Operation Camden
 


 



3 PLATOON AND ASSAULT PIONEER PLATOON ENCOUNTER THE 3RD BATTALION
274 REGIMENT ON THE 21ST AUGUST, 1969


Operation Camden was undertaken by 5 RAR from 29th July to 30th August, 1969. During the latter part of the operation, 3 Platoon and the Assault Pioneer Platoon were operating together under the command of 2IC A Company, Captain Bill Grassick with a small Tactical HQ including an FO Party in the VC Hat Dich Secret Zone. Total strength of the group was 52. On 21 August 1969 they were involved in a  sizeable action on the western side of the 5 RAR AO, (Area of Operations) engaging an unknown force in what turned out to be a well defended bunker system.
3 platoon a company being briefed prior to Operation Camden
In the early afternoon, while the two platoons were establishing separate ambush positions on well used tracks, members of the Assault Pioneer Platoon heard enemy voices to their front in an area of dense bamboo. Captain Grassick, summoned 3 Platoon from their position to undertake a co-ordinated assault.

After a short artillery bombardment called in by Bombadier Gerry Dekker of 105 Field Battery, the two platoons advanced two-up onto the enemy position and were abruptly met by fierce machine gun, RPG and AK47 fire across their entire front. The intensity of this contact caused immediate and heavy casualties - including the leader of the assault, Captain Grassick, who was badly wounded in the leg, his signaller Private Gavan Doyle who was hit in the arm and leg while attempting to drag Grassick out of a fire lane, and Private Alan Collins who was severely wounded in the face. Captain Grassick, despite the severity of his wound, continued to maintain command of the battle until loss of blood took its effect. Close air support aircraft, placed on stand-by before the assault, delivered their first ordnance on the enemy position. Assuming command, Lieutenant John James, commander of 3 Platoon, directed the right flanking sections to pull back a short distance Lt John James 3 Platoon Commanderto conform with the left flank (Assault Pioneer Platoon) that had been pushed back by the weight of enemy fire. During this tightening of the flanks, Corporal Michael (Mick) Dench, Bombadier Gerry Dekker and Private Ian Stewart, at great personal risk, extracted the semi-conscious Captain Grassick from under enemy fire. By now it was abundantly clear that the enemy had a much wider frontage than the combined two platoons. The noise was horrific and clear orders difficult to give or hear. Despite this, using their own initiative, Section Commanders ensured the integrity of the perimeter at all times. Sustained hostile fire (including RPG and 12.7mm heavy machine gun), especially from the front and right flank, continued to inflict casualties, including 3 Platoon Sergeant Alan McNulty. Lieutenant James directed Corporal Dench (7 Section, 3 Platoon) to secure a defendable position to the rear to which the two platoons could withdraw and from which the most seriously wounded be evacuated. Serious casualties at this stage numbered 9 (just under 20% of the group).

With more air support on its way, the now nearly surrounded group used fire and movement to withdraw from visual contact with the forward enemy bunkers to the newly established rear defensive position in an area of relatively dense bamboo. The first ‘Dustoff’ (US medevac) helicopter arrived soon after, and while under heavy fire winched four of the most seriously wounded on board, including Captain Grassick and Private Collins. This aircraft was replaced by a second (RAAF call sign Albatross 04) piloted by Pilot Officer Bob Treloar, to continue with the evacuation of the wounded. Also under intense small-arms fire, the second Dustoff remained on station until it was ordered away for fear it would be shot down and crash in the middle of the small perimeter. The wounded on board the second Dustoff, one of whom was re-wounded with two AK 47 rounds while in the chopper, returned fire on the enemy below from their elevated position. The helicopter was holed 19 times while overhead and the door gunner badly wounded. Lieutenant James made the decision that no more casualties would be evacuated until the immediate fight was won.

During the medevac the enemy added 60mm mortars to his attack, landing rounds inside the perimeter, killing Private David Banfield of the Assault Pioneer Platoon and wounding eight further soldiers.

By this stage, Lieutenant James – himself wounded by both mortar and RPG fire – using the only remaining fully serviceable infantry radio maintained contact with the Forward Air Controller, who was overhead, and Major Reg Sutton, A Company Commander, who was proceeding to the contact area as fast as possible with 1 and 2 Platoons. An ammunition re-supply was also urgently requested.

L/Cpl Jock Roe, Cpl Mick Dench MM & Pte John BettensFollowing their probing, the enemy launched a concerted attack on the force’s right flank - 3 Platoon’s position. With all but the most seriously injured in firing positions on the perimeter, this attack was repulsed, aided by the Assault Pioneer Platoon who maintained steady fire into the enemy position to place as much pressure as possible on their own front and the enemy’s flank. Throughout the attack Corporal Dench, who had been directed by Lieutenant James to assume battle control of the hard pressed 3 Platoon, moved around the perimeter, showing a calm presence and offering encouragement to all. 3 Platoon Medic, Corporal John ‘Doc’ Lloyd – wounded and using his rifle as a crutch – also performing outstanding duty in the dual role of medic for the combined force and runner for Lieutenant James who was fully engaged at this time coordinating the defence and the vital air and artillery support. Because of the number of wounds being sustained among the defenders, Corporal Lloyd was forced to remove shell dressings from some of the more lightly wounded to use on those more seriously injured. Also at this critical time, Lieutenant Graham Locke, head of the Assault Pioneer Platoon, assumed responsibility for ammunition re-distribution, as supplies were down to three to six rounds per man in 3 Platoon. No man, wounded or unwounded, left his position on the perimeter. All steadfastly faced the enemy.

Of vital assistance too throughout the defensive action was the RAAF ‘BushrangerCpl John 'Doc' Lloyd helicopter gunship team. Such was the severity of the situation, the mini-gun fire from these aircraft was brought in so close to the perimeter that the bullets chewed up the tops of the bamboo trees and the leaves fell on the soldiers below like rain. This fire had a devastating effect on the attacking enemy, critically preventing those on the ground from being encircled.

As more air support arrived overhead – which included ‘Dragon’ and ‘Raider’ US Gunships and US ‘Black Pony’ OV10 ground attack fighters – the radio net became dangerously overcrowded. To alleviate the situation, ‘Bushranger 71’ (Flying Officer Michael Tardent), in direct contact with Lieutenant James, assumed the role of traffic controller and co-ordinated a continuous wave of air support around the shrinking perimeter.

Despite this intense assault from the air, the enemy made another push against the right flank but was again stubbornly repulsed. By this time, the urgently needed ammunition had been dropped by helicopter and distributed, and Major Fred Spry, the Acting Battalion Commander who had arrived directly overhead in ‘Possum’ (Bell Sioux helicopter) and unflinchingly assumed the mantle of the fearless Lieutenant Colonel Colin ‘Genghis’ Khan, dropped the much needed shell dressings onto the position.

The almost non-stop aircraft attacks and the distribution of resupplied ammunition eventually began to have an effect on the enemy. After some two hours of continuous probing and attacks, enemy fire slackened and then – with the exception of an occasional single shot – ceased.

The small two platoon force of 52 men had suffered 36 wounded — 10 twice — and one killed in action. It did not have sufficient numbers of fit men to attempt any follow-up or investigation of the enemy position and had established as strong a perimeter as possible in-situ. As darkness approached, Major Sutton arrived with 1 and 2 Platoons and a stronger position was established further to the rear near a clearing more suitable for helicopters. Clearing patrols were dispatched to confirm the enemy was no longer in contact.

Casualties needing immediate attention were evacuated and, because of the numbers involved, webbing and equipment belonging to those evacuated was lifted out in a cargo net. The last casualties evacuated that evening arrived at 1st Australian Field Hospital, Vung Tau around 2140 hours. Here they found themselves in the hands of the legendary “Weary” Dunlop who advised the exhausted Corporal Lloyd (one of the last evacuees that night), “It’s alright now son, your boys are going to be OK”. Both Lieutenants James and Locke remained with the remnants of their platoons, with the wounded Lieutenant James being evacuated next morning.

Because of depleted numbers, the surviving members of the Assault Pioneer Platoon and 3 Platoon were amalgamated into an under strength sub-unit for the remainder of Operation Camden, with Lieutenant Locke commanding and Corporal Dench as acting Sergeant.

Lt John James recovering in the 1st Australian Field HospitalCaptured documents later revealed that the enemy force encountered was the complete 3rd Battalion of 274 VC Regiment. The VC report of the action stated they had been engaged by an enemy (Australian) force of around battalion strength and themselves had suffered 13 killed and 25 wounded.

The 21st August 1969 was the most intense fighting 5 RAR’s 3 Platoon and Assault Pioneer Platoon encountered during their contact-filled and challenging 12 month tour of duty. It is remembered by those involved as the Battle of Hat Dich. Many, many acts of bravery were performed that day when the outnumbered two-platoon group displayed great courage, composure and tenacity under intense, continuous fire and attack. They demonstrated all the qualities expected of members of The Royal Australian Regiment.
 


"This article was written jointly by John James, Mick Dench MM and John Lloyd all veterans of this action. In preparing the article, they consulted with other members of A Company 5RAR, the Assault Pioneer Platoon 5RAR and 9 Squadron RAAF who had participated in the action”.

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