Battle of Binh Ba: June 1969
4 Troop, 1 Armoured Regiment, moving through Binh Ba. [Image courtesy of Roger Foote, 1st Armoured Regiment Association]
Early on the morning of 6 June 1969, a Centurion tank and an armoured recovery vehicle were making their way along Route 2 towards the village of Binh Ba. Classified as ‘amber’, the route was considered one on which enemy contact was possible, but unlikely. The unlikely happened when a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) fired from a nearby house struck the Centurion’s turret, wounding the operator and inviting retaliatory machine-gun fire from both vehicles before they left the scene. This provocative shot heralded a battle that raged for two days, left much of Binh Ba in ruins and resulted in the Australian Task Force winning one of its most comprehensive victories of the Vietnam War.
Less than 10 kilometres from Nui Dat, the village of Binh Ba and its hamlets—Duc Trung and Duc My—had been familiar to the Australians since the Task Force base was established in 1966. In August that year the village was the target of a cordon and search operation, Operation Holsworthy, in which the Australians apprehended a number of Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas and sympathisers. But Binh Ba’s proximity to Nui Dat did not ensure its continuing freedom from insurgents. Within two months a VC cadre and guerrillas were once again in residence, collecting taxes and recruiting.
Cordon and search operations such as Holsworthy and Operation Caloundra, in early 1967, were fleeting. When they were over, the insurgents returned. In late 1967 they ambushed and killed two members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam just outside the village. Their activities were mostly covert, though. One VC soldier recalled his unit being divided into cells of a few men each and sent on a ‘proselytising mission’ to Binh Ba, during which they met their local counterparts in various village houses.
The situation persisted into the middle of 1969, by which time Binh Ba’s security had been placed in the hands of local Regional Force soldiers. Neither the Task Force nor the South Vietnamese forces which had day-to-day responsibility for the village’s security had been able to rid the area of insurgents. That June morning, with one RPG round, they compelled the Australians to fight for Binh Ba. There are a range of reasons why the battle was initiated. Some believe that it was an attempt to relieve pressure being put on the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) 33 Regiment headquarters in the area to the north where 6RAR were operating. Others believe that it was part of a nation-wide offensive aimed at influencing peace negotiations which were then taking place in Paris; still others saw it as an attempt to gain credit for the soon to be announced withdrawal of some 25,000 United States troops from Vietnam. 5RAR’s Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Colin Khan, who commanded the Australian force for much of the battle, believed then and continued to believe more than 30 years later that the attack on the Centurion was nothing more than the result of poor fire discipline by a ‘wayward soldier’.
After the Centurion was hit, two Regional Force platoons were sent to investigate but were stopped by heavy fire from the village. The district chief requested support from provincial headquarters in Ba Ria, which in turn requested Australian assistance. Less than an hour later, Major Murray Blake, the officer commanding the Task Force’s ready reaction force—D Company, 5RAR—attended a briefing at the Task Force headquarters. His orders were to mount a clearing operation of the village. Expecting to meet a couple of Viet Cong platoons, Blake told his company sergeant major that ‘there didn’t seem to be too much in this’. He elected to bring six newly arrived reinforcements along for the experience.