image Collections in Focus: Korean War Album

September 2020 marks 70 years since the first REME boots on the ground in Korea, as part of what is sometimes called the ‘forgotten war’. To throw light on this often overlooked conflict we’re sharing the contents of two fascinating photograph albums, documenting the work of 11 Infantry Workshop, 1950-51.

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These tiny albums, measuring little more than 10cm across, hold an incredible record of the first months of the Korean War.

The war began on 25 June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea following clashes along the border and insurrections in the south. The country had been divided into two zones of occupation, at the end of the Second World War with the northern half administered by the Soviet Union and the South by the Americans. The UK entered the conflict as part of a United Nations force, principally from the Unites States. REME soldiers and officers were among the 90,000 Brits who served in Korea.

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11 Infantry Workshop and their equipment were transported to Korea via Hong Kong on the American Liberty ship Cotton State which provided deluxe sleeping accommodations for its passengers. From the Museum’s collection, A:1996.3850.02, .03 and .04. © LtCol Newman / REME Museum.

Members of 11 Infantry Workshop arrived in the port city of Busan aboard a US cargo ship. Working to support 27th Infantry Brigade, the Workshop and the brigade LAD, they were the first REME unit in Korea. Together with the units that would follow, they were instrumental in the rapid northward advance up the peninsula. However, the extremely cold Korean winter proved a challenged, even for REME tradesmen.

 ‘Workshops were unprepared for the difficulties involved in working under these conditions. Vehicles froze to the ground and could not be moved until the frozen mud had thawed. Engines had to be kept running and batteries fully charged – even when difficulty was experienced in starting vehicles. Any water present in petrol froze in carburettor jets. Oil solidified and lubrication systems failed. Metal was embrittled and the incidence of firing pin fractures on the Vickers machine gun absorbed the total stock of spares from all sources in one winter.’*

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Snowy conditions in the winter of 1950-51. Right to left: (1) two soldiers, bundled up, stand in front of a vehicle; (2) the Workshop from high ground; (3) Workshop personnel and a pair of young locals sit round a kerosene can oven or heater. From the Museum’s collection, A:1996.3850.35, .38 and .39. © LtCol Newman / REME Museum.

REME picked up tricks from Canadian forces, including adding methylated spirits to petrol. Improvised repairs continued to prove crucial as a massed advance by Chinese troops pushed United Nations forces into a retreat. The terrain also proved a challenge, unsuited to off-road tank movement, but a pooling of technical control, skill and equipment enabled continuous movement until the front was stabilised, following heavy fighting at the Battle of Imjin River, in late April 1951.

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Recovery, repair, and a bit of patriotism. (1) Damn gates opened upstream by American forces floor workshop, (2) Working on a generator; (3) Two soldiers stand on a truck with a Union Jac. From the Museum’s collection, A:1996.3850.45, .48 and .27. © LtCol Newman / REME Museum.

By June 1951, communist forces had been pushed back to positions around the 38th parallel, close to where the war had started. As the situation normalised, a British Commonwealth Base Workshop was built up in Kure, Japan, repairing and rebuilding vehicles, shipped from Korea. Here, REME worked alongside Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians as well as a large Japanese workforce. Output topped 300 vehicles a month, not to mention assemblies for as many vehicles again.

The last two years of the conflict, at least on the ground, can be characterised as a war of attrition. The fighting finally ended on 27 July 1953 when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. British fatalities (1,078) were dwarfed by US, Chinese, North Korean and South Korean losses, both military and civilian. The Agreement created a demilitarised zone and allowed for prisoner return but was not a peace treaty, meaning the two Koreas remain at war to this day.

Keep scrolling for more photos.

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A group work on a Willis Jeep. From the Museum’s collection, A:1996.3849.03. © LtCol Newman / REME Museum.

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Mess break with South Korean soldiers. From the Museum’s collection, A:1996.3849.07. © LtCol Newman / REME Museum.

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A tracked vehicle passes a Workshop sign. From the Museum’s collection, A:1996.3849.16. © LtCol Newman / REME Museum.

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A vehicle is bogged down in the mud after heavy rain. From the Museum’s collection, A:1996.3849.03. © LtCol Newman / REME Museum.

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REME personnel assembled in front of a Dakota aeroplane, about to depart Korea. From the Museum’s collection, A:1996.3849.50. © LtCol Newman / REME Museum.

* Kennett, B B, Brigadier and Colonel J A Tatman. Craftsmen of the Army: The Story of The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Trowbridge: Redwood Books, 1993. Page 393.

Zoe, Archives Assistant and Kim, Assistant Curator

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