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The Eighth Battalion in Vietnam
By Robert A. Hall
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2000 Robert A. Hall
All rights reserved.
Getting ready: 8RAR's genesis and makeup
Raised on 14 July 1966, 8RAR was one of those battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment that were created specifically for the war in Vietnam. The Australian Army's commitment to the war began modestly in 1962 with the dispatch there of 30 members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. But by 1965, as the political and military situation in Vietnam deteriorated, the Australian government decided to increase its commitment. In January 1965 Senator Shane Paltridge, the Minister for Defence, announced the expansion of the AATTV to 100 men. In April the government announced the deployment to Vietnam of 1RAR and in August the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, said that Australian combat forces in Vietnam would be expanded to a battalion group comprising an infantry battalion and supporting artillery, engineer, medical, logistics and other units. In March 1966 the government stated that the battalion group would be increased to a Task Force.
Meanwhile, the government decided that the Army's voluntary system of recruitment would not produce sufficient new recruits in time to meet the Army's growing commitments. On 24 November 1964 the National Service Act was passed by parliament and a few days later it was amended to permit the overseas deployment of conscripts. The new scheme was selective: birthdates were used to select, from the population of 20-year-olds, those who were to serve in the Army. Of 804 286 young men who registered for National Service, only 63 790 would actually serve in the Army. Under the scheme, conscripts were required to serve two years full time in the Australian Regular Army, followed by a period of further service in reserves. Initially, Aborigines and non-naturalised migrants were exempted from call-up but, following strong public criticism of the exemption of migrants, the government made migrants liable for conscription in January 1967. The first conscripts under the scheme began training on 1 July 1965.
Against this background, 8RAR was raised. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J. O. Langtry, a small nucleus of officers and NCOs gathered to which, in time, were added drafts of private soldiers, NCOs and officers, as what began as a mere collection of individuals developed into the makings of a battalion. A critical part of this transformation was the arrival of a draft of over 100 men from 1RAR. Many of these men brought with them the high standards of professionalism of 1RAR and the experience of recent service in Vietnam. Many had served together for years before the Vietnam War and they formed a foundation for the new battalion's esprit de corps. A second, smaller draft, mainly of corporals and some sergeants, came to the new battalion from the Infantry Centre where they had been instructors. These men were to be invaluable in training the battalion for its role in Vietnam. Their quality was remarkable. By the time 8RAR was deployed to Vietnam most had been promoted to sergeant or staff sergeant. Later in their careers several would be commissioned while others achieved promotion to warrant officer class one. One man, 'Lofty' Wendt, was to become RSM of the Army. Together with Colonel Langtry's personality, these men were to leave their stamp on the early character of 8RAR.
The early days of the battalion were tumultuous. Langtry was to write of them:
Companies were commanded for months by second lieutenants, and away from base for months on end. Wonderful work was done by our senior NCOs, many of whom commanded platoons for twelve months and more. We trained seemingly endlessly through the rain forests around Canungra; put up and pulled down tented camps at Greenbank ... looked after cadets. We raised and trained specialist platoons, only to have them reposted to higher priority battalions preparing for Vietnam. Months were spent at Greenbank training almost all of our junior NCOs and conducting Corps training for national servicemen. It was a time for endless innovation, improvisation and hard work.
In January 1967 the battalion was warned for service in the Far East Strategic Reserve and preparations began for the move to Ter-endak Garrison near Malacca, Malaysia. By late 1967 the move had been completed and the battalion had begun training at its new home. The move was fortuitous. It removed the new battalion from the turbulence and disruption of the rapid expansion of the Australian Army in the early years of the Vietnam commitment and allowed it to focus, with few interruptions, on preparation for eventual combat.
When it arrived in Malaysia, the new battalion was not performing well. It had had insufficient time to properly shake down, its administrative and quartermaster (stores) systems were not yet working properly and it had still to develop a set of standing operating procedures, or SOPs. Langtry, together with Major Max Mules, OC Admin Company, Captain Gerry Woodrow, Quartermaster, and later on Major Adrian Clunies-Ross, who was initially Operations Officer but subsequently battalion second in command, set about organising the battalion. Faulty administration could cause friction within the battalion which might waste valuable time and disrupt training for operations. Langtry and his team placed high priority on ensuring that the battalion had smoothly functioning standing orders for A/Q work. Battalion SOPs were adopted from 3RAR and modified by those in the battalion who had Vietnam experience. The battalion also received and widely circulated 'lessons from Vietnam' documents produced by other battalions, particularly 7RAR, after their Vietnam tours.
Langtry encouraged members of the battalion to see the unit as a family. This was assisted by the battalion's isolation from Australia and by its membership of a Commonwealth Brigade in which the other battalions, against which the men of 8RAR would naturally judge themselves, were from Britain and New Zealand. He endeavoured as far as possible to fill vacant NCO positions by promoting soldiers within the battalion rather than accepting NCOs posted in from Australia, some of whom, in Langtry's experience, lacked quality. This did not go unnoticed by the soldiers who saw that good performance was valued and rewarded. This approach was extended to discipline, and in time most soldiers came to adopt a sense of individual responsibility and to recognise the battalion as a team; offences committed by one man reflected badly on the battalion as a whole. Throughout, Langtry's emphasis was on a low-key professionalism.
By the time the battalion completed its tour in Malaysia it had transformed itself into a well-trained, cohesive and smoothly functioning unit. Clunies-Ross recalled:
When I arrived in January 1968, the battalion was in an early stage of development and had not fully settled down. By the time we left Malaysia even the Brits conceded that we were the best battalion in the Brigade. On the final Divisional exercise we performed better than anyone else. An officer at Brigade Headquarters said to me: 'You fellows have had a transformation from quite shaky when you arrived to without a doubt the best battalion in the field.' This was a great tribute from my point of view, particularly to the CO, but also to the battalion as a whole.
Warned for service in Vietnam, the battalion returned to Australia in April 1969. The tempo of training and preparations for deployment to Vietnam quickened. Langtry relinquished command to Lieutenant Colonel Keith O'Neill. Those who would go with the battalion to Vietnam replaced other officers who had nurtured the growth and development of the battalion through the early days and the Malaysian deployment. Some foundation members of the battalion, like RSM Joe Lee, Captain Gerry Woodrow and the second in command of A Company, Captain John Dwyer, were to stay with the battalion through its deployment to Vietnam. The battalion was brought to near full strength with drafts from the 13th, 14th and 15th National Service intakes. Unlike previous drafts, the 148 men of the 15th intake were posted direct to 8RAR following their basic training, and 8RAR rather than the Infantry Centre conducted their Corps training. 8RAR was to be manned to meet a Vietnam establishment of 795 all ranks of whom 50 per cent were to be National Servicemen. Generally, support and administrative companies, with their specialists who required more lengthy training, had greater than 50 per cent of regular soldiers, while rifle companies had a compensating greater than 50 per cent representation of National Servicemen.
A program of intense training was begun. Specialist training for the battalion's mortarmen, signallers, assault pioneers and anti-tank platoon members was conducted while the rifle companies concentrated on fine tuning their skills in infantry minor tactics and marksmanship. The 'lessons learnt' documents that came to 8RAR from battalions already in Vietnam, as well as O'Neill's own discussions and observations during a reconnaissance visit to Vietnam, helped to focus the battalion's training on the particular tactical problems the men were likely to encounter there. Training particularly dealt with attacking the enemy in his fortified jungle camps or 'bunker systems', patrolling, ambushing and security. Personal skills of weapon handling, marksmanship and concealment were honed.
Intensive training at Enoggera and in the State forests and Army training areas around Brisbane culminated in company and battalion tactical exercises. During this period of preparation, each company underwent intensive training at the Jungle Training Centre, Canungra, ending in an arduous week-long exercise in the rainforest of the Wiangaree State Forest. The battalion command post group fine-tuned its procedures by deploying to Wiangaree for five weeks of on-the-job training while it controlled each company's final exercise. Training climaxed in a major battalion exercise in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area designed to test the battalion under conditions as close as possible to those it would find in Vietnam.
The [exercise] area was designed to represent Phuoc Tuy Province with the complex at Samuel Hill representing the Task Force Base at Nui Dat. Exercise Tropic Glow began on 27th September with 4RAR acting as enemy, preparing the Battalion for exercise Straight Kris which was designed to finally mould the unit into a cohesive force. From this final exercise the Battalion received excellent reports praising the fitness and morale of what was considered a highly trained, confident and professional force.
It had been a long, hard road from July 1966, but the battalion was now ready for combat.
On 17 November 1969 the main body of the battalion boarded HMAS Sydney at Hamilton Wharf in Brisbane for the journey to Vietnam. The next day the advance party departed from Eagle Farm airport to arrive in Vietnam the same day.
The commanding officer of 8RAR, Lieutenant Colonel Keith O'Neill, 43, had joined the Army in 1945. He was a Duntroon graduate and had held appointments in a number of infantry battalions including 1RAR, where he had been a company commander and second in command during that battalion's deployment to Malaya for operations in the Malayan Emergency. Fluent in French, he had served as Services Attaché in Cambodia from December 1964 till January 1967. Later he had served in the Directorate of Military Intelligence. O'Neill felt that, together with his service as a company commander during the Malayan Emergency, his experience in Cambodia had been invaluable for his later understanding of the Vietnam War.
As a military attaché in Phnom Penh, I did a lot of work ... with civilians, trying to get information, working with local Army of Cambodia officers, and I found that in Phuoc Tuy it was just the same sort of thing. Trying to get information from the HUMINT [human intelligence] side ... You see, as a company commander in Malaya you were starting to think intelligence-wise. [The two postings were] absolutely invaluable.
Graham Walker worked closely with O'Neill as both Adjutant, and later, company commander. He thought O'Neill was the ideal commander for the type of war 8RAR was to face in Phuoc Tuy Province. It was a complex war that demanded an intellectually rigorous approach — that of a thinker rather than a warrior. Particularly after 1968, the counterrevolutionary warfare (CRW) of the type Australia was fighting in Phuoc Tuy Province involved mostly small scale combat at the platoon or company level. Larger scale combat did occur from time to time but it was rare. These small scale combats did not usually require the intervention of the CO; they were best left to the platoon or company commander. Instead, the CO devoted most of his effort to planning future operations. This war called for subtlety, political as well as military acumen and, above all, thought. Walker remembered:
[O'Neill] was what I always considered a thoughtful commander ... His style was also one which ... was very economical on casualties, because he was much more concerned about out-thinking the enemy than with confronting them ... He had a good intellectual understanding of the war. He understood what kind of war it was and I think he operated accordingly, and therefore, I think, for that war he was an excellent commander.
Walker contrasted O'Neill with other COs who possessed more overtly aggressive, even 'gung-ho', personalities perhaps more suited to large scale conventional operations:
He wasn't your classic battalion commander. He wasn't your bloke who out-drank his company commanders at the bar or kept them there till the last one dropped ... He didn't have that kind of personality and ... that's why I say that he was a really good commander for that war. [There were disagreements but] the disagreements didn't seem to me to affect anything operationally.
O'Neill's thoughtful approach to the war was given a relatively free rein in the absence of close oversight by the Task Force. O'Neill recalled:
There was no Task Force concept [of operations], so battalions were let go to do what they wanted up to a point. As long as they were chasing the enemy and showing a certain amount of aggression they'd be let go. No-one pulled you up. But people would criticise you if you failed or something went wrong.
A strong and highly experienced team supported O'Neill. Major Adrian Clunies-Ross, O'Neill's second in command, was highly regarded throughout the battalion, competent and efficient. He had served previously in Vietnam as Senior Australian Advisor in the AATTV, he understood the war better than many and he had a strong tactical grasp. Major Noel Williams, the Operations Officer, coordinated the operational planning of the battalion and was responsible to the CO for the running of the battalion CP. Williams was the ideal foil for O'Neill. While O'Neill's mind was on the broader issues and the conceptual analysis of operations, Williams paid meticulous attention to the details. Painstaking and thorough, Williams was adept at transforming O'Neill's concepts into practical plans which ensured smooth operations.
Like the commanding officer of a battalion, the personality of the company commander shapes the style of his command. A Company began the tour under the command of Major Vin Murphy, with Captain John Dwyer as second in command and Warrant Officer 'Dusty' Miller as the CSM. The three men worked together to weld the company into a highly cohesive unit. Murphy had previously served in the AATTV and had commanded a small battalion of Montagnard and Nung mercenaries he had recruited and, with a small team of Australian warrant officers, trained and led in combat. Murphy had been a free agent during his tour with the AATTV and he found that the more conventional, regimental soldiering of 8RAR was frustrating by comparison. Because of his extensive experience in Vietnam, in April 1970 he was posted as Task Force liaison officer to Headquarters II FFV. Murphy was replaced temporarily by Major Phil Pritchard; later by Major Graham Walker. Since joining 8RAR in December 1968, Walker had been the Adjutant and so had an intimate understanding of how the battalion and particularly O'Neill's command group worked. Taking over a company and leading it on operations without the opportunity to mould its character through training is difficult, but Walker managed the process without problems.
Major Mike Jeffery, OC of B Company, had served in the SAS as a platoon commander and later on detachment to the SAS Regiment in the United Kingdom as Operations Officer. He also possessed extensive experience in 2RAR, 3RAR and with 1PIR. An excellent company commander, he was O'Neill's favourite. Major David Rankine commanded C Company. Rankine was tactically skilled and despite his firm approach to discipline was much loved by his soldiers. He was perhaps less outgoing than other company commanders and his relationship with O'Neill was not as close. Responding to his strong leadership and perhaps &&& as a result of his relationship with O'Neill, C Company tended to be rather self-contained. That was the way Rankine liked it. Major Mal Peck, a nuggety, feisty character, was the flamboyant commander of D Company. For a time, Peck went armed with a pump-action shotgun, but when that was ruled contrary to the Geneva Convention he switched to an M79 40 mm grenade launcher. His choice of weapons seemed to match his command style: aggressive, full bore, always willing to try the unusual. He was an excellent tactician but some of his idiosyncrasies, like banning the use of hexamine stoves on operations because the enemy might smell cooking fumes, were misunderstood by his soldiers and clouded their relationship with him. Major Phil Pritchard commanded Admin Company and, for short periods, A and C companies. Aged 46, Pritchard was a tough and experienced company commander. He had risen through the ranks and had previously served in Vietnam, briefly commanding a company of 1RAR. He was greatly respected throughout the battalion.
Excerpted from Combat Battalion by Robert A. Hall. Copyright © 2000 Robert A. Hall. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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