In May 1966 the first soldiers of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) arrived in South Vietnam; the rest followed in June. Within two months elements of the battalion found themselves engaged in one of the largest battles fought by Australians in the Vietnam War.By August 1966 the Australian task force base at Nui Dat was only three months old. Concerned at the establishment of such a strong presence in their midst, the Viet Cong determined to inflict an early defeat on the Australians. In the days before the battle, radio signals indicated the presence of strong Viet Cong forces within 5 kilometres of the base but patrols found nothing. On the night of 16–17 August Nui Dat came under fire from mortars and recoilless rifles. The defenders stood to, expecting the barrage to be followed by an assault. None came. Searches of the area the next day located some of the sites from which mortars had been fired, but nothing else.Patrols continued the following day, 18 August. D Company left the base at 11.15 that morning bound for the Long Tan rubber plantation. As they departed Nui Dat the sounds of a concert by Little Pattie, the Australian entertainer, reached their ears. They entered the Long Tan plantation at 3.15 that afternoon. Less than an hour later the Viet Cong attacked in force, putting the Australians under mortar, machine gun and small arms fire. Only the quick response of a New Zealand artillery battery to desperate calls for support saved D Company from annihilation.Almost as soon as the battle began a torrential downpour added to the gloom in the rubber plantation. The Australians, surrounded, short of ammunition and fighting an enemy whose strength they could only guess at, called for helicopters to drop ammunition to them. Flying at tree-top height, braving the terrible weather and heavy Viet Cong fire, two RAAF helicopters located the beleaguered Australians and dropped boxes of ammunition and blankets for the wounded.The survivors of D Company along with accurate artillery fire from New Zealand's 161 Field Battery as well as the Australian 103 and 105 Field batteries and a United States battery inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Cong. As the fighting continued Australian reinforcements were committed to the battle. B Company was on the way and A Company, loaded into Armoured Personnel Carriers of 3 Troop, 1 Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron, which fought its way into D Company just before 7 pm as daylight was fading. The Viet Cong had been massing for another assault but were forced to retreat into the plantation. They had suffered terrible casualties, but only when the Australians returned to the scene of battle the following morning did they realise the extent of the defeat that they had inflicted on the enemy. The Australians counted 245 enemy dead still in the plantation and surrounding jungle with evidence that others had already been removed from the battlefield. Captured documents and information from prisoners suggested that D Company had faced some 2,500 Viet Cong. Eighteen Australians were killed in the Battle of Long Tan and 24 wounded, all but one of the dead were from D Company.In 1987 Prime Minister Bob Hawke designated 18 August as Australia’s official Vietnam Veterans’ Day. The date commemorates the Battle of Long Tan, during which Delta Company 6 RAR fought an ‘encounter’ battle against enemy forces in the Long Tan rubber plantation just a few thousand metres from the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat. Delta Company suffered 42 casualties, including 18 dead – more than one third of its strength – while some 245 enemy troops were killed. Delta Company’s 105 men, and three New Zealanders from 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery, fought for almost four hours against soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army who outnumbered them by ten to one.
I think, in retrospect, the Battle of Long Tan has been promoted to its icon status by the public and by the Viet Vets themselves, rather than by the politicians or the senior military. It's sobering to realise that in fact only four medals were awarded for the Battle of Long Tan.The politicians and the senior military didn't recognise it as a great event, possibly because there might have been more of them at the time. But it's sobering to realise that it's the public and the Viet vets themselves that have made … Long Tan the icon that it is today where 18th August is the nationally celebrated Vietnam Veterans Day.[Second Lieutenant Dave Sabben, Australians at War Interview No:2585]In May 1968, Delta Company 6RAR was awarded a US Presidential Citation ‘for extraordinary heroism’, one of only two Australian units to have received the decoration. (3RAR received the award for its role in the Battle of Kapyong during the Korean War).Eight months earlier, in September 1966, the South Vietnamese Government had also arranged to present the Australians with an award – the South Vietnam Cross of Gallantry – at a special parade near the Task Force headquarters. However, the Commander of the Vietnamese Armed Forces and Chief of State, General Van Thieu, was advised that Australian government policy forbade the acceptance of foreign awards. The parade was delayed until President Thieu’s advisors returned with replacement gifts for the men: wooden cigar boxes for the officers, cigarette boxes for the NCOs and dolls dressed in national costume for the other ranks. The men have never received the awards.Fifteen of the soldiers received Commonwealth decorations for their roles during the action. In the endnotes to Chapter 16 of To Long Tan, Ian McNeill writes that ‘the system of allocation of medals by quota resulted in the number and degree of awards being little short of insulting in view of the heroism displayed.’ [Ian McNeill, To Long Tan, p 564]
Account of Events:
I must admit looking back now if Harry Smith hadn't been the commander he was and if myself and other sergeants and corporals we had in Delta Company had not been of the calibre they were… I don't think we would have survived Long Tan. I think the whole hundred and eight would have been killed. So that's how important it was for us as NCOs.Sgt Bob Buick, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview.18th August 1966 - A 22-minute barrage from 82 mm mortars and 75 mm recoilless rifles startles the occupants of the base at Nui Dat. There are 24 Australian casualties and some damage to tents and vehicles. The base is readied for an attack which does not eventuate. 2:43am - B Company 6RAR is dispatched to search for the enemy and spent the day tracing enemy tracks. They are re-supplied with rations and remain away from Nui Dat overnight.6:31am - The three D Company platoons, 10, 11 and 12, are sent out to relieve B Company and to continue the search for Viet Cong troops. The men leave the base at Nui Dat just as a group of visiting entertainers (including Col Joye and Little Pattie) are setting up their equipment for a much anticipated concert.1:00pm - The two companies rendezvous and B Company returns to Nui Dat for the concert. Delta Company Commander, Major Harry Smith, his three platoons, a company HQ group and three New Zealand artillery observers set off into the rubber plantation.3:00pm - 10 and 11 Platoons move forward and spread out. Suddenly they make their first contact with a group of enemy soldiers who walk straight into the middle of the Australian patrol. Sergeant Bob Buick fires and wounds one who is picked up by his companions. They bolt into the surrounding vegetation. The Australians are surprised to see that, unlike the local Viet Cong, these men are dressed in camouflage clothing and carry AK47s, the Russian-made Kalashnikov.4:08pm - As 11 Platoon continues their advance in ‘one big long line’, they come under heavy fire which kills four of the Australians. The survivors, now fighting for their lives, fire back.4:12pm - Trapped by the enemy in torrential monsoon rain, 11 Platoon Commander Second Lieutenant Gordon Sharp calls in artillery support.4:26pm - NZ artillery shells are fired from Nui Dat but miss the target. When Gordon Sharp stands to re-direct the artillery fire he is shot and killed. His Platoon Sergeant, Bob Buick, sends a desperate radio message requesting more ammunition, and then his radio antenna is shot off. Major Smith orders 10 Platoon Commander, Second Lieutenant Geoff Kendall, out to find 11 Platoon. With rain falling, Kendall’s platoon intercepts a group of the enemy and overcomes them. But when they move on they are attacked from three sides. A number of his men are wounded and his radio is destroyed. Private William ‘Yank’ Arkell, a Radio Operator from Company HQ, braves the enemy fire to locate Kendall and hand over a replacement radio. (Arkell was later awarded a Mention In Dispatches for his actions). With radio contact restored, Smith orders 10 Platoon to retreat.4:50pm - Completely isolated from the rest of the company, and with minimal ammunition, 11 Platoon fight on. Sergeant Bob Buick calls in artillery fire from Nui Dat and directs it over his mens’ heads onto the enemy.5:15pm - 10 Platoon returns to the Company HQ position and Smith orders 12 Platoon Commander Second Lieutenant Dave Sabben, to take two sections of his Platoon (20 men instead of 30) to search for 11 Platoon.5:30pm - 12 Platoon runs into groups of the enemy attempting to outflank 11 Platoon and have to force their way through. Eight Australians are wounded.5:45pm - At Nui Dat, Lieutenant Adrian Roberts, Alpha Company 6RAR musters 7 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) of 3 Troop and heads out to support Delta Company.6:00pm - Two 9 Squadron RAAF helicopters negotiate torrential rain and almost zero visibility to drop cases of ammunition wrapped in blankets down to the embattled soldiers. Sergeant Bob Buick and the remainder of 11 Platoon having made a desperate dash to escape the enemy locate 12 Platoon. Together the survivors of the two platoons manage to fight their way back to Company HQ where Harry Smith deploys them into defensive positions to await enemy attacks.6:35pm - The enemy start their ‘human wave assault’ charging towards the Australians who reply with machine gun and rifle fire. Smith calls in the artillery at Nui Dat but despite their mounting casualties, the enemy continue their attack.6:45pm - 3 Troop’s APCs arrive, dispersing the enemy and ending the battle.10:45pm - The wounded and the dead are transported to the landing zone at the edge of the rubber plantation and evacuated to Vung Tau in dust off helicopters. Delta company’s dead are left in the plantation to be collected the next morning.19August 1966 - Delta Company together with 6RAR’s Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Companies and Delta Company 5RAR, with APCs, return to the battleground to search for the Australians who were killed in the battle. Two of the missing men from Delta Company are found wounded but alive and are evacuated in dust off helicopters. Thirteen Australian bodies are retrieved. Some wounded Viet Cong are taken prisoner and interrogated. That afternoon, the Australians dig shallow graves and bury more than 200 enemy dead where they fell.19-21 August 1966 - Companies ‘scour the battlefield’, extending their search area and finding traces of enemy camps, supplies, scattered groups of civilians and some graves. The enemy is not pursued and the battalion returns to Nui Dat, ending Operation Smithfield at 5 pm on 21 August 1966. D Company 6RAR withdraws to Vung Tau for two days R & C.