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.
First attack on Coral
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:
- 102 Field Battery
- 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) mortar platoon.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Arrival of defensive tanks at Coral
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.