Sunday, April 24, 2011
LEST WE FORGET - Battle of Long Tan
Battle of Long Tan
Part of the Vietnam War
Date 18 August 1966
Location Long Tần, Phuoc Tuy Province, Republic of Vietnam
Result Allied victory
North Vietnamese Army
Commanders and leaders
Nguyen Thanh Hong
Casualties and losses
(North Vietnamese claim)
Senior VC commanders later claimed that only 50 of their men were killed Also, the US Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) awarded to D Company 6RAR, reports that only a reinforced enemy battalion took part in the battle. Also, the Australian estimates of the battle came after only one day of counting enemy dead and wounded as government and media alike wanted a body count as soon as possible, other estimates have put the body count significantly higher than first thought.
The Battle of Long Tan (18 August 1966) was fought between the Australian Army and Viet Cong forces in a rubber plantation near the village of Long Tần, about 27 kilometres (17 mi) north east of Vung Tau, South Vietnam. The action occurred when D Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), part of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF), encountered the Viet Cong (VC) 275 Regiment and elements of the D445 Local Forces Battalion. D Company was supported by other Australian units, as well as New Zealand and United States artillery.
During the battle the company from 6RAR, despite being heavily outnumbered, fought off a large enemy assault of regimental strength. 18 Australians were killed and 24 wounded, while at least 245 Viet Cong were killed. It was a decisive Australian victory and is often cited as an example of the importance of combining and coordinating infantry, artillery, armour and military aviation. The battle had considerable tactical implications as well, being significant in allowing the Australians to gain dominance over Phước Tuy province, and although there were a number of other large-scale encounters in later years, 1ATF was not fundamentally challenged again.
The battle has since achieved similar symbolic significance for the Australian military in the Vietnam War as battles such as the Gallipoli Campaign have for the First World War, the Kokoda Track Campaign for the Second World War and the Battle of Kapyong for the Korean War.
1ATF arrived in Vietnam in May 1966 and was based at the Nui Dat base, in Phuoc Tuy Province. (As of 2005, Nui Dat and Long Tan are both in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province.) 6RAR was composed mainly of national servicemen. The Australians faced formidable enemy forces, which were operating on home soil:
Within Phuoc Tuy and the neighbouring provinces of Bien Hoa, Long Khanh and Binh Tuy, the principle [sic] main force formation ... was the 5th VC Division, which usually had its headquarters in the Mây Tào Mountains. It consisted of 274 Regiment and 275 Regiment plus supporting units. North Vietnamese regulars were used to boost and reinforce this South Vietnamese [Viet Cong] formation...
For several weeks prior to the battle, Australian field intelligence had tracked a VC 275 Regiment radio transmitter moving south to just north of Long Tan. Aggressive patrolling failed to find this unit.
On the night of 16–17 August, the Viet Cong 275th Regiment fired over 100 mortar rounds into the 103 Battery area and 24 Australian soldiers were wounded, one later dying from his wounds. B Company 6RAR was sent out early on the morning of the 17th to find the VC heavy weapons. D Company (to which were attached three New Zealand Army personnel) relieved B Company at midday on the 18th. The commander of B Company, Major Noel Ford, briefed the D Company commander, Major Harry Smith, and B Company returned to base. After discussing the situation with the 6 RAR battalion commander, Lt Col. Colin Townsend, D Company moved to the east towards the limit of their covering artillery's range.
BattleAt 1540, a small group of VC soldiers walked into the middle of 11 Platoon on the right flank of D Company. One was killed in the action, the area was cleared and 11 Platoon moved forward again. Several light mortar rounds were fired towards the company position landing to the east, not the 82mm mortars that had fired at the base on the night of 16 August. The accompanying Forward Observation Officer (FO), New Zealand Captain Morrie Stanley, organised counter battery fire, and this probably silenced them although they may have fired at the B Company later. No further mortar fire was reported during the battle. This diversion separated the main company slightly from 11 Platoon, putting the main body behind a slight rise.
As 11 Platoon continued to advance they were attacked by heavy machine gun fire and immediately sustained six casualties. Following normal contact procedures, the platoon went into a defensive position. The VC formed an assault and attacked 11 Platoon around 20 minutes after initial contact with support from their heavy machine guns. Stanley called in all available artillery support from the 1ATF artillery units, and 10 Platoon moved up to the left of 11 Platoon to try to relieve pressure on them and allow them to withdraw to the company defensive position. The commander of 11 Platoon, national serviceman 2nd Lt Gordon Sharp, was killed and Sergeant Bob Buick assumed command of the platoon. During this engagement both platoons' radios went out but one was sent forward to 10 Platoon and the 11 Platoon aerial was repaired.
Heavy monsoon rain began falling on the battlefield reducing visibility considerably, probably saving many lives on both sides.10 Platoon, under 2nd Lt Geoff Kendall, also came under fire and went into a defensive position. 12 Platoon, commanded by 2nd Lt Dave Sabben, had been the reserve platoon, and it was ordered to the right to support 11 Platoon. 12 Platoon left one section behind to support Company HQ. The company called for close air support but when it arrived it was unable to identify targets due to the weather and rubber plantation. The US aircraft dropped their bombs to the east disrupting the VC rear areas. Smith requested helicopter reinforcements from 6RAR. B Company HQ with its one platoon had not yet got back to Nui Dat and was ordered back to Long Tan but was then stopped.
The Australian soldiers were carrying a light load, approximately five magazines, and after nearly three hours of combat ran low on ammunition. At 5:00pm Smith called for an ammunition resupply. By coincidence, two UH-1 Iroquois from 9 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force were available at the Nui Dat base, having just been used as transport for a Col Joye and Little Pattie concert. One of the Iroquois pilots, Flt Lt Bob Grandin, disobeyed orders by dropping supplies to D Company. He recalled: "...[i]t did sound extremely bad on the radio."
Because the ammunition resupply was to be dropped from a helicopter some distance above the tree height the wooden (outer) crates with metal straps were wrapped in army blankets for the wounded. However no-one thought to provide any tools to cut the straps and the tired soldiers had to smash open the crates with machettes and the butts of their SLRs during the battle to get to the inner metal ammunition boxes. Sgt Neil Rankin (12 PL) recounted frustration of not being able to quickly get to the ammunition at a time when the company was in an extremely dire situation with very low levels reported by many of the soldiers. Eventually the ammunition was freed but the soldiers then had to load the magazines themselves.
Magazines were considered part of soldiers’ weapons and issuing was strictly controlled. (One of the lessons of Long Tan for the Australian Army was that combat personnel on operations started to carry more supplies, including more ammunition and food, to enable prolonged operations. Ammunition was later resupplied in magazines, and the issuing of magazines was relaxed.) The survivors of 11 Platoon withdrew to 12 Platoon and back to the Company area under the cover provided by the artillery and torrential rain.
At Nui Dat, A Company had been ordered to ready itself and the M-113 armoured personnel carriers of the 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron to transport them. However there was a delay of more than an hour from the time 1 APC Squadron was ordered to 6RAR lines at Nui Dat to pick up A Company. Smith pressed Townsend to send reinforcements and even though Townsend had given the warning order to A Company to be prepared to go and assist D Company, Jackson would not release the APCs to take them. Jackson considered that the attack on D Company was a possible feint and did not want to reduce the defences at Nui Dat.
The VC continually formed assault waves and moved forward, but were broken up by artillery fire. Those who got through the gunfire were mown down by D Company men. Fortunately for the attackers, the soft boggy ground reduced the effect of the shell bursts, but there were a large number of wounded. The rain was so intense it kicked up a mist that gave the Australian soldiers some cover from the onslaught. Dave Sabben remembers the mist rising from the ground to about chest level. "All that's poking out of that is the diggers' hats and their eyes, not even their rifles," he said in a television interview with 60 Minutes. The soldiers of D Company held their line and repulsed any VC that got through the artillery barrage. D Company were supported by 24 105 mm and 155 mm guns from the Australian 1st Field Regiment, the 161st Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery and the U.S. 2nd Battalion, 35th Artillery Regiment. Over 3,000 rounds of artillery were fired throughout the remainder of the battle at likely Communists' forming-up positions and withdrawal routes. "A" Battery, 1st Field Regiment fired rounds every 15 seconds for three hours. The U.S. gunners were in the same base as "A" Battery and assisted the exhausted Australian gunners by carrying artillery rounds to their guns.
The reverse slope that D Company used to defend their position meant that the VC found it difficult to use their heavy calibre weapons effectively; the VC could only engage the Australians at close range. The VC repeatedly tried to find the Australian flanks but the wide dispersal and excellent defensive position combined with the artillery support led to many VC casualties. Furthermore as the Australian defence was not entirely static with some limited patrolling and contacts arising it caused the VC great difficulty in determining the exact perimeter and led the VC commanders to conclude they were facing a much larger force.
Meanwhile 7 APCs from 3 Troop and 3 from 2 Troop 1 APC squadron led by Lt Francis (Adrian) Roberts had cleared the base barbed wire perimeter when Roberts received an order to send two carriers back for Townsend and to wait till Townsend came up. Hearing gunfire from Long Tan Roberts ignored the second part of the order and attempted to cross the swollen river. Captain Charles Mollison, the A Company commander, agreed not to halt and wait for Townsend to catch up. Leaving one carrier to secure the crossing Roberts led 7 APCs (with 80 men) into the plantation and encountered 100 plus enemy on a 240m wide front. "I will never forget the impact of our .50 calibre fire" said Roberts "a man struck by such fire is thrown away, his body arched like a bow." Corporal Carter used his Owen gun to kill two VC who were firing a 57mm recoilless rifle at his APC. Cpl Peter Clements, an APC commander was fatally wounded by machinegun fire and the APC's driver took out the machinegun by running over its operator. Under orders from Roberts Sgt. Noel Lowes ran between carriers to take command of Clement's machine. Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith later wrote of the final stages of the battle: "At 7 pm, on dark, the B Company platoon arrived, also delayed an hour. We placed them covering the south-west area, where we had engaged and put to flight numerous foliage-camouflaged VC. The intensity of the VC attacks decreased about this time. Not long after, seven APCs, some with lights on, A Company on board, arrived from the south, welcomed by the cheers of my company. The APCs had swum a flooded river, ignored orders to stop, and gallantly fought through two groups of VC on their way in, with 11 men of Lieutenant Peter Dinham’s 2 Platoon, A Company, led by Sergeant Frank Alcorta, spontaneously dismounting from one carrier, courageously taking on a large VC formation and killing many. The APCs lost one crew commander but put the VC to flight with their noise and heavy machine-gun fire. All firing ceased as though the tap was turned off! Three more APCs arrived, having been ordered back to the base to bring out 6RAR’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Townsend, and his headquarters party. He took command. When it became obvious the enemy was not going to counter-attack, he gave orders for a withdrawal, and after midnight we were able to get our casualties out by helicopter."
In teeming rain 3 Troop APC under Lt Adrian Roberts and eleven men of 2 Platoon A Company under Lt Peter Dinham had earlier attacked the forward elements of D445 Battalion, taking them by surprise. Roberts recalled the intense artillery barrage that brought down trees in black bursts of oily smoke towards the D Company position. B Company fired on enemy which were withdrawing to the east. An Australian soldier from B Company, Private Johnson, was slightly wounded as they approached D Company from friendly fire off the top of one APC, believing them to be enemy in the gloom. Roberts also recalls that the enemy had begun to withdraw before Townsend arrived.
The fresh reinforcements formed a screen in front of D Company allowing them to treat the wounded and rest and preparing to resist a counterattack that did not come. During the night the artillery fired on likely forming-up points of the VC and the force withdrew with most of the 24 wounded evacuated by helicopter. This was a strong force and should have been able to repulse any night attack. As it happened, there was no further contact that night or for the next three days.
Lt Col. Bob Breen wrote later: "the battle discipline and bravery of the Australians, the cover provided by the torrential rain and the effects of hundreds of artillery and mortar rounds falling among the Viet Cong attackers resulted in a stunning victory for the Australians and a further enhancement for the fighting tradition of Australian infantry.
Commemoration and reconciliation
A US Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) was awarded to D Company 6RAR, by President Lyndon B. Johnson on 28 May 1968, for the unit's actions at Long Tan. The text of the citation reads as follows:
By virtue of the authority invested in me as the President of the United States and as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, I have today awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (Army) for extraordinary heroism to D Company, Sixth Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, The Australian Army.
D Company distinguished itself by extraordinary heroism while engaged in military operations against an opposing armed force in Vietnam on 18 August 1966.
While searching for Viet Cong in a rubber plantation northeast of Ba Ria, Phuoc Tuy, Province, Republic of Vietnam, D Company met and immediately engaged in heavy contact. As the battle developed, it became apparent that the men of D Company were facing a numerically superior force. The platoons of D Company were surrounded and attacked on all sides by an estimated reinforced enemy battalion using automatic weapons, small arms and mortars. Fighting courageously against a well armed and determined foe, the men on D Company maintained their formations in a common perimeter defence and inflicted heavy casualties on the Viet Cong.
The enemy maintained a continuous, intense volume of fire and attacked repeatedly from all directions. Each successive assault was repulsed by the courageous Australians. Heavy rainfall and low ceiling prevented any friendly close air support during the battle. After three hours of savage attacks, having failed to penetrate the Australian lines, the enemy withdrew from the battlefield carrying many dead and wounded, and leaving 245 Viet Cong dead forward of the defence positions of D Company.
The conspicuous courage, intrepidity and indomitable courage of D Company were to the highest tradition of military valour and reflect great credit upon D Company and the Australian Army.
Soldiers posted to D Company 6RAR still wear the PUC on their uniforms. 6RAR erected a concrete cross to commemorate those who died. This was removed by the government of Vietnam following the communist victory in 1975, but has now been replaced by a larger monument of similar design. The original is on display at Dong Nai province museum in Bien Hoa. In more recent times former officers from D Company have visited Vietnam and met former adversaries.
The date the battle began, 18 August, is commemorated in Australia as Long Tan Day, also known as Vietnam Veterans' Remembrance Day. At the 40th year commemoration, in 2006, veterans were accompanied by Australian Ambassador Bill Tweddle at the Long Tan Cross; following the commemoration a concert was held at Vung Tau where former Redgum band member John Schumann sang "I Was Only Nineteen" which describes the experiences of Long Tan veteran Mick Storen (Schumann's brother-in-law).
An Australian television account of the battle, entitled Long Tan was produced in 2006.
A feature film, a fictionalised account written and directed by Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford, and entitled Long Tan, is scheduled for release in 2011. The film is being produced by Martin Walsh and is expected to have a budget of up to $42 million dollars.
Harry Smith was recommended for a Distinguished Service Order, but received the lower award of a Military Cross. Brigadier Oliver David Jackson was awarded a Distinguished Service Order the citation for which read in part: "in one action on August 18, 1966, he personally directed the engagement which accounted for 254 enemy dead by body count with very light comparative losses to his own troops. His able personal direction was a decisive factor." Some evidence, however, suggests Jackson spent most of the battle in his tent. Lieutennant Colonel Colin Townsend also received a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) the citation for which read in part "As soon as the initial heavy contact with the enemy was made by his company (Delta) on patrol he moved immediately with a relief company in armoured personnel carriers to join his company and took firm and decisive control of the battle." Some evidence, however establishes that Townsend arrived after the battle was over and by ordering the armoured personel carrier-borne relief force to wait for him to catch up caused its commander Lieutenant Adrian Roberts to divide his troop. Major General Peter Abigail, Major General Steve Gower and Brigadier Gerry Warner wrote in the Long Tan Recognition Review (2008) that "both awards [Jackson's and Townsend's DSOs] relate to their entire periods of command." Ellery claims, however, that in 1966 the guidelines for the DSO specified it had to be for gallant leadership in the field,and not for good service generally.
Two of the three platoon commanders were recommended for Military Crosses but neither was awarded. The Military Medal recommended for the third (acting) platoon commander (11 Platoon, Sgt Bob Buick) was awarded as recommended. The award of Mentioned in Dispatches was denied to Second Lieutenant Gordon Sharp who was shot through the neck as he rose to his knees to direct artillery fire at the early stages of the battle. Two Distinguished Conduct Medals, and another Military Medal were also awarded. The lack of recognition paid to Australian veterans by the Australian government has been the subject of intense criticism on their part. In November 2006, John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, visited Long Tan, the first Australian PM to make the journey. At Long Tan, Howard acknowledged the poor treatment that Australian Vietnam veterans received. In March 2008 the Long Tan Recognition Review recommended upgrading of awards to three officers of D Company 6RAR. The Government accepted the recommendations for upgraded awards to Harry Smith (Star of Gallantry), Geoff Kendall and David Sabben (both for the Medal for Gallantry). Despite the Long Tan Recognition Review recommending to the contrary, on 18 August 2008 the Rudd Australian government granted approval for members of D Company 6 RAR to wear the Gallantry Cross with Palm Unit Citation of the former Republic of Vietnam. In relation to the South Vietnamese medals, in line with British military policy, the Australian government was not prepared to formally accept awards from foreign powers without the prior approval of the Queen. The Australian Ambassador gave this advice to the South Vietnamese government, which decided at the last moment not to award the medals. Soon afterwards the Australian Army introduced a more relaxed policy of informally allowing the acceptance of presented awards.
On 2 September 2009 the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal (Prof. Dennis Pearce, Lieutenant Colonel John Jones and Warrant officer Kevin Woods) (charged by the Long Tan Recognition Review with investigating outstanding claims) reported to the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support (Mike Kelly) that protocols related to the system of honours and awards required that consideration of an award be initiated by an authorised officer. In this case Harry Smith on 21 August 1966 moderated recommendations from platoon commanders and company sergeant major and submitted a list (now lost) to Lieutenant Colonel Townsend. This list included recommendations for awards to Gordon Sharp and seven D Company 6RAR soldiers. Townsend rejected a number of these recommendations as "too many." The Tribunal found that no "clear anomaly or manifest injustice" had been established. It made a recommendation for one further individual award- the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) to Flight Lieutenant Cliff Dohle. They also recommended a Unit Citation for Gallantry to D Company, 6 RAR.
Strength and casualties
The official Australian figure that 2,500 NVA/VC were involved in the battle with D Company was determined by US and Australian Army Intelligence Reports, Australian Vietnam veteran Bob Breen has written that "just over 100 diggers withstood the best efforts of over 1500 Viet Cong soldiers to kill them." The US Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) awarded to D Company 6RAR, however, reports that only a reinforced enemy battalion were involved in the action. On paper each of the three 275th Regiment battalions had roughly 400 men, but according to the North Vietnamese/VC commanders, all were seriously undermanned. Some 275th Regiment veterans and (former North) Vietnamese historians have recently claimed that only 47 VC and NVA were killed in action and about 100 wounded. Mark Baker of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote in 1996, after meeting ex-VC and NVA commanders at Long Tan: "[The] senior [north] Vietnamese officers made the startling claim that only 700 of their men had taken part in the battle — half the most conservative Australian estimate — and that only 50 had been killed." These claims are at odds with VC records later captured by US Forces however, which indicated that the total VC losses at Long Tan were in the order of 500 dead and 750 wounded. There was also evidence when the Australians returned to clean up that many bodies had already been removed by the Vietnamese which is quite possible as the Australians did withdraw from the area and didn't return until the next day.
It has been alleged that Australian commanders knew that there was a North Vietnamese regiment moving towards the rubber plantation area prior to the battle. A top secret Australian signals unit (547 Troop) did track what they determined to be the radio from 275 Regiment for 12 days (2 August to 14 August 1966) and this information was shared with Brigadier David Jackson. Australian intelligence relied on many sources and there was no way to determine whether the radio was in fact located with the 275 Regiment forces. Jackson began a series of patrols and some of those patrols, including A Company and 6RAR, actually went into the Long Tan rubber plantation on 17 August but no contact was made. The top secret 547 Signals Troop was so secret that information gathered from it was not shared with Australian field commanders, such as Townsend or Smith, to prevent it giving away the fact that the Australians were monitoring enemy radios.
Many North Vietnamese participants are also adamant that D Company walked into an ambush, although enemy reports were not consistent with the facts. They state that the VC had planned to draw the Australian force into a wooded area to the north of the rubber plantation, where heavy weapons had been set up on a rise known to the Australians as "Nui Dat 2 GR4868". Another 100 members of D445 Battalion were in the south near the village of Long Tan. One platoon with several rocket launchers had been placed on the south western edge of the plantation, hoping to slow down any APC-mounted reinforcements, and cut off an Australian retreat. In 2006, Sau Thu, a former major in D445 Battalion, was quoted as saying that he had been ordered to lure the Australians out of Nui Dat, kill as many of them as possible, capture their weapons and then take the base. "We didn't know how many you had in Nui Dat. We tried to draw them out… We thought they would go one way but the Australian soldiers went the wrong way and came behind us."
In 2006, Sabben and Buick visited the site of the battle. They met Nguyen Minh Ninh, former vice-commander of D445 Battalion. Minh said: "you won. But we won also. Tactically and militarily you won — but politically, we won. In this battle you acted out of our control — you [escaped] from our trap." According to journalist Cameron Stewart, it was the first time that a senior North Vietnamese officer had admitted that his soldiers had been defeated at Long Tan.
According to Terry Burstall, the North Vietnamese commander at Long Tan, Col. Nguyen Thanh Hong, was amazed that the Australians could look on the battle as a victory:
How can you claim a victory when you allowed yourselves to walk into a trap that we had set? Admittedly we did not finish the job, but that was only because time beat us and your reinforcements arrived. I mean you did not even attempt to follow us up. How can you claim a significant victory from that sort of behaviour?
However, Townsend was unable to pursue the 275th Regiment because of the vulnerability of the Nui Dat base to an attack from the 274th Regiment. Moreover, Operation Toledo was launched seven days later.
Bob Buick faced criticism in 2000, after he published his memoirs. In the book, Buick admitted killing a mortally wounded North Vietnamese soldier on the Long Tan battlefield, the day after the firefight. Terry Burstall pointed out that any such an act constituted a prima facie breach of the Geneva Convention. Buick's decision to publish his memoirs was also criticised by the president of the Australian Long Tan Association, John Heslewood, who was a private in 11 Platoon.
• McAulay, Lex (1987). The Battle of Long Tan: The Legend of Anzac Upheld. London: Arrow Books. ISBN 0099525305.
• McNeil, Ian (1993). To Long Tan. The Australian Army and the Vietnam War 1950-1966.. The Official History of Australia's Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948-1975. Sydney: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial. ISBN 1863732829.
• Dennis, Peter; et al (2008). The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History (Second ed.). Melbourne: Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand. ISBN 9780195517842.
• 6 RAR Commander's Diary
• (Long Tan vets win recognition at last)
• (Bob Buick's Vietnam Page)
• (The forgotten heroes)
• Martin Walsh, 2006, "The Battle of Long Tan, South Vietnam, 18 August 1966, Quick Facts Sheet".
• Harry Smith (no date), "The Battle of Long Tan"
• anzacday.org, 2000, "Being a historian: Investigating the Battle of Long Tan" (School resources)
• Terry Burstall, 1991, "Long Tan: The Other Side of the Hill" (Interviews with Vietnamese participants.)
• The Battle of Long Tan
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