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operations conducted 1969-70


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
Operation Darlinghurst

26 - 31 August 1966

Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

 

During the afternoon of August 18th D. Company of the Sixth Battalion encountered a strong force of Viet Cong just inside the edge of a rubber plantation on the northern side of Long Tan village, a little over two miles from Nui Dat. The right flank platoon came under heavy fire which included mortars, and before the platoon was able to withdraw to concentrate with the central part of the company, Viet Cong infantry launched an attack which compelled the platoon to stand and fight. It soon became apparent that this was no guerilla unit but  main force regulars, as was shown by their high quality equipment, their tactical ability and their numbers. Attacking in waves, the Viet Cong swamped part of the platoon's defences killing several Australians, including the platoon commander, Lieutenant Gordon Sharp, a national service officer.

The platoon sergeant managed to extricate the surviving part of the platoon and withdrew to where Major  Smith, the company commander, had concentrated the remainder of the company. Two battalions of Viet Cong assaulted ferociously and Major Smith had to hold off odds of ten to one until a relieving force could reach him. The battle began late in the afternoon and there was a possibility that the Viet Cong might be able to isolate the company for the night and whittle it away. Fortunately the Viet Cong had made the cardinal error of launching the attack within range of the artillery at Nui Dat and they had to cope with the fire of three field batteries and one medium battery. The intensity and accuracy  of the defensive fire which the gunners laid around the beleaguered company was of crucial importance to the outcome of the day. The defenders kept their heads and inflicted such losses on the attacking waves that they were able to hold their ground, but the intensity of the fire required threatened to exhaust the company's ammunition too quickly. Major Smith radioed for a resupply, which was flown into him by the helicopters of the R.A.A.F. who had to fly low over the heads of hundreds of Viet Cong. The air force was lucky not to suffer any losses that day.

In the meantime, a relief force commanded by Colonel Townsend, commanding officer of the Sixth Battalion, was racing to the plantation in APCs. This force arrived just after darkness had fallen and the APCs began to sweep the battlefield with their headlights on. This was too much for the Viet Cong, who broke off the attack and fled to the east. On the following day the Sixth Battalion, with the assistance of D. Company of the Fifth, cleared the battlefields and buried 245 dead Viet Cong. Considering the determination of the Viet Cong to cheat us of statistics by removing their dead under all possible circumstances, this number was extremely significant. Important also was the large number of weapons of all kinds, including mortars and machine guns, which the Viet Cong had abandoned when they fled - weapons which they needed urgently. If at least 245 Viet Cong had been killed it is probable that several hundred had been wounded, so the battle had cost the Viet Cong the operational strength of two battalions for the loss of 17 Australians killed and 19 wounded.

The next problem was to follow up this success as effectively as possible. On August 15th 274 Regiment had launched an attack on a Vietnamese convoy on Route 15 at a point where the road is flanked for some two miles in either direction by the Dinh Hills. We knew that they had returned to the central northern part of Phuoc Tuy after their attack and it was possible that the regiment was intending to attack our company at Binh Ba. Prisoners from the Long Tan battle revealed that both the D445 Battalion and the 275 Regiment had made the attack. Both of these units were seriously weakened and there was much to be said for attempting to pursue them and to destroy their remnants. However with 274 Regiment lurking in a position where it could attack Binh Ba or Nui Dat while the Task Force was engaged in pursuit of 275 Regiment, or ambush our pursuing force, The Task Force did not have the strength to act alone and so a combined operation with the Americans was mounted.

Meanwhile the effects of the battle were beginning to be seen throughout Phuoc Tuy. Our stocks rose considerably after the people had learned that the Viet Cong had committed themselves to a pitched battle and had been heavily defeated. The Council of Ba Ria erected a huge banner some thirty feet in length across Route 2 where it entered the town. A message in English and Vietnamese, in red letters a foot high on the gold banner, read:

'The people of Phuoc Tuy applaud the victory of the Royal Australian Forces and the destruction of the Viet Cong Regiment on August 18th, 1966.'

The Viet Cong countered by circulating handbills  which claimed: '700 Australians killed,
one battalion and two companies of infantry destroyed, two squadrons of APCs destroyed.'

This announcement must have stretched  the belief of the most faithful of the Party, for it left but two companies defending the entire Nui Dat base, which for some reason the Viet Cong had neglected to take. Furthermore, we had only one squadron of APC's and these continued to make their presence as obvious as ever on the roads of the province for all to see. We did not dig up the Viet Cong bodies for the sake of exhibition, but Colonel Dat held a display of the captured Viet Cong weapons in Ba Ria to close the debate.

It was interesting to discover that the official report of the outcome of the battle was sent to Viet Cong headquarters by the Fifth Viet Cong Division which commanded 275 Regiment, was very close to the propaganda leaflet which the Viet Cong had handed out. A few days later we heard on Radio Hanoi and Radio Peking news bulletins which repeated the essence of the handbills. We then wondered whether Ho Chi Minh had any idea of the true situation in South Vietnam. It is also interesting to note that during our twelve months in South Vietnam we were wiped out on four occasions by Radio Hanoi.

The operations conducted by the Americans, in conjunction with the Task Force, was called Operation Toledo. It consisted of a system of sweeps across the likely parts of Phuoc Tuy, designed to force any Viet Cong who were encountered into the arms of several blocking forces positioned to cut off the Viet Cong withdrawal. The main problem with this operation was time --- would the stable door be closed only after the horse had bolted far into Xuyen Moc District or the May Tao Mountains?

A Marine battalion landing team went in on the south-eastern coast of Phuoc Tuy, advance inland and set up a blocking position across the southern edge of the area to be swept. The 173rd Airborne Brigade and elements of  the First U.S. Infantry Division were flown in to our north-east with a mission to sweep southwards, flushing any Viet Cong who were within several miles of us either into the marine position or into a similar block provided by the Task Force.

CONTINUE

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