The Battle of Long Tần is arguably the most famous battle fought by the Australian Army during the Vietnam War. It was fought in a rubber plantation (in UTM Grid YS 49-66), near the village of Long Tần, about four kilometres north east of Vung Tau, South Vietnam on August 18–19, 1966.
The action occurred when D Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), part of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF), encountered the Viet Cong (VC) 275 Regiment and e 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 battle is often used in Australian officer training as an example of the importance of combining and coordinating infantry, artillery, armour and military aviation.
In Vietnam on May 1966, 1ATF arrived and was based at the Nui Dat base, in Phuoc Tuy Province. (As of 2005, Nui Dat and Long Tan are both in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province.) 6RAR was composed mainly of conscripts. 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 principle [sic] 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…
For several weeks prior to the battle, Australian field intelligence had tracked a radio transmitter moving south but were unsure about what unit it belonged to. Aggressive patrolling failed to find this unit.
On the night of 17-18 August, the Viet Cong 275th Regiment fired over 100 mortar rounds into the 103 Battery area and 24 Australian soldiers were wounded, one later dying from his wounds. B Company 6RAR was sent out early on the morning of the 18th to find the VC heavy weapons. D Company (to which was attached three New Zealand Army personnel) relieved B Company at midday. The commander of B Company, Major Noel Ford, briefed the D Company commander, Major Harry Smith, and B Company 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.
At 15:40, 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 16 August. The accompanying Forward Observation Officer (FO), New Zealand Captain Morrie Stanley, organised counter battery fire, probably destroying them, in any case 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 immediately sustained six 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, national serviceman 2nd Lt Gordon Sharp, was killed and Sergeant Bob Buick assumed command of the platoon. During this engagement both platoons’ radios went out.
Heavy monsoon rain began falling on the battlefield reducing visibility considerably, probably saving many lives on both sides.
10 Platoon, under 2nd Lt Geoff Kendall, also came under fire and went into a defensive position. 12 Platoon, commanded by 2nd Lt Dave Sabben, had been the reserve platoon, and it was ordered to the right to support 11 Platoon. 12 Platoon left one section behind to support Company HQ.
The company called for close air support but when it arrived it was unable to identify targets due to the weather and rubber plantation. The US aircraft dropped their bombs to the east disrupting the VC rear areas.
Smith requested reinforcements from 6RAR. B Company HQ with its one platoon had not yet got back to Nui Dat and was ordered back to Long Tan.
The Australian soldiers were carrying a light load, approximately five magazines, and after nearly three hours of combat ran low on ammunition. At 5:00pm Smith called for an ammunition resupply. By coincidence, two Iroquois helicopters from 9 Squadron, 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. One of the Iroquois pilots, Flt Lt Bob Grandin, disobeyed orders by dropping supplies to D Company. He recalled: “it did sound extremely bad on the radio. I recall Harry Smith saying, ‘If you don’t do this for us you all might as well start saying your prayers — it’s all over’.”
The ammunition was still inside its packing crates. The tired soldiers had to break open these crates and load their magazines from boxes of ammunition. Magazines were considered part of soldiers’ weapons and issuing was strictly controlled. (One of the lessons of Long Tan for the Australian Army was that combat personnel on operations started to carry more supplies, including more ammunition and food, to enable prolonged operations. Ammunition was later resupplied in magazines, and the issuing of magazines was relaxed.)
The survivors of 11 Platoon withdrew under the cover provided by the torrential rain to the company position.
At Nui Dat, A Company had been ordered to ready itself and the M-113 armoured personnel carriers of the 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron to transport them. However there was a delay of approximately one hour from the time 1 APC Squadron was ordered to 6RAR lines at Nui Dat to pick up A Coy. Smith pressed Townsend to send reinforcements, and even though Townsend had given the warning order to A Coy to be prepared to go and assist D Coy, Jackson would not release the APCs to take them. Jackson considered that the attack on D Coy was a possible feint and did not want to reduce the defences at Nui Dat until he received more information about Long Tan.
The VC continually formed assault waves and moved forward, but were broken up by artillery fire. Fortunately for the attackers, the soft boggy ground reduced the effect of the shell bursts, but there were a large number of wounded. The rain was so intense it kicked up a mist that gave the Australian soldiers cover from the onslaught. Dave Sabben remembers the mist rising from the ground to about chest level. “All that’s poking out of that is the diggers’ hats and their eyes, not even their rifles,” he said in a television interview with 60 Minutes. (The forgotten heroes) The soldiers of D Company held their line and repulsed any VC that got through the artillery barrage. D Company were supported by 24 105 mm and 155 mm guns from the Australian 1st Field Regiment, the 161st Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery and the U.S. 2nd Battalion, 35th Artillery Regiment. Over 3,000 rounds of artillery were fired throughout the remainder of the battle, at likely Communists forming-up positions and withdrawal routes. “A” Battery, 1st Field Regiment fired rounds every 15 seconds for three hours. The U.S. gunners were in the same base as “A” Battery and assisted the exhausted Australian gunners by carrying artillery rounds to their guns.
The reverse slope that D Company used to defend their position 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.
A driver of one of the 1 APC Squadron vehicles, Cpl Peter Clements, was fatally wounded as 1APC Squadron fought its way into the rubber plantation. A dispute between the acting commander of A Company and the 3 Troop APC Squadron commander, regarding who was in command of the relief force; the commander of the APCs or the commander of the infantry mounted in the APCs, also caused a delay. There was a dispute between the acting A Coy commander and the 3 Troop APC Squadron commander. In response to this ambiguity, the command structure of combined units was later more clearly defined by the Australian Army.)
At last light, A Company, in ten APCs from 1 APC Squadron, arrived under the command of Lt Col. Colin Townsend, and assaulted the Communist flank. In teeming rain, 3 Troop, A Company under Lt Adrian Roberts and 2 Troop, A Company under Lt Peter Dinham, also attacked the forward elements of D445 Battalion, taking them by surprise. B Company also attacked the fleeing enemy, withdrawing to the east. An Australian soldier from one of the rifle companies was killed as they attacked the D445 Battalion position.
The fresh reinforcements formed a perimeter around D Company allowing them to treat the wounded and rest. During the night the artillery fired on likely forming-up points of the VC and some wounded were evacuated by helicopter. This was a strong force and should have been able to repulse any night attack.245 VC dead As it happened, there was no further contact.
Lt Col. Bob Breen wrote later: “the battle discipline and bravery of the Australians, the cover provided by the torrential rain and the effects of hundreds of artillery and mortar rounds falling among the Viet Cong attackers resulted in a stunning victory for the Australians and a further enhancement for the fighting tradition of Australian infantry.
Controversy Regarding Strength and Casualties
The first North Vietnamese communiqué claimed that: “Liberation Fighters … wiped out almost completely one Battalion of the Australian Mercenaries in an ambush in the Long Tan Village.” However, the official Australian losses were 18 killed and 21 wounded.
The official Australian figure that 2,500 NVA/VC were involved in the battle with D Company was determined by US and Australian Army Intelligence Reports, information from the three enemy prisoners captured on the battlefield on August 19, captured documents including the captured commanders diary of D445 and the 1 ATF Commanders Diary. However, Bob Breen wrote that “just over 100 diggers withstood the best efforts of over 1500 Viet Cong soldiers to kill them.” On paper each of the three 275th Regiment battalions had roughly 400 men, but according to the North Vietnamese/VC commanders, all were seriously undermanned.
There have been accusations that the Australians exaggerated VC and NVA casualties. The day after the battle, the dead and wounded from 11 Platoon’s position were recovered and the enemy dead buried. Encountering no more resistance the Australian soldiers swept the area and found 33 AK-47s, 5 SKS rifles, 7 RPD light machine guns, 1 Soviet wheeled machine gun, 1 57mm Type 30 anti-tank gun, 1 M1 Garand rifle, 1 M1 carbine, 1 M1941 sub machine gun and 4 RPG rocket launchers. “There was not a great quantity of enemy weapons recovered after the battle,” Buick said. (Bob Buick’s Vietnam Page) The official Australian count is 245 Communist dead and 150 wounded. The number of NVA/VC killed and wounded was about twice the initial radio report of 188 killed or wounded from Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Townsend.(see 6 RAR Commander’s War Diary) It is alleged that the count was stopped because the Australian Government requested a final tally for a report to Parliament and the Australian public. It has also been alleged that VC and NVA bodies were found in and around the Long Tan rubber plantation for up to two weeks after the battle, but these were never recorded against the official tally. It is said that the VC and NVA often recovered and removed their dead from the battlefield. US forces later claimed to have captured documents indicating 800 killed and 1,000 wounded.
Seven days after the battle, the US 173rd Airborne Brigade, a US Marine battalion, several ARVN battalions and 5 RAR launched Operation Toledo, a large-scale sweep of the area. Captain Robert O’Neill wrote: “…the battalion had been keyed up to the possibility of a major encounter with the Viet Cong-a battle which would have had a decisive effect on the Viet Cong in Phuoc Tuy Province. Instead all we found was dense jungle with no trace of any large Viet Cong force ever having been in the area.”
According to 275th Regiment veterans and (former North) Vietnamese historians, 47 VC and NVA were killed in action and about 100 wounded. Mark Baker of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote in 1996, after meeting ex-VC and NVA commanders at Long Tan: “[The] senior [north] Vietnamese officers made the startling claim that only 700 of their men had taken part in the battle — half the most conservative Australian estimate — and that only 50 had been killed.” The North Vietnamese account of North Vietnamese losses is supported by Australian Vietnam veteran Terry Burstall, who was a private in the 12 Platoon section guarding D Company HQ, during the battle. Burstall is a controversial figure among other Australian veterans and historians. He has contradicted Australian and US official accounts of NVA/VC losses:
When I returned to the battlefield the day after the battle, there were bodies lying all through the area … Would a shell-shocked digger count an arm, a trunk and a leg scattered over several metres as one body or three bodies? Nobody knew or cared at the time, and certainly not the people doing the counting. …Looking back I don’t really think that I would have seen more than 50 bodies and I spent three days in the area.
However, Burstall’s claims regarding the body count have been disputed in more recent published accounts, in public statements by both D Company veterans, Australian War Memorial historians and the official Australian Army records.
Burstall also objected to the Australian claim that 108 Diggers defeated 1,500 North Vietnamese and points out that many of the NVA/VC were personnel of the 275th Regiment’s rear echelon who could not be classed as combat troops. He also claims that the Australians had brought armoured personnel carriers and two companies of fresh infantry as reinforcements that turned the battle. (A Soldier Returns: A Long Tan Veteran Discovers the Other Side of Vietnam)
Controversy Regarding Tactics
It has been alleged that Australian commanders knew that there was a North Vietnamese regiment moving towards the rubber plantation area prior to the battle. A top secret Australian signals unit (547 Troop) did track what they determined to be the radio from 275 Regiment for 12 days (2 August to 14 August 1966) and this information was shared with Brigadier David Jackson. Australian intelligence relied on many sources and there was no way to determine whether the radio was in fact located with the 275 Regiment forces. Jackson began a series of patrols and some of those patrols including A Coy, 6RAR actually went into the Long Tan rubber plantation on the 17 August but no contact was made. The top secret 547 Signals Troop was so secret that information gathered from it was not shared with Australian field commanders, such as Townsend or Smith, to prevent it giving away the fact that the Australians were monitoring enemy radios.
Many North Vietnamese participants are also adamant that D Company walked into an ambush. They state that the VC had planned to draw the Australian force into a wooded area to the north of the rubber plantation, where heavy weapons had been set up on a rise known to the Australians as “Nui Dat 2 GR4868″. Another 100 members of D445 Battalion were in the south near the village of Long Tan. One platoon with several rocket launchers had been placed on the south western edge of the plantation, hoping to slow down any APC-mounted reinforcements, and cut off an Australian retreat. In 2006, Sau Thu, a former major in D445 Battalion, was quoted as saying that he had been ordered to lure the Australians out of Nui Dat, kill as many of them as possible, capture their weapons and then take the base. “We didn’t know how many you had in Nui Dat. We tried to draw them out… We thought they would go one way but the Australian soldiers went the wrong way and came behind us.”
In 2006, Sabben and Buick visited the site of the battle. They met Nguyen Minh Ninh, former vice-commander of D445 Battalion. Minh said: “you won. But we won also. Tactically and militarily you won — but politically, we won. In this battle you acted out of our control — you [escaped] from our trap.” According to journalist Cameron Stewart, it was the first time that a senior North Vietnamese officer had admitted that his soldiers had been defeated at Long Tan.
According to Terry Burstall, the North Vietnamese commander at Long Tan, Col. Nguyen Thanh Hong, was amazed that the Australians could look on the battle as a victory:
How can you claim a victory when you allowed yourselves to walk into a trap that we had set? Admittedly we did not finish the job, but that was only because time beat us and your reinforcements arrived. I mean you did not even attempt to follow us up. How can you claim a significant victory from that sort of behaviour?
However, Townsend was unable to pursue the 275th Regiment because of the vulnerability of the Nui Dat base to an attack from the 274th Regiment. Moreover, Operation Toledo was launched seven days later.
Commemoration and Reconciliation
A US 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. The text of the citation reads as follows:
By virtue of the authority invested in me as the President of the United States and as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, I have today awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (Army) for extraordinary heroism to D Company, Sixth Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, The Australian Army.
D Company distinguished itself by extraordinary heroism while engaged in military operations against an opposing armed force in Vietnam on August 18, 1966.
While searching for Viet Cong in a rubber plantation northeast of Ba Ria, Phuoc Tuy, Province, Republic of Vietnam, D Company met and immediately engaged in heavy contact. As the battle developed, it became apparent that the men of D Company were facing a numerically superior force. The platoons of D Company were surrounded and attacked on all sides by an estimated reinforced enemy battalion using automatic weapons, small arms and mortars. Fighting courageously against a well armed and determined foe, the men on D Company maintained their formations in a common perimeter defence and inflicted heavy casualties on the Viet Cong.
The enemy maintained a continuous, intense volume of fire and attacked repeatedly from all directions. Each successive assault was repulsed by the courageous Australians. Heavy rainfall and low ceiling prevented any friendly close air support during the battle. After three hours of savage attacks, having failed to penetrate the Australian lines, the enemy withdrew from the battlefield carrying many dead and wounded, and leaving 245 Viet Cong dead forward of the defence positions of D Company.
The conspicuous courage, intrepidity and indomitable courage of D Company were to the highest tradition of military valour and reflect great credit upon D Company and the Australian Army.
Soldiers posted to D Company 6RAR still wear the PUC on their uniforms.
Smith was recommended for a Distinguished Service Order, but received the lower award of a Military Cross. Two of the three platoon commanders were recommended for Military Crosses but neither was awarded. The Military Medal recommended for the third (acting) platoon commander (11 Platoon, Sgt Bob Buick) was awarded as recommended. Two Distinguished Conduct Medals, and another Military Medal were also awarded. The lack of recognition paid to Australian veterans by the Australian government has been the subject of intense criticism on their part. In November 2006, John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, visited Long Tan, the first Australian PM to make the journey. At Long Tan, Howard acknowledged the poor treatment that Australian Vietnam veterans received.
A total of 22 members of D Company were to be awarded South Vietnamese medals. However, in line with British military policy, the Australian government was not prepared to formally accept awards from foreign powers without prior approval by the Queen. The Australian Ambassador gave this advice to the South Vietnamese government, which decided at the last moment not to award the medals. This policy was relaxed very soon afterwards. In June 2004 the 22 awards were approved by the Australian Governor-General for wearing. On 12 October 2007, John Howard announced the appointment of an independent panel to review the awarding of imperial medals, and the claim to the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry Unit Citation. The panel is to report by 28 February 2008.
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. At the 40th year commemoration, in 2006, veterans were accompanied by Australian Ambassador Bill Tweddle at the Long Tan Cross; following the commemoration a concert was held at Vung Tau where former Redgum band member John Schumann sang “I Was Only Nineteen” which describes the experiences of Long Tan veteran Mick Storen (Schuman’s brother-in-law).
Download Dave Sabben’s Powerpoint Presentation
Dave Sabben, a Long Tan veteran has produced a 50-slide animated Powerpoint presentation on the battle at Long Tan.
It can be downloaded free from his website, and would like it sent as far and as wide as possible. The contents are suitable for school teachers & students as well as Viet Vets and others who are just interested.
Not to forget serving members of all forces, including those overseas and in Allied forces. It’s a PC version only (a Mac version may follow, if funded), and runs on Powerpoint version 2003 and later.
(Don’t try to run it on earlier Powerpoint versions– eg, 97 – it uses features not available before the 2003 version.)
It’s large – about 11.5MB – but it’s paced to the viewer.May be an hour or more of viewing/study.
The website is http://www.dave-sabben.com/
Click on Download LONG TAN PowerPoint presentation
(I suggest you ‘save to disk’ so you can run it whenever you wish, rather than opening it in Powerpoint?)