Battle of Long Tan
The Battle of Long Tan one of the largest battles fought by Australians in the Vietnam War. On 18 August 1966, Delta (D) Company, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), fought an 'encounter' battle to defeat enemy forces in the Long Tan rubber plantation. The plantation was only a few kilometres from the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat. D Company suffered 42 casualties, including 18 dead – more than one-third of its strength – and some 245 enemy troops were killed. D Company's 105 men and 3 New Zealanders from 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery, fought for almost 4 hours against soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army, who outnumbered them by 10 to 1.
How it happened
In May 1966, the first Australian soldiers of the 6th Battalion, 6RAR, arrived in South Vietnam; the rest followed in June. Within 2 months, elements of the battalion found themselves engaged in one of the largest battles fought by Australians in the Vietnam War.
By August 1966, the Australian task force base at Nui Dat was only 3 months old. Concerned by such a strong presence in their midst, the Viet Cong determined to inflict an early defeat on the Australians.
Expecting an attack
In the days before the battle, radio signals indicated the presence of strong Viet Cong forces within 5km of the base, but patrols found nothing.
On the night of 16 and 17 August, the Nui Dat base came under fire from mortars and recoilless rifles. The Australian defenders stood-to, expecting the barrage to be followed by an assault. None came. Searches of the area the next day located some of the sites from which mortars had been fired, but nothing else.
Patrols continued the following day, 18 August. D Company left the Nui Dat base at 11:15am, bound for the Long Tan rubber plantation. As they left, the sounds of a concert by Australian entertainer Little Pattie reached their ears.
Attacking in force
They entered the Long Tan plantation at 3:15pm that day. Less than 1 hour later, the Viet Cong attacked in force, firing on the Australians at Long Tan with mortars, machine guns and small arms. D Company made desperate calls for support. The quick response of a New Zealand artillery battery saved the Australians from annihilation.
Almost as soon as the battle began, a torrential downpour of rain added to the gloom in the rubber plantation. The Australians were surrounded, short of ammunition and fighting an enemy whose strength they could only guess at.
Calling for support
The Australians called for helicopters to drop ammunition to them.
Flying at tree-top height, braving the terrible weather and heavy Viet Cong fire, two RAAF helicopters located the beleaguered Australians. The choppers dropped boxes of ammunition, and blankets for the wounded men.
The survivors of D Company fought alongside New Zealand's 161 Field Battery, the Australian 103 and 105 Field batteries and a United States battery. Their accurate artillery fire inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Cong.
As the fighting continued, Australian reinforcements were committed to the battle. B Company was on the way. A Company was loaded into Armoured Personnel Carriers of 3 Troop, 1 Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron, which fought its way into D Company just before 7pm, as daylight was fading.
Forcing a retreat
The Viet Cong had been massing for another assault, but were forced to retreat into the plantation. They had suffered terrible casualties. However, the Australians did not realise the extent of their victory until they returned to the scene of battle the next morning. They counted 245 enemy dead still in the plantation and surrounding jungle, with evidence that others had already been removed from the battlefield.
Captured documents and information from prisoners suggested that D Company had faced some 2500 Viet Cong. In the Battle of Long Tan, 18 Australians were killed and 24 wounded, all but one of the dead were from D Company.
Details of the battle
I must admit looking back now if Harry Smith hadn't been the commander he was and if myself and other sergeants and corporals we had in Delta Company had not been of the calibre they were I don't think we would have survived Long Tan. I think the whole hundred and eight would have been killed. So that's how important it was for us as NCOs.
[Sgt Bob Buick, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview no: 2181]
18 August 1966
2:43am A 22-minute barrage from 82mm mortars and 75mm recoilless rifles startles the occupants of the base at Nui Dat. There are 24 Australian casualties and some damage to tents and vehicles. The base is readied for an attack which does not eventuate.
6:31am B Company 6RAR is dispatched to search for the enemy and spent the day tracing enemy tracks. They are re-supplied with rations and remain away from Nui Dat overnight.
Later that morning, the three D Company platoons, 10, 11 and 12, are sent out to relieve B Company and to continue the search for Viet Cong troops. The men leave the base at Nui Dat just as a group of visiting entertainers (including Col Joye and Little Pattie) are setting up their equipment for a much-anticipated concert.
1:00pm The two companies rendezvous, and B Company returns to Nui Dat for the concert. D Company Commander, Major Harry Smith, his three platoons, a company HQ group and three New Zealand artillery observers set off into the rubber plantation.
3:00pm 10 and 11 Platoons move forward and spread out. Suddenly they make their first contact with a group of enemy soldiers who walk straight into the middle of the Australian patrol. Sergeant Bob Buick fires and wounds one who is picked up by his companions. They bolt into the surrounding vegetation. The Australians are surprised to see that, unlike the local Viet Cong, these men are dressed in camouflage clothing and carry AK47s, the Russian-made Kalashnikov.
4:08pm As 11 Platoon continues their advance in 'one big long line', they come under heavy fire which kills four of the Australians. The survivors, now fighting for their lives, fire back.
4:12pm Trapped by the enemy in torrential monsoon rain, 11 Platoon Commander Second Lieutenant Gordon Sharp calls in artillery support.
4:26pm NZ artillery shells are fired from Nui Dat but miss the target. When Gordon Sharp stands to re-direct the artillery fire he is shot and killed. His Platoon Sergeant, Bob Buick, sends a desperate radio message requesting more ammunition, and then his radio antenna is shot off.
Major Smith orders 10 Platoon Commander, Second Lieutenant Geoff Kendall, out to find 11 Platoon. With rain falling, Kendall's platoon intercepts a group of the enemy and overcomes them. But when they move on they are attacked from three sides. A number of his men are wounded and his radio is destroyed. Private William 'Yank' Arkell, a Radio Operator from Company HQ, braves the enemy fire to locate Kendall and hand over a replacement radio. (Arkell was later awarded a Mention in Dispatches for his actions). With radio contact restored, Smith orders 10 Platoon to retreat.
4:50pm Completely isolated from the rest of the company, and with minimal ammunition, 11 Platoon fight on. Sergeant Bob Buick calls in artillery fire from Nui Dat and directs it over his mens' heads onto the enemy.
5:15pm 10 Platoon returns to the Company HQ position and Smith orders 12 Platoon Commander Second Lieutenant Dave Sabben, to take two sections of his Platoon (20 men instead of 30) to search for 11 Platoon.
5:30pm 12 Platoon runs into groups of the enemy attempting to outflank 11 Platoon and have to force their way through. Eight Australians are wounded.
5:45pm At Nui Dat, Lieutenant Adrian Roberts, Alpha Company 6RAR musters 7 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) of 3 Troop and heads out to support Delta Company.
6:00pm Two 9 Squadron RAAF helicopters negotiate torrential rain and almost zero visibility to drop cases of ammunition wrapped in blankets down to the embattled soldiers. Sergeant Bob Buick and the remainder of 11 Platoon having made a desperate dash to escape the enemy locate 12 Platoon. Together the survivors of the two platoons manage to fight their way back to Company HQ where Harry Smith deploys them into defensive positions to await enemy attacks.
6:35pm The enemy start their 'human wave assault' charging towards the Australians who reply with machine gun and rifle fire. Smith calls in the artillery at Nui Dat but despite their mounting casualties, the enemy continue their attack.
6:45pm 3 Troop's APCs arrive, dispersing the enemy and ending the battle.
10:45pm The wounded and the dead are transported to the landing zone at the edge of the rubber plantation and evacuated to Vung Tau in dust off helicopters. Delta company's dead are left in the plantation to be collected the next morning.
19 August 1966
Delta Company together with 6RAR's Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Companies and Delta Company 5RAR, with APCs, return to the battleground to search for the Australians who were killed in the battle. Two of the missing men from Delta Company are found wounded but alive and are evacuated in dust off helicopters. Thirteen Australian bodies are retrieved. Some wounded Viet Cong are taken prisoner and interrogated. That afternoon, the Australians dig shallow graves and bury more than 200 enemy dead where they fell.
Companies 'scour the battlefield', extending their search area and finding traces of enemy camps, supplies, scattered groups of civilians and some graves. The enemy is not pursued and the battalion returns to Nui Dat, ending Operation Smithfield at 5 pm on 21 August 1966. D Company 6RAR withdraws to Vung Tau for 2 days R & C (rest and convalescence).
Awards for those in the battle
I think, in retrospect, the Battle of Long Tan has been promoted to its icon status by the public and by the Viet vets themselves, rather than by the politicians or the senior military. It's sobering to realise that in fact only four medals were awarded for the Battle of Long Tan. The politicians and the senior military didn't recognise it as a great event, possibly because there might have been more of them at the time. But it's sobering to realise that it's the public and the Viet vets themselves that have made â€¦ Long Tan the icon that it is today where 18th August is the nationally celebrated Vietnam Veterans Day.
[Second Lieutenant Dave Sabben, Australians at War Interview No:2585]
In May 1968, Delta Company 6RAR was awarded a US Presidential Citation 'for extraordinary heroism', one of only 2 Australian units to have received the decoration. (3RAR received the award for its role in the Battle of Kapyong during the Korean War).
In September 1966, 8 months earlier, the South Vietnamese Government had arranged to present the Australians with an award – the South Vietnam Cross of Gallantry – at a special parade near the Task Force headquarters. However, the Commander of the Vietnamese Armed Forces and Chief of State, General Van Thieu, was advised that Australian Government policy forbade the acceptance of foreign awards. The parade was delayed until President Thieu's advisors returned with replacement gifts for the men:
- wooden cigar boxes for the officers
- cigarette boxes for the NCOs
- dolls dressed in national costume for the other ranks
The Australians never received the South Vietnamese Government awards.
The Commonwealth awarded decorations to 15 of the soldiers for their roles during the action. In the endnotes to Chapter 16 of To Long Tan, Ian McNeill writes that:
the system of allocation of medals by quota resulted in the number and degree of awards being little short of insulting in view of the heroism displayed.
[Ian McNeill, To Long Tan, p 564]
The other side of Long Tan
From prisoners and captured documents, we have learned that the Australians defeated a force that dramatically outnumbered them. The Viet Cong 5th Division, comprising 275 Viet Cong Main force battalion and D445, the local provincial mobile battalion, had been involved in the battle.
When the Australians returned the next morning for the gruesome task of 'battlefield clearance', they found 245 enemy corpses, each of which had to be searched for intelligence purposes before burial.
We had to search the packs, the equipment. We had to search their pockets. We had to retrieve wallets. There were photographs of families. They had families. They had Mum and Dad and the kids and there were photographs there wrapped in plastic against the humidity. There were little letters, books, dried flowers pressed in the pages of a book. We had to retrieve all of this along with the documents and the equipment and the metal, and we had to take them into a central point so that the intelligence people could start piecing together what unit were they from, what rank they were, where they came from, where they had been operating…
[Second Lieutenant David Sabben, Platoon Commander, 12 Platoon, 6RAR in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 p 325 – Drawing on Interview No:2585 in the Australians at War Film Archive]
The Australians also captured an array of ammunition and weapons. The enemy carried Soviet-designed automatic AK47 assault rifles or SKS rifles, both as effective as the Australian self-loading rifle. Each enemy soldier carried a greater quantity of ammunition than the men in D Company, enabling them to maintain a far greater rate of fire.
Enemy propaganda celebrated the great victory against the Australians and the hundreds who had been killed by 'our country's liberation forces.'
The North Vietnamese units involved in the battle were awarded medals and Radio Hanoi reported that:
The Australian mercenaries, who are no less husky and beefy than their allies, the US aggressors, have proved as good fresh targets for the South Vietnam Liberation Fighters… [who] put out of action 400 Australian mercenaries, thus annihilating two full-sized companies, heavily decimated another, set a fire three M113 armoured cars, downed one US jet fighter and captured a great quantity of arms and munitions.
…The day before, 17 August, the LAF in the same province wiped out over 100 Australian mercenaries. For these victories the South Vietnam LAF Command had decided to award a Liberation Military Exploit Order Third Class to the victorious units.
[1-31 January 1967, Commanding Officer After Action Report (COAAR) Operation Smithfield, p 43, AWM 95,1/4/26]
Radio Peking International Service (in English) announced on 28 August 1966:
More than 500 Australian Satellite Troops including two whole companies were wiped out by the South Vietnam Liberation Army in Baria Province on 17 and 18 August when it launched fierce attacks on an Australian battalion and an Armoured Car Column, reported the South Vietnam Liberation Press Agency. In an attack on an Australian Base in Nui Thu on 17 August, the Liberation Army in Baria Province wiped out more than 100 Australian troops.
In the afternoon the following day, the Liberation Army knocked out a number of Australian troops which fell into an ambush in Long Tan Hamlet. Then, the Liberation Forces concentrated their fire on the rest of the enemy and wiped out more than four hundred Australian Satellite troops. Two companies were completely wiped out and another company was heavily battered. Three M113 Armoured Cars were destroyed. The Command of the South Vietnam Liberation Armed Forces has recently decided to award this victorious unit with the Liberation Exploit Order, Third Class.
[Ian McNeill, To Long Tan, p 357]
Surrounded by his compatriots he explained the reason for the battle:
Because the Royal Australian forces attacked and established their base at Nui Dat in order to separate the people from our soldiers and to push the revolutionary forces further away. They drained the people the area to make this a white belt (area under government control). So they evacuated the people of the two villages of Long Phuoc and Long Tan to resettle them in Dat Do, Long Dien and Hoa Long. There it was decided at higher level that D445 had to be prepared for battle… We also wanted them (the Australians) to leave Nui Dat so that we could recover our two revolutionary villages of Long Tan and Long Phuoc.
[Ian McNeill, To Long Tan, p 366]
Commemoration of the battle
In 1987, Prime Minister Bob Hawke designated 18 August as Australia's official Vietnam Veterans' Day. The date commemorates the Battle of Long Tan, but honours the service and sacrifice of all Australians who served in the Vietnam War.