company Headquarters, one section of the Assault Pioneers Platoon and 6 Platoon moved off in that order, single file, into the minefield gap down the steep icy slope, slipping, sliding, inching our way, hand over hand on the barbed wire fencing. At last we reached the valley floor, passing the “Halifax” outpost manned by C Company 3 RAR. It took one hour to cover 700 mtr with 3,000 to go. 1 Section under Corporal Noel Beresi led in arrowhead, Private “Bill” Purcell forward scout, “Stan” Norminton 2nd Scout. They were three outstanding soldiers.
Progress was slow, three inches of dry snow crunching noisily underfoot. The foot-long stalks of grass breaking with every stride with the crossing a part-frozen creek adding to our difficulties. The noise deadening snowfall we had hoped for had not arrived.
We pressed on, close to our firm base standing patrols dotting no-man’s land. A challenge from 6 Platoon behind us. “Halt”, the password with no response. We froze. A repeat muffled challenge and still no response. A burst from an Owen sub machine carbine, a squeal, an expletive, silence. We lay motionless. Ten minutes went past. Then a whispered command from “the Boss” (Major Mann) over my 88 wireless set, to proceed. We moved on slowly, deliberately. Later we were to learn that the challenge had come from Corporal “Dave” Young of 6 Platoon. The slightly wounded victim, one of our own supporting troops. We turned north between two Chinese-held hills, our objective, on FLORA, the right-hand one. We were well behind schedule with 1,000 yards to go.
There was no turning back, but we remained undetected. My job was to choose the correct re-entrant onto the ridge – line of the objective. Go too far north and we’d strike the main Chinese defences. To turn prematurely would have meant a totally fruitless mission. There was no margin for error. We turned right, reached the ridge and deployed into extended line with two sections astride the north/south eight-feet deep communication trench, facing south. It was 0400 hours. We were two hours behind schedule, a factor, which whilst it caused initial concern, was subsequently of little consequence.
The dim outline of the enemy trenches, bunkers and weapon pits were silhouetted 60 meters ahead. 3 section and Platoon Sergeant John “Mac” McNulty positioned themselves with Company Headquarters following. 6 Platoon, behind them, moved northward to attack their objective. It was unoccupied enabling two of their sections to join the main assault force. 4 Platoon advanced to within forty meters of the enemy. There was still no reaction. Then it happened. A mixture of “Burps” (Chinese sub machine carbines), potato-mashers (Chinese anti personnel grenades on a stick) and percussion grenades greeted us. We propped, some dropping to one knee to return fire. The platoon commander’s job was to keep things moving so we pressed forward.
We quickened pace firing from the hip, Private “Ralph” Townsend’s Bren gun on the left flank never sounded better- Still the grenades came, their white trailing tape being clearly visible. Corporal Ron Porto of 2 Section dropped two men, Privates Albert Charfield and Keith Payne, into the blackness of the communication trench. One of them, Keith Payne, was later to forge a place in Australian military history, being awarded the Victoria Cross whilst on service in South Vietnam. They reported deep tunnels dug along the trench walls, into which grenades were promptly dispatched.
It takes intestinal fortitude “guts”, of the highest order, to drop into the unknown, the “bottomless trench” (about 9 feet) of unknown enemy bunkers. There is no time to think about it. You jump, you hope, you move swiftly, do your job and get out. In this case on the end of a rifle dangled by a mate above. Behind us, shouts of “CHOH – CHOH CHOH” (Beware) could be heard as reinforcements poured from the tunnel network of the main enemy position. Withering fire from the two Bren guns of Corporal “Paddy” Crotty’s section, 6 Platoon, positioned for such an eventuality, quickly dampened this enthusiasm. They went underground. Up front 4 Platoon cleared the objective disposing of all inhabitants, moved through it, reorganising thirty yards beyond.
Casualties, two missing, (one Private “Jim” Young was to return the following evening) and three wounded.
Back on the objective, Company Headquarters confronted the second wave. From the tunnel network came a further hail of grenades, Major “Joe” Mann, twice being blown off his feet. Captain John Salmon, our Artillery Forward Observation Officer (FOO), although peppered with fragments directed pre-planned fire tasks onto six areas located several hundred metres north, east and west of “Flora”, The Chinese retaliated, mortaring our position, there was little point in staying, in fact our clear instructions were not to remain on the objective. The order came to withdraw. 4 Platoon leading down a spur to the east in an orderly manner, section at a time with “Sam” Small and I bringing up the rear.
It was 0420 hours. We had not taken a prisoner, our primary task. In hindsight, an almost impossible mission. The Chinese didn’t make a habit of being captured or leaving their wounded. The confusion of a close contact can tend to take precedence.
Caution wasn’t a major ingredient of the withdrawal. We moved swiftly, reaching the minefield gap in thirty minutes. Again the Chinese reaction was predicted correctly. They would anticipate that we had come from the western end of 355 mortaring and shelling accordingly. On the eastern end we were struggling with our wounded. Private “Bob” Auhl, unconscious, strapped to a stretcher with rifle slings, was brought “home” by exhausted mates, on their hands and knees, clawing every icy metre up that gap. I had taken my turn and can still recall our race against the mortars, which by this time, had switched to our return route. Thankfully, though close, they were ineffective allowing us to reach our forward defensive line (FDL) by 0630 hours unscathed, there to be greeted by a relieved CO. From Lt Gus Breen, Pl Comd 4 Pl B Coy 1RAR