Sergeant Tom Birnie, Platoon Sergeant of 4 Platoon, D Company, 2RAR on patrol during Operation Coburg, Bien Hoa, January 1968. [AWM EKT/68/0083/VN]
Patrolling was the cornerstone of 1 Australian Task Force’s (1ATF’s) operations in Phuoc Tuy Province. Rather than wait behind the wire for the Viet Cong to launch attacks on the Task Force base, the Australians sought to control the area around Nui Dat, denying the Viet Cong any element of surprise and making it difficult for them to move undetected.
The idea behind Australian operations in Phuoc Tuy was to drive the Viet Cong from their jungle sanctuaries and camps and to remove them from areas where they could exert influence over the local people. The Australian tactics surprised the Viet Cong who were used to meeting a South Vietnamese enemy that fought from defensive positions and rarely pursued them into the jungle.
As patrolling was so central to the Australian conduct of the war in Phuoc Tuy, newly arrived battalions were often sent out on familiarisation operations, usually into areas that were considered relatively free of enemy activity. Over the course of several days they would hone their patrolling skills, gain experience in calling in air and artillery support and see the ways in which these weapons could be used to complement counter-insurgency operations.
Australian patrols covered a range of terrains and conditions. Much of the countryside was heavily vegetated, but thousands of hectares were also covered in rubber plantations – dark, dangerous areas of evenly spaced trees that offered a hidden enemy clear fields of fire. Rice paddies posed different problems. Crossing these open fields, where men could be exposed to enemy fire many metres from cover, was a nerve-wracking experience. The weather also brought its own difficulties to patrolling; in the dry season men endured intense tropical heat, while in the monsoon they patrolled in constant rain and were rarely dry.