The Battle of Long Tan

Australian armoured personnel carriers of 1 APC Squadron and soldiers on foot sweep along in pursuit of retreating Viet Cong troops in Phuoc Tuy Province following the Battle of Long Tan

Late in the afternoon of 18 August 1966 when the weather was hot and humid and the rain torrential, a battle began in a rubber plantation, approximately four kilometres to the east of Nui Dat. The Battle of Long Tan, between D Company, 6RAR and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces, was the largest and most publicised Australian battle of the Vietnam War.

In May of that same year the first soldiers of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), had arrived in South Vietnam with the remainder following in June. By August 1966 the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat was only three months old but the Viet Cong were concerned about the establishment of such a strong presence and were determined to inflict defeat on the Australians. Radio traffic had indicated the presence of Viet Cong forces within five kilometres of the base but patrols had failed to locate any evidence. On the night of 16-17 August, in what was to be the catalyst for the Battle of Long Tan, Nui Dat came under fire from mortars and recoilless rifles and, although the bombardment lasted just 22 minutes, it left 24 soldiers wounded and raised fears of a full-scale enemy attack. Despite these fears the expected assault did not eventuate that evening and patrols found little evidence to support reports of three enemy regiments operating in the area.

Harry Smith gives orders to the company group the morning after the Battle of Long Tan ahead of the ‘clearance’ mission on the battlefield.

On the following day, 18 August, while preparations were underway at the base for a planned concert by entertainers Col Joye and Little Patti, patrols of the area continued and D Company left the base at 11.15am bound for the Long Tan rubber plantation. They entered the plantation at 3.15pm and less than an hour later the Viet Cong attacked in force putting the Australians under mortar, machine gun and small arms fire. Contacts increased rapidly and it was soon obvious that the Australians were facing a large enemy main force regiment.

Radio messages from D Company, recorded in the 6RAR log at Nui Dat, conveyed the company’s increasingly desperate situation as they called for artillery support:

4.26pm “Being mortared …. Want all artillery possible.”

4.31pm “Enemy [on] left flank. Could be serious.”

5.01pm “Enemy … penetrating both flanks and to north and south”.

5.02pm “Running short of ammo. Require drop through trees.”

With soldiers almost out of ammunition, the artillery briefly halted fire while RAAF helicopter crews flew a daring resupply mission. At 6.00pm, despite the heavy downpour restricting visibility and the risks from enemy ground fire, two UH-1B Iroquois (“Huey”) helicopters from No. 9 Squadron RAAF succeeded in dropping boxes of ammunition and blankets for the wounded to the company while hovering at tree-top level.

Just before 7.00pm, as the enemy appeared to be forming for a final assault, the relief force of cavalry and infantry mounted in armoured personnel carriers finally arrived, pushing the enemy back to the east and bringing the battle to a conclusion just before dark. The Battle of Long Tan was over.

* Died of wounds

Withdrawing to establish a landing zone to evacuate their casualties, the Australians formed a defensive position overnight. It was only when they returned to the scene of the battle the following morning that they realised the extent of the defeat they had inflicted on the enemy. They counted 245 enemy dead still in the plantation and surrounding jungle with evidence that others had already been removed. Documents would later suggest hundreds more had been killed or wounded.

This infantry company of 108 men, led by then Major Harry Smith were cut off and outnumbered by the enemy 20 to 1. Despite their success against overwhelming odds, this would remain the costliest battle for Australia during the entire Vietnam War.

Seventeen Australian soldiers were killed in action and 25 wounded, one of whom died nine days later. Eleven of the dead were National Servicemen and 7 were Regular Army soldiers. Their average age was 21 years.

D Company was awarded a US Presidential Unit Citation and was offered the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry Unit Citation. Prime Minister Harold Holt congratulated the Australians for their ‘skill, effectiveness and high courage’ which he noted was in the best Australian tradition.

On Vietnam Veterans’ Day the recalling of a single battle on one afternoon in August 1966 now commemorates all Australians who took part in that long and divisive conflict.