Battle of Gang Toi – Operation Hump
Vietnam. 2nd Lieutenant Clive Williams of Holsworthy, NSW (right) briefs section leaders, Corporal John Pearce of Warwick Farm, Sydney, NSW (left), and Cpl Chris Webster of Holsworthy, NSW.
The Battle of Gang Toi (8 November 1965) was fought during the Vietnam War between Australian troops and the Viet Cong. The battle was one of the first engagements between the two forces during the war and occurred when A Company, 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) struck a Viet Cong bunker system defended by Company 238 in the Gang Toi Hills, in northern Bien Hoa Province. It occurred during a major joint US-Australian operation codenamed Operation Hump, involving the US 173rd Airborne Brigade, to which 1 RAR was attached. During the latter part of the operation an Australian rifle company clashed with an entrenched company-sized Viet Cong force in well-prepared defensive positions. Meanwhile, an American paratroop battalion was also heavily engaged in fighting on the other side of the Song Dong Nai.
The Australians were unable to concentrate sufficient combat power to launch an assault on the position and consequently, they were forced to withdraw after a fierce engagement during which both sides suffered a number of casualties, reluctantly leaving behind two men who had been shot and could not be recovered due to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire. Although they were most likely dead, a battalion attack to recover the missing soldiers was planned by the Australians for the next day, but this was cancelled by the American brigade commander due to rising casualties and the need to utilise all available helicopters for casualty evacuation. The bodies of the two missing Australian soldiers were subsequently recovered more than 40 years later, and were finally returned to Australia for burial.
Insertion and patrolling, 5–7 November 1965
On 5 November 1 RAR began the routine search-and-destroy operation, inserting by helicopter south of the Song Dong Nai at 08:00, while the 1/503rd was inserted onto LZ King north-west of the Song Dong Nai and Song Be rivers at 11:00. The operation started badly for the Australians and Americans with the fly-in delayed. Despite a lengthy preparation by fire, a large Viet Cong force had been observed in the vicinity of LZ Queen prior to the insertion of the lead Australian rifle company—D Company under the command of Captain Peter Rothwell. The escorting helicopter gunships began taking small arms fire as they attempted to provide suppressing fire and Rothwell made the decision to activate the alternate landing zone to the north-east, LZ Princess. D Company was subsequently inserted safely and swept back to LZ Queen, securing it for the remainder of the battalion. By mid-morning 1 RAR occupied LZ Queen, with the 105 mm L5 pack howitzers of 105 Field Battery also flying-in to provide direct support. Augmenting the Australian gunners, the US 3/319 Artillery Battalion and 161st Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery occupied FSB Ace 4,000 metres (4,400 yd) further south.
The scheme of manoeuvre adopted by 1 RAR dictated that each company undertake a dispersed patrol program in their own tactical area of responsibility, a fact which would allow them to search more ground, but limit their ability to concentrate combat power in the event of contact. A Company, under Major John Healy, patrolled east; B Company moved north along the Song Be to Xom Xoai, while D Company patrolled south. C Company remained at LZ Queen to protect 105 Field Battery which had established a fire support base (FSB). Over the next two days the Australians patrolled relentlessly through the leech-infested swamps and dense jungle. At midday on 6 November A Company received two mortar rounds which failed to do any damage, but marked the start of a series of minor clashes. A Company had a number of contacts during this time, with the Australians killing a Viet Cong scout for the loss of two wounded in one skirmish. A further contact soon after resulted in two more Viet Cong killed and one wounded. Intelligence gained from these incidents indicated the presence of a Viet Cong Main Force Regiment in the area, while documents recovered contained plans for attacks on ARVN outposts near Bien Hoa Air Base.
By nightfall on 7 November, despite the earlier contacts, no major actions had occurred in the Australian AO. With the rifle companies now several kilometres apart, A Company had patrolled into a network of well used roads and tracks. Healy’s men spent the night astride the tracks and would resume patrolling the following day along a track which led to Hill 82. Meanwhile, although unknown to them at the time, the US 1/503rd Battalion across the Song Dong Nai had patrolled to within 2,000 metres (2,200 yd) of a major Viet Cong bunker system sited on two spur lines in the vicinity of Hill 65.
Hill 82, 8 November 1965
CO Lou Brumfield arrived by helicopter on the morning of 8 November, just as A Company was preparing to depart from its night location at 08:00. With contact now seeming unlikely to the Australians, Healy was instructed to move to a rendezvous from which the battalion would be extracted back to Bien Hoa the following day. A Company subsequently set out on a compass bearing that would take them across the northern edge of the Gang Toi plateau. By 10:30 the Australians moved out in single file but had not gone far before a lone Viet Cong scout was observed shadowing them; he was subsequently shot and killed by the rear section. Crossing a creek line the Australians uncovered a company-sized camp of dugouts and trenches, before being fired upon at 15:40 by a single Viet Cong soldier who then fled. A Company halted briefly, and at this time two Viet Cong approached their position, before being killed by 1 Platoon.
The Australians continued in single file towards the top of the plateau, with 1 Platoon—under Sergeant Gordon Peterson—leading, followed by 2 and then 3 Platoon. The going was slow in the dense jungle and visibility was limited. By 16:30 the lead section was nearing the top of the hill having gone just 250 metres (270 yd), while the last platoon—3 Platoon—was still leaving the harbour. Suddenly, 1 Platoon was hit by heavy small arms fire from at least three Viet Cong machine-guns in well-sited bunkers, supported by rifles and grenades. The fire engulfed the lead section and platoon headquarters, causing five casualties in the opening minute. Pinned down, the Australians went to ground and began returning fire, allowing all except one of the wounded to crawl to safety. Private Richard Parker, who had fallen directly in front of the bunker system, was unable to be recovered. Failing to respond to the shouts of his comrades, Parker was exposed to further hits, although was probably already dead. To support the beleaguered platoon, Healy subsequently ordered the support section from company headquarters to move forward to provide covering fire, while 3 Platoon moved up on the left flank. However, due to the dispersed patrolling plan adopted, the remaining companies were unable to provide any assistance.
Still at the bottom of the hill, 3 Platoon—under Second Lieutenant Clive Williams—had just shot and killed two Viet Cong moving along the creek line. Reaching the top of the hill to the left of company headquarters, Williams turned to the right towards the Viet Cong positions. Moving into an extended line on a 120 metres (130 yd) front the Australians had advanced just 50 metres (55 yd) before the left flank was engaged by a number of machine guns from another sector of the Viet Cong position. In danger of being outflanked, 3 Platoon continued to advance regardless, using fire and movement. Just 15 metres (16 yd) from the bunkers Private Peter Gillson, the machine-gunner in the forward section, was shot as he tried to move around the twisted roots of a tall tree. As he fell two Viet Cong rushed forward to take the M60 machine-gun; however, Gillson was still conscious and they were killed at point blank range before he collapsed. Williams radioed Healy of the increasing danger while his platoon sergeant—Sergeant Colin Fawcett—had crawled forward under heavy fire to Gillson, whose body was wedged in the buttress of a large tree. Unable to find a pulse, Fawcett attempted to extract Gillson, but was unable to do so due to heavy fire. Two other attempts to recover the body were also beaten back, and although unsuccessful, Fawcett was later awarded the Military Medal for his actions.
Taking heavy fire from both the front and flanks, Williams had little choice but to withdraw. With the Viet Cong moving rapidly to encircle them, and unable to move forward, the Australians had to fight using small arms fire and grenades to extract themselves back to company headquarters without further casualties. However, by this time the artillery was beginning to have an impact as A Company’s forward observer, Captain Bruce Murphy, a New Zealander, directed the fire. The Australians had unavoidably been placed in the worst possible position to their supporting artillery, with 105 Battery firing on a line directly towards them from their gun-line 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) on the other side of the Gang Toi plateau. Consequently, Murphy was unable to observe the fall of shot, and had to walk the rounds onto the target by sound. A slight miscalculation could have sent a round over the hill into the Australian positions, regardless, and despite persistent rifle and machine-gun fire, Murphy calmly directed the artillery throughout the battle. For his skill and bravery he was later awarded the Military Cross.
By 18:30, more than two hours since the fighting began, darkness was approaching. The battalion would be unable to concentrate against the Viet Cong position until the following day, and Healy subsequently made the decision to withdraw. With the artillery falling as close as possible, the weight of the indirect fires provided the Australians with a degree of protection and an opportunity to extricate themselves. Lieutenant Ian Guild’s 2 Platoon was subsequently moved into position to cover the withdrawal, and carrying their wounded the Australians successfully broke contact without suffering further losses. A Company initially moved to a landing zone 120 metres (130 yd) below the ridgeline which had been cleared to allow the casualties to be evacuated, yet there were no helicopters available. As a result, the Australians had to look after their casualties until the following morning, and they proceeded further north to a night harbour as the area was pounded by artillery, aerial bombing and helicopter gunships.
Healy assessed that his company had encountered a force of at least company-size. Later it became apparent that they had indeed contacted Company 238 which was tasked with protecting the U1 headquarters and to carry out operations in the Bien Hoa region. Throughout the day Viet Cong reconnaissance parties, perhaps including those that had been contacted intermittently, had observed the approaching Australian force on a line leading directly to the U1 headquarters. During the fighting the Viet Cong company commander—Nguyen Van Bao—had split his force into two, allocating one platoon to fight the advancing Australians, and the other two to protect the headquarters. Following the Australian withdrawal, Van Bao had also withdrawn, pre-empting the ensuing barrage, yet the U1 base remained in communist hands.