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  • A War of Patrols: Canadian Army Operations in Korea
  • Greg Donaghy
William Johnston , A War of Patrols: Canadian Army Operations in Korea. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press and the Canadian War Museum, 2003. 448 pp. $45.00.

The recent passage of dates marking the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Korean War has produced a welcome flurry of interest in what was once known as "Canada's Forgotten War." Although scholars interested in Canada's military role in the Korean conflict were once forced to rely on a thin, somewhat suspect, 40-year-old official history, supplemented from time to time with popular or oral histories, they can now embrace no less than three new monographs on Canada's armed forces at war in Asia. The most detailed and carefully argued of the three is William Johnston's A War of Patrols: Canadian Army Operations in Korea. Although Johnston is an official historian with Canada's Department of National Defence, this [End Page 150] is no judiciously weighed and nuanced official history. The book is honest and forthright in its assessments and spares nobody's feelings.

A War of Patrols is a challenging and provocative attack on the prevailing view of Canada's military performance in Korea. The traditional story runs that Canada, as a reluctant and hesitant conscript in the American-led coalition in Korea, eventually responded to the call by offering to recruit and train a brigade in August 1950. Composed largely of restless veterans from World War II, the soldiers of the Twenty-Fifth Canadian Infantry Brigade were an unruly and undisciplined bunch, and a disproportionately high number of them proved unsuitable for military service in Korea. A lasting smear on Canada's military honor was avoided only when the regular, professional army took over operations in Korea, relieving the first wave of volunteers as their 18-month tour of duty expired.

Demonstrating admirable command of both the secondary and the primary military sources, Johnston takes solid aim at this interpretation. In his opening chapters, he skewers the existing historiography, succinctly explores the political context in which the Canadian military commitment was made, and discusses the recruitment and training of the Special Force. He is frank in discussing the shortcomings of the early volunteers, most of whom were indeed veterans, but he is careful to place those problems in their proper context. Johnston accounts for the higher-than-average rates of absenteeism among volunteers waiting to ship out as symptomatic of the poor morale that accompanied reports in October 1950 that United Nations (UN) forces marching into North Korea might not need Canadian troops. He is similarly dismissive when discussing the high rate of Canadian soldiers who had to be repatriated from the first drafts sent to Korea, attributing this to the unanticipated demands of the unfamiliar Korean terrain. Johnston admits that the volunteers were apt to get into a little trouble from time to time, but he treats this as unimportant, citing with approval the explanation offered by the unit's first commanding officer, Brigadier John M. Rockingham: "They're fighting men. That's what they're trained to be" (p. 42).

Indeed they were. Although Johnston's efforts to minimize the Special Force's problems are not entirely persuasive, they do not have to be. His thesis really rests on the army's performance in the field, and on this score A War of Patrols is convincing. In meticulous detail, Johnston traces the daily activities of the Canadian army in Korea, convincingly demonstrating that the Special Force volunteers were a better led, more highly trained, and more capable military force than the regular army professionals who followed in 1952 and 1953.

In Johnston's view, the veterans from World War II who reenlisted in 1950 did so to fight, demonstrating the attitude required to triumph in the static confrontation that had developed in Korea by the time they arrived overseas. Under Rockingham, the volunteers perfected an aggressive system of reconnaissance and fighting patrols that gave them command of the no-man's-land right up to the Communist line. This strategy reduced the likelihood of Communist...