On 19 September 1971, Operation Ivanhoe was launched as a search-and-destroy sweep near a rubber plantation. It involved infantry, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and engineers with air support. Australian and New Zealand forces engaged in a series of heavy contacts with the battle-hardened 33rd North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Regiment. During the operation, which included the Battle of Nui Le on 21 September, 6 Australians were killed, and 29 Australians and one New Zealander were wounded.
Activities in Phuoc Tuy province
Phuoc Tuy province in the former Republic of South Vietnam had been the scene of Australian Army operations since 1966.
In September 1971, Australian forces were entering the final stages of their 10-year involvement in the Vietnam War. Elements of the Australian Task Force were already returning home.
Opposing forces – notably the battle-hardened 33rd North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Regiment – were trying to establish themselves in Phuoc Tuy province. NVA units had been reported south-east of the Courtenay rubber plantation on the border between Long Khanh province and Phuoc Tuy. Then, in the early hours of 19 September, some NVA units attacked a South Vietnamese regional outpost and a nearby village.
The Australian Task Force Commander faced a difficult decision. He had to prevent enemy forces from establishing in Phuoc Tuy, but it was very likely that Australian lives would be lost. He also knew such losses would be viewed against the background of the Task Force's imminent withdrawal from Vietnam.
Operation Ivanhoe starts
Operation Ivanhoe was launched on 19 September in response to the attacks earlier that day. It was a search-and-destroy sweep of the area south of the Courtenay rubber plantation.
The 4th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment/New Zealand Battalion (4RAR/NZ – the ANZAC Battalion) led the operation. The battalion was supported by:
- the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR)
- armoured personnel carriers (APCs) from A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment
- sappers from 1st Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers
- the guns of 12th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery.
Ground troops also had significant air support from:
- No. 9 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)
- 161 (Independent) Reconnaissance Flight, an Australian Army aviation unit of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft
- United States aircraft.
Unlike previous operations, this time, there were no tanks to provide support. The tanks had departed from Vung Tau 5 days earlier to return home to Australia.
The operation began with the staged deployment of:
- 3 companies of 4RAR/NZ – the ANZAC Battalion
- one company from 3RAR.
The soldiers moved into the thick jungle between where they thought the NVA regiment would be and Phuoc Tuy's border with Long Khanh. They hoped to force the NVA to move southwards towards blocking positions and cut them off from their sanctuaries in Long Khanh.
Tragedy struck almost immediately.
4RAR/NZ's D Company had come straight off another operation when they were briefed for Ivanhoe. After a resupply, they began searching for signs of 2 NVA battalions thought to be less than 1 km away. About 30 minutes into the patrol, the lead section of one platoon ran up against the rear section of another. They didn't recognise them as Australians in the gloom of the thick jungle. In the ensuing exchange of fire, an Australian serviceman was killed and another wounded. It was a day 'I would rather forget' remarked one officer.
Early the next day, a section of 4 APCs from A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, was ambushed. It was on its way to Courtenay Hill on the edge of the plantation, just inside Long Khanh province. Over 20 enemy soldiers opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and small arms. Well-concealed and thoroughly prepared for the ambush, they wounded one Australian. The APC crews returned fire with their vehicles' heavy machine guns and then charged in, killing one and driving the others off.
Meanwhile, the infantry found signs that hundreds of enemy soldiers were moving through their patrol area.
An Australian platoon commander reported a track 'about a foot and a half wide and at least six inches deep', crossing at right angles to the one on which his platoon was moving. This was a sure sign of recent heavy foot traffic. Sawn logs and concealed tree stumps also indicated recent bunker construction.
The atmosphere had become 'decidedly spooky'. D Company's 11 Platoon experienced Operation Ivanhoe's first infantry contact that afternoon. They opened fire on a party of 15 moving along a jungle track, killing 2 soldiers.
Battle of Nui Le
The last major battle Australian forces fought in South Vietnam occurred on 21 September.
During the day, 4RAR/NZ's B Company had several minor contacts and came across fresh tracks and other signs of the enemy. When some men found an insulated telephone wire, their platoon followed it. They encountered 2 soldiers, killing one before finding another rolling up the wire. He escaped.
Soon afterwards, a mortar barrage hit the Australians and wounded 15 men, including the platoon commander and all the non-commissioned officers.
Retaliatory artillery fire soon began bursting in the enemy positions beyond the Australians. Then helicopter gunships, whose crews could see large numbers of enemy troops below, joined the battle.
While hurrying to the scene of the mortar strike, one Australian platoon had several running fights with NVA soldiers.
D Company was also engaged in heavy fighting 4 km to the north-east. One Australian was killed and 2 were wounded when their platoon came under fire from a bunker 10 m away. The infantrymen called in artillery and air support.
The Australian ground troops who came forward to help engaged other enemy soldiers along the way.
For the next 2 hours, the Australians fought off a series of attacks. It was difficult to determine the nature and extent of the enemy positions on the ground.
From above, the airmen thought the Australians had run up against the edge of a large bunker complex. United States (US) aircraft and helicopters from No 9 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, piloted by Australian and New Zealand airmen, provided substantial and effective air support.
Artillery burst among the NVA positions as the infantry prepared to assault through the bunkers if the enemy began a withdrawal.
Overhead, helicopters from US 161 (Independent) Reconnaissance Flight monitored ground activity as they dropped urgently needed ammunition. By battle's end, one pilot had spent more than 11 hours in the air providing direct support to ground troops.
After 4 hours of intense bombardment, airmen reported that many NVA soldiers were pulling out and heading north. D Company prepared to attack.
With the enemy fleeing, the Australians expected to meet only light opposition. But they covered just 50 m of ground before heavy fire from the front and flanks killed 3 members of the leading machine-gun teams and wounded others.
One platoon commander remembered:
The noise was unlike anything we had encountered in our previous six months in South Vietnam … I was unable to shout orders to my section commanders only 10 metres away.
Two men, including that platoon commander, braved the direct fire to retrieve the machine guns, allowing the lead section to withdraw under covering fire. But it was too dangerous to retrieve the dead. The wounded were evacuated, with one dying before reaching the hospital.
As the Australians pulled back, groups of NVA soldiers fired at D Company's flanks and the helicopter gunships and control aircraft overhead. They had the advantage of a thick jungle canopy and positions on high ground.
One of the wounded recalled his fraught evacuation under fire:
We were choppered out through the canopy; it was the scariest part because I was lying in the basket and there was still shooting – a sitting duck.
D Company tried to break contact in the fading light and withdraw to their night harbour position about 500 m away. But the fighting continued as North Vietnamese troops pursued them.
When the Australians' southern perimeter ran up against another bunker system, they came under fire from several directions.
There was now fighting to the Australians' rear while, at the same time, others were still trying to extricate themselves from the bunkers, which had been the scene of the afternoon's fighting. The Australians were forced into a defensive circle about 35 m across as fire came from an enemy observation post high up in a tree.
The Australians were running low on ammunition. They had little cover and could not dig even shallow shell scrapes for protection. In danger of being surrounded, they called in artillery support.
Crouching in the jungle's darkness and unable to read his map, an artillery forward observer, despite the intense pressure and enormous danger, recalled the grid references, mentally calculated the distances and angles, and called down artillery rounds very close to the Australian position.
One officer recalled:
We ringed them with artillery for the next 5 hours
The enemy kept shooting and throwing grenades at the surrounded Australians. Eventually, the Australians were forced to pull back. At dawn the next day, the Australian clearing patrols found no sign of them.
New Zealand's Victor Company, 1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (1RNZIR), moved up to reinforce D Company.
On 23 September, 4RAR/NZ returned to the bunkers. In pouring rain, they retrieved the bodies of the 3 Australians killed 2 days earlier. The New Zealanders formed an impromptu honour guard as the Australians lifted their fallen soldiers onto waiting helicopters. Later, the Australians' platoon commander, who had been wounded on the night of the battle, watched sadly through the hospital window as the caskets were moved to the airport for return to Australia.
Over the following days, infantry continued patrolling, mainly without incident. Then on 25 September, 4 more Australians were wounded when anti-tank mines in the Courtenay rubber plantation badly damaged 2 APCs.
Operation Ivanhoe ended 7 days later, on 2 October 1971. It was the last major offensive operation for Australia in the war.
During the operation, 29 Australians and one New Zealander were wounded. Sadly, 6 Australian servicemen were killed. They were the last Australians to die in combat in Vietnam, including the last national serviceman. It's believed that 15 North Vietnamese soldiers were also killed.
At least 5 Australians received decorations for their role in Operation Ivanhoe, with a further 3 mentioned in despatches.
Operation Ivanhoe succeeded in repelling an enemy incursion into Phuoc Tuy. However, at the time, the future seemed very uncertain. For the people of Vietnam, the war continued until April 1975, when the South finally fell to the North.
For Australia's veterans and the families of those tragically killed, the memory of Ivanhoe and the Battle of Nui Le has endured.
Australian Government Department of Veterans' Affairs (2022), 50th anniversary of Operation Ivanhoe and the Battle of Nui Le, https://www.dva.gov.au/recognition/commemorations/commemorative-services/commemorative-services-australia/50th-1, accessed 31 Aug 2023.
Australian Government Department of Veterans' Affairs (2022), National Service for the 50th anniversary of Operation Ivanhoe and the Battle of Nui Le, Official Order of Service booklet, https://www.dva.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-09/50th-anniversary-of-operation-overlord-including-battle-of-long-khanh.pdf, accessed 31 Aug 2023.
Australia and the Vietnam War