Long Tan is the most famous battle fought by the Australian Army during the Vietnam War.
It was fought in a rubber plantation near the village of Long Tan, about 40 km north-east of Vung Tau, South Vietnam, on August 18–19, 1966.
The Australian Task Force arrived in Vietnam in May 1966 and was based at the Nui Dat base, in Phuoc Tuy province. The 6th Battalion was composed mainly of conscripts.
The battle occurred when about 120 Australians, D Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), part of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF), engaged about 2,000 battle-hardened troops belonging to the Viet Cong (VC) 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.
The Australians faced formidable enemy forces, which were operating on home soil. Within Phuoc Tuy and the neighbouring provinces of Bien Hoa, Long Khanh and Binh Tuy, the principal main force formation was the 5th VC Division, which usually had its headquarters in the Mây Tào Mountains.
It consisted of 274 Regiment and 275 Regiment plus supporting units. North Vietnamese regulars were used to boost and reinforce this South Vietnamese [Viet Cong] formation.
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, 1966, the Viet Cong fired mortar rounds into the Australian base causing one casualty. The next day, B Company was sent out to patrol and found evidence of a heavy-weapons platoon and a protection force of around 50 infantry. On the morning of August 18, 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 (to which were attached three New Zealand Army personnel) left base at 11:00am and met B Company at 1:00pm. 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.
Members of D Company found new VC tracks and spread out into a wide formation, to maximise the chances of contact. Two platoons led the way, with company headquarters behind them and a third platoon in the rear.
At 3:40pm, a small group of VC soldiers walked into the middle of 11 Platoon on the right flank of D Company. One was killed in the action, the area was cleared and 11 Platoon moved forward again.
Several light mortar rounds were fired towards the company position landing to the east, most likely the same mortars that had fired at the base on the night of August 16. The accompanying Forward Observation Officer (FOO), New Zealand Captain Morrie Stanley, 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.
Stanley called in all available 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, a conscript 2nd Lieutenant named Gordon Sharp, was killed and Sergeant Bob Buick assumed command of the platoon.
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.
Stanley called for air support but when it arrived it was unable to identify targets due to the weather and rubber plantation. The U.S. 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.
The Australian soldiers were carrying a light load, and quickly ran low on ammunition. At 5:00pm, Smith called for an ammunition re-supply. By coincidence, two Iroquois helicopters of the Royal Australian Air Force were available at the Nui Dat base, having just been used as transport for a Col Joye and Little Pattie concert. The helicopters flew low in monsoon rain and dropped 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 Company’s 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 cut down 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 24 105-mm and 155-mm guns from Australian and New Zealand artillery units and the U.S. 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 U.S. gunners assisted the exhausted Australian gunners by carrying artillery rounds to the guns.
The reverse slope that D Company used for defence 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. Those remaining now constituted 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 Platoon’s position were recovered and 245 enemy dead buried. U.S. forces later captured documents indicating 500 killed and 750 wounded.
The Australian losses were 18 killed and 24 wounded.
Both the Vietnamese and Australian militaries have disputed each other’s version. The Vietnamese claimed they had ambushed and destroyed an Australian battalion; they refused to accept that they had only faced a single company. There have also been accusations that the Australians exaggerated VC casualties.
In 2006, two former Australian officers visited the site of the battle. They met Nguyen Minh Ninh, former vice-commander of D445 Battalion, and were shocked to hear him admit: “You [the Australians] won … tactically and militarily, you won.” It was the first time that a Vietnamese commander has admitted such a thing to Australians.
Australian commanders have been accused of being foolhardy sending lightly armed and small units into an area where an entire Vietnamese regiment was known to be operating. Smith maintains he was never told about this large force. It seems army intelligence knew that VC forces were 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.
A U.S. Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) 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 still wear the PUC on their uniforms).
Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Smith was recommended for a Distinguished Service Order, but received the lower award of a Military Cross. Each of the three platoon commanders was recommended for Military Crosses but none was awarded. Two Distinguished Conduct Medals, and two Military Medals were also awarded.
A total of 22 members of D Company were awarded South Vietnamese medals. However it had long been the policy of the Australian military that its members could not accept awards from foreign powers, including allies. It was only in June 2004 that the awards were finally accepted by the Minister of Defence.
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.
-This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation Licence. It uses material from the Wikipedia article “Battle of Long Tan” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Long_Tan).