Captain David Wilkins
Dec 1969 - Mar 70
5RAR was nearing the end of
its final operation before RTA (return to Australia). With just fifteen days and a
the battalion was still engaged in search and destroy operations, patrolling, ambushing
and attacking enemy installations within Phuoc Tuy Province on
Operation Bondi 2. Charlie
Company was in the Dat Set region to the east of Long Tan and north-east of the Horseshoe
(see Map 1), and was about to become embroiled in the final major battle of the
battalion's tour of duty in South Vietnam. There were subsequent small contacts, but what
is described below was our last significant battle.
On 11 February 1970, as 7 Platoon and 9
Platoon occupied good ambush positions either side of an area suspected as "likely to
contain enemy", 8 Platoon pushed towards it for closer checking. It had been noticed
from previous intelligence reports that enemy movement and contacts had followed a pattern
relating to the type of vegetation in the Dat Set area. It surrounded a dark green
vegetated area on the map that we referred to as the "cauliflower ear" because
of its shape (see Map 2 below). The C Company sub-units were occupying an area ambush over
a distance of about two clicks (two Kilometres). Company Headquarters and 9 Platoon were in the base of the
"cauliflower ear", 8 Platoon was moving to the north-east into thick scrub on
the far side of an open kunai area, and 7 Platoon was a click further east on a bush track
next to the Song Rai ("Song" meant river).
At about 1300 hours, without warning from the
customary signs of bunkers (cutting, smell, etc), 8 Platoon was suddenly involved in a
heavy contact. All hell broke loose and continued for over 4 hours. 8 Platoon's forward
scout and his section commander had spotted the enemy from a distance of about 20 metres
and engaged them just as the enemy in turn saw them and scurried to their bunkers, which
had until then, gone unnoticed. Visibility was restricted in this dense scrub to about the
length of a cricket pitch. Platoon commander 2nd Lieutenant Peter Commerford
immediately put in a left flanking attack but this was halted by accurate and intense
enemy fire from their bunkers, which seemed to be on three sides of them. An estimated
enemy force of platoon-strength occupying the bunkers was firing
(rocket propelled grenades), RPDs
(machine guns) and M79s. (see VC Weapons
on this website).
Both left and right flanking movements by 8 Platoon became pinned down and rendered
useless because they had in fact walked into the centre of a "U" shaped
defensive system. All they could do was return fire at the source of Charlie's tracer
coming from three sides.
At Company Headquarters (CHQ) the
newly arrived artillery
Forward Observer Lieutenant Kevin O'Brien called in supporting artillery fire, whilst the MFC
(Mortar Fire Controller) controlled the mortar bombardment. Meanwhile, radio contact with
Zero-Alpha (the Battalion Command Post) requested a light fire team
(helicopter gunships). There was no question
of withdrawing, only the best way to attack. There was a need to boost 8 Platoon however,
and it was contemplated that the 9 Platoon and CHQ in-depth ambush could be used for this.
Then "Niner" (the CO) suggested tanks or
APC support. This offer was readily
accepted. About an hour after contact was initiated, and once it was realised the enemy
were intending to stay, the troop of tanks began their move towards our position. They
would be coming from the Horseshoe (north of Dat Do village), which meant traversing just
south of the Long Tan area, the site of the famous battle in 1966. They had about 9 clicks
to travel across country, it was getting late in the day, and the area to be covered might
have also held other enemy forces silently waiting. We were conscious of a standard VC
tactic of creating a situation, which would draw out a relief force so they could then
By this stage 8 Platoon had suffered five
casualties, three of whom were serious. Section commander Corporal Dave Fazackerley was
hit in the side by a round, which bored through him but fortunately missed his vital
organs. Machine gun number two, Private Wally Magalas, saw his section commander fall and
crawled to him. Unstrapping the shell dressing from the butt of his
SLR, Wally covered the
gaping exit wound in Dave's back. Dave, still conscious, then instructed Wally to return
to his machine gunner, Private Tex Cunningham, and help keep up the fire at the enemy.
Wally and Tex began having machine gun stoppages and worked frantically to clear dirt and
twigs from the breech. The Platoon Commander yelled at them "Keep that gun
going!" but the gun stopped again. This time as they cleared it, there was a
blinding explosion just above Tex and Wally. Tex yelled "I can't see. I can't see!"
His face was covered with blood as he covered his eyes with his hands. The shrapnel from
the RPG explosion had also hit Wally in the head and upper arm, but initially he didn't
realise it until Dave yelled to him that he was bleeding from the head. Disregarding his
own injuries, Wally got Tex's shell dressing from his webbing and bound his mate's eyes.
Platoon sergeant 'Kiwi' Hill arranged for the machine gun to be taken over by another
member of the section, as Wally and Tex crawled back from their position to better cover
behind a large tree, Tex gripping Wally's ankle and blindly following.
Peter Commerford had begun using the light
fire team, Bushranger, but its fire did not stop the enemy from engaging anyone who spoke
or moved within 8 Platoon's area. Bushranger's mini guns were firing about 50 metres in
front of 8 Platoon, but the enemy in their bunkers were closer in, only 10-20 metres away,
making the chopper fire mainly ineffective. As one of the diggers said later, shits were
mortars were having more effect however,
as they rained down their barrage just behind the forward bunkers, causing problems for
the enemy in their depth positions and hindering any preparations for the enemy withdrawal
in that direction.
Meanwhile, CSM Jack Lake at CHQ arranged for
the Dustoff choppers to remain on standby until all was clear for our medical evacuations.
At 1700 hours the enemy forces were still
holding their defensive position, and it appeared they were waiting for the cover of
darkness before withdrawing. By this time however, the Centurion tanks (4 Troop) from the
Horseshoe had arrived. Marrying up with 8 Platoon had been a potential problem as the
troop of tanks crashed through the scrub towards the contact area, but communications were
maintained between the two groups and no friendly-force clashes occurred. The tanks came
in directly behind 8 Platoon, making initial contact with Platoon Sergeant 'Kiwi' Hill.
Once he explained the layout to the Troop commander, the
Centurions, observant not to run
over our infantrymen lying in the undergrowth, systematically manoeuvred to the forward
elements where they hooked up with Pete Commerford.
They then combined with 8 Platoon in the assault, with each tank blasting ahead
with canister rounds from its main armament and, upon reaching each bunker, driving over
it and swivelling its tracks to collapse it under the tank's 50-ton weight. As the assault
pushed forward, the enemy pulled back, withdrawing in a northerly direction.
mortar fire continued to be directed on their withdrawal route with positive results, as
blood trails later indicated.
As was quite often the case with these bunker
contacts, the physical results of enemy casualties were unknown because they had time to
organise the evacuation of their dead and wounded and did so without detection. On this
occasion several packs were captured, plus an RPD (a good trophy) and some blood trails
were sighted inside the camp leading northwards.
Once the enemy had withdrawn and our wounded
were dusted off (evacuated by Dustoff helicopter) from the nearby dry rice paddy, we had
hopes that our depth ambushes set by 7 Platoon and 9 Platoon (with CHQ) would get some
joy, but we began to lose those hopes by 1900 hours.
Then at 1920 hours, just on
last light, an enormous explosion came from 7 Platoon's ambush area a click to
the east, followed by sustained machine gun fire.
Lieutenant Ian Hosie's "magic
box" was in use. This was his device to detonate 12
claymore mines simultaneously.
Ian was wounded in this action, during the assault into the killing zone of the ambush,
which followed the springing of the ambush. The result was 6 enemy KIA, plus blood trails,
plus captured weapons. It was an excellent result all round.
The After Action Reports completed later,
detailed amongst other things, the ammunition expended. During its battle 8 Platoon used
about 2,500 rounds of MG link, 800
M16 rounds, 500
SLR rounds and multiple
M79 and M26
grenades. In the follow-up action, 7 Platoon initiated its ambush with the bank of 12
Claymores, and then expended 700 rounds of
MG link, 100 M16 and 300
SLR rounds, 40 HE
grenades, an M72 rocket and 5 white phosphorous grenades.
Documents captured in this and other contacts
in the area, revealed that D440 Provincial Mobile Battalion had moved into the region and
were being supported by 84 Rear Services. D440 consisted mainly of NVA troops.
The following day 9 Platoon with CHQ pushed
towards 8 Platoon and 4 Troop (tanks) and on the way engaged two further bunker systems
using clearing fire and movement. As a result we surprised a group of enemy there and
flushed them out, leaving one enemy KIA.
Things were becoming far too hot for such a
short time to go before RTA, particularly as we were operating by this stage with a
reduced company fighting strength of just fifty-five men, more than fifty percent below
full strength (which is explained in another article on this website, "Final Days of the Second Tour").
On 14th February Charlie Company had another
contact near the "cauliflower ear", resulting in more enemy KIA and captured
weapons and equipment. Unfortunately we also had one of our own diggers wounded from
shrapnel. He was dusted off shortly after the action finished. That would be the final
contact with the enemy before the battalion returned to Nui Dat base a few days later to
clean up and RTA on 27th February.
All our own casualties lived from these contacts, but Tex lost
It was a strange war where
results were difficult to assess. One way was to compare the killed-in-action ratios.
5RAR's total number of confirmed enemy KIA from body count during this second tour of duty
in South Vietnam was 353. With 5RAR itself suffering 25 KIA, this gave the formidable kill
ratio of 14 enemy KIA for every one of ours. If the same ratio applied to wounded in
action, the battalion's two hundred and two wounded would compare with just under three
thousand enemy WIA. In the end though, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong won the public
relations war, leading to the misnamed "peace with honour" in 1973. Within two
years of that and with the allied forces no longer in South Vietnam, the NVA and VC were
able to concentrate their forces and move on Saigon, leading to the unconditional
surrender by South Vietnam on 30 April 1975.
Map of Dat Set Area
Detail Map of 8 Platoon's Battle and
C Company's Ambush
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view the larger image
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