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operations conducted by 5RAR 1966-67
 


 

australian infantryman's combat badge

February 1967

By Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

In February the attention of the whole Task Force was focused on the vital rice production areas of Dat Do District. We had been collecting information on the Viet Cong cadres in the villages of the district for several weeks and had formed a plan to cordon the northern part of Dat Do village. However it was suspected that this attention may have become known by the Viet Cong and so the plan was altered to cover the next most suitable village, An Nhut, just to the west of Dat Do. An Nhut was a village of nearly 1,000 inhabitants, most of whom were Government supporters. Several men from the village were members of the C25 Long Dat District Company, the local guerrilla unit. Others had joined D445 Battalion and there were a number of resident cadre in the village. The village chief had been murdered by the Viet Cong in November 1966. The village stood like an island in a flat sea of rice fields and so it was very easy to isolate. Route 23 ran through An Nhut dividing the village into northern and southern sectors, of which the latter was nearly twice the area of the former. The perimeter of An Nhut was nearly two miles long and so was just within the capacity of four rifle companies to encircle.

It was clearly difficult to position forces close to An Nhut so that their presence would not compromise the security of the operation. The battalion had to be positioned within easy reach of An Nhut during the day before the cordon, despite the open paddy fields for some miles around. The nearest jungle was at the foot of the Long Hai Hills, one and a half miles to the south-west of An Nhut. However, the security offered by this vegetation was lessened by the presence of another village at its edge, Tam Phuoc which was under an approachable degree of Viet Cong influence. Although it was still possible to avoid Tam Phuoc by moving around the southern side of the village to come out onto the edge of the jungle to An Nhut was too great for the whole battalion to use that line of approach during the night.

However another suitable harbour area close to An Nhut was available. On the western edge of Dat Do lay the district compound and airstrip. This area was fairly secure and offered access to An Nhut, less than a thousand yards distant, without disturbing any of the population of Dat Do during the night approach. By harbouring two companies near Tam Phuoc and the other two at Dat Do airstrip the battalion could concentrate around An Nhut effectively in the course of one night.

However the deployment of troops near Tam Phuoc to the south of An Nhut and at Dat Do to the east could have suggested a cordon of An Nhut to any Viet Cong in the neighbourhood. Colonel Warr decided to use a cover plan to explain the movements of the companies around Tam Phuoc and to rely on secrecy for getting the remainder of the battalion into Dat Do on the night before the cordon, so that the credibility of the cover plan for the first two companies would not be jeopardised. The cover plan was a thrust into the northern part of the Long Hai Hills to clean out some of the C25 Company's bases. It was to be suggested to the local people by two means. The companies were to travel in APC's (armoured personnel carriers) to the northern edge of Tam Phuoc and to proceed into the jungle immediately to the north of the hills. The direction of their ostensible goal was to be made more apparent by an artillery fire programme onto the northern part of the hills. This bombardment was to begin in the early afternoon on the day before the cordon, just as the companies were setting off into the jungle. Secrecy for the two companies and Battalion Headquarters at Dat Do was to be obtained by bringing these troops to the airstrip inside closed APC's just on last light. The troops were then to remain inside the vehicles until darkness had been complete. The presence of the APC's was not likely to arouse special attention for they had been operating independently to the south of Dat Do on several occasions and so the most likely explanation for their presence at Dat Do for the night was to save time for the operations on the following morning by harbouring at Dat Do instead at Nui Dat fifteen miles away by road.

The date for this operation, Operation Beaumaris, was selected for the night of February 13th/14th after consideration of moonlight data and the Task Force operational programme. Colonel Warr decided that a reconnaissance was necessary to see whether we would encounter any problems with local Vietnamese forces such as guards on the bridges on Route 23 who might open fire on the paddy fields at random during the night of our approach. It was impossible to conduct such a reconnaissance by night so we made it from a convoy of APC's on an afternoon drive through the villages of Long Dien, An Nhut, Dat Do, Tam Phuoc, and An Ngai to cloak our particular interest in An Nhut under the guise of a routine road patrol. We saw to our concern that the five bridges on Route 23 on either side of An Nhut were provided with sentry posts. We did not know whether or not they were manned every night and we thought it better not to make specific enquires of the local Vietnamese troops, such as the popular Forces platoon in An Nhut, for fear of compromising the operation. Instead small groups of men were sent to the bridges at last light of February 13th to occupy the post and prevent any Vietnamese soldiers who were manning them from firing during the night. Again this move threatened the secrecy of the operation, but we hoped that our intentions would still remain hidden by occupying every bridge between Long Dien and Dat Do and by moving our men after curfew and under the cover of dusk.

Similar problems were presented by the Vietnamese Regional and Popular forces groups in Long Dien, Dat Do, and Tam Phuoc. These difficulties were unobtrusively overcome by sending a liaison officer and a radio operator to each post during the morning of February 13th to request the local commander to keep all his men in the compound at night and to refrain from firing any weapons in the interest of our operations in the Long Hai hills

The preliminary moves of B and C Companies around the southern side of Tam Phuoc went well and they harboured inside the edge of the jungle to the south-east of Tam Phuoc late on the afternoon of February 13th, having swung their direction of movement from south to east in mid afternoon. A and D Companies with Battalion Headquarters travelled to the Dat Do airstrip, leaving Nui Dat at 7 p.m. We dismounted from the closed APC's after 8 p.m. and emerged from their confined stuffiness into the soft mild air of a Vietnamese night, unlit by moonlight. After posting sentries we lay on the ground behind the armoured vehicles and tried to obtain what few hours of sleep we could before the final phase of the move which was to begin at 2 a.m. However, neither Colonel Warr or myself ever obtained much sleep on these cordon nights for we divided the part of the night when we were not moving into shifts between us to listen to any urgent calls on the battalion commander's radio.

The cordon was placed around An Nhut without a great deal of difficulty. One problem which presented itself was the possibility of encountering South Vietnamese mines and booby traps around the outside of the village. All villages seemed to have some of these devices and they were a serious hazard to our operations for no one had recorded their location and they could be avoided only by staying well back from theThumbnail of the cordon and search of the village of An Nhut perimeter ditches and fences. An Nhut had been enclosed within two wire fences with a belt of mines laid between them. The American adviser at Long Dien, the district headquarters which controlled An Nhut, informed us that mines had been taken out during the previous wet season and that the wire had been taken from the steel pickets which had supported the fence. However, until we checked the ground with mine detectors we could not be sure that it was safe. A Company encountered part of the perimeter fence as they were feeling their way around the northern side of An Nhut at 3 p.m. and Major Carroll ordered his men to swing out from the village to avoid further risk.

The cordon was closed at 4 a.m. although it was still two hours before dawn we took this additional precaution because we had learned that the Viet Cong in some of the villages had begun to make a habit of leaving their villages each morning around 4.30 a.m. in order to avoid being caught by an Australian cordon. A company of Vietnamese troops, the 772 Regional Forces, came down from long Dien shortly after 8 a.m. to assist our troops with the search and clearance of the village. This part of the operation progressed smoothly until 9.15, when a loud explosion came from C Company, followed by an urgent appeal on the radio for the Medical Officer and for a Dust Off aircraft.

When C Company had reached their cordon position, a preliminary check had revealed no mines or booby traps in the area of the fence so the company headquarters had moved right up to it. The company commander had held a conference of his officers and senior NCOs' close by the fence. At the conclusion of the conference, someone, while getting to his feet, must have set of a mine which had been perfectly concealed. The effect of the explosion was devastating and particularly tragic for it killed three of the company officers and wounded another five men. The officers killed were Major Bourne, the company commander,C Company HQ just prior to the booby trap explosion Captain Milligan, the second-in-command, and captain Williams the artillery forward observation officer attached from the New Zealand 161 Battery. Major Bourne had just taken over command from Major Miller who was about to lead the battalion advance party back to Australia. Major Bourne, a Malayan veteran and a graduate of the staff college had been on the staff of the Task Force headquarters for several months. He was killed on his first operation with the battalion. Captain Milligan had just joined up with the company after spending the previous day and night in the Tam Phuoc compound, guarding the safety of our troops from that direction. The suddenness and severity of this blow distracted our thinking for the remainder of the operation. The specific cause of the explosion was impossible to determine for the mine had blown itself into tiny pieces, probably it had been part of an old mine field.

The remainder of the day proceeded smoothly. Loudspeakers announced the reasons for the village search and interrogation to the people. They were told to have breakfast and to carry their lunches with them as they came to the central enclosures of white tape. Once they were gathered together, the local District Chief explained the procedures of the day and some former Viet Cong who had surrendered under the Chieu Hoi Programme addressed them, stressing the emptiness of Viet Cong policy and the hopelessness of the Viet Cong prospects in the war. The band played to the people, they were offered soft drinks and were given colourful brochures explaining Government policy. The elderly, the mothers and expectant mothers were interrogated first. After interrogation the people moved through the dental and medical treatment tents to the civil aid point where they were given food and clothing. The serious intentions of these proceedings were masked under the mantle of a Sunday- school picnic as small children ran around the band whose tunes wafted pleasantly on the warm air through the marquees and across the sunny field which contained everyone. As our medical officer remarked, on these occasions the Government must have seemed like the Cheshire Cat to the villagers, arriving and giving a bountiful grin for the day. leaving nothing but the grin at the end of the afternoon. We felt that when the situation permitted the permanent stationing of elementary welfare personnel in these villages, the platform of the Viet Cong would finally disintegrate.

Proceedings around midday livened when a man who had been hiding in the roof of a house broke out of the cordon and set off at a furious pace across the paddy fields. In order to avoid firing at him several of our men set off after him across the dry mud of the paddies which was being baked by a scorching sun. The chase went on for over a mile and a half until our men eventually ran the suspect down and overcame a prisoner who one day may be a live supporter of the Government rather then a corpse now.

The interrogation team of thirty Vietnamese worked hard, interrogating 1,111 adults and catching four female cadre members, two male cadre members, fourteen suspects whose apprehension had been desired for some time, two deserters from the army one draft dodger, five Viet Cong sympathisers who had aided the Viet Cong with supplies, and ten persons who were to be interrogated further. This operation closed our series of village cordons as the direction of the Task Force operations swung to interdiction. During six weeks we had captured nearly forty Viet Cong in six days of operations for the loss of three of our own lives. These forty village workers would be difficult for the Viet Cong to replace and the people of Phuoc Tuy were witnessing the Viet Cong in populated areas were becoming easy prey for the Government.  

 

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