A Glorious Gloster Single Handedly Charges a Chinese Bunker Twice, Threw a Grenade With His Last Breath, Saves His Men

It has often been said of both faith and war, that greater love hath no man than the one who lays down his life for his friends.  For the world slowly getting over the devastation of global war, the Korean War reminded all that sacrifices must be made by all generations.

Many of the young men who enlisted to fight in Korea were too young to contribute during World War II but observed carefully the example set for them during that great war and the need for conspicuous gallantry and sacrificial fighting would not be missed by this generation. In 1951, Lieut. Philip Curtis would undertake not one, but two one-man charges on a well defended Chinese bunker that was raining devastating machine-gun fire down upon his men.

With his last breath just as machine-gun fire from that bunker took his life, he launched the grenade from his hand that fell perfectly into the bunker and destroyed the enemy position. His men would stand in awe at what they had just witnessed and Lieut. Philip Curtis would be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The Battle of Imjin  

Philip Curtis was born in Plymouth, Devon in 1926 which meant he would just miss out on the fighting during World War 2.  He no doubt watched the sacrifice of a nation and the men who marched off into war never to return knowing full well what awaited him when it was his turn.

In 1946, Curtis joined the Duke of Cornwell’s Light Infantry where he would eventually become commissioned as a Lieutenant. And while the first few years of his military service were somewhat uneventful, the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950  would place an entirely new generation of warriors in harm’s way.

The Korean Peninsula first divided along the 38th parallel. By Rishabh Tatiraju – CC BY-SA 3.0
The Korean Peninsula first divided along the 38th parallel. By Rishabh Tatiraju – CC BY-SA 3.0

Unafraid to fight, this generation of the British Army was looking forward to proving their worth.

The Korean War was a remarkable seesaw battle during the early years of the war. Just as it seemed the North Koreans would push the South Koreans off the peninsula, the Allies broke out of the Pusan Perimeter and took the fight all the way to the Yalu River.

Just when it seemed Allied victory was inevitable, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers came screaming across the border. As the war started to become more stagnant, there was a vicious fight for every hill and every bunker before the war settled at the 38th parallel.

But it would be in April of 1951, close to the IMjin River in Korea, that Lieut. Philip Curtis would give his life fighting to take one such bunker. The Chinese conducted a spring offensive that aimed to retake the city of Seoul from the allies which put Lieut. Curtis’s unit which was attached to the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment right in the crosshairs.

Overwhelmingly outnumbered, the Gloucestershire Regiment would make a heroic standard Hill 235 as they endured wave after wave of Chinese assault.

Winning One Bunker at a Time

During the fighting, a key British bunker was captured by the Chinese giving them a commanding firing position upon Lieut. Curtis’s platoon. It became apparent that they had no hope of stopping the Chinese assault unless they could retake that position from the Chinese. Despite being nearly 200 yards away over open ground, Curtis put together an assault team and begins to lead the charge.

The first few men are quickly hit and pulled to cover as Curtis continues the charge. However, the murderous machine-gun position takes notice spraying bullets into Lieutenant Curtis severely wounding him. He is pulled back to a small area of cover and told that medical personnel are on their way.

Hill 235 or "Gloster Hill" in Korea via commons.wikimedia.org
Hill 235 or “Gloster Hill” in Korea

Curtis refuses care and painfully rises to one knee simply stating that the bunker must be taken if any hope to survive. Dreadfully wounded, with a pistol in one hand and grenades in the other he leads a solo charge on the bunker. Eyewitness accounts state that the entire battlefield almost seems silent as they watched in awe at the gallantry of one man charging this murderous position.

Remarkably, Curtis closes with the bunker and launched one last grenade from his hand before the Chinese machine-gun tore into him and killed him instantly. The grenade still in the air, it sails towards the bunker and lands right in the opening.

The Chinese machine-gun team were dead, the bunker neutralized, and the men who watched Curtis lead the charge got a firsthand look at full British gallantry on display. The British and the rest of the allied units would eventually have to fall back to more prepared defensive positions due to the sheer number of Chinese forces attacking.

However, the Gloucestershire stand at Hill 235 preceded by actions of unspeakable gallantry as displayed by Lieut. Philip Curtis allowed for an orderly retreat that would later halt the Chinese attack in the prepared defenses.

The Victoria Cross

For his actions that day, Philip Curtis would be one of only four men to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor during the Korean War, two of which came during the battle of Imjin.  It remains to be seen what goes through the mind of such men who risk so much for the success of the mission and the welfare of their brothers in arms.

Tragically, Philip Curtis had just recently learned of his wife’s passing in childbirth while in Korea and perhaps as much as anything, he was unafraid at the thought of being reunited with his wife.

Veteran's Ceremony at the Gloster Memorial on Hill 235 in Korea via commons.wikimedia.org
Veteran’s Ceremony at the Gloster Memorial on Hill 235 in Korea

Lieut. Philip Curtis continued the legacy of gallantry displayed by those who fought in the war he watched as a teenager and set the standard for those who would come after him.

While the Chinese machine-gun team holding that bunker might have celebrated taking out the man attacking their position, that revelry was short-lived when Lieutenant Curtis’ final gift to them detonated.

There are simply times in war when an enemy position must be taken and men like Lieut. Curtis are the ones who know how to make it happen despite the odds being heavily stacked against them.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE