Australians in the Battle of Coral–Balmoral 12 May to 6 June 1968

 

On 12 May 1968, Australian and New Zealand forces set up Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral, about 7 km north of Tan Uyen. It was an area the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong used to launch attacks on Saigon. The soldiers at FSB Coral would intercept and disrupt enemy forces approaching or withdrawing from Saigon. Helicopters were delivering soldiers and equipment to the site throughout the day. The enemy was watching and attacked FSB Coral in the early morning of 13 May. Australian artillerymen, mortarmen and machine gunners in the direct line of the enemy’s attack came under intense fire. Nine Australian soldiers were killed and 28 wounded. FSB Coral became a strong defensive position. On 24 May, some Australian soldiers moved about 4.5 km north of FSB Coral to set up FSB Balmoral. FSB Balmoral was attacked twice by the enemy. Patrols continued in the area until the Australians withdrew on 6 June. Between 12 May and 6 June 1968, 25 Australian lives were lost, with many more wounded. These actions made up Australia’s most costly and protracted battle of the Vietnam War.

Fire Support Base Coral

The 1st Australian Task Force moved 2 battalions into a strategically important area north of Saigon:

On 12 May 1968, the troops were airlifted into an area 7 km north of the town of Tan Uyen in Bình Duong Province. The men and their equipment arrived throughout the day. By evening, they had set up the area as Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral.

The fire support base at Coral (and Balmoral) was established partly so that Australian patrols could cover an area that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong used to launch attacks on Saigon.

Once established, the men were to intercept and disrupt enemy forces withdrawing from Saigon and the US/South Vietnamese Bien Hoa–Long Binh complex.

Twelve men wearing army uniforms and carrying packs and rifles crowd around a military vehicle laden with equipment and supplies.
Members of 131 Divisional Locating Battery on 12 May 1968, waiting with their full kit to be taken by air to Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral, which was just being established in Bien Hoa Province. Like many Australian units, their move to the new base was delayed. The 5 soldiers on the left of the picture are (left to right): 1411285 Gunner (Gnr) Walter George 'Wally' Franklin; 2787174 Gnr Kenneth John 'Bluey' Peisley; 54941 Bombardier Neville Charles 'Nev' Wortlehock; 3791355 Gnr John Victor Dellaca; 421326 Gnr Ian Donald Kennedy. The identity of the other soldiers is not known. That night and the following day, FSB Coral would come under heavy attack from a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion, marking the start of the Battle of Coral-Balmoral. AWM P01766.002

First attack on Coral

Six shirtless men in an open field untie a load from a helicopter hovering above them
Soldiers at Fire Support Base Coral unloading supplies from a hovering Iroquois helicopter, May 1968. This is where the Battle of Coral–Balmoral began on 13 May 1968. AWM CRO/68/0553/VN

Early on the morning of 13 May 1968, just hours after Australian and New Zealand forces had established FSB Coral, North Vietnamese troops attacked in strength.

The Australian rifle companies took up ambush positions up to 4 km from FSB Coral.

Inside the perimeter of FSB Coral were some Army units or parts thereof, including:

A series of events led to delays in setting up the base on 12 May. The flurry of activity in the area, as helicopters carrying men and equipment came and went, was watched by North Vietnamese observers.

On the first night of its existence, FSB Coral was vulnerable.

When the North Vietnamese assault came, 102 Battery's artillery, its machine gunners and the mortar platoon were directly in the enemy's path.

Fighting raged around their positions. The mortarmen were in danger of being overrun. The machine gunners, out in front of the artillery and having already suffered casualties, were forced to brave intense fire and run for the relative safety of the gun positions. But the gun positions were also under heavy attack. For the first time since World War II, Australian artillerymen were fighting in close defence of their guns, one of which was overrun before being recaptured.

With annihilation threatening, the mortar platoon's commanding lieutenant called for splintex (anti-personnel cannon round) to be fired on his position. The mortarmen pressed themselves against the earth while 5 rounds of flesh-tearing steel darts in the splintex shells swept over their heads. Enemy soldiers were torn apart, leaving only dead men around the Australian position.

Five men in army uniforms, three of them shirtless, stand around a large military gun in a field clearing with tall grass, shrubs and trees behind them.

No 6 gun crew of 102 Field Battery at Fire Support Base Coral, Bien Hoa Province, Vietnam, 13 May 1968. The soldiers are, left to right: 3410998 Sergeant Maxwell John Franklin; 441126 Gunner (Gnr) Kevin Frederick (Ken) Walker; 4719292 Gnr Alan James Good; 217101 Gnr John Edward Schwarze; CP Staff 2786889 Gnr Robert John (Bob) Costello. During the first enemy attack of the Coral-Balmoral battle, the enemy overrun this 105mm M2A2 howitzer gun, which had to be abandoned. Sgt Franklin removed the firing mechanism from the gun, rendering it non-operational. When the Australians later recaptured this position, the gun was useless because the ammunition bay was burnt out, and the position was showered with hand grenades. AWM P02950.002

The Australians were fortunate that night.

In addition to the composure of the officers and men who faced the attack, the weight of defensive fire – from 102 Battery, from a New Zealand battery more than 1 km away, from helicopters and from aircraft – was too great for the North Vietnamese to withstand.

The experience shook the Australian survivors.

The first light of day revealed 52 enemy bodies. Drag marks leading into the scrub suggested that many more dead men had been removed from the battlefield.

On the Australian side, 9 soldiers had lost their lives, and a further 28 were wounded.

Interior of a vehicle looking through an open damaged windscreen towards a field of tall grass, a hut and some trees with a shirtless man looking in from the outside.
38071 Corporal David Ashwell McCallum of the AFV Detachment, 1st Division Supply and Transport Workshop, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968. He's examining bullet and shrapnel damage to a truck windscreen in the aftermath of a North Vietnamese attack on Fire Support Base Coral. AWM ERR/68/0513/VN

Second attack on Coral

By 15 May, FSB Coral had become a strong defensive position. The men were better prepared than they had been on that first night to withstand further North Vietnamese attacks. The next one came early on the morning of 16 May.

This time, the North Vietnamese sent 2 battalions of soldiers to attack FSB Coral.

Like the earlier assault, the second attack began with a barrage of mortar and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire. This time it was directed mainly against the guns of 102 Field Battery, A Battery 2/35th Battalion US Artillery and the headquarters and maintenance areas.

A shirtless man laying on a clearing in a forest with a gun resting on a tripod and ammunition in front of some canvas shelters.
4718752 Bombardier Larry Alan Davenport handling an M60 machine gun after one of the attacks on Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968. A member of the 12th Field Artillery, Royal Australian Artillery, Bombardier Davenport was defending FSB Coral from enemy attacks on 13 and 16 May 1968. AWM ERR/68/0520/VN

1RAR's A, B and C companies bore the brunt of the onslaught, but few of the assaulting troops could penetrate the Australian defences.

Fire from Coral's small arms, artillery and mortars, a United States battery, helicopters and the lethal spookies – C-47 aircraft equipped with flares and miniguns – stopped the North Vietnamese but only after, as one Australian said later, 'a torrid four hours'.

The battle was over by 6:30 am. Only the North Vietnamese rearguard continued to fight, covering the withdrawal of their main force.

Five men in military clothes, three of them shirtless, gather in a forest clearing, two are seated, and two are crouching, with a military canvas tent and a camp washing line in the rear.
Australian and South Vietnamese soldiers speak with a prisoner of war at Fire Support Base Coral. He was one of 14 prisoners taken by the Australians in the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. From left to right: 26973 Warrant officer Class 2 Bob Wood, 1st Division Intelligence Unit; 33998 Major Geoff Cameron, 1st Australian Task Force; unidentified North Vietnamese Prisoner; unidentified South Vietnamese soldier; with an unidentified South Vietnamese soldier standing behind. AWM ERR/68/0522/VN

Five Australians had been killed, and the bodies of 34 North Vietnamese were found in front of the Australian positions.

A medic in C Company, 1RAR, remembered the unsettling effect of seeing the enormous amount of weaponry arrayed against the North Vietnamese only to find 'a few bodies' the next morning.

The practice of removing as many of their dead as possible from the battlefield meant that no one had any real idea of how many North Vietnamese had been killed or wounded in these battles.

Man with gloves working on barbed wire fence
A soldier checks a strand of perimeter wire at Fire Support Base Coral after large North Vietnamese attacks on the base, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968. 2785918 Private Anthony Medelis member of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), which bore the brunt of both attacks on 13 and 16 May during the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. AWM ERR/68/0512/VN

Arrival of defensive tanks at Coral

A tank moving along a dirt road of a town with people watching from the side of the road
A Centurion tank from the 1st Armoured Regiment passes through a village on the long and hazardous drive from Nui Dat to Coral, 1968. AWM ERR/68/0543/VN

Four Centurion tank crews from C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, arrived from Nui Dat on 23 May. It had been a tense journey. The tanks had travelled about 120 km through hostile territory and crossed 10 bailey bridges (portable truss bridges), none of which were rated to carry the weight of a 49-tonne tank.

The tanks were positioned to help defend the Australian troops at Coral.

Four tanks moving though an open grass field with soldiers on top of the tanks
Centurion crews of C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, arrive at Fire Support Base Coral on the afternoon of 23 May 1968, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam. These tanks were a welcome sight to the defenders of the base, which had sustained attacks for several days as part of the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. AWM P01768.010
4 shirtless men stand to attention infront of a tank as an officer greets them
General William Westmoreland, the American Commander in Vietnam, speaks with members of C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment after the attacks on the Coral and Balmoral fire support bases, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, June 1968. From left to right in front of the Centurion tank are: 37530 Corporal William Thomas (Bill) Burton, Crew commander; 4410977 Brian William (Jock) Kay, 5411641 Phillip Lewis (Phil) Payne and 3789306 Peter William Lukeis. 1731558 Mick Butler, a tank commander, recalled the general being 'very interested in my tanks.' AWM THU/68/0566/VN

First attack on Balmoral

Members of 3 RAR moved to an area about 4.5 km north of FSB Coral on 24 May 1968 to set up FSB Balmoral.

Two men wearing army uniforms and camouflage-patterned helmets are holding rifles while leaning out of earthen pits in front of tall leafy vegetation.
Wearing steel helmets against the RPG and mortar fire of the attack on Fire Support Base Balmoral, 2 Australian soldiers are in their weapon pits, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968. 4717899 Private Leslie John (Les) Coff and 6708720 Private Robert Maxwell Wells were 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) members. AWM CRO/68/0560/VN

The next day, 4 tanks from 2 Troop, C Squadron, arrived from FSB Coral. On their way, the tanks had extricated their escorting infantry platoon from a dangerous contact among a series of North Vietnamese bunkers. It was the first time since 1945 that Australian tanks had fought in close support of infantry.

On 26 May, as had been the pattern at FSB Coral, the North Vietnamese attacked FSB Balmoral in the early morning hours.

At the same time, a barrage of mortar and RPG fire hit FSB Coral to keep that base's artillery and mortars from supporting FSB Balmoral's defence.

Then members of the North Vietnamese 165 Regiment emerged from the darkness. They ran through the gaps in the Australian wire that allowed tanks and APCs to make their way into and out of the base during the day.

It was a brave but hopeless assault. The North Vietnamese were cut down by the enormous defensive fire coming from the Australians.

Three men wearing army uniforms gather on an earth and sandbag bunker as they eat and drink, with two other men in the background.
Weary-looking members of 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) at Fire Support Base Balmoral, May 1968. With their weapons close at hand, the soldiers take time to rest and eat near their weapon pit. They had established the base only 24 hours before the first enemy attack during the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. AWM CRO/68/0558/VN

Machine-gun bullets and small arms fire cut through their ranks. Artillery and mortar rounds burst among them. From above, fire and illumination from aircraft held back the assault. The North Vietnamese never had a chance. Their situation was made worse by attacking across the open ground on Balmoral's northern perimeter rather than through the scrub and vegetative growth on the base's southern, eastern and western sides.

Four men wearing army uniforms, three of them shirtless, talk to each other in a heavily damaged section of forest, with a military tank in the background.
Members of 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), take a break while patrolling outside the wire at Fire Support Base (FSB) Balmoral, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968. The tank in the background has levelled the area through which it has driven in a search for North Vietnamese survivors of an attack on the base during the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. AWM CRO/68/0577/VN

After the fight, the bodies of 6 North Vietnamese lay in front of the Australian positions. The characteristic drag marks leading from the battlefield into the trees suggested that many more had been killed.

Three Australians had been killed in the attack, and 14 were wounded.

A group of 3 men wearing army uniforms crouch on the grass in a forest clearing while a military helicopter lands behind them.
An Iroquois arrives at First Support Base Balmoral delivering water supplies in plastic containers for the men at the base, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968. Men wounded in action at FSB Balmoral were quickly ferried to hospital by this helicopter. 3790383 Trooper Michael John (Mick) Jackson is running towards the helicopter in the background, and 38381 Trooper Erasmus James (Rus) Kiellerup is standing in the centre, both from C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps. Beside the landing zone, soldiers tend to a wounded comrade before the helicopter evacuates him from the base. AWM CRO/68/0563/VN

Bunker complex assaults

On 26 May, tanks from 1 Troop, C Squadron, and 1RAR's D Company moved to the North Vietnamese bunker complex that 2 Troop's tanks had encountered the previous day.

When the Australians approached the bunkers, the tank crews fired canister rounds (like huge shotgun shells) that shredded the jungle's foliage and exposed the enemy positions. Then they could fire directly into the bunkers.

Men and tanks worked together for hours, fighting their way deeper into the North Vietnamese complex.

Military vehicles move as a column along a dirt track, with soldiers visibly riding on the closest tank, and civilian vehicles on the track ahead.

Armoured vehicles of C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment (1AR), Royal Australian Armoured Corps (RAAC), moving from the Nui Dat base to Fire Support Base Coral in Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968. The tanks were an important part of the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. AWM ERR/68/0536/VN

Enemy fire destroyed anything attached to the tanks, but made almost no impression on their armour.

The giant Centurions rolled over North Vietnamese positions, crushing some bunkers beneath their tracks, driving up to the entrances of others and killing those inside.

The Australian infantry followed behind with small arms, grenades and flame throwers, while mortar and artillery pounded the North Vietnamese positions.

The battle continued for almost 4 hours, but the bunker complex was too large for 4 tanks and a few platoons of infantry to overcome. The risk of becoming trapped somewhere in its midst was too great so the Australians broke off the assault.

Under cover of the artillery fire falling between them and the enemy, the Australians withdrew and returned to FSB Coral.

No Australian had been hit, and morale was high.

The wariness that the infantry had felt about working with tanks, a new experience for Australians in Vietnam, had disappeared. They were pleased with the way the Centurions had carried out their part of the operation.

Second attack on Balmoral

The North Vietnamese launched their second major assault against Balmoral at 2:30 am on 28 May 1968.

It appeared at first that they were trying to hit 3RAR's A Company, on Balmoral's southern side, but this was a feint. As firing died down in this vicinity, a large North Vietnamese force attacked towards D Company on the far side of Balmoral.

Although bush and scrub came right up to Balmoral's flanks, to the Australians' surprise, the enemy attacked over the same open ground that they had come across 2 nights earlier.

The North Vietnamese came under a merciless fire. Their own weapons seemed to be aimed high as much of their fire ripped through the trees, inflicting minimal damage on D Company.

Some North Vietnamese troops sought refuge in the deep craters left after a B52 strike on the area days before. Safe from Australian fire in their temporary refuge, they were unable to advance any further. Nor could they retreat. As the battle died down, they were trapped. Covering mortar fire gave them a chance to run across the open ground to safety, but most were shot down.

Close up of a sad man wearing an army uniform with a thick bandaged tied around his head and sitting in a forest clearing with sandbags behind him.
34613 Warrant Officer (WO) Donald Keith (Don) Miller, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968, during the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. WO Miller's head is bandaged from a wound received during the fighting at Fire Support Base Balmoral, and he's waiting for the helicopter that will take him from the base. AWM CRO/68/0557/VN

Australian patrols went out at dawn to clear the field. A few North Vietnamese survivors, until then feigning death, fired on them before being killed.

The Australians took 7 prisoners and found 42 bodies on the battlefield. It was a sad day. Some of the enemy dead were teenagers. As had happened after earlier battles, the bodies were scooped up by a bulldozer and buried in a mass grave.

Two men wearing army uniforms crouch over a younger shirtless man laying on bare ground.
Two Australian soldiers dress the wounds of a North Vietnamese prisoner of war captured in the aftermath of an attack on Fire Support Base Balmoral, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968. Both 335058 Major Geoffrey Frederick (Fred) Cohen and 54768 Corporal David Francis Butler were members of 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR). AWM CRO/68/0580/VN

Final actions

After 28 May, there were no more major assaults on the Coral or Balmoral bases. But Australian patrols from the bases continued.

On 30 May, while 1 Troop's tanks were being serviced at Coral, C Company from 1RAR headed out in armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to patrol a nearby jungle area.

Having left the armoured vehicles and proceeded on foot, C Company came under heavy fire from concealed North Vietnamese bunkers. They were pinned down, and other enemy troops tried to encircle the beleaguered Australians.

The 2 working tanks at FSB Coral were sent into the fray, racing from the base to the jungle's edge and arriving at the same time as the APCs that had dropped the infantry off shortly before.

Using canister rounds, the tanks flattened the jungle to their front, exposed the enemy bunkers and destroyed 8 of them. However, the situation was too dangerous for the Australians to remain in the area, and they tried to disengage. As they did so, helicopter gunships and artillery attacked enemy positions and withdrawal routes.

The Australians had managed to extricate themselves from a perilous encounter that might have resulted in disaster if the tanks had not arrived in time.

As it was, one Australian was killed, and 7 others were wounded. Enemy losses were higher, estimated at between 24 and 45, but no accurate figure could be attained.

Other patrols were launched from the Coral and Balmoral bases over the following days, but the worst of the fighting was over.

The Australians withdrew from FSB Coral and FSB Balmoral, the last of them leaving on 6 June 1968.

In the battles around the bases since 12 May, 25 Australians and at least 300 North Vietnamese had died.

A shirtless man wearing arm pants sits on a wooden structure built into an earth bank looking towards a field of tall grass and trees.

Fire Support Base Coral, Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, c June 1968. A member of 102 Field Battery, 12th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, sits on the roof of the machine-gun bunker for the unit's No. 6 gun and gazes out beyond the perimeter of the base. The enemy overran the position on 13 May 1968 at the start of the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. AWM P01769.006

Patrols after the attacks

At a Fire Support Base, artillery is central to operations. The guns at the Coral and Balmoral bases protected the infantry patrolling outside the perimeter wire. They also played a defensive role during enemy attacks.

View over of some structures on a large area of grass crisscrossed with roads and track and some forest in the rear. A source of smoke is visible.
An aerial shot of Fire Support Base Coral taken on 13 May 1968, the day after the base was established and after the first attack on the base the previous night. AWM P03022.008

After the major attacks on FSB Coral and FSB Balmoral, patrols routinely swept the area outside the wire in search of North Vietnamese survivors or stragglers. These patrols did not generally venture far.

For those on duty, patrols could be unsettling because the troops encountered all the detritus associated with recent combat, including the shattered remains of war dead.

Five mean wearing army uniforms and carrying rifles walk through a forest behind coils of barbed wire on the ground.
A patrol from 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) makes its way through the perimeter wire at Fire Support Base Coral as they search for signs of the enemy after an attack on the base, June 1968. Behind them are the rubber trees through which the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacked early on the morning of 13 May 1968 during the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. AWM THU/68/0596/VN

The daily routine at FSBs Coral and Balmoral involved infantry patrols venturing kilometres from the bases and seeking contact with the enemy. Sometimes APCs and tanks went with the patrols.

While encounters were common, these patrol actions were generally limited in scale and duration.

The enormous tension generated by searching for an elusive and well-concealed enemy was exhausting for the men involved. They never knew, from one moment to the next, when hostile fire would break the silence.

Only with hindsight could any patrol outside the wire be regarded as uneventful.

Sometimes patrols resulted in heavy fighting that could last for hours.

During one such action, Private Richard Norden of 1RAR carried out the daring rescue of a wounded man under heavy fire. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions.

Norden's courage was typical of many troops during the weeks of fighting around FSBs Coral and Balmoral.

Map of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War showing the location of Fire Support Base Coral and Fire Support Base Balmoral in Bien Hoa Province in the south-east region of modern-day Vietnam.

Map of the Coral–Balmoral battle zone in 1968.

Experiences of Australians

Second worst day of the war for Australians

Headline from the front page of The Australian newspaper on Wednesday 15 May 1968, 'Second worst day of the war for Australians'. Over almost 4 weeks of fighting at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral the story received a degree of press attention in the Australian media, but less, perhaps than may have been expected of such a major series of engagements. This example from The Australian places the coverage of the early fighting at Coral in the context of other newsworthy events of the time. [Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia, permission to use this material has been provided by News Limited]

Attack repulsed at Australian Base

On the morning after an assault against Fire Support Base Coral, an Australian camera operator filmed infantry clearing the battlefield. Dead bodies lie where they fell and equipment and weapons are strewn about. It's a testament to the ferocity of the attack and the weight of defensive fire. Later, some Australians study the enemy weapons, while another considers a bullet or shrapnel hole in their drinking mug. AWM F04671

RAAF supplies Fire Support Base Coral

This film shows a RAAF helicopter resupplying Fire Support Base Coral on 30 May 1968. As the helicopter flies into and out of the base viewers can see something of how Coral appeared at the height of the fighting in the area. The helicopter's second pilot, sporting a full beard, appears to be a member of the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam. AWM F02729

Commemoration

Australians pause on 18 August to recognise the people who served in the Vietnam War on Vietnam Veterans’ Day.

The Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra was unveiled in 1992.

Sources

McNeill I & Ekins A, 2003. On the Offensive: The Australian Army in the Vietnam War 1967-1968, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, Sydney.


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Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Australians in the Battle of Coral–Balmoral 12 May to 6 June 1968, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/vietnam-war-1962-1975/events/combat/battle-of-coral-balmoral
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