Colin F. Jones

THE CONFLICT IN VIETNAM

INTRODUCTION

In 1964 the government in its defence review became aware of the deteriorating strategic situation and the accumulating defence requirements in South-East Asia. The voluntary enlistment scheme had failed to build up the field forces to effectively meet the requirements of the nation. Thus the government decided to introduce selective enlistment, which would require a restricted number of 20 year old men to serve a two year period of full time service in the regular Army, including overseas service if required.

There is little doubt that the conflict in South Vietnam was a dominating factor. This was a most unpopular decision, opposition parties inciting riots and unrest, radical campaigns forming to create further unrest among the public.

The decision was based on the principal that to ensure that war be kept away from the home shores, weather it be initial commitments to a ‘limited conflict’, or a cold war situation, a regular force backed by a supplementary reserve would be required.

The basic aim of Australia’s defence policy is supposed to be to ensure the security of the Australian mainland and Island territories. However by entering into obligations which require participation in policies of collective defence in South East Asia, which links Australia to Alliance agreements and regional security arrangements, the nation is committed to active support of countries threatened by communist expansionist aggression, such as South Vietnam.

This collective defensive organization also commits Australia’s allies to support Australia, in times of emergency. Australia has British Commonwealth defence co-operation arrangements but Britain is a long way away.

ANZUS is a treaty formed by Australia, New Zealand (who have since dropped out), and the USA, on 1st September 1951, which provides that in the event of an armed attack on any one of them in the Pacific, each would respond by meeting the common danger in accordance with its constitutional process. The treaty actually went into force on 29th April 1952.

SEATO is perhaps a more important treaty, for it obligates Australia to commitment in the Vietnam conflict. Australia, France, Pakistan, The Philippines, New Zealand, Thailand, The United Kingdom and the USA signed SEATO in 1954 in Manila. A protocol to the treaty extended its operation to Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam.

THE SOLDIERS PLEDGE

The Australian soldier is sworn to first serve the Queen and the people of Australia, through their elected representatives in parliament.

Secondly, an Australian soldier swears to serve the government with loyalty, regardless of the elected party in power.

Thirdly the soldier has the responsibility, and ‘honour’, in being chosen to bare arms in defence of things, the Queen, the people, and the government who stand for them.

A soldier is obligated to fight for his country, whenever and wherever required. He is also a citizen so is therefore obliged to obey the laws and set a good example to his fellow man.

THE FIRST AUSTRALIAN UNIT

The NSW Artillery paraded for the first time with 16 pounder guns in 1885, when it left for the Sudan campaign. In August 1871 the first the battery was raised by proclamation in Sydney, NSW. With two companies of infantry, it formed Australia’s first permanent army unit.

The Battery embarked on Tuesday March 3 1885 for the Sudan, making it the first time colonial forces had served alongside the British. Seven weeks after their arrival, the Sudan evacuation denied them any serious action. ‘A’ Field Battery returned to Australia to their old headquarters at Victoria Barracks in Sydney.

In support of the British in the Boer War, ‘A’ Battery, commanded by Colonel S.C.U. Smith, sailed from Sydney on the Warrigal on December 30, 1899 and arrived, thirty-eight days later, at Cape Town to join forces with General Settle’s force to clear the North West. The battery returned home on September 15, 1901 after 18 months of continuous service.

The Batteries casualties from that action were one killed in action, one dead after being kicked by a horse and 45 invalided home.

In 1902 the battery was reorganized and its name changed to ‘A’ Instructional Cadre. Eight years later the battery was re-designated as No 1 Battery, Australian Field Artillery.

Four years prior to the Anzacs landing at Gallipoli, King George V granted Royal approval and the battery was renamed ‘A’ Field Battery Royal Australian Field Artillery.

At the outbreak of WW1 the battery was disbanded leaving only a few storemen and district gunners on maintenance duties. ‘A’ Battery did not serve overseas during the war but helped with the training of other units that did.

The battery was reformed again in 1919, again in an instructional role. In 1922, retrenchment left the battery with only one unit, the 1957 returning to Sydney in October 1959.

I went with it as a Gunner on its second tour of duty in the South East Asian region in 1964 accompanied with many men who would eventually be NCO’S (Non Commissioned officers) and Officers in 104 Battery RAA during its tour of Vietnam in 1968.

‘A’ Battery supported 4th Royal Australian Infantry Regiment in Malaysia, as did 104 Battery in Vietnam.

Prior to embarkation, ‘A’ Battery paraded the Kings Banner at Holsworthy Barracks in the Sydney area.

For the gunner serving in a battery that boasted such tradition, there were many drawbacks since spit and polish was more in evidence and senior ranks boasted about ‘A’ Battery being superior to all other batteries of the Regiments.

For example even the eyelets of ones boots were polished with “Brasso”, and the bridge of the sole of the boot was polished also. ‘A’ Battery gunners wear the white lanyard on the left shoulder where all other Artillery units wear it on the right.

THE MALAYAN EMERGENCY

Australia along with Britain and New Zealand had, in May 1948, agreed to play a part in the strategic planning for the defence of South-East Asia, planning which included Malaya.

Britain pressured Australia for military assistance against the terrorists in Malaya. The Australian government wasn’t very keen on the idea until Menzies came into power in December 1949. It was then that an Australian Squadron of Dakota transport aircraft was committed to the region. Later, on June 27 1950, it was announced that a Squadron of RAAF Lincoln bombers were to go.

Menzies stoutly believed that British authority in the region was vital to the security of Australia.

When the conflict in Korea finished in 1953, Australia’s military was freed up with the return of its Battalions. Thus, on April 1 1955, Menzies declared that Navy and Air Force units would be deployed to Malaya.

Menzies made the point that if there was to be conflict then it should be fought as far from Australia’s shores as was possible.

The first Australian Battalion to go to Malaya was 2RAR, which had previously returned from Korea in April 1954. The Battalion arrived in Penang in October-November 1955 and mobilised in Battle in the Kulim area.

The Battalion lost 14 soldiers of which seven were killed during its tour. They returned to Australia in October 1957 to a ticker tape welcome in Sydney.

2RAR was replaced in Penang by 3RAR in 1957, at a point when the Terrorist Campaign was almost over. 3RAR were involved in tracking down dispersed bands of terrorists in Northern Malaya, working with tracker teams.

They suffered only one killed in action, two dying of illness and two wounded. What was left of the Terrorists had fled into deep jungle hideouts by the time 1RAR relieved 3RAR near the end of 1959.

The 12-year ordeal of terrorist warfare in Malaya had cost 12,000 lives.

2RAR returned to Malaya in October 1961 for its second tour as part of the Commonwealth Brigade based at Camp Terendak, Malacca. It continued in the role of tracking down remnants of terrorists on the Thai border and returned to Australia in 1963 without suffering any casualties. In February 1964 3RAR returned to Malaya for its second tour and also operated along the Thai border.

THE FEDERATION OF MALAYSIA

The channel between the Malay peninsular and the Indonesian island of Sumatra connects the China Sea and the Indian Ocean: About 800km (500 miles) long by 25 to 100 miles (40-160 km) wide.

Singapore lies on Singapore Island at the Southwest end of the straight. Malacca is the most easterly main town situated near the bottom of the peninsular.

Malaya was the region in South East Asia covering the southern end of the peninsular, the region being occupied by West Malaysia as part of the Federation of Malaysia.

The location of Malaya between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea means that the region is important as a shipping centre. Malaya covers almost three fourths of the peninsular (50,806 sq. miles) or (131,588 km).

The population is about 10,600,000, and about half of the people are Malay the rest being mostly Chinese and Indian.

In the late 1700s, Great Britain established trading posts on the Peninsular and on nearby islands. During the period 1800-1900 the British gained control and the Federation of Malaysia was established under their protection in 1948.

Malaya gained independence in 1957 and, in 1963, united with Sabah (formally north Borneo), Sarawak and Singapore to form the Federation.

The Malays live mostly in Indonesia, the Philippines and in Malaysia and belong to the Asian geographical race that includes China and Japan. The Malays have formed many new nations such as those just mentioned.

Most of the northern part of Borneo belongs to Malaysia. Malaysia consists of 13 states and the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur.

The country produces Copra, palm oil, pineapples, rice, rubber, timber, bauxite, iron and tin.

Social differences exist between the Chinese and Malayans and have caused political and social problems in the country. Japan conquered all of South East Asia during World War II (1939-45), until being defeated by the allied forces. Since then, problems between the Chinese and Malay occupants resulted in guerrilla warfare being mounted against the government by the rebels.

The region consists of high ranges, which run north and south, rising over 7000 feet and thus hamper transportation. Extensive forests, from which trees such as Camphor, Ebony, Sandalwood, Teak and Palm are harvested, cover most the country. There are also many swamps. The chief port is Georgetown on the island of Penang, which lies just off the west coast. There are many tribes Aborigines scattered throughout the country and some Dutch colonies exist: a small community them being resident in Malacca. The communist guerrillas, formed mainly among the Chinese, used the jungles to hide. From there they carried out terrorist raids on rubber plantations, settlements and highway traffic.

The British resettled more than 500,000 Chinese and by 1959 the guerrillas were confined to a few isolated small pockets. In December 1962, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Tengku Abdul Rahman accused Indonesia of sponsoring a revolt in Brunei and of attempting to subvert the projected Federation of Malaysia, by the.

BORNEO CONFRONTATION

Prior to September 1963, Borneo had been a country with three separate and independent states, these being Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei. Sarawak and North Borneo (later called Sabah) joined the Federation of Malaysia, with Brunei electing to remain an independent state outside the Federation under the protection of Britain.

Indonesia however, was intent on ‘crushing Malaysia’, the leaders of which were considered ‘puppets’ of the British. The Malaysian government asked Australia to commit troops to Borneo and on 3rd February 1965 the Australian Government decided to send 3RAR and a SAS unit.

3RAR moved by sea and air from Terendak to Sarawak taking over from the 1/7th Ghurkhas in the Bau district near Kuching. The Battalion Commanding Officer was Lt Col Bruce Macdonald.

At the end of 1962, the Commonwealth forces consisted of a Brigade of three infantry battalions, 15 Naval and Air force helicopters and six naval minesweepers.

The new General, over a period of five years, formed a combined multinational force consisting of four regular infantry brigades, made up of 13 infantry battalions, British, Ghurkha, Australian and Malay, plus two battalions of police field force (sometimes called police jungle companies), and the equivalent of a battalion of SAS (Special Air Service) Squadrons. This regiment was made up of Ghurkha, British, Australian and New Zealand forces and two regiments of Artillery, British, Australian and Malay.

There were also two regiments of armoured cars, British and Malay, two regiments of engineers, British, Ghurkha, Australian and Malay, and about 1500 border scouts consisting of recruits from indigenous tribes.

For inshore and upriver patrolling, there were coastal minesweepers and naval and maritime police fast, armed patrol boats.

To control the air there were about 40 fixed wing aircraft and about 70-80 helicopters, which was a number considerably short of the requirement.

The communications system was very good allowing joint intercommunication with the four Main arms Army, Navy, Air Force and Police. The HQ of the National operations committee was in Kuala Lumpur, which was also part of the network, as was the Commander-in-Chiefs headquarters in Singapore.

In Borneo there were no railways and very few decent roads of any note. This meant transport problems were more difficult due to the fact that there was only one deep water port, that of Labuan.

To transport goods and equipment to Brunei, small coastal cargo boats were used to cross the twenty miles of sea and navigate the river; such transhipments were highly organised. It was quite a massive undertaking since initially there were no service stocks in the country. Everything such as medical stores, food, ammunition, clothing and transport had to be shipped in over 900 miles of sea and air.

There were no in-country military bases or workshops of any kind. Everything was built from scratch. The lack of roads dictated a logistic method and military operational concept that placed reliance on air supply and air deployment of troops and equipment, thus enabling complete mobility and flexibility.

Roads, where this type of guerrilla insurgency exists, are a hazard since in dense jungle country for use of roads gives advanced notice to the enemy and are subject to ambush.

Each month from November 1964 to October 1965, an average of 19,000 troops were air lifted with an average of 1,900,000 lbs. of supplies; indeed this was a massive undertaking.

General Walker brought with him a great deal experience gained during the Malay Emergency (1948-60). He had also studied at length the insurgency in Indochina, (Vietnam) the period, 1946-1962.

The communist guerrillas in Malaya were defeated by the successful system of unity formed by Field Marshal Templar and it was from this knowledge that General Walker based his strategy.

The General was very impressed with the work of Australian SAS units who lived and worked among the Local inhabitants. He was also impressed with 3RAR, two members of which were awarded the Military Cross and one, the Military Medal.

When occupying a foreign country it is important to win the hearts and minds of the local populations. To do this it follows that there is advantage in speaking the language and to learn, honour and respect local customs.

Small units of highly trained SAS units were sent to live and work among them. They protected them and shared their dangers. They got to know them, gained their confidence, always being friendly, understanding and patient. During daylight hours a sense of security was established and at night the presence of patrols frequently visiting established greater security.

Much time and effort was put in to improve the standard of living of the natives, helping with agriculture, communications, and water supply. All these things were improved. Medical clinics were set up, schools, even a flying doctor service.

It was of great importance to avoid local casualties. Each time, for example, that the enemy was defeated, every precaution was taken to ensure that villages were not made the victims of reprisals.

Each village set up its own alarm system and defence plan. At all costs, villages had to be protected against occupation of the enemy; in this way the hearts and minds of the locals could be won.

The frontier, 970 miles of rugged jungle landscape, was held by the commonwealth forces against armies two or three times their strength.

To dominate jungle, 1,000 miles by 100 miles in depth, was no easy task. The four brigades occupied frontages of 181-442-267 – and 81 miles of extremely thick jungle terrain. To manage such vast areas speed, flexibility and mobility was essential.

There were no usable roads, rivers or railways, only dense jungle. The enemy’s intentions had to be anticipated, in order that he be cut off and destroyed before he could retreat across the frontier.

Sound intelligence and all types of air support was the key. But it was the helicopter that proved to be the craft that could provide the mobility, speed and flexibility required. They flew across jungle-covered mountains along dense valleys dropping soldiers quickly and efficiently in the most effective places.

To relieve the pressure, short airstrips were constantly being built to provide for light short take off aircraft such as the Beaver.

Patrolling rivers with the SRN-5 hovercraft, with a cruising speed of 50 knots carrying up to 20 troops or two tons of freight, was most successful. It was a particularly useful deployment craft at night when helicopters were inadequate.

Every soldier, be he cook, medic or infantryman were all trained to a level of skill, which allowed them, at any time, to act in the role of infantryman.

An essential ingredient was to avoid being tied down in defence of bases. Every man was responsible for his own protection weather he was in the battle zone or the rear areas.

Great use was made of guile and deception. Maximum use was made of booby traps, land mines, claymore mines and many forms of lethal warning devices. The motto was ‘never do the same things twice’.

On every occasion, efforts by the enemy to attack camps, villages and bases were prevented by sound intelligence that enabled the Commonwealth Forces to strike first.

Two-thirds the force was kept active in the field while the other third maintained dug-in defensive positions. Agents lived in hostile villages to feed back information. The soldier carried a plastic sheet, which he used as a tent or ‘hoochie’, a packet of rice and a pouch full of ammunition.

Above all troops had to dominate the jungle, to own and control it.

It is the fighting skill of each individual in the jungle that is accentual since support units are limited. Each soldier was properly acclimatised and learnt the skills of jungle warfare in the jungle training school, in west Malaysia.

Australians carried out this training in Canungra Queensland and were usually highly skilled in jungle warfare prior to departure from Australia.

The Indonesian regular soldier was no slouch; indeed he had won freedom against the Dutch in 1946 fighting the same way as he conducted his operations in Borneo. In fact, he was now better trained and had better weapons, which were supplied by the USSR.

Indonesian officers, ironically, had been trained by the British in the West Malaysian jungle training centre and the school of intelligence in England. Despite this the British forces established complete mastery over the Indonesians, adapting to guerrilla type warfare better than they did.

The gunners deployed 30 guns in single gun positions over almost 1,000 miles. The guns, the L5 Pack Howitzer could be dismantled or picked up whole by the twin rotor Belvedere helicopters and delivered to tactical positions rapidly.

In 1965, British troops were equipped with lightweight equipment and weapons. The American armourlite, (AR15) was the standard infantry weapon and were also issued with the 88-mm mortar, the Carl Gustav rocket launcher, GPMG M60, Claymore mines, M79 grenade launcher, M26 grenades, seismic intruder detectors, Australian lightweight jungle kit and new British and Ghurkha light weight rations. Late in 1964, Indonesia increased the campaign and trebled the strength of the regular garrisons along the border, particularly in West Sarawak.

The battle was a major conflict: the enemy fighting with tenacity and skill. He had the weapons and knew how to use them and by 1965-66, only the highest standards of patrolling, fire and movement and battle craft enabled the Commonwealth forces to defeat him.

4RAR took over from 3RAR in September 1965 although 4RAR did not move to Borneo until April 1966. Their companies occupied border bases at Gumbang, Bokah and Stass. The period was fairly quiet though a great deal of patrolling was carried out. In September 1966 the Battalion returned to Terendak Camp.

The war ended in mid-1966 and the Battalions resumed prior commitments of 1963, chasing terrorists who were Chinese from Sarawak trained in Indonesia.

The British had conducted a brilliant campaign showing the versatility their soldiers and equipment. There is no doubt that the military operation conducted in Borneo was one the most efficient in modern history.

A coup attempt in Djakarta on September 30th 1965 had caused upheaval in Indonesia though there was no noticeable immediate effect on the Borneo situation.

Six Indonesian Generals were slain in the coup attempt. There was little doubt that the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) was intensely involved, as it was their aim to remove anti-communist influence from the Army.

Thousands of Communists were killed in the violence that followed and the PKI was destroyed. This brought great relief to the Australian Government because, coupled with Indonesia’s defeat by the Commonwealth forces, this event removed a threat that was potentially far greater to Australia than the worrying situation in Vietnam.