Colonel Arthur Axford
Officer who saw fierce action during the Italian Campaign of 1944 and later in the Korean War
COLONEL ARTHUR AXFORD, who has died aged 97, was lucky to escape with his life during the Italian campaign of 1944 and later fought the communists in Korea before becoming an inspiring training officer.
In 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, Axford was recalled as a reservist and sailed for Korea with the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles (1 RUR). They disembarked at Pusan in November that year as part of 29 Independent Infantry Brigade. Axford commanded 9 Platoon, “C” Company.
On the night of January 1 1951, the Chinese attacked in strength across the Imjin River.
Many were veterans of the war against the Japanese. The Rifles found themselves holding a front of two miles. After heavy and confused fighting, they were ordered to pull back to a point about six miles to the south but the valley through which they retreated was overlooked by the enemy on both sides and became a death trap. At a roll call on January 4, more than 150 all ranks were shown as killed, wounded or missing.
At first light on April 23, three Chinese divisions attacked approximately 6,000 British troops on a seven-mile front. In the early hours of the next day, 1 RUR beat back two determined attacks at ranges close enough for hand grenades to be used in prodigious quantities.
The ferocity of the Battle of the Imjin River caught the world’s imagination. Tank commanders sprayed their own units with machine-gun fire to clear them of enemy that were clambering over them, and infantry, dug into underground bunkers and in danger of being overrun, called down artillery fire on their own positions.
Arthur Axford was born on August 10 1921 at Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire. During the First World War his father had fought in the Gallipoli campaign and was wounded in Belgium. Young Arthur went to the local grammar school, but left early because his family was unable to pay the fees. He enlisted in the Manchester Regiment in 1939 and was posted to the 9th Battalion or 9 MR.
In March 1941 he accompanied 9 MR to Iceland where the battalion became the machine-gun unit of the island’s “C” Force. The British had occupied the island the previous year to prevent it becoming a base for German submarines and aircraft.
The following year, he moved with the battalion to Orkney, where they helped to defend the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow. He was commissioned early in 1943, and embarked for Algeria in December, disembarking on Christmas Day.
The battalion was only there for a few weeks before landing in Sicily (which was already in Allied hands) in preparation for taking part in the Italian Campaign. They berthed at Syracuse to find that looters had stripped the barracks and the accommodation was very primitive.
On April 9 1944 the Manchester Regiment moved to the mainland. They took over a sector of the front line and came under the command of “D” Force and 4th Indian Infantry Division. In August, the battalion came under the command of 46 British Division, part of 5th Corps, and subsequently saw some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign in the battles of Monte Gridolfo, Gemmano and Coriano Ridge before breaching the formidable defences of the Gothic Line. Axford had a narrow escape when his jeep ran over a landmine. His driver was killed.
By the end of the year, the civil war in Greece was causing a major diversion of troops from the 8th Army with the aim of preventing the communists from seizing power after the German withdrawal and, in February 1945, 9 MR moved there. They remained in Greece until April before returning to Italy. After the German surrender they continued their move up the Adriatic coast of Italy to Austria.
Axford was demobilised early in 1946 after the battalion returned to England. On his return from Korea, in March 1952 he volunteered to serve in the TA, initially as assistant training officer of 9 MR. During the following six years, he commanded several companies, captained the rifle team, led weapons training displays, often giving running commentaries to the public, and ran a highly successful recruiting campaign.
The citation for his appointment in 1958 as MBE stated that his vast field of knowledge gained from active service had proved of the greatest value to all ranks and had led to an enormous improvement in the efficiency and morale of the battalion.
In 1960 he assumed command of 9 MR and, in 1964, he was advanced to OBE. The brigade commander wrote: “As a direct result of Axford’s enthusiasm, drive, personal example and ability, the strength of the battalion has been raised to 550. His dedication to the TA and application to his responsibilities are far in excess of what might be expected of a TA Commanding Officer.”
He was Deputy Commander 127 Brigade (TA) from 1964 to 1970, Commandant East Lanes ACF from 1970 to 1974 and Honorary Colonel from 1980 to 1985.
In civilian life he worked for several years for Coventry Gauge & Tool Co. In retirement he enjoyed playing golf and attendance at Masonic events filled many of his evenings. He was High Sheriff of Greater Manchester from 1987 to 1988.
Arthur Axford married, in 1941, Flora Isobel Hampson. She predeceased him and he is survived by a son and a daughter. Another son predeceased him.
Arthur Axford, born August 10 1921, died March 15 2019