Half a century has now passed since Australia’s best known battle of its decade long involvement in South Vietnam. 18 diggers were killed and another 24 were wounded in the dramatic fighting that took place in the rubber plantation near the village of Xa Long Tan on the 18th August 1966.
What is it about this battle that holds such interest to this day? It certainly had all the elements of an epic battle, with Harry Smith’s D Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6 RAR) being surrounded and assaulted by numerically superior Viet Cong (VC) Main Force units during a tropical downpour that prevented allied airstrikes from being called in.
The Australians were responding to a mortar attack made on the night of 16/17th August on the main Australian base at Nui Dat. B Company were sent to investigate and indeed were able to locate the site from where the mortars had been fired. As the Australians continued to search for the elusive Viet Cong (VC), D Company took over the search.
It was Second Lieutenant (2lt) Gordon Sharpe’s 11th Platoon that first contacted the VC at about 3.15 pm on 18th August 1966 when, whilst pursuing a small group of VC, they found themselves confronted by a vastly superior force from the 275 VC Main Force Regiment. The Battle of Long Tan was underway.
A hotly contested firefight quickly developed and 2lt Sharpe was killed, which left Sergeant (Sgt) Bob Buick to lead the survivors of 11 Platoon back to the rest of D Company which quickly found itself enduring a major assault from 275 VC Regiment (largely comprised of North Vietnamese Army regular soldiers) and the D445 VC Provincial Mobile Battalion, as a monsoonal storm reduced visibility and prevented air support.
Cut off from their base and low on ammunition, D Company called for a resupply and 2 helicopters from 9 Squadron RAAF flew in low through the appalling weather conditions to deliver boxes of ammunition that were wrapped in blankets to lessen the impact upon hitting the ground as they were hastily thrown from the hovering choppers.
Captain (later Major) Morrie Stanley from the RNZA (Royal New Zealand Artillery) was D Company’s FO (Forward Observer) and it was he who called in and directed heavy artillery fire from Australian, New Zealand and U.S. artillery batteries that held the Communist forces at bay and ultimately decided the outcome of the battle, causing the bulk of the casualties inflicted in the process.
Australian and New Zealand artillery batteries firing from the 1 ATF (First Australian Task Force) Base at Nui Dat used 18 105mm M2A2 howitzers, whilst U.S batteries provided further fire support from 6 155mm howitzers. Around 3,500 shells were fired into the battle area which has been described as no larger than 2 football fields, at a rate of between 5 and 10 rounds a minute from each gun.
Eventually, just before 7.00 pm, a relief column from A Company was carried into the battle area by 1st APC Squadron and with the arrival of Australian reinforcements including the additional firepower provided by the heavy .50 calibre machineguns carried on the M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers, the VC chose to withdraw. The Battle of Long Tan was over.
The consequences of the battle were significant as the communists left at least 250 dead on the battlefield according to the official Australian count but later intelligence captured from the VC during Operation Marsden in 1969 indicated losses of 878 killed and 1,500 wounded for the VC. The Australians lost 18 dead and 24 wounded.
The impact and intensity of the fighting gained attention well beyond that of the battlefield itself. The newspapers in Australia wrote extensively about the battle and the Americans were sufficiently impressed to award a Presidential Unit Citation to 6 RAR for their performance during the battle. This was considered a major honour as only one other such award has ever been made to an Australian unit (3 RAR during the Battle of Kapyong during the Korean War).
In an unusual footnote to the battle, a rock concert to entertain the troops by ‘Cole Joy and the Joyboys’ and ‘Little Patty’ was underway at Nui Dat at the start of the battle and eventually the decision was made to end the concert and chopper the performers away from the base to a safer area.
Much has been written about the battle in the fifty years since it was fought and the State Library of Victoria has a number of items in its collection relating to the battle that may be of interest to those wishing to know more.
A number of historians have written extensively on the battle. The Battle of Long Tan by Lex McAulay is probably the best known of these while the newest one would be The battle of Long Tan: Australia’s four hours of hell by David W Cameron.
Several of the participants wrote their memoirs of the battle including: Harry Smith (Commander of D Company), Bob Buick (the Sergeant who took command of 11 Platoon after 2Lt Sharpe was killed) and Terry Burstall who served as a private during the battle.
One interesting take on the battle is Through enemy eyes by David Sabben. David Sabben was the 2nd lieutenant who commanded 12 Platoon during the battle and this book represents his reimagining of the battle from the perspective of the VC.
The RAAF at Long Tan by Chris Clark is available via the Library’s website as a downloadable PDF and is a useful view of the air forces view of the battle.
The Viet Cong D445 Battalion: their story by Ernest Chamberlain includes a look at the battle from the view of the VC local force soldiers.
Visitors to Phillip Island may wish to check out the Australian Vietnam Veterans museum there. An impressive sound-and-light show about the Battle of Long Tan is a major highlight amongst the displays there. A number of displays and equipment showing the history of the battle and of the wider Vietnam War are also present as is a well stocked library of materials pertaining to the war.