The story contained in this page covers the
period from November 1965 until January
1968. Its main characters are the weapons we
all lived with every day, the tools of trade
of the Infantry Battalion of the time in the
Australian Army and in particular 5 RAR in
The Republic of South Vietnam. It tells of
their strengths and weaknesses, their design
problems and defects, as well as the
comforts and security they gave us.
In Holsworthy in 1965 the old 1 RAR (1st
Battalion Royal Australian Regiment) lines well
reflected the traditional weapons with which we
trained and worked. The solid old wooden huts
even smelt of small arms maintenance oil (OM13),
linseed oil, Brasso and boot polish. The
principal weapons were:
7.62 Self Loading Rifle (SLR).
The standard issue personal
weapon manufactured by the Small
Arms Factory at Lithgow. An
Australian version of the Belgian
9mm Owen Sub Machine Carbine (OMC).
Usually carried by Section Commanders
and Platoon Commanders. All were of
1945 or prior vintage, rugged,
simple but showing their age.
7.62 General Purpose Machine Gun
Low profile, belt fed, high rate of
fire, highly mobile, simple to
9mm Browning Semi-Automatic Pistol.
Belgium produced by Fabrique Nationale.
Some earlier models had fittings
that could take a butt-like shoulder
grip but the majority of ours were
newer models with no such add-ons.
SUPPORT COMPANY WEAPONS INCLUDED:
Mounted on modified Landrovers
84mm Carl Gustav Anti-Tank Weapons.
trained on these and took all of them with us to South
Vietnam in April and May 1966. Prior to our departure
the team of armourers, Mick Henrys, Steve Wood and Jim
Toohill inspected and serviced all weapons. Here we made
our first mistake. I thought that if we had all of our
SLR's processed through the Base Workshop at Moorebank
to be re-blackened, this would give us a good starting
point, as it should have made them like new and
therefore easier to maintain. We did this by working
shift work through the nights while the battalion
trained by day. In fact the blackening all came off very
easily but the sights and the gas regulator were clogged
with chemical salts which made them much harder to use
and difficult to clean. It took several weeks to clean
this up. My belated apologies to all concerned!
days of our arrival in Vietnam and long before we could
unpack any of our tools or equipment our family of
weapons was changing rapidly. Colt AR-15, 5.56mm Rifles
were given to us from 1 RAR. These had had a lot of use
and being early model AR 15's, not the AR 16's that we
became very familiar with later, and were therefore very
much lacking in technical reliability. Their most
dramatic problem was that they did not have a 'Forward
Assist Device' or serrated Bolt Carrier. This meant that
the slightest bit of sand or dirt would cause the bolt
to lock in the semi-closed position and the weapon was
then useless and if this happened when the weapon had
been hot, it was usually totally beyond repair. We also
picked up a number of M79, 40mm Grenade Launchers from 1
RAR, along with a small number of 12 gauge, Remington,
pump action shot guns.
into Nui Dat, part of Operation Hardihood, saw us
picking up all of our faithful weapons and walking into
the rubber trees. It was here that I became aware that
one of the Company Quarter Master Sergeants (CQMS),
Lofty Cunningham from Support Company, had brought along
an old friend of his from a previous affair (or
marriage, I'm not quite sure.) Yes, Lofty decided that
we needed at least one .303 Short Magazine Lee Enfield
(SMLE) that he had used in Korea. I told him we could
look after it provided he had the ammunition. So
unknowingly we became the last Infantry Battalion to
carry Owen Sub Machine Carbines and .303 SMLE rifles
Some people, not
many, decided that they were better off
carrying foreign weapons. Sgt 'Shorty' Ford
for example, a photographer, who was often
attached to 5 RAR for operations, had picked
up a US M1 Carbine and a CSM, John Clark,
was using a German P38 Walther 9mm pistol he
had collected when he was an Advisor. Very
sadly one of the young soldiers had also
been given a 12 gauge double barrel sawn-off
shotgun. (More on that later).
who were not prepared to wait, bought fairly standard US
issue weapons that were becoming common in our Battalion
as they became available. Brian London purchased a M16
from his 1 RAR counter-part and John Lea-Smith bought
one from the boot of a CIA car in Cholon after drinking
with the owner in the Capital Bar. Going price $60.00
US. In turn this went to Jock Logan in 7 RAR. Brian also
carried a Colt .45 Automatic but as this used
non-standard ammunition for our system, he accepted full
responsibility for re-supply. The armourers did do minor
maintenance when asked.
very soon to have two other significant major additions
to our collections. Courtesy of the Commander of 173
Airborne Brigade, US Army and perhaps some horse-trading
by Ron Shambrook and John Miller, a number of .50 Cal
Browning Heavy Machine Guns became available and formed
a very important part of our perimeter defences. Also
the standard number of GPMG M60's was increased from 54
to 65 because of the need to move the section guns out
on extended operations, but still supply the defences
necessary on the newly formed base camp. From hereon in,
the time line of our affair with these weapons goes
something like this:
Hardihood saw everyone struggling with the mud and damp
as we worked to establish the base and set up very
primitive working conditions. It was impossible for
soldiers with problems with their weapons to get to us
(the armourers) so we decided that we would arrange
regular and routine visits to each of the Company sites
and inspect, service and repair the weapons there. Any
seriously damaged or non-functional weapons were brought
to us via the CQMS system.
Browning .50 Calibre Machine Gun
introduction of .50 Cal Brownings was, by far, the
biggest single impact at this time. Fortunately we (the
armourers) had been trained on these weapons but we were
the only people in the Battalion who knew much about
them, as they were not a standard Infantry weapon. From
this time on and for the complete 12 months, this gave
us a very different role, that being, to train operators
in the use of this major defence weapon. This took each
of us to many different sites throughout the Province
working with Australian, US and Vietnamese soldiers.
Users had to be trained in the firing, maintenance, and
particular to Browning machine guns, the timing and
head-spacing of the weapons after barrel changes.
early stages of the occupation of Nui Dat these machine
guns were seen to as a major part of the perimeter
defences and were placed in strong points in each
Company. As there was a lot of movement going on outside
these lines each night, these weapons were considered to
be very important. On my second night in Nui Dat, I
think around 28th May 1966, I was called to
the RAP (Regimental Aid Post) by SSGT Mick Seats, shown
into the doctor's emergency treatment area and there on
the stretcher was C Company's .50 Cal. It was the only
place in the area that was sufficiently well blacked out
to allow a torch to be alight. A quick minor operation
to remove and replace a broken firing pin and to free up
the mechanism was all that was necessary to allow the
patient to return to duty.
guns continued to give us good service for the remaining
year and many Infantrymen became extremely competent
with them. We installed them on the hill at Nui Dat for
D Coy and then again for D Coy on The Horseshoe when
they moved there.
M60 Machine Gun
friend the GPMG M60 was a trusted and much needed part
of the Infantry Section's operations. It provided
massive firepower from a low profile and could be moved
very quickly from site to site when only on the bipod.
From the operators' point of view, its strength was that
it was belt fed and thus could fire a great number of
rounds very quickly. Its weakness was also that it was
belt fed and the ammunition could not be kept clean and
would pick up mud and dirt to be fed into the weapon
until it jammed.
armourer's point of view it was very cheaply built,
primitive in design, and had minor breakdowns
frequently. On the plus side, it was very easy to repair
and we could always get them back into service very,
very quickly. armourers were frequently called into
company operations to repair these guns 'in situ'.
I now am
going to record what may be a sensitive issue. That
being the major 'breakdown' that occurred with these
guns. By far and away the most common problem was that a
gun would be reported as only being able to fire a
single round and then had to be manually re-cocked. 95%
of breakdowns were this issue. What happened, was that
the gas piston had been removed and replaced, facing the
a training problem or a design problem? The
manufacture's solution was to classify the gas piston
and cylinder as being "self-cleaning", and therefore not
to be touched by the operator, however the gun still
came with a spanner to fit the nut necessary to open it.
guns, with some local modification to the tripod fitting
became a common sight mounted on the Battalions'
Landrovers. It was those vehicles that would have
normally carried the 106mm Recoilless Rifles that were
so modified. As they had no canopy, they were known as
quick aside can anyone remember what material the
special gloves for changing the barrels was made of??
... You guessed it! Asbestos ... and plenty of it.
twelve months of continual service our 65 GPMG's only
had one failure that could not be fixed within a
two-hour period. That was caused by a broken firing pin
that had cracked at the "rear spool" and fallen down and
jammed the unlocking mechanism. Steve Wood headed off to
a more heavily equipped workshop in Vung Tau to work on
it and even though we had tried all types of things to
free it first, the road trip down did the job for us and
he fixed the gun in a matter of minutes on arrival
there. A rough road and good luck can sometimes be
1966 we managed to "find" 4 GPMG's that had had a lot of
firing with a US Army unit. They were packed up and sent
to the RAEME (Royal Australian Electrical Mechanical
Engineers) Training Centre where they were "sectionised"
and converted into training aids. Up until then no such
thing was available in Australia. Three of them were
returned to 5 RAR at Holsworthy. I saw the fourth one in
a museum in Bandiana in 2004.
The Owen Sub Machine Carbine (OMC)
a short life in Vietnam. They were carried by Platoon
Commanders, Forward Scouts and Stretcher Bearers among
others. They remained with us until October 1966. There
were no real problems with the weapon; it was the
ammunition that failed. I think there were several
attempts to prove that the gun/ammo was no longer
suitable and should be replaced with many more 5.56
weapons. Success finally came when the armourers
provided copies of a formal instruction that the weapons
were not to be test fired with any ammo older than 1954.
The only rounds that the Battalion could get for
operations were made in the early 1940's. Bye-bye OMC's,
hello AR 16's.
7.62mm SLR (Self Loading Rifle)
early days the 7.62mm SLR
served us all very well. There were some
calls from individuals to have 30 round magazines fitted
and to modify the weapon to fire full automatically.
These, of course, were formally ignored and quietly done
when necessary. The formation of the Reconnaissance
Platoon and the closing down of the Anti-Tank Platoon
meant two things. Firstly the packing up of the 106mm
Recoilless Rifles and secondly many, many requests for
modifications to the SLR's. These were quietly done but
not talked about. We liked to think that the individual
soldiers concerned were capable of handling the modified
weapons safely. To do it for everyone would have opened
up a can of worms that no one would be able to control.
To ignore the requests of some might have meant that
they would go ahead and do the modifications themselves
and not as well as we did. Anyway, those who really only
wanted an automatic weapon usually managed to get an
March 1967 onwards the story of the SLR changed quite a
bit. Problems that had never been seen before began to
appear more and more frequently. Steve Wood and Jim
Toohill both identified a combination of worn parts in
the trigger mechanism that caused the sear (that part of
the mechanism that actually trips the hammer) to lock
completely. Formal reporting of this brought no action,
so another way around the issue was used to replace as
many of the older weapons as possible. At about the same
time another very strange fault developed. The cocking
handle would lock in the forward and folded position and
could not be moved. We were never able to find a way of
identifying the likelihood of this happening and it was
a great concern for us. Individual weapons could be
fixed by removing metal from the body of the rifle, but
this could not be done in the field. Not a good
situation. Once again, formal reporting brought no
action. (Perhaps nothing was possible.)
Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Instruction
Weapons D253 Paragraph 14b gave us a means of condemning
rifles by measuring the wear between two different parts
of the body. It had nothing to do with the real problem,
and we found that in fact we could use it to condemn any
brand new rifle that we chose to inspect. The fact that
I can remember the number of this instruction 40 years
later clearly shows how many times we used it in the
those months of 1967.
greatest weakness of the SLR was that the ammunition was
heavy and that, in very bad times, the re-supply was by
ammo packed in boxes and there was no quick way of
loading them into a magazine. During the battle of Long
Tan, all the 5 RAR armourers were on the helipad loading
15 rounds into extra magazines that were then pushed out
of a helicopter into the D Company 6 RAR site. The
original FN version had a bridge over the body that
allowed for magazine filling from rounds held in clips.
The Australian made version did not.
the silliest thing to ever happen with the SLR was the
fitting of a plastic plug to the bottom of the return
spring tube. A modification kit was just starting to
arrive for this in 1967. This was done to only a handful
of weapons in our time, but became very common practice
later. The idea was to prevent moisture from getting
into the tube. All it did was to prevent moisture from
getting out and thus converted the spring and tube into
a shock absorber. Some of you may remember our trick of
having a small bet with anyone who came forward with the
common statement, "My rifle will not operate on a gas
setting of less than 8." Many a beer was won after Steve
would demonstrate his special oiling and cleaning
process. Usual time, one minute.
one particular SLR that was returned to us in a very
sick state. The user, Murray Claydon from C Company, had
been fired upon while crossing a creek and had gone
under water. Coming up ready for action he fired but the
weapon was full of water. The barrel laid open, the body
bulged out and the magazine burst with all live rounds
in it being "exploded" through the bottom. The sides of
the magazine were welded to the body of the rifle.
84mm Carl Gustaf Anti-Tank weapon.
is very simple. Manufactured in Sweden, we were unable
to use them because the Swedes would not provide
ammunition, as they did not support the war in Vietnam.
That must have been a good contract.
Browning 9mm Pistol
vehicles and the bars of Vung Tau when you did not want
to have to carry a rifle with you all the time. The
cause of many Accidental Discharges (AD's) but mostly
into the ground. It was regarded as being as good as any
other pistol and as limited as they were as well. Its
worst technical feature was that the magazine could not
withstand being left with a number of rounds in it for
very long before the spring ceased to function, leading
to mis-feeds and jamming. The RMO, Captain Tony White
has told me that he found the butt quite handy for
eliciting reflexes during physical examinations.
Colt AR 16 5.56mm Rifle.
over-rated but definitely recognised as the "weapon of
Vietnam". As described above, it was a very necessary
improvement on the AR 15 Armalite. It was capable of
firing a great number of rounds in the general direction
in which is was pointed and because of the small calibre
the ammunition was lighter and therefore an individual
soldier could carry more of them than, say, 7.62 rounds.
Initially thought to be able to kill anything that is
was even vaguely near, the 5.56 bullet was actually
really as limited as any other small calibre, high
velocity round. It was all very simple; how many could
you carry? That was the advantage. From an armourer's
view point, perhaps the best thing to come out of Mr.
Colt's effort was that they came with a good, small
diameter cleaning rod which was excellent for the SLR
and the GPMG's. Before these arrived, we would make
cleaning rods out of fencing wire.
SUPPORT COMPANY CREW SERVED WEAPONS
this term to cover all of those specialist weapons that
were based within Support Company. I do this because
these need to be treated differently. These weapons were
complex and at time massively important. The armourers
knew how to service them, but far more important was how
to use them. We had learnt to stand well back and listen
to the expert users and ask how we could support them in
their tasks rather than to tell them what could and
could not be done.
106mm Recoilless Rifle
Recoilless Rifles Whilst D Coy occupied
Nui Dat Hill before being required to hand it over to
the SAS, some of the 106's were sighted there. Here they
were tried in their secondary role as an area weapon. At
high elevation the back blast was something to see and
Max Carroll remembers Mick Deak (Baron von Berg) calling
the fall of shot and making corrections as he developed
new skills. After 17 rounds and orders such as "Drop
2000, Repeat!!!" the side of Nui Nghe Mountain was
finally hit. Luckily longer-range artillery arrived very
soon after and the 106's were packed up. Anti-tank
Platoon became Reconnaissance Platoon.
packed up the 106mm Recoilless Rifles, the mortars and
the flamethrowers became the main focus here. By
necessity, the 81mm Mortars won our attention, and
justly so. To witness a mortar section moving out on
operations with all of their equipment man-packed is one
of the most moving sights ever seen. The sheer physical
loads and the endurance expected from and given by these
men was breath taking.
M29 81 mm
Our mortar sections fired an
amazing number of rounds on particular days (for example, a platoon of 4
mortars fired 960 rounds on the 8th Oct 1966) and the guys were
always looking for ways to improve their operations. Then when they returned
to Base they were called upon to fire regularly from their semi-permanent
position to "keep the baddies on their toes." As technicians we listened and
advised, measured and monitored, made mechanical modifications on the side
and kept things going. Measurement of the bore was necessary, as excessive
wear would mean that the weapon might be inaccurate thus failing to do its
job or presenting a danger to our own troops. Bob Hunting informed me that
of even greater concern was the very unreliable US supplied Ammunition.
"Drop-shorts" of a few hundred metres were common when using it. The tail
fin would drop off making them very unstable.
In the wet season in
particular, the mortars had a bad habit of burying their base plates,
particularly after continued firing in the base camp. One very good crew
decided that they could fix this with some sand and a few bags of cement. It
worked but immediately caused the bipod arm to shatter. A locally
manufactured version worked for the several weeks that it took to get a
replacement part, but everyone was very happy.
The M79 40mm Grenade Launcher
widely used and presented a number of maintenance
problems. It was very cheaply made and quite flimsy,
especially around the sight area, and had been
introduced into service hastily. Spare parts were
afternoon I was handed an M79 with a partly fired High
Explosive round stuck in the barrel. After reading a
little technical data on the round, I was reasonably
sure that it was fairly safe as the round had to rotate
several times on its way out before it became fully
armed. So in theory it was possible for me to drive the
stuck round out of the barrel with a hammer and punch
(and hopefully have it caught immediately as it came out
of the barrel)
few hefty hits, the round began to change shape and
become more firmly stuck. I immediately saw a solution
to our spare parts problem. Remove the barrel from the
weapon, use a demolition charge to destroy it, together
with the stuck round, and then declare the complete
weapon as having been destroyed. Everyone in the area
The M79 made
a further appearance in a slightly different form slung
under the M16. This was known as the M-203.
The M72 LAW (Light Anti-Tank
Weapon) made up part of our weapons inventory, but as it was a
non-maintainable item, it had little impact on the armourers.
Remington 12 Gauge Shotgun
Remington 12 Gauge Shot Guns.
These pump action weapons which were simply an un-blackened civilian weapon,
were held at company level and did not get much use, and did not need much
Sawn-off double barrel 12
gauge shot gun. Not many people knew of its existence and it was passed from
person to person when the original owner was evacuated home. He, apparently,
was given it by his uncle or father with the best of intentions. One
afternoon in Nui Dat it was mishandled and someone was killed. It came into
the armourer's hands to be destroyed after the investigation.
In May 1967 we handed over
our supply of spares, tools and even some of our experience to the 7 RAR
boys. On our return to Holsworthy we set up the new armourer's facility in a
brand new building and were amazed just how easy life was without the mud,
sweat and anguish. Very sadly, within a few weeks Jim Toohill and Steve Wood
were involved in a vehicle accident and Jim was killed.
Shortly afterwards I was
posted to the RAEME (Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers)
Training Centre where I was instructing future armourers, Steve Wood
joined me there some 12 months later.
The contents of these pages
come completely from my memory and I invite anyone to provide me with
further information that might allow for either expansion or correction. I
know that I now look back on those years and my time with 5 RAR in awe, and
with the greatest respect possible for the people with whom I was lucky
enough to serve.
My complete lack of faith in the existence of morality
and ethics amongst members of the weapons manufacturing
and sales industry was re-confirmed several years later.
In the mid 1970's I was working with the PNG Defence
Force in Port Moresby. A European officer with the
Police Force came into my office to show me an M 16. He
had just purchased several hundred of them and was very
proud of his purchase. He left a much less happy person
when I pointed out to him that he had been sold old
leftover pieces of very early model M15 Bodies and M16
Bolt Carriers. The Bolt Carriers had the serrations for
the necessary "forward assist" but the bodies were a
much earlier version M15 that did not have the matching
Jack. I wonder how many other developing countries
helped Mr. Colt get rid of his excess stock of useless
parts after the Vietnam War?
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