Think Piece: Long Tan with the benefit of hindsight
Source: Fred Fairhead
The Battle of Long Tan, fought 50 years ago on the 18th August 1966, was without doubt the most ferocious battle fought by the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) in the seven years the Regiment was committed to the Vietnam War.
Like many other significant military engagements the prelude to Long Tan involved some muddled decision making and oversights, due in part to the enormous pressure the seriously undermanned 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) was under at the time. Nevertheless, the apparent lack of importance given to three separate but related incidents should not go unnoticed.
The first was that 1ATF appeared to have ignored warning messages from Signal Intelligence sources that an enemy Main Force Regiment, specifically 275 VC Regiment, was closing in on the Nui Dat Base from the east and by the 14th August was less than five kilometres from the base. The second occurred on 16th August, when A Company 6RAR contacted what was reported at the time as “main force wearing greens and also, that the company’s radio communications had been electronically jammed”. The third event that should have rung warning bells was in the early hours of 17th August when the Task Force base was shelled by mortar and recoilless rifle fire, also indicating enemy main force were in the parish.
Even with the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to understand why this threat wasn’t dealt with in a way other than that which eventually occurred, ie by sending a single rifle company ( D Company 6RAR comprising just over 100 men) ) to search the Long Tan Rubber plantation when it was highly likely there was some serious opposition out there (as it turned out a Main Force Regiment reinforced by a North Vietnamese Army Battalion and a local VC Battalion with a combined strength of some 1500!).
We should also reflect that at the time the men in the two Infantry Battalions (5RAR and 6RAR) were close to exhaustion and were in need of rest and convalescence at the logistics base at Vung Tau some 50 kilometres south of Nui Dat. Morale was also starting to wither and the troops needed some distractions such as a Concert Party, which would become a regular event during the war, just as had occurred in all other wars to that time.
Accordingly, on the morning of the 18th August, after B Company 6RAR had located the positions from where the Base had been mortared, most of the company returned to Nui Dat to leave for Vung Tau and a Concert Party was scheduled for that afternoon. But 5RAR had returned to the Base that morning from operations near the village of Binh Ba.
When D Company 6RAR relieved B Company and began its search for the enemy weapon crews at about 1pm on 18 August it did so in an extended formation which became more so when, at about 4pm, 11 Platoon in following up a contact with what was most likely an enemy screen, had moved some distance from the rest of D Company. Importantly, this meant that when 11 Platoon ran into the main enemy position the enemy was unaware of the strength and disposition of the rest of the Company. Thus the battle began in the darkest period of the month and in the heaviest rainstorm for months.
Over the next three hours of fierce combat there were many individual acts of skill, leadership and courage – none more so than Ron Eglinton, a machine gunner in 11 Platoon who kept firing until his weapon jammed with mud; Bob Buick the 11 Platoon Sergeant who became the Platoon Commander after the first burst of enemy fire and who fought the Platoon out of its precarious position; the late Bluey Moore, 11 Platoon Section Commander who, having what is arguably the most important leadership position in a rifle company, did so with great skill and courage; the late Paddy Todd, the 12 Platoon Sergeant who, having been wounded in both ankles and believing he might hinder the Platoon’s withdrawal, without telling anyone commenced to crawl back to the Company position. Then there was the indomitable figure of the CSM, Jack Kirby who, in any conflict other than Vietnam, would surely have been awarded a Victoria Cross for his heroic actions; also Yank Akell who, hearing the 10 Platoon radio had been destroyed, grabbed a spare from Company Headquarters and moved through enemy attacks to get it to the Platoon. We should also spare a thought for the two young National Servicemen from 11 Platoon – Barry Meller and Jim Richmond, thought to be dead but in fact wounded and spending what must have been a very long night by themselves on the battle field.
We should also recall the outstanding skill, leadership and courage of Harry Smith the Company Commander and the two surviving Platoon Commanders – Dave Sabben and Geoff Kendall.
In the past much has been said about the battle being ”a close fought thing” and that if 3 Troop 1 APC Squadron with A Company 6RAR hadn’t arrived on the battlefield when it did just before 7pm, then D Company would most likely have been overrun.
Contemporaneous thinking has a different view in that, by the time the reinforcement force arrived on the battlefield the enemy, having been battered by massive artillery fire and from the disciplined and sustained small arms fire from the D Company Rifle Sections had suffered well over 50% casualties and was withdrawing from the field of battle; the arrival of the Cavalry and A Company gave greater urgency to that withdrawal. The reinforcement force also allowed the battlefield to be secured, casualties recovered and evacuated – all except of course the fifteen missing from 11 Platoon – 13 of whom were found the next morning and as Laurence Binyon wrote in ‘for the fallen’ – “they fell with their faces to the foe”.
Having suffered well over a thousand casualties, clearly the battle was a major defeat for the principal enemy main force elements in Phuoc Tuy province. This outcome allowed the Task Force to consolidate its defences at the Núi Dat base, which was never again threatened by Main Force regimental size forces. The men of D Company 6RAR had set a high standard for battlefield skills, leadership and courage but at great cost with 17 men killed and some 20 wounded, one of whom later died from his wounds.
The battle had also demonstrated the Australian’s ability to successfully conduct a major combined arms operation involving infantry, armour, artillery and air support. It also showed that the original decision to send only two battalions to Vietnam was palpably incorrect though it took until December the following year before the Task Force received its third battalion.
Long Tan then sits alongside other great battles fought by the Regiment: Kapyong, Maryang San and The Hook in Korea; and although battles like Coral and Balmoral in May 1968 were of a very intense scale, Long Tan stands alone.
Lest we forget.