The Battle of Long Tan

SEATO was the South East Asian equivalent of NATO, and in 1966, several countries contributed troops to halt the Communist expansion into South Vietnam, including South Korea, Thailand, The Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia.

The 1st Australian Task Force was assigned the Phuoc Tuy province on Vietnam’s southern coast. They built a base at Nui Dat between April and June, and in July began securing the population and conducting offensive operations against the local Viet Cong.

Nui Dat was decidedly inconvenient for the Communists; it had to be destroyed. Nui Dat sat astride a major communist supply route and base area, and was dangerously close to the population centers (Something the Americans wouldn’t do for another two years). Additionally, Gen Giap, North Vietnam’s military commander, wanted to inflict a quick defeat on the Australians and force them out of the war. So he ordered the entire 275th VC Main Force Regt down from the Iron Triangle to overrun the pesky base.

The plan was the time honored tactic that worked so well against the French: lure a company (coy) off of the base into an ambush, ambush the inevitable relief column, destroy them both, and then overrun the weakened base. The first part worked perfectly.

On the night of 16/17 Aug 1966, the VC bombarded the base, and B coy, 6th Bn/ 6th Royal Australian Regt gave chase. On 18 Aug, D coy took over and walked into a large ambush on the Long Tan Rubber Plantation.

However, the Australians knew exactly what they were getting into. Their signals intelligence had tracked the 275th into the sector. The odds were daunting, but the Aussies fell back on their unique talent for not giving a fuck. At Long Tan, the 108 men of D Coy 6/6 RAR, were assaulted on all sides by the entire 275 VC Main Force Regt, a local VC Bn, and a regular North Vietnamese Army Bn that Giap threw in like a cherry on top of the sundae. The attackers numbered nearly 2500 men, 20:1 odds is a sure victory in any commander’s mind.

But the Aussies dug in and were supported by copious amounts of American and New Zealand artillery which massacred the attackers. Nonetheless, quantity has a quality all its own and by the afternoon, the diggers were hard pressed and low on ammunition. Fortunately, two Royal Aus Air Force Huey’s piloted by men with Outback sized gonads, braved brutal ground fire to resupply the company just in time to defeat a full regimental assault. (For context, imagine if vegemite fueled Texans won at the Alamo.) By nightfall just as D coy was firing it’s last rounds, the expected relief column of APCs and tanks fought through their ambushes, and like the good cavalrymen they were, arrived in the nick of time. The battered D coy fell back to a landing zone with the column for the night. They had 18 killed and 28 wounded, and despite the casualties they inflicted, thought they had lost the battle.

But in a typically Australian “Fuck it” moment, the D Coy commander, Maj Harry Smith, decided to return to the plantation to recover the dead bodies of his men. To his surprise, they didn’t find live VC but dead ones: the Communists were gone. The relief column forced the Communists to withdraw just as they were about to launch their inevitably successful final assault. An NVA report later stated that the 275th was combat ineffective for months and had to be reconstituted. More importantly, the local VC Bn was destroyed and the NVA Bn had to take over the defense of the district.

Like the Battle of Tet 18 mos later, the destruction of the local VC and subsequent NVA takeover of the area made securing the population much easier. (Despite speaking the same language, the North Vietnamese were as foreign to the area as the Australians.) Unlike many American units, the Australians would have a much easier time securing their province in the ensuing years.

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