Australians in Operation Bribie 17 February 1967

 

During the Vietnam War, the Australian Army conducted Operation Bribie from 18 May to 6 June 1968. The operation aimed to clear and secure an area in Phuoc Tuy Province in South Vietnam.

The 1st Australian Task Force was to locate and destroy any Viet Cong forces in the area and establish a strong presence in the region. The task force included 3 infantry battalions and supporting units.

The Viet Cong resisted, using guerrilla tactics such as ambushes, booby traps and snipers. Despite the challenges, the Australians were able to maintain control of the area and complete their objectives.

Operation Bribie, also called the Battle of Ap My An, was a success for the Australian Army because it significantly reduced the Viet Cong's presence in Phuoc Tuy Province. However, 7 Australians were killed and 27 wounded, highlighting the challenges and sacrifices faced by Australian soldiers during the war.

Hasty planning

This battle started near Lang Phuoc Hai, about 20 km east of the Australian base at Vung Tau. The action occurred near the abandoned settlement of Ap My An.

On the afternoon of 17 February 1967, an Australian force faced defeat in a thick patch of jungle near the coast of Phuoc Tuy Province. Operation Bribie, as the battle was known, was one of Australia's worst days in South Vietnam.

Planned and organised in haste, Bribie was an attempt to destroy a communist force that had attacked the village of Lang Phuoc Hai earlier that day.

The 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) of A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron were ordered to cut off the enemy's withdrawal routes.

The Australian soldiers were expecting to encounter small, scattered groups of soldiers heading back to their jungle bases.

Two serious-looking men in a forest with rifles, one sitting cross-legged and one crouching and both wearing army uniforms are focused on another person off-camera.

2781906 Second Lieutenant (2ndLt) John Patrick O'Halloran, left, commanding 5 Platoon, B Company, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) and 215853 2ndLt John Sullivan, commanding 4 Platoon at Nui Dat, South Vietnam, 17 February 1967. They are listening during the B Company briefing in the jungle just prior to the attack during Operation Bribie. AWM P02809.003

Immediately under fire

First on the scene at Ap My An was A Company, 6RAR. After landing by helicopter, the soldiers quickly entered the forest.

The soldiers had covered less than 200 m before coming under fire. Machine guns and small arms were firing, and snipers were shooting from the trees. It forced the shocked Australians to the ground.

Six members of 2 Platoon were killed or wounded in less than a minute when they assaulted the Viet Cong position. This was not just an enemy camp, as the Australians had assumed. It was a strong defensive position, its extent unknown, its occupants all but invisible.

The contact was just minutes old, but the Australians were already in trouble.

B Company arrived next. Under fire, they leapt from their helicopters into the scrub and moved towards the sounds of battle.

Five men wearing army uniforms with cloth hats, packs and rifles walking through long grass with a forest in the distance.

Soldiers of 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) in the field during Operation Bribie, Ap My An, Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, 17 February 1967. AWM P05655.038

Meanwhile, facing a company of Viet Cong armed with at least 6 machine guns, A Company's forward platoons were lying on the ground. After 20 minutes of unrelenting fire, they managed to extricate themselves. Some were carrying the wounded on their backs.

Then C Company arrived at the battle in armoured personnel carriers (APCs).

Moments later, D Company's helicopters flew into the landing zone.

Five men wearing army uniforms sit on top of an armed military vehicle, with other men and vehicles behind, and huts in a forest in the background.

Members of C Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) sitting on armoured personnel carriers (APC) at Nui Dat before the start of Operation Bribie, South Vietnam, 17 February 1967. Image donated by P. McNamee. AWM P02629.009

Calling down artillery fire

When the last aircraft was safely away, the Australians called down artillery fire on the enemy position and planned their assault.

In the continuing belief that the enemy position was merely a camp, 6RAR was deployed and ordered to attack.

Within metres of their start lines, the Australians came under fire. Every step forward took them deeper into a 'U' shaped position. Fire from the flanks intensified. Everywhere men were hit. With visibility limited to only a few metres, hardly an enemy soldier had been seen.

B Company's 6 Platoon was ordered to destroy a machine-gun position. They fixed bayonets and rose, yelling. Enemy bullets tore through some men and forced the rest to the ground.

Then 5 Platoon received a similar command; to advance 30 m and try to outflank the same gun.

Platoon commander John O'Halloran told his men to fix bayonets, but most no longer carried the weapon. Others could not hear him over the din of gunfire. On O'Halloran's order, 5 Platoon ran forward with a roar, only to be cut down almost immediately. Hidden machine guns opened up on the right flank, leaving 8 members of the 9-man-strong 1 Section either killed or wounded.

The Australians had advanced about 25 m, and half the men in the forward 2 sections were casualties. 5 Platoon was almost surrounded and taking heavy fire.

The wounded needed to be evacuated, and the survivors withdrawn from where they lay, just metres from enemy guns.

Men in army uniforms with cloth hats, rifles and belts of ammunition pose in two rows before a large canvas tent, with a sign that reads 5 PL, in a forest.

Nine members of 5 Platoon, B Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), 17 February 1967 (photographed some hours before they took part in Operation Bribie). By the end of the day, 3 of these young men were killed and 5 wounded in the Battle of Ap My An. Identified left to right, back row: 5713975 Private (Pte) William Anthony Trevenen; 216372 Pte Garry John Chad; 1200606 Pte Victor Kenneth Otway; 1730851 Pte Malcolm Stuart Mustchin; 5713986 Pte David Raleigh Webster; front row: 214031 Corporal (Cpl) Robin William Jones (Section Commander); 5713981 Pte Brian David Waters; 5411599 Pte Wayne Maurice Riley; 2784297 Pte Donald Peter Rumble. Image courtesy of J. O'Halloran. AWM P02452.002

Removing casualties

Help eventually came in the shape of APCs. Unsure of the beleaguered Australians' positions, the APC crews had trouble locating B Company. Fires started by incendiary grenades added smoke to the confusion, and now enemy soldiers armed with anti-tank weapons joined the battle.

An hour after entering the jungle, the APCs found B Company. As fierce fighting continued, the wounded men were loaded on board.

One APC was struck by a recoilless rifle round that killed the driver. A second round injured the vehicle's commander and wounded (for a second time) the men in the back who thought their ordeal was over. Unable to move the APC, the Australians set fire to it so that the Viet Cong could not salvage any working parts.

Fire from the APCs poured into the enemy positions, eventually helping the Australians break contact and regroup at the landing zone.

The battle ended just before 7:30 pm that evening. In just over 5 hours of fighting, 8 Australians had been killed and another 27 wounded.

Seven dispersed men wearing army uniforms and carrying rifles are walking away from an armoured vehicle.

Soldiers of B Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), arriving back at the B Company lines after the Battle of Ap My An, Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, 17 February 1967. They are unloading armoured personnel carriers (APCs) of A Squadron, 3 Cavalry Regiment, after serving in Operation Bribie when the enemy assaulted them. AWM P02809.008

Destroying the enemy position

That night the enemy position was bombarded.

Napalm incinerated some of the corpses, making a terrible job worse for the soldiers detailed to return to the scene.

17 men in military uniform sit or squat on a dusty tarmac beside a helicopter, with another helicopter in the background.

Iroquois crews of No 9 Squadron RAAF and a helicopter waiting on standby at Luscombe airfield, Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, 17 February 1967. After an airborne assault during Operation Bribie, the men were ready to re-supply, evacuate casualties, and fly more troops to and from the Ap My An area. AWM VN/67/0021/16

By the next day, the enemy had gone.

Someone had written 'Du Me Uc Dai Loi' in blood on the side of the wrecked APC, the Vietnamese equivalent of 'Get fucked Australians'.

The men who inflicted such heavy damage on the Australians seemed to have been a rearguard, covering the withdrawal of a larger force. Making excellent use of an old position, they had built covered, well-camouflaged fighting pits. They employed impressive discipline and displayed great courage.

Some Australian survivors felt that Operation Bribie had been a defeat. One said:

It was us who copped a hiding

Official estimates numbered the enemy dead at between 50 and 70. As was so often the case in the Vietnam War, no one really knew.

Three men wearing army uniforms and carrying rifles walk away through long grass towards some trees, 2 are bearing a long pole on their shoulders with something large in a sling, and one is carrying a round pot.

Australian soldiers retrieving a Viet Cong body after the battle of Ap My An during Operation Bribie in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam. Photographed by 2781632 Private David Mark Buckwalter, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR). AWM P05528.155

For their actions during Operation Bribie:

Five men wearing army uniforms and carrying packs and rifles stand before a large canvas tent, with a sign that reads 5 PL, in a forest.

Four members of 5 Platoon, B Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) and an interpreter of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in the B Company lines at the Australian task force base, Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, 17 February 1967. The photograph was taken some hours before the platoon took part in Operation Bribie. Left to right: 15319 Sergeant (Sgt) Mervyn Victor McCullough, 2781906 Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt) John Patrick O'Halloran, 6708317 Private (Pte) Michael John Nichols, Pte Quoc Tuan Nguyen, 16646 Pte Richard Beverley Odendahl. AWM P02452.001

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.


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Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Australians in Operation Bribie 17 February 1967, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/vietnam-war-1962-1975/events/combat/operation-bribie-1967
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