50 YEARS: The Battle of Long Tan took place 50 years ago.
50 YEARS: The Battle of Long Tan took place 50 years ago. contributed

2016: 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan

IN August 2016, Australians will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, South Vietnam, in 1966.

In the worst possible weather conditions less than 100 Australians from Delta Company, 6 RAR (Sixth Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment) were forced to battle an enemy of 2500 trained troops and guerrilla forces.

No-one can be sure how many enemy soldiers were killed or died of wounds but 245 bodies were found in the rubber plantation and surrounding jungle the next morning. It has been estimated at more than 800 were killed or died of wounds.

Eighteen Australians were killed in the Battle of Long Tan and 24 wounded, all but one of the dead were from D Company.

So what led up to this battle and how did so many Australians survive when completely surrounded by the enemy who had far greater numbers and heavy machine guns, mortars and anti-tank rockets?

The Australian Task force base at Nui Dat was only three months old and the Viet Cong, concerned about the strong presence in their midst, were determined to defeat and then force the Australians out of their stronghold.

It started the previous evening when the Task Force base, Nui Dat, came under fire from mortars and recoilless rocket fire and the whole base 'stood-to,' expecting the barrage to be followed by an attack.

The following morning, D Company, 6 RAR, were sent to patrol an area just east of Nui Dat near the local rubber plantation in search of the mortar base plate sites and to scout out any enemy movement.

Patrols by other units in different areas were also undertaken.

D Company was divided into three platoons of a little more than 25 men each while searching in the Long Tan area and many of the soldiers were not happy at having missed a concert by popular artists, Little Pattie and Col Joye but they were soldiers after all and this was their job.

One of the platoons came across a number of enemy soldiers and proceeded to attack but were shortly outflanked by a larger number of enemy and were forced to pull back under heavy fire.

A second platoon started to move towards the first one in support but also came under heavy enemy fire and when joined by members of the first platoon, started to pull back towards the third platoon which by then was also taking enemy fire.

The three platoons eventually came together in the rubber plantation and formed a defensive company harbour position.

The enemy immediately concentrated fire on the Australians with machine guns, mortars and small arms fire and it was only the quick response from a New Zealand artillery battery which saved them from annihilation.

Within minutes of the battle beginning in the rubber, a torrential tropical downpour cut visibility to less than 20 metres and with the 'splash' factor or red mud to about 60cm high, the Australians had very little idea of what the enemy were doing.

On the other side, the heavy rain, accurate artillery fire and the red mud made life just as difficult. They knew the Australians were there but repeated attacks from different angles only caused more deaths from the accurate fire however, D Company were running out of ammunition.

And still the Viet Cong attacked in waves.

Major Harry Smith, Company Commander of D Company, called for helicopters to drop ammunition in but the only ones available were two RAAF 'Hueys' which were ferrying the concert party in and out of Nui Dat.

Against orders from RAAF in Canberra, the two pilots flew to the 6 RAR lines and were loaded with as much ammunition as they could carry and then took off for the five minute flight to the Long Tan rubber plantation.

In the heavy rain and fog, it was impossible for the pilots to see anything more than tree tops at close range and when the first smoke grenade thrown by D Company changed colour coming up through the trees, the helicopters moved away, fearing they were being lured into a trap. A second smoke grade cleared the matter and both helicopters were able to turn on their sides and dropped the ammunition right into the middle of the soldiers on the ground.

As soon as the helicopters cleared, every artillery piece at Nui Dat opened fire, guided by the artillery forward observer who was embedded with D Company.

As the enemy moved closer, artillery was called in almost on top of the Australians and this extremely accurate fire was the only means by which they were saved.

Task Force headquarters initially refused to send reinforcements, tanks or more troops, fearing a much larger attack on the Task Force base itself however, desperate calls from Major Smith and much pleading from the CO, 6 RAR, eventually led to B Company being sent on foot and A Company in armoured personnel carriers (APCs) almost on dark.

The APCs fought their way through several attacks by the enemy en-route to D Company's position and one member of the crew of 3 Troop, 1 APC Squadron, was killed. The APCs reached D Company just on 7pm.

The Viet Cong had been massing for another assault but were forced to retreat into the plantation by heavy fire from the APCs and another company of troops and their concentrated fire.

The Viet Cong had suffered terrible casualties, but only when the Australians returned to the scene of battle the following morning did they realise the extent of the defeat that they had inflicted on the enemy.

D Company were surprised to find two of their own wounded still alive in the rubber plantation where they had laid during the night, unable to move. These two soldiers lived to return to Australia.

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