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Danger Close: The Battle for Xa Long Tan

This article was originally published in the September-October 2016 Edition of Reveille to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan.

By Rev Graeme R Davis OAM CSM (Maj Retd), 12 Platoon D Coy 1966

“These boots are made for walkin’ and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

For a group of young Australian soldiers about to head off to the Vietnam War, this 1966 Nancy Sinatra hit struck an enormous chord and has remained embedded in our collective memories for the past 50 years. It perfectly summed up the testosterone-filled bravado of the more than 108 men of D Company 6th Bn RAR (D/6) made up of a 40/60 amalgam of regular and National Servicemen, and what they intended to do to the enemy when they met. Just as we did through happenstance on 18 August 1966.

D/6, prior to deployment in early 1966, rapidly espoused Sinatra’s hit as their theme song and a pair of digger’s boots soon featured on the sub-unit’s logo, based on the Greek (Delta) triangle, with a red edging (our company colour). All credit for design goes to my former skipper, Lt David Sabben, MG, 12 Pl Commander. We were known to all as the “boots company” of 6 RAR and proud of it.

Every year on 18 August I cannot hide my frustration that the anniversary of this battle has, for all intent, been hijacked by the general Vietnam veteran community across the land and they use the day as an excuse to celebrate “their service” rather than to honour the 18 men of D/6 who gave their all in Xa Long Tan; they now refer in general to the day just as Vietnam Veterans Day. 18 August is Long Tan Day, and we welcome anyone to commemorate with us, but don’t forget the objectivity.

To underscore my position, Vietnam Veterans Day in some local government areas is not even commemorated necessarily on 18 August, but rather on a day to suit another agenda. To my way of thinking this has to be like celebrating Christmas in July. A great idea maybe for a gathering, but lacking any real substance, significance or credibility.

The Battle of Long Tan, 18 August 1966, was fought between D Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, (D/6) and an unknown and immeasurable Viet Cong guerilla force in a rubber plantation neighboring the village of Xa Long Tan, just five kilometres from the main Task Force base at Nui Dat. It is arguably the most famous single battle fought by the Australian Army during the Vietnam War.

The action occurred when D/6, part of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF), encountered the Viet Cong (VC) 275 Regiment and elements of the D445 local guerilla forces in battalion strength. D/6 was supported in their encounter by all available Australian arms and service units, as well as New Zealand and United States personnel. It has been stated by several authentic sources over time that the VC knew of the Task Force intent to take a short reprieve from ongoing operations that day and stage a live concert by Col Joye and Little Pattie, and that it would be a golden opportunity for the VC to attack the 1 ATF position and push the Australian force out of Phuoc Tuy Province.

Every sailor, soldier, airman and woman who served in the Vietnam conflict (1963- 73) knows and appreciates that Long Tan wasn’t the biggest battle the Australians experienced during their time in country. Nor did Operation Vendetta (the battle for LT) endure the longest time under direct fire, but let history not ignore that Long Tan did not involve the same number of infantry and supporting arms and services as, for example, the horrific battle at Fire Support Base Coral and Balmoral. Military history has placed and acknowledged Long Tan as the most desperate and the most critical encounter to the Australian mission, and certainly it was the most decisive in terms of results.

In this, my 50 year anniversary reflection, I don’t intend to rearticulate the battle, but rather I invite you to revisit what I believe to be the only two authentic accounts of the battle, with which I stand shoulder to shoulder and back to back, namely:

1)            Long Tan –The Start of a Life Long Battle (2015) by Harry Smith

2)            The Battle of Long Tan as told by the Commanders (2004) by Bob Grandin

Australians need perpetual reminders that the advance to contact into Xa Long Tan was undertaken by a time-honoured Australian rifle company. From start to end of the company’s advance to contact, the battle and eventual withdrawal of D/6 was under the exceptional command of Major Harry (the Rat Catcher) Smith MC, sub- unit commanders Gordon Sharp (KIA), Geoff Kendall MG and David Sabben MG, together with absolute meticulous and unrelenting support from Capt. Maury Stanley Forward OBE, Observation Officer NZ Artillery, from “tracks” from 3 Troop, 1 APC Squadron, from a mortar Fire Controller from 6 RAR Mortar Platoon, and to round out the supporting arms and services D/6 had available to them, two 9 Squadron RAAF Hueys. This small dynamic force, in every warrior’s view, was an unyielding Command group. Thanks be to God.

In Major Smith’s own words he summarises the battle like this;

“Long Tan was an encounter battle where 108 soldiers of D Coy survived continual frontal assaults mounted by battalions of a reinforced NVA Regiment in the order of some 2500 NVA and VC troops. The battle developed from a Platoon contact with a VC Patrol, to an assault on that platoon by probably two VC Companies, then to Battalion attacks on our final Company defensive position”

After my 37.5 years in the military service I still ask myself, as do so many other D/6 combatants, just what were the Task Force and Bn HQ Commanders thinking of when they tasked and deployed a single rifle company on such a perilous patrol, as this defied all tactical doctrine?

Major Smith in his 2015 book enlightens his readers that “the Task Force Commander, Brig O D Jackson, had been given critical information by his top secret 547 Signals Intelligence Unit at Nui Dat of the likelihood that the 5th Division’s 275 Regiment and support units were resting in jungle just east of the Long Tan rubber plantation with another major force, 274 Regiment, somewhere nearby to the north.

And more: “that D455 battalion was probably near Xa Long Tan to the southwest of the rubber plantation”.

For any military strategist (officer or SNCO) like myself, now with 37.5 years of sub-unit experience and command, who has studied and employed Coy/ Btn tactics, and now with 50 years to reflect on our involvement, to conclude that to deploy a solitary rifle Coy (D/6) consisting of no more than 108 men for a search and destroy mission into hostile terrain, to take and hold ground, against a potential 2000 North Vietnamese regular Army/Viet Cong force, after already taking enemy mortar rounds on and in 1 ATF, is just beyond my belief. It has to be against all military thought and pre-emptive reasoning, as Major Smith said (p96): “tantamount to a suicide mission.” I further believe that it was like D/6 were just lambs sent to the slaughter.

In the end Operation Vendetta-Smithfield (the battle of Xa Long Tan) was nothing short of a fight for survival. Had we (D/6) failed our mission, (as we almost did), not due to any incompetence, poor leadership or meagre training, but due entirely to the size of the aggressive enemy strength (up to 2500 as appraised by 547 Signals Int Unit) together with by the number of D/6 KIA and or WIA, the running out of ammunition, the non-relenting impenetrable rain, poor visibility, added into the mix that constant enemy bugle calls bidding the ferocious enemy advance onto our positions, what other outcome could you expect?

By day’s end, D/6 was a depleted infantry company; we had nothing more to offer. We had kept the faith in true ANZAC tradition, we were true to our mission, and we had given our all. In the end I attest that had the VC made that one final assault on our positions we would have been overrun. It would have been game over. The conclusion of operation Vendetta-Smithfield would have been without question the potential loss of one Infantry Company of the Royal Australian Regiment.

With God and fate on our side, with 3 Troop 1APC Sqn arriving with that element of surprise to the VC along with Battalion reinforcements, allied with the gallant support from 161 Battery (NZ Artillery) and 9 Sqn RAAF, victory was our reward. D/6 survived to fight another day, but, at what a cost to human life and suffering? Both Australian and Vietnamese. What more do I need to say except thanks for remembering us and may “eternal rest grant unto them O Lord. May our brothers at last rest in peace.”

Lest we forget.

Image: Troops of the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), fire an APC mounted mortar during a sweep after the battle at Long Tan, part of Operation Smithfield. Source: Australian War Memorial.

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