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Book Reviews

A War of Patrols:
Canadian Army Operations In Korea

by William Johnston
Vancouver: UBC Press. 448 pages, $45.00
Reviewed by Major Shane B. Schreiber

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Book Cover “A War of Patrols...”Fifty years after the Canadian Army found itself engaged in the first hot flash of the Cold War, the time may have finally come to re-visit the Canadian Army’s experience in the Korean War. Typical Canadian modesty, (or perhaps myopia) has relegated the Korean War to a relative backwater of military history, with most works being limited to the essential narrative framework, a few others to a limited strategic and tactical analysis, and the bulk to anecdotal history placed in a chronological context.1

Very good recent works by a number of authors, including David Bercuson’s 1999 release, Blood on the Hills, and Brent Watson’s Far Eastern Tour, have added to and improved the state of the literature. It may be argued, however, that a definitive analytical work has yet to be written. Still, now that Canada’s Korean War veterans recently received the official recognition and memorial they so rightly deserve, perhaps the time is now right to revisit their deeds in search of hidden truths and overlooked lessons that may enlighten soldiers and historians. This re-examination is the task that William Johnston sets out to achieve with his new work, A War of Patrols: Canadian Army Operations in Korea. He is remarkably successful, but the results may not be exactly what the veterans of that strange and faraway war may want to hear.

Korea was something of an anomaly for Canadian Army officers of the time. Two generations of Canadian soldiers had grown up fighting Germans in high intensity combat in the fields of France and Northwest Europe. Having just ended a war dominated, for the most part, by the symmetrical dance of massive, mechanized formations colliding headlong into each other on fairly open plains, Canada’s soldiers were suddenly and surprisingly faced with a strange and fierce enemy in a harsh and unforgiving land.

Conventional Canadian histories have followed the natural intuitive assumption that the performance of the Canadian combat troops, fighting together as 25 Canadian Infantry Brigade (25 CIB), would have improved as time allowed the Canadians to gain both the experience and equipment necessary to come to terms with their “strange battleground.”2 In fact, argues Johnston, this is precisely the assumption made or conclusion arrived at by the few previous analytical Korean War histories, a conclusion Johnston contends is both historically inaccurate and analytically false. In historical circles, Johnston’s somewhat harsh initial criticism of the extant body of historical literature is tantamount to the act of ‘dropping the gloves’ between hockey players. The result is full contact history at its best.

Johnston comes out swinging. He cannot be said to be a proper revisionist historian, because there is so little analytical history on the Canadian Army in the Korean War to revise. Nevertheless, it is clear from the outset that Johnston’s intent is not just to analyze the deeds of the Canadian Army in Korea, but to revise the accepted view of its performance at various stages. He opens with a frontal assault on previous Korean War histories, which Johnston judges to be biased against the initial Canadian contingent made up primarily of Special Service Force (SSF) soldiers, in favour of their professional Regular Force peers. Johnston’s thesis is clearly and forcefully presented from the outset. “I will argue,” states Johnston in his ‘Introduction,’ “that the officers of the Special Force units exhibited greater professionalism in their approach to operations than the regulars of the 1st battalions ... with the Canadian experience in Korea demonstrating both how and how not to conduct military operations.”3

Moreover, Johnston argues that the Canadian Army’s performance in this “war of patrols” varied widely, and depended upon the personalities and professionalism of its senior officers, especially the senior combatant commander in theatre, the commander of 25 Canadian Infantry Brigade (25 CIB) and his infantry battalion commanders. Terrain and enemy meant that, according to Johnston, “the infantry battal-ion’s abilities largely determined the brigade’s success and [therefore] the infantry units are the primary focus of this study.”4 Concentrating on a detailed analysis of the close combat operations conducted by the Canadians, Johnston sets out to clear the forest of the old myths that have grown in and around Canadian Korean War historiography — and perhaps plant the seeds of a few new ones.

Johnson sets the stage for the examination of 25 CIB’s performance with a succinct but adequate review of the political and military situation of the time. He then returns to the bigger picture to keep the operations of the Canadian units in context with the complex political and military situation of the early 1950s. The opening chapter deals with the outbreak of the war and the Canadian government’s and Army’s response. It is simply a conventional and condensed retelling of well-worn tales — the debacle at the recruiting centres, the spectacle of the Minister’s well-intentioned but ham-fisted personal intervention, and the fortuitous selection of the eventual hero, the prodigal Brigadier ‘Rocky’ Rockingham. In fact, Johnston’s prologue establishes Rockingham as the protagonist of the piece by recounting the backstory of his skillful capture of a part of Verrières Ridge during another mythological campaign of Canadian military history — Normandy 1944. Chapter Two specifically focuses on “Rocky’s Army” — the Special Service Force (SSF), volunteers specially and specifically recruited and trained for service in Korea.

Johnston is quick to emphasize the unique nature of “Rocky’s Army,” and attributes its success in the first year of the Korean War at places like Kap’yong and along the Jamestown Line to its unique composition and outlook. While Rockingham had been given, “the difficult task of building a combat ready force from scratch,”5 he also had the advantage of recruiting from among perhaps the richest pool of battle-seasoned commanders and troops ever available to a Canadian general. It was to the quality and motivation of this raw material that Johnston attributes the eventual success of both Rockingham and the SSF. He concludes that their aggressive spirit, capable leadership, and conscientious attention to detail allowed them to be successful in the previously mentioned “war of patrols” against the Chinese Communist troops. This allowed them to gain and maintain control of the tactically crucial No Man’s Land, and to wrest and keep the initiative from the Chinese. This dominance in turn afforded the Canadian positions greater security, and, ultimately resulted in fewer casualties and greater combat effectiveness.

In stark contrast is Johnston’s examination of 25 CIB operations under the group he refers to (with an irony bordering on the sarcastic) as “the Professionals”. This group was made up of the 1st battalions of the Canadian Army’s Regular Force infantry regiments, and led by Brigadier General Mortimer Patrick Bogert, of “BOFORCE” fame from the Italian Campaign.6 If “Rocky’s Army” is the hero of Johnston’s tale, then Bogert’s “Professionals” are most clearly the piece’s villain.

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Johnston analyzes in detail the operations of 25 CIB under Bogert, again focusing primarily on those actions conducted by the infantry. His conclusions are that a lack of motivation (at times bordering on negligence) and a fear of casualties (at times bordering on cowardice) resulted in a reduction in patrols of all kinds, but especially reconnaissance missions. This lackadaisical approach to patrolling caused 25 CIB to surrender control of No Man’s Land to the Chinese, resulting in a decrease in security and, inevitably, an increase in both Chinese raids and Canadian casualties. Damningly, the author places the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of Bogert, the brigade commander, and his infantry battalion commanding officers. As Johnston succinctly puts it, “the problems the brigade encountered in 1952-53 under Bogert’s command resulted primarily from poor leadership, at both the formation and unit level, rather than inadequate weaponry.”7 He describes the command climate under Bogert as, “lethargic,” prone to delusional claims of victory (such as with the Battle of Hill 355 fought by 1 RCR in October 1952), “indifferent,” and more concerned with personal survival than with mission accomplishment. These are harsh accusations, all the more so because they are leveled at officers who, as Johnston points out, should have known better.8

Johnston’s argument is as convincing as it is damning. His depth and breadth of research is outstanding. As a researcher and author for DND’s Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH), Johnston has made full use of the traditional sources available in the National Archives, as well as personal papers and operational reports held by DHH. In addition to using the best available primary Canadian sources, he has also sought out and utilized more obscure but equally valuable Allied and Chinese works, as well as some heretofore overlooked personal accounts. Moreover, Johnston’s examination displays an excellent grasp of military tactics, especially in the use and effects of ground, which is critical to understanding combat in terrain as complex and rugged as the Korean peninsula. He further demonstrates his understanding of the importance of ground with the inclusion of excellent sketch maps and a large number (more than 40) of excellent black and white photos, most used to strikingly illustrate the challenges of the terrain, and the details of deployments. Johnston’s meticulous and critical eye makes A War of Patrols military history for soldiers — those who know ground, weapons and tactics, and understand their employment and limitations.

But Johnston’s work is not just for soldiers. Easy to understand and accessible even to the ‘militarilychallenged’, Johnston clearly lays out the political and military situation, and then carefully examines the tactical actions and outcomes. The prose is lucid, and laced with a number of very good turns of phrase. Perhaps unfortunately, he is at his best when making excoriating remarks about Regular Force units or leaders. In one particularly scathing example, Johnston takes aim at one of the Regular Force infantry battalions:

Unfortunately, the regular officers of 1 RCR seem to have mistaken the ability to hold mess dinners in dress uniform, polish base plugs of grenades, keep cans of Brasso and polishing rags in forward positions, and mount well-drilled bridge guards as the essence of a good unit. At its best in reserve, that was exactly where the battalion was destined to spend four of its remaining five months in Korea.9

The remainder of the “professionals” are given no easier a treatment, although at times Johnston’s ill-concealed contempt seems to be directed at the Canadian Regular Army at large, and not just those who served in Korea. This work is gloves-off history, not meant for the weak of heart or the hard of head, and reader discretion is advised.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its often highly critical tone, A War of Patrols is a book Canadian soldiers and historians need to read. It might well be thought of as tough love for a profession of arms that needs to keep an eye on its past while it hurriedly, and, at times, confusingly, moves towards its future. Canadian soldiers cannot afford to overlook the lessons of small wars in their fixation upon the history of our grandest accomplishments, such as the final ‘Hundred Days’ of the Great War, or the Normandy Campaign. As Johnston ably demonstrates, modern Canadian officers may have more to gather from the lessons of Korea than they do from the last great Euro-centric war because of the conditions under which the Korean War was fought — the political constraints, strategic complexity, difficult terrain, and the tough, troublingly foreign enemy. Johnston’s work reinforces the requirements for military leadership at the tactical level — intellectual, moral, physical, and even spiritual. It boldly underlines the necessity for the presence of a fighting spirit, and highlights the psychological plane of combat. These lessons are perhaps the most important ones to draw out because they are the most directly transferable to future conflicts, as they are not technologically or geographically dependent.

Furthermore, as painful as the debunking process can be, especially for an institution that is to some degree defined by its mythology, it is nevertheless crucial to the Canadian Army’s didactic growth. Serving Canadian soldiers need to see the truth and learn from it, even if it is painful to some of our forebears. To continue in ignorance or delusion would only serve to diminish the memory of those brave souls who took up the call and went to fight in Korea, regardless of the harsh judgment passed on their efforts by an historian safely at 50 years distance. This work is not just good history; it is important history. It can only help shed further light on the period if the tale of the two armies in Korea takes its rightful place within the literature of Canadian military history.

In terms of scholarship and prose, A War of Patrols overshadows its predecessors, and from its release should be regarded as the best work on the subject. It is a much-needed re-examination of Canadian Army operations in Korea, and should be considered a compulsory read for all those interested in Canadian military history, and for all serving Canadian Army officers.


Major Michael Boire teaches history at Royal Military College.


  1. It is beyond the scope of this review to do a complete historiographical assessment of the existing Canadian Korean War history. For an example of the essential narrative, see the Canadian Army’s Official History of the Korean War: Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Fairlie Wood, Strange Battleground: The Operations in Korea and Their Effects on the Defence Policy in Canada (Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1966), or Ted Barris, Deadlock in Korea: Canadians at War, 1950-1953 (Toronto: MacMillan, 1999). David Bercuson’s Blood on the Hills: The Canadian Army in the Korean War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), or the recently published work by Brent Watson, Far Eastern Tour: The Canadian Infantry in Korea, 1950-1953 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002) are both good examples of the works that have recently attempted a more rigorous analysis of the Canadian combat experience. For good anecdotal based works, see, for example, Robert Hepenstall, Find the Dragon: The Canadian Army in Korea 1950-1953 (Edmonton: Four Winds, 1995), or Robert Peacock, Kim-chi, Asahi, and Rum: A Platoon Commander Remembers, Korea 1952-53 (Toronto: Lugus Publishing, 1994).
  2. This is the title of the Canadian Army’s Official History of the Korean War; Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Fairlie Wood, Strange Battleground: The Operations in Korea and Their Effects on the Defence Policy in Canada (Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1966).
  3. Johnston, Introduction, p. xiv.
  4. 4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., p. 29.
  6. For an excellent overview of this operation, see Lee Windsor, “Boforce: 1st Canadian Infantry Division Operations in Support of Salerno Bridgehead, Italy 1943,” Canadian Military History, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1995.
  7. Johnston, p. xix.
  8. See especially Johnston, pp. 371-377.
  9. Ibid., p. 321.