5RAR Association Website
Special Mention

 

Australian infantryman's combat badge
Memoirs of an Armourer

© Mick Henrys
Battalion armourer
1st Tour
author: Mick Henrys

The story contained in this page covers the period from November 1965 until January 1968. Its main characters are the weapons we all lived with every day, the tools of trade of the Infantry Battalion of the time in the Australian Army and in particular 5 RAR in The Republic of South Vietnam. It tells of their strengths and weaknesses, their design problems and defects, as well as the comforts and security they gave us.

Mick Henrys.


In Holsworthy in 1965 the old 1 RAR (1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment) lines well reflected the traditional weapons with which we trained and worked. The solid old wooden huts even smelt of small arms maintenance oil (OM13), linseed oil, Brasso and boot polish. The principal weapons were:

divider 7.62 Self Loading Rifle (SLR).
The standard issue personal weapon manufactured by the Small Arms Factory at Lithgow.  An Australian version of the Belgian 7.62 FN.
divider 9mm Owen Sub Machine Carbine (OMC).
Usually carried by Section Commanders and Platoon Commanders. All were of 1945 or prior vintage, rugged, simple but showing their age.
divider 7.62 General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG).
Low profile, belt fed, high rate of fire, highly mobile, simple to repair.
divider 9mm Browning Semi-Automatic Pistol.
Belgium produced by Fabrique Nationale. Some earlier models had fittings that could take a butt-like shoulder grip but the majority of ours were newer models with no such add-ons.

SUPPORT COMPANY WEAPONS INCLUDED:

divider 81mm Mortars.
divider 106mm Recoilless Rifles:
Mounted on modified Landrovers
divider 84mm Carl Gustav Anti-Tank Weapons.
divider Flame Throwers.

We trained on these and took all of them with us to South Vietnam in April and May 1966. Prior to our departure the team of armourers, Mick Henrys, Steve Wood and Jim Toohill inspected and serviced all weapons. Here we made our first mistake. I thought that if we had all of our SLR's processed through the Base Workshop at Moorebank to be re-blackened, this would give us a good starting point, as it should have made them like new and therefore easier to maintain. We did this by working shift work through the nights while the battalion trained by day. In fact the blackening all came off very easily but the sights and the gas regulator were clogged with chemical salts which made them much harder to use and difficult to clean. It took several weeks to clean this up. My belated apologies to all concerned!

Within days of our arrival in Vietnam and long before we could unpack any of our tools or equipment our family of weapons was changing rapidly. Colt AR-15, 5.56mm Rifles were given to us from 1 RAR. These had had a lot of use and being early model AR 15's, not the AR 16's that we became very familiar with later, and were therefore very much lacking in technical reliability. Their most dramatic problem was that they did not have a 'Forward Assist Device' or serrated Bolt Carrier. This meant that the slightest bit of sand or dirt would cause the bolt to lock in the semi-closed position and the weapon was then useless and if this happened when the weapon had been hot, it was usually totally beyond repair. We also picked up a number of M79, 40mm Grenade Launchers from 1 RAR, along with a small number of 12 gauge, Remington, pump action shot guns.

The move into Nui Dat, part of Operation Hardihood, saw us picking up all of our faithful weapons and walking into the rubber trees. It was here that I became aware that one of the Company Quarter Master Sergeants (CQMS), Lofty Cunningham from Support Company, had brought along an old friend of his from a previous affair (or marriage, I'm not quite sure.) Yes, Lofty decided that we needed at least one .303 Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) that he had used in Korea. I told him we could look after it provided he had the ammunition. So unknowingly we became the last Infantry Battalion to carry Owen Sub Machine Carbines and .303 SMLE rifles into war.

Some people, not many, decided that they were better off carrying foreign weapons. Sgt 'Shorty' Ford for example, a photographer, who was often attached to 5 RAR for operations, had picked up a US M1 Carbine and a CSM, John Clark, was using a German P38 Walther 9mm pistol he had collected when he was an Advisor. Very sadly one of the young soldiers had also been given a 12 gauge double barrel sawn-off shotgun. (More on that later).

Others, who were not prepared to wait, bought fairly standard US issue weapons that were becoming common in our Battalion as they became available. Brian London purchased a M16 from his 1 RAR counter-part and John Lea-Smith bought one from the boot of a CIA car in Cholon after drinking with the owner in the Capital Bar. Going price $60.00 US. In turn this went to Jock Logan in 7 RAR. Brian also carried a Colt .45 Automatic but as this used non-standard ammunition for our system, he accepted full responsibility for re-supply. The armourers did do minor maintenance when asked.

We were very soon to have two other significant major additions to our collections. Courtesy of the Commander of 173 Airborne Brigade, US Army and perhaps some horse-trading by Ron Shambrook and John Miller, a number of .50 Cal Browning Heavy Machine Guns became available and formed a very important part of our perimeter defences. Also the standard number of GPMG M60's was increased from 54 to 65 because of the need to move the section guns out on extended operations, but still supply the defences necessary on the newly formed base camp. From hereon in, the time line of our affair with these weapons goes something like this:

Operation Hardihood saw everyone struggling with the mud and damp as we worked to establish the base and set up very primitive working conditions. It was impossible for soldiers with problems with their weapons to get to us (the armourers) so we decided that we would arrange regular and routine visits to each of the Company sites and inspect, service and repair the weapons there. Any seriously damaged or non-functional weapons were brought to us via the CQMS system.

Browning .50 Calibre Machine Gun
browning .50 calibre machine gun

The introduction of .50 Cal Brownings was, by far, the biggest single impact at this time. Fortunately we (the armourers) had been trained on these weapons but we were the only people in the Battalion who knew much about them, as they were not a standard Infantry weapon. From this time on and for the complete 12 months, this gave us a very different role, that being, to train operators in the use of this major defence weapon. This took each of us to many different sites throughout the Province working with Australian, US and Vietnamese soldiers. Users had to be trained in the firing, maintenance, and particular to Browning machine guns, the timing and head-spacing of the weapons after barrel changes.

In the early stages of the occupation of Nui Dat these machines guns were seen to as a major part of the perimeter defences and were placed in strong points in each Company. As there was a lot of movement going on outside these lines each night, these weapons were considered to be very important. On my second night in Nui Dat, I think around 28th May 1966, I was called to the RAP (Regimental Aid Post) by SSGT Mick Seats, shown into the doctor's emergency treatment area and there on the stretcher was C Company's .50 Cal. It was the only place in the area that was sufficiently well blacked out to allow a torch to be alight. A quick minor operation to remove and replace a broken firing pin and to free up the mechanism was all that was necessary to allow the patient to return to duty.

These guns continued to give us good service for the remaining year and many Infantrymen became extremely competent with them. We installed them on the hill at Nui Dat for D Coy and then again for D Coy on The Horseshoe when they moved there.

GPMG M60 Machine Gun
GPMG M60 machine gun

Our friend the GPMG M60 was a trusted and much needed part of the Infantry Section's operations. It provided massive firepower from a low profile and could be moved very quickly from site to site when only on the bipod. From the operators' point of view, its strength was that it was belt fed and thus could fire a great number of rounds very quickly. Its weakness was also that it was belt fed and the ammunition could not be kept clean and would pick up mud and dirt to be fed into the weapon until it jammed.

From an armourer's point of view it was very cheaply built, primitive in design, and had minor breakdowns frequently. On the plus side, it was very easy to repair and we could always get them back into service very, very quickly. armourers were frequently called into company operations to repair these guns 'in situ'.

I now am going to record what may be a sensitive issue. That being the major 'breakdown' that occurred with these guns. By far and away the most common problem was that a gun would be reported as only being able to fire a single round and then had to be manually re-cocked. 95% of breakdowns were this issue. What happened, was that the gas piston had been removed and replaced, facing the wrong way.

Was this a training problem or a design problem? The manufacture's solution was to classify the gas piston and cylinder as being "self-cleaning", and therefore not to be touched by the operator, however the gun still came with a spanner to fit the nut necessary to open it.

These guns, with some local modification to the tripod fitting became a common sight mounted on the Battalions' Landrovers. It was those vehicles that would have normally carried the 106mm Recoilless Rifles that were so modified. As they had no canopy, they were known as 'Sports Cars'.

As a quick aside can anyone remember what material the special gloves for changing the barrels was made of?? ... You guessed it! Asbestos ... and plenty of it.

In the twelve months of continual service our 65 GPMG's only had one failure that could not be fixed within a two-hour period. That was caused by a broken firing pin that had cracked at the "rear spool" and fallen down and jammed the unlocking mechanism. Steve Wood headed off to a more heavily equipped workshop in Vung Tau to work on it and even though we had tried all types of things to free it first, the road trip down did the job for us and he fixed the gun in a matter of minutes on arrival there. A rough road and good luck can sometimes be handy.

Late in 1966 we managed to "find" 4 GPMG's that had had a lot of firing with a US Army unit. They were packed up and sent to the RAEME (Royal Australian Electrical Mechanical Engineers) Training Centre where they were "sectionised" and converted into training aids. Up until then no such thing was available in Australia. Three of them were returned to 5 RAR at Holsworthy. I saw the fourth one in a museum in Bandiana in 2004.

The Owen Sub Machine Carbine (OMC)
Owen Sub-Machine Gun 9mm

Only had a short life in Vietnam. They were carried by Platoon Commanders, Forward Scouts and Stretcher Bearers among others. They remained with us until October 1966. There were no real problems with the weapon; it was the ammunition that failed. I think there were several attempts to prove that the gun/ammo was no longer suitable and should be replaced with many more 5.56 weapons. Success finally came when the armourers provided copies of a formal instruction that the weapons were not to be test fired with any ammo older than 1954. The only rounds that the Battalion could get for operations were made in the early 1940's. Bye-bye OMC's, hello AR 16's.

7.62mm SLR (Self Loading Rifle)
L1A1 SLR self-loading rifle

In the early days the 7.62mm SLR served us all very well. There were some calls from individuals to have 30 round magazines fitted and to modify the weapon to fire full automatically. These, of course, were formally ignored and quietly done when necessary. The formation of the Reconnaissance Platoon and the closing down of the Anti-Tank Platoon meant two things. Firstly the packing up of the 106mm Recoilless Rifles and secondly many, many requests for modifications to the SLR's. These were quietly done but not talked about. We liked to think that the individual soldiers concerned were capable of handling the modified weapons safely. To do it for everyone would have opened up a can of worms that no one would be able to control. To ignore the requests of some might have meant that they would go ahead and do the modifications themselves and not as well as we did. Anyway, those who really only wanted an automatic weapon usually managed to get an M16.

From March 1967 onwards the story of the SLR changed quite a bit. Problems that had never been seen before began to appear more and more frequently. Steve Wood and Jim Toohill both identified a combination of worn parts in the trigger mechanism that caused the sear (that part of the mechanism that actually trips the hammer) to lock completely. Formal reporting of this brought no action, so another way around the issue was used to replace as many of the older weapons as possible. At about the same time another very strange fault developed. The cocking handle would lock in the forward and folded position and could not be moved. We were never able to find a way of identifying the likelihood of this happening and it was a great concern for us. Individual weapons could be fixed by removing metal from the body of the rifle, but this could not be done in the field. Not a good situation. Once again, formal reporting brought no action. (Perhaps nothing was possible.)

Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Instruction Weapons D253 Paragraph 14b gave us a means of condemning rifles by measuring the wear between two different parts of the body. It had nothing to do with the real problem, and we found that in fact we could use it to condemn any brand new rifle that we chose to inspect. The fact that I can remember the number of this instruction 40 years later clearly shows how many times we used it in the those months of 1967.

The greatest weakness of the SLR was that the ammunition was heavy and that, in very bad times, the re-supply was by ammo packed in boxes and there was no quick way of loading them into a magazine. During the battle of Long Tan, all the 5 RAR armourers were on the helipad loading 15 rounds into extra magazines that were then pushed out of a helicopter into the D Company 6 RAR site. The original FN version had a bridge over the body that allowed for magazine filling from rounds held in clips. The Australian made version did not.

Perhaps the silliest thing to ever happen with the SLR was the fitting of a plastic plug to the bottom of the return spring tube. A modification kit was just starting to arrive for this in 1967. This was done to only a handful of weapons in our time, but became very common practice later. The idea was to prevent moisture from getting into the tube. All it did was to prevent moisture from getting out and thus converted the spring and tube into a shock absorber. Some of you may remember our trick of having a small bet with anyone who came forward with the common statement, "My rifle will not operate on a gas setting of less than 8." Many a beer was won after Steve would demonstrate his special oiling and cleaning process. Usual time, one minute.

I recall one particular SLR that was returned to us in a very sick state. The user, Murray Claydon from C Company, had been fired upon while crossing a creek and had gone under water. Coming up ready for action he fired but the weapon was full of water. The barrel laid open, the body bulged out and the magazine burst with all live rounds in it being "exploded" through the bottom. The sides of the magazine were welded to the body of the rifle.

The 84mm Carl Gustaf Anti-Tank weapon.
84mm carl gustav anti-tank weapon

This one is very simple. Manufactured in Sweden, we were unable to use them because the Swedes would not provide ammunition, as they did not support the war in Vietnam. That must have been a good contract.

The Browning 9mm Pistol
browning 9mm pistol

Useful in vehicles and the bars of Vung Tau when you did not want to have to carry a rifle with you all the time. The cause of many Accidental Discharges (AD's) but mostly into the ground. It was regarded as being as good as any other pistol and as limited as they were as well. Its worst technical feature was that the magazine could not withstand being left with a number of rounds in it for very long before the spring ceased to function, leading to mis-feeds and jamming. The RMO, Captain Tony White has told me that he found the butt quite handy for eliciting reflexes during physical examinations.

The Colt AR 16 5.56mm Rifle.

Colt AR M16 Rifle

Vastly over-rated but definitely recognised as the "weapon of Vietnam". As described above, it was a very necessary improvement on the AR 15 Armalite. It was capable of firing a great number of rounds in the general direction in which is was pointed and because of the small calibre the ammunition was lighter and therefore an individual soldier could carry more of them than, say, 7.62 rounds. Initially thought to be able to kill anything that is was even vaguely near, the 5.56 bullet was actually really as limited as any other small calibre, high velocity round. It was all very simple; how many could you carry? That was the advantage. From an armourer's view point, perhaps the best thing to come out of Mr. Colt's effort was that they came with a good, small diameter cleaning rod which was excellent for the SLR and the GPMG's. Before these arrived, we would make cleaning rods out of fencing wire.
 

SUPPORT COMPANY CREW SERVED WEAPONS

I use this term to cover all of those specialist weapons that were based within Support Company. I do this because these need to be treated differently. These weapons were complex and at time massively important. The armourers knew how to service them, but far more important was how to use them. We had learnt to stand well back and listen to the expert users and ask how we could support them in their tasks rather than to tell them what could and could not be done.

106mm Recoilless Rifle
106mm recoilless rifle

106mm Recoilless Rifles Whilst D Coy occupied Nui Dat Hill before being required to hand it over to the SAS, some of the 106's were sighted there. Here they were tried in their secondary role as an area weapon. At high elevation the back blast was something to see and Max Carroll remembers Mick Deak (Baron von Berg) calling the fall of shot and making corrections as he developed new skills. After 17 rounds and orders such as "Drop 2000, Repeat!!!" the side of Nui Nghe Mountain was finally hit. Luckily longer-range artillery arrived very soon after and the 106's were packed up. Anti-tank Platoon became Reconnaissance Platoon.

Having packed up the 106mm Recoilless Rifles, the mortars and the flamethrowers became the main focus here. By necessity, the 81mm Mortars won our attention, and justly so. To witness a mortar section moving out on operations with all of their equipment man-packed is one of the most moving sights ever seen. The sheer physical loads and the endurance expected from and given by these men was breath taking.

M29 81 mm Mortar
m29 mortar

Our mortar sections fired an amazing number of rounds on particular days (for example, a platoon of 4 mortars fired 960 rounds on the 8th Oct 1966) and the guys were always looking for ways to improve their operations. Then when they returned to Base they were called upon to fire regularly from their semi-permanent position to "keep the baddies on their toes." As technicians we listened and advised, measured and monitored, made mechanical modifications on the side and kept things going. Measurement of the bore was necessary, as excessive wear would mean that the weapon might be inaccurate thus failing to do its job or presenting a danger to our own troops. Bob Hunting informed me that of even greater concern was the very unreliable US supplied Ammunition. "Drop-shorts" of a few hundred metres were common when using it. The tail fin would drop off making them very unstable.

In the wet season in particular, the mortars had a bad habit of burying their base plates, particularly after continued firing in the base camp. One very good crew decided that they could fix this with some sand and a few bags of cement. It worked but immediately caused the bipod arm to shatter. A locally manufactured version worked for the several weeks that it took to get a replacement part, but everyone was very happy.


 

The M79 40mm Grenade Launcher
M79 grenade launcher

Was widely used and presented a number of maintenance problems. It was very cheaply made and quite flimsy, especially around the sight area, and had been introduced into service hastily. Spare parts were virtually non-existent.

One afternoon I was handed an M79 with a partly fired High Explosive round stuck in the barrel. After reading a little technical data on the round, I was reasonably sure that it was fairly safe as the round had to rotate several times on its way out before it became fully armed. So in theory it was possible for me to drive the stuck round out of the barrel with a hammer and punch (and hopefully have it caught immediately as it came out of the barrel)

After a few hefty hits, the round began to change shape and become more firmly stuck. I immediately saw a solution to our spare parts problem. Remove the barrel from the weapon, use a demolition charge to destroy it, together with the stuck round, and then declare the complete weapon as having been destroyed. Everyone in the area agreed.

 

M-203
M203

The M79 made a further appearance in a slightly different form slung under the M16. This was known as the M-203.

 

M72 L.A.W.
M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon

The M72 LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapon) made up part of our weapons inventory, but as it was a non-maintainable item, it had little impact on the armourers.
 

Remington 12 Gauge Shotgun

No Photograph Available

Remington 12 Gauge Shot Guns. These pump action weapons which were simply an un-blackened civilian weapon, were held at company level and did not get much use, and did not need much maintenance.

Sawn-off double barrel 12 gauge shot gun. Not many people knew of its existence and it was passed from person to person when the original owner was evacuated home. He, apparently, was given it by his uncle or father with the best of intentions. One afternoon in Nui Dat it was mishandled and someone was killed. It came into the armourer's hands to be destroyed after the investigation.

In May 1967 we handed over our supply of spares, tools and even some of our experience to the 7 RAR boys. On our return to Holsworthy we set up the new armourer's facility in a brand new building and were amazed just how easy life was without the mud, sweat and anguish. Very sadly, within a few weeks Jim Toohill and Steve Wood were involved in a vehicle accident and Jim was killed.

Shortly afterwards I was posted to the RAEME (Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) Training Centre  where I was instructing future armourers, Steve Wood joined me there some 12 months later.

The contents of these pages come completely from my memory and I invite anyone to provide me with further information that might allow for either expansion or correction. I know that I now look back on those years and my time with 5 RAR in awe, and with the greatest respect possible for the people with whom I was lucky enough to serve.

The Armourers'

P.S. My complete lack of faith in the existence of morality and ethics amongst members of the weapons manufacturing and sales industry was re-confirmed several years later. In the mid 1970's I was working with the PNG Defence Force in Port Moresby. A European officer with the Police Force came into my office to show me an M 16. He had just purchased several hundred of them and was very proud of his purchase. He left a much less happy person when I pointed out to him that he had been sold old leftover pieces of very early model M15 Bodies and M16 Bolt Carriers. The Bolt Carriers had the serrations for the necessary "forward assist" but the bodies were a much earlier version M15 that did not have the matching Jack. I wonder how many other developing countries helped Mr. Colt get rid of his excess stock of useless parts after the Vietnam War?


BACK TO CONTENTS PAGE