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H.M.S. Jamaica
Korean War Service 1950


H.M.S. Jamaica's crest

Precisely 50 years ago I was serving on board the Cruiser HMS Jamaica in Korea !.

Now, in the new Millennium it is indeed appropriate to recall those far off days and remember our shipmates and others who did not return.

In 1949, I had been a Radar Plot Instructor at the RP School , HMS HARRIER in West Wales.  It was a good job and with a fair complement of WRNS at the base, life was good. Certainly, I had no inkling of any "draft" coming my way for some time to come.  We had read of HMS Amethyst and the Yangtse incident with admiration but, that was far away, and my priorities did not include thoughts of the Far East.

So it came as something of a surprise when I was informed of my posting to HMS JAMAICA once I had taken draft leave in the UK.  JAMAICA had been stationed in the West Indies, considered by most to be a rather "cushy number", so of course I was not the only one "crying in my beer" when the ship was moved to the Far East Station as a result of the tension and uncertainty in that area. JAMAICA was to replace HMS LONDON, which had suffered considerable damage during the Yangtse affair.

There followed some hectic domestic arrangements that included such minor matters as getting married to Bernice, my WRNS fiancée, with a short honeymoon in a wet and stormy south coast town.  I joined HMS OCEAN at Devonport for the month long passage to Hong Kong where I joined HMS JAMAICA.  It was November 1949.

I soon settled in and my main duties were Coxswain of the Ships Motor Boat and at sea in charge of one watch of the Action Information Organisation under the ships Direction Officer, Lieutenant Tim Fetherson-Dilke.RN.

BELFASTJAMAICA was commanded by Captain J. S. C. Salter, DSO, OBE (who succeeded Capt F. A. Ballance RN in 1950) and the Flag Officer 5th Cruiser Squadron was Rear Admiral W. G. Andrews, CB, CBE, and DSO, flying his flag in HMS BELFAST.


 

I will skip the period from November 1949 until June 1950 with the exception of mentioning one trip which took the ship to the port of Ominato in Japan. This was a sheltered deep water bay which I understood was being considered as a possible operational base for RN ships in the area around Japan.  It was surveyed for this purpose and in June of 1950 Jamaica was again scheduled to visit Ominato to progress the task.

Jamaica in Ominato Japan

It would be appropriate to mention, at this time, there were 22 British warships in Far East waters with widespread commitments including the Malayan Patrol, the defence of Hong Kong and the Yangtse Estuary patrol.

Whilst in Hong Kong we had cultivated a friendly relationship with the local army garrison and as part of this liaison a party of NCOs had been invited on board for the trip to Japan.  It was considered a recreational break from their duties in the New Territories, where the "Bamboo Curtain" separated the Colony from Communist China.  It comprised men from the Middlesex Regiment and the Royal Artillery.

Accordingly, in early June, JAMAICA sailed from Hong Kong for Japanese waters on what was planned to be a normal deployment.  Whilst on passage we heard the news of a North Korean attack on South Korea. At first it was assumed this incursion was another example of the "sabre rattling" which frequently occurred on the Korean Peninsular and it would come to little. Within a short time it became apparent this was a major invasion that could change the fragile balance of power between China, Russia and the West. The U.N. Security Council met in urgent session and as they say, the rest is history!  The "KOREAN WAR" began.

Jamaica prior to 1950Within hours JAMAICA and BLACK SWAN were despatched to the east coast of Korea to join USS JUNEAU. Our task was to attack advancing Communist troops as they piled south along the coast road.  This took our small force to the very border of the 38th Parallel.  As we progressed north to the designated area of operations we saw the first signs of the savagery of what was to come. The sea was calm and we encountered large numbers of floating corpses tied together in pairs.  The stench was sickening even from the ship doing about 15 knots through the water.   Once in our target area we commenced bombarding the coastal targets, troops, transport, roads, bridges, rail tracks etc. In fact anything of possible use to communist forces was attacked.


 

Ops room teamIt was at dawn on July 2nd, the ship was at action stations, and I was in the bridge plot room.  Despite having our radar operating, we were surprised to hear the report broadcast from the bridge that a visual sighting of fast moving surface craft were heading towards our unit.  This proved to be six Motor Torpedo/E Boats, which had approached down the coast out of radar cover. Turning towards Jamaica and Black Swan their speed increased and though hypnotically impressive, they posed a very real threat indeed. "Alarm Surface Port" I heard the tannoy broadcast. Then followed the well-rehearsed series of orders and responses as the various control stations and guns crews leapt into action.     "Engage" - "Shoot"  - "Fire"! I was used to the drill, but hell, this was for real! The guns fired, at first with one main salvo that shook the ship to its keel, then the subsequent salvoes that were more sporadic but none the less equally deadly. My plotting team tried to concentrate as we scanned the radar for targets further away. It was vital not to lose control of the overall situation but thankfully the displays were void of any unidentified moving targets.

The visual reports from the bridge continued to come through; "Target stopped", "Possible Hit", "Fire and smoke visible", "Target sinking", and still the guns continued to fire.   Then silence as "Guns" gave the order to cease firing.   The result, five out of six enemy craft destroyed and one MTB grounded ashore and abandoned by the crew.   It was an easy matter to direct a few well-aimed rounds to ensure she would not be of further use to the North Koreans.

This proved to be the first action by UN Ships in what was to be a long and bitter war.  It was a resounding success for our small force but it emphasised the fact that the North Korean threat was very real.

H.M.S. JamaicaWe continued our task of bombarding the coast road and railway close to YangYang. .   Our routine was to shell the high points of land, overhanging the railway lines and roads, by day bringing down as much debris as possible to block the passage of military convoys. These convoys travelled by night to avoid attack, but when they came across these obstacles, they had to clear the roads manually.   This involved the use of lights by the army units and provided an ideal target for JAMAICA and her small force waiting, darkened, within gun range of the coast. Occasionally, in the silence of a calm sea, we could hear the shouts and commands of the soldiers ashore as they struggled to clear the debris. The ensuing disruption of supplies to the Communists was substantial and from the ship, lying so close offshore, the ammunition and fuel exploding as a result of our gunnery was awesome.

Inevitably, North Korean Forces were sure to take some action to counter our activities. Artillery was moved to defend the road and rail system.  On July 8th while JAMAICA, with JUNEAU and BLACK SWAN in company, were bombarding targets on the coastline, the ships came under fire from these shore batteries. JAMAICA took a direct hit near the base of the mainmast and close to a gun mounting.   Sadly, six men were killed. These were the first casualties of the war at sea in the Korean conflict. Of the dead, five were soldiers of the Middlesex Regiment and the Royal Artillery who had come on board at Hong Kong for what was to be a "sea cruise".  They had volunteered to act as ammunition numbers at various gun-mountings when required. One seaman was killed and five others were wounded. The ship did not suffer serious material damage but I recall when viewing the carnage from the bridge, our "Battle Ensign" had been blown away by the blast.

Shortly after, the bodies of those killed were buried at sea with full military honours, with the service being taken by The Reverend. Raymond Lowe R.N., the ships' Padre.  A sad and sombre occasion. To this day I can vividly recall the six splashes as the dead were committed to the deep.

JAMAICA continued operations on the east coast of Korea and U.S and U.K units were soon joined by ships from Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries.   European countries also took part and ultimately
produced the largest international naval force since WW2.


 

Sasebo in Japan was the main base for logistics and the limited shore leave allowed. It was a small port with little to offer ashore.  US facilities included a club but RN personnel were restricted by the draconian fiscal rules prevailing at that time which did not allow UK personnel to exchange sterling for US dollars. The picture on the left shows Chats Harris and myself shopping at the local  branch of M & S in Sasebo."

The next phase for JAMAICA was to switch operations to the west coast of Korea and ultimately to the Inchon landings.  Immediately before September 1950 the North Korean forces, supported by the Red Chinese Army, had forced UN land forces back to a perimeter around the port of Pusan.  It was a desperate situation and required a bold initiative to release this stranglehold. General MacArthur decided to take such an initiative with an amphibious landing at the port of Inchon.  It was a difficult task but if successful would outflank North Korean forces at a stroke and could change the course of the whole campaign.

The Inchon operation would take many pages to describe, but suffice to say JAMAICA participated in the bombardment before the landing and covered the operation throughout. However, one daring action, prior to the affair, remains in my memory.

The evening before the landing, four U.S destroyers sailed up to the port of Inchon in confined waters with no cover and little room to manoeuvre; their purpose was to draw enemy fire in order that an assessment could be made of likely resistance when the landing craft went in next day.  They proceeded in formation, flags flying, and guns manned.   The inevitable response came from the defences ashore as the ships drew fire from the shore batteries.  It seemed like an age to those of us awaiting their return, but eventually all four reappeared, still in proud formation, but perhaps their upper works not quite so shipshape as before.  We learnt subsequently one of the destroyer's C.O.  had been killed and many others too, but the likely strength of resistance was assessed and it surely went a long way in ensuring a successful assault next day.

The day following the landing, together with other ships, JAMAICA was at anchor in the approaches to Inchon.  Nearby was the HQ ship, USS Mt. McKINLEY, with General Douglas MacArthur on board.  All appeared to have gone well ashore, but nevertheless, in accordance with usual RN practice, the ship went to dawn action stations as the first signs of light appeared on the horizon. From long experience over war years, this was the time of maximum threat from attack. Being landlocked, our radars were not effective.  Just as it got light, over the tannoy system came the report, "Alarm Aircraft Starboard" and then followed the usual commands for the guns to stand to.   An aircraft was sighted and was reported over the broadcast system. Those of us below decks could understand what was happening. We heard the thump of two explosions and the broadcast reported  "two bombs had been dropped astern of the Mt. McKinley".  Again the broadcast - "Aircraft turning towards". Immediately those guns sighted were trained on the approaching aircraft. There was a desperate urgency throughout the ship to hear our guns respond - but the Captain, calmly but with complete assurance, ordered the guns not to fire but to track the target as it closed the ship.  Then, when near enough to read the insignia on its fuselage, the order came  - "Fire".   JAMAICA shook from stem to stern as every gun free to engage fired and the unfortunate pilot together with his aircraft disintegrated in a flash and disappeared into the water. A second aircraft was sighted and again engaged, this time it veered away from us as it saw the first aircraft explode, but the guns were successful and although not quite so dramatic the aircraft was last seen losing height and subsequently crashed as it crossed the estuary.  Later reports indicated the aircraft had strafed the ship causing some casualties and one sailor, Boy Seaman Ron Godsall was fatally wounded.


 
 

The picture on the left was taken after the landings at Inchon when we took  some personnel from the ship to the main jetty inside Inchon Harbour. The party included several press reporters, one I remember was the "Daily Express" correspondent. We also landed Father Briscoe, the Fleet R.C.Padre, who was to stay ashore with shore forces.  Picture shows from left, AB Maguire, Midshipman and myself (with gun). 

JAMAICA remained in Korean waters for several more months ultimately returning to Hong Kong for maintenance.   There, it was discovered that the ship required extensive mechanical repairs to her engines and it was decided this could best be completed at an UK Dockyard. Some of the ship's company were allocated to other ships before we finally left for the UK, so it was not quite the end of the Korean "adventure" for them.

Fortunately, I remained on board and returned to England with the ship. When we arrived at our homeport of Plymouth the ship had an ecstatic welcome especially as we were the first major warship to return from the Korean War.


 
Sergeant Bernard Finch.
Cpl. Stanley Long.
Gunner Kenneth Jepson
Sergeant F.T. Mersh.
L/Bombardier Ralph Barwick
Able Seaman John Mawdsley
Boy Seaman Ron Godsall

Killed in action.  1950.

I am grateful to the team at the website "Britains Small Wars" for including this account in their pages.

J.D.Hegarty.
Lieutenant Commander RN Rtd
(HMS JAMAICA 1949/1951)

Some of the images of H.M.S. Jamaica and  H.M.S. Belfast are courtesy Royal Navy PhotosS

Also see
HMS ALDINGTON M1171
also by John Hegarty

The Galloping Ghost of the Korean Coast
by Boy Seaman 1/C, Michael Stephens

The light brigade in Korea

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