50th Anniversary of Tet Offensive
The Tet Offensive, launched in early 1968 by the Viet Cong, marked the significant turning point in the Vietnam War. During the offensive, which began in the early hours of 31 January 1968 more than 100 towns and cities were attacked. The timing and scale of the attack during the Vietnamese lunar new year celebrations known as “Tet” came as a surprise, taking in cities, towns, and military installations in South Vietnam.
A focus of the offensive was Saigon, where mass destruction quickly occurred in clashes between the North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese and Allied forces. Soon large tracts of Cholon, the adjoining Chinese town, were levelled by fighting between communist insurgents and government troops.
A witness to events in the capital was the Commander of Australian Forces Vietnam, Major General Arthur MacDonald. He was woken by an explosion. Near his house in the centre of Saigon, he saw Viet Cong carrying satchel charges on long poles running past, heading towards the nearby Presidential Palace. Not long afterwards communist special assault troops attacked and briefly penetrated the US Embassy.
Members of 7RAR who were providing the guard detachment in sandbag “pillboxes” in front the lodgings for Australian personnel working in Saigon, known as “Hotel Canberra”, also came under attack.
Operation Coburg was a 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) multi-unit operation conducted in Bien Hoa Province South Vietnam during the period 24 January to 1 March 1968 The operation was conducted east of the US Army and Air Force military complex of Long Binh and Bien Hoa during the 1968 TET Offensive.
The initial aim of Operation Coburg was to deny the enemy access to suitable sites where rocket fire could be launched into Long Binh or Bien Hoa.
On 31 January the enemy launched nationwide attacks on both civilian and military targets, suffering heavy casualties in the process. This attack altered the aim of Operation Coburg to a blocking operation as the enemy moved back from their targets. Armoured Personnel Carriers and infantry from Fire Support Patrol Base (FSPB) Andersen were involved in house to house fighting to clear the enemy from the village of Trang Bom.
Two FSPB were established with the two field artillery batteries and C Coy 7 RAR deploying to FSPB Harrison and Forward HQ 1 ATF, A Squadron 3 Cavalry Regiment, B Battery 2/35 Heavy (SP) Artillery Battalion US Army and D Coy 2 RAR to FSPB Andersen to its southeast near the village of Trang Bom on Highway 1.
2 RAR and 7 RAR conducted Reconnaissance in Force in their areas of operation (AO), the enemy moved mainly from east to west towards Long Binh and Bien Hoa or in well prepared bunker systems. Contacts were at close quarters and the casualties among the Australian and New Zealand forces continued to rise.
Fighting in Bien Hoa province, saw enemy losses amount to 145 killed, 110 wounded/escaped and five captured, Australian casualties totaled seven men killed in action, three died of wounds, and 75 wounded. The Viet Cong also lost considerable quantities of weapons, equipment and rice.
On 4 February, Private Robert Caston from Adelaide, who served with 3 RAR, succumbed to wounds he sustained after being hit by a snipers’ bullet at Log Dien, during the Tet offensive.
Operation Coburg concluded on 1 March 1968.
After initial success, the Tet Offensive ended in military defeat for the communists, and was ultimately a propaganda victory. Military planners began to question if a decisive victory could ever be achieved and the widespread media coverage and associated imagery increased public skepticism and opposition to the war. The scale of death and destruction in Saigon gave the impression that the war was out of control.