|Tour of Duty '71|
This is a brief description of what happened on June 7 of our tour when were part of a large operation along with New Zealand and US forces at the Phuoc Tuy/Long Kanh border where it was known that battle hardened NVA forces were hiding.
This is by Mike English (one of our company section commanders) who wrote a book about our 1971 tour, and also the Battle of Long Kahn which has been published by the Army Doctrine branch Sydney.
Those who were involved in operation Overlord which later became to known as the battle of Long Khanh and the events surrounding the battle have created a long lasting impression. There were acts of extreme heroism and courage from all ranks on that day (7 June 1971). The battle at the platoon level proved that well trained and disciplined troops could and did overcome huge odds.
This was the biggest operation 3RAR second tour had been involved in to date. In the battle B Company was pitched against tough and experienced North Vietnamese troops with long years of combat experience behind them. To 5 Platoon's credit it was able to hold its ground until until later supported by the other platoons of B company.
When the main body of 3RAR arrived in South Vietnam on 25 February 1971 to relieve 7RAR, the military suitation had changed in Phuoc Tuy province. 2RAR was in its last few months of active service in South Vietnam and Australian operations within the province were now entering their final phase.
The enemy, main and local force units were still prominent but had been reduced in strength and were forced to seek sanctuary outside the borders of the province, from where they would make periodic incursions into Phuoc Tuy province.
The Viet Cong village and guerilla units, whilst also reduced in strength and incapable of a major military effort, continued their poilitical propaganda and minor terrorist activities in the populated areas, but outside these areas avoided contact and concentrated on keeping alive. Captured documents told of shortages of men, key cadre, food, medical supplies, ammunition and weapons.
The roads between all the populated areas, some of which only a few years prior required a major military operation to open, were open to daily commercial traffic and unescorted free running military vehicles. The Vietnamese regional and popular forces were to gradually assume more and more responsibility for the control and military operations within the province borders.
The Pacification and Vietnamese program was to provide for the South Vietnamese the means of a capable self-defence. The reality was that not all the South Vietnamese troops were well trained and disciplined. This still meant that the Australian Task Force had to shoulder much of the operational load.
To aid this program the Australians in Phuoc Tuy province operated deeper into the jungle between the South Vietamese controlled populated areas of the province and the VC/NVA army main and local force units across the province borders and so provide a buffer between the enemy and the local South Vietnamese troops. The infantry units operating deep into the province were under no illusions that their task would be any easier with the South Vietnamese taking over more of the military effort.
To compound the Australians problems the 1ATF in 1970 was reduced from three battalions to two. This reduction was to have adverse effects on the units and in particular the individual soldier. Long periods spent on operations with reduced platoon and section strengths, high combat stress levels would slowly erode the efficiency of the fighting soldier.
This reduction meant that the individual soldier had less leave,less rest from operations and less time to withdraw from the continuing grind of operations. The infantry soldiers who served in South Vietnam in 1971 were arguably the best trained troops to leave the Australian shores.
The battalion began its first operation, a training operation entitled Phoi Hop which meant in Vietnamese (To Coordinate) on 27-28 February and the first contact with the VC was 12 Platoon D Company which resulted in one VC killed. This training area was in fact a major base area for D445 Battalion.
Several days later on 2 March, D and C Companies in a harbour position engaged suspected enemy movement to their front and as a result of the fire-fight 3RAR D Coy sustained its casualties; killed were Lt Wheeler and Pte Manning with Pte's Strickland and Hammond wounded.
This event had a profound effect on the battalion, as they now adopted a more real war/combat mind set.
The transition from peace time soldiering to war time is difficult at the best of times - not all soldiers are able to cope with the harsh realities of war. In later operations and leading up to Overlord the battalion assumed a more professional approach to life in the bush when searching and patrolling for long periods for the local VC, who usually on the first shots being fired would disappear into well rehearsed escape routes. Operation Overlord was to change that.
Special permission was obtained from the then Prime Minister Mr John Gordon to allow Australian troops to operate outside the province.
Operation Overlord was conducted on the Long Khanh and Phuoc Tuy province border. It was initiated as a result of the buffer zone between the two provinces being relative free from 1ATF or American interference. The VC/NVA troops used this opportunity to train, equip and move into Phuoc Tuy province to attack and harass the local villages almost at will.
1ATF and the Americans decided to conduct an operation (Overlord) with the view to destroying the enemy in that region.
The plan was for the 2/8 battalion US to block the north-east and east along the Suoi Luc river, 4RAR was to block in the south and A Sqn 3Cav Regiment to block along the Suoi Ran river. 3RAR was to provide the searching troops and hopefully destroy any enemy found in its area of search.
3RAR's plan was to search its AO with three rifle companies (A,B, and C) with D coy being held in reserve.
During the operations orders group briefing many of the company commanders were aghast at the names given to the AO's, they were the same as those used on the original Overlord operation twenty seven years prior. The NVA/VC were keen students of history and would have understood the significance of those names.
Using the origional code names would have alerted the VC/NVA to the coming operation and possibly its start date.
One of the problems 1ATF faced was the use of route 2, moving the troops and equipment up this roadway would have alerted the locals that something big was in the wind. With this in mind I believe that the VC/NVA would have been alerted to the intentions of 1ATF? Not withstanding these problems 1ATF did move large groups of troops and equipment along Route 2 without any hinderance. This part of the operation was well run and organised.
The intelligence prior to the operation indicated that regular NVA troops along with local VC were in the area. Whether this had any inpact on the searching troops I personally doubt it. To the already tired troops this was just another operation.
The enemy that 5 platoon did meet that morning (7 June 1971) were battle hardened and had encountered the Americans in savage contacts in 1965. They (3/33NVA Regiment) suffered hugh losses in contacts with the Americans early in 1965 and then retreated to Cambodia where they underwent reorganisation, training, refitting and received replacements in preparation for TET 1968. The Regiment lost approx 700 killed from its total strength of 2000. In August 1968 in major contacts with the Americans they lost a further 400 killed.
Even though they lost one third of their personnel in these contacts they were able to regroup and retrain and still pose a serious threat to the Americans and 1ATF in the years 1965-71.
By 1971 they were suspected to have linked up with D445 battalion for sapper training in preparation for attacks on military installations in Phuoc Tuy province.
D445 Battalion had played a major role in the battle of Long Tan where it lost an estimated 70 killed and 100 wounded. During the subsequent years and up to 1971 D445 Battalion continued to harass, ambush and inflict casualties on American and Australian troops. Task Force operations were able to deny D445 Battalion a permanent location by its constant patrolling and had worn down D445 Battalion so that by the time 3RAR arrived in 1971 the major battles encountered in the early years of the Australian involvement were seen a thing of the past.
As the troops landed into their designated LZs, B Coy was no doubt seen by the VC as they began their search. Captured documents later indicated that their LZ was no further than 500 metres away.
It has been suggested that the VC who stayed behind and fought the battle were just a rear party designed to hold up the searching troops as the rest of the regiment escaped. Even though, the heavy weapons coy of 3/33NVA with its forty or more troops were still able to stall 5 platoon B Coy for almost eight hours as they escaped into pre-designated escape routes.
Several members of 5 platoon B Coy were wounded during the prolonged firefight and there were several citations awarded to members of B Coy for heroic and outstanding bravery under fire.