Australia and the Vietnam War

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A member of the 131st Divisional Locating Battery with a radar controlled detector designed to locate the source of enemy fire. Once the position of, for example, an enemy mortar was detected artillery could zero in on the target. [AWM COL/66/0980A/VN]

A member of the 131st Divisional Locating Battery with a radar controlled detector designed to locate the source of enemy fire. Once the position of, for example, an enemy mortar was detected artillery could zero in on the target. [AWM COL/66/0980A/VN]

Captain Mike Thompson arrived in Vietnam in early August 1962. A member of the first contingent of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), Thompson was the only artilleryman among the group of 36 officers and men to have been selected. He was the first Australian gunner to serve in Vietnam, but neither he nor his successors in the AATTV served with South Vietnamese artillery units.

Not until September 1965, three years after Thompson left for Vietnam was an Australian battery, the 105th Field Battery, deployed. Fortunately the battery had not long completed a training exercise in air mobility, an aspect of the war in Vietnam that would become familiar to all Australian artillerymen who served there. Air mobility, usually involving helicopters, provided gunners with a quick, reliable means of moving their artillery pieces from one location to another; an important requirement in a war with no front line and in which the enemy could appear almost anywhere.

  • Captain Mike Thompson (7th from left, centre row) with members of the Australian Army Training Team’s first contingent to Vietnam, including those who were on the reserve list. Among the group are infantrymen, intelligence officers, armoured corps personnel and signallers. Thompson, however, was the sole artilleryman in the contingent. [AWM P01011.003]
  • Australian gunners of 105 Field Battery fire one of the first shots of their war in Vietnam against a Viet Cong target. [AWM SHA/65/0012/VN]
  • Gunners of the 101st Battery, Royal Australian Artillery fire in support of the Anzac battalion, made up of Australian and New Zealand troops, during March 1970. [AWM FAI/70/0169/VN]
  • An Aerial photograph showing five guns of the 12th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, in action during a fire mission at Fire Support Base Pamela. [AWM PJE/71/0317/VN]
  • In the foreground a gunner digs a pit in which he can sleep safely while nearby an artillery piece from 102nd Field Battery fires in support of Australian infantry operating nearby. This photograph was taken as Fire Support Base Pine in the northwest of Phuoc Tuy Province was being established during July 1968. [AWM THO/68/0725/VN]
  • Mobility was key to operations during the Vietnam War and scenes such as this were repeated throughout South Vietnam on countless occasions. Here a Chinook helicopter delivers an artillery piece to Fire Support Base Coral on 12 May 1968, the day the base was established. Once such gun was overrun briefly that night when a large enemy force attacked the base. Unable to withstand the enormous weight of firepower directed against them the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were repulsed after hours of brutal close-quarter fighting. [AWM P01770.007]
  • High above Phuoc Tuy Province a 105mm howitzer of the 12th Field Regiment hangs under the cargo inspection hatch of a United States Chinook helicopter on its way from a Fire Support Base back to Nui Dat. [AWM PJE/71/0271/VN]
  • Gunners try to manhandle a 105mm howitzer out of the mud into which it has sunk after a series of heavy downpours in July 1967. [AWM COL/67/0548/VN]
  • 103rd Field Regiment gunners manoeuvre their 105mm howitzer into position to provide fire support during Operation Toledo in August 1966. [FOR/66/0774/VN]

The 105th Field Battery operated at first with the 1st United States Infantry Division and later in support of the 173rd Airborne Brigade with which the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, was also operating. Not surprisingly the Battery soon began registering a number of ‘firsts’ Two days after arriving at Bien Hoa that September the 105th fired its, and Australia’s first, artillery rounds of the war. Later that year, during Operation Hump in November, it became the first Australian battery carried to an operation by Iroquois helicopter.

During January 1966 the Battery was in again in action, this time on Operation Crimp during which United States and Australian forces encountered an extensive Viet Cong tunnel complex. By the time Crimp ended on 14 January, the number of Australian dead in Vietnam had doubled from eight to sixteen. Numbered among those killed on the operation was the battery’s forward observer, Captain Ken Bade, who was attached to a 1st Battalion rifle company during the operation.

Not long after Operation Crimp the Government announced an increase in Australia’s commitment to the war. The battalion that had deployed in 1965 would be followed by a self-contained task force of two infantry battalions and supporting elements, including the 1st Field Regiment, the first time that the regiment had been committed to operations since its formation after the Second World War. From then on each Australian battalion had its own support battery whose commander was always located with the battalion commander.

The desperate fighting at Long Tan shortly after the Task Force’s arrival demonstrated very clearly the value of artillery support to an infantry force in peril. So dire was the situation and so close to the Australians were enemy troops that artillery was called onto friendly positions and throughout the terrible hours of fighting the guns kept up a constant fire as they broke up enemy attacks and struck at likely concentration and forming-up areas. Those who cleared the battlefield the following day estimated that half of the enemy dead had been killed by artillery. At Long Tan the infantryman fought for their lives, armoured vehicles played a vital role in the latter part of the battle but artillery, accurate and deadly, ensured that it was the heavily outnumbered Australians who prevailed. Long Tan confirmed that, as long as they were within range of the guns, patrols could be sent deep into enemy territory and in the years to follow artillery became an integral part of battalion operations.

One means by which artillery was able to operate in support of infantry patrolling outside the immediate vicinity of Nui Dat was through the establishment of fire support bases. Generally employing a battalion’s artillery, mortars and armour these bases allowed operations to take place well away from the main Task Force Base. Fire support bases could remain as centres for operations in a particular locale for months at a time and some, such as that at the ‘Horseshoe’ became permanent. Among the most well-known of many Australian fire support bases were those at Coral and Balmoral. Established in mid-1968 both came under heavy attack on several occasions, the fighting that raged around these bases became the most protracted battle fought by the Australians in Vietnam. At Coral, for the first time since the Second World War, gunners had to defend their artillery pieces in close-quarter combat.

Artillery continued to support Australian infantry until the end of the war. While it is possible to quantify the number of shells fired by Australian guns, the number of operations in which the artillery was involved and a host of other figures that can shed light on the type and intensity of the gunners’ war, the figure that perhaps best sums up the artillery’s contribution is one that can never be known; the number of Australians – members of the infantry, armoured corps personnel and engineers among others – whose lives were saved on operations because of artillery support.

The last Australian artillerymen, the 104th Battery, left Vietnam in December 1971. Fourteen gunners lost their lives during the war, among them three forward observers serving with infantry companies.

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View Video of 108 Field Battery in action during Operation Paddington in July 1967. [AWM F03896]

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View Video of artillerymen setting up a fire support base as they erect shelters and manhandle guns into position. [AWM F04332]