On Active Service

Close Quarter Ambush

Throughout our tours of duty in Vietnam, Australian fighting battalions were required at times to assist in the protection of American engineer land clearing teams building fire trails. The fire trail was a cleared area in the jungle, generally about 500 metres wide but could be up to 5 kilometres long to be used as a free fire zone. Meaning any movement in that area drew deadly fire that could be brought to bear from either helicopter gunships, artillery ground attack, aircraft or troops, no questions asked. Sadly local village woodcutters often wandered into the free fire zone and never returned to their village.

Bulldozers were used to build the fire zones, up to thirty at a time were used with Rome ploughs. All were heavily protected with thick steel around the cabin to protect the operator from small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades (RPG's) plus they had additional American troops and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC's) in support close by for added protection.

Our Task was to give added protection day and night to the land clearing team the 501 Engineer Company (US). 5RAR was to be in direct support. The need to patrol at a distance, and ambush at night; and to clear areas that are to be land cleared of any enemy, their camps and bunker systems.
For protection the engineers pushed up earth 2-3 metres high and formed a defensive circle at night around them with everything inside protected with APCs forming strong points here and there, making it reasonably easy to defend. But you had to be constantly alert and not allow the enemy to move unseen to the outer perimeter, as they would be difficult to dislodge.

These fire trails made it easier for spotter aircraft to locate enemy signs or movement as they would fly around all day every day and at night dropping flares. Free fire zones were tactically situated in areas where there had been known movement of enemy units and major base areas. To create open areas close to cities, towns, villages and airbases to obstruct his movement, and to make it difficult to get close.
Normally a rifle company would be required for this task of protection with all the three platoons patrolling in different areas. Searching creeks looking for signs and to deny the enemy the ground close to the engineers but all the time not getting us to far away, but far enough away not to hear the noise of the bulldozers.
After a quiet day of patrolling the platoon was given the task on the first night to stay with the Americans. We looked forward to that as we were rationed in for the evening meal with them. Fresh food would be flown in everyday and only for the evening meal. "You beauty!" as the meals were excellent giving us a break from the 24 hour combat rations we normally carried. With the meal you had a choice of a can of soft drink or the famous one litre carton of chocolate milk.

The night was uneventful other than the Americans were very noisy, some were smoking dope and talked aloud amongst themselves but were very friendly to us and we got on very well. We teased them all the time that we were going to win the America's cup, which we did a couple of years later with 'Bondy'.

Next morning we moved out after our normal morning routine i.e. cleaning weapons shaving and a cuppa with bickies maybe with a tin of egg and bacon. It was not usual to heat your food. Final orders normally followed which consisted of a 'SitRep' (Situation Report). Likely location of friendly forces, a mission statement and execution of tasks, the enemy locations, what he is doing and his movements, administrative and logistic tasks, i.e. water rations ammo and other stores required. Finally communications, radio sets, issuing of codes, frequencies, unit call signs and passwords.

Our main task was to protect the Americans at a distance with slow patrolling, stop sit down rest listen, and then the sequence would start all over again. At times the platoon headquarters would prop, stay where they were, then send one or two sections out in different directions for five hundred metres or so to search, then return rest and listen for awhile, then the whole platoon would move on again.

It was now getting late in the day and it started to rain, it was very heavy and the noise was so loud you could not hear yourself think as the rain crashed down on your pack and the surrounding jungle. We knew the platoon commander was looking for a night harbour (all round defence guns at 12 o'clock 4 and 8) with the field signal given (upward pointing circling finger).

The platoon commander signalled halt, then moved forward to the lead section to 'recce' (reconnaissance) for a platoon defensive harbour, met up with the section commander and forward scout, and moved forward to have a look. He then noticed a well worn recently used foot track, and that meant one option only ... Ambush.

No time to do a serious recce of the ambush location so the platoon commander decided we would have an area type ambush by splitting the platoon into two killing groups approximately one hundred metres apart. It was thick jungle and it would require us to be very close to the Killing Ground no more than 10 metres away. This type of ambush was used as we were not sure what direction enemy movement would come from. One section would act as the Killing Group and the other section the Cut-Off group or in reverse. This depended on the direction of the enemy.

On placement of the sections we all carried out our normal ambush tasks of placing out to our flanks claymore mines in the most effective positions to act in themselves as cut offs. The best position was on our right flank where the claymores were spaced apart, so that their seven hundred ball bearings would cross arcs. The claymore mine had a small sight on top to aim but you had to lay down to do this and then judge and aim waist height for it to be effective. We needed to catch those outside the killing ground.

It was scary out there, setting up the three claymore mines as anybody could come along and surprise us. Moving around placing the claymores, you took great care in not leaving any signs you had been there, never walking on the killing ground or overly trampling the surrounding shrub.

The rain was still falling heavily as we positioned ourselves on the ground in three groups of four one-hour pickets with three hours sleep time throughout the night. This started as soon as it got dark around 5pm and made the nights very long and tiring. We had no meal or a brew as we had no time because the track was discovered late in the day.

Clearing the position behind the Killing Ground for the groups was a skill in itself. The communications cord was laid out to each group and to the platoon commander at the rear. The communication cord was a thin piece of green nylon cord, and very strong. Also used to put up our hootchies (tents), and used as our perimeter cord at night in our harbour positions to keep us from mistakenly wandering off the track on a picket change. Within the ambush, the communications cord had to be free to move so the shrub had to be cleared along its length. Tugging on the communications cord was done very carefully so as not to give you away and was done by tugging slowly, not to be jerked. Any obstructions in the way could give your position away (noise). The communications cord was never to be slack.

'Lofty', a rather tall man, well over six foot, was out on sentry while all the section tasks were being carried out in setting up our ambush position. Lofty was placed down the track just out of range of our noise. Lofty feared doing any form of sentry duties and would creep back in and hide behind a bush close to us (another story). This would make him feel safe and more secure. Whenever he was placed on sentry duties you always had to check again. Anyway we were ready to settle down; it was getting darker and I signalled Lofty to come in and join his group and be quickly briefed.

Lofty was shown his position on the left flank of the killing group he seemed rather agitated, as he hated being a sentry. Lofty was shown his position on the ground and also pointed out the killing ground in front of him. He was not happy with his spot it was too rough and uneven "bullshit, thanks you blokes". Lofty mumbled a few more words and moved to a spot he thought would be a better position not realising that he was now getting closer to the Killing Ground. He failed to realise this and settled down and not realising it he pulled away from his group. He did not realise where he was in relation to the track, actually it came a little closer. That group had a long night, as soon as lofty got himself comfortable he fell asleep and failed to do his picket with the other two. He placed himself just out of reach of the others and this was not known until the next day.

The platoon headquarters was to the rear of us with some of the soldiers from the remaining section, as the rest were split between the two killing groups. The platoon headquarters had to be far enough away so you could not hear the radio set, as an hourly radio check was required to company headquarters. We then settled down for the long night. We were ready now to pounce!

Resting your chin on the butt of your weapon was the way to go, as most had a field dressing taped to the butt on one side and it was used as a rest spot and a pillow. But you never got comfortable in ambush when lying on your stomach with your webbing on. Wanting to move was to be done very slowly and to never make a noise was paramount. You had to lie perfectly still with your hand on the communication cord, and the other hand around the pistol grip of your weapon. If and when movement was heard, a long slow tug was all that was needed to alert all groups.

We were ready; grenades un-taped, two per man. (grenades were taped as a safety precaution after an accident when the pull ring was pulled from a M26 Fragmentation Grenade on a jagged rear corner edge when troops were jumping off a truck. Seven were killed and many wounded (1RAR). The rain was still falling heavily and the waiting game began.

Hours had passed when someone started snoring but was quickly stirred by the others. If you were a snorer, you were not aloud to sleep and were kept to the rear with platoon headquarters. Within one group the snoring kept on and on so I decided to crawl over "who the hell is on picket!" No one was awake at all. Once that was sorted out wriggled back and soon fell to sleep myself.

An hour later my turn for picket and awoke with a cramp in my lower right leg. What can you do with a cramp with the need to be quiet moving slowly made it worse, I tried to straighten my leg at the knee by curling up my foot. "You bastard!" I whispered, it stayed with me for a long while before it settled down.
Well into my second time on picket you could hear in the distance Armoured Personnel Carriers  (APCs). They're getting closer, "what are they out for?" I said to myself. "If they come this way the buggers will run over us!" But later we learned that the Americans generally drove around at night stirring things up and hoping to run into the enemy. They were heavily armed with three machine guns on top and looking for trouble. There was never any less than three APC's working together. What good tactics at the time. Those American's were such a worry.
The APC sound drifted off into the distance and we felt safe at last, and things became quiet around us. The rain had stopped, and listening was made easier. All the sounds you heard you exaggerated. "Christ sake what was that!" Something moving to our front! Yes they're here. Very slowly I cautiously tugged the communication cord to bring to alert the others. The time was 0545 hrs on the morning on August 6th.


The black shapes could just be seen moving in the direction of the other killing group at seventy metres away. The enemy was moving cautiously stopping at times looking around and making very little noise. They could be seen, as it was clear to our front with no trees and with the scrub thinned out and pressed down in parts. We now knew the other section would initiate the ambush.

Counting as they went by 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 seventy metres they had to travel before the other group opened up so we had to hold our fire until that time. It seemed to drag on for ages. With fingers on the trigger our safety catches were on safe shifting to fire would of made a noise, the trick was to shift-fire all in one movement and was practiced constantly in training on the range, as was instinctive aiming of your weapon for day and night.

We all realised we had become the cut off group. Then all of a sudden torch lights appeared a soft light; everybody had a torch it seemed. Where the torch is placed and pushed up under the chin, to reflect a small light towards your feet and ground followed by twenty others. They were stumbling and tripping over themselves and whispering. Lofty was awoken by the noise just in front of him. "These pricks appeared to be coming straight at me" he said later, all he could do he said was to lie there and dig his nose in and not move one bloody inch.

Lofty stated later, "my heart was beating that loudly surely they could hear me. My whole body was trembling and was unable to control it. All I was worried about was you bastards shooting me up the arse." He realised where he was in relation to the others. He was a lucky man as his position was on the flank of the group and that saved his life. Lofty never fired a shot in the ambush. They were that close he said one kicked his muzzle of his rifle in their eagerness to get away.

Bang! The claymores first, followed instantly by machine gun and rifle fire and so we in turn opened up instantly cutting them off as they ran back. Our claymores hopefully were causing damage, cutting those off who were not quite in the Killing Ground. Their first reaction was to go to ground and scamper away. They were very quiet, and never returned fire. A typical reaction as we had come across this on many occasions before in previous ambushes. This was a common drill when caught at night in ambush and was very successful.

"Cease Fire!" was shouted. The section stopped immediately and we all listened. You could still hear the movement of those crawling away to your front. They seemed to be hanging around maybe dragging their wounded and dead away. Bushes appeared to be moving here and there "Grenade!" I shouted, so everybody knew to keep low, I lobbed it forward then another. We were in the killing zone of the grenades but if you kept low you were okay. Then another grenade from the right hand flanking group was thrown. 'Blue' failed to get down quick enough and received a shrapnel splinter to the forehead, a minor wound requiring a Band-Aid later.

It was now quiet in ambush but in the distance you could still hear them crashing through the jungle. We estimated about eighty were on the move. Not long after we could here this funny noise coming from the killing ground, a gurgling sucking noise. Followed by a howling sound, like two cats facing up to each other for a fight and this continued on for a couple of hours until just before first light then it stopped.

At first light sentries were pushed out so we could search the ground and all we found was one body of a woman with a big gaping hole in the abdomen from a grenade blast. That's what was making the sound; she was breathing through that massive hole and her innards were spread over the ground and down her legs. Numerous blood trails and drag marks were seen. After all that, we swore we had killed a lot more. Numerous blood trails could be seen on the ground and at the base of trees heading away from the killing ground.

I gave up counting after forty. It will be any moment when the other group opens up.
Before we searched the body three toggle ropes were tied together then tied around her ankle and we pulled the body to one side, ensuring their was no booby trap planted underneath, not that the enemy would have time to do such a thing but was a normal practice we carried out often. The section checked the body for information, found nothing other than a basket of utensils for eating and a cooking pot. The section then proceeded to bury the body in a shallow grave.

While the section buried the body I decided to wander down the track to the bend that the claymores mines covered. Passing the sentry I told him what I was going to do. As I turned the bend my heart came to my mouth and stopped me dead in my tracks. Packs all laid out in a straight line and roughly counted about twenty-five from a distance. What a silly thing I thought, but realised later they were moving in three large groups. It must have been the claymores that made them drop their packs in fright. What an eerie sight. Gradually I shuffled backwards to the bend keeping my eye on the packs. I rushed back to where the sentry was and told him the situation, then reported to the platoon commander.

By this time the other section had returned and they had killed six. The enemy group they killed were the main fighting group who travelled forward of the main body. The rest travelled a distance behind. This unit was getting out of the way of the APC's no doubt, they left their camp late in the night, maybe to escape them.

The whole platoon then moved to where the packs were, and carried out the same booby trap procedures with the toggle ropes, searching each one for information then we burnt the whole lot. We then moved from the area to another location so we could clean our weapons redistribute ammunition and brew up. Have something to eat clean our weapons and rest and half sleep. Feel good now, we were successful.

29 July, - 30 August, 1969.

12 platoon D company 5RAR

Captured documents later revealed that the enemy force encountered in this action was the complete 3rd Battalion, 274 Regiment. This enemy report of the action stated that they suffered 13 K.I.A. and 25 W.I.A.

The Australians lost 3 K.I.A., 61 W.I.A., some of who remained on duty. This was one of only forty separate actions fought by 5RAR on this operation.
Enemy units identified in contact were the 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion, 274 Regiment, and numerous sub-units. Overall enemy casualties were 54 K.I.A., 39 W.I.A.. and 1 PW.

Operation Camden was characterised by enemy aggression. Rather than immediately breaking contact and withdrawing, the enemy stayed and fought in his prepared positions and defied the immense support of air and artillery to dislodge him. He then withdrew under cover of the Vietnamese night. Not only did he employ snipers in trees, but he also tenaciously clung to the 'Diggers' as they pulled back to evacuate casualties and to take re-supplies of ammunition. This tactic was well executed and consequently the enemy hugging our perimeter avoided most of the artillery and air ordnance being hurled at him.


© Trevor Cheeseman

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