On Active Service

Three-Way Ambush

Normal activities throughout a 24-hour period on 12months operational service was patrolling and ambushing by day and at night. If signs of enemy movement were strong on tracks i.e., footprints, scuff marks, the smell of body odour, where sweat has been rubbed off their bodies on passing branches and leaves that overhang the foot track, the smell at times could sit under the thick undergrowth if recent, and you knew that more than a few walked through this spot. These were strong signs that the track was used often. Ambushing was used without hesitation. This could happen at anytime of the day and when in place we could stay there for up to three days, maybe longer, depending on enemy activity.

With the longer stays in ambushes a roster system would come into effect; ensuring only a section size group would occupy and act as the Killing Group. The remaining two sections would be to the rear resting, and a staggered roster would be implemented to change those in position every few hours one at a time until all were changed, but this only happened during the day. At night you stayed and there was no movement. The track plan to the ambush location would be thoroughly cleared from the rear so those moving forward on a day change would not be heard moving forward to relieve those that have been in position for a few hours. Look at the letter 'T' the crossbar the killing group, the lower portion is the track plan in.

Some ambushes were of a linear type, which means you are spread out on one side of the killing ground. Everybody was always very tense, and it drained all the energy out of you. Being within ten to fifteen metres of the killing ground it was very important to be exceptionally quiet. That type of linear ambush was very dangerous as the enemy could catch you out as they moved quite silently along tracks, sending forward small fighting groups ahead of other groups following, and you could be heard if not especially quiet, and the ambush might even be reversed and they could sweep in on your flanks and surprise you, or he would wait for you to move out next morning. He could also probe the position with fire to force you to move out of your position and ambush you in the rear or direct you to other ground of his choosing.

Once you know the enemies tactical habits it is very easy to get on top. Just to name a simple one, when the platoon commander goes forward to do a reconnaissance before a platoon attack he would never return the same way when up against a smart enemy who knows your tactical thinking, habits, and drills.

The most favourable type of ambush day and night in close country was the normal harbour position of all round defence (circle) with two points, say crossing over a track, it was easier to maintain, plus the platoon could be rested, as the three sections could be shared over two guns rather than the three and you had two killing grounds at each end, manned by two at night, and three by day. The reason was the day ambush position was pushed out from thirty to fifty metres so that any noise and movement coming from the rear was not heard or seen. In this situation you were never sure which direction the enemy would come from, but you had it covered by fire and claymore mines (700 ball bearings packed with explosives).

The extra machinegun ... we had three in a platoon, then can be moved to any position to stop an assaulting enemy if need be or a machinegun can be rested; or to assist any group that sprung the ambush. It was good to know that the extra M60 machinegun could be rushed forward to assist if things got too hot on contact.

One hour before last light all are withdrawn back to the perimeter and a night routine takes over with the same task ambush/sentry but less a man. You were always conscious of resting individuals as continuous ambushing wore you down physically and mentally. The claymore mines were repositioned and maybe trip flares used. We never set the flares to be tripped but rather pulled them manually with a cord tied to the pull ring as animals could trip them and a branch falling on the wire could set it off. There was a need to loosen the safety pin so it would come out with ease when pulled.

On this particular morning our task for the day was to patrol at platoon strength an area to the south of our present position, and to recce an area suitable for a night section ambush. The area that needed to be searched did not take us long to patrol, and the platoon commander decided to rest up the three sections for the afternoon in preparation for the night ambush, and moved us all into a thicket for maximum security but still requiring us to be at fifty percent Stand To, meaning half the platoon were watching and listening out, whilst the other half are resting. The platoon commander then went forward with a small group to recce the location for the night ambush taking me with him, as my section was to do the ambush. It was not long before we returned and the platoon commander prepared his orders and informed the platoon of his plans and the method of execution for the ambush group.

After my brief orders from the platoon commander I went back to my section and prepared orders to be given to the section and at the same time another section took over our area to rest us. We then prepared ourselves. We took only things that were needed mainly our basic webbing and extra claymores. We all had a meal and a good brew. Weapons were oiled and cleaned then just before we pulled out later in the day, we placed our packs in a central location, and camouflaged them over with dead leaves.

The ambush site was only 300 metres away and we had time to do another quick recce of the ambush position. With an hour of light left and final orders given on how we were to occupy the position and to be able to cover three tracks with one main killing ground in the middle of the junction where all the tracks converged. We then moved in cautiously just on last light.

The sentries were posted first to protect us as we moved in. The gun was placed in the best position to be able to cover the three tracks. The tracks were formed like a T and we were at the top which was the best position to cover all the tracks. We knew from intelligence reports that enemy movement would come from the mountains but could only select the most likely direction the enemy would come. The claymore wires had to cross the track away from the killing ground and were buried in the dust, they were placed in position by lying on your stomach, using the claymore sights; a square aperture on top. The trick was to aim the claymore waist high to cause maximum kills. We had five, and placed them approx five metres apart.

The rest of the ambush group were placed in positions covering the killing ground, flanks and rear. Our position on the ground was tight, and afforded the section minimum cover all round. The ground was slightly higher, which enabled us to look down onto the killing ground. The main killing group was only the gun group, plus myself, the rest covered the flanks and rear. The section consisted of seven men. That was the average number of soldiers per section during that time throughout the Battalion's tour.

That night, it was a full moon, and the whole area was lit up across the track junction and through our position too. It was very quiet and it would be very difficult to hear anyone moving through, as the track was clear of any undergrowth, you had to physically sight them, so we had to be super alert.

Being the dry season we had the support of the Centurion Tanks during this operation and they had been moving around all day churning up and widening the tracks when sliding around corners. In the moonlight the track gave off an appearance like white powder, which to our advantage, would make any dark figures stand out in the killing ground.

The hours passed until about 2am in the morning, along they came, the gunner spotted them first, a small group moving cautiously and very slowly. As they neared closer to the centre of the killing ground, forty metres from us, they stopped to talk and appeared to be pointing at us. It made you feel uncomfortable lying there under the full moon, "shall we open up," I thought, could they have spotted us? They were not quite in our killing ground, but they did not sprint away either. All this running through your mind, "shit, what shall I do!" Then one crouched down and appeared to be saying something to the other two, who also crouched, and pressed closer to hear what he had to say. It seemed like eternity watching; if they turned there backs and moved away from us, we would have to open up. I heard the gunner whispering, "move you bastards!" As if they heard the gunner, they stood up, and moved in our direction all moving as one. They were very close as they moved, and seemed unsure which track to take as the leading man turned to the others and pointed down a track going away from us.

My hand was in the middle of the gunner's back he was waiting for the tap to open fire. He was tense and shaking, anxious to let go. The number two on the gun was ready with the 'Clackers' (claymore detonators), safety bails off ready to be pressed to send that electrical current down the wires to the claymores positioned off to the side of the track. "Come on you bastards keep moving!" I thought. They were very cautious. Finally they were where we wanted them. THIS IS IT- TAP! All hell broke loose and all our tensions dissipated out the end of our barrels. All at once in unison we let go, a tremendous noise in the quiet of the night. Then it was over.....it lasted only 20 seconds.

We waited for 10 minutes listening, nothing moved but you could see the dark shapes across the track in the full moonlight, it was like day, one figure was blown towards us and off to the side of the track it seemed.

First light was a few hours off, but being as bright as day I decided to go and have a look so pushed forward a sentry to cover me and had a quick look around, needing only to count the bodies. We will do a thorough search at first light. Passing the sentry, whom was now in position on the ground, I started to count one, two....? I looked back to the sentry and noticed another body and said to him, "we got three, where is the third one?" the sentry whispered, "your over it." "Shit I thought it was a F------ log!" His rifle barrel was over the dark figure on the ground. He stood up rather quickly, "I'm not going to do this again!" And hurriedly moved back to his position, with me following.

It seemed to get darker as the moon dropped away, and all was quiet again other than the odd scratching and shuffling of legs. No one slept, and we kept our eye on the killing ground.

The platoon commander was brought up to date on the situation on the radio. Our next task was to gather all info and bury the bodies at first light. The rest of the platoon will move to our location for support and protection while we do a thorough search of their equipment and bury the bodies. The platoon would also bring our packs forward.


Moving out of our position on first light was a relief; we could finally move around, get the blood circulating and move the shoulders. As we moved towards the killing ground, an enemy dressed in civilian clothes walking casually, with a weapon over his shoulder came up the track heading towards the mountains, going, no doubt, to a place where these three came from. This operation was about clearing around the base of these hills and we knew from intelligence that enemy units were up there. He must have been travelling back to his unit. We saw each other at the same time; he bolted into the scrub quickly and disappeared. We had no time to do anything other than get the M79 Grenade Launcher going, and fired about 5 x 40mm rounds in his direction. We had other tasks to do so we did not bother in following up. The rest of platoon will sweep through that area when they get here.

Keeping alert, we searched the bodies; one of the enemy appeared to be a North Vietnamese officer as he carried a pistol and dressed in a dark blue uniform, his whole face had lifted off the bone and was hollow inside. The other two took the ball bearings from the Claymore Mines and small arms fire in the upper body. Their body smell was still sweet from blood; and their body odour stood out and filled the air and seeped into your nostrils. The perfume smell mingled with the other smells as the North Vietnamese used oils on their hair such as Californian Poppy.

Gear was strewn everywhere, bits and pieces of clothing and rice which they carried around there necks in long damp socks. What impressed me was the neatness inside their packs; everything was neatly folded, and letters to home, were well written with photos attached to some.

The three dead enemy were carrying a lot of local currency, possibly a paying officer, a radio, and all wore watches. They all carried hammocks and they were well prized. Most everybody had one in the platoon from kills. The hammocks were comfortable and kept us off the ground in the wet season.

After burying them, we left and moved to another place for a rest, make a brew, something to eat and clean our weapons, then out to patrol some more, but always looking for a place to do it all over again. Another day patrolling.....another night in Hell.


© Trevor Cheeseman

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