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operations conducted 1966 - 67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
operation sydney 1 & 2

6 July - 20 July 1966

By Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

 


There is little of the central plain of Phuoc Tuy which cannot be seen from the long level ridge which crowns Nui Nghe. The hill is visible on a clear day from Vung Tau as a small grey bump on the northern horizon, but its 600 feet of steep, thickly covered slope become greener as one approaches. At Baria it is grey green, at Nui Dat dark green, while in amongst the tangle of bush and bamboo which lead up to it, Nui Nghe becomes a rich mid green. As the highest piece of ground within a few miles of our base, it seemed fairly obviously that we should investigate it as soon as possible. The area around Nui Nghe had not been cleared during Operation Hardihood, so we had to discover what use the Viet Cong had been making of it.

The first opportunity for sweeping through the area of Nui Nghe arose in early July. The Sixth Battalion RAR was engaged from mid June to early July in searching Long Phuoc and in destroying the great number of tunnels which the Viet Cong had dug there. While the Sixth Battalion was out of the base we had to remain behind in order to defend it and patrol the approaches. One of our companies was always in the vacated Sixth Battalion defences while another was stood by as the Task Force emergency reserve. This situation was reversed when we were out on operations, but it meant that we had to wait until the Sixth Battalion had completed the search of Long Phuoc before we could commence our next operation -- Operation Sydney.

Nui Nghe was known to be a focal point for Viet Cong tracks. We did not know exactly where these tracks ran but we did know that the Viet Cong moved between Binh Ba, the rubber plantation village, and the Dinh Hills. Nui Nghe lay close to the direct line joining these two places. The main bases of the Hat Dich area lay to the north of Nui Nghe and tracks from these bases joined and crossed the Binh Ba - Dinh Hills track. Intelligence reports had indicated that the Viet Cong had established some caches and camps there of an auxiliary nature to support their operations in central Phuoc Tuy and it seemed very likely that the Viet Cong had been observing us from the summit of Nui Nghe.

The Viet Cong forces that we were likely to encounter on Operation Sydney were the guerilla platoon based in Binh Ba and Duc My, the Montagnard hamlet to the south of Binh Ba, and the Chau Duc District company which operated and lived in western Phuoc Tuy. The possibility of the appearance of the 274 Regiment could not be discounted, for it was located 10 miles north of Nui Nghe. Hence, each company would have to take precautions so that it was not ambushed or attacked in an area where it could be cut off from support of the other companies.

This problem was similar in some ways to that posed by Operation Hardihood. However, the country around Nui Nghe was much less penetrable in the region where the forward companies would be operating. This factor ruled out the possibility of reinforcing by lateral movement of the forward companies and forced us to keep a central reserve which could be sent forward quickly, mounted on the troop of armoured personnel carriers (APC's) which was supporting the operation. Thus the number of searching companies had to be reduced to three in order to provide one company as a reserve to be located at battalion headquarters.

Provision of artillery support for the forward companies was another problem. While the possibility of a company encountering one or more battalions' of the 274 Regiment existed, it was essential that each company's movements were within range of the field artillery. Many of the areas to be searched were at the extreme range of the guns at Nui Dat. Should a company had wished to pursue any Viet Cong to the north or the west of the search areas it would have been forced to move without artillery cover and thus would have been vulnerable to any Viet Cong ruse designed to lure it out from its protective umbrella of fire. Even if the companies did not move outside the limits of extreme range from the Nui Dat batteries there were many disadvantages in operating at ranges close to the extreme, such as the greatly increased susceptibility of shells to varying air currents and temperature layers in the air. There was much to recommend that our supporting battery, 105 Field battery, should accompany the battalion to a new gun position within a few thousand yards of Nui Nghe.

Weighing against this consideration was the need to provide protection for the guns. The Viet Cong have always paid great attention to exposed or vulnerable gun positions in order to prevent the guns from firing by sniping at their crews or to capture these priceless pieces of equipment which they so badly need. Protection of a battery of guns requires at least a company of infantry so the requirements of a central reserve, and of protection for the guns were merged by siting the battalion headquarters at a suitable gun position for supporting forward companies. This arrangement also made the APC's available for bringing up additional ammunition for the guns.

Several areas were considered for the guns and these were examined by patrols and an artillery officer. It was essential that the area selected was within gun range of the whole of the area to be searched, that  APC's could reach it without becoming bogged, that the guns could have hard ground and that water was available nearby. One area which had been selected was rejected forty-eight hours before the operation because heavy rain had made it risky for the APC's. The final choice was the crest of a low hill, one and a half miles to the west of Nui Dat, which was code named 'Tennis', a name which was to adhere to that piece of ground, often to be crossed by our patrols, for the following ten months.

Early on July 6th the battalion filed out of the base in company groups. A Company headed of to the west of Nui Nghe, C Company towards the eastern slopes, to wheel south a few days later and come back over the crest of the hill, D Company to the flatter country between Nui Nghe and the Binh Ba plantation and the remainder of the battalion, B Company, the Assault Pioneer Platoon and the Anti-Tank Platoon accompanied the headquarters to tennis.

We did not wish to let the Viet Cong know that the gun area had been established, for105 Battery unloading their guns their commanders would have been able to determine the area which we planned to search. Therefore, the guns were moved from Nui Dat to Tennis inside APC's. By exchanging the smaller tyred wheels of the New Zealand battery with those of 105 battery it was just possible to fit the latter guns inside the APC's. For five days before the operation, joint patrols of APC's and infantry moved through the general area of Tennis in order to establish a pattern of movement which the Viet Cong might consider to be of minor importance.

During the following ten days the companies wound back and forth, discovering a great number of small camps and huts, trench, four feet wide and four feet deep, ranVC camp locations on Nui Nghe for over four hundred yards. Each company had encounters with small groups of Viet Cong who were living in, or traveling through the area. Lieutenant Hartley's platoon of A Company met a group of several Viet Cong who were much superior in fighting ability to any who had been encountered up to that time. This group wore black uniforms and webbing their packs were black, they had black turbans on their heads and were armed with automatic weapons. A heavy firefight broke out between one of Hartley's sections and this group. By skilful direction during which he exposed himself to danger several times and was wounded, Hartley drove off the Viet Cong, inflicting casualties on what were probably our first main force opponents. Lieutenant Hartley was mentioned in dispatches for his leadership in this action.



 

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