Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Battle of Long Tan
|Soldiers from D Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, during the Battle of Long Tan. (An official portrait, painted by Bruce Fletcher in 1970; events that occurred at different times during the battle are shown here as happening simultaneously).|
|Battle of Long Tan|
|Date||August 18, 1966 - August 19, 1966|
|Place||Long Tan , Vietnam|
|Result||Decisive Australian victory|
The Battle of Long Tan was one of the first major actions of the First Australian Task Force (1ATF) in the Vietnam War. It was fought in a rubber tree plantation near the village of Long Tan, about 40km north-east of Vung Tau, South Vietnam on August 18-19, 1966. D Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), forces encountered the Viet Cong 275 Regiment and elements of the D445 Local Forces Battalion. D Company was supported by other Australian units, as well as New Zealand and United States personnel.
Although veterans of the battle from both sides met many years later, relatively little is known publically of the Vietnamese side of the battle, due to a reluctance to discuss it, on the part of Vietnamese officials.
This battle is frequently taught in Australian officer training, as it is an excellent case study of well-trained and disciplined soldiers; the importance of combining infantry, artillery, armour and aviation; coordination between units and the importance of firepower.
The 1ATF arrived in Vietnam in May 1966 and was based at the Nui Dat base, in Phuoc Tuy province. (As of 2004, Nui Dat and Long Tan are both in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province). The 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment was composed mainly of conscript soldiers.
The Viet Cong D445 Local Force Battalion had dominance in this area but the Australians were increasing their activity. Most contacts with the Viet Cong were small squads and so Australian doctrine was to carry light loads and attack aggressively.
The local Viet Cong commander, Colonel Nguyen Than Hong , aimed to make a large attack on 1ATF causing a politically unacceptable loss, hoping to cause its withdrawal. The Viet Cong 275 Regiment moved south intending to attack the 1ATF. There is some doubt about their exact intentions, some commentators believe 275 Regiment was planning to draw Australian units out into an ambush; others believe they were planning a direct assault on the base.
Events Leading up to the Battle
Australian field intelligence had tracked a radio transmitter moving south for several weeks but were unsure about what unit it belonged to. Aggressive patrolling failed to find this unit.
On the night of August 16, the Viet Cong fired mortar rounds into the Australian base causing 24 casualties. The next day, August 17, B Company 6RAR was sent out to patrol and they had found evidence of a heavy weapons platoon and a protection force of around 50 infantry. On the morning on 18 August, the commander of B Company sent most of his company back to base leaving just the headquarters and one platoon.
D Company was ordered to relieve B Company and further investigate the area. D Company left base at 11:00am and met B Company at 13:00. The commander of B Company, Major Noel Ford, briefed the D Company commander, Major Harry Smith, and the remainder of B Company also returned to base. After discussing the situation with the 6 RAR battalion commander, Lt Col. Colin Townsend, D Company moved to the east towards the limit of their covering artillery range.
Finding new tracks D Company moved into a wide front formation to maximise the chances of finding the enemy with 2 platoons leading the way, company headquarters behind them and the third platoon in the rear.
At 15:40 a small group of VC soldiers nonchalantly walked into the middle 11 Platoon on the right flank of D Company. One VC was killed in the action, the area was cleared and 11 Platoon continued.
Several light mortar rounds where fired towards the company position landing to the east, most likely the same mortars that had fired at the base on the night of 16 August. The accompanying Forward Observation Officer (FO) organised counter battery fire probably destroying them, as the mortars were not fired again. This diversion separated the main company slightly from 11 Platoon, putting the main body behind a slight rise.
As 11 Platoon continued to advance they were attacked by heavy machine gun fire and sustained casualties. Following normal contact procedures, the platoon went into a defensive position. The VC formed an assault and attacked 11 Platoon around 20 minutes after initial contact with support from their heavy machine guns.
The FO called in artillery support from the 1ATF artillery units and 10 Platoon moved up to the left of 11 Platoon to relieve pressure on them and allow them to withdraw to the company defensive position out of the heavy machine gun fire. The commander of 11 Platoon, 2nd Lt Gordon Sharp, was killed and Smith lost radio contact with them.
Heavy monsoon rain began falling on the battlefield.
10 Platoon also came under fire and went into a defensive position. 12 Platoon which had been the reserve platoon, was ordered to the right to support 11 Platoon. 12 Platoon left one section behind to support Company HQ.
The FO (a New Zealander) called for close air support (CAIRS ) but it was refused because of the inability to identify targets due to the weather and rubber plantation. The US aircraft dropped their bombs to the east causing disruption to the VC rear areas. The VC commanders probably thought the Australians had a better understanding of their position than they did, causing them to act more cautiously than otherwise.
Due to light load the soldiers were carrying they quickly ran low on ammunition. At 5:00pm Smith called for an ammunition supply. By coincidence, two Iroquois helicopters of the Royal Australian Air Force were available at the Nui Dat base as they had been used as transport for a Col Joye and Little Pattie concert. The helicopters performed a wonderful feat, flying low in monsoon rain and dropping the ammunition right into the company perimeter.
The survivors of 11 Platoon withdrew to the company position.
Smith requested reinforcements. B Company HQ with its one platoon had not yet got back to base and was ordered back to D Companyís position. Back at Nui Dat base A Company were ordered to ready themselves and the M-113 armoured personnel carriers of 3 Troop 1 APC Squadron to transport them. There is some controversy as there was a long delay in this force departing. It seems they were ordered to be ready to move but not ordered to move.
The VC continually formed assault waves and moved forward but were decimated by artillery fire. The soldiers of D Company showed excellent discipline holding their line and repulsing any VC that got through the artillery barrage. D Company were supported by 24 105mm and 155mm guns from Australian, New Zealand artillery units and the US 2/35 Battalion, which fired deeper into VC positions. Over 3,000 rounds of artillery were fired. The Australian A Battery fired rounds every 15 seconds for three hours. The 2/35 Battalion was in the same base as the A Battery and US gunners assisted the exhausted Australian gunners by carrying artillery rounds to the guns.
The reverse slope that D Company used for defense meant that the VC found it difficult to use their heavy calibre weapons effectively; the VC could only engage the Australians at close range. The VC tried to find the Australian flanks but the wide dispersal and excellent defensive position meant the VC thought they were up against a larger enemy.
At last light the armoured reinforcement arrived and smashed into the flank of the VC taking them completely by surprise, destroying several heavy weapons and stopping their flanking manoeuvre. 2 Platoon, A Company dismounted and attacked the fleeing enemy. B Company HQ and the one platoon also arrived. As darkness fell the VC broke off their attack withdrawing to the east.
The fresh reinforcements formed a perimeter around D Company allowing them to treat the wounded and rest. During the night some wounded were evacuated by helicopter. This was a strong force and should have been able to repulse any attack the next day. As it was there was no further contact.
The next day the dead and wounded from 11 Platoonís position were recovered and 245 enemy dead buried. No further contact was made with the VC.
The VC were decimated with over 500 killed and 750 wounded, many historians believe the figure was over 1000 killed.
Australian loses were 18 killed and 24 wounded.
The VC withdrew from the battlefield and were never effective in Phuoc Tuy province again.
Both the Vietnamese and Australians have disputed each otherís version. The Vietnamese claimed they had ambushed and destroyed an Australian battalion; they refused to accept that they had only faced a single company. Many people have accused the Australians of exaggerating VC causalities, however US forces later captured documents indicating 500 killed and 750 wounded.
Some Australian commentators have followed the VC story that the Australians had walked into an ambush. If the VC had planned to create an ambush it certainly had not been set up. There was no established killing zone, heavy weapons such as mortars had not been set up and were not used, there was no flank protection to prevent reinforcement from the obvious direction of Nui Dat, and the battle was well inside Australian artillery range.
The commanders have been accused of being foolhardy sending lightly armed and small units into an area where an entire regiment was known to be heading. Smith maintains he was never told about this large force. It seems army intelligence knew something was moving south towards Nui Dat but there was no indication that it was a full regiment.
Why the reinforcements took so long to get moving has never been fully explained. 1ATF HQ thought that they were moving but it was by accident that a staff officer noticed they had not moved. They were then ordered to move immediately. Most likely the order was vague or misunderstood.
It has long been the policy of the Australian forces that Australians cannot accept awards from foreign powers including those of allies. D Company was award the US Presidential Unit Citation and to this day those that served in the Battle of Long Tan and those currently serving with it wear the US PUC. However 22 members of D Company were awarded South Vietnamese medals, it was only in June 2004 that the awards were finally accepted by the Minister of Defence.
A driver of one of the 1 APC Squadron APCs was injured as they approached the D Company position. The APC returned to base. There was a dispute who was in command as it had not been made clear who was in command at this point, the commander of the APCs or the commander of the A Company mounted in the APCs.
The ammunition resupply provided to the soldiers was in bulk; still inside itís packing crates. The tired soldiers had to break open these crates and load their magazines from boxes of ammunition. Magazines were considered part of soldiersí weapons and issuing was strictly controlled. Afterwards this ammunition was resupplied in magazines and control of magazines relaxed.
Soldiers started to carry more supplies, including more ammunition and food to enable prolonged operations.
In response to the conflict over the APC that returned to base the command structure of combined units was more clearly defined.
A US Presidential Unit Citation was awarded to D Company 6RAR, by President Lyndon B. Johnson on May 28, 1968, for the unit's actions at Long Tan. Soldiers posted to D Company 6RAR wear the PUC as part of their uniform.
Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Smith was awarded the Military Cross.
Commemoration and reconciliation
6RAR erected a concrete cross to commemorate those that died. This was removed by the government of Vietnam following the communist victory in 1975, but has now been replaced by a larger monument of similar design. The original is on display at Dong Nai province museum in Bien Hoa .
In more recent times former officers from D Company have visited Vietnam and met former adversaries.
The date the battle began, August 18, is commemorated in Australia as Long Tan Day, also known as Vietnam Veterans' Remembrance Day.
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