Battle of Coral/Balmoral: Coral attack 1
On the morning of 13 May 1968 an Australian searches the body of a North Vietnamese soldier killed in fighting just a few hours before. Behind him a bulldozer already carrying at least one corpse waits to be loaded with others. [AWM P01766.001]
Early on the morning of 13 May 1968, just hours after Australian and New Zealand forces had established Fire Support Base Coral, North Vietnamese troops attacked in strength. The Australian rifle companies had taken up ambush positions up to four kilometres from Coral, inside the perimeter were a collection of units or parts thereof, including 102 Field Battery and the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment’s (1RAR) mortar platoon.
A series of unforeseen circumstances led to delays in setting up the base on 12 May and the flurry of activity in the area, as helicopters carrying men and equipment came and went, was watched by North Vietnamese observers. On the first night of its existence, Coral was vulnerable. When the North Vietnamese assault came 102 Battery’s artillery, its machine gunners and the mortar platoon were directly in the enemy’s path. Fighting raged around their positions, the mortar men were in danger of being overrun, the machine gunners, out in front of the artillery and having already suffered casualties, were forced to brave intense fire and run for the relative safety of the gun positions. But these were also under heavy attack. For the first time since the Second World War Australian artillerymen were fighting in close defence of their guns, one of which was overrun before being recaptured.
With annihilation threatening, the mortar platoon’s commanding lieutenant called for splintex to be fired on his own position. The mortar men pressed themselves against the earth while five rounds of the flesh-tearing steel darts, of which splintex shells consisted, swept over their heads, tearing enemy soldiers apart and leaving only dead men around the Australian position.
The Australians were fortunate that night. In addition to the composure of the officers and men who faced the attack, the weight of defensive fire – from 102 Battery, from a New Zealand battery more than a kilometre away, from helicopters and from aircraft – was too great for the North Vietnamese to withstand. The Australian survivors were shaken by the experience; first light revealed 52 enemy bodies while drag marks leading into the scrub suggested that many more dead men had been removed from the battlefield. On the Australian side, nine soldiers had lost their lives and a further 28 were wounded.