Centurion Tanks in Korea

The Centurion was the primary British Army main battle tank of the post-WWII period. Introduced in 1945, it is widely considered to be one of the most successful post-war tank designs. The Centurion Mk. III had a powerful main gun with a gun stabilizer, which was very effective over rough terrain. Its combat debut was during the Korean War from December 1950 to July 1953.

IWM BF 10300

Development of the Centurion began in 1943 with 20 pilot vehicles built in late 1944-early 1945. Six early vehicles were shipped to the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, 22nd Armoured Brigade at Gribbohm, Germany in May 1945 after VE day but were too late to get into combat.


Variants

Centurion Mk. I (A41)
It had a fabricated turret with a rear escape door and was armed with a 17-pounder (76.2mm, 3 inch) gun and a 20mm Polsten cannon, weight 47 tons.

Centurion Mk. II (A41A)
It had a fully cast turret, new commander’s cupola and was armed with a 17-pounder gun which was stabilized in azimuth and elevation. The 20mm Polsten cannon was replaced by a co-axial Besa machine gun and the gunner’s sighting telescope was replaced by a sighting periscope.

Specifications:

Crew: 4 (Commander, Driver, Gunner, Loader-Radio Operator)
Main Armament: 20-pounder (84mm, 3.307 inch) rifled gun
(stabilized in azimuth and elevation)
Secondary Armament: Co-axial Besa .303 machine gun
Two-inch (51mm) mortar, loaded and fired from within the turret
Auxiliary charging engine
(provided electrical power for turret transverse and gun control equipment)
Armour: 51–152mm (2.0–6.0 inch)
Transmission: 5-speed Merrit-Brown Z51R Mk. F gearbox
Engine: Rolls-Royce Meteor, 650 hp (480 kW)
Weight: 49 tons
Operational range: 50 miles (80km)
Maximum speed: 22 mph (35 km/h)

Walk Around: Centurion Mk.3 MBT

Video: Tank Chats #35 Centurion – The Tank Museum

Centurion Mk. IV
A projected close support (CS) version with 95mm howitzer but it was never built.

Centurion Mk. V
US Browning .30 Cal machine guns fitted to coaxial and commander’s cupola mounts, turret rear escape hatch was deleted, turret roof reshaped, the 2-inch mortar in the turret roof was deleted, extra stowage bin on glacis was added, addition of guide roller in track run, vehicle weight was 51 tons.

Film: Tank Factory (1950)


Korea

The first British tank unit to serve in Korea was C Squadron, 7th Royal Tank Regiment (7RTR) equipped with Churchill Mk. VII Crocodile flame thrower tanks. On 15 November 1950, the unit disembarked at the port of Pusan (today Busan), South Korea. The unit was attached to the British 29th Independent Infantry Brigade and moved northward by train to join the UN advance into North Korea. Due to a lack of railway cars, one troop traveled by road, covering 200 miles (321.9 km) on their tracks.

Also on November 15, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars (8KRIH) arrived at Pusan equipped with three sabre squadrons (A, B and C) of Centurion Mk. IIIs and a reconnaissance troop of Cromwell Mk. VIIs supported by Churchill Armour Recovery Vehicles (ARV) and Bridge layers. The regiment traveled north by rail and the first “tank train” arrived at the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on November 30.

On December 2, with the tanks still on the rail cars, the regiment received reports of the massive UN defeat north of Pyongyang around the Chosin Reservoir. The Centurions of A Squadron and one troop of C Squadron were hastily unloaded and took up positions on the western outskirts of Pyongyang. The C Squadron troop was given the task of guarding the crossing on the north bank of the Taedong River. The rest of the regiment still on the rail cars were transported back to Seoul.

Film: British Centurion Tanks – Sariwon, 36 miles (59 km) south of Pyongyang, 1950

This Centurion is covering the withdrawal of UN units through Pyongyang on December 3.

The plate on the turret storage bin indicate that it is the troop sergeant’s tank of 1 Troop, C Squadron (Circle 1A).

This Centurion is probably withdrawing south from Pyongyang. Note the turret is rotated towards the rear. The “F.S.O. A256” on the armoured side skirts (“bazooka plates”) is a shipping movement code applied because of a War Department directive in early December where all Centurions were to be shipped out of Korea. The order was countermanded within a week.

With the Chinese rapidly advancing, the centurions were ordered to withdraw to prevent the top secret tanks from falling into enemy hands. After a perilous trip southwards in the freezing cold, these Centurions and UN units are pulling back through the streets of Seoul to a line south of the Han River.

This is Centurion COLOMBO, the troop leader’s tank of 3 Troop, C Squadron, 8KRIH, commanded by Lieutenant Mickey Radford. Radford was later mentioned in dispatches for his heroism during the fighting along the Imjin River. This photo was taken on December 20 when the 8KRIH was deployed in defensive positions along the south bank of the Han River covering the escape route of UN forces. The 8KRIH painted the tactical sign (circle with a 3) on thin metal plates and they were attached to the tank.

The crew of Centurion COLOMBO takes a tea break on December 20. Note the folded down windshield in front of the Driver’s position.

This is another view of Centurion COLOMBO on December 20 dug in on a featureless snow-bound island in the Han River. On the right is a Centaur dozer tank preparing other defensive positions to allow the tanks to park in a hull down position. The black and white stripped distance marker is visible on the exhaust guard. Note that the Jerry can has been removed and the tactical sign is in a different position on the rear of the turret.

In 1950, the AoS (Arm of Service) sign black 41 on a red over yellow diagonal square was a RAC (Royal Armoured Corps) regiment in an Infantry Division. The white circle on the black square was the formation badge of the British 29th Independent Infantry Brigade.

The UN forces could not hold the positions along the south bank of the Han River for long. Centurions of 4 Troop, C Squadron, 8KRIH, are withdrawing further south.


Harsh Climate

During the bitter winter of 1950-51, the tank crews quickly learn the problems of operating tanks in sub-zero temperatures. The lowest recorded temperature was -16 degrees F. In such extreme temperatures towing hawsers and draw-bars snapped, lubricants solidified; petrol stoppages were common as water droplets in the fuel lines froze them solid. The tanks had to be started up every hour or so, and each gear had to be engaged in turn to prevent freezing of the control linkages and the main components. The auxiliary charging engine was in constant use in a vain attempt to heat the fighting compartment. The Batteries cracked in the intense cold and had to be kept at a higher specific gravity to retain their charge. It was dangerous for a crewman to touch the outside of the tank with bare hands as the flesh would adhere to the metal.

If the tank was parked overnight on muddy terrain it would become frozen solid to the ground by morning. Any attempts to extricate it under its own power resulted in a burnt out clutch or a ruined final drive. Several methods were tried to unfreeze the tracks such as using hand grenades or lighting petrol which both proved to be hazardous. It then became standard procedure to park the tanks either on rice straw or broken up wooden ammunition boxes.

Despite being brand new on arrival in Korea, the Centurions performed admirably, however, they did suffer a number of final drive failures, compounded by an incompatibility in the fit of spares made in different factories from those of the original manufacturer of the tank.


Happy Valley

During the battle of Koyang (AKA “Happy Valley”) on 2-3 January 1951, the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles (1RUR) supported by “Cooperforce” was located near Chaegunhyun. “Cooperforce” commanded by 8KRIH Captain Donald Astley-Cooper was composed of four 8KRIH reconnaissance troop Cromwells and six 45 Field Regiment RA OP Cromwells. On January 3, Chinese human waves were assaulting the 1RUR outer positions with supporting MG and mortar fire. The 1RUR repelled the attackers with assistance from the Cromwells, UN artillery and including four USAF jets which dropped napalm and strafed the Chinese forward positions. The 1RUR discovered that the Chinese were using an assortment of weapons including several Bren guns (lend-leased weapons captured from Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists probably during the Chinese civil war). At 1830 hours, the 1RUR received orders to withdraw south toward Seoul. The 1RUR formed a large column of troops and vehicles supported by the Cromwells and moved south through the valley towards Seoul during the dark freezing moonless night. The withdrawal was proceeding fine until an USAF plane flew over the column and mistakenly dropped a line of flares directly over the column which illuminated all the troops and vehicles. All the troopers in that column were either cursing that pilot/plane or just soiled their pants (trousers). Soon after that, all hell broke loose with tracer and mortar fire, bugles wailing and Chinese troops swarming over the entire column. The Chinese attacked the tanks with grenades and pole charges that were rammed into the suspensions. All the “Cooperforce” Cromwells were either captured or destroyed.

This is probably one of the captured Cromwells. The crewmen are North Koreans wearing Soviet tank crew helmets with insignia. During the war, the Chinese “Volunteers” did not wore uniforms with insignia and the Chinese did not bring any tanks or tank crews to Korea. On the front hull, there is the registration number 24ZR43 with a white star next to it which was smeared over with mud.

On January 4, UN forces abandoned the city of Seoul and crossed the Han River. The Chinese captured Seoul on January 7. By January 10, the UN forces had retreated about 25 miles (40 km) south of Seoul to a defensive line between Pyeongtaek and Changhown. By the middle of the month, the line has stabilized and the UN forces started north again retaking lost ground.

Operation Thunderbolt started on January 20 where several US Regimental Combat Teams (the 27th “Wolfhounds”, 35th and the 24th) advanced from Osan through Suwon which resulted in the re-capture of Yongdungp’o, an industrial suburb of Seoul on the south bank of the Han River.

Centurions of 2 Troop, A Squadron, 8KRIH, passing through the main gate of the walled city Suwon.


Centurion vs Cromwell

On Sunday 11 February 1951, two C Squadron Centurions, CAUGHOO and COLORADO, commanded by Captain George Strachon and Lieutenant Mickey Radford respectively, motored up the road to Yongdungp’o. There they supported a US infantry patrol on the north bank of the Han River and CAUGHOO was the first Centurion to fire a shot in anger in any theater of operations. Subsequently, an unidentified tank was observed under the right side of the Han River railroad bridge. It was engaged and, at a range of 3000 yards (2743.2m), the second shot struck and destroyed the target which had been returning ineffectual fire. Initially believed to be a T-34 but later the enemy tank was identified as a Cromwell which had been captured and repaired during the earlier “Happy Valley” battle.

Further rounds had started a fire in what probably was a petrol dump behind the Cromwell. For a couple of hours, the Centurions continued firing in support of the infantry patrol which at one point was pinned down by an enemy machine gun position. One 20-pounder round quickly knocked out the position and the gun crew fled into a nearby house which was immediately hit by 20-pounder HE and set on fire.

Video: Centurion vs Cromwell – Korea 1951

On February 18, Centurion CAPTAIN COTTLE supported the Gloucestershire Regiment during a battalion attack on Hill 327. Bunker after bunker was knocked out with such accuracy that the action lasted for only two hours from start to finish and became known as Operation “Copy Book”. Sir William Lowther, C Squadron commander Major Henry Huth, and the 2i/c Major George Strachan were observing the infantry attack through the 10x peribinoculars while enjoying a bacon and egg breakfast.

The rice paddy fields in Korea were a severe problem for armour units during the wet season where the soft glutinous beds made them impassable for tanks. In winter they were easily traversed but the frozen “bunds” (raised borders of the paddies) were sometimes unscaleable obstacles.

This Centurion Mk. III of B Squadron, 8KRIH, came to grief while testing the “going” in an area of the Kimpo peninsula thought to be passable for tanks.\

Later, this Churchill ARV Mk. II recovered the bogged down Centurion above. At the outset, the Churchill ARV was the only vehicle with an effective winch but, owing to the age of the models used in Korea, it lacked power and was not very reliable. Note the dummy gun fitted to the front superstructure.

Centurion ALYCIDON is climbing a muddy rice paddy bund (dike).

The 8KRIH named their Centurions after British race horses. Crewmen of Centurion ALYCIDON are comparing their tank to a drawing of race horse ALYCIDON (1945–1963).

IWM BF 163

This a side view of Centurion APRIL SON climbing a rice paddy bund. Note on the turret are the last three digits of the registration number.

Centurion A2597 is probably somewhere in Yongdungp’o on the south bank of the Han River. Behind A2597 can be seen the barrel of another Centurion. The white star had been over painted same as in WWII where it became a good aiming point for enemy gunners. Note the boxes carried on top of the turret side storage bin.

This is my close up of the side of Centurion A2597. The beginning of the name appears to be “ARTIST” but the rest of it is illegible.

This is a view of B Squadron, 8KRIH, leaving the Imjin River sector through the morning mist on 22 April 1951. It was replaced by C Squadron unaware later that night the Chinese will attack in overwhelming strength by the light of a full moon.


Battle of the Imjin River

The Chinese Spring Offensive took place between 22–25 April 1951 where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attacked UN positions on the lower Imjin River in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough and recapture the South Korean capital Seoul. The aim was to regain the initiative on the battlefield after a series of successful UN counter-offensives in January–March 1951 which allowed UN forces to establish the Kansas Line north of the 38th Parallel.

Film: KOREAN WAR – The Battle Of The Imjin River 70 Years On

   
   UN Units: 

   US 3rd Infantry Division
         29th British Independent Infantry Brigade
                  1st Battalion, Gloucesshire Regiment (Glosters)
                  1st Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (1NF)
                  1st Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles (1RUR) 
                  Beligan Infantry Battalion
                  C Squadron, 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars (8KRIH)
                  45 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery 
                  11 (Sphinx) Light Anti-Aircraft Battery
                  170 Independent Mortar Battery
                  55 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers


   Chinese Units: 

   People's Liberation Army (PLA)
         63rd Army
                   187th Division
                              559th Regiment
                              560th Regiment
                              561st Regiment              
	           188th Division
                              562th Regiment
                              563rd Regiment
                              564th Regiment
	           189th Division		
                              565th Regiment
                              566th Regiment
                              567th Regiment

The leading Chinese unit of the offensive was the 187th Division of the 63rd Army, supported by the 188th and 189th Divisions. Between 2000 and 2030 hours on April 22, the leading Chinese elements smashed into the Belgian and Fusiliers (1NF) defensive lines. Throughout the night and into the morning of April 23, the 29th Brigade held off the Chinese onslaught but under the constant pressure were forced to begin withdrawing.

After daybreak, C Squadron, 8KRIH was dispatched to extricate, Y Company, 1NF from their isolated position along the Imjin River. As the Centurions rolled forward, USAF F-80C Shooting Star Fighter-bombers dropped napalm on Chinese troop concentrations behind Y Company. The bombing runs effectively cleared the route for the Centurions, who arrived in the vicinity of Y Company without any heavy contact with the enemy. By early afternoon, Y Company safely returned to British lines.

The 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment on Hill 235 were cut off and surrounded by Chinese forces. On April 24, an armoured column consisting of four M24s of the 10th Battalion Combat Team (Philippine Expeditionary Force Korea) leading six C squadron 8KRIH Centurions followed by infantry attempted to rescue the isolated Glosters by advancing along a narrow track labeled 5Y which ran through a gorge leading up to Hill 235. When the column got about halfway up the gorge, there was an explosion up front where the leading Filipino M24 had stopped and caught fire. The track was blocked preventing the following tanks to pass and chinese troops were on the upper slopes looking down on the column. None of the Centurion tanks had AA MGs mounted and they were too close to elevate their 20-pounder guns, so the column reversed and backed down the track abandoning the disabled M24 tank.

On April 25 after the loss of the Glosters, it was decided to extract the rest of the 29th Brigade south along Route 11. The Belgian Battalion, reinforced by a troop of Centurions, were ordered to hold on long enough to allow the Northumberlands and Ulsters to withdraw, but they were also responsible for protecting the brigade HQ and the 45 Field Regiment’s artillery firing postions. The Northumberlands and Ulsters were supported by a mobile column comprised of Centurion tanks, sappers and every Oxford carrier and half-track that could be found.

The mobile column moved first pushing 3 miles (5 km) north from the Brigade HQ area and linked up with the Royal Ulster Rifles’ B Company, then continued into the valley on both sides of Route 11 protecting the Fusiliers and Rifles as those units pulled back. The Hussars’ lead troop commander, Captain Peter Ormrod, conceived a plan to establish what he called “firm bases”. As the mobile column advanced, tank sections would break off at intervals and occupy positions from which they can provide stationary fire support across the entire valley, thereby covering the mobile column and the retreating dismounted infantry. As the Northumberlands and Ulsters retreated south of each “firm base” position, the Centurions would join at the rear of the column.

The Northumberlands and Ulsters convoy consisting of Oxford carriers, trucks and Jeeps tore down Route 11 as quickly as possible. Small teams of Chinese soldiers sneaked through the paddy fields and drainage ditches. Armed with Molotov cocktails, sticky bombs and pole charges, they tried to run along side and toss their explosives at the moving British vehicles exposing themselves to the withering fire from the convoy and the Centurions. The tank commanders stood up in their turret hatches and lobbed grenades at the Chinese. If a vehicle (including tanks) stalled or was too damaged to continue, Centurion tanks would shove it off the road. The men inside would abandon the vehicle and continue the retreat either on foot or climb aboard the next truck or Oxford carrier coming down the road.


Route 11 Ambush

Around 1400 hours, nearly a battalion of attacking Chinese had setup a roadblock at a S-curve in the road which was an excellent ambush site. A number of trees were around the bends in the road, and drainage ditches sloped down from the roadside, which provided cover and concealment for the Chinese. The steep banks forced the vehicles heading down the road to slow down and navigate the curves instead of maneuvering off the road. As the British column approached, the Chinese sprung their lethal trap.

The first victim to fall into the trap was a British Medical M3 half-track. Trying to avoid the ambush, it swerved, lost traction and slipped off the road into the ditch. The medical officer and wounded onboard were quickly surrounded by the Chinese and taken prisoner. Armed with Molotov cocktails, sticky bombs and pole charges, the Chinese infantry disabled a Centurion at the beginning of the S-curve. The following vehicle, an Oxford carrier, swerved around the Centurion but was knocked off the road by a following tank that could not stop in time. The Oxford carrier slipped off the road and crashed into the ditch. The rest of the column tried to surge through, firing at the Chinese troops running along side the column who were lobbing grenades and firing at the retreating vehicles.

This is the view of the S-curve facing southeast with a knocked out Centurion surrounded by two Oxford carriers and the Medical half-track.

This is a close up of the knocked out Centurion which was Sergeant Reekie’s tank “Three Alpha” (Circle 3A).

After the Ulster Rifles B company had withdrawn, Ormrod’s Centurion’s were moving at speed south along Route 11 and spotted the Chinese prepared ambush at the S-curve further down the road. Ormrod did not want to risk driving his tanks straight into the ambush so he ordered his Centurions to turn off the road to by-pass the Chinese anti-tank teams around the ambush site. The Centurions fanned out among the rice paddy fields and advanced around the flank of the ambush site, firing at the Chinese as they charged by. Unfortunately, Ormrod’s Centurion drove head-on into a drainage ditch. The driver put the tank into reverse gear to back the tank out of the ditch but the Chinese troops were already closing in. As the Chinese rushed towards the stuck Centurion, Ormrod opened fire with his pistol from the turret cupola as one Chinese soldier managed to climb aboard his tank. A fellow tank commander radioed Ormrod to quickly close up tank so he can “hose down” his Centurion with Besa machine gun fire. The MG fire riddled the side of Ormrod’s tank which did little damage but killed the attacking enemy soldier and drove off the rest. Ormrod’s driver finally managed to reverse the tank out of the ditch and the tanks continued on south through the paddies. The Chinese at that time had occupied the entire valley floor and were still streaming down the slopes of the hills from the west.

Artist: Steve Noon

Sergeant Cole’s Centurion “Three Bravo” (Circle 3B) was abandoned after shedding its tracks and was pushed off the road. The crew blew up the tank when it proved impossible to recover it during the battle.

This is the rear view of “Three Bravo”. It appears a censor has white out the registration number on the rear hull. Korean civilians are walking pass on the road.

This is the front view of “Three Bravo”. At this time, the turret had been transverse pointing down towards the ditch. Note the folded down windshield in front of the driver’s position.

This is a side view of “Three Bravo”. Note the Centurion in the background. Photos of it are below.

Sergeant Holberton’s Centurion “Four Bravo” (Circle 4B) was lost when his tank went off the road head first into a deep ditch spiking the main gun into the mud. The damaged track and road wheel would indicate that the tank was probably pushed off the road. Note the battle damage on the armoured side skirt section and the side stowage bin.

Later, South Korean troops helped dig out “Four Bravo”. The Chinese made no attempts to retrieve the Centurions beyond burying their ammunition nearby and removing the pin-ups from inside the turrets.

This is another view of “Four Bravo” probably the next day. The gun barrel had not been completely dug out and the hole had filled up with ground water. It probably took several Churchill ARV’s to pull “Four Bravo” out of that ditch. Note the shell hit on the center of the glacis plate and the white star on top of the turret.

This is another disabled Centurion which was abandoned before the area was overran by the Chinese and the tank was destroyed by shell fire. Note the length of track to the left.

IWM CT 145

These are my close ups of the tank above. The name on the hull side is illegible. On the rear hull, from left to right, the circle on the black square, the formation badge of the 29th Brigade, the red over yellow AoS sign and then the registration number “02ZR83” just below the white star.


1st Commonwealth Division

The 27th British Commonwealth Brigade was the initial parent formation of Commonwealth army units in Korea arriving in August 1950. Its two British Infantry battalions were joined by the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) in September 1950, and by the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), in February 1951. The brigade was subsequently re-constituted as 28th Commonwealth Brigade in April 1951. In November 1950 the brigade was joined by 29th Independent Infantry Brigade, and in May 1951 by 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade. In July 1951, these units were combined to form the 1st Commonwealth Division. The Division was made up of 58% British forces, 22% Canadian forces, 14% Australian forces, 5% New Zealand forces, and 1% Indian forces.

The 1st Commonwealth Division, after July 1951, was part of the US I Corps, which also included the US 1st Cavalry Division, the US 3rd and 25th Infantry Divisions, and the ROK 1st Division. The division occupied the strategically important sector of the front on the Jamestown Line, stretching from the Kimpo peninsula on the Yellow Sea coast to a point east of Kumhwa about 6.3 miles (10.1 km), and just 30 miles (48 km) from Seoul.

Centurion ABBOTTS PRIDE and other tanks of A squadron, 8KRIH wait with troops of the 1st Commonwealth Division to cross a pontoon bridge over the Imjin River.

IWM BF 10299

A Centurion of A Squadron, 8KRIH moves north of the 38th Parallel supporting troops of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR). Note the triangle tactical sign plate. The tank name is illegible.

A 8KRIH Centurion moving up a muddy track north of the Imjin River supporting the 1st Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers and 1st Battalion, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.

IWM BF 10425

Operation Commando was an offensive undertaken UN forces between 3–12 October 1951. The US I Corps consisting of 4 US Infantry Divisions, the 1st Commonwealth Division and the Republic of Korea Army (ROK) 1st Infantry Division seized the Jamestown Line, destroying elements of the Chinese 42nd, 47th, 64th and 65th Armies. The Jamestown Line stretched from the Imjin River near Munsan-ni then arched northeast 35 miles (56 km) in the strategically important sector of the front from the Kimpo peninsula on the Yellow Sea coast to a point east of Kumhwa. This operation prevented the Chinese from interdicting the UN supply lines near Seoul.

Centurion BEAUFORT II of B Squadron, 8KRIH during Operation Commando in October 1951. Here two crewmen sit on the front of the turret of the tank, while it stands by on a hillside. Note the damage to the vegetation on the hillside.

On 6 December 1951, the 8KRIH were relieved by an equally famous cavalry regiment, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards (5RIDG) – the “Skins”.

Film: Bang On, Always! (1952)

A Centurion III or V of C Squadron, 5RIDG named CARNOUSTIE (a town in the area of Angus, Scotland) fords the Imjin River at speed. This Centurion was fitted with an armoured shield around the commander’s cupola which was designed by the Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (FVRDE), a British research unit based in Surrey. The shield was added from the experiences gain during the earlier Imjin River battle but it was unpopular with the crews because it made entry to and exit from the turret extremely difficult.

IWM BF 11477

A Centurion of C Squadron, 5RIDG moves along on the bed of the River Imjin, near the Pintail Bridge, 1952. Note the registration number “02BA32” on the front hull.

IWM BF 11479

This Centurion Mk. V, CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE of C Squadron, 5RIDG is in reserve south of the Imjin River. This tank supported the 3 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR). Note the US Browning .30 Cal MG mounted on the commander’s cupola.

The Centurion in photo IWM BF 11479 above might been Centurion CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE. Compare the registration numbers. What do you think?

Like the Churchill tank during WWII, the Centurion had superior hill climbing ability, compared to other UN tanks (US M4A3E8 and M26/46 Pershings). It proved that any place where a tank can go is “tank country”, including the rice paddies and mountain ridges of Korea.

By this time of the war, the campaign became static and half of the tanks in the squadron were dug in on prepared positions atop of commanding hill features while the other half of the squadron was resting, refitting behind the front line. The two groups would rotate positions on a planned schedule. Their task was to harass the enemy by day, destroying observation posts, defensive works and prevent all day light movement. Each night, they execute Defensive Fire plans (DFs) in front of the infantry positions to counter enemy raids or attacks, and fire pre-arranged shoots in support of friendly patrols in “No Man’s Land”. The Centurion’s 20-pounder gun was extremely accurate, ideal for penetrating the weapons ports of enemy bunkers. As well as supporting the British 1st Commonwealth Division, the Centurions were often called on by other UN units to take out long range inaccessible targets.

This 5RIDG Centurion is manning a typical position in 1952. The scrim netting serves no camouflage purpose since the enemy knew the exact position of every tank but it did conceal the movements of the tank crew entering, leaving and replenishing the tank. If movement was observed, the tank would receive unwelcome enemy mortar fire in short order.

The crew of this 5RIDG Centurion load shells for the main 20-pounder gun. The crew are: (left to right) Sergeant Ted Faulkner, the tank commander; and Troopers North, Wiltshire, Kenneth Rhodes, and John Thomas.

IWM BF 10754

Troopers of D Company, the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), do maintenance work on a crawl trench near a Centurion, the troop Sergeant’s tank of 1 Troop, A Squadron, 5RIDG. Behind the tank is the crew’s “hootchie” or “basha” (living quarters) dug into the hilltop. Note the white Jerry can on the rear of the turret.

On 9 December 1952, the 5RIDG were relieved on the front lines by the 1st Royal Tank Regiment (1RTR).

Australian troops of 3RAR inspect a Centurion Mk. III of B Squadron, 1RTR in a typical hilltop position, May 1953. This tank mounts a 18 inch General Electric searchlight over the 20-pounder gun which was used to illuminate enemy patrols in “No Man’s Land” at night. The tank was named FUKA after the WWII North Africa battle of Fûka, Egypt in June 1942.


Centurion ARV

In Korea, a pressing need came about for a more powerful armoured recovery vehicle (ARV) than the current in service Churchill ARV Mk. II which prompted the production of a stop gap design pending the introduction of a new purpose-built vehicle. The first models arrived in Korea in March 1952. Based on the hulls of redundant Centurions Mk. I and II, the Centurion ARV Mk I proved to be very effective and they fulfilled the recovery role admirably. One observation noted of the first vehicles in Korea was the lack of vision devices when it was “closed down” while under fire. This was remediated by installing a gun tank cupola over the commander’s position. Several of the Centurion ARVs in Korea were also fitted with a dummy gun barrel to make them less conspicuous on the front line.

This Centurion ARV Mk. I of C Squadron, 1st RTR commanded by Sergeant T. George (on attachment from the Royal New Zealand Armoured Corps) is located in Gloster valley in 1953.

Painted overall Deep Bronze Green, the ARV carries on the side storage bin the C squadron red circle outlined in white. The crew had advertised their trade with the slogan “You Call – We Haul” with a telephone painted on the gun planks stowed on the front superstructure. On the left front fender is the formation sign of the 1st Commonwealth Division and on the right front fender is the AoS flash for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) with the unit’s serial number.


Centurion Tug

A lest known variant was the Centurion Tug which was a conversion of battle damaged tanks to carry vital supplies to hilltop positions inaccessible to wheeled vehicles. The tank turret was removed and the interior of the fighting compartment was gutted. Large metal hatches were added to cover the turret ring. The Australians frequently employed tugs to transport defense stores up the hills. They carried ammunition, trip flares, medical supplies, rations and lots of “Asahi” (Japanese) beer. They were also used for medical evacuation and sometimes as a tank retriever.

South Korean porters are loading a Centurion tug of the 8KRIH under close supervision from troopers of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR). The driver sitting on the front hull is either reading something interesting or studying the map of the area.

Australian troopers are unloading heavy wooden beams from a Centurion Tug for the construction of front line bunkers. Note one trooper standing in front of the Tug has his mess kit tin or cup hanging from the rear pocket of his pants (trousers).


THE HOOK

Between 1952 to 1953, UN forces were engaged in fierce fighting to prevent the Chinese forces from gaining ground, prior to a possible ceasefire. This was to deny them additional bargaining power, during the peace negotiations at Panmunjom. One such place was a feature called “the Hook”, a crescent shaped ridge near the Samichon River, a tributary of the Imjin River near Kaesong. There were two engagements at the Hook during 1952 when first the US Marines in October, and later the Scottish Black Watch regiment in November, had successfully held the Hook against Chinese assaults. This ridge was a place of tactical importance in the 1st Commonwealth Division sector as it was a potential attack route which the Chinese needed to take before assaulting Yong Dong, and opening up an invasion route to Seoul, the South Korean capital.

A 1RTR Centurion is perched in its hilltop position scanning the enemy positions across the valley.

A Centurion of 1RTR prepares to snipe a Communist position with a 20-pounder shell from its main gun. Observing his target with his .303 rifle is, Corporal D. A. (Tiny) Herbert of Stanmore, NSW, of the 3 RAR, May 1953. The partially concealed trooper behind him is unidentified.

With its 20-pounder ammunition under cover of earth and sandbags to the right, this Centurion rests atop a typical hill position. Sandbags covering the tank’s glacis plate and engine deck was additional protection against enemy mortar fire.

On the evening of 28 May 1953, the Chinese launched a major attack against the Hook which was held by the 1st battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. The Chinese made successive assaults on the Hook after a heavy artillery barrage. All the tank positions on the front line were subjected to shelling by 122mm guns and mortars. The Centurions of C Squadron, 1st RTR fired directly upon the enemy 504 20-pounder rounds and also fired 22,500 machine gun rounds.

In an attempt to destroy an UN tank, which the Chinese had failed to do so to date, they excavated a bunker housing a 85mm anti-aircraft gun and engaged the Centurion Mk. III commanded by Lieutenant Mickey Farmer on the right-hand half-troop position of the Hook. The enemy round struck the lower front hull of the Centurion but it failed to penetrate. The tank was also hit by 122mm HE, knocking the 20-pounder gun out of alignment and had blown off the commander’s cupola hatch. Although several Centurions were back-loaded for repairs, none were knocked by enemy fire in 1953.

This is a photo of the Centurion after it came off the front line. The cupola hatch cover is lying on the glacis plate forward of the driver’s position.

On 2 June 1953, to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II the division’s artillery fired red, white and blue smoke shells (a “feu de joie” or “bonfire”) onto the Chinese lines, followed by a salute from the Centurions which fired HE shells onto a single target.

The Battle of the Samichon River (24–26 July 1953) was fought at the Hook during the final days of the war. The 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR) from the 28th British Commonwealth Brigade and the US 7th Marine Regiment, repulsed numerous assaults by the Chinese 137th Division during two concerted night attacks, inflicting numerous casualties on the Chinese with heavy artillery and small-arms fire. The action was part of a larger, division-sized Chinese attack against the US 1st Marine Division, with diversionary assaults mounted against the Australians. During the battle, the Chinese had attempted to make a breakthrough to the Imjin River along the divisional boundary between the US 1st Marine Division and the 1st Commonwealth Division to turn the Marine division’s flank. With well-coordinated indirect fire from the divisional artillery, including the 16th Field Regiment, Royal New Zealand Artillery, and support from Centurions of the 1st RTR, 2RAR successfully thwarted both assaults, holding the Hook. With the peace talks at Panmunjom coming close to a conclusion, the Chinese were eager to try to gain a last-minute victory over the UN forces, and the battle was the last of the war before the official signing of the armistice.

In December 1953, the 1st RTR was relieved by the 5th RTR (5RTR), which remained in South Korea guarding the uneasy peace for a year until all the Centurions were withdrawn.

This South Korean railway crane lifts a 5RTR Centurion Mk. III onto a flatcar for back-loading and transport to Hong Kong.


Named Centurions

Tank NameUnitSqn/TroopMarkingNumber
ABBOTTS PRIDE8KRIHA Sqn 1 Tp LdrTriangle 1
ALY SLOPER8KRIHA Sqn
ALYCIDON8KRIHA Sqn 2 Tp CplTriangle 2B
APRIL FOOL8KRIHA Sqn
APRIL SON8KRIHA Sqn 3 Tp CplTriangle 3B
ARROMANCHES1RTRC Sqn02BA37
BEAUFORT II8KRIHB Sqn 5 Tp LdrSquare 5
BECHER’S-BROOK5RIDGB SqnSquare
BERKELEY8KRIHB Sqn
BOSUN8KRIHB Sqn
BOXER8KRIHB Sqn
CAMERONIAN8KRIHC Sqn
CAPTAIN COTTLE8KRIHC Sqn SHQCircle SB
CARNOUSTIE5RIDGC Sqn
CAUGHOO8KRIHC Sqn SHQ 2ICCircle SA02ZR58
CAVALRY CHARGE5RIDGC Sqn 1 Tp SgtCircle 1A02ZR76
CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE5RIDGC SqnCircle02BA32 ?
CHANCELLOR8KRIHC Sqn 2 Tp LdrCircle 2
CHARITY8KRIHC Sqn 2 Tp CplCircle 2B02ZR81
COLOMBO8KRIHC Sqn 3 Tp LdrCircle 301ZR46
COLONIST8KRIHC Sqn
COLORADO8KRIHC Sqn 3 Tp SgtCircle 3A
COTTAGE II8KRIHC Sqn 3 Tp CplCircle 3B
FUKA1RTRB Sqn
HALCYON8KRIHRHQ CO
HUMORIST8KRIHRHQ CO
HURRY ON8KRIHRHQ CO

Since 1949, the British Army had used a “2 number – 2 letter – 2 number” format for vehicle registration numbers. The middle letters ‘ZR’ were assigned to any vehicle that was built before the 1949 census.


MODEL KITS AND DECALS

1/25:
Tamiya 30614 British Army Centurion Mk III – 2013

1/35:
AFV Club AF35303 Centurion Mk.3 Korean War – 2019
Tamiya 25412 British Army Centurion Mk.III – 2017
Academy TA001 British Army Centurion Mk III – 198?
Modelcraft 35-9009 Centurion Mk III – 1999
AFV Club AF35308 Centurion Mk.I – 2020
AFV Club AF35106 Centurion Mk.5 W/Dozer – 2009

Bison Decals BD-35131 8th K.R.I.H. in Korea
Star Decals 35-899 8th K.R.I.H Centurions in Korea 1950-51

1/48:
Tank Mania 48007 Centurion Mk.III – 2016
(Resin kit, PE fret, water slide decal sheet)
Aurora 330 British Korean War Centurion Tank – 1972

1/72:
ACE 72425 British MBT Centurion Mk.3 Korean War – 2016
Black Dog T72061 Centurion Mk.III Complete Kit – 2014
Cromwell Models CRM72035 Centurion Mk. I 17pdr. 1946

1/76:
Milicast UK312 Centurion Mk.III – 2017

3 thoughts on “Centurion Tanks in Korea

  1. Really interesting read Mike. A little further information for you, in the narrative and your list of named Centurions Captain Cottle was actually Captain Cuttle and it’s VRN was 02ZR46. My father served with 5RIDG and he was the driver of Captain Cuttle. It was C Sqn 2i/c’s tank. The crew were Captain Rory Moore, Sqn 2i/c and Commander, LCpl Tom Wakefield, Driver, (my dad), L/Cpl Harry Rushton, Gunner and L/Cpl Harry Ludlow, Operator.

    Like

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