1st Tour-An Overview


The Republic of South Vietnam, (as it was then) is a country of great differences. From the rugged mountains to the north through to the rich plains around Saigon, (Ho-Chi Minh City) down to the rich rice producing areas of the Mekong Delta. The geographical differences allowed for the dividing of the country into 4 corps areas from which the fight against the Viet Cong would be controlled. In each of these areas, there were one to two ARVN divisions. The 3 Corps area borders on the southern extremity of the Annamite mountains, essentially a broad plain of some hundreds of miles in diameter. The area includes approaches to Saigon and the rice fields and rubber plantations. The Mekong Delta begins 20 miles south of Saigon at a line linking the sea with the long tongue of Cambodia.

3 Corps Area

The VC strongholds of War Zone C and War Zone D. Both these bases were erected during the 1940's for use against the French and were being used to direct the war in South Vietnam. Phuoc Tuy Province was a part of 3 Corps and to which the Australian 5th and 6th Battalions comprising the Infantry element of the First Australian Task Force (1ATF) would be committed.

Map of Phuoc Tuy Province

Phuoc Tuy Province

The Viet Cong first appeared in Phuoc Tuy Province in 1959. They primarily concerned themselves with setting up a political infrastructure, holding meetings, recruiting and generating propaganda. In 1961 the first armed bands of VC began to challenge Government authority. By 1966 the entire province of Phuoc Tuy had come under Viet Cong control with the exception of the Vung Tau Peninsula, and highway 2 running north to the provincial capital of Baria. With only three months training at full strength, the 5th Battalion arrived in Vung Tau by air and sea in March and April 1966. At that time the Battalion had no training with close support of Artillery, or in large scale assaults in helicopters. But the American Army, through the 68th Army Aviation Company, supplied the Battalion with the appropriate training during its short stay in Vung Tau. 1ATF was to establish a base at Nui Dat and from there return the province back to government control.

The enemy forces in the province opposing the battalion consisted of two main force regiments, 274 and 275, each of three battalions and a support weapon battalion. These battalions though well equipped lacked effective communications, artillery and air support but they had the advantages of recent battle experience being able to operate in their own familiar territory and having the support of the local people. In addition there was in the province the 2445 Provincial Mobile Battalion and four district companies of guerrillas.

The two infantry battalions of 1ATF had to operate against an experienced enemy force of eight battalions. This difference in strength would require a great deal of flexibility of the 5th Battalion in the coming months. Except for the provincial capital Baria and a few villages, the rest of the province was controlled by the VC. It was expected that Baria would fall to the VC at any moment and when this occurred the major port at Vung Tau would be directly threatened. Route 15 from Vung Tau to Saigon was controlled by the enemy. The first task for the battalion was to clear and establish a base at Nui Dat. The battalion carried it out successfully in 'Operation Hardihood' with an air assault under the command of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade. During the next 14 days the battalion was in constant contact with the enemy who was resisting any attempt to establish a permanent base. At this time battalion headquarters (BHQ) and A Company were systematically probed by the Viet Cong. It was obvious that the VC were making a detailed reconnaissance to obtain information on the layout of the defences.

After several nights the probing by the VC had stopped. It was then clear that the VC had completed its reconnaissance and a night attack was imminent within the next two or three nights. Information obtained from captured documents some months later indicated that the VC had sustained a number of casualties when probing the perimeter. The VC tactics were to attack with eight to ten times the forces of the enemy. The Australians therefore anticipated an assault by two to three main force battalions. Such a force would have to come from 274 or 275 main force regiments. The attack would be at night to maximise surprise and lessen the effectiveness of air support.

The 274 and 275 Regiments were located to the north west and north east of the province and to be able to move into position to attack the battalion quickly, it was believed that the VC would use Route 2 as the most likely approach route so a small patrol was positioned to watch the road along Route 2 and report any large scale troop movements along that road.

The patrol confirmed large scale movement along the road which were 2 battalions of the 274 Regiment. They were immediately engaged by our artillery and mortars. The enemy reached the battalion perimeter but were defeated and withdrew without any casualties to the battalion. the 5th Battalion had inflicted considerable casualties on the enemy.

Because the villagers leave first thing in the morning and don't return until last light, it became apparent that to search the village by day would be futile, so it was decided to set up the cordon at night so at first light the next day, to systematically search the village and interrogate the people with the help of the police and local government officials to identify the VC cadres. In July 1966 the battalion cordoned the village of Duc My seven kilometres north west of 1ATF. Air reconnaissance had indicated a number of bunkers in the village It was known that over 25 VC visited Duc My regularly. The cordon and search was highly successful with a number of VC killed and wounded.

During the next 12 months, cordon and search operations in villages throughout Phuoc Tuy Province accounted for 240 VC killed, wounded or captured. for the loss of 4 members killed and 5 wounded all by booby traps.

In October 1966 the Battalion was required to clear the Nui Thi Vai mountains in the south west of the province. This strongly held VC position controlled Route 15, which was the main route from the port of Vung Tau to Saigon. It was essential that the road was kept open to allow the newly arrived Americans troops to be moved to the west.

The approaches to and in the Nui Thi Vi's were riddled with mines and booby traps. As a result of the successful operation, the VC were removed from an area he had been using and developing for some years.

In October it was decided to cordon and search the village of Phuoc Hoa and then a heliborne assault onto Long Son Island. The island was held by the VC as a rest and training area and a natural staging post. No main force VC units used the island since our arrival in Nui Dat, but the VC Chau Duc District Company were in residence. The operation was successful with the clearing of most of the VC from the island.

Slowly but surely the VC were finding it increasingly difficult to operate in populated areas of the province. They were also losing their control and influence over the population.

February 1967 the Battalion mounted an operation in the Long Hai Hills where the Viet Cong had established bases so they could raid the local villages. The area was heavily mined and booby trapped and the clearance was difficult and expensive in terms of casualties sustained. Almost constant fire fights at platoon and section level resulted in large numbers of the enemy killed or wounded and a significant number of weapons captured.

The remaining two months of the battalion's tour was taken up with patrolling and ambushing operations east and south of 1ATF with considerable success.

In summing up the battalion's achievements at the completion of its first tour, the Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel John Warr said.

"Like all battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment, the 5th developed its own reputation and characterises particularly its first tour of South Vietnam. It soon became recognised as being fiercely independent, professionally efficient and possessing considerable initiative and fighting tenacity. During its 12 months tour of South Vietnam, the 5th Battalion had encountered and defeated forces from the main force regiments, the provincial battalion and the guerrilla units of the province. Over 90% of the people of Phuoc Tuy had been brought under government control and the influence and effectiveness of the VC had been considerably reduced. The stage was now set for the Task Force to develop operations of a different nature beyond the borders of the province. The men of the 5th Battalion have maintained the standards and the fighting traditions of their forefathers, from the shores of Gallipoli, the fields of France, in the deserts of North Africa and in the jungles of New Guinea."

During its tour of South Vietnam the Battalion had suffered the loss of 25 killed in action or died of wounds and 79 wounded in action. The Battalion were accorded 32 awards and returned to Australia in April,1967.

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