THE IMPORTANCE OF THE BATTLE OF LONG TAN
by Graham Parks
For over a century, Australian soldiers have earned their place in history by making a name for themselves during conflict - the Boer War, Gallipoli, Papua New Guinea along the Kokoda Track, Borneo and Malaya. As a matter of course, Australian troops have always excelled in jungle warfare. On each occasion, the battles that lifted Australia into the annuals of history became important to Australia, most remembered by a day of significance set aside for commemoration.
The Vietnam War was similar to Malaya and Borneo, only much more complex and with a much broader involvement. Australian troops fought many battles against a determined foe and a significant number of men died upholding the traditions of Australians at War.
5 RAR has its battle of Binh Ba, The words of a presentation at the Royal Australian Infantry Corps Conference in 1981 aptly summarise this operation.
The contact at Binh Ba was characterised by vicious hand to hand fighting of an intensity rarely equaled during our period in Vietnam. The close support of the tanks was vital in allowing infantry to enter and clear houses. Engagements were at close quarters requiring high volume, short-range fire. Binh Ba was a magnificent example of close cooperation between infantry and tanks against a determined, dug-in enemy.
In this vicious battle, a large enemy force was defeated by rapid reaction, skill, courage and firepower. The Battle of Binh Ba is well credited in the 5 RAR book, The Year of the Tigers as Ďone of the major military victories of the Australian Force in Vietnamí. However, whether it was triggered as an ambush or by accident remains a mystery.
This battle lasted 48 hours and the Australians were supported by Regional Force Soldiers from the local area and tanks.
The Battle of Binh Ba left one Australian dead and 10 wounded, but at least 107 enemy killed, six wounded and 29 detained for further investigation. This battle on 6 June 1969 was an undeniable success for the Australians and ranks as one of the major military victories of that force during the Vietnam War.
7 RAR had Operation Ballarat. 3 RAR, the Battle of Long Khanh. 1 RAR and 3 RAR have Coral and Balmoral where 26 Australian died over a period of weeks. But really, all the units have their battles that tested their mettle and none were found wanting. The Australian tradition of training and discipline, underpinned by the resoluteness of the Australian soldier in battle was always a telling difference. But it is the Battle of Long Tan that stands out as the single most important engagement of the war.
The battle of Long Tan was like no other in that it occurred amid the trees and bushes of a rubber plantation where men on both sides squared off and shot at each other in the time honoured tradition. If you need a comparison, think the US Civil War and the men lining up and just shooting across the intervening distance. It is generally accepted that some 2,500 North Vietnamese troops were in the area facing just 108 members of D Coy. Under normal circumstance, it could be expected that such an unequal battle might have gone against the Australians, yet research by many seems to indicate that the training of the Australians kept their spirits high and fed their battle discipline which may have been the key to inaccurate strength reports to the North Vietnamese Commanders
Granted that the artillery controlled by Morrie Stanley was effective beyond expectation but it is worth remembering that it was his training and his coolness under fire that allowed Morrie Stanley to carry out his role to the high degree of mastery he displayed. And Harry Smith too must be included for his faultless leadership, along with that of his various platoon staff. And there can be no doubt that the APCís late in the day saved D Coy from many more casualties, however, those are the command decisions that take place in any battle and belong in the province of coordination.
But it is the aftermath of the battle that is important. The Viet Cong no longer held sway in the province. The people of Ba Ria erected a banner honouring the Australians. No serious threat ever re-emerged to the Task Force. The local Viet Cong Force, D445, became a spent force and was never again a greater threat than about platoon size. The North Vietnamese found a new and healthy respect for the Australians. The very act of survival by D Coy confirmed the validity of the training Australians received. It was a concrete validation that the Australian tactics were effective, life-saving and not as familiar to the North Vietnamese as some had thought.
As a young nation at war once more, those who head off to the great sandpit in the Middle East, do so with the full knowledge that they have received the same degree of attention to detail in their training that D Coy received in 1966. That their tactics are appropriate to the threat involved and they are just as capable of defending themselves in less than ideal circumstances as were D Coy.
Long Tan is the enduring battle of Vietnam and the one that captures the imagination of both civilians and soldiers alike. The loss of 18 young men in three hours is an indication of the strength of purpose of the North Vietnamese and the grim determination of the Australians. But more telling is the perceived need of the North Vietnamese to propaganderise the battle as having killed 1,000 Australian troops and destroyed 21 tanks. This alone indicates that this was a battle that severely hurt the North Vietnamese and one which would take a significant and considerable time to regroup.
That in itself marks Long Tan as a significant event in the life of the North Vietnamese, despite their propaganda and despite their exaggerated figures. And that makes Long Tan important to Australia.
For the Navy to have a similar action to recall would mean that two ships of the line, of vastly unequal size and ability, stood to, side by side less than 100 metres apart and blazed away at each other with every weapon in their arsenal. And the RAAF would need to demonstrate a much similar action to warrant comparison with Long Tan. But that of course canít be done, because the nature of their warfare is different, the circumstances are different and the world is different. But the RAAF and the Navy have their stand out battles and any attempt to compare them all and produce a top ten list does all concerned a disservice. What makes Long Tan a stand out is that it showed the world that the character of the Australian soldier, sailor or airman was still a potent force, that the myth of the ANZAC Legend was in fact true and that the Australian commitment to mateship was alive and well, unto death.
The question has never been definitively answered as to the intentions of the Communist force at the time of the attack. Some say they were preparing to attack the Task Force, others that it was an Ambush and still others that they were merely moving through the area and got bumped. As much as we research this, there is always another opinion, hence my reluctance to state why they were there.
In 1966 the local V.C., commanders could not allow the Task Force to set up and operate without taking them on or they would 'loose face' with the local population. To deal a major blow to the "Uc Dai Loi" and perhaps change the Australian commitment in Vietnam, the V.C., commanders planned an attack against the new Task Force base, if it came off, it would be devastating. Also it was important that the local V.C., units to play a large part in the attack against the Australians, so D445 was to be used for the initial and main assault.
For years there have been various numbers offered as the actual strength of D445 which was colloquially referred to as a Battalion. Over the course of the Australian involvement, the number of Viet Cong killed and later identified as belonging to D445 would have amounted to several battalions equal to our own strength.
But prior to Long Tan, the Viet Cong (D445 in our area) were aggressive and a force to be reckoned with. During the Battle, they were used in several roles and lost casualties. The indiscriminate nature of artillery also killed many and despite claims to the contrary, the North Vietnamese would always use the local forces first to husband their own resources. So a great number of D445, the local force Viet Cong, died as a result of the battle. When you lose perhaps 200-300 such soldiers, it is extremely difficult to recruit them again from the local population, especially one that live sunder the shadow of the Australian Task Force.
The entire aim of the Australian involvement leading up to Long Tan was searching for a mortar base plate that had been used to drop rounds into the Task Force area. At the time it was considered just harassing fire and only B Coy 6 RAR and later D Coy, were sent out to have a look see. No one expected that 2,500 enemy were so close. But again, other stories indicate that radio interception by the US discovered the movement of 274 and 275 Battalions to the area and that the intelligence was disregarded.
There was no strategic value in the initial phases, just hurrying up to get back to the Col Joy, Little Pattie concert. It became a strategic value when it was realised that the battle had destroyed the mechanism and administrative capability of D445 and its ability to carry the fight to Australia for the next six years.