Battle of Long Tan
The Battle of Long Tan (18 August 1966) took place in a rubber plantation near Long Tân, in Phước Tuy Province, South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. The action was fought between Viet Cong (VC) and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) units and elements of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF). 1 ATF began arriving between April and June 1966, constructing a base at Nui Dat.
Australian signals intelligence (SIGINT) had tracked the 275th Regiment moving to a position just north of Long Tan. By 16 August, the PAVN were positioned near Long Tan outside the range of the artillery at Nui Dat. On the night of 16/17 August, mortars, recoilless rifles (RCLs) attacked Nui Dat from a position 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) to the east, which damaged the base and wounding 24 and killing 1, until a counter-battery caused it to cease. The next morning B Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6 RAR), departed Nui Dat to locate the firing points and the direction of the VC withdrawal and weapon pits were found including mortars and RCLs. D Company clashed with PAVN around midday August 18th. Facing a larger force, D Company had called down artillery in the monsoon. Heavy fighting ensued as the PAVN/VC attempted to encircle and destroy the Australians. After several hours two UH-1B Iroquois from No. 9 Squadron RAAF arrived overhead to resupply them. Supported by strong artillery fire, D Company held off a regimental assault before a relief force of cavalry and infantry from Nui Dat had reinforced them at night-time. The Australian forces had withdrawn to evacuate their casualties and formed a defensive position overnight. The next day Australian forces had swept the area though the PAVN/VC had withdrawn. The operation ended on 21 August. Although 1 ATF initially thought it had suffered a defeat, it was later thought to have been a victory in setting back the PAVN/VC from moving against Nui Dat.
The PAVN 275th Regiment and VC D445 Battalion held different interpretations of the battle's outcome. The D445 Battalion regarded the battle as a victory, with the initial mortaring intended to draw out 6 RAR units into an ambush. Following the initial ambush and due to the D445 Battalion holding the ground until the next day, this was regarded as political victory as they had secured the areas around Long Tan village itself. The 275th Regiment regard the battle as an operational failure as they were unable to wipe out the entire company, but consider that they gained a political victory by forcing a retreat until the next morning and earning greater support from the people of Phuoc Tuy. Additionally, whether the battle impaired the 275th Regiment is disputed, as they had launched attacks against the ARVN 18th Division a week later. The impact of the battle on the combat capability of the D445 Battalion is also in dispute, as they were redeployed against the 11th Armored Cavalry Task Force a month following the battle.
Several subsequent controversies about the battle arose, including fabrication of official events and embellishment of the roles of some senior officers, disputes over casualties, size of the attacking forces, and official histories of the battle which cite purported documents and anecdotal claims which remain uncorroborated. Australian official records of 245 PAVN/VC casualties led to some dissension from soldiers due to accusations body-counts were being inflated for public-relations purposes. Official records from the D445 Battalion and 275th Regiment indicate only 47 were KIA. One North Vietnamese regimental source states 150 were killed at the battle, and the 6 RAR D Company commander stating he "never saw more than 50 bodies". The true nature of the casualties sustained remains elusive, given that body counts were directly used to assess performance in the records of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).
Following the establishment of 1ATF's Nui Dat base in Operation Hardihood, standing patrols were established outside the base in the evening and clearing patrols sent out every morning and evening along the 12-kilometre (7.5 mi) perimeter. Daily platoon patrols and ambushes were initially conducted out to Line Alpha 4,000 metres (4,400 yd), which was the range of the VC mortars, but were later extended to Line Bravo 10,000 metres (11,000 yd) to counter the threat from artillery.
As part of the occupation of Nui Dat, all inhabitants of Long Phước and Long Hải villages within Lina Alpha were removed and resettled nearby. A protective security zone was then established and a free-fire zone declared. Although unusual for allied installations in Vietnam, many of which were located near populated areas, the Australians hoped to deny the VC observation of Nui Dat and afford greater security to patrols entering and exiting the area. Yet while adding to the physical security of the base, disrupting a major VC support area and removing the local population from danger, such measures may have been counter-productive. Indeed, the resettlement resulted in widespread resentment and it was debatable how much information the inhabitants would provide on VC movements, potentially creating an opportunity to attack Nui Dat without warning.
Meanwhile, the VC continued to observe the base from the Nui Dinh hills. Movement was heard around the perimeter over the first few nights as they attempted to locate the Australian defences under the cover of darkness and heavy rain. Although no clashes occurred and the reconnaissance soon ceased, they were believed to be finalising preparations for an attack. On 10 June reporting indicated a VC regiment was moving towards Nui Dat from the north-west and was about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) away. The same day three 120 mm mortar rounds landed just outside the base. That night Australian artillery fired on suspected movement along Route 2, although no casualties were found the next day. Further warnings of a four-battalion attack hastened the call-forward of 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6 RAR), which arrived from Vũng Tàu on 14 June. Despite such reports though no attack occurred, and the initial reaction to 1 ATF's lodgement proved unexpectedly limited.
The principal communist units in Phước Tuy were main forces from the 274th and 275th Regiments of the VC 5th Division. Under command of Senior Colonel Nguyen The Truyen, the division was headquartered in the Mây Tào Mountains. Operating in Phước Tuy, Biên Hòa and Long Khánh Provinces it comprised both South Vietnamese guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars. Given the task of isolating the eastern provinces from Saigon by interdicting the main roads and highways, including National Routes 1 and 15 and provincial routes 2 and 23, it proved a major challenge to Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units that might venture into the province, demonstrating a capacity to mount regimental-size ambushes. The 274th Regiment was the stronger and better trained of the two, based in the Hát Dịch in north-west Phước Tuy with three battalions—D800, D265 and D308—it numbered 2,000 men. The 275th Regiment was based in the Mây Tào Mountains and mainly operated in the east of the province. Commanded by Senior Captain Nguyen Thoi Bung (aka Ut Thoi), it consisted of three battalions—H421, H422 and H421—with a total of 1,850 men. In support was an artillery battalion equipped with 75 mm recoilless rifles (RCLs), 82 mm mortars, and 12.7 mm heavy machine-guns, an engineer battalion, a signals battalion and a sapper reconnaissance battalion, as well as medical and logistic units. Local forces included D445 Battalion, which normally operated in the south and in Long Khánh. Under command of Bui Quang Chanh (alias Sau Chanh), it consisted of three rifle companies—C1, C2, C3—and a weapons company, C4; a strength of 550 men.[Note 1] Recruited locally and operating in familiar terrain, they possessed an intimate knowledge of the area. Guerrilla forces numbered 400 men operating in groups of five to 60, with two companies in Châu Đốc district, one in Long Dat, and a platoon in Xuyên Mộc. In total, VC strength was alleged to have been around 4,500 men.
ARVN forces included the 52nd Ranger Battalion, a decorated unit that had previously earned a Presidential Unit Citation defeating the 275th Regiment a year prior, as well as relatively weak territorial forces of 17 Regional Force (RF) companies and 47 Popular Force (PF) platoons; in total some 4,500 men. Making up the bulk of government units in Phước Tuy, the territorial forces varied in standard. Although most villages were garrisoned by an RF company operating from a fortified compound, and PF platoons guarded most hamlets and important infrastructure, their value was questionable. RF companies were technically available for tasks throughout the province, while PF platoons were mostly restricted to operating around their village, yet both were primarily defensive. While RF and PF units occasionally defended themselves successfully they rarely conducted offensive operations, and even when they did they were usually limited. Mostly recruited from the same population as their opponents, they were subject to the same motivations and pressures, and often suffered equally at the hands of the VC and a largely inept government. Poorly trained and unable to rely on being reinforced, the territorial forces usually provided little opposition to the VC. A US Advisory Team operated in support, as did a few Australians from the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV); despite their efforts, the capabilities of the ARVN remained limited. Meanwhile, the arrival of 1 ATF further restricted their ability to operate in Phước Tuy as it increasingly came to dominate the province.
Initially, 1 ATF consisted of two infantry battalions—5 RAR commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Warr, and 6 RAR under Lieutenant Colonel Colin Townsend. Other units included the 1st APC Squadron operating M113 armoured personnel carriers; 1st Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery consisting of the New Zealand 161st Battery and two Australian batteries equipped with eighteen 105 mm L5 Pack Howitzers; as well as six 155 mm M109 self-propelled howitzers from the US A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 35th Artillery Regiment permanently attached at Nui Dat; 3rd SAS Squadron; 1st Field Squadron and 21st Engineer Support Troop; 103rd Signals Squadron; 161st Reconnaissance Flight operating Cessna 180s and Bell H-13 Sioux light observation helicopters; and an intelligence detachment. Support arrangements were provided by the 1st Australian Logistic Support Group (1 ALSG) established 30 kilometres (19 mi) south at Vũng Tàu, while eight UH-1B Iroquois helicopters from No. 9 Squadron RAAF also operated from that location. US forces provided considerable support including medium and heavy artillery, close air support, helicopter gunships, and additional utility, medium and heavy lift helicopters. The largest Australian force deployed since the Second World War, it had been rapidly assembled. Although many of 1 ATF's officers and non-commissioned personnel had extensive operational experience, it included many untried National Servicemen. Few had direct experience of counter-insurgency operations, and even less a first-hand understanding of the situation in Vietnam. The task force was unable to train together before departure.
With 1 ATF established at Nui Dat, subsequent operations included a series of search and destroy missions to gain control over Phước Tuy. Seeking to extend its influence beyond Line Alpha, in early July 5 RAR patrolled north through Nui Nghệ, while 6 RAR cleared Long Phước to the south, removing the former inhabitants who had returned since May. 5 RAR then began operations along Route 2, cordoning and searching Dục Mỹ on 19–20 July in preparation for the clearance of Bình Ba. Meanwhile, the SAS conducted long-range patrols to the edge of the TAOR, to provide early warning of VC concentrations. Despite such measures, the 274th and 275th Regiments eluded 1 ATF and were thought to be in the north-west and north-east of the province. Yet, with the 5th Division believed able to concentrate anywhere in Phước Tuy within 24 to 48 hours, it remained a significant threat. As 1 ATF began to impact the VC's freedom of action, a response was increasingly expected. Mortar fire and small probes on the Nui Dat perimeter had been anticipated and had occurred, with such activity a possible prelude to an attack. Regardless, assessments of VC intentions changed from those of May and June. Whereas previously a full-scale assault was expected, as Nui Dat's defences were strengthened an attack against an isolated company or battalion was considered more likely. Other possibilities included continued skirmishes or ambushes during routine patrolling, or an attempt to interdict a resupply convoy from Vũng Tàu.
By the end of July, a large VC force had been detected by SAS patrols east of Nui Dat, near the abandoned village of Long Tân. In response, 6 RAR launched a battalion search and destroy operation. During a series of fire-fights on 25 July, a company from D445 Battalion bounced off C Company, and in the process of retreating assaulted B Company occupying a blocking position, before being driven off with heavy casualties. In the following days, further clashes occurred around Long Tan, resulting in 13 VC killed and 19 wounded, and Australian losses of three killed and 19 wounded. Yet with the inhabitants resettled, the village fortified and the perimeter regularly patrolled, the Australians considered the area secure. However, with the 274th and 275th Regiments still at large, uncertainty resulted in growing tension in 1 ATF. Believing VC sympathisers had returned to Long Tân, they searched the area again on 29 July. That afternoon, as 6 RAR commenced a detailed search following its initial sweep, Jackson ordered its immediate return to Nui Dat in response to South Vietnamese reports of a large VC presence close to the base, with the battalion airlifted out by early evening. Although the warnings were unconfirmed and an attack against Nui Dat was considered unlikely, 1 ATF was re-postured. Company patrols were sent out in each direction over the following days, but found little of significance. Jackson had seemed to over-react, and his requests for assistance from US II Field Force, Vietnam were denied. Later intelligence discredited the original reporting and the crisis subsided, yet it was indicative of the alarms experienced during the first months of 1 ATF's lodgement, and their effect.
In early August 5 RAR continued operations along Route 2, including the cordon and search of Bình Ba which had been postponed in late July. The village was considered key to opening the north of the province and linking Bà Rịa to Xuân Lộc in Long Khánh Province, yet it was dominated by the VC, and with a population of 2,100 the operation would be complex. 5 RAR sealed off Bình Ba before first light on 9 August, supported by two companies from 6 RAR, as well as APCs, engineers and artillery. Accompanied by South Vietnamese police, they methodically searched the area while the inhabitants were provided with food and medical aid, followed by further searches of Dục Mỹ and Dục Trung. By 10 August Bình Ba and its approaches had been cleared and the Australians commenced searching the areas east and west of Route 2. Although little contact occurred, one Australian was killed on 14 August during a brief fire-fight after a group of VC approached their harbour. Route 2 was opened to civilian traffic on 18 August. By the conclusion of the operation, 17 VC had been apprehended and a further 77 suspects detained, destroying the Bình Ba guerrilla platoon, crippling the infrastructure of the insurgency and bringing the village under government influence, with an ARVN Ranger company later stationed there to maintain control. Achieved at little cost, it was believed a significant success. Warr in particular considered such operations vital to the pacification of Phước Tuy, arguing they were the only way to neutralise the VC infrastructure and were an essential first step in defeating the VC main forces, even if their effectiveness relied on the questionable ability of the government to rapidly establish competent administration and security.
After two months, 1 ATF had moved beyond the initial requirements of establishing itself and securing its immediate approaches, commencing operations to open the province. The task force had penetrated the VC base areas to the east and come off the better during a number of clashes with companies from D445 Battalion. Further operations had been conducted in the Núi Dinh hills to west, while road operations along Routes 15 and 23 demonstrated their viability, Bình Ba had been cleared of VC influence and Route 2 opened to civilian traffic. Yet the ongoing need to secure Nui Dat reduced the combat power available to the task force commander, and it was evident that with only two battalions—rather than the usual three—1 ATF lacked operational flexibility, as while one battalion carried out operations the other was required to secure the base and provide a ready reaction force. Significant logistic problems also plagued the task force, as 1 ALSG struggled to become operational amid the sand dunes at Vũng Tàu, resulting in shortages of vital equipment. By the middle of August, the Australian troops were growing tired from constant day and night patrolling with no respite from base defence duties. A rest and recreation program began, with many granted two days leave in Vũng Tàu, but this further stretched the limited forces available to 1 ATF. Meanwhile, in response to the growing threat posed by the Australians, the commander of the VC 5th Division finally ordered the 275th Regiment to move against Nui Dat.
For several weeks, Australian signals intelligence (SIGINT) had tracked a radio transmitter from the headquarters of the 275th Regiment moving westwards to a position just north of Long Tân using radio direction finding; however, extensive patrolling failed to find the unit. Provided by the top secret 547 Signals Troop, the reports began on 29 July at the height of the false alarm, with the radio detected moving towards Nui Dat from a position north of Xuyên Mộc. It continued at a rate of 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) a day and by 13 August was located near the Nui Dat 2 feature, a hill in the vicinity of Long Tân, 5,000 metres (5,500 yd) east of Nui Dat. Although direction finding only indicated the movement of the radio, and no transmissions had been intercepted, it suggested the presence of the 275th Regiment, or at least a reconnaissance party of that unit. While deception could not be ruled out, Jackson took the threat seriously and a number of company patrols were sent out. Yet the existence of a SIGINT capability was a closely guarded secret, and knowledge of the source of the reports had been limited to Jackson, his two intelligence officers, and the 1 ATF operations officer, while neither battalion commander had access. On 15 August D Company, 6 RAR patrolled to Nui Dat 2 and returned through the Long Tân rubber plantation. The following day A Company, 6 RAR departed on a three-day patrol on a route which included Nui Dat 2 and the ridge to the north-west. Any sizeable VC force in the vicinity would have been located, but neither patrol found anything of significance. SAS patrols focused on the Núi Dinh hills to the west.
By 16 August, the communist force was positioned east of the Long Tân rubber plantation, just outside the range of the artillery at Nui Dat. The operation was thought to have been planned by Colonel Nguyen Thanh Hong, a staff officer from the VC 5th Division who was likely in overall control. Although VC intentions have been debated in the years since, the aim was likely both a political and military victory, resolving to prove their strength to the local population and undermine Australian public support for the war. They would probably have known one of 1 ATF's battalions was involved in the search of Bình Ba and may have considered Nui Dat weakly defended as a result. Undetected, it likely consisted of three battalions of the 275th Regiment with approximately 1,400 men, possibly reinforced by at least one regular PAVN battalion, and D445 Battalion with up to 350 men.[Note 2] Well armed, they were equipped with AK-47 and SKS assault rifles, RPG-2 rocket-propelled grenades, light machine-guns, mortars and RCLs. Large quantities of ammunition were carried, with each man issued two or three grenades, and grenadiers up to 10 or 12, as well as a reserve of small arms, mortar bombs and rounds for their crew-served weapons. Meanwhile, the 274th Regiment was probably located 15 to 20 kilometres (9.3 to 12.4 mi) north-west, occupying a position on Route 2 to ambush a squadron of the US 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment which they anticipated would move down the inter-provincial highway from Long Khánh to support the Australians.
Opening moves, 16/17 August 1966Edit
At 02:43 on the night of 16/17 August Nui Dat was heavily bombarded by the VC, being hit by over 100 rounds from several 82 mm mortars, 75 mm RCLs and an old Japanese 70 mm howitzer fired from a position 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) to the east. Most of the infantry were deployed at the time, with 5 RAR still engaged on Operation Holsworthy, although a small stay behind party remained. A Company, 6 RAR was on patrol in the north-east of the TAOR, while a platoon from C Company was manning a night ambush to the south-east. Continuing for 22 minutes, it damaged vehicles and tents and wounded 24 men, one of whom later died. The impact was spread over the south and south-east, with the 103rd Field Battery heaviest hit. Despite coming under fire, the guns from the 1st Field Regiment, RAA were quickly brought into action, commencing counter-battery fire at 02:50. As the artillery locating radar was suspected of being faulty, this was done using compass bearings on sound and flash. After the likely firing point was plotted, a regimental fire mission of 10 rounds was fired from each gun totalling 240 rounds, and the mortaring ceased. With the attack over, the Australians remained alert in case of a ground assault; however, no follow up occurred. Regardless, the artillery continued to shell suspected firing positions and withdrawal routes until 04:10. Although the VC were expected to have withdrawn, several company patrols would be dispatched the following morning to search the area east of Nui Dat in response.
Townsend ordered B Company under Major Noel Ford to prepare for a patrol to locate the firing points which were believed to be in the area between the abandoned villages of Long Tân, Long Phước, and the Nui Dat 2 feature. Having done so, it was to establish the direction of the VC withdrawal. Meanwhile, a platoon from C Company mounted in APCs was to investigate a suspected base plate location south-west of Nui Dat. A Company would continue its patrol in the vicinity of Nui Dat 2, while 7 Platoon, C Company—already conducting a night ambush on the southern edge of the TAOR—would search a number of sites as it returned that morning. No SAS patrols were deployed as a result of the attack, although several had previously been planned to the north between Bình Ba and the Courtenay plantation in preparation for upcoming operations, and went ahead unchanged. Another patrol was inserted near the Song Rai, 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) north-east of Nui Dat, on the morning of 17 August. Noting signs of significant activity soon afterwards, it located several tracks moving west made approximately six hours earlier, possibly by a VC logistic unit. Yet the patrol was compromised and due to radio interference and faulty equipment the information was unable to be reported until extraction two days later. Australian intelligence continued to assess a ground attack against Nui Dat as unlikely. But with the bombardment a likely indicator of further offensive action against 1 ATF, Jackson felt he would be unable to adequately respond with only one battalion. 5 RAR was therefore ordered to return to Nui Dat, and was expected back by 18 August.
Although SIGINT had earlier alerted Jackson to the possible presence of a strong VC force in the vicinity of Nui Dat 2, patrols of the area revealed nothing and as a consequence B Company did not expect to meet significant opposition. Stepping off early on 17 August they believed they would not be out long and were only lightly equipped in patrol order, lacking sleeping gear and rations. With just 80 men—including many due to commence leave in Vũng Tàu the following day—they were significantly under-strength. Crossing the Suối Da Bang creek, the firing point of the mortars was soon located as were signs of the VC withdrawal as they pushed further east. Meanwhile, A Company, 6 RAR under Captain Charles Mollison continued its patrol north of Nui Dat 2, and was involved in three minor clashes, killing one VC and wounding two. B Company was subsequently given the task of remaining in the area and searching to the north and east the following day, and was met by porters that afternoon to supply them with rations. 9 Platoon, C Company returned to Nui Dat with nothing to report, leaving A and B Company to harbour in their night locations. Speculation about the size of the VC in the area increased. Captain Bryan Wickens, the 6 RAR Intelligence Officer, assessed that the presence of medium mortars, RCLs and artillery likely indicated a significant force. Due to growing uncertainty about VC intentions, Jackson agreed the patrol scheduled for 18 August should be increased from platoon to company size. D Company, 6 RAR under command of Major Harry Smith had previously been detailed for a three-day patrol south-east of Nui Dat and was instead ordered to relieve B Company the next day to continue the search. Despite this, neither Townsend nor Smith were warned of the possible presence of the 275th Regiment.
Patrolling east of Nui Dat, 18 August 1966Edit
After unexpectedly spending the night in the bush, the men from B Company scheduled to go on leave returned to Nui Dat the following morning. At 07:05 the depleted company—reduced to a single platoon and Company Headquarters—continued the search east as far as the edge of the rubber plantation, while A Company searched down the Suối Da Bang towards them. A number of weapon pits were subsequently located, as were the firing positions of the mortars and RCLs, while discarded clothing and bloodstains found nearby confirmed the accuracy of the Australian artillery. At Nui Dat D Company, 6 RAR prepared for its patrol, test firing weapons and packing equipment. Despite the earlier bombardment only the standard ammunition load would be taken. Lightly armed, they carried just 60 rounds for their L1A1 and M16 rifles, and 200 rounds for each M60 machine-gun. Smith was briefed by Wickens who highlighted the likely presence of a VC force equipped with mortars, assessing it would be incapable of mounting an ambush due to the effect of the counter-battery fire. While the size of the force was unknown it was unlikely to be small and the possibility it was part of a larger force preparing to move against Nui Dat could not be discounted. The VC were believed able to attack a company-sized force and to launch mortar attacks similar to that the previous morning. Smith then discussed the patrol with Townsend. If B Company had located the withdrawal route used by the mortar crews, he was to follow it with the aim of interdiction; otherwise he was to continue the search until it was located. Assuming D445 Battalion to be the only unit in the area from the information available, Smith believed they were looking for that unit's heavy weapons platoon of approximately 30 to 40 men. He briefed his platoon commanders accordingly, although he also felt the VC would have long since left the area. Meanwhile, 5 RAR (minus one company) returned to Nui Dat.
D Company departed Nui Dat at 11:00 on 18 August. Led by Smith and accompanied by a three-man New Zealand artillery forward observer party under Captain Maurice Stanley, the 108-man company set off quickly. Already behind schedule and with B Company having been out for longer than expected, Smith wanted to relieve Ford before more time elapsed and then follow the VC tracks to continue the pursuit that afternoon. Opting for speed, he adopted single file, with 12 Platoon under Second Lieutenant David Sabben in the lead. Despite the heat the company moved at a fast pace, traversing the low scrub, swamp and paddy fields as they closed in on B Company's position. Meanwhile, the rock and roll acts Little Pattie and Col Joye and the Joy Boys had flown into Nui Dat and were setting up for the afternoon concert. Many of the Australians were disappointed at the prospect of missing the entertainment, and as they patrolled east they occasionally heard the music through the trees. At 13:00 they met up with B Company on the edge of the Long Tân rubber plantation, approximately 2,500 metres (2,700 yd) from Nui Dat. D Company moved into all-round defence and sentries were posted. While the soldiers had lunch, Smith and Ford inspected the area with a small protection party. The position appeared to have been used by the VC as a staging area prior to the bombardment two nights before, while signs of casualties having been evacuated by cart were located. Blood stains and a quantity of equipment and sandals were also found. The mortar and RCL firing locations were also examined. After briefing Smith, Ford and the remainder of B Company turned for Nui Dat. D Company subsequently took over the pursuit.
Smith decided to follow signs of a fresh track leading north-east. Setting off at 15:00, D Company paralleled a well-defined track running slightly uphill. Second Lieutenant Gordon Sharp's 11 Platoon was in the lead, followed by Company Headquarters, with 10 Platoon on the left under Second Lieutenant Geoff Kendall, and 12 Platoon on the right. Each platoon moved in open formation, with two sections forward in arrowhead and one back, on a frontage of approximately 160 metres (170 yd). Moving deeper into the plantation, the older trees and patchy undergrowth gave way to straight rows of clean rubber which afforded long views in one direction, but limited visibility in others. After 200 metres (220 yd) the track divided into two which ran roughly east-south-east in parallel, 300 metres (330 yd) apart. At the junction D Company found evidence of the VC mortars having been prepared for firing, while more scattered equipment was found which again indicated the accuracy of the counter-battery fire and a rapid withdrawal. Unable to cover both tracks, Smith radioed Townsend to discuss the situation. It was decided D Company would take the more easterly track, towards the limit of the range of their covering artillery. Smith adopted a "two up, one back" formation, with 10 Platoon on the left and 11 Platoon on the higher ground to the right. Company Headquarters was central, with 12 Platoon following to the rear. Well dispersed with about 10 metres (11 yd) between each man, the company had a total frontage of 400 metres (440 yd) and was about the same in depth. Amid the trees observation was 150 to 200 metres (160 to 220 yd), allowing visual contact between Smith and his platoons. While standard for Australian infantry in such terrain, this spacing was larger than that usually adopted by ARVN or US units.
D Company moved off again. Shortly after 11 Platoon's lead section crossed a dirt road running south-west to north-east. Straight, well-established and sunken with a clearing on either side, it was 20 to 30 metres (22 to 33 yd) wide and required them to complete an obstacle-crossing drill to traverse it. At 15:40, just as the forward sections entered the tree line on the other side, but before platoon headquarters could follow, a group of six to eight VC approached their right flank along the track from the south. Unaware of their presence, the VC squad continued into the middle of the platoon. One was hit in a brief action after the platoon sergeant, Sergeant Bob Buick, engaged them, while the remainder scattered. They rapidly moved south-east, and although the Australians believed it just another fleeting contact, artillery was called onto their likely withdrawal route 500 metres (550 yd) south. After pausing to reorganise, 11 Platoon moved into extended line, sweeping the area and recovering an AK-47 and the body of a VC soldier. Sharp reported to Smith that the Viet Cong had been dressed in khaki uniforms and were carrying automatic weapons, yet D445 Battalion soldiers typically wore black and were equipped with US-origin bolt-action rifles or carbines. At the time only main force units were so equipped, but the significance was not immediately apparent as the Australians attempted to follow up. With the area clear following the initial contact, Smith ordered D Company to continue the advance. Meanwhile, Second Lieutenant David Harris was at Headquarters 1 ATF at Nui Dat when the first reports came in. As Jackson's aide he was aware of the intelligence being received and believed D Company had clashed with a main force regiment. Harris alerted Jackson, before telephoning Major Bob Hagerty—officer commanding 1st APC Squadron—to warn him of the possible requirement for his standby troop.
Moving forward again, D Company continued east. 11 Platoon's rapid follow-up had opened a 500-metre (550 yd) gap with Company Headquarters, while the two lead platoons were also widely dispersed. 11 Platoon penetrated further into the plantation, widening the gap with 10 Platoon to more than 300 metres (330 yd). Although 12 Platoon in the rear covered most of the ground bypassed by the forward platoons, the gap was such that their flanking sections had lost sight of each other, while Smith was unable to see them either in the dense vegetation. At that distance, the spacing between the Australians was now greater than the maximum effective range of their weapons. Meanwhile, 11 Platoon had moved forward approximately 250 metres (270 yd) from the first engagement. As Smith reached the site of the contact, the sound of firing continued to the front as Sharp manoeuvred his sections in pursuit of the withdrawing force. Still in extended line, 11 Platoon came across a rubber tapper's hut. Believing sounds coming from it were from VC hiding there, Sharp launched a platoon attack; but the VC had already fled, and the assaulting sections found only two grenades as they swept through the area. Advancing with three sections abreast—6 Section on the left, 4 Section in the centre and 5 Section on the right—they pushed on through the rubber towards a clearing. This formation allowed them to cover a broad front, but offered little flank security.
At 16:08, shortly after resuming the advance, 11 Platoon's left flank was engaged by machine-gun fire from an undetected VC force, killing and wounding several men from 6 Section. They went to ground and adopted firing positions, only to be engaged by a second machine-gun firing tracer. The firing lasted two to three minutes then stopped, and Sharp then ordered 5 Section to sweep across the front of the platoon from the right. Yet just as they began to move, they came under heavy small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire from their front and both flanks. Pinned down by the weight of fire, and under threat of being overrun, the isolated platoon was forced to fight for their lives. Over the next 10 to 15 minutes the Viet Cong engaged 11 Platoon with heavy fire, putting their left flank out of action. At that moment a heavy monsoon rain began which reduced visibility to just 50 metres (55 yd) and turned the ground to mud. Assessing the VC to be in greater strength than previously thought and believing they were preparing to assault his position, Sharp called for artillery fire as he moved to bring his exposed section back into line and then gradually draw his platoon into all-round defence. He subsequently reported being under fire from a force estimated to be platoon-sized. The Australians had started the contact thinking they were numerically superior and would attack the VC, yet far from clashing with a small force which would try to withdraw before being decisively engaged, 11 Platoon had run into the forward troops of a main force regiment. Beginning as an encounter battle, heavy fighting ensued as the advancing battalions of the 275th Regiment and D445 Battalion clashed with D Company, 6 RAR and attempted to encircle and destroy them.
11 Platoon isolatedEdit
Amid the noise of machine-gun and rifle fire and the VC bugle calls, Stanley quickly brought the 161st Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery into action to support the Australian infantry. Yet as he was unable to see them, for safety reasons the initial rounds were directed a distance from 11 Platoon's known location, before "walking" the fire in to between 200 to 300 metres (220 to 330 yd) of their position, aided by D Company's favourable location between the VC and the gunline at Nui Dat, which allowed the rounds to pass over their heads and fall away from them. Landing beyond 11 Platoon, the rounds exploded amid the VC as they began to form up for an assault. But with 11 Platoon engaged from its left, front and right, it became clear the VC force was stronger than a platoon, and was probably at least company-sized. Supported by heavy machine-guns, they launched a series of assaults against 11 Platoon, only to be held off by small arms and artillery fire. As the fighting continued, Stanley realised a single artillery battery would be insufficient, and at 16:19 requested a regimental fire mission using all 24 guns of the 1st Field Regiment. The VC continued their assault regardless, surging around the flanks of 11 Platoon. The Australians responded with controlled small arms fire, picking off a number of VC soldiers as the rain and artillery continued to fall. After making the required corrections, Stanley requested another regimental fire mission at 16:22, yet still unable to see the rounds land he had to work entirely from radio communications with 11 Platoon, adjusting the fire over an area of 200 metres (220 yd) using just a map.
Less than 20 minutes after the first contact more than a third of 11 Platoon had been killed or wounded. Several 60 mm light mortar rounds were subsequently fired towards the D Company position and although they landed to the east they further separated the remainder of the company from 11 Platoon, putting the main body behind a slight rise. At 16:26 Smith reported to Townsend that D Company was facing a force of company-size and that they were using mortars, urgently calling for artillery support. Shortly afterwards Sharp was shot and killed after he raised himself to observe the fall of shot. With the platoon commander dead, Buick took charge of 11 Platoon, directing the artillery through Stanley. Unable to extricate itself, 11 Platoon was almost surrounded as the VC continued to assault their position. Taking heavy casualties and running short of ammunition, Buick radioed for assistance. Soon after the aerial of the platoon's radio was shot away and communications lost. Meanwhile, Smith requested aerial fire support from armed CH-47 Chinooks or an air-strike to deal with the mortars. In response, Stanley organised counter-battery fire from the American 155 mm self-propelled howitzers at Nui Dat, which appeared to silence them. These mortars were not the 82 mm variants that had bombarded Nui Dat on 16/17 August; and although no further mortar fire was reported at the time, they may have fired at B Company later in the battle.
Meanwhile, 10 Platoon was approximately 200 metres (220 yd) to the north and Smith ordered it to move up on the left of 11 Platoon to try to relieve pressure on them and allow a withdrawal back to the company defensive position. Dropping their packs, Kendall's platoon wheeled to the south-east in extended line, advancing towards 11 Platoon. As they came over a small rise, through the rain they observed a VC platoon of 30 to 40 men advancing south, firing on 11 Platoon as they attempted to outflank them. Advancing to close range before dropping to their knees to adopt firing positions, 10 Platoon engaged them from the rear, hitting a large number and breaking up the attack. As the surviving VC withdrew, Kendall pushed on. Yet shortly after 10 Platoon was engaged on three sides from a heavy machine-gun firing tracer from the high ground of the Nui Dat 2 feature 400 metres (440 yd) to their left, wounding the signaller and damaging the radio, putting it out of action. Now also without communications, and still 100 to 150 metres (110 to 160 yd) from 11 Platoon, 10 Platoon moved into a defensive position, fighting to hold on. Finally, a runner arrived from Company Headquarters with a replacement radio, having moved 200 to 300 metres (220 to 330 yd) through heavy fire as he tried to locate the platoon, killing two VC with his Owen gun on the way. With the wounded starting to arrive back at Smith's position and communications with 10 Platoon restored, he ordered Kendall to pull back under cover of the artillery. 10 Platoon was ultimately forced back to its start point.
Reaction at Nui DatEdit
It appeared the VC would shortly overrun D Company if they were not soon reinforced. Yet, with 1 ATF lacking sufficient forces to maintain a dedicated reserve at Nui Dat, no suitable quick reaction force was prepared to deploy at short notice. Consequently, it would take several hours to organise a relief force. Although essentially a sub-unit battle fought by a rifle company supported by artillery and co-ordinated by Townsend from the 6 RAR command post at Nui Dat, Jackson was concerned. Not only was D Company in trouble, but the entire force might be under threat, while the additional resources available to the task force might be required. As a result, he remained in constant contact with Townsend, although ultimate control remained with the latter. VC radio jamming on the Battalion Command net forced them to switch frequencies to communicate with D Company, while with such a capability rarely found below divisional-level, they were likely more outnumbered than first thought. At 16:30 Townsend ordered A Company to prepare to reinforce them, despite themselves only having returned from a three-day patrol an hour prior. Intending to lead the company out himself and take command of the battle, 3 Troop, 1st APC Squadron under Lieutenant Adrian Roberts was also warned to be ready to lift the relief force. US ground attack aircraft at Bien Hoa Air Base were also placed on alert by Headquarters 1 ATF. Meanwhile, on hearing the sounds of the fighting while returning to Nui Dat, B Company halted 2,300 metres (2,500 yd) short of the base and was ordered to rejoin D Company. Apparently under close observation by the VC, they were engaged by two 60 mm mortars as they turned around, but took no casualties.
Requiring the task force commander's permission to send out the relief force and to accompany it, Townsend telephoned Jackson. Concerned for the safety of the entire force, Jackson was initially reluctant to authorise its dispatch should it weaken the position at Nui Dat. Although he was unsure of the size of the VC facing D Company, from Smith's reports it appeared to be at least a regular battalion. Intelligence suggested it was likely from the 275th Regiment, although the location of its remaining two battalions were unknown, as was that of D445 Battalion. The whereabouts of the 274th Regiment was equally unclear. While radio direction finding suggested it may have been near Phước Tuy's northern border, three weeks earlier it had been reported close to the western side of the Australian TAOR, and one of its battalions had (incorrectly) been believed involved in an attack on Phú Mỹ in the south-west of the province on 11 August. Consequently, Jackson reasoned that if the battle unfolding near Long Tân was the opening phase of an attack on Nui Dat, the main assault was still to come, and he would need the bulk of his forces to defend the task force base. He considered the commitment of A Company would tie up the bulk of 6 RAR and the artillery. Yet Townsend believed Nui Dat's defences sufficient to deter such an attack, even if they remained incomplete, while the strategic reserve held by US II FFV could also be enacted if required. Ultimately Jackson gave in-principle support to the plan, but would not release the relief force until he thought it warranted.
By 16:50, it was apparent to Smith that he was facing a force of at least battalion-strength. Yet with his two forward platoons still separated and unable to support each other, D Company was badly positioned for a defensive battle. 10 Platoon had been prevented from engaging the VC attacking 11 Platoon, and was unable to support its withdrawal. Meanwhile, 11 Platoon had gone to ground in extended line following the initial contact, leaving its flanks vulnerable, while its aggressive push forward prior to the engagement also complicated the application of artillery support, which had to be switched to support each platoon as required rather than allowing it to be concentrated. Unable to see either platoon, the D Company forward observer was unsure of 11 Platoon's exact position, further delaying the process. As a consequence 10 and 11 Platoons were each forced to fight their own battles, and despite the weight of the indirect fire increasingly becoming available to support the Australian infantry, the VC were able to apply superior fire power as they tried to isolate and attack each platoon in turn. To retrieve the situation, Smith planned to pull his company into an all-round defensive position enabling his platoons to support each other fighting a co-ordinated battle, and to care for the wounded until a relief force could arrive to assist. Seemingly intent on attacking Nui Dat, the VC moved to overrun the beleaguered force, but the dispersal of the Australian platoons made it difficult for them to find D Company's flanks and roll them up, and may have led the VC commander to believe he was engaging a much larger force.
In the meantime, Buick repaired the 11 Platoon radio and re-established communications with Company Headquarters, and with Stanley, who was again able to adjust the artillery by radio. Yet the VC succeeded in closing to within 50 metres (55 yd) of 11 Platoon's position, and much of the artillery was beginning to fall behind them. Although the fire was probably impacting the VC rear area and causing considerable casualties there, these assault troops had deliberately closed with the Australians to negate its effect. Buick estimated 11 Platoon was being assaulted by at least two companies; down to the last of their ammunition and with just 10 of its 28 men still able to fight, he feared they would soon be overrun and destroyed, and were unlikely to survive beyond the next 10 to 15 minutes. Confident the rest of D Company would be attempting to reach them, but unable to see how that might occur, Buick requested artillery fire onto his own position despite the danger this entailed. Stanley refused, but after confirming 11 Platoon's precarious situation, he was able to walk the artillery in closer. Landing 50 to 100 metres (160 to 330 ft) to their front, the artillery detonated among a large concentration of VC troops, destroying an entire assault line as they formed up. At 17:00, three US F-4 Phantoms arrived on station for an airstrike arranged by Battalion Headquarters.
At 17:02, Smith reported D Company was running low on ammunition and required aerial resupply. With just three magazines carried by each rifleman, they were only lightly equipped prior to the battle. This was a standard load calculated on 1 RAR usage rates which had been enough during previous actions, but it proved insufficient for sustained fighting. Due to the thick vegetation, the ammunition boxes would need to be dropped through the trees, and intending on moving his headquarters behind a low knoll, Smith nominated a point 400 metres (440 yd) west. This position would afford greater protection, while the helicopters would be less likely to attract ground fire. Yet with their casualties now unable to be moved, D Company would have to remain where it was. Townsend passed the ammunition demand to Headquarters 1 ATF. In response, Jackson requested two UH-1B Iroquois from No. 9 Squadron RAAF to deliver it; however, the senior RAAF officer at Nui Dat, Group Captain Peter Raw, was not prepared to risk aircraft hovering at tree-top height in the heavy rain where they would be exposed to ground fire, citing Department of Air regulations. Relations between the Army and RAAF over the use of the helicopters had become increasingly bitter in the preceding months, and were still tenuous despite recent improvements. Jackson requested American assistance, and when the US Army liaison officer responded more favourably, Raw felt no alternative than to accede to the original request, offering to effect the resupply instead. By coincidence, two RAAF Iroquois were available at Nui Dat, having been used for the concert, and were committed to support D Company.
Smith requested close air support, calling for the waiting aircraft to drop napalm across 11 Platoon's eastern frontage. The Phantoms soon arrived, but the rain and low cloud obscured the coloured smoke the Australians had thrown to mark their position through the trees. Stanley was forced to halt the artillery while the aircraft flew overhead, but as Smith was unable to establish communications with the forward air observer he wanted the aircraft to move out of the area so it could resume firing. Townsend directed the aircraft to attack the forward slopes of Nui Dat 2 instead, believing the VC command element to be located there. The artillery began to fall again as the VC formed assault waves, preventing D Company being overrun. Major Harry Honnor—officer commanding 161st Battery, RNZA attached to 6 RAR in direct support—served as Townsend's artillery advisor at Nui Dat and during the battle controlled the fires of the three field batteries, as well as directing the American medium artillery against depth targets. On the ground, Stanley called down the fire himself or relayed the direction of the assault, from which Honnor selected targets and ordered the fire, which was then adjusted by Stanley using sound ranging to bring it closer. Despite the rain and the soft ground reducing the impact of the artillery, its effectiveness was aided by otherwise favourable technical conditions. This included the location of the infantry between the guns and the assaulting VC, the convenient range of 5,000 to 6,000 metres (5,500 to 6,600 yd) at which the engagement occurred, good communications afforded by the newly issued AN/PRC-25 radios, the air burst effect created by rounds exploding in the trees, and the large supply of rounds stock-piled at Nui Dat.
Having been repulsed on the left, Smith tried the right flank. Pushing his headquarters forward, he ordered Sabben to move 12 Platoon—until then held in reserve—up on the right to support 11 Platoon. Yet as new radio traffic was received, Smith was again forced to ground to work on fresh orders, while the arrival of an increasing number of casualties required the establishment of an aid post in the dead ground, which effectively tied them in location and prevented further manoeuvre. Meanwhile, at 17:05 Roberts arrived at the 6 RAR headquarters at Nui Dat with his troop of 10 APCs, and was quickly briefed by the Operations Officer on the situation before departing to pick up A Company from their lines. After more than an hour of fighting, D Company was still widely dispersed; 10 Platoon had been unable to break through to 11 Platoon from the north, while there remained only a slight chance 12 Platoon would have more success from the north-west. With the VC enjoying a considerable numerical advantage, Smith feared his platoons would be defeated in detail and that it was only a matter of time before his entire company would be overrun, despite the devastating effect of the artillery on the VC assault formations. 12 Platoon departed at 17:15, moving south-east in an attempt to retrieve the now cut-off 11 Platoon, but having been forced to leave 9 Section behind to protect Company Headquarters and support the wounded, with just two sections it was significantly under-strength.
At 17:20 Smith requested an airmobile assault to reinforce his position; however, due to the bad weather, poor visibility, time of day and lack of a suitable landing zone this was considered impossible. Instead, Townsend informed him an infantry company mounted in APCs would be dispatched as a relief force. Yet Jackson was reluctant to reduce the defences at Nui Dat, considering the attack a possible feint. Consequently, although Smith repeatedly pressed Townsend, there had been a delay of more than an hour from when the relief force was ordered to ready themselves until Roberts was allowed to move.[Note 3] Townsend finally ordered the relief force to move at 17:30, having received Jackson's approval. A Company, 6 RAR and 3 Troop had been on standby in the company lines and departed fifteen minutes later. But with the route largely dictated by the terrain, the possibility of the relief force being ambushed concerned Townsend and Jackson. Regardless, given the dire situation, they saw no alternative; and considered it unlikely, given the ground had been covered by frequent patrols, the proximity of D Company's position to Nui Dat, the open country between the base and rubber plantation, plus it was not yet dark. With 5 RAR back at Nui Dat, Jackson ordered it to take over the defensive positions normally occupied by 6 RAR, while deploying a platoon to the 1st APC Squadron lines, and placing D Company, 5 RAR on one hour's notice to move if required. The remainder of the battalion prepared to repel any attack on Nui Dat or to pursue the VC if they withdrew.
Meanwhile, after departing D Company's position, the two sections from 12 Platoon moved south towards the sound of firing heard approximately 400 metres (440 yd) away. Unaware of the exact position of 11 Platoon, Sabben instead located the rubber tapper's hut (previously assaulted by Sharp in the opening phases of the battle). As they advanced, they were forced to fight off an attack on their right flank, before eventually pushing forward another 100 metres (110 yd). By this time, the VC had succeeded in pushing behind 11 Platoon in an effort to outflank them, and a large force clashed with 12 Platoon as they attempted to come to their aid. Advancing from the north, two VC platoons then assaulted the Australians, who were now heavily engaged from three directions. Meeting a similar fate to 10 Platoon, Sabben's men were forced to ground 150 metres (160 yd) short of their objective, and were themselves in danger of being encircled. Sustaining increasing casualties, they clashed with several groups of VC trying to move around their western flank to get between 11 and 12 Platoon and form a cut-off force prior to mounting a frontal assault. In so doing, 12 Platoon succeeded in opening a path to 11 Platoon, yet after 45 minutes under fire Sabben was unable to advance any further, and with the rain reducing visibility to just 70 metres (77 yd) he was unsure of Buick's location.
At 18:00 two RAAF UH-1B Iroquois piloted by Flight Lieutenants Cliff Dohle and Frank Riley arrived over D Company's location with the ammunition resupply, and guided by red smoke thrown by the infantry, they hovered in the heavy rain just above the rubber trees near a small clearing. Because they were to be dropped from some height, the wooden outer crates—which were still banded with metal straps—were wrapped in blankets for the wounded. Aboard the helicopters the 6 RAR Regimental Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class One George Chinn, and the officer commanding Administration Company, Major Owen O'Brien, pushed the crates out to the soldiers waiting below, many of whom were now very low on ammunition. The boxes landed in the centre of the position and the RAAF pilots were later praised for their skill and daring. Riley was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Dohle was mentioned in despatches (MiD). Yet, without tools to cut the straps, the infantry had to smash the crates open using machetes or the butts of their rifles to get to the inner metal boxes. Under heavy fire Warrant Officer Class Two Jack Kirby, the Company Sergeant Major, and Sergeant Neill Rankin, the 12 Platoon sergeant, began to distribute the ammunition. However, while the machine-gun rounds were pre-loaded in belts, the rifle rounds were still in bandoliers, complicating Kirby's job and forcing the soldiers to reload their own magazines as they struggled to keep the ammunition clean in the mud and rain. The resupply retrieved the situation for D Company. Prior to its arrival they had been down to their last 100 rounds, but with it complete the Australians resumed firing, forcing the VC back for a third time.
D Company regroupsEdit
Despite being exposed to heavy fire from three sides, 11 Platoon had maintained its position for over two hours, narrowly holding off the VC with small arms fire and massive artillery support. However, many of the platoon had been killed or wounded, while most of the survivors were now out of ammunition. To their rear Sabben threw yellow smoke in the hope it would be seen through the trees by the beleaguered platoon. Finally, with the close artillery fire causing heavy casualties among the assaulting VC, Buick decided to take advantage of a temporary lull in the fighting to achieve a clean break. Intending to withdraw 100 to 150 metres (110 to 160 yd) west to regroup, on his signal the platoon rose to their feet. One of the Australians was immediately shot and killed as he did so, while two more were wounded before they reached a position of temporary safety. From this location Buick could see yellow smoke 75 to 100 metres (82 to 109 yd) away, and believing it to be Smith's headquarters, 11 Platoon moved towards it calling out to identify themselves as they approached. Locating 12 Platoon instead, but still finding themselves heavily engaged, the two platoons then moved back to the company position covered by the artillery and torrential rain. By 18:10 D Company had reformed, while the VC appeared to have momentarily broken contact. Having concentrated his company, Smith began to re-organise it into a position of all-round defence.
Smith attempted to place his depleted platoons into a defendable position, yet D Company's location had been dictated by the actions of the VC and the need to care for the wounded, and as a result they had little choice of where to make their stand. However, with the Australians occupying a shallow fold in the ground on a reverse slope the terrain proved decisive. Against this position the VC found it difficult to use their heavy calibre weapons effectively and could only engage at close range. Meanwhile, the jungle covered Nui Dat 2 feature lay 1,000 metres (1,100 yd) to the north-east, while an impenetrable wall of thick bamboo and scrub abutted the lower slopes to its west, following the northern edge of the rubber plantation 200 metres (220 yd) from D Company's position, running north-east to west. In contrast, the remainder of the position faced the relatively open rubber plantation. Believing the northern approach unsuitable for a major assault, Smith assessed the most likely VC course of action to be a frontal assault from the east, or a flanking attack from either the south or south-west. As a consequence, he placed 10 and 12 Platoons in positions on the southern and eastern flanks, while the badly mauled 11 Platoon was allocated a position to the north-west. Company Headquarters was located in the south-west. During the lull, Smith walked around the position to gain an understanding of the situation and check the wounded. With one platoon almost destroyed, and the other two at approximately 75 percent strength, D Company had been battered but morale remained high. While Smith tied in the platoons, Kirby completed the distribution of ammunition and Stanley plotted new defensive fire tasks for the artillery.
The respite proved only brief as the VC soon located the Australian position. At 18:20 they re-engaged D Company with concentrated machine-gun fire from the east and south-east as they reorganised for a further attack. Movement was soon detected through the trees; however, at a distance of 150 to 200 metres (160 to 220 yd) the Australians thought they may have been B Company, and only engaged the Viet Cong as they moved out of range to the north. By following up the withdrawal of 12 Platoon and conducting a number of probes, the attackers succeeded in confirming D Company's position. A company-sized VC force subsequently formed up to their south on a broad frontage which threatened to engulf them. The assault commenced at 18:35, with several bugle blasts marking the beginning of a series of human wave attacks against D Company. Well spaced, the assault force stepped-off at a fast walk supported by a company in reserve which moved 90 metres (98 yd) to their rear. Yet as they did so an accurate barrage from the Australian artillery fell among them, effectively destroying the rear echelon. The assault force continued on regardless, only to be engaged with small arms just 50 metres (55 yd) from the forward Australian positions. Lacking any reserve, the assault was rapidly halted, although many of the unwounded attackers then attempted to crawl around the D Company perimeter, from where they engaged the defenders individually, while snipers fired from the trees.
A second assault soon began advancing over the same ground, only to again be hit by artillery, with those unscathed going to ground among the increasing dead and wounded. As they moved forward, they were joined by some of the survivors of the first assault and together attempted to roll over the Australians. The VC then tried to site another heavy machine-gun just 50 metres (55 yd) from the D Company perimeter, but Kirby personally moved out and killed the crew. Despite their casualties, heavy attacks continued amid the rain, supported by machine-guns. The main attacks came from the east, south-east and south, falling on 10 and 12 Platoons, while smaller attacks were carried out around the rest of the perimeter. However, due to the slope of the ground, much of the fire passed over the heads of the defenders. The slope likewise screened the advancing VC, preventing either side from effectively firing on the other until the VC closed within 50 metres. Few survived the heavy artillery fire to get that close. Meanwhile, the VC had set up a light and a heavy machine-gun on the forward slopes of Nui Dat 2 and these continued to engage the Australians throughout the battle. Yet, while they were able to achieve plunging fire from this vantage point, they were unable to observe D Company's position through the rubber and so were reduced to sweeping a broad area. Australian casualties included four killed and several wounded during this period, the majority from head and chest wounds.
A Company and 3 Troop fight throughEdit
By 18:45, nearly two and a half hours after the battle began, D Company had succeeded in moving into an all-round defensive position. With the Australians concentrated, they threw back a heavy attack from the south-east, and then further thrusts from the east, north-east and south in close succession. Yet with D Company unable to manoeuvre, the initiative lay with the VC, and the massed artillery of 1 ATF was required to keep them at bay, with the main role of the infantry increasingly becoming one of protecting their forward observer. Indeed, Stanley's efforts remained crucial to the survival of D Company; and with the platoons now co-located, his job became easier. He was able to observe their positions for himself, rather than relying on the reports of the infantry, and subsequently brought the fire to within 25 to 30 metres (82 to 98 ft) of the forward positions. At least one round landed within the D Company perimeter, wounding one of the defenders. But the close fire devastated the VC ranks. Nonetheless, D Company was heavily outnumbered, and as they awaited another assault their destruction seemed imminent. The fate of the battle now rested on whether they were strong enough to repel those VC penetrating the barrage, until a relief force arrived. A simultaneous assault from multiple directions would divide the artillery and might allow a strong thrust to overrun the Australian position. A fresh force was observed moving to the west, likely an attempt to encircle and cut off D Company.
Meanwhile, the progress of the relief force had been slowed by several factors, including flooding from the heavy rain, VC action, poor equipment, limited communications, and an ambiguous command relationship between the armour and infantry. Although normally having a strength of 13 APCs, 3 Troop had been reduced to just seven, with the remainder undergoing maintenance, while many of those available suffered from mechanical problems and obsolete radios. As a consequence, they were augmented by three vehicles from 2 Troop, although these lacked gun shields, leaving the crew commander exposed. Mounted in the carriers, 100 men from A Company 6 RAR departed Nui Dat under command of Mollison, with orders to relieve the pressure on D Company by attacking from the south and then to reinforce them and secure the area to allow the evacuation of the wounded. However, with few gaps in the Nui Dat perimeter wide enough for the APCs, Roberts was forced to take a circuitous route south-east through the base. On arrival, he found the exit had moved due to road works being carried out by the engineers, and this resulted in further delay until an alternative was located. At 17:55, after finally clearing the wire, Roberts was ordered to send two APCs back for Townsend and to wait until he came up, as he intended to accompany the carriers rather than move by helicopter. Detaching two APCs, Roberts ignored the second part of the order and the remainder of the troop proceeded, leaving Nui Dat at 18:00.
As the rain began, Roberts moved along the edge of the rubber plantation north-east of Long Phước in column towards the heavily swollen Suối Da Bang. The terracing of the paddy fields resulted in a steep drop to the creek and a difficult climb out; however, using a bullock track alongside a dam (which he had previously utilised during Operation Hardihood), Roberts began to swim the carriers across the water despite a fast moving current threatening to wash them downstream. At 18:10, Roberts was ordered for a second time to halt and wait for Townsend. Continuing to monitor D Company's situation over the radio, he again chose to disregard the order. Mollison concurred, and they proceeded to cross the creek. After crossing without incident, Roberts left one carrier and its infantry to secure the point (and to act as a guide for Townsend), while the remaining seven APCs moved towards the battle. Advancing another 1 kilometre (0.62 mi), by 18:20 they reached the junction of Route 52 and the road running north-west through the plantation. This road led directly to the fighting; using it as his centre axis, Roberts deployed one section of three APCs on the right commanded by Sergeant Ron Richards and one on the left under Sergeant Leslie O'Reilly, each with two vehicles forward and one back evenly spaced 40 metres (44 yd) apart, while he remained in the centre moving astride the road. At 18:22 they began to advance on a 300-metre (330 yd) frontage, only to again be ordered by radio to halt and wait for Townsend. With sunset due at 19:11 and darkness already beginning to fall due to the heavy rain clouds overhead, Roberts once more decided to press on.
The relief force moved into the plantation in open formation, unaware of the location of D Company or the VC. With visibility limited by the low vegetation of the young rubber trees and the heavy rain, they suddenly encountered a company moving west in arrowhead dressed in greens, cloth hats and webbing. Uncertain of their identity, the Australians paused. Realising they were VC attempting to outflank D Company to attack it from the rear, Lieutenant Peter Dinham—commander 2 Platoon travelling in the right-hand APC—ordered the crew commander to engage, and was soon joined by the rest of the troop. The rain had masked their approach and the VC—later identified as the D445 Battalion weapons company—were caught by surprise as the cavalry crashed into their flank. Recovering rapidly though, they returned a heavy volume of machine-gun fire, covering their casualties as they were dragged to the rear. Platoon Sergeant Frank Alcorta had been travelling on top of the overcrowded carrier and was forced to jump clear to avoid being hit. Dinham ordered the rear door open and the remainder of the men in the APC—consisting of platoon headquarters and one section—disembarked to protect him. Moving into extended line, they advanced, engaging the VC and causing heavy casualties. The spontaneous assault caught them by surprise, adding to their growing disorder. However, as the fighting continued it further delayed the advance of the relief force, and with Roberts concerned the presence of the infantry forward of the carriers would prevent them employing their heavy weapons, he called to Mollison to order their return. After re-embarking the infantry, 3 Troop resumed the advance, breaking into the VC force as it streamed west, firing their .50 calibre machine-guns while the infantry engaged with small arms from the open hatches. D445 Battalion was routed and forced to withdraw east, having lost an estimated 40 killed, while one Australian was wounded.
3 Troop continued forward in assault formation, moving deeper into the plantation. As they went, the young rubber gave way to more mature trees approximately 10 metres (33 ft) high, improving visibility and allowing them to increase speed. Meanwhile, by 18:30 B Company was also drawing near on foot, and observed the VC moving around the western flank, likely to escape the APCs. Shortly after, they were accidentally engaged by the cavalry themselves and lost one man wounded. After moving a further 200 metres (220 yd), the relief force came out of the tree-line and were confronted by groups of 8 to 10 VC moving east, in total about 100 men, believed to be the lead elements of the force that had just been struck, now withdrawing in the opposite direction after abandoning its attempt to outflank D Company. The APCs opened fire, engaging their flank with heavy machine-guns. A number were hit while others turned to engage the cavalry as it closed with them. A 57 mm RCL then fired on one of the APCs at close range with the round narrowly missing and blowing apart a tree which fell across the vehicle. The crew commander, Corporal John Carter, engaged the anti-armour team from the top of the APC as they reloaded, but his .50 calibre machine-gun jammed as they fired again, and he killed two of them with his Owen gun from just 15 to 20 metres (16 to 22 yd). The second RCL round subsequently detonated against the fallen tree, saving both the vehicle and its occupants. Despite being dazed, Carter killed three more VC soldiers as he scrambled back into the carrier, which was now without communications following the destruction of its aerial. By drawing further fire he allowed the remainder of the troop to advance, and for his actions was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).
The potential presence of a second RCL team sited in mutual support forced the cavalry to halt, once again. Concerned about the danger of bypassing an anti-armour weapon only to be engaged from the rear, Roberts ordered the troop to scan the area. Frustrated by the delay, Mollison demanded Roberts continue the advance, and an argument broke out between the two. As commander of the APCs, Roberts ignored the senior ranking Mollison, refusing to continue until he either located the weapon or was confident the threat did not exist. After a five-minute delay, with no weapon located, the Australians moved off again. A machine-gun then engaged three of the APCs in the left hand section, none of which had gun shields. One of the crew commanders was fatally wounded and the vehicle forced to a halt, but not before the VC machine-gunner was crushed to death by the driver. Under heavy fire, the troop sergeant ran between the carriers to take command of the APC, after Roberts ordered him to return to Nui Dat due to the mistaken belief some of the infantry on board had also been wounded. Despite Mollison's objections, the vehicle departed, taking the headquarters of one of the infantry platoons with it. Still uncertain of the location of D Company, Roberts was forced to closely control the fire of the troop due to the concern any survivors might be hit by overshoots from the armoured vehicle's heavy machine-guns. At the same time, the infantry continued to engage from the rear of the vehicles. A further 45 VC were estimated to have been killed during this action.
D Company reinforcedEdit
Unaware of the hold up on the left flank, the right hand section of APCs continued to advance. Pressing on, the section crossed a small track and moved through the artillery fire called in by Smith on D445 Battalion as it had attempted to outflank D Company. As they moved closer to D Company the carriers were engaged by small arms and RPGs, one of which exploded near the tracks of one of the advancing APCs, albeit without doing any damage. The three carriers soon located D Company and continued forward, firing in support of the beleaguered defenders. On seeing the carriers approaching through the trees many of the men from D Company stood and cheered. Yet after realising his section was on its own, Richards decided to disembark 2 Platoon before looping back through the artillery fire to rejoin the troop. Meanwhile, after completing the final stretch of the advance on foot Dinham moved his platoon to a position on D Company's eastern flank and started to dig-in, awaiting the arrival of the remainder of A Company. To the west Roberts and the three remaining carriers of 3 Troop had resumed the advance and linked up with Richards at a junction in the road 300 metres (330 yd) south-west of D Company. Townsend arrived with elements of his headquarters aboard three more M113s at 18:50. Following a number of uncoordinated manoeuvres by the APCs Townsend took command, and with the light failing he ordered Roberts to assault from the west into the flank of the main Viet Cong force.
Bolstered to nine M113s, 3 Troop again moved forward through the artillery fire with Roberts spreading the additional APCs across the rear of his formation for depth. Utilising a track as a guide he reformed the troop into a wide assault formation. Beginning the advance at 18:55, 3 Troop prepared for a frontal assault on the VC force. Continuing past D Company to their left, the relief force moved forward rapidly, firing their machine-guns. A brief but heavy engagement occurred, with the VC responding with automatic fire, including tracer and explosive rounds, which enveloped 3 Troop from their front and left, but was mostly high. Arriving at a crucial point in the fighting, the relief force turned the tide of the battle. The VC had been massing for another assault which would likely have destroyed D Company, yet the additional firepower and mobility of the armoured force broke their will to fight, forcing them to break contact and begin to withdraw as night approached. At 19:00 the 32 men from B Company finally entered D Company's position, even as the cavalry continued to assault the Viet Cong. After a long approach under mortar fire and the threat of ambush by a superior force, Smith placed Ford on the western side of the D Company defensive position to act as a screen to allow them to treat their wounded and prepare to resist a counter-attack. 3 Troop swept forward with the APCs continuing to assault a further 500 metres (550 yd) before Townsend ordered their return. Turning north-west, Roberts moved back to the company location at 19:10. Yet even as they did so the VC continued to attack from the north-east, although this too was soon broken off.
Linking up with D Company, the APCs moved through the company position. Around the perimeter the Australians engaged the withdrawing VC, while the APCs moved into a line from north to south on the eastern side of the company position. A Company disembarked and took up firing positions between the vehicles, joining 2 Platoon. The artillery had been almost constant throughout the battle and had prevented D Company from being destroyed. By 19:15 the firing had ceased and as darkness fell they prepared for the VC to mount another attack. Although snipers continued to engage the Australians there were no further assaults and the battle came to a conclusion. The APCs formed a hollow square around D Company. With the VC at least temporarily driven off, the Australian position was now more strongly held and additional ammunition had been brought in by the APCs, but it was now dark and they would be unable to receive further reinforcement, while the ability of the VC to mount a night attack was unknown. Meanwhile, the expenditure of artillery ammunition had been high and an urgent demand for 1,000 rounds was submitted by 1st Field Regiment, RAA at 19:30 in case the fighting continued. However, with arrangements for the emergency aerial resupply of Nui Dat by night still being worked out, and with a road resupply by 1 ALSG in danger of being ambushed, it took several hours for the rounds to be loaded and delivered by CH-47 Chinook from Vũng Tàu.
Townsend assumed command as the defenders regrouped, while Kirby co-ordinated the collection of the dead and wounded. At 20:50 Townsend radioed Jackson, reporting that one of his platoons had been destroyed and that D Company was "non-effective", with five dead, 16 wounded and 16 men still missing. VC losses were believed to have been heavy; however, with no confirmed casualty figures it was beginning to look to the Australians like they had suffered a major defeat. The two officers agreed it would be impossible to secure the battlefield or to attempt to locate the missing from 11 Platoon in the darkness, and after it became clear the VC were not going to counter-attack, Townsend ordered a withdrawal to a position 750 metres (820 yd) to the west from where their casualties could be evacuated. Handling the dead and wounded proved a slow process but with the casualties finally loaded onto the carriers D Company left at 22:45, while B and A Companies departed on foot 45 minutes later. Roberts established a landing zone by forming a square and illuminated it with the interior lights of the APCs by opening their top hatches. The artillery ceased as the evacuation commenced with the first casualties taken out by a US Army Dustoff helicopter, while the remainder were extracted by six UH-1B Iroquois from No. 9 Squadron RAAF. Despite being slowed by the requirement for the helicopters to land without lights, the operation went smoothly and was finally completed after midnight. The last of the casualties were taken out by 00:34, and were flown to the Australian hospital at Vũng Tàu.
During the night the artillery continued to fire on likely VC forming-up points, although 11 Platoon's final position was avoided for fear of hitting any survivors. Meanwhile, US aircraft bombed likely withdrawal routes to the east. Forming a defensive position ready to repulse an expected attack the Australians remained overnight, enduring the cold and heavy rain. Although they were now in a better position to hold off any subsequent attack, further reinforcement from 1 ATF at night would be difficult and was therefore unlikely. Yet with the VC spent no further attack was mounted. Smith and Townsend spent the night in the back of one of the carriers planning the clearance of the battlefield and follow-up of the VC, which was scheduled for the following day under the codename Operation Smithfield. Jackson stipulated the force was to remain within artillery range, but would otherwise have freedom of action to complete the exploitation over the next two to three days. Townsend requested the remaining APCs bring out 6 RAR headquarters, C Company and a section of mortars the following morning, while D Company, 5 RAR would also be placed under his command for the operation. However, with a company from 5 RAR still in Bình Ba, the bulk of 1 ATF's remaining combat power would be deployed as part of the clearance, leaving just two infantry companies from 5 RAR to defend Nui Dat. Smith was determined to recover the missing from 11 Platoon, and despite its losses, D Company would lead the assault.
Clearing the battlefield, 19–21 August 1966Edit
By morning the weather had cleared. At 06:55 the remainder of 6 RAR departed Nui Dat with 2 Troop, 1st APC Squadron, while D Company, 5 RAR departed at the same time aboard several US Army helicopters. Meanwhile, at 07:40 Jackson arrived at 6 RAR's night location to observe the clearance, flying in as Townsend gave orders for the operation. Stepping off at 08:45, the Australians returned to the battlefield in strength, while artillery and airstrikes continued to hit the area. The battalion group moved in a "two up" formation with D Company, 5 RAR and D Company, 6 RAR both mounted in APCs as the forward left and forward right assault companies, followed by A, B and C Companies in depth, each dismounted. The assault companies planned to sweep the area then dismount and commence a detailed search, while the others would clear the surrounding features and begin the follow-up. Moving cautiously in case the VC launched a counter-attack, they advanced on an axis following the route used by D Company, 6 RAR the previous day. The battlefield was a scene of devastation, with many of the rubber trees stripped of leaves and branches and bleeding sap, while the area around D Company's final position was heavily cratered. At 09:21 D Company, 5 RAR reported finding the body of a dead VC soldier; while half an hour later D Company, 6 RAR found 12 to 15 more. A large number of VC dead were subsequently found around the area, including a 60 mm mortar crew killed by indirect fire. At 10:20 a bulldozer was requested to bury the bodies of approximately 100 VC soldiers.
As the scale of the VC's losses were revealed, it became clear D Company had won a significant victory. By late morning, a total of 113 bodies and two wounded had been found, while numerous drag marks and blood trails indicated many more casualties had been moved the previous night. With the clearance continuing, two wounded VC still bearing arms were killed by D Company, 6 RAR after they moved to engage them, while in a separate incident another wounded soldier was also killed. A third wounded VC was later captured; and all three wounded were given first aid then being evacuated.[Note 4] These events later caused controversy when journalist Ian Mackay published claims in 1968 that the Australians had deliberately killed unarmed VC wounded, citing a "witness" to the alleged incident; while a major newspaper stated they had killed wounded "civilians". An official investigation determined the allegations were exaggerated and based on hearsay, with the soldier claimed as the source found not to have been present during the fighting and those killed confirmed to have been armed. Similar accusations were made in 1986 by Terry Burstall, a former D Company soldier, who claimed up to 17 wounded VC had been executed, although they were also refuted and his credibility challenged. In 2000, Buick admitted in his memoirs to having killed a mortally wounded soldier the day after the battle as an act of mercy. Burstall argued this may have constituted a breach of the Geneva Convention; while Buick's decision to publish the book was questioned by John Heslewood, the President of the Australian Long Tan Association and a private in 11 Platoon during the battle. Mollison later also criticised Buick's actions. In his 2015 autobiography, Harry Smith states that two mortally wounded VC soldiers were killed on 19 August out of compassion, one by Buick and another by a soldier from A Company, 6 RAR.
Meanwhile, at 11:00 6 RAR reported they had located the missing men from 11 Platoon, their bodies found lying in a straight line where they had been killed, largely undisturbed and still holding their weapons. The majority were from 6 Section, which had been the first to be hit. One of the men was found to have survived despite his wounds, having spent the night on the battlefield in close proximity to the VC as they attempted to evacuate their own casualties. Earlier, another wounded soldier had been found nearby, leaning against a tree but still alive. Both were evacuated, and later recuperated in hospital. Thirteen Australian dead were also recovered, accounting for all the missing. As the search continued, VC dead were found up to 500 metres (550 yd) south-east of the position reached by 11 Platoon. A large bunker complex was uncovered consisting of 200 pits with overhead protection sufficient for a battalion; however, its layout suggested it had been constructed as a defensive position rather than for an ambush. A further position of 100 pits was also found to the east. By 14:35, the total number of VC dead was reported as 168, while a large amount of weapons and equipment were also uncovered, including assault rifles, mortars, light machine guns, submachine guns, an RCL, plus ammunition and grenades. By 18:10, the figure had risen to 188 VC dead, with shallow graves dug by the Australians to bury them where they were found.
Due to the likely presence of a significant force nearby, the Australians remained cautious as they searched for the VC. Over the next two days, they continued to clear the battlefield, uncovering more dead as they did so. Yet, with up to two VC battalions still believed to be in the area and the continued vulnerability of Nui Dat to attack from the 274th Regiment, Jackson lacked the resources to pursue the withdrawing force. Company patrols continued to search up to 1,500 metres (1,600 yd) east, and to the north of Nui Dat 2. The search area was subsequently expanded to include that contested during Operation Hobart. Several tracks were found with telephone cables running along them, as well as further drag marks, blood stains, discarded equipment, fresh graves and evidence of use by heavy cart and foot traffic. The main VC withdrawal route was discovered after midday on 19 August, moving east away from the scene of the fighting. Townsend requested permission to follow it, believing he had sufficient forces, but Jackson would only permit 6 RAR to advance a further 1,000 metres (1,100 yd), remaining within artillery cover, and would not allow the guns to move forward to increase the range of their protective fire. By 20 August, the Australians had counted 245 VC dead, while scores more were found later. Up to four weeks after the battle, decomposed bodies were found in the area, while numerous graves were also located, none of which were included in the estimates of VC losses. The bodies found later brought the total to about 300 dead.[Note 5] D Company, 5 RAR returned to Nui Dat early on 21 August, while D Company, 6 RAR was also withdrawn for two days leave in Vung Tau.
The rest of 6 RAR continued the search, with A Company discovering a series of freshly built and recently abandoned hides along the VC withdrawal route, which were believed to have been prepared as delay positions. An older defensive position of approximately 40 pits was also found; while C Company located a makeshift hospital close by containing 14 graves. Both had recently been occupied. Later, an Australian OH-13 reported the presence of scattered groups of civilians, with the largest numbering 30 to 40 people—mostly women with baskets and bags, while others had ox carts—believed to be carrying medical supplies. These reports were followed up by the 1st APC Squadron and a number of military age males were detained for questioning. The infantry companies completed their search by midday, moving to the edge of the rubber plantation, 500 metres (550 yd) north-east of Long Tân. Smithfield concluded at 17:00, with the Australians returning to Nui Dat by helicopter and APC by 17:30. They had hoped to catch the remnants of the VC force before they could reach their mountain sanctuaries, but the operation proved unsuccessful in preventing their withdrawal. A number of Australian officers later questioned the caution with which it was conducted. Yet Jackson had been unable to mount a pursuit due to the continued threat posed by the 274th Regiment, which was still believed to be in the area. With 1 ATF lacking the resources required for such an operation, the opportunity to trap and destroy the VC while they were still vulnerable was lost and they made good their escape.
VC and PAVN casualties were claimed by the Australian Army to have numbered 245 dead left on the battlefield and three captured, while many more were thought to have been removed as they withdrew. Others were so badly mutilated their remains were unidentifiable. Approximately half were believed to have been caused by artillery and the remainder by small arms. The initial estimate was given by an Australian Army spokesman, and some participants in the battle regarded these figures as inflated. These figures however are directly disputed by many individuals present at the battle, with reports by a D Company commander stating actual body counts as no more than 50. The official history of the D445 Battalion and 275th Regiment records either 30 or 47 were killed in total, primarily by artillery fire. Another estimate was 150 according to Colonel Bao who was overall district commander, but did not directly participate alongside battle commander Nguyen Thanh Hong.
The Australians estimated the VC had evacuated up to a further 350 casualties, including an unknown number of dead buried along the withdrawal route. With such losses representing the operational strength of two battalions, Australian intelligence later assessed that the 275th Regiment—which had borne the brunt of the fighting—would be incapable of mounting a regimental-sized operation for several months. This is directly contradicted by 275th Regiment commanders, who had carried out attacks against ARVN 18th Divisions positions a week later. Meanwhile, D445 Battalion–thought to have played a supporting role and to have suffered less heavily—was assessed as still capable of engaging forces up to company size, with a remaining strength of 300 men.[Note 6] McNeill states that this was based on the capture of the diary of the battle commander Nguyen Thoi Bung, who later became the Deputy Defense Minister of Vietnam; however, according to Ernest Chamberlain this has not yet been corroborated by actual documentation. A captured soldier from the battle stated D445 Battalion's casualties had been 70 killed and 100 wounded. Whether the combat effectiveness of D445 and the 275th Regiment was actually eroded is also in dispute, as the D445 Unit were redeployed in September and October against the newly deployed 11th Armored Cavalry Taskforce, while the 275th were combat-capable a week later.
Total VC/NVA losses were alleged to have been higher, with 1 ATF reportedly uncovering documents during Operation Marsden in 1969 which listed 878 killed, died of wounds or missing and 1,500 wounded. Weapons captured included 33 AK-47s, seven RPD light machine-guns, five SKS assault rifles, four RPG-2 launchers, two 57 mm RCLs, two M1 carbines, a PPSh-41, Thompson submachine-gun, Browning Automatic Rifle, M1 Garand, and an SGM heavy machine-gun. More than 10,500 rounds of small arms ammunition was also recovered, as well as 300 hand grenades, 40 mortar bombs, 28 RPG-2 rockets, and 22 RCL rounds. Corroboration of these accounts is not yet factually supported. Australian losses amounted to 17 killed, one died of wounds, and 24 wounded: approximately one third of the initial force engaged.[Note 7] A high proportion were National Servicemen, drawing criticism in Australia where conscription for overseas service was increasingly controversial. The government later limited the number of conscripts to no more than 50 percent of a unit, requiring a rapid and disruptive reorganisation within 1 ATF.
In the aftermath, both sides claimed success. Heralded as an Australian victory against overwhelming odds, the battle was widely covered in the Western press, making headlines in Australia and the United States. 1 ATF received congratulatory messages from the US, South Vietnamese and Australian military commands in Vietnam, and from Prime Minister Harold Holt in the following days, while General William Westmoreland considered it one of the more spectacular allied victories to that point in the war, coming after the early successes against the VC/PAVN offensive had passed. Yet despite their losses, the VC also claimed to have inflicted a heavy defeat on the Australians. Shortly afterwards, leaflets circulated the province stating that "700 Australians were killed, one battalion and two companies were destroyed, and two squadrons of APCs". Similar claims were repeated on Radio Hanoi on 27 August 1966, and the day after on Radio Peking. In contrast, the Vietnamese history of Dong Nai Province published in 1986 gave the battle little attention, claiming to have "eliminated 500 Australians and destroyed 21 tanks" while their own losses were not recorded. D445 Battalion later received a PAVN heroic unit citation, and the 275th Regiment may have been given a similar award. Many VC soldiers were also awarded Certificates of Commendation for their role in the fighting.
D Company, 6 RAR was awarded a US Presidential Unit Citation by Lyndon Johnson on 28 May 1968. The Royal Australian Regiment and 3rd Cavalry Regiment were later awarded the battle honour "Long Tan", one of only five presented to Australian units during the war. Commonwealth decorations were made to 17 Australians and New Zealanders, including Smith who received the Military Cross (MC), Kirby the DCM, Stanley the Order of the British Empire, Buick the Military Medal, and Roberts, Kendall and Sabben who were MiD. Both Townsend and Jackson later received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), although these were made on the basis of their entire period in command, not solely for actions during the battle. South Vietnamese gallantry medals were also awarded to 22 Australians, but due to official policy regarding foreign awards they were not permitted to wear them until 2004. The limited number of awards later became the subject of considerable criticism. At the time, the allocation of medals under the Imperial honours system was based on a quota, resulting in many of the original recommendations being downgraded or not awarded, with Smith initially nominated for the DSO, Sabben and Kendall the MC, and Sharp a posthumous MiD. In 2008, a review recommended awards made to three officers be upgraded to the equivalent medals in the modern Australian honours system. Smith was subsequently awarded the Star of Gallantry, and Kendall and Sabben the Medal for Gallantry (MG). Following further review in 2009, Dohle received the Distinguished Service Medal, while D Company, 6 RAR was presented a Unit Citation for Gallantry on 18 August 2011. Another review in 2016 led to awards to ten more soldiers, including Roberts, Alcorta and Lance Corporal Barry Magnussen who received the MG, and Sharp and six others a Commendation for Gallantry.
In 2015, the commander of 6 RAR Harry Smith published Long Tan, The Start of a Lifelong Battle in which he accuses several senior officers of fabricating claims about the battle from Brigadier Oliver Jackson and Colonel Townsend, including fabrication of the presence of Colonel Townsend and other officers about being present at the battle. Fabrications were reported and published in the official history of the battle, and led to what was regarded as disingenuous and self-serving. This includes deliberate inflation of enemy dead by Army Spokesmen and others alongside embellishing the roles of officers at the battle at the expense of their own men.
There are several long-standing disputes on several issues including the size of the PAVN/VC attacking force, the number of casualties they suffered, how the battle had unfolded and issues around alleged documentation. Some of the purported documents assessing casualties or impacts upon the PAVN/VC were not corroborated such as alleged diaries and anecdotal evidence from "Chinese Generals". There are also additional issues with the fabrication of the size of the attacking NVA/VC forces and enemy dead by several authors and by the Red Dunes Film Group, which has received criticism from an Australian Vietnam War veteran and later historian and Vietnamese-language linguist Ernie Chamberlain.
Heavily outnumbered, but supported by strong artillery fire, D Company held off a regimental assault, before a relief force of cavalry and infantry fought their way through and finally forced the VC to withdraw. Initial estimates of the VC force ranged from several companies to a battalion, yet following the battle Australian intelligence assessed it as having totalled between 1,500 and 2,500 men, while 1,000 were believed to have directly engaged D Company. Against odds of ten to one, the fighting left one-third of D Company killed or wounded. An Australian victory, Long Tân proved a major local setback for the VC, indefinitely forestalling an imminent movement against Nui Dat. Although there were other large-scale encounters in later years, 1 ATF was not fundamentally challenged again.[Note 8] The battle established the task force's dominance over the province, and allowed it to pursue operations to restore government authority. Yet such actions were atypical of the Australian experience, and although 1 ATF invariably inflicted heavy casualties on the VC when encountered in large numbers, they were less important than routine patrolling in separating the guerrillas from the population and maintaining constant pressure, coupled with pacification operations to extend South Vietnamese control. Nonetheless, Long Tân represented a watershed in the campaign, increasing the confidence of the Australians in their ability to defeat the VC and enhancing their military reputation. Celebrated in Australia ever since, in time the battle became part of the legend of its involvement in the war. The best known of the Australian Army's actions in Vietnam, it has assumed a similar significance as battles such as Gallipoli, Kokoda and Kapyong. The date it was fought is observed annually as Long Tan Day and is also known as Vietnam Veterans' Remembrance Day, the national day of commemoration of the Vietnam War.
Despite being halted at the time of the clash, prior to the encounter the 275th Regiment had been advancing with two battalions forward and one in depth, while at least two companies from D445 Battalion were on its southern flank. The six to eight-man squad contacted by 11 Platoon was probably a standing patrol moving into position ahead of the main force, and may have been the first indication they received of the Australian patrol. 11 Platoon had drawn ahead of the others due to its rapid follow-up and was isolated when the remainder of D Company was forced off the line of march by mortar fire and then halted. As a result, it could not be supported and was cut off. Nonetheless, their defence was critical in holding up the Viet Cong as they moved east, gaining time for the relief force to arrive. After pinning down 11 Platoon frontally, the VC repeatedly attempted to outflank them but were interrupted by 10, and then 12 Platoon, as each tried to move to their aid. The dispersion of the Australian platoons made it difficult to locate their flanks, while after D Company concentrated it had been attacked from the south-east, with supporting efforts from the east, north-east and south, all of which were halted by small arms and artillery. The combination of indirect fire and the reverse slope on which they found themselves afforded a degree of cover, and mist from the heavy rain provided some concealment. Meanwhile, a large force—likely a company from D445 Battalion—had been observed moving around the southern flank, and was only broken up by the cavalry after fears it might be ambushed on leaving Nui Dat proved groundless.[Note 9] Although D Company had initially been protected by indirect fire, the mobility and firepower of the cavalry proved decisive. On the verge of being surrounded when the relief force arrived, they would have been quickly overrun had the VC succeeded. "A very close thing indeed", Jackson believed another 15 minutes would have seen D Company destroyed, while A Company and 3 Troop "undoubtedly saved the day."
The reasons for D Company's success included superior radio communications which had allowed Stanley to co-ordinate the fire of the guns at Nui Dat, the weight of the artillery which repeatedly broke up the assaulting formations, its timely aerial resupply which prevented them running out of ammunition, and the mobility and firepower of the APCs in the relief force which broke the VC's will to fight. The battle highlighted the power of modern weapons and the importance of sound small-unit tactics, and has since been cited as an example of the effect of combined arms, demonstrating the effective coordination of infantry, armour, artillery and aviation. Artillery had been the mainstay of the defence, with D Company supported by 24 guns from the 1st Field Regiment, RAA and A Battery, US 2/35th Artillery Battalion. Indirect fire provided close protection to the infantry, allowing D Company to hold their line and repulse any VC that succeeded in getting through the barrage. Likely forming-up positions and withdrawal routes had also been heavily engaged throughout the battle. In total 3,198 rounds of 105 mm ammunition were fired by the Australian and New Zealand field guns and 242 rounds of 155 mm high explosive by the Americans. Ultimately the VC made the error of attacking within range of the artillery at Nui Dat and had to withstand the fire of three field batteries and one medium battery as a result. Against this, the force that attacked D Company had done so without heavy weapons in support, potentially because they had been detached for an assault on Nui Dat. Long Tân also confirmed the importance of armoured support to infantry, even in dense jungle.
In the wake of the battle the Australians were left to speculate on the reason it occurred. One hypothesis was that the VC had intended to attack and overwhelm Nui Dat, with the initial plan to mortar the base to draw a response force into an ambush after which the base would be attacked and captured, but that they had been prevented from doing so after clashing with D Company. A second possibility was that they may have had the more limited aim of drawing D Company into an ambush to destroy it and secure a small victory over an isolated force. Finally, it was possible no ambush was planned at all, and that the VC had been moving on Nui Dat in regimental strength when they unexpectedly ran into D Company, resulting in an encounter battle. The evidence suggested they intended an attack on Nui Dat in some form, while the lack of prepared positions from which to mount an ambush made this unlikely. McNeill argues though that too many facts may be missing to make a conclusive assessment of VC intentions as to date no definitive Vietnamese account is available, while according to Ham those that exist are contradictory or unreliable. In the years since the battle the intentions of the VC have been widely discussed, including by both participants and historians, with debate about it continuing until the present. Yet although there remains divided opinion about whether the VC had intended to attack the base at Nui Dat or to ambush an Australian element, according to Coulthard-Clark what is certain was that the force that clashed with D Company, 6 RAR "had been preparing a decisive action against 1 ATF". The outcome prevented them achieving a politically important victory so soon after the Australian deployment, and "placed Viet Cong plans in the province on the back foot for some time".
Lessons learned and subsequent operationsEdit
After Long Tân a rifle company with armoured support was dedicated to provide a rapid reaction force, on standby to respond to an attack or exploit any opportunity. Meanwhile, the VC had been armed with weapons at least equal to those used by the Australians. Most had carried modern Soviet assault rifles, as well as a large quantity of ammunition, which allowed them to sustain a high rate of fire. In contrast, the amount of ammunition carried by the Australians had been insufficient, and following the battle the minimum load was increased to 140 rounds per rifle and 500 for each machine-gun. Equally the aerial resupply of D Company had been delayed because no prepacked ammunition was available. This also changed, while rounds would also be supplied loaded in magazines for quick use. The VC had also used 60 mm mortars, but they were no longer standard equipment for Australian rifle companies, and although battalions were issued 81 mm mortars they were controlled by Support Company. Such weapons would afford integral fire support in situations where their opponents had closed within the safety distance of the artillery, and consideration was given to their re-issue. Yet the added weight would limit the ability of sub-units to patrol and M-79 grenade launchers were issued instead, while a number of APCs were modified as mortar carriers.
Despite detecting a transmitter from the 275th Regiment moving west towards Nui Dat, such intercepts were unable to predict VC intentions with certainty, while patrols through the area also failed to find it. Regardless, Jackson had responded by maintaining patrols at company strength when outside Line Alpha, while ensuring a level of base security. However, Townsend had not been given access to this intelligence and some officers were later critical of the restrictions placed on it. Although it would not have altered the requirement for a company-sized patrol it might have changed the way the battle was fought, and afterwards both battalion commanders were regularly briefed on such intercepts. The value of patrolling in depth and in sufficient strength to prevent the VC concentrating their forces had also been reinforced, and while there was no change to the pattern of Australian operations, when a significant engagement was possible patrols would be a minimum of a company and would operate close enough to rapidly support each other to stop them becoming isolated. Lastly, the command relationship between the infantry and APCs had been problematic during the battle and changes to standard operating procedures were implemented to provide clearer direction in such circumstances.
A week following the battle US II FFV launched a large-scale corps-sized sweep of Phước Tuy on 23 August. Operation Toledo saw the deployment of two brigades of the US 1st Infantry Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, and two ARVN Ranger battalions in an attempt to destroy the 274th and 275th Regiments. 1 ATF involvement included both 5 and 6 RAR and supporting units. It lasted until 8 September and despite the intensity of the previous fighting little contact occurred, with no evidence of a large force having been in the area uncovered. Poorly planned, it failed to trap the VC, while 5 RAR's involvement resulted in only two VC killed, one wounded and one captured without loss, although several tunnels were discovered in Long Tân village and destroyed.[Note 10] In the months that followed 1 ATF conducted further search and destroy, village cordon and search, and route security operations to extend its control, and to separate the local people from the influence of the VC. Such operations usually resulted in contacts between the Australians and small groups of VC, while during cordon and search operations of Bình Ba and Hòa Long a number of villagers suspected of sympathising with the VC were apprehended and handed over to the South Vietnamese authorities. Several search operations were also conducted in areas suspected of containing VC base camps, and these often resulted in the discovery of recently used and quickly evacuated camps, hospitals and logistic bases which were then destroyed. Meanwhile, 1 ATF continued an extensive patrolling and ambushing program around Nui Dat.
Regarding a 50th anniversary the Vietnamese government permitted Australians to hold a 'low-key ceremony', but the unexpected booking of 3,500 individuals to attend as well as a concert by Little Pattie led to the Vietnamese government cancelling the event. Following late-night talks by Malcolm Turnbull with the prime minister of Vietnam, a low-key ceremony was once again permitted. On 18 August 2016 a low-key ceremony was held on the battlefield; more than 1,000 Australian veterans and their families travelled to Vietnam to participate in the 50th anniversary commemoration. In Australia hundreds attended the Australian War Memorial and Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra. Commemorations were also held at Sydney's Cenotaph, Brisbane's ANZAC Square, Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance and elsewhere. The events in Canberra included a four-gun salute and flyover by Vietnam-era aircraft, including Iroquois helicopters, Hercules and Caribou transports, and two B-52 bombers. A Last Post Ceremony was held at the War Memorial, with a reading by Victoria Cross-recipient Mark Donaldson. In 2017, Malcolm Turnbull had negotiated for the repatriation of the cross, and the PM of Vietnam gifted the cross to the Australian government on conditions of no publicity surrounding the transfer. The original cross was installed at the Australian War Memorial following the transfer.
- 1 ATF intelligence believed Sau Chanh commanded the battalion in August 1966; however, following interviews with former PAVN officers in 1988, the Australian official historian concluded Nguyen Van Kiem had done so. Yet according to the D445 Battalion history published in 1991 Chanh was in fact the unit's first commander, while Kiem commanded the Châu Đốc District Company during Long Tan and only took over the battalion in early 1968.
- While McNeill states the 275th Regiment had been reinforced by at least one regular PAVN battalion, recent research suggests no such unit was present. The 275th Regiment was restructured in May 1966, incorporating the PAVN D605 Battalion as its third battalion (which had been disbanded).
- McGibbon states Jackson hesitated to release the relief force because it would have left only C Company, 6 RAR to defend Nui Dat as 5 RAR had still not returned from Bình Ba. However, 5 RAR had been ordered to return the day prior and arrived just after D Company, 6 RAR departed on the morning of 18 August, although one company remained at Bình Ba.
- One of the men killed was armed with a rifle and the other a 60 mm mortar.
- Smith gives a total of 293 by body count, comprising 245 buried on 19 August, with 48 more found in a shallow mass grave to the east on 20 August.
- Viet Cong records captured by US forces later indicated the full extent of their losses, with 275th Regiment commander's diary listing his unit's losses as 500 dead.
- The majority of the casualties were from D Company, 6 RAR which lost 17 killed and 19 wounded, three members of other sub-units were wounded, one of whom died of wounds, while three men were evacuated due to "severe battle stress".
- While the VC were largely forced to withdraw to the borders of the province by 1968–69, the situation in Phước Tuy was challenged during the 1968 Tet Offensive, in mid-1969 following the incursion of the PAVN 33rd Regiment, in mid-1971 with further incursions by the 33rd Regiment and several VC main force units, and during the Easter Offensive in 1972. Attacks on RF outposts and village incursions also continued.
- Rather than attempting to encircle D Company, O'Reilly believed this force was bypassing them to attack Nui Dat instead. "They still got thirteen people on the wire at Nui Dat that night, cutting the wire. These people weren't a blocking force; they were marching down to meet the wire cutters. They thought they had won the fight."
- According to one source the entire allied operation "accounted for just 21" VC.
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