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Australian Infantryman's Combat Badge
Land Clearance Operations

© David Wilkins
OC C Company
(Dec 69 - Mar 70)

Author: David Wilkins

In 1969 5RAR was involved with the American and Australian Land Clearing Teams on three occasions: Operation Federal in March 1969, Operation Esso in June and Operation Camden in August.

The concept was to fell large tracts of jungle where enemy had established defensive strongholds and bunker systems, and thereby deny them access to those traditional sanctuaries. This method was an alternative to aerial spraying of the forests with the toxic defoliant, Agent Orange.

During Operation Federal, 5RAR, together with armoured support (Australian Centurion tanks and M113 APCs), provided the protection for the American bulldozers during their daytime work, and also protection for the Night Defensive Position (NDP) by day and during the long nights of machinery maintenance.

These were massive operations by Australian standards in 1969, with over 50 vehicles initially blazing their way through the dense jungle (again with our protection) to reach the designated first base. Once there, the D8 bulldozers with their specially designed Rome Ploughs carved a doughnut shape out of the jungle by clearing a circle about 100 metres in diameter. A 30-metre strip of jungle was left untouched to provide the outer perimeter of the doughnut and then from there the jungle was cleared and pushed back for at least 400 metres. On the outside of the 30-metre jungle strip of the doughnut the graders built a dirt and log bund, and it was behind this that the infantry and armoured troops established their defences for the protection of the position. There were variations on this theme.

Diagram of a night defensive position during land clearing vietnam war

A rifle company was responsible for the security of the NDP whilst another “patrolling company” provided protection to the bulldozers during the daytime work by sweeping an area in advance of the proposed cut. In doing this, the infantry would search in detail about 500 metres in advance of the bulldozers as well as providing a platoon with APCs to escort the machinery to and from the NDP. At night the patrolling company would establish ambush positions beyond the timber tracts already felled and close to where the next day’s cut was to occur.

Protection troops from D Company 5RAR with bulldozers and APCs during land clearing operation

The NDP protection company was responsible for base security at all times using two platoons, whilst half of the third platoon set ambushes outside the base and the other half-platoon was kept in reserve as a ready reaction force.

Ptesw Kevin Mooney and John Sturla in the wet during land clearing vietnam war

At night, when the dozers had returned, the NDP was awash with blazing floodlights as the mechanics worked feverishly on the maintenance of the dozers parked in the centre. The infantry, tanks and APCs were positioned in the outer jungle fringe of the doughnut. With our evening ambushes set, anybody who moved outside the bund at night would only be enemy and would be shot.

5RAR protecting the American land clearing teams vietnam war

The next morning the dozers were ready to be escorted back to the jungle to recommence their destruction, their leading knife-edge blades re-sharpened. Not only were the massive blades of the Rome Ploughs used to slice and rip through the trunks of tall timber and undergrowth alike, but also the dozers worked in pairs about 100 metres apart, linked by a long ship’s anchor-type chain, and as they clanked forwards the jungle was literally torn down with the trees ripped out roots and all. The pristine jungle was transformed into ground zero.

0H-6A Cayuse helicopter sits on a make-shift pad supporting 5RAR defending land clearing teams

During Operation Camden in the Hat Dich region the NDP was moved three times as the Land Clearing Team razed 3,354 acres of dense jungle within a month. Operation Camden led to many fierce battles as well, culminating in our destroying a total of 1,029 bunkers, 379 weapon pits, 1,000 yards of tunnels and 650 yards of trenches. Enemy casualties were 54 KIA (by body count), another 19 KIA (possible), 1 PW and 20 WIA (and very likely many more who escaped our attention). Sadly, on the debit side, 5RAR lost 3 KIA and had 61 WIA.

the result from a succesful land clearing operation

 

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