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operations conducted 1966-67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
Operation Holsworthy
(Cont'd)

7 August - 18 August 1966

By Captain Robert J. O'Neill MID

 

Because it was obvious to the Viet Cong that after our cordon of Duc My, we must have been considering a similar operation against Binh Ba, special precautions had to be taken. They knew that we operated against villages using the cordon technique at night. If the Viet Cong were to lay an ambush on our approach route we could have been in difficulties, so it was vital that the preliminary reconnaissances' were undetected. Colonel Warr's plan called for a wide sweeping approach march which went out from Nui Dat towards Nui Nghe, swinging in to the east of the latter hill to enter the Gallia Plantation from the south-west corner, then passing through the plantation on an axis parallel to the airstrip. It was important that no one saw us during the approach or we would find either an ambush or a village empty of Viet Cong when we arrived. Therefore we had to skirt some two miles to the west of Duc My and we could not enter the plantation until after the tappers had stopped work and gone back into Binh Ba. This was likely to be just on dusk so we were faced with a final night move of nearly two miles through the plantation.

An assembly area for the battalion to re-form after the day approach march was selected in the jungle on the south-western edge of the plantation. The battalion would concentrate in this area by dusk and then move out into a forming-up area inside the plantation where the companies could shake out into their final order of march, rope up so that they would stay together, and then get some rest for a few hours before beginning the final movement around 11.30 p.m. B Company were given a special approach route which was to bring them into Binh Ba from the east. The other companies of the battalion, together with two companies from the Sixth Battalion (necessary because of the length of the cordon) were to place the cordon in position and remain in their positions on the day of the search, while B Company swept through the village, working towards the west.

The operation, called Operation Holsworthy, required much co-ordination with the Vietnamese authorities, for they had to interrogate the population and supply police to assist in moving people from their homes to the collection point. But because of the dangers and consequences of a security leak within any large headquarters, information was kept on a need-to-know basis until the morning of the interrogations. The police and interrogation teams supplied by Colonel Dat reported to the battalion base on the day preceding the cordon. Only then were they briefed on the operation and they came forward on APCs on the following morning. The provincial staff preferred to set up a central interrogation point on the Ba Ria soccer field where they were close to their base, rather then set up a great amount of tentage in the insecure area of Binh Ba for the few days which the interrogation of all males of military age would demand. Consequently, we had to arrange trucks from Vung Tau to come up Route 2 with an armoured escort on the day of the search, in order to take the men into Ba Ria and bring them back again.

A loudspeaker aircraft was to fly over Binh Ba at dawn, broad-casting instructions to the villagers and reassuring them that they would not be harmed. They were also told to notify the police escorting our soldiers if any person were sick and required medical attention.

This arrangement completed the preparations. Just as we were about to begin the final briefings, Captain Don Wilcox, the Intelligence Officer, was transferred to Task Force Headquarters to replace one of the Task Force intelligence staff who had been taken ill and had to return to Australia. I was appointed to replace Don on Battalion headquarters, and took over the running of the Intelligence Section on the morning before we departed for Binh Ba. My first act was to produce what I estimated might have been the Viet Cong provincial leader's operational contingency plan for dealing with an Australian thrust into Binh Ba, so that each of the company commanders would know what forces could be employed against them in the worst instance, and how these forces might be used. Unfortunately the format which I used for this contingency plan was very close to that actually employed by the Viet Cong and one of the American Psywar officers who were working with us mistook it for a captured plan which was going to be put into effect, so he took a little reassuring that we were not deliberately walking straight into a trap.

We left Nui Dat on the morning of August 7th, winding out of the base camp in a long column of companies one behind the other, to lessen the risk of being discovered during the approach to the assembly area. The battalion was strung out over two miles, and would have taken four hours at patrol pace to pass any one point. The companies departed in accordance with an elaborately planned time schedule, which worked surprisingly smoothly, with only short delays as the later companies waited near the start point for the earlier ones to depart.

The column took shape on the first few hundred yards on Route 2 before heading off into the trees to the north-west. The road had become plated with red mud which blended in a harmony of rich colours with the dark green of the rubber trees on either side of the road. The route we took and its accompanying sites were becoming familiar. One felt that the environment was growing more friendly towards us. Certainly we no longer sensed the presence of immediate hostility moving about amongst the rubber and banana trees which we had felt so sharply in the last week in May.

At the bottom of the gentle hill which Route 2 descended from the rubber trees, we crossed the first of several branches of the Song Cau, passing an enormous tree, which was a graceful study in the transfer of vertical forms to horizontal planes. The trunk rose straight up out of the earth, curving over until it flowed smoothly into one of several parallel horizontal layers of foliage which made up the character of the tree.

We diverged to the west, moving through the rubber plantation which led up the hill to the wide clearing of Landing Zone Hudson. Every time I crossed Hudson I counted the days back to May 24th and felt a growing difference in my attitude between then and now---not the least of which was the feeling of slight amazement that we had been on operations for on month, for two months, and so on. The next mile of our progress would pass quickly as my mind speculated on the length of the battalion's time in Vietnam and what was yet to be experienced.

On over the undulations of open country side we wound, around tall whip-like clumps of bamboo, or in between them when it was impossible to do otherwise, across swamps of black mud which the hundreds of marching boots churned to the consistency of sludgy porridge, until we reached the harbour area of thick jungle with small clearings dotted about in which platoons and companies were gathering, resting after the day of marching and eating from tins of cold meat, their meal since breakfast and their last until the following morning.

The battalion had completed the assembly by 6 p.m. and in failing light we moved out of the jungle, across a broad strip of turf, and into the plantation. A narrow horizontal strip of light which ran completely across our front separated the convergence of the dark cloud of rubber leaves overhead from the carpet of dark earth beneath.  This light filtered through in a pale green swathe from the opposite edge of the plantation. Thousands of thin vertical black lines, the trunks of rubber trees, linked the horizontal strips of darkness and the dark silhouettes of the assembling soldiers flitted across this static pattern. We sat down, each man close to his neighbour, except for the sentries, who were some hundreds of yards out. Each man tied his rope between his own equipment and that of the man in front, because the first few hours of the night move had to be done in complete darkness as the moon did not rise until after midnight.

At 11 p.m. we stood up to move off and the first minor drama of the night occurred. The men in front had not allowed enough time for the men at the rear to put their equipment on before the former began to move off. Max Carroll experienced the anguish of feeling all his belongings whisked from his hands and disappearing into the total darkness which enveloped all, while he had visions of all the secret battalion instructions which he carried for co-ordination of the operation being scattered far and wide across Binh Ba. Fortunately, the front of the column was halted and most important items were recovered by several people who had lost them. We abandoned the idea of roping together after that move and relied on hand to shoulder contact for future night moves in the absence of any moonlight.

After an hour of shuffling around rubber trees and over the small banks and bunds which ran through the plantation, light began gradually to filter across our path as the moon rose, and we approached the edge of the airstrip where visibility was much better than in the rubber trees. Moving in front of the line of trees at the edge of the airstrip was like walking beneath a chalk cliff---the whiteness of the trunks and branches in the cold moonlight made them almost scarp-like above us.

The cordon went into position close to 4 a.m. and B Company began their search shortly after dawn. Soon afterwards the first groups of Vietnamese began coming into the Battalion Headquarters area for checking, a quick interrogation by myself, and transport to Ba Ria. The first group of villagers were rather bewildered, but a few simple jokes by our jovial regimental police thawed them out a little and they gave us good co-operation.

I was surprised at the willingness of the people to go where they were told, for not only had they been Viet Cong sympathisers, if not active guerrillas, but it must have been very inconvenient for them to have to change whatever plans they had made for the day's activities. However, the combination of the Vietnamese police and our soldiers experienced no trouble in handling the villagers and after an hour the curiosity of the children and the generosity of the soldiers with their rations had created a fairly warm atmosphere.


 

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