The Open Door

Curtis VC: Robert McQuinton

Phil CurtisIn 1947 1 served for a few months in 800 coy. A.D. in the Gaza area of Palestine based at Greek Camp, I believe. Prior to this I had been a platoon commander in 47/48 coy. R.A.S.C., part of 3 Infantry Division, and was posted to 800 Coy. which was at this time carrying out the duties of G.T. Coy.

During my short stay with this unit, I made some good friends including the late Bruce Cameron (Capt.), and an infantry officer, Lt Phil Curtis (left), attached to us from the Lincolns. Phil and I spent many evenings listening to records played on an old windup portable gramophone — his favourites ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and ‘Carnival of the Animals’ — mine Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. About this time, whilst on duty as orderly officer, I was checking the armoury when I noticed a locked door and asked the armourer what lay behind. He said, “some old stores — explosive”. When I got the key and stepped inside a very small room, not much bigger than a large cupboard, I found it stacked from floor to ceiling with 2 lb slabs of gun cotton all in a very “weepy” state!

When the O.C. Company read my report, he made a very strange decision, I thought — as I had been in the R.E. as a sapper prior to being commissioned in the R.A.S.C. I should, the very next day, “get rid of it all”, as he put it! This was to be a solo effort and I may say I knew the risks involved in moving these dangerously deteriorated slabs. So I prepared a 3 tonner with tyres nearly deflated and had half the camp evacuated to what I assumed was a safe distance and began loading the vehicle — a slow laborious process entailing stacking about 8 or 10 slabs at the edge just clear of the tailboard and then hopping up to move them further back. Just as I thought, “this is going to take forever”, a voice beside me said, “you stack and I'll load, I'm taller than you” — it was Curtis, who said, ““you didn’t think I’d let you do it all on your own did you?”. All loaded and he carrying a box of detonators and primers plus some Cordtex — detonating fuse, we set off with me driving very slowly and Phil walking ahead searching for any bumps or holes to avoid — and so we reached the nearby emergency landing strip (just baked earth and sand) with some ancient mud walled ruins at the far end. It was an obvious site for us to set up a demolition — which we did with relish, connecting up charges around the ruins with a ring main of Cordtex. I cut a suitable length of orange slow burning fuse and had the sight of Curtis taking a bit more off with a cheeky grin as he applied the glowing end of his thin black cheroot to the now rather short fuse — we set off with me counting each step aloud until I hollered, “DOWN!” — just in time. As it was we were showered with some quite large pieces of debris, but it was all gone!

Returning to camp found normal routine had also returned — I don’t think anyone remarked on the nice big bang!

What a good chap Phil Curtis was, and what a shock it was when, five years later, I lifted the ‘Daily Mail’ and saw his face taking up half the front page — ‘Curtis V.C.’, posthumously awarded for bravery in action at the Imjin River in Korea whilst serving with the ‘Glosters’ on the epic retreat. He was attached to them from the D.C.L.I. We in the R.A.S.C. family and the A.D. in particular should be proud to have had a young officer and comrade of his calibre with us. I know I am proud and grateful to have known him.

As a footnote, may I add that his little daughter received the medal from H.M. The Queen, her mother having died giving birth. On a lighter note, we found the ‘mud ruin’ were part of local history, perhaps with connections to Samson himself!

From ‘The Edge of the Sword’, by General Sir Anthony Farrer-Hockley

They are back through the wire safely—safely!—when the machine-gun in the bunker begins to fire. Phil is badly wounded:he drops to the ground. They drag him back through the wire somehow and seek what little cover there is as it creeps along their front. The machine-gun stops, content now that it has driven them back; waiting for a better target when they move into the open again. “It’s all right sir,” says someone to Phil.“ The Medical Corporal’s been sent for. He’ll be here any minute.”

Phil raises himself from the ground, rests on a friendly shoulder, then climbs with great effort on to one knee.

“We must take the Castle Site,” he says; and gets up to take it.

The others beg him to wait until his wounds are tended. One man places a hand on his side.

“Just wait until Papworth has seen you, sir-” But Phil has gone: gone to the wire, gone through the wire, gone towards the bunker. The other come out behind him, their eyes all on him. And suddenly it seems as if, for a few breathless moments, the whole of the remainder of that field of battle is still and silent, watching amazed, the lone figure that runs so painfully forward to the bunker holding the approach to the Castle Site: one tiny figure, throwing grenades, firing a pistol, set to take Castle Hill.

Perhaps he will make it - in spite of his wounds, in spite of the odds - perhaps this act of supreme gallantry may, by its sheer audacity, succeed. But the machine-gun in the bunker fires into him: he staggers, falls, and is dead instantly; the grenade he threw a second before his death explodes after it in the mouth of the bunker. The machine-gun does not fire on three of Phil’s platoon who run forward to pick him up; it does not fire again through the battle: it is destroyed; the muzzle blown away, the crew dead.

The then Captain Farrer-Hockley was Adjutant of the 1st Bn. Gloucestershire Regiment. His book is available from Amazon & others.

London Gazette, 1st December, 1953

The Victoria Cross
Lieutenant Philip Kenneth Edward Curtis
The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, attached The Gloucestershire Regiment (Posthumous)

During the first phase of the Battle of the Imjin River on the night of 22nd/23rd April, 1951, "A" Company, 1 Glosters, was heavily attacked by a large enemy force. By dawn on 23rd April, the enemy had secured a footing on the "Castle Hill" site in very close proximity to No. 2 Platoon's position. The Company Commander ordered No.1 Platoon, under the command of Lieutenant Curtis, to carry out a counter-attack with a view to dislodging the enemy from the position. Under the covering fire of medium machine guns, the counter-attack, gallantly led by Lieutenant Curtis, gained initial success, but was eventually held up by heavy fire and grenades. Enemy from just below the crest of the hill were rushed to reinforce the position and a fierce fire-fight developed, grenades also being freely used by both sides in this close-quarter engagement. Lieutenant Curtis ordered some of his men to give him covering fire while he himself rushed the main position of resistance; in this charge Lieutenant Curtis was severely wounded by a grenade. Several of his men crawled out and pulled him back under cover, but, recovering himself, Lieutenant Curtis insisted on making a second attempt. Breaking free from the men who wished to restrain him, he made another desperate charge, hurling grenades as he went, but was killed by a burst of fire when within a few yards of his objective.

Although the immediate objective of this counter-attack was not achieved, it had yet a great effect on the subsequent course of the battle; for although the enemy had gained a footing on a position vital to the defence of the whole company area, this success had resulted in such furious reaction that they made no further effort to exploit their success in this immediate area; had they done so, the eventual withdrawal of the company might well have proved impossible. Lieutenant Curtis's conduct was magnificent throughout this bitter battle.

Phil Curtis VC is buried in Busan UN Memorial Cemetery, South Korea. War Graves Photographic Project

Battle of the Injin River Busan UN Memorial Cemetery

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