Armoured personnel carriers
Armour played a vital role during Australia's war in Vietnam. The ubiquitous armoured personnel carrier (APC) made its first appearance in the conflict during mid-June 1965 as part of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) group then operating under the command of the 173rd United States Airborne Brigade in Bien Hoa Province. At the vanguard of the APC's seven-year-long deployment to South Vietnam was 1 Troop, A Squadron, 4th/19th Prince of Wales Light Horse.
Equipped with the American type M113 A1 family of armoured vehicles the Troop and its successors were highly mobile. Their vehicles could operate over a wide range of terrains, including through heavily forested areas and, with their amphibious capability, were also able to ford streams and cross inundated paddies.
In 1966 the 1st Armoured Personnel Squadron worked with the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) and 105 Battery, Royal Australian Artillery in establishing the Task Force base at Nui Dat. Shortly afterwards, though not for the first time, they proved their worth in a perilous situation. At Long Tan APCs were one among several elements that swung the course of the battle in the Australian's favour. While artillery had a devastating effect on the enemy and the infantry, pinned down and under heavy fire, withstood assault after assault, it was the arrival of the APCs from 3 Troop 3rd Cavalry regiment, spitting fire from their .50 calibre machine guns into an enemy force massing for yet another attack, that forced them to disperse and withdraw.
APC crews could expect to spend lengthy periods away from the Task Force Base at Nui Dat during which crews would spend much of their time in vehicles that in effect became their home when on operations. Armoured vehicles required constant maintenance, some of which, including changing tracks in the field, was carried out by crew members, but the heavier tasks were the province of the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME). In the case of APC's, RAEME personnel undertook, among other tasks, major engine repairs, the replacement of guns and any welding that was required. While the field crews were expected to ensure that the vehicles' supplies of oil other lubricants and water were maintained.
Unfortunately APCs were very vulnerable to mines and their thin armour made them targets for recoilless rifle fire and rocket propelled grenades. Every time they went into the field crews risked death or injury from these devices and images of damaged APCs are a vivid reminder of the dangers these men faced. The 3rd Cavalry Regiment, for instance, suffered 20 deaths during the war, 17 of whom were killed in action. Another 110 members of the unit were wounded in action and one author has suggested than 1 in 7 members of the Regiment could expect to become a battle casualty in Vietnam.
Having been among those present at the establishment of the Task Force Base, the Cavalry were among the last to leave. No. 1 Troop helped close down the base area and left Vietnam on 12 March 1972.
Australian tanks, in the form of elements of C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, reached Vietnam in February 1968. Eventually the squadron's organisation included four tank troops, two gun tanks on squadron headquarters and a Special Equipment Troop of two tank dozers and two bridge layers. A Light Aid Detachment (LAD) from the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) included two armoured recovery vehicles as well as two fitters tracks.
Not everyone, including some in the Armoured Corps itself, was of the view that tanks would be effective in Vietnam. The Centurion, with which they were equipped, had been developed in Britain and intended for use in northern Europe. The experience of tank operations in jungle settings against the Japanese in the Second World War, however, suggested that armour could play a useful role in such conditions.
The idea that tanks might be of value in South Vietnam gained impetus after two operations in which Australians suffered losses that shocked the relatively small force then serving in Vietnam; Bribie and Renmark in February 1967. On Bribie, having attacked into a strong defensive position, an Australian force suffered the loss of eight men killed and 27 wounded. During this fight APCs were used almost as if they were tanks, a hazardous practice not recommended in armoured doctrine. On Renmark, however, no enemy troops were seen until after the damage had been done. Seven Australians were killed and 26 wounded, all victims of mines and booby traps. The rate of losses and the manner in which these men met their deaths or were wounded informed the thinking of some senior officers who believed that a third battalion was needed in South Vietnam and that tanks, with their mobility and firepower, were necessary to support the infantry.
Months passed, however, before the decision to send tanks, along with a third battalion group and other units to Vietnam was taken on 6 September 1967. More months passed until the tanks reached the theatre of operations. They were soon in action on Operation Pinaroo during which they worked with infantry, artillery, engineers and with APCs. But it was not until May 1968 that tanks experienced their first major test, during the battle for Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral. On the bases themselves the tanks were able to act as an adjunct to artillery, but it was outside the wire that they demonstrated their true worth. In a series of encounters with enemy bunkers the tanks proved that they could work in tandem with the infantry to destroy these well-fortified positions. Their canister rounds shredded foliage, deprived the enemy of cover and killed anyone unfortunate enough to be in a bunker under tank fire. Crews could also use the weight of their vehicles, by turning the tank on its tracks, to crush bunkers beneath them. For some in the infantry the mental shift from being wary of working with tanks to considering them a most valued asset took just a single action and a matter of hours.
Thereafter tanks were regarded as a welcome addition to the Australian force. Working closely with the infantry they undoubtedly saved many Australian lives. Over time events proved that in most environments tanks and infantry were a powerful combination; tank crews needed infantry to locate targets and deal with enemy troops, particularly those armed with rocket propelled grenades, and the infantry needed tanks to clear lines of sight, open pathways and destroy bunkers.
Having proved themselves on many occasions in jungle or rural settings, tanks also demonstrated how effective they could be in an urban setting in June 1969 during the Battle of Binh Ba. Described in the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment's (5RAR) after action report as a 'battle winning factor' the tanks at Binh Ba have also been credited with playing a major role in keeping Australian casualties low – only one Australian was killed in the battle, but most of the eleven wounded were members of tanks crews.
As part of the withdrawal from Vietnam, the 1st Armoured Regiment was recalled to Australia, leaving Vietnam in September 1971. For the infantry who remained, the absence of tanks rendered their task more difficult and more dangerous.