Captain Mike Thompson arrived in Vietnam in early August 1962. A member of the first contingent of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), Thompson was the only artilleryman among the group of 36 officers and men to have been selected. He was the first Australian gunner to serve in Vietnam, but neither he nor his successors in the AATTV served with South Vietnamese artillery units.
Not until September 1965, three years after Thompson left for Vietnam was an Australian battery, the 105th Field Battery, deployed. Fortunately, the battery had not long completed a training exercise in air mobility, an aspect of the war in Vietnam that would become familiar to all Australian artillerymen who served there. Air mobility, usually involving helicopters, provided gunners with a quick, reliable means of moving their artillery pieces from one location to another; an important requirement in a war with no front line and in which the enemy could appear almost anywhere.
A member of the 131st Divisional Locating Battery with a radar controlled detector designed to locate the source of enemy fire. Once the position of, for example, an enemy mortar was detected artillery could zero in on the target. [AWM COL/66/0980A/VN]
The 105th Field Battery operated at first with the 1st United States Infantry Division and later in support of the 173rd Airborne Brigade with which the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, was also operating. Not surprisingly the Battery soon began registering a number of ‘firsts’ Two days after arriving at Bien Hoa that September the 105th fired its, and Australia’s first, artillery rounds of the war. Later that year, during Operation Hump in November, it became the first Australian battery carried to an operation by Iroquois helicopter.
During January 1966 the Battery was in again in action, this time on Operation Crimp during which United States and Australian forces encountered an extensive Viet Cong tunnel complex. By the time Crimp ended on 14 January, the number of Australian dead in Vietnam had doubled from eight to sixteen. Numbered among those killed on the operation was the battery’s forward observer, Captain Ken Bade, who was attached to a 1st Battalion rifle company during the operation.
Not long after Operation Crimp the Government announced an increase in Australia’s commitment to the war. The battalion that had deployed in 1965 would be followed by a self-contained task force of two infantry battalions and supporting elements, including the 1st Field Regiment, the first time that the regiment had been committed to operations since its formation after the Second World War. From then on each Australian battalion had its own support battery whose commander was always located with the battalion commander.
The desperate fighting at Long Tan shortly after the Task Force’s arrival demonstrated very clearly the value of artillery support to an infantry force in peril. So dire was the situation and so close to the Australians were enemy troops that artillery was called onto friendly positions and throughout the terrible hours of fighting the guns kept up a constant fire as they broke up enemy attacks and struck at likely concentration and forming-up areas. Those who cleared the battlefield the following day estimated that half of the enemy dead had been killed by artillery. At Long Tan the infantryman fought for their lives, armoured vehicles played a vital role in the latter part of the battle but artillery, accurate and deadly, ensured that it was the heavily outnumbered Australians who prevailed. Long Tan confirmed that, as long as they were within range of the guns, patrols could be sent deep into enemy territory and in the years to follow artillery became an integral part of battalion operations.
One means by which artillery was able to operate in support of infantry patrolling outside the immediate vicinity of Nui Dat was through the establishment of fire support bases. Generally employing a battalion’s artillery, mortars and armour these bases allowed operations to take place well away from the main Task Force Base. Fire support bases could remain as centres for operations in a particular locale for months at a time and some, such as that at the ‘Horseshoe’ became permanent. Among the most well-known of many Australian fire support bases were those at Coral and Balmoral. Established in mid-1968 both came under heavy attack on several occasions, the fighting that raged around these bases became the most protracted battle fought by the Australians in Vietnam. At Coral, for the first time since the Second World War, gunners had to defend their artillery pieces in close-quarter combat.
Artillery continued to support Australian infantry until the end of the war. While it is possible to quantify the number of shells fired by Australian guns, the number of operations in which the artillery was involved and a host of other figures that can shed light on the type and intensity of the gunners’ war, the figure that perhaps best sums up the artillery’s contribution is one that can never be known; the number of Australians – members of the infantry, armoured corps personnel and engineers among others – whose lives were saved on operations because of artillery support.
The last Australian artillerymen, the 104th Battery, left Vietnam in December 1971. Fourteen gunners lost their lives during the war, among them three forward observers serving with infantry companies.