Australia and the Vietnam War

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Combat

Battle of Long Tan

Long Tan Action, Vietnam, 18 August 1966. Bruce Fletcher, 1970. [Oil on canvas 152 x 175cm. AWM ART40758]

Long Tan Action, Vietnam, 18 August 1966. Bruce Fletcher, 1970. [Oil on canvas 152 x 175cm. AWM ART40758]

In May 1966 the first soldiers of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) arrived in South Vietnam; the rest followed in June. Within two months elements of the battalion found themselves engaged in one of the largest battles fought by Australians in the Vietnam War.

By August 1966 the Australian task force base at Nui Dat was only three months old. Concerned at the establishment of such a strong presence in their midst, the Viet Cong determined to inflict an early defeat on the Australians. In the days before the battle, radio signals indicated the presence of strong Viet Cong forces within 5 kilometres of the base but patrols found nothing. On the night of 16–17 August Nui Dat came under fire from mortars and recoilless rifles. The defenders stood to, expecting the barrage to be followed by an assault. None came. Searches of the area the next day located some of the sites from which mortars had been fired, but nothing else.

Patrols continued the following day, 18 August. D Company left the base at 11.15 that morning bound for the Long Tan rubber plantation. As they departed Nui Dat the sounds of a concert by Little Pattie, the Australian entertainer, reached their ears. They entered the Long Tan plantation at 3.15 that afternoon. Less than an hour later the Viet Cong attacked in force, putting the Australians under mortar, machine gun and small arms fire. Only the quick response of a New Zealand artillery battery to desperate calls for support saved D Company from annihilation.

Long Tan: the day after

  • Major Harry Smith from Queensland, Officer Commanding (OC) Delta Company 6RAR, holds a briefing in the field shortly before his company returned to Long Tan the day after the battle. [AWM FOR/66/0676/VN]
  • Exhausted members of 6RAR push through the scrub searching for retreating Viet Cong on the morning after the battle. [AWM CUN/66/0693/VN]
  • Private (Pte) Stan Hodder from Queensland; Pte Terry Burstall from Victoria and Pte Peter Dettman from NSW, all from D Company 6 RAR, take a break from gathering weapons left on the battlefield after the previous night’s fighting.
[AWM FOR/66/0669/VN]
  • Armoured Personnel Carrier Commander, Lance Corporal Rex Warren from SA, watches for Viet Cong as he moves through the rubber plantation searching for the enemy, the day after the battle of Long Tan. [AWM CUN/66/0698/VN]
  • Private David Collins, 6RAR, guards a captured Viet Cong soldier found hiding on the battlefield the next day. [AWM FOR/66/0659/VN]
  • Troops of 6RAR fire an Armoured Personnel Carrier mounted mortar in the Long Tan area the day after the battle. [AWM CUN/66/0688/VN]
  • An Australian treats a wounded Viet Cong soldier, found on the battlefield the day after the battle. [AWM FOR/66/0660/VN]
  • Private (Pte) Jim Richmond, 11 Platoon, D Company, was one of two wounded Australians found 12 hours after the battle by members of his platoon. He had been shot twice through the chest and lay all night, face down, at his section post. Pte Richmond was air-lifted to Vung Tau and eventually medivaced to Australia. [AWM FOR/66/0664/VN]
  • A small, jagged and rusty shell splinter salvaged from the battlefield at Long Tan. [AWM REL33201]
  • Private Ken Meredith and a group of signallers wait for the order to return to base after the Long Tan battle. [AWM CUN/66/0704/VN]

Almost as soon as the battle began a torrential downpour added to the gloom in the rubber plantation. The Australians, surrounded, short of ammunition and fighting an enemy whose strength they could only guess at, called for helicopters to drop ammunition to them. Flying at tree-top height, braving the terrible weather and heavy Viet Cong fire, two RAAF helicopters located the beleaguered Australians and dropped boxes of ammunition and blankets for the wounded.

Sketches detailing the movements of Australian and enemy troops during the Battle of Long Tan. [To Long Tan, Ian McNeill, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1993]

The survivors of D Company along with accurate artillery fire from New Zealand's 161 Field Battery as well as the Australian 103 and 105 Field batteries and a United States battery inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Cong. As the fighting continued Australian reinforcements were committed to the battle. B Company was on the way and A Company, loaded into Armoured Personnel Carriers of 3 Troop, 1 Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron, which fought its way into D Company just before 7 pm as daylight was fading. The Viet Cong had been massing for another assault but were forced to retreat into the plantation. They had suffered terrible casualties, but only when the Australians returned to the scene of battle the following morning did they realise the extent of the defeat that they had inflicted on the enemy. The Australians counted 245 enemy dead still in the plantation and surrounding jungle with evidence that others had already been removed from the battlefield. Captured documents and information from prisoners suggested that D Company had faced some 2,500 Viet Cong. Eighteen Australians were killed in the Battle of Long Tan and 24 wounded, all but one of the dead were from D Company.


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View a map showing the relief of Long Tan.

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View a map of Phuoc Tuy Province.

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Sketches detailing the movements of Australian and enemy troops during the Battle of Long Tan. [To Long Tan, Ian McNeill, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1993]

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Headlines from The Canberra Times, August 20, 1966.

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After action reports
The Australian War Memorial holds vast collections of after action reports and unit diaries from the war in Vietnam. Pages 21-41 of this report on Operation Smithfield (Long Tan) contain Delta Company Commander Major Harry Smith's detailed account of his Company's action at Long Tan. [Commanding Officer After Action Report (COAAR) Operation Smithfield, 1-31 January 1967, AWM 95, 1/4/26]

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A record of the battle of Long Tan from Task Force HQ Log – Citation for a Rifle Company, Royal Australian Infantry Corps, Ingleburn, NSW. January 1970 pp 20-28.

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View video of Interview 4 Sergeant Bob Buick, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive. Interview No.2181

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View video of Interview 1 Second Lieutenant David Sabben, 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview No.2585