5RAR Association
operations conducted 1966-67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
Operation Camden
 

29 July - 30 August 1969

By Captain Mike Battle

This operation had a duel aim. Firstly 5RAR were to protect a land clearing team (US), and secondly, to conduct reconnaissance in force (RIF) operations to locate and destroy enemy main force units in AO (Area Operations) Mindy.

AO Mindy was defined by a ten thousand metre circle around the Fire Support Base Polly. This area, known to the VC as the Hat Dich Secret Zone, has been an enemy haven and stronghold ever since the days of the Viet Minh war. It is to the enemy both an operational base area, and an important logistic support area, since it is situated between Route 15 (Saigon to Vung Tau), Route 2 (Baria to Xuyen Moc) and Route 1 (of 'street without joy' fame). These roads are vital to the VC as it is along these that their supplies are transported to the villages of Thai Tien, Tham Tien, Phuoc My and Tham Phouc on Route 15 and Binh Ba, Ngai Giao and Xa Bang on Route 2. The population of these villages, being sympathetic to the communist cause, provided distribution points for their organization.

During previous operations, particularly Operation Goodwood by 9RAR, 1 ATF gathered a great deal of information on enemy patterns of activity and base camps. Consequently a plan was drawn up to deny the enemy his major base areas by clearing the area with bulldozers. About thirty Caterpillar D8's with Rome ploughs, and the appropriate repair and recover facilities, made up the 501 Engineer Company (US). This Land Clearing Team (LCT) was in direct support of 5RAR.

Most enemy units subordinate to MR7 headquarters was known to use the area. Units of particular importance to 5RAR were the 700 strong 274 VC Regiment, and Headquarters Sub Region 4 which had a total strength with its three battalions and supporting units of some 1,100 men. The D67- Engineer Battalion was known to be still in the southern part of the AO, and C41 Chau Duc District Company was known to be on our south-east boundary.

The CO's concept of Operation Camden was that one of his companies was to remain in the Night- Defensive Position (NDP) of the LCT and patrol out from it day and night. A second company was to clear enemy from the areas to be land cleared at a later date.

The third company was to conduct RIF operations in the AO to locate the enemy main force. The fourth rifle company, B Company, was initially detached to train the 2/52 Regiment of 18 ARVN Division at the Horseshoe.

On the 29 July C and D companies with the Tactical Headquarters flew into the location of the future NDP which was known as Cambrai and was being secured by B Company 9RAR. By 31 July the fire support base named Polly had been established. During the building of the base, an enemy mine consisting of twenty pounds of Chicom explosive connected to a tilt switch and five 82mm. mortar bombs was detected before it was detonated. At 1615 hours 7 Platoon C Company contacted an enemy unit of platoon strength in a bunker system. Despite very aggressive reaction by 7 Platoon the enemy fired accurate RPGs and machine guns which forced 7 Platoon to withdraw to evacuate their casualties. Private J. McMillan was killed in that action. Three enemy bodies were found.

An extremely well planned and executed ambush by 12 Platoon D Company was sprung at 0545 hours on August 6. The platoon had split into two groups ambushing the same track, an old logging route, about seventy yards apart. The southern group heard the enemy coming and let them pass. The northern group opened fire when the leading enemy were in their killing ground. By this time forty five enemy had been counted through the southern group, when they opened fire. The enemy again showed fanaticism in returning for the bodies of their dead. Although after the action no further noise were heard, at first light, when a sweep of the area was conducted seven enemy bodies were located with a further nine blood trails.

The next heavy contact was joined by 3 Platoon and Tracker Platoon under the command of Captain- Bill Grassick, at 1320 hours on 8 August. As contact opened, a section of the tracker platoon was pinned down by an enemy RPD machine gun. An immediate assault by the remaining two sections of the platoon enabled the section which had opened fire to be recovered. Artillery was falling to the north and east in depth. Visibility was only fifteen yards and the enemy machine gun was still firing from the left flank as 3 Platoon assaulted from the right, against the enemy's weaker flank. Artillery fire was now falling eighty yards from our assaulting troops.

The CO, characteristically overhead in his 'Possum', employed a set of 'Bushranger' gunships. The enemy forward defences were overrun as the gunships fired twenty yards from the forward troops, Private B. A. Kneeves at this time had taken a round in the left thigh. Enemy casualties were one killed in action and one prisoner. 3 Platoon had moved another seventy-yards when they were again hit by savage enemy fire from hidden prepared positions. Tracker Platoon was still pinned down by snipers in trees. Lance-Corporal G. E. Johnson was seriously wounded in the hand and arm. A Dustoff aircraft was called in, and with the 'Bushrangers' suppressing  the area, winched out the casualties. This aircraft was taking ground fire from the west. US fighter bombers were next used to drop napalm and 250 pound bombs into the enemy position. Under the smoke the enemy counter attacked. The airstrikes were held while the enemy thrust was stemmed by fire and movement. Contact was finally broken at about 1800 hours. Throughout the night the enemy withdrawal was harassed by a 'Spooky' gunship and artillery fires in depth. A sweep next morning by the full company disclosed that the enemy force, identified as the 1st battalion 274 Regiment had taken heavy casualties. Twenty seven well constructed bunkers, several cookhouses and a large command structure were found.

On 21 August across on the western side of the AO, 3 Platoon and Pioneer Platoon again engaged an unknown force of enemy in a bunker system. After hearing voices to their front, the platoon called in artillery fire in depth while they leap frogged forward by fire and movement drills. The thrust was met by heavy RPG, machine gun and AK47 fire from the enemy bunker system. Heavy casualties were being caused by enemy 60mm mortars landing just behind the assault sections. Captain Bill Grassick, the commander of the force was severely wounded in the leg. Gunships were firing in support only twenty yards in front of the forward troops and this allowed extraction of the wounded to a point thirty yards behind the contact. Lieutenant John James took command and directed the sixteen casualties to a 'Dustoff' position a further thirty yards to the north. The two platoons formed a defensive perimeter. As the 'Dustoff' aircraft came in they were fired on by AK47 and RPG fire. Mortars were still falling among the wounded and the perimeter causing casualties as fast as the 'Dustoff' could get them out. The sky was thick with aircraft as dusk made flying conditions perilous. Some of the aircraft in this area at this time were three 'Bushranger' gunships 'Dragon' and 'Radar' US gunships a 'Jade' FAC (Forward Air Controller), four 'Dustoff' (medevac) helicopters and a set of 'Black Ponies' (OV Ground Attack Fighters (US)). With all these aircraft on the company command net it was becoming impossible for the company commander to speak to his platoons. 'Bushranger 71' alleviated the air situation by acting as traffic controller.

Captured documents later revealed that the enemy force encountered in the action was the complete 3rd Battalion, 274 regiment This enemy report of the action stated that they suffered thirteen killed and twenty five wounded. The two Australian platoons lost one killed and thirty seven wounded, some of whom remained on duty. These were only two of forty separate actions fought by 5RAR on this operation. Enemy units identified in contact were 1st Battalion and 3rd battalion, 274 Regiment, numerous sub-units of Headquarters Sub Region 4, D67 Engineer Battalion, C41 Chau Duc Company and 84 Rear Services Group.

Operation Camden was characterised by enemy aggression. Rather than immediately breaking contact and withdrawing, the enemy stayed and fought in his prepared positions and defied the immense support of air and artillery to dislodge him. He then withdrew under the cover of the Vietnamese night. Not only did he employ snipers in trees, but he tenaciously clung to the 'Diggers' as they pulled back to evacuate casualties and to take resupplies of ammunition. This tactic was well executed and consequently those enemy hugging our perimeter avoided most of the artillery and air ordnance being hurled in behind him.

During Operation Camden 105 battery in direct support fired some ten thousand rounds. Most of this was in support of actual actions, and in blocking positions on the likely enemy withdrawal routes. At all times the response of the Battery was very quick and reassuring to the troops in contact.

An indication of the complexity and importance of the Viet Cong bases in this Hat Dich area can be seen from the results of the Land Clearing Team. Moving its Night Defensive Position three times, the team cleared 3,354 acres of jungle in the month. In this area they destroyed 1,029 bunkers, 379 weapon pits, 1,000 yards of tunnels and 650 yards of trenches. Not only did the enemy have these base areas denied to him, but his access and communication routes previously concealed by the jungle canopy, were now exposed to aerial observation.

The bunker systems found varied in size but averaged between twenty to forty actual fighting bunkers sited in mutual support. The average bunker dimensions are ten feet by six feet, by five feet deep, with between three and five feet of overhead protection (logs, dirt and camouflage). Some systems had interconnecting crawl trenches and tunnels. Normally no more than two feet of the overhead protection is above ground level. Very cunningly camouflaged with grass and ferns planted in the roofs, The bunkers usually defied detection until our troops were literally right on top of them. In some instances the presence of a system could be determined by enemy sign. This was usually heavy track activity, the stumps of trees, or smell.

In the average contact, the enemy opened fire on our troops only when the VC were sure our troops were going to find him. This was usually ten to fifteen feet along carefully concealed fire lanes. Extraction of the wounded under these conditions was a dangerous task. On no occasion though, was a wounded man left behind by his 'mates'.

On 30 August a very weary, but proud and confident battalion of veterans returned to its base in the Nui Dat rubber for what, on paper, was to be a two weeks rest.

End

Webmaster's note: For a more detailed description of 7 Platoon C Company's bunker contact go to the 'Special Mention' section on the contents page and click on 'Anatomy of a Bunker Contact'.



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