Anyone who loves history comes to learn that it is messy. They must not only accept this reality, but learn to embrace it. Unlike an epic saga, history is only of value when it is presented to us with “the bark on…” This becomes even more important when dealing with pivotal events. One such for Australia was the battle of Long Tan in South Vietnam on August 18, 1966.
In the Fall of 1965 the U.S. Army got a wake-up call at the Battle of the Ia Drang. Less than a year later the Australians got theirs at Long Tan. There were many remarkable similarities between the two. Unfortunately, much of the Australian Army brass either did not closely study the lessons of Ia Drang, or else decided that they did not apply to the Australians deploying into Vietnam in 1966.
My time serving with Australians was in Africa, not Asia, when I served under a third country’s command. I claim no special knowledge, and freely admit that America in RVN made many mistakes. It often failed to learn from not only its mistakes, but also from its successes. Immediately after the Ia Drang victory, other units from the 1st Air Cavalry Division were deployed in the same general area; but they operated tactically far more like conventional infantry and took heavy casualties for maneuvering in a manner that the NVA was experienced in handling.
The Australians speak English. They have a recognizably similar culture (sort of…sometimes we are people “separated by a common language”) and have sided with us gallantly in many places since 1917. But their history has been markedly different from ours.
I will not try to reinvent the wheel here, but rather explain why the battle unfolded as it did. Why were lessons from the Ia Drang not been applied? And what the aftermath of the battle was. At the end of this article are links to both a short and a long (almost blow by blow) documentary of the specifics of the battle of Long Tan along with a link to a brief article and a trailer for the film recently released regarding the battle.
Phuc Toy Province map (Australian Army Image)
The 1st Australian Task Force (ATF) arrived in the country between April and June of 1966. It constructed a base at the municipality of Nui Dat. The Australian mission was to cut off Nui Dat from VC penetration and “pacify” the surrounding countryside.
The battle took place in a rubber plantation near Long Tan, in the Phuoc Tuy Province of South Vietnam relatively close to the coast. The parent unit of the involved Australian company was the 6th Royal Australian Regiment (RAR).
Units of the People’s Army of Vietnam, VC Main Force and local VC were present. They mortared the Australian base, killing one and wounding 24. The next day B Company was sent out to where the mortars had been situated and D company was sent into the rubber plantation.
Rubber plantation (Public Domain)
The good news about a rubber plantation is that it has no serious undergrowth and its soil does not become a quagmire even in heavy rain. The bad news is that it looks all the same with distances being very hard to calculate. At first it had been decided by the battalion to only send a platoon: internal command politics apparently kept the battalion commander from understanding the potential threat. In the end, all of D Company was sent. Smaller by a third than a U.S. rifle company, and only half the size of a U.S. Marine rifle company, D went into the “sharp-end” with only 108 men.
Around noon contact was made by one of D’s three platoons. Accounts that the Australians “were lured into an ambush” are rubbish. The Vietnamese did not “demonstrate” and then “pretend to flee…” They had sauntered right up a path in a bunch, directly into contact, just “shooting the bull” as they walked along. The Australians were very surprised. The Vietnamese were shocked. A couple were shot and killed before they could even lift their weapons. They had not expected to find any Australians in the plantation.
They fled, not into a “lurking ambush”, but rather towards a solid wall of their fellow Communist soldiers. The pursuing Australian platoon was not surrounded: it was simply faced with a large force far beyond its size — or D Company’s for that matter. D Company radioed back that the two enemy KIA were wearing green uniforms: Verification that they were dealing with PAVN regulars, rather than local VC in “black pajamas.”
Half a dozen Australians were hit immediately by intense fire from RPD machine guns, AK-47s and SKS carbines. The rest of the platoon hit the ground and started returning fire.
As with the opening move at the Ia Drang, where an American platoon had given chase and wound up separated from the rest of the command, so had the Australians done exactly the same thing. For various reasons (which are dealt with farther below) the Vietnamese had fire superiority and vastly greater stocks of ammunition.
In the normal course of events, the platoon would have quickly been shot to pieces and overrun in very little time. But the skies opened and a veritable “Noah’s flood” came down. Within moments visibility in the plantation dropped a great deal as a thick mist rose eight inches or so above the ground.
“Preparing to move out.” (Australian Army)
The Aussies had to show the top of their heads and their eyes, but not the muzzles of their weapons. The enemy was caught wrong-footed, unsure of how many, or exactly where, the platoon survivors were. For the moment the Vietnamese did not advance; but they kept up their fire.
The remaining two platoons of D Company were not in a position to help. One was off on a flank, the other was with the Company HQ. Of the other two companies of the battalion, one was way off at the previous night’s mortar site. The other company was at battalion HQ at Nui Dat.
The Australians had definitely stepped in it; but whatever their mistakes, they had done one thing right: Outside your own wire there is an area where you might send an elite recon team to gather intelligence, but never your regular troops when a significant enemy presence is likely. This is called your “area of interest.”
Closer in, within range of your artillery, is what is called your “area of influence.” The Aussies were well within the latter. The battalion had three New Zealand Artillery forward observers within their ranks. And within range of D Company were the 1st Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery and the Royal Regiment of New Zealand Artillery.
So, potentially, D Company had 18 105 mm and six 155 mm howitzers able to support them. At the firebase was a New Zealand officer who was very competent, though not entirely prepared for what was going to happen.
A round from a 105 mm can destroy a house and at the time had range of just over seven miles. The 155 was designed to take out targets the size of rail marshaling yards and had a range of 11 miles.
D Company’s officers called in fire support. The first rounds were ranging shots aimed at minimizing any damage should they land too close to the Australians. No problem. The howitzers were quickly adjusted and “fired for effect.” The Vietnamese were taken aback, but had learned their lessons from the Ia Drang very well. The safest tactic is to charge the enemy and if you can’t immediately overrun him at least get so close as to “grab him by the belt,” as they said, so that many of your troops would be too close for the enemies to use his artillery.
For D Company, the rest of the nightmare now started to unfold. The advance platoon commander, Lt. Gordon Sharp, was shot and killed. At the same time, two of the artillery batteries were on standby in case the unit out by the old mortar positions required backup. That was the Australian Army doctrine at the time. Ia Drang had showed that you don’t leave batteries idle when somebody is in massive trouble. D Company’s commander Major Harry Smith had fought in Malaya in the mid-1950s and this was not his first action. Keeping his head, he at last got through to somebody higher up to clear the idle batteries.
Meanwhile, he had requested that the company back at the base camp be choppered in to reinforce him. At some level above him somebody was dithering… the worst possible thing to be doing at such a time.
The Australians only had two “Iroquois” (official name of Hueys), but American chopper units would assist if possible. D Company’s commander was told that “no choppers were available.” It was possible that somebody up the ladder didn’t understand just how grim this was rapidly getting, and “preferred” to keep this an “all Australian affair.”
D Company asked for APC’s (armored personnel carriers) to advance to their support carrying troops from the base camp. Denied. This was possibly due to the fear that the Vietnamese intended to take the base camp and town; if they managed to do so, the propaganda value would be massive — even if they were knocked out of there a day or two later.
Meanwhile, D Company HQ advanced a touch to be closer to the platoon engaged in the plantation, which was about to be overrun. The Australians were planning on making a run for it and trying to carry out the wounded. This would cause the Vietnamese to immediately advance. So it was requested that when they would start to fall back that the artillery would work over their former position. Higher HQ was too conservative and at first refused. At the last minute, the authorization was given. Most of the wounded, who had not managed to crawl back in the low mist, were carried out. Any longer and the platoon in the plantation would have been outflanked.
The wounded piled into a depression where the medic, Phil “Doc” Dobson, did everything but brain surgery and heart transplants to try to keep them alive. American medics at Ia Drang had vastly more training than Dobson — and they barely got by. Dobson, a member of the Regimental Band, was improvising wildly, while also trying to keep the wounded from drowning as the water kept pouring down into the depression. The Australian high brass had ensured that the medics’ training would not be anything but basic, even though they had read the reports from Ia Drang, which described the hell faced by the U.S. medics there.
The Australians were rapidly running out of ammunition. They were facing superior numbers, superior weapons with higher rates of fire, and massive ammunition supplies. The majority of the Aussies themselves had started the fight with only three 20 round magazines loaded (with boxed 7.62 ammo in their packs) for their FNs — officers and scouts had early model M-16s.
Nobody at “some level” upstairs would authorize the two Australian choppers to fly in more ammo or carry the wounded out. So the pilots decided to go without asking permission. They had the wooden ammunition crates wrapped in blankets for the wounded. (The blankets were wool, so though soaked, would still hold in some heat.) Because the choppers could not land, they would have to toss the crates out from as low as the trees would permit them.
In spite of the weather, in spite of ground fire, in spite of the confusion of color from the smoke grenades, the choppers made it. (Although they came close to killing Jack Kirby, the Company Sergeant Major, by almost dropping the ammo crates on his head.)
The CSM was a giant of a man. He never could keep up with the company in a run, but always finished without a pause. He was walking around under heavy fire passing around ammunition — there was no time for caution. One lesson that a study of the Ia Drang would have shown would be regarding ammunition supply under fire: ammo should already be loaded in new magazines and be ready to insert — not in boxes of 20 and in crates.
Meanwhile units of the PAVN, Main Force and local VC were closing in for the kill. While Australian/NZ artillery were causing at least half of the casualties, the Viets knew that they were ahead of the curve compared with Ia Drang: Firstly, the Australians were fielding vastly fewer soldiers than the Americans. Secondly, the Australians had no air support. (Two American F-4s showed up during the fight, but it was impossible for them to have a safe drop, and doctrine at the time — eventually changed by Americans and others — was that artillery stop firing when aircraft arrived. So planes were worse than useless and were released from the battle.
Additionally, at Ia Drang, the Americans had the early version of the M-16s (with proper ammo) and a massive ongoing ammunition resupply. The Australians, on the other hand. could not match the rate of fire of the Vietnamese’s AKs and RPD light machine guns. The Vietnamese had at least 1500 fighters and possibly as many as 2500 (it was never verified). The Aussies had close to 1/5th KIA and many wounded. Cold logic told the PAVN commanders that in exchange for more casualties they could win this thing.
The question arises as to just what the PAVN was doing there just prior to the contact with the Australians. It is possible that they were intent on arriving close to the Australian base camp and assaulting it after dark, and/or attacking the town. Any chance of them still doing that required to eliminate or drive off the Australians. But the distance between the platoons confused the Vietnamese commanders who had no idea of just how many enemies they were facing — had they known they probably would have simply ordered one massive rush.
Once again Australian artillery doctrine limited the effectiveness of the Australians. According to it, the 155s were not meant for close support. (American doctrine used to be the same, but during the Battle of the Bulge, when all the 105s were tied up, some company commanders got idle 155s on the net and devastated the attacking Germans. This caused the doctrine to be adjusted.) Any enemy two hundred meters away from the Australians was watching as entire stands of trees were collapsing around them. But if D Company were to be helped it needed the artillery to fire a good deal closer than that. The artillery commander was reluctant to give the order: someone higher up the ladder forbade it. As D Company was about to be overrun, its commander made sure that everybody could hear him on the radio, and finally permission was given to inch the 155s a bit closer — but not as much as had been requested.
At last the APCs and the reserve company got the authority to saddle up and head for the action, hell-bent for leather. It should be mentioned that on the way to the plantation, the officer of one of the APCs, for inexplicable reasons, ordered it to turn back and return to base — which justifiably caused a huge scandal afterward.
As the night was falling, D Company was getting half-flanked. At one point many men were down to four rounds. The Vietnamese, safely outside the impact area of 155s, were massing for one last charge. A radio message went out to command that if the APCs and reinforcements would not be arriving very soon: “Don’t bother…”
At the last sort of “yawning moment” the APCs hit the line and their 50 caliber machine guns began working over the massed Vietnamese. The Vietnamese commanders were very good. They knew that the “magic moment” was past and instantly ordered a retreat. The very disciplined Vietnamese troops fell back quickly, but did not rout. The Australians moved back to their base.
The Australian casualties were 18 dead (including one soldier from the APC convoy) and 24 wounded. Astoundingly, not one wounded soldier who made it to the medic’s “pit” died.
But the battle was far from over…