Withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam War 1971 to 1973

 

Australia's withdrawal of troops from South Vietnam began in 1971 and marked the end of its military involvement in the Vietnam War. The Australian Government initiated the process in 1970, aiming to gradually reduce the country's military commitment. By late 1972, most Australian combat troops had been withdrawn, and the remaining personnel were primarily involved in support and advisory roles. Finally, in December 1972, the Australian Government officially declared the end of its combat role in Vietnam. The withdrawal process was largely completed by early 1973, with all Australian troops returning home by 30 June.

A turning point in the war

February 1968 was a turning point in the Vietnam War with the Tet Offensive.

The Viet Cong mounted a series of attacks on major centres throughout South Vietnam. Although the Viet Cong suffered enormous losses, it was a psychological and propaganda victory for them. Surprised at the Viet Cong's ability to plan such large attacks across the country, including an assault on the United States (US) embassy, many in the US began to disbelieve assurances that the war was being won.

The fallout from the Tet Offensive also led the US President, Lyndon Johnson, to announce that he would not seek re-election. He was succeeded by Richard Nixon, who won office in November 1968.

However, the Tet Offensive had its intended effect. Only 4 months later, peace talks opened in Paris. Representatives of North and South Vietnam, the Viet Cong and the US met there in May 1968.

'Vietnamization' policy of pulling out

When sworn into office in January 1969, Nixon said that withdrawing US troops from South Vietnam was a priority. In a policy known as 'Vietnamization', the number of US combat troops was gradually reduced from June 1969, and South Vietnam soldiers took their places as that army expanded.

But the US continued to help South Vietnam by supplying weapons, further training its soldiers, and providing naval and aerial support for South Vietnamese soldiers on operations.

Throughout 1969, the US Government announced the withdrawal of multiple contingents from South Vietnam. It also announced cuts to the draft (military conscription). More importantly, a complete US withdrawal would follow. Then on 20 April 1970, the US announced the withdrawal of 150,000 troops over the next 12 months.

Two days later, the Australian Government, following the US lead, expressed its strategy for withdrawal from Vietnam. Prime Minister John Gorton announced the 8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (8RAR), would not be replaced when its tour of Vietnam ended in November 1970.

Since 1965, Australian ground formations have been engaged with our allies in resisting armed attack on the Government of South Vietnam ... I now announce to the House that after consultation in recent weeks with the governments of Vietnam and the United States, who understand and accept our approach, the Government has decided that one Australian infantry battalion and some supporting personnel will be withdrawn from South Vietnam. This reduction to our force in Vietnam will be effected by withdrawing, without replacement, the 8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which at present is scheduled to complete its tour of duty in November next.

[The Hon John Gorton PM, Parliament of Australia, 22 April 1970]

Gloomy outlook

Vietnamization meant that the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) would double in size. This would need extra military trainers, resulting in an expanded role for the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). The number of personnel in the AATTV increased in the war's final phase.

However, the ARVN was ill-equipped and unable to match the North Vietnamese Army in the field. Early in 1971, Australia's Joint Intelligence Organisation, reporting on the progress of Vietnamization, described the ARVN as 'uneven in quality' and suffering from poor leadership.

Australian military officials in Phuoc Tuy and Saigon reported that the local ARVN would meet significant difficulties after the Australian Task Force's battalions had left South Vietnam.

To add to the gloomy outlook, few South Vietnamese had any confidence in their own government, which was regarded as corrupt and incompetent.

The biggest mistake was the failure to go about a fair dinkum approach of boosting the South Vietnamese Army in the early stages, giving them a fair allocation of helicopters and artillery and the like, and above all else comprehensive training. Subsequently, after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and after President Nixon replaced President Johnson in early 1969, the catch-cry went up that 'Vietnamisation would turn things around' and a huge effort was attempted, finally, to boost the South Vietnamese Army. It was too little, too late.'

[Tim Fischer, 1RAR, quoted in Vietnam: our war – our peace, Department of Veterans' Affairs, pp 128-129]

Last personnel to serve

On 18 August 1971, Prime Minister Billy McMahon announced that the remainder of the Task Force would be withdrawn at the end of the year.

Around 5,000 personnel and over 7,000 tonnes of equipment were withdrawn from South Vietnam in stages.

Most Army combat troops and members of supporting arms (Navy, Air Force) were home by December 1971. Only small detachments providing logistics and security remained in the country until the Australian Military Forces, Vietnam, was disbanded on 5 March 1972. These troops arrived home on 6 March.

1st Australian Task Force

… it very simply wasn't finished the way it should have been. I'm not saying we should have won. That would have been preferable of course to losing, but the way it was done was a heap of shit because we left many, many good South Vietnamese people in the lurch and it was like turning your back on your best mate and walking away. It shouldn't have happened. That is politics though … Nothing to do with us, but it left a very nasty, dirty taste in a lot of people's mouths. It still does.

[Corporal Anthony Hughes, 7RAR, quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 p 434. Drawing on interview no 2093 in the Australians at War Film Archive]

Australia's last battalions to serve in combat were the 3rd and 4th Battalions, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR and 4RAR). Both units arrived in South Vietnam in 1971. 3RAR returned home in October 1971, followed in December by 4RAR.

Six men in military shirts or shirtless stand at the railing of a boat looking at two barges loaded with Army trucks and vehicles.
Lighters packed with 3RAR vehicles approach HMAS Sydney, at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, 6 October 1971. The departure of 3RAR troops and vehicles was the first major move in withdrawing the Australian forces. AWM FOD/71/0507/VN
A man in army uniform, carrying a camera and backpack, crouches in the open doorway of a military helicopter, flanked by soldiers with machine guns.
Members of 4RAR/NZ (Anzac) leaving Nui Dat for Vung Tau inside a RAAF Iroquois helicopter. Other troops in 4RAR were transported by road convoys and with RAAF Caribou aircraft, ending their combat role in South Vietnam, November 1971. AWM CUN/71/0538/VN

One of the last Australian units to leave was 86 Transport Platoon, Royal Australian Army Service Corps (RAASC). 44892 Second Lieutenant William Thomas 'Bill' Denny AM served in South Vietnam with 86 Transport Platoon from 29 January 1971 to 9 March 1972.

We were going home … Walking through empty buildings, this seemed a special moment in time – doors banging in the wind and the base eerily deserted. Vietnamese workers were crying and distressed. I lied to them, reassuring them that we would be back 'if the VC come'. As it turned out, the Viet Cong did come – four weeks later – but we were never going to go back. I never really got over the friends I lost in Vietnam, nor the desertion of those we had so comprehensively fought to support and protect. The last of us formed the final convoy and headed down to De Long Pier, then by landing craft out to HMAS Sydney.

[Bill Denny, in Vietnam: Our war – our peace, Department of Veterans' Affairs, 2006 pp 48-49]

Rows of large khaki green army trucks parked in a dirt lot in front of large tin sheds with forested mountains in the background.
The vehicle compound of 86 Transport Platoon, full of trucks and semi-trailers, Vung Tau, South Vietnam, about 1971. AWM P08298.013

Royal Australian Air Force

No. 9 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), left South Vietnam in December 1971. Some logistics personnel and the last of No. 35 Squadron's Caribou aircraft left early in 1972.

However, South Vietnam descended into chaos in 1975. Civilians were trying to flee from a major North Vietnamese offensive. Some RAAF members played a significant role in humanitarian efforts during the final days of the Vietnam War. They counted among their number the last Australian service personnel to leave Vietnam.

Interior view of a very crowded aircraft with people sitting on the floor

South Vietnamese refugees crowd the cargo compartment of an RAAF Detachment S Hercules in April 1975. AWM P05608.005

Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam

When the Australian Military Forces, Vietnam, disbanded on 5 March 1972, it was replaced with the smaller Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam (AAAGV).

The role of the AAAGV was to help train South Vietnamese ground forces and Cambodian troops in South Vietnam. It comprised:

  • AAAGV Headquarters, including a guard, an escort platoon and a signals unit in Saigon
  • Australian Army Training Team Vietnam.

The Nominal Roll records 103 Army personnel who served with the AAAGV in South Vietnam.

After the Whitlam Government was elected on 5 December 1972, it decided to withdraw the last of the Australian troops from South Vietnam. So the AAAGV was disbanded on 17 December 1972. The last veterans of the AAAGV, including the AATTV, left South Vietnam in two RAAF C-130 aircraft on 18 December.

Two men dressed in green army uniforms, one with a black beret and the other in a slouch felt hat, carry hand luggage as they walk ahead of 3 other men in military uniforms and away from a large silver plane with the words 'AIR FORCE' painted on it.
7884 Warrant Officer Colin John Smithers (left) of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) and 44734 Corporal Donald Malcolm Cochrane (right) of the Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam (AAAGV) disembarking from a RAAF Hercules aircraft after their withdrawal from South Vietnam, Richmond, New South Wales, 18 December 1972. AWM P01492.040

Australian Army Training Team Vietnam

When the Task Force combat units were withdrawn in 1971, Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) members remained with the AAAGV. However, the unit reverted to its original role of providing training.

The Nominal Roll records 987 veterans who served with the AATTV in South Vietnam.

The last members of AATTV in South Vietnam were withdrawn on 18 December 1972. The unit was disbanded in Australia on 16 February 1973.

Three men wearing green army uniforms and black berets stand in front of large sheds and a trolley packed with green bags and luggage, two of them are shaking hands.
Soldiers from the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) and the Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam (AAAGV) gathering at the Tan Son Nhat airport to return to Australia, Saigon, South Vietnam, 18 December 1972. AWM EDW/72/0656/MC

Embassy Guard Platoon

On 18 December 1972, the Australian Embassy Guard Platoon (Saigon) was raised in South Vietnam. Personnel were transferred from the disbanded Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam (AAAGV) into the unit.

The role of the platoon was to protect the Australian embassy in Saigon.

The Nomimal Roll records 36 veterans who served with the Embassy Platoon Guard in Saigon, the last of them coming home on 30 June 1973.

We knew one day we would be overrun – but we did not know what day. Many felt that it would happen in 1973, after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, so we had some luck that it lasted till 1975.

[Van Nhung Tran quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, p 423]

Sources

Australian War Memorial, Records of the Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam (AAAGV) - AWM276 R397/1 - Guards - General, AWM276 R397/1/1 Part B - Australian Embassy Guard, Accession Number AWM2016.747.20, 1972, accessed 7 Jun 2023, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2278185

Caulfield, Michael (2007), The Vietnam Years: From the jungle to the Australian suburbs, Hatchette Australia, Sydney.

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (undated), 'SPEECH BY THE RT HON JG GORTON MP ON VIETNAM (MINISTERIAL STATEMENT)', PM Transcripts, Release Date: 22/04/1970, Release Type: Statement in Parliament, Transcript ID 2219, accessed 6 Jun 2023, https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/release/transcript-2219

Department of Veterans' Affairs (2006), Vietnam: Our war - our peace, edited by John Moremon, Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra. https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/resources/vietnam-our-war-our-peace

United States Office of the Historian (undated), 'Ending the Vietnam War, 1969–1973', Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute, United States Department of State, accessed 6 Jun 2023, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1969-1976/ending-vietnam

Wikipedia contributors, 'Timeline of the Richard Nixon presidency (1969)', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed 6 Jun 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Timeline_of_the_Richard_Nixon_presidency_(1969)&oldid=1153508613.


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam War 1971 to 1973, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/vietnam-war-1962-1975/events/withdrawal-from-1971
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