Battle of Binh Ba: The battle begins
Two crewmen atop a Centurion with rubber trees in the background. A 9 Squadron RAAF Bushranger gunship in flight. A helicopter gunship’s twin M60s in action. [Images courtesy of Roger Foote and David Moles, not be reproduced without permission]
At 10:00 am Blake’s company left Nui Dat in armoured personnel carriers (APCs) commanded by Captain Ray De Vere of B Squadron, 3 Cavalry Regiment. With them was a composite troop of tanks from B Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, under the command of Second Lieutenant Brian Sullivan. While the Australians travelled the short distance between Nui Dat and Binh Ba, the local District Chief attempted to evacuate the civilian population and deployed his own troops, members of the Regional Force, into blocking positions to cut off the enemy’s escape.
Half an hour after leaving Nui Dat, Blake’s force deployed about 300 metres to the south-east of Binh Ba and awaited clearance to move in. Sergeant Brian London, 10 Platoon’s acting commander, remembered pulling up on open ground before the village. Looking through the APC’s open hatch he saw thirty or forty people running ‘as if to make up a defensive position’. Seconds later RPG smoke trails headed towards him. Instinct demanded that he exit the APC—a hit from an RPG could have killed or wounded everyone on board—but he fought the urge and stayed. The armoured vehicles were just outside effective RPG range and their crews were already returning fire—the Battle of Binh Ba, known officially as Operation Hammer, was underway.
Blake, meanwhile, was concentrating on the flurry of radio traffic coming through on about eight networks. The airwaves were busy with talk about who was in the village. Civilians, it turned out, remained and Blake instructed his men to take care and make sure their fire was aimed only at the enemy. It was, he said, a ‘big ask’ in a combat situation. He had also to consider how best to carry out the attack. Numbers were limited: D Company was badly depleted, with only seventy men from a normally full complement of 120 available. Between them Blake, De Vere and Sullivan decided on an armoured assault, believing that dismounted infantry would be too vulnerable to enemy fire. De Vere, the senior armoured officer, took command during this phase of the operation.
By 11:20 the Australians were cleared to move in. The District Chief, wrongly believing the village to be free of civilians, told Blake, to ‘go in and do what you have to do.’ Binh Ba, a picturesque village with a well-ordered streetscape, solidly constructed houses and verdant, productive gardens would, he knew, soon become a battle ground. Approaching from the east the Australians advanced with tanks in the centre of the formation and the APCs on either side and to the rear. As they entered Binh Ba it became clear that not all of the civilians had been evacuated, so 11 Platoon was ordered to dismount and help the villagers to safety.
Ahead of them, the tanks advanced slowly, moving cautiously between the rows of houses. Then two of them left, in pursuit of enemy troops reported by the pilot of an observation plane to be moving through the nearby rubber. One was hit by two RPG rounds, wounding three of the crew, but the gunner, unable to traverse his turret, kept up a steady fire against the enemy whenever they crossed his line of sight. Still believing that they were facing just two Viet Cong platoons, the rest of the Australians continued into the middle of Binh Ba, now with just two tanks in support. In the village centre they came under a storm of fire. Murray Blake remembered seeing enemy everywhere, among them a heavy machine-gun crew wheeling their weapon into position before they were killed by fire from De Vere’s APC. This was no pair of Viet Cong platoons—the Australians had come up against NVA troops, a far stronger force than they had expected to meet. The noise of RPGs, small arms and machine guns, recalled Blake, was deafening, and the scene completely chaotic. Amidst the din, messages could only be reliably sent using hand signals or by runner. The tanks, meanwhile, were running low on ammunition and the Australians needed to extricate themselves from the village.
Overhead a helicopter gunship fired rockets into an enemy occupied house. From above, the pilots saw tanks and APCs firing into the buildings while enemy troops ran between dwellings, some having escaped observation until they were seen from the air. A light fire team of two bushrangers flew in, guided by De Vere’s directions to attack positions on Binh Ba’s southern side. Coming in low over the tanks, they fired rockets and miniguns into the enemy, clearing the way for the armour and D Company to make their way out. Every tank had been damaged by enemy fire, one so severely it was useless for further action. Sullivan, like the others, had been so heavily engaged that his tank left Binh Ba with its last round of canister loaded.
The Australians had come through the chaotic fight without losing a man. Tanks and helicopters gave them fire supremacy, keeping the enemy from bringing the troop-laden APCs under effective fire. But these too were heavily armed and the armoured vehicles’ combined firepower proved decisive. The After Action Report described the Centurions in particular as a ‘battle winning factor’. For some, however, it was a close call nonetheless. At one point during the fighting in the village square Sullivan saw the shock wave when an RPG round struck the neighbouring vehicle, wounding a crewman in the neck. An instant later he glimpsed the round of an RPG being fired at his own tank. He ducked but felt the sting of its tail fins grazing his back before it exploded against a nearby wall, peppering him with shrapnel. Fortune and fine margins sometimes meant the difference between life and death.