5RAR Association Website
operations conducted 1966-67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
interdiction in the east, the horseshoe and the fence

February - March 1967

Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

 

During the latter part of 1966 and in the early months of 1967, much thought had been given to the permanent denial of the Phuoc Tuy rice harvest to the Viet Cong. In order to complete the strategy of defeating the Viet Cong through control of the population rather than through control of the jungle, it was necessary to accompany the operations against the village cadres with a large scale interdiction programme. This was to be aimed not at the denial of the recourses of single villages to the Viet Cong, but the denial of the resources of the whole central district of the province. from Nui Dat we could keep the northern access routes closed to the Viet Cong, and patrols between the Nui Dat and the Nui Dinh hills were able to close the western approaches to the movement of large amounts of supplies. However the eastern approaches in central Phuoc Tuy were still wide open, and it was through these routes that the Viet Cong were best served, because they led to the largest Viet Cong bases in the province. Consequently a plan had to be developed to close the area to the north and east of Dat Do District to significant Viet Cong movement.

The minimum length of the boundary of the area to be protected from the Viet Cong was close to twelve miles. To have patrolled this distance from Nui Dat would have involved much wasteful movement to and fro, patrols would be operating outside artillery range unless a special fire base was established, and the numbers of troops required to patrol such a distance in order to seal it off by patrol action would have tied the whole Task Force down to an extent where it could no longer undertake any major initiatives. Certainly patrolling was indispensable so that we knew exactly what was happening in the area but it was not the only means of preventing access. A barrier fence and minefield would present a formidable obstacle, provided that it was patrolled daily to check for breaches or attempted breaches. The patrolling commitment required for the maintenance of the fence and minefield would be far less than the activity needed to close the area off entirely by a moving fence of men. Only large main force Viet Cong units had the capacity to breach such major obstacles. Unless they were prepared to fight a daylight battle for the fence, they could make only occasional breaches which could be sealed the following day. It was unlikely that the Viet Cong would think that the risks involved in such breaching operations would be worth the gains which they produced.

However, even these patrolling requirements made necessary the establishment of a small additional base, somewhere close to the midpoint of the line of interdiction. The stretch of country from Nui Dat, through Long Tan, around to the east of Dat Do, and to the east of the villages on Route 44 between Dat Do and the sea, was the area through which Viet Cong movement into Central Phuoc Tuy could take place. Just to the north east of Dat Do, approximately half-way between Nui Dat and the coast rose the steep slopes of what had once been a small volcano. A crater rim, roughly circular in plan except that the southern sector had been blown out, rose to a height of two hundred feet above the surrounding plain. The crater was six hundred yards across and the defences of a complete rifle company, its administrative installations, and a gun position for artillery of any size could all be sited within it. The fields of fire for defenders on the lip of the crater were limitless while an attacking force would have to assault up a slope of two hundred feet on a gradient of nearly two in one. Thus an excellent defensive position was available for a small force at a convenient point for controlling the eastern approaches and for preventing Viet Cong movement into Dat Do from Long Tan. Furthermore the hill was well placed for launching operations to the east, particularly towards Xuyen Moc.

Brigadier Graham's plans for interdicting to the east were completed in February 1967. They called for one rifle company and a troop of field artillery to be established permanently in the crater of what came to be called the Horseshoe Hill , because of its shape. The country between Nui Dat and the Horseshoe was to be controlled by patrolling from both bases and a barrier fence and minefield was to be built from the Horseshoe to the coast, covering seven miles in its course. At the same time a massive thrust was to be made out to Xuyen Moc to clear the country from the coast to over fifteen miles inland of Viet Cong and their bases, caches and other installations. Substantial American assistance had been made available in the form of a brigade from the Ninth U.S. Infantry Division. A squadron of the Eleventh Armoured Cavalry Regiment and a Vietnamese regiment had also been allotted to the operation, Operation Portsea.

The fence to be constructed was to consist of two parallel belts of barbed wire, six feet high and six feet wide, separated by one hundred yards. A dense minefield was to be laid between the two fences. Several gaps were to be left in the fence so that local farmers could work by day on land outside the fence. These gaps were to be manned by Vietnamese police and to be closed at night. People who went out through the fence in the morning were to be checked back in at night so that no one could disappear to the Viet Cong by day without the police knowing. Similarly, any Viet Cong who tried to enter the district from outside by day would be discovered because he would not have been recorded as one who had gone out through the fence earlier that day. Any person who attempted to pass through the fence at night would have to cut his way through the wire and cross a belt of mines without treading on one or setting off a trip wire. While such a feat may have been possible for a single individual acting with stealth it would have been close to impossible for a long convoy of oxcarts carrying rice, and even if they did get through the obstacle, their time of passage would be known and a pursuit by helicopter and APC's would quickly catch such lumbering quarry.

The Fifth Battalion's part in these operations was to provide the company to build and man the Horseshoe base, to build the fence and to secure the Nui Dat base while the Sixth Battalion were out with the Americans on Operation Portsea. The company which had to vacate its base at Nui Dat and start afresh at the same primitive level at which we had begun after Operation Hardihood was D Company. This company had occupied a base position high on the slopes of Nui Dat itself, a mile away from the rest of the battalion in the rubber plantation to the north. Task Force Headquarters wanted Nui Dat for another unit and so D Company were chosen to go to the Horseshoe. The company took these gloomy tidings philosophically, aware that they would have less than seven weeks out in their new area before their return to Australia.

So that D Company were able to construct their new defences as rapidly as possible, B Company under their new commander, Major Ron Hamlyn, were ordered to precede the arrival of D Company at the Horseshoe, to secure it and clear it of any mines and booby traps, before maintaining a screen of patrols in front of D Company to the north and east for three days. B Company flew out to the Horseshoe by helicopter at 7a.m. on March 6th. D Company followed at 10 a.m. by APC and the Horseshoe was occupied without incident.

The commencement date of these operations had been timed to fit in with the plans of the larger American forces participating in Operation Portsea, but it was also influenced by a captured Viet Cong document which revealed that the Province Committee had ordered the collection of the 1966/1967 rice tax in March 1967. Collection from the villages was to be completed by March l0th, from the district caches to the provincial Headquarters by March 20th, and from the provincial caches to the main force bases by March 30th. Focal points of Viet Cong activity in the Long Dat District were to be the villages of Hoi My and Phuoc Loi. Continual attacks were to be launched on the Government outposts in both villages in order to regain control over their people, as a part of a 'Regional Expansion' plan. The reconstruction of the cadres in these villages was also to be commenced and an enquiry made into the shortage of youths for replacement of losses. Special supply missions had been assigned to district and village quartermasters. The items most needed were shovels, Claymore mines, 60 mm. and 81 mm. mortar bombs and 105 mm shells for the manufacture of mines, small arms ammunition, medicines and rice. These stores requirements pointed towards a build up for operations in the coming monsoon in May. Thus March was a very appropriate time to commence the severance of connection between the main force bases and central Phuoc Tuy.

The curiosity of the Viet Cong was quickly aroused by the great activity at the Horseshoe. On the first night of our occupation they sent in a force of some twenty-five. men to see what we were attempting. Fortunately an ambush had been laid on their approach route some thousand yards north of the Horseshoe. Ten of them were seen at 8.20 p.m. on a road twenty yards from the sentry manning the left machine gun of Four Platoon. At the same time a group of three or four Viet Cong moved in onto the right machine gun of the platoon. The sentry opened fire, killing two of them and wounding a third. Others came forward and dragged away the wounded man who was heard moaning. Immediately the group on the road went to ground. Another group of ten Viet Cong crossed in front of the platoon, moving along a creek line. The Viet Cong continued to probe the defences of the platoon until 2.30 a.m. On the following morning the two bodies and the scuff marks made by the man who was dragged away were found. The platoon also intercepted a man who rode into the area of the previous night's action on a bicycle. He was carrying a sketch plan of a nearby village, a list of drugs and had a photograph of Ho Chi Minh in his wallet. He was sent to Task Force Headquarters as a suspect. A further search of the area revealed one .45 calibre sub machine gun, five hand grenades and some equipment and documents. Possibly the man apprehended had been sent in to collect the weapons lost by the Viet Cong.

On the following morning, Five Platoon came upon a Viet Cong camp. It was quite small, containing only four two-man weapon pits with overhead cover. However, there was a suspicious area of soft ground within the camp which looked as if it could have been a camouflaged command post. When members of the platoon dug down through the soft earth they found a large cache of rice, containing some five tons which they destroyed because it was loose and dirty, making recovery uneconomical.


 

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