Australians in the Battle of Binh Ba 6 to 7 June 1969
The Battle of Binh Ba took place during the Vietnam War in June 1969. The Australian Army played a significant role in the battle, officially known as Operation Hammer. Australian forces, including infantry, armour, and artillery, were part of a joint operation with South Vietnamese troops to retake Binh Ba. The village was occupied by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces.
The Australian forces encountered fierce resistance from the NVA and VC, who had heavily fortified the village. However, the Australians used their superior firepower and tactics to push the enemy out of the village.
During the battle, the Australians suffered 4 soldiers killed and 17 wounded. The NVA and VC suffered heavy losses. The Battle of Binh Ba was considered a significant victory for the Australian forces. They were able to disrupt NVA and VC operations in the area and secure the village.
How it happened
Early on the morning of 6 June 1969, a Centurion tank and an armoured recovery vehicle were making their way along Route 2 towards the village of Binh Ba. Classified as ‘amber’, the route was considered one on which enemy contact was possible but unlikely. The unlikely happened when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fired from a nearby house struck the Centurion’s turret, wounding the operator and inviting retaliatory machine-gun fire from both vehicles before they left the scene. This provocative shot heralded a battle that raged for 2 days, left much of Binh Ba in ruins and resulted in the Australian Task Force winning one of its most comprehensive victories of the Vietnam War.
Less than 10 km from Nui Dat, the village of Binh Ba and its hamlets - Duc Trung and Duc My - had been familiar to the Australians since the Task Force base was established in 1966. In August of that year, the village was the target of a cordon and search operation, Operation Holsworthy, in which the Australians apprehended a number of Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas and sympathisers. But Binh Ba’s proximity to Nui Dat did not ensure its continuing freedom from insurgents. Within 2 months, a VC cadre and guerrillas were once again in residence, collecting taxes and recruiting.
In early 1967, cordon and search operations, such as Holsworthy and Operation Caloundra, were fleeting. When they were over, the insurgents returned.
In late 1967, the VC ambushed and killed 2 Australian Army Training Team Vietnam members just outside the village of Binh Ba. Their activities were mostly covert, though. One VC soldier recalled his unit being divided into cells of a few men each and sent on a ‘proselytising mission’ to Binh Ba, during which they met their local counterparts in various village houses.
The situation persisted into the middle of 1969, by which time Binh Ba’s security had been placed in the hands of local Regional Force soldiers. Neither the Task Force nor the South Vietnamese forces, which had day-to-day responsibility for the village’s security, had been able to rid the area of insurgents.
That morning on 6 June, with one RPG round, the Regional Force compelled the Australians to fight for Binh Ba.
The battle might have been initiated for several reasons:
- an attempt to relieve the pressure on the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) 33 Regiment headquarters in the area to the north where 6RAR was operating
- part of a nationwide offensive aimed at influencing the peace negotiations taking place in Paris
- an attempt to gain credit for the soon-to-be-announced withdrawal of some 25,000 United States troops from Vietnam.
5RAR’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Khan, who commanded the Australian force for much of the battle, believed then and continued to believe more than 30 years later that the attack on the Centurion was nothing more than the result of poor fire discipline by a ‘wayward soldier’.
After the Centurion was hit, 2 Regional Force platoons were sent to investigate but were stopped by heavy fire from the village.
The district chief requested support from provincial headquarters in Ba Ria, which in turn requested Australian assistance. Less than an hour later, Major Murray Blake attended a briefing at the Task Force headquarters. Blake was the officer commanding the Task Force’s ready reaction force, D Company, 5RAR. His orders were to mount an operation to clear the village.
Expecting to meet a couple of Viet Cong platoons, Blake told his company sergeant major that ‘there didn’t seem to be too much in this’. He elected to bring 6 newly arrived reinforcements along for the experience.
The battle begins
At 10 am, Blake’s company left Nui Dat in armoured personnel carriers (APCs) commanded by Captain Ray De Vere of B Squadron, 3 Cavalry Regiment. With them was a composite troop of tanks from B Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, under the command of Second Lieutenant Brian Sullivan.
While the Australians travelled the short distance between Nui Dat and Binh Ba, the local District Chief tried to evacuate the civilian population. He also deployed his own troops, members of the Regional Force, into blocking positions to cut off the enemy’s escape.
Waiting to move in
Half an hour after leaving Nui Dat, Blake’s force deployed about 300 m to the south-east of Binh Ba and awaited clearance to move in.
Sergeant Brian London, 10 Platoon’s acting commander, remembered pulling up on open ground before the village. Looking through the APC’s open hatch, he saw 30 or 40 people running ‘as if to make up a defensive position’. Seconds later, RPG smoke trails headed towards him. Instinct demanded that he exit the APC. A hit from an RPG could have killed or wounded everyone on board. But he fought the urge and stayed.
The armoured vehicles were just outside effective RPG range, and their crews were already returning fire. The Battle of Binh Ba was underway.
Planning the attack
Blake, meanwhile, was concentrating on the flurry of radio traffic coming through on about 8 networks.
The airwaves were busy with talk about who was in the village. Civilians, it turned out, had remained in the village. Blake instructed his men to take care and make sure their fire was aimed only at the enemy. It was, he said, a ‘big ask’ in a combat situation.
Blake also had to consider how best to carry out the attack. Numbers were limited. D Company was badly depleted, with only 70 men from a normally full complement of 120 available.
Between them, Blake, De Vere and Sullivan decided on an armoured assault, believing that dismounted infantry would be too vulnerable to enemy fire. De Vere, the senior armoured officer, took command during this phase of the operation.
By 11:20 am, the Australians were cleared to move in. The District Chief, wrongly believing the village to be free of civilians, told Blake to ‘go in and do what you have to do.’
Blake knew that Binh Ba, a picturesque village with well-ordered streets, solidly constructed houses and lush productive gardens, would soon become a battleground.
Oblique aerial view of Binh Ba, looking northwest from the southeastern corner of the village (bottom right). After the heavy fighting in the village during Operation Hammer, reconstruction work is underway, coordinated by 1 Australian Civil Affairs Unit (1ACAU). A number of damaged houses have been repaired with iron roofs, and areas have been cleared between the banana trees and gardens. The village schoolhouse with its distinctive white gable is in the centre near a large tree, while the village church stands at the right. The initial assault by the D Company, 5RAR group, during the operation was along the roads running diagonally from bottom right to top left.
Moving into the village
Approaching from the east, the Australians advanced with tanks in the centre of the formation and the APCs on either side and to the rear. As they entered Binh Ba, it became clear that not all the civilians had been evacuated, so 11 Platoon was ordered to dismount and help the villagers to safety.
Ahead of them, the tanks advanced slowly, moving cautiously between the rows of houses.
Diverting to a rubber plantation
Two tanks left in pursuit of enemy troops moving through the nearby rubber, reported by the pilot of an observation plane. One was hit by 2 RPG rounds, wounding 3 of the crew. The gunner, unable to traverse his turret, kept up a steady fire against the enemy whenever they crossed his line of sight.
Attracting gunfire in the village
Still believing that they were facing just 2 Viet Cong platoons, the rest of the Australians continued into the middle of Binh Ba, now with just 2 tanks in support. In the village centre, the Australians came under a storm of fire.
Murray Blake remembered seeing enemy everywhere, among them a heavy machine-gun crew wheeling their weapon into position before they were killed by fire from De Vere’s APC.
This was no pair of Viet Cong platoons. The Australians had come up against NVA troops, a far stronger force than they had expected to meet.
Blake said the noise of RPGs, small arms and machine guns was deafening, and the scene was completely chaotic. Amidst the din, messages could only be reliably sent by hand signals or runner. The tanks, meanwhile, were running low on ammunition. The Australians needed to extricate themselves from the village.
Withdrawing ground forces
Overhead a helicopter gunship fired rockets into an enemy-occupied house. From above, the pilots saw tanks and APCs firing into the buildings while enemy troops ran between dwellings, some having escaped observation until they were seen from the air.
A light fire team of 2 bushrangers flew in, guided by De Vere’s directions to attack positions on Binh Ba’s southern side. Coming in low over the tanks, they fired rockets and miniguns into the enemy, clearing the way for the armour and D Company to make their way out.
Every tank had been damaged by enemy fire. One was so severely damaged it was useless for further action. Sullivan, like the others, had been so heavily engaged that his tank left Binh Ba with its last round of canister loaded.
Assessing the damage
The Australians had come through the chaotic fight without losing a man.
Tanks and helicopters gave them fire supremacy, keeping the enemy from bringing the troop-laden APCs under effective fire. But the APCs were heavily armed, and the armoured vehicles’ combined firepower proved decisive. The After Action Report described the Centurions in particular as a ‘battle winning factor’.
For some, however, it was a close call nonetheless. At one point during the fighting in the village square, Sullivan saw the shock wave when an RPG round struck the neighbouring vehicle, wounding a crewman in the neck. An instant later, he glimpsed the round of an RPG being fired at his own tank. He ducked but felt the sting of its tail fins grazing his back before it exploded against a nearby wall, peppering him with shrapnel.
Fortune and fine margins sometimes meant the difference between life and death.
The second assault
Once the tanks were safely on open ground away from the village, 9 Squadron RAAF helicopters flew in replacement crewmen, evacuated the wounded, including Sullivan, and delivered fresh ammunition.
D Company, having broken out of the village, lined up for a second assault, this time from the west and supported by fresh tanks from 4 Troop, B Squadron.
As 12 noon approached, B Company, 5RAR, was dispatched to help D Company, at which point Lieutenant Colonel Khan took command of Operation Hammer, relieving 6RAR’s Lieutenant Colonel David Butler.
Moving into blocking positions
When they reached Binh Ba, B Company established blocking positions to the south and watched as flames rose from some buildings, marking the most intense combat scene. They then moved through the rubber to block from the east. One group, moving along the plantation’s fringe, was seen by the tank crews, who were still being resupplied, and brought under machine-gun fire. Then an officer ran over and identified the figures in the rubber as Australians. The firing stopped before anyone was hit.
Clearing the village on foot
Supported by APCs and tanks, the dismounted assault force, now back under Blake’s command, divided into house-clearing teams of 2 to 3 men and advanced on the village.
Fire from the first row of buildings in the village hit Private Wayne Teeling in the neck. Teeling was a reinforcement who had been flown in that morning. Two men dragged his body from the line of fire, but nothing more could be done for the 21-year-old, killed in his first action.
Climbing up to the hatch of a nearby tank, Brian London had the crew commander fire a high explosive round into the building from which the fatal shot had come. Inside the ruins, the Australians found the bodies of 6 enemy soldiers.
Similar actions, localised fights involving small groups moving from house to house, were being fought all along the closest rows of dwellings. Fire came at the Australians from the doors and windows, from any vantage point that offered the enemy cover. By now, it was clear from the uniforms that some of the dead included NVA soldiers and VC. That explained the heavy weapons seen that morning and the surprising intensity of the fighting in Binh Ba.
To dislodge the enemy, D Company’s house-clearing teams would fire until a tank could get into position. Once the door had been blasted in or a hole put through a wall with high explosive, the tank crews fired canisters through the hole, sweeping the inside with hundreds of steel projectiles. Then the infantrymen went in, clearing the houses room-by-room and throwing grenades into the bunkers dug by the villagers for shelter and now being used as cover by enemy troops. Sometimes there were terrifying close-quarter fights inside the shattered buildings.
For most of the Australians, the fighting in Binh Ba was unlike any that they had yet encountered.
An ungainly acronym, MOUT (military operations in urban terrain), described the experience. They were fighting in a populated area, people’s homes were destroyed, and civilian lives were lost. But for the Australians’ bravery and discipline, many more of Binh Ba’s inhabitants might have been killed or injured.
More than once, when there was doubt about whether those in their sights were enemy combatants or civilians trying to flee the maelstrom, the assaulting troops held their fire, exposing themselves to mortal risk. The company’s youngest soldiers often made these life-and-death decisions. Soldiers with the rank of private were leading 12 of the 21 rifle sections sent into the action.
Capturing prisoners of war
Many of the NVA soldiers fought to the death. Others removed their uniforms, discarded their weapons and tried to escape alongside the civilians still seeking to flee the battlefield.
After about an hour of fighting, B Company dispatched a platoon to screen the civilians escaping to Binh Ba’s north. Among them were two VC passing themselves off as non-combatants and another, nursing a head wound, who surrendered under the Chieu Hoi program, whereby the VC who gave themselves up were promised safety and good treatment. All 3 were taken prisoner along with another VC captured to the east of Binh Ba.
At one point, Ray De Vere watched as a man came out of the village, his raised hands exposing the webbing under his shirt. De Vere pointed at the incriminating piece of kit. The would-be escapee shrugged and smiled before surrendering.
The battle winds down
Taking a defensive position overnight
By the evening of 6 June, the fighting had died down.
An exhausted D Company and armoured corps personnel took up a defensive position for the night. Binh Ba, however, was still not secure.
Late in the afternoon, while the fighting in the village continued, B Company set up a harbour on the edge of the nearby rubber plantation. A gentle rain began to fall, just enough to make the night uncomfortable.
All was quiet until 3:20 am on 7 June, when an Australian platoon killed 2 enemy troops as they tried to escape to the south.
B Company’s Bill O’Mara, from 6 Platoon, spent the night taking his turn on sentry duty and then sleeping. Early the following morning, he woke to the sound of shooting. The sentries had noticed troops moving through the rubber in assault formation. Thinking at first that the approaching figures were from D Company, they soon recognised them as enemy and let fly with fire.
O’Mara recalled seeing the flash from incoming RPGs and the sound of shrapnel hitting the rubber trees above his head. No Australian was hit, and when some of the platoon went over to where the NVA had been, there was no trace, not a single blood trail. O’Mara thought that everyone had fired too high.
At 7 am, a company of NVA was seen heading towards Binh Ba. B Company opened fire, and the enemy fled. When the Australians swept the area, they found a body and some blood trails, indicating that 6 others had been wounded.
An hour later, a section of APCs travelling north towards Duc Trung came under RPG fire, and a large group of enemy troops were seen moving between houses. The 5RAR Assault Pioneer Platoon, although readied for action, were not needed in the hamlet and moved to form a blocking force to Binh Ba’s north-east. Local Regional Force troops went into Duc Trung and found the NVA had gone.
Just before 10 am, the Australians - D Company; 5 Platoon from B Company; 2 combat engineer teams from 1st Field Squadron, along with the tanks and APCs - lined up for another sweep of Binh Ba. They had to ensure that no more NVA or Viet Cong had infiltrated the village during the night and flush out any remaining from the previous day.
By 12 noon, the western half of the village was clear. The enemy was gone. The search was then handed over to Popular Force troops, who swept the eastern half of the village.
Fighting in Duc Trung
Binh Ba was quiet, but shortly afterwards, fighting flared again in Duc Trung. The Regional Force company, having earlier found the hamlet empty, was being overrun.
Artillery fire from 105 Battery began falling among the enemy troops, a light fire team flew in support, and B Company prepared to go in with the APCs. They lay in a line amidst the trees, every man facing the village, weapons at the ready.
On command, the line of infantry rose and spread out between the APCs, moved in from the south, covering the 100 m or so of open ground before the hamlet without incident. In front of them, the tanks approached Duc Trung in an extended line, but not a living soul remained in the southern part of the hamlet. The damage, wrote Bill O’Mara ‘had been well and truly done’.
In the north, enemy troops were mingling with civilians. Wanting to avoid casualties among the villagers, the Australians left the task to local Popular Force troops.
Pursued by shell fire and helicopters, the enemy withdrew to the north-west. They left behind 6 dead and a series of tell-tale blood trails. Perhaps these unfortunate men were those buried later in the day by O’Mara and another soldier. He recalled being detailed to bury 6 enemy dead, a ‘grisly task’ during which he noticed that they were wearing the black clothes of the VC rather than the NVA khaki.
The night of 7 June also passed without contact, and a final sweep the following morning confirmed that the enemy had gone.
Archival footage of the battle
This 2-minute film covers a number of aspects of the battle of Binh Ba. In some scenes, we see Australians working their way through Binh Ba's ruined houses. The damage inflicted on the village during the battle is made very clear. Later the camera operator focuses on the awful scene that followed the battle: a village square in which lie the bodies of a large number of dead enemy troops. We also see a line of Australians, supported by armour, moving towards Duc Trung on the second day of the battle. Taken together, these few moments from a battle that lasted several days manage to convey a sense of the terrible fighting that took place in Binh Ba and the cost of that battle to the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and villagers. AWM F04342
Returning to Nui Dat base
A few hours later, the men who had fought the battle returned to Nui Dat.
Australian Civil Affairs personnel were already in Binh Ba when they left. Hours of heavy fighting, from street to street, house to house, and finally even room to room, had destroyed much of the village.
The villagers returned to find that large holes had been blown through the walls of many houses, and in others, the door was gone. The wreckage told of violent combat and the weight of firepower directed against those inside.
Aftermath of the battle
The Australians in Binh Ba had been lucky.
Teeling was the only Australian killed. Many years later, Teeling's niece, Sandy, visited Vietnam. She dropped a rose quartz crystal, given to her by his widow, Carolyn, in Halong Bay as a gesture of respect to an uncle she probably never knew.
One loss in a battle of such ferocity must be considered fortunate, but for those who knew and loved that individual, the death remains a tragedy.
The same tragedy befell many Vietnamese in Binh Ba.
Casualty figures vary, but it seems that more than 100 VC and NVA, possibly many more, lost their lives in the battle. Several South Vietnamese soldiers were also killed in the fighting.
The engineers, plant operators from 1 Field Squadron and 21 Engineer Support Troop, had the unpleasant task of digging a mass grave in which to bury the enemy dead. Sadly, a number of villagers also lost their lives during the battle.
In such a confused, intense fight in an urban area, no amount of care could have prevented civilian casualties. Houses and vegetation limited the field of vision, and some of the enemy, members of a VC guerrilla unit rather than the NVA, were hard to distinguish from Binh Ba’s residents.
During the latter part of the first day’s fighting, some NVA troops discarded their uniforms for civilian clothes making it more difficult for the Australians to make the distinction. However much they lamented the loss of civilian lives, it is clear from veterans’ writings and interviews that this has weighed heavily on some.
Those who fought at Binh Ba should also be proud that their efforts, often at great personal risk, prevented a far greater loss.
The 1st Armoured Regiment, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment and The Royal Australian Regiment were all awarded a battle honour for Binh Ba. A number of individuals were also recognised for their bravery.
The village, left in ruins, was rebuilt. Today Binh Ba stands, as it did 40 years ago, beside the rubber plantation from which many residents still derive their income.
The old marketplace in the village centre at Binh Ba now hosts a memorial complex dedicated to the 33rd NVA Regiment, many of whose soldiers died in the battle. The village has grown, and newer buildings adjoin Route 2, obscuring the old and making Binh Ba appear very different to the place that, for 2 days in June 1969, was the scene of a fierce battle.
Archival footage of the rebuilding Binh Ba
Almost as soon as the fighting in Binh Ba came to an end, Australian civil affairs workers and engineers moved in to begin rebuilding the shattered village. Members of the 17th Construction Squadron are shown repairing some buildings while others knock down those that were beyond fixing. The film points to the importance of the ‘hearts and minds’ aspects of the war and shows the Australians to have made a considerable effort to repair battle-damaged homes in the aftermath of a vicious battle. AWM F04344