The Diggers of Kapyong by Tom Gilling

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

When we think of the wars of the twentieth century, some stand out such as the two World Wars and the war in Vietnam. There are though wars that are often left on the shelf as it were gathering dust and lost in the mists of time. The Korean War (1950-53) is one of these. This could be due to its position on the world timeline sandwiched between the Second World War (1939-45) and the Vietnam War (1955-75).

During the Korean War, Australian diggers fought alongside troops from other United Nations member countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Turkey. As Tom Gilling says when setting the scene for the battle that forms the title of this book, it must have been hard for some Australian troops to turn around and go back into action so soon after the end of World War II. In fact, the first Australian contingent was sent from occupation duties in Japan to assist in the united effort to support the Republic of Korea forces in pushing back the invasion of the south by the forces of North Korea.

Gilling has pulled together the accounts of the war from various sources. As well as the official record, he also includes stories and comments from the diggers themselves. These front-line recollections often present a different perspective from the official record. They are important because they give voice to the feelings and often frustrations of the Australian troops as they fought the North Koreans while curbing the dominance that larger nations such as the United States tried to exert as they fought an enemy that could blend into the local population at will.

This blending into the local population by day and reverting to fighting forces by night was a feature of the war that the Australians found difficult. It raised the question of who was the enemy? Who, in the local population, could they trust? It’s a battle plan that is currently a feature in some forms of modern warfare. It highlights the complexity that the diggers in Korea had to face as they fought to gain ground using limited and often outdated resources.

During the battle of Kapyong, the Australians showed great skill and discipline as they fought to gain and hold ground in the face of a determined enemy. As Gilling records, the honours received from presidents of both the United States and the Republic of Korea speak of the courage and spirit shown by the Australian troops during a battle that tipped the balance of the war and prevented Chinese troops from overrunning the South Korean Capital.

It takes a while to reach this point in the book. Gilling paints a good picture that sets the scene for the battle and its aftermath. The involvement of the Chinese Peoples Republican Army provided a very different dimension to the conflict. Both North Korea and Communist China were now seen as greater threats to world peace than previously envisaged.

While the battle of Kapyong changed the direction of the Korean conflict, it remains unrecognised and unknown by many. This book is an important contribution to the story of an extraordinary victory over a determined and at times savage enemy.

Tom Gilling is an acclaimed novelist and non-fiction writer. His first two novels, The Sooterkin and Miles McGinty, were New York Times notable books of the year. His non-fiction works include Bastard Behind the Lines and The Lost Battalions. He is also co-author with Clive Small of the bestselling true crime books Smack Express, Blood Money, Evil Life and Milat.

The Diggers of Kapyong

by Tom Gilling


Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 176068 69 0

$34.99; 288pp

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