Remembering the Battle of Long Tan
Friday 9 August, 2019
Vietnam. 1966-08-19. Troops of 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) on board armoured personnel carriers (APC’s) of No 1 APC Squadron waiting to return to bast at Nui Dat after the Long Tan battle during operation Smithfield.
“..few were as intense or dramatic as the action in the Long Tan rubber plantation on 18 August, 1966.”
Ashley Ekin, senior historian of the Australian War Memorial (AWM)
Vietnam is a hot and humid place in August, with a monsoonal storm expected around 4pm most days. This was no different on the afternoon of 18 August 1966. The battlefield was a rubber plantation, planted by the French colonialists’ years earlier when they ruled over Tonkin in the far north of Indo China. This was prior to Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh taking control of North Vietnam in 1954 following the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Ho Chi Minh had a vision for a united Vietnam that would see the regions of Tonkin in the north, the former Champa Kingdom in the centre, and Cochinchine in the south become one. The United States, like Australia and New Zealand, was concerned that Ho Chi Minh’s vision would advance the spread of communism and took the decision to come to the aid of the South Vietnamese Government providing ammunition, intelligence and later military assistance to try and halt the advance.
Australia’s involvement began with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) – a unit of seasoned and experienced officers and non-commissioned officers who had served in Korea, Borneo and the Malaya Emergency in the years immediately preceding. While the South Vietnamese valued the Australian contribution to the struggle, the Viet Cong saw Australians as ‘Puppet Troops’ of the United States – part of the next wave of colonial invaders, like the French had been a century before.
The Battle of Long Tan, fought by Australia’s Delta Company (D Coy), 6th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), a company of 108 men led by then Major Harry Smith (now Col Ret’d), who were cut-off and outnumbered at least ten to one by the enemy. New Zealand’s 161 Battery’s Forward Observer, Captain Morrie Stanley and his men, contributed significantly to D Coy’s success.
On the day of the battle, determined to take back the stronghold that the Australian Task Force had established two months earlier at Nui Dat, more than 2,500 battle-hardened Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers advanced towards Phuoc Tuy province. The base had been attacked by enemy mortars in the early hours of 17 August wounding 24 soldiers and raising fears that it was a prelude to a full scale attack.
At dawn, B Company (B Coy) of 6RAR were sent in search of the enemy. They found the mortar base plates but no Viet Cong. The following day (18 August, 1966) at 11am, D Coy, led by Company Commander Major Harry Smith, were sent to relieve B Coy, who were instructed to return to base. However they were halted midway on their return and were eventually redeployed to support D Coy as the battle unfolded.
The general consensus amongst the Australians was that the attack on Nui Dat had come from local enemy, D445 unit, consisting of approximately 40 men. It was thought that they would be long gone by the time D Coy began their reconnaissance mission. Nevertheless they were alert to the task and watched for signs of the enemy as they made their way through the ‘eerie’ rubber plantation, located approximately 2,500 metres east of the stronghold at Nui Dat that morning.
First contact with scattered groups of the enemy occurred at approximately 3.40pm. At first the Australians expected the soldiers they saw to be local guerillas who would strike quickly and withdraw. They didn’t realise they were facing a main force of Viet Cong. They soon discovered the enemy uniforms were different, their tactics slower and their intent ominous. D Coy were about to engage a larger force of Viet Cong. Initially thinking they were facing between 600 and 700, the 3 platoons of just 33 men each quickly requested reinforcements.
11 Platoon (Pl) would take the full brunt of the attack that afternoon, while 10 Pl and 12 Pl tried desperately to offer assistance before they too came under heavy fire so that all of D Coy were fully engaged.
What Major Smith did not know was that highly classified signals intelligence had been monitoring the movements of the Viet Cong’s 275th Regiment in the region for the previous two weeks. This Regiment had been steadily approaching a hill feature that stood 5,000 metres east of the Australian Task Force base.
Earlier Australian patrols had found no sign of the enemy but it became clear that D Coy had inadvertently stumbled upon what would ultimately be a regiment of approximately 2,500 Viet Cong.
Monsoonal rains hit in the late afternoon, halving visibility and turning the battlefield into a quagmire. Ammunition was running low and 11 Pl appeared to be surrounded. 10 Pl and 12 Pl tried their best to get clear so they could provide cover for 11 Pl who they knew was in deep trouble.
Communication was lost twice leaving HQ at Nui Dat unsure of the situation on the ground. 15 men from 11 Pl were reported missing in action, including the Pl commander. Although 12 Pl were between 200 and 250 yards behind, 11 Pl were unable to reach them.
Meanwhile those in command at Nui Dat, despite repeated requests from Major Smith, felt they could not send A Coy reinforcements for fear of leaving the main task force stronghold exposed. Nor could they resupply ammunition as the weather, combined with “a chopper full of ammo”, made this a ‘suicide mission’. US fighter jets were deployed but due to the poor visibility they released their weapons far from the intended targets.
161 Battery, attached to 6RAR and operating under the orders of Captain Morrie Stanley, worked tirelessly throughout the battle in support of D Coy. At times artillery was landing 50 metres in front of 11 Pl – at a rate of an incredible eight rounds a minute – two rounds above the intense rate.
“Artillery knew that D Coy were in a desperate situation. Firing as accurately as possible, was the only way artillery could help.”
A US155mm Artillery Regiment was also called upon to provide artillery support, ultimately causing havoc in the enemy’s rear. Their guns were sophisticated and more accurate and could be fired to within metres of the frontline. Frustratingly for them they were not given clearance to do so.
As the battle progressed 11 Pl was outflanked on the east by Viet Cong forces. 12 Pl continued to try and provide the escape corridor 11 Pl needed (which they eventually achieved.) and 10 Pl remained under heavy attack on the northwest flank.
“They just kept coming. Climbing over their own who were now 2 and 3 deep, to get through to us. They were so intent. Moving through heavy artillery to get to us.”
The casualties were mounting quickly as the medics were overrun.
Helicopters with ammunition and blankets for the wounded arrived overhead. The pilots had delivered the critical load regardless of the inherent risk, knowing it would make the difference between life and death for those on the ground.
Major Smith repeatedly called for increased air and artillery support “Let’s have the whole regiment. Fire mission regiment.”
Rockets and napalm were requested across the front of 11 Pl. Major Smith asked for the artillery support to be brought 50 metres closer, which meant they came 50 metres closer to 11 Pl.
Armoured Personnel Carriers had been repeatedly called in but delays at HQ slowed their arrival. When they finally arrived they were able to push the enemy back to the east, bringing the battle to a conclusion just before dark.
18 Australians were killed in the Battle of Long Tan. D Coy was awarded a US Presidential Unit Citation and was offered the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry Unit Citation.
https://www.awm.gov.au/wartime/55/long-tan/ By Ashley Ekins.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdvMthoxGI0 /animation showing the Battle of Long Tan (17mins)