Night Ambush... The Tiger Strikes
title: Once We Were Soldiers
 


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
the tiger strikes
 

© Bob Cavill
C Company & Assault Pioneers
author: Bob cavill


On arrival in Vietnam in 1966, the 5th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) found the enemy moving freely throughout Phuoc Tuy Province during the night. The Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were not used to being attacked during the dark hours as the Americans basically fought during daylight hours.

The Americans had a saying, "We own the day and Charlie owns the night." For the first six months after our arrival, the Viet Cong suffered serious losses from platoon night ambushes set by both 5RAR and 6RAR. They had yet to learn that we were not Americans and we intended to deny the Viet Cong and NVA any movement in Phuoc Tuy Province by day or night, without paying a heavy price. The 5th Battalion had trained hard for six months prior to embarkation, on the Border Ranges and in the Mount Royal Ranges of New South Wales in order to specialise in night ambush tactics. This, and the actual experience in action, honed the rifle companies into a silent effective night fighting force, second only at that time, to the British and Australian Special Air Service (SAS). The Tiger was chosen as the mascot of the 5th Battalion and the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Warr understood the 'hunting tactics' of the Tiger, and it represented to him, how the battalion should most effectively counter the guerrilla tactics employed by the VC and NVA.

From the Front and by the Best

Included in the night fighting was the night cordon operations. they were carried out by 5RAR during the full twelve months of 1966-67. They were difficult to implement and required the highest degree of navigation and organisation skills by the battalion's officers. There was the always ever present danger in the dark, of a two company clash, or an encounter with a large enemy force, at least prior to August 18th. The night cordons were eminently successful, capturing over 70 Viet Cong suspects in one operation alone --- Binh Ba, 7th-8th August, 1966 and often pulled-off with little or no fighting. The application of overwhelming force and surprise at dawn left no choice for the VC, either surrender or die. With escape being impossible, most VC, though not all, chose to surrender thus saving their own lives and many of ours as well.

We of the 5th Battalion OR's, (Other Ranks) owe a debt to the commissioned officers, for they were careful to husband our lives. For the night cordon operations the officers tried something new; they were thinking outside the square. During the twelve months, on several occasions, units of the battalion were discreetly withdrawn to prevent a clash with superior enemy forces and the use of air power was made to reduce the risk of heavy casualties to ground troops. This may appear commonsense, but in other wars the soldiers' lives have not always been so valued. I know I can speak for 100% of the ORs' for 5RAR who served during this period when I say, "we were led from the front and by the best." The number of commissioned officers killed in action or died of wounds were two Majors, one Captain and two lieutenants. The story that follows is a montage of memories from having served with 8 Platoon C Company and Assault Pioneer Platoon.

The Tiger Hunts at Night

Misty shafts of light, angled, as if from leadlight windows of a city cathedral pierce the vaulted green canopy; raindrops glint like diamonds as they fall from the tree tops higher than is thought possible to grow. And they answer rays reflected on a muddy wet forest trail. The glittering remnants of a hot afternoon storm where God played a prelude for this coming symphony of man's insanity. Soon, the jungle day song is giving way to the night and crickets pulse their call. For nature is indifferent to mans purpose here. Twilight now heralds the wailing hum of the mosquito. It fills the ears of those still, sinister, silent, watchful green figures, being slowly swallowed by an incredible dark. Night frogs hesitate at first, like a faulty engine start, but soon they fall into a rhythmic comforting chorus. Soon, darkness so intense, that eyes are made redundant. Balance becomes difficult and a man cannot stand but must crawl with hands outstretched, like the ants in the leaf litter beneath this forest floor. Vertical almost becomes impossible to define.

The Tiger knows his ground; Where the victim must pass, And if the quarry be hesitant, Watchful, suspicious, the Tiger waits, For time is his ally.

And now, it is seen! Throughout history and despite the modern technology of man, it must come down to this. The Killing Group is placed seven metres and parallel to the track. The closer the better, for the enemy will fire high, not suspecting death from the leaf-litter grasping at his feet. And as in the days of their grandfathers, in the trench raids of 1914 -18, and of their fathers on the Kokoda Track, New Guinea in World War Two, they will look into the faces of the enemy in the Killing Ground, an enemy who may turn to 'Seize Their Belts' for he knows at this range artillery can initially play no part for either side. If the ambush is sprung what follows must be quick. This enemy will ask for, and give no quarter. For the Tiger to prevail, there can be no recovery from an immense initial killing blow.

At stop-group-left, the Gunner's crinkled wet fingers pass time and again over the belt to confirm the location and angle of feed. His orientation to the Killing-Ground must not arc more than twenty degrees to the right or he will kill his own Killing Group. He checks the position of the spare 200-round belt again for the twentieth time. He knew it would be there, but he will check it again, and again five minutes after that. He runs the flat of his hand along the trigger housing and in his mind goes over the Stoppage Drills.

He knows this machine, this black steel jackhammer of mens' souls. He sees it in the darkness like a blind man sees with his fingers. The mosquito fury abates. The biting of hands, ears and neck eases, as the air cools. A word comes, whispered out of the gloom from the right,
"Stand down!"
The Gunner puts his hand exactly twenty four inches to his left and finds the shoulder of his Number 2 to indicate he will sleep first, as agreed. First-Shift until 23:59 hours. Soon, the Number 2's wristwatch, strangely bright, iridescent green hands rotate the long hours, like fireflies, as they rise and fall, flashing their coded signal against the dark. They drift, like ghostly fish in the depths of some black and inky deep. Then all is still, as it should be, as it must be, for the purpose.

The Tiger Strikes!

The sudden distant sound of a human voice comes like an electric shock. An alien sound. It pollutes the destiny of this night, and you curse all men and the fates. For 'tis safest to be still in the dark. Dim lights come closer, moving about as if competing with the fireflies, now less active in the cool of the late night. Sweat burns an eye with a salty drop and runs down the spine beneath your stinking, mud caked shirt. Sounds amplified now by the great vaulted canopy make you tremble with tense anticipation. Dry-mouth fear makes swallowing difficult. Your heart races until you think it must fail. Suddenly, a silent, incredibly bright light, painful to the eyes, shimmering, dancing across the tree trunks now stark white, making leaves look like fingers reaching out. You remain still, frozen in the silent light. The jungle creatures suddenly stop, as if confused by this day that was night. There comes now a most menacing silence, as though time itself had stopped. Then, as if by some deadly ticking, count of three! A crashing roar! A crescendo of sound made louder by that sudden silent three seconds just before Claymore concussion waves wash over you seeming to drive the air from your chest. Now the mind is engulfed by a horrendous tearing jackhammer of sound. A monstrous din only God could match via the clouds in a tearing sky of lightening. Images now flash, burned by light and sound so deep they can never be erased, only glimpsed in years to come like some terrible family keyhole secret. A fist, double impacts, a voice familiar distant calling but startling in this world without words.
"Cease Fire Stop Group!"
What? You struggle to hear, but there is only a long ringing echo of that twenty seconds of fear and crashing fury. Soon, a single shot or two makes the jungle hesitate to start again its song of life. Moving figures exchange knowing furtive glances as they fumble with equipment in this brief island of light within that dark cathedral of fear. Words can be heard now, low, urgent and clipped.
"Three-Section lead, single file, move out."

The Tiger never sleeps where he kills. The forest has ears, now he must move from this place, to a hidden place.

They follow that strange iridescent trail of disturbed leaves seen in the jungle at night. A silent, shuffling, single file, each man with his own thoughts. For they know, as only these soldiers can, that death stalks the night with a shimmering white light and a thunderous crashing roar. Strange, they make no sound after such a crescendo so recently unleashed, but they live in a world of complete contrast of both light and sound. Silence is all that is accepted by these men now. No clink or clank is heard. Each must strain to hear the footfall of the man in front or be lost in that immensity of lethal darkness ― 'Out There!' Even the moan of a wounded comrade is resented in this business. In the passing of time, a sinister moaning rush is heard. You count to six. There comes a ripping crashing staccato impact that startles you. Though you expected it, you are overcome by an almost overwhelming urge to drop and press yourself flat onto the earth and get into it, if that were at all possible; for bitter experience has taught that all things from above are indifferent to friend or foe. They impact the ambush site. The shells rip and tear at the long suffering forest, hurling red-hot metal through the night and perhaps, those laying still on that damp dark forest track, 'Back There!' You bump into the man in front having unknowingly moved quicker, as if to escape the image of it in your mind. But it is still there, branded by the sound and light.

On some quiet reflective moment, in the years ahead, the rippling dancing white light in the night, or distant rumbling of thunder will make you quicken your step. You will strike the heel of that fellow in front. You will apologise, embarrassed, make out you are just an old fool. For what can he know of the rippling dancing shadows in that pitch dark cathedral of fear, Where death stalked the blinding white silent three seconds. For he is an age, and now is a lifetime from there.

DEDICATION

John R. Sweetnam Killed in Action 9 June 1969 Dedicated to the memory of my mate, Private John. R. Sweetnam,  C Company, Fifth Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment, who died of gunshot wounds received in the rear screen of an ambush position, at about 2:am on the night  of 8-9 June, 1966 aged 19.

So close, but the hour determined his fate. Remembered still every day.

GLOSSARY

'Seize Their Belts' A tactic employed by the enemy to move as close  as possible in order to prevent effective artillery support.
Stop-Group-Left (or right) A group of soldiers sited on either flank of the Killing Group to prevent the enemy from running through the Killing Ground or reversing back up the track.
Killing Group The main body of the ambush. The ambush is initiated when the commander of the Killing Group believes that the entire enemy patrol is within the confines of the Killing Group
The Gun The 7.62mm M60 PMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) Gas operated, air cooled and belt fed, with a quick change barrel to counter overheating during sustained fire. The rate of fire was 550 rounds per minute (cyclic), with a muzzle velocity of 860 metres per second. Ammunition fired; ball, tracer, incendiary and armour piercing. In South Vietnam it was the main firepower of the infantry rifle section.
Number 2 Supports the Gunner by ensuring sufficient ammunition is available for the gun  and assists in changing the barrel when required.
Claymore The M18A1 was used in ambushes and perimeter defences. The Claymore Mine comprised of a curved rectangular cast-iron box with spikes fitted to the base. inside were 700 steel ball bearings in a bed of plastic explosive. it was detonated by remote control using an electric circuit; spraying its contents in a 60 degree arc and was lethal to a range of 50 meters.

 

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