8 RAR IN THE LONG HAI HILLS – 1970
Story by John Hunter Farrell, Australian & NZ Defender Magazine, © 1998
Photographs by ‘Tex’ Weston and Peter Lauder
The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher, or of the webmaster of this site.
Compare this view of Operation Hammersley with the 8 RAR History, written in 1971.
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In the first months of 1970, a platoon ambush on the edge of the Long Hai hills set in train a series of events that were to prove a turning point in the Australian commitment to South Vietnam.
While other operations are far more talked about, and other battles known by name; Operation Hammersley – where the 8th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (8 RAR) took on the defenders on the Minh Dam Secret Zone in a text book incursion before becoming mired in a sea of APERS mines – taught 1 ATF and more importantly, the politicians back in Australian, the nasty nature of the war.
But what ended so poorly, began very well . . . . .
Lighting the Fuse
It was in February 1970. The recently arrived 8th Battalion had only been in country for a little over two months, but the young, predominantly conscript Diggers [sic] were already veterans of two major operations – Op Atherton along the Long Kahn/Phuoc Tuy province borders, and Op Keperra in the Nui Dinh hills.
On February 15, the understrength 9 Pl, C Company, 8 RAR left the relative safety of Fire Support Base Isa to conduct an area ambush. ISA wasn’t much to look at – a temporary defensive position the young 8 RAR Digs had helped build at the foot of the not yet notorious Nui Long Hai’s.
FSB Isa’s real role was to provide a base from which a team of engineers from 17 Construction Squadron could work an old quarry in the mine laden hills. Isa had been gunned up with a section of 81mm mortars, a trio of Centurion tanks and a troop of M113A1 armoured personnel carriers. Charlie Company Eight was to provide the on-the-ground security.
Little did the Digs realise, but the routine security op they were undertaking was about to blow up in their faces; resulting in a battalion-sized assault on a hidden VC headquarters complex and the worst disaster of the Australian Vietnam experience.
At that stage in its life, 9 Pl 8 RAR’s head count was down to 24. It was before any of the National Service intakes rotated, and the Digs had essentially been together since the battalion’s deployment for a tour of Malaysia a year [sic] earlier.
Headed up by a strict but talented conscript platoon commander, 2 Lt Peter Lauder, and led by a mixture of both drafted and regular NCOs, 9 Pl 8 RAR was however far from your classic late war 1 ATF grunt minor unit.
It may have been 1970, but there were no signs of social revolution in 9 Platoon. The laid back field fashions of the period – scrim bandannas, tiger cam, AK-47 toting, let alone the first-name-terms-with-the-boss relationships between the command structure and the men were not on in 9 Pl. The Lt demanded and received total discipline from the troops. It was cam cream and giggle hats on, shirts tucked in and buttoned up – attention to detail from the bottom of each Dig’s GP boots to his blackened face.
While a stickler for uniformity in field dress, the boss was into ambushing. If given a choice he liked to hit Charlie hard on the ground he chose, not blunder around the bush looking for bunkers to fight on ground of Charlie’s choosing.
By February, 9 Pl was already adept at ambushing having successfully hit the VC hard on a number of occasions. Operational experience had changed the way the lads did business. Instead of the usual three sections built around a single M-60 GPMG each, 9 Pl was reorganised into two heavy sections, each with two GPMGs for a total of four guns.
Round One – The Ambush
In the week leading up to the 15th, 9 Pl along with the balance of C Company 8 RAR, a section from 8 RAR mortars and support teams had laboured to build Fire Support Base Isa along the fringes of the Long Hai’s.
A plan had evolved to ambush a rough clearing that formed part of a long fire break that had been dozed earlier by land clearing teams (to give a clear view of VC movement into and out of the Long Hai’s. Gut instinct told the Aussie planners this was a likely resupply route between the fighters in the hills and the nearby villages.
While their superiors had been content to let Charlie be in his mountain hidey hole, the more aggressive commanders in the field thought the potential for high body counts along the clearing was too good to walk past.
On the morning of the February 14, the 24 Digs of 9 Pl climbed aboard the rear deck of 1st Armoured Regt Centurion tanks. The grunts were gunned up and looking for trouble.
Weighed down under the weight of thousands of extra rounds of link for the platoon’s four GPMGs, dozens of Claymore mines, M-72 rockets, grenades, flares and small arms ammo, combined with the compulsory old style steel plate flak jacket and helmet (because of the mine danger); each Dig was literally groaning under the sheer weight of the munitions and weaponry he hauled.
The ambush position was on the other side of the Long Hai’s from FSB Isa, but the Centurions were able to deliver the 9 Pl Digs to within 500 metres of the objective.
The entire region was known to be lousy with mines – one of the reasons 1 ATF had given the place a big swerve in the past.
To clear a path from the point where the tanks would drop them off, an engineer ‘Splinter Team’ from 1 Field Squadron and their detection equipment was embedded into the ambush party.
It took 9 Pl the rest of that day and all night to cover the half click into the ambush site. The Pl had not had much experience with mines at that stage, and everyone was ultra alert. no one sat on, stepped on or touched anything that hadn’t been swept by the sappers.
While not everyday practice for the Aussies in Vietnam, helmets and flak jackets were SOPs in the Long Hai’s.
9 Pl 8 RAR vet Tex Weston, remembers, “this was unusual as a general practice, but it was a good policy for the Long Hai’s and it probably saved a lot of lives. Being February it was hot as Hades in our heavy get up and there was a lot of whingeing about it. And, a high demand for water because of it. But nobody went without the flak jacket and helmet. If you were seen without either you got your ass kicked. They were heavy and stinking and hot but it was good policy and no one disregarded it.”
Tex, then a section commander, recalls the killing zone vividly. “It was a small hill that overlooked a fire break, (the “fire trail”) that ran the length of the Long Hai’s. From memory it was three or four hundred metres wide and ran for kilometers up the base of the mountain range..”
“We were ambushing the access point to the villages from where the enemy were getting their resupplies. We had a day time ambush and a night time ambush set up.”
After securing the ambush site, 9 Pl professionally established its ambush. Fire lanes were thoughtfully established for the M-60s (the boss outlawed cutting firelanes because it could give the position away) and banks of Claymore mines were linked with det cord to completely cover the killing zone with fragmentation. Extra firepower was placed on the flanks to be ready for any VC counter ambush drills. Luckily!
C Coy 8 RAR Diggers descend Lauder’s Hill. Note the huge sandstone blocks – it was 17 Construction Squadron’s quarry that brought the Grey 8 to the Long Hai hills initially
Even the best laid plans fail in the chaos of war. That evening, while the ambush team was moving from its daytime ambush position to its night time position, the left forward gun pit signaled that they had seen enemy.
This was no ordinary VC column. It was a very large group, and it could;t have entered the killing ground at a worse moment.
The 1 Field Sqn Splinter Team was still working its way back from the killing ground (after arming their Claymores for the night ambush), when the enemy appeared.
A mixed bag of green clad, pith helmeted NVA supported by local force VC porters advanced in patrol order into the killing ground. With the sappers still out in the danger area, and half the platoon unaware of the VC’s presence, the ambush commander was in a quandary.
“We had let the forward element through, but the main command group were still smack bang in the middle of the killing ground when they started to sense movement up on our hill. At this stage only half of the Aussies were aware of the situation and the other half of the platoon were still busy moving into their night time position – still totally unaware that anything was happening” Tex Weston recalled.
Tex Weston was in the initiation pit beside the Lieutenant, and both were grappling with a huge problem of their own as the VC in the killing ground started to twig that they might be in trouble.
The ‘clackers’ (hand held firing devices) for the Claymore mines were not connected. The engineers had naturally disconnected the clackers from their wires before they began re-positioning them for the night ambush.
While half the other Digs watched the NVA column in the killing ground in amazement waiting for the big bang, Tex was scrambling to first find and then reconnect the Claymore clackers to the wires leading to the mines.
“After I eventually found them and got them connected, I invited the platoon commander to initiate the ambush and he told me to “get fucked and do it” myself. So I set it off. Four clackers and I think at least ten to fifteen Claymores in the killing ground – so it was a fair old bang. That’s when it kicked off, ” Tex remembered. “As soon as it kicked off, everybody took to their positions and it was just full on!”
Counter Ambush Drills
The detonation of two cases of Claymores and the release of 30,000 ball bearings through the killing ground, broke the silence and filled the ambush site with dull black smoke, grass and leaf clippings and dust. 9 Pl poured a hail of lead from two guns and every available SLR, M-16 and M-79 they had.
Unfortunately for the Diggers, there were 60 or 80 NVA who weren’t in the killing ground at this stage. True to form, they reacted instantly and hooked around to the front of the Aussie position and also tried to turn the flank of the ambush by putting in an immediate assault on the left.
“The VC’s counter ambush drill was immaculate,” Tex Weston said, “within seconds of the ambush being initiated we were taking pretty heavy fire including machine guns, RPGs and AKs. Fortunately we had good firing positions because our ambush position had been selected very well.”
The fire fight quickly escalated and lasted for another five hours.
The Australians were in a sticky position. Outnumbered roughly five to one, and way out on their own.
“Because we took the initiative, had a good position and kicked off the ambush, it set the enemy back on their ass a bit to start with. That was late afternoon and it was from then on just a full on fire fight that was to last into the night.”
Located on the high ground previously named Tit Hill, but soon to be rechristened Lauder’s Hill, the Digs had a tremendous view of the assaulting Vietnamese.
“I had a very good view of the battlefield because I was in an elevated position looking down over the killing ground. The enemy assaulted in pretty much the same fashion as we would have, using an extended line formation. There was a lot of yelling and screaming going on and they were doing fire and movement – good fire and movement. They had RPG and machineguns firing in support of their attack. I got the impression that they were doing exactly what we would be doing. They weren’t a rabble. They were good hard soldiers who were having a go.” Tex Weston said.
Intelligence later reported that they were NVA using local VC support. In the killing ground the Aussies could see them carrying wounded on stretchers with blankets.
“They were in uniform, with pit helmets on and AKs and that was generally accepted as an indication that they were NVA,” Tex remembered. “The other thing that stuck in my mind was that they weren’t short on ammo. You had this impression when you first went over to Vietnam of the enemy as blokes in thongs and black pajamas with an AK and two rounds to put in it. These definitely weren’t blokes in things.”
8 RAR gad had its share of rumbles, but nothing like this. From Tex’s position he overlooked his forward machinegun pit which was being plastered with rockets and machinegun fire. Tex could see the VC assault wave had gone to ground only ten metres away from his blokes.
Fearing the pit would be overrun, he yelled to the LT about his worries before running forward to pull the four Diggers (who were shaken but without a scratch on them) out. On reaching the pit, Tex blew the remaining Claymores before returning with his people.
On looking back, Tex reckons that he probably jumped too quickly in withdrawing the men. But back at Company HQ at FSB ISA, the radio reports from the growing firefight “put the cat amongst the pigeons”. And began to draw the balance of the battalion and its supporting armour into the Long Hai hills.
Back at the ambush site, 9 Pl was gaining control of the firefight which had continued to intensify. A well-sited RPD kept pouring green tracer into the Aussie position from a ridge 200 metres away and kept up the persecution until about midnight.
Another assault on the left flank was driven off with a stack of grenades before the first of the mortar support from ISA started to roll in.
Night was falling quickly as it does in the tropics, and the 81mm mortars started to throw illumination rounds.
“As the light was running out we could see the VC running amongst the bodies out in the killing ground and all through the long night we could hear them down there dragging the bodies out. Most people remember seeing 20 to 25 bodies down there in the killing ground.” Tex said.
D Company 8 RAR, then the 1 ATF Ready Reaction Company, was deployed by APCs to ISA, but it was 8 Pl mounted on the backs of Centurions who were reacted to relieve 9 Pl.
After dropping off 8 Pl, the tanks swept through the ambush killing ground with their search lights on, firing splintex to clear any VC or NVA stupid enough to stay around.
“To hear those Centurions coming across in line abreast, firing splintex as a pretty good feeling,” Tex said. “8 Pl reinforced us and after that we felt pretty confident that we’d be okay.”
Artillery and mortar support continued to hammer the approaches to the Aussie position and an American flareship dropped flares for the rest of the night, even though most of the enemy had departed by midnight.
Miraculously, none of the Aussies was seriously injured. Five Digs from 9 Platoon were slightly wounded as was one of the sappers from the Splinter Team who had spent the night fighting like infantrymen.
It was just after dawn when all of the buzzards arrived. None of the brass figured on anything like this number of NVA/VC waltzing around in the cleared patches of the Long Hai hills, and everyone from Battalion HQ and above started to chopper in to get a look at the big ambush.
The Digs did a sweep of the killing ground and recovered seven bodies. Dozens of blood trails and drag marks through the grass, and large amounts of discarded communist equipment lay around. During the sweep of the battleground, 9 Pl killed the enemy QM who had mistakenly returned to collect any bodies and equipment left lying around. The platoon was officially credited with 34 enemy KIA for the action.
“We didn’t have a lot of bodies and it became apparent that a great many of the dead had been successfully dragged away during the night by the amount of blood trails, equipment all over the place. It was obvious that they had done a hell of a good job of cleaning up the battlefield, no doubt about that.” Tex said.
The mine threat was so great that the sweep of the battlefield had to be conducted from APCs. Even with so few bodies to gloat over, there had obviously been a lot of enemy activity in these hills and there was still plenty more left to chase.
That much meat brings the wolves, and by mornos the entire Grey 8 (which was to be deployed on Operation Epsom) was on its way to the Long Hai hills alongside more armour and fire support.
Charlie Coy, now mounted in 3 Cav M113A1s were then sent off down the valley in the direction the enemy had come from.
9 Pl’s big body count at Lauder’s Hill had stirred up a full-on Operation of its own which was codenamed Hammersley. Under Operation Hammersley, B Coy 8 RAR would conduct ambush operations along the likely escape routes along the fire trail while C and D Coys would conduct reconnaissance in force with APCs and tanks through the Long Hais with the aim of destroying NLF units in situ or driving them into B Coy’s ambush sites.
Charlie and Delta were mounted in APCs because of the mine threat, which were in turn preceeded [sic] by Centurions during the ‘reconnaissance in force’. The buckets were impervious to the M-16 APERS mines (which the VC probably lifted from the nearby Australian seaside mine field) which exploded under the 113’s add-on belly armour with a sickening regularity. The Aussie commanders received a gift in the form of a 16 year old cadre captured by C Coy inside a bunker system. The teenager had been a communist part ‘entertainer’ for the lucky lads of the local Viet Cong D445 Bn, and he was soon entertaining the 8 RAR intel section, even accompanying the CO in his helo to point out D445 HQ bunker sites in what was now the not so secret Minh Dam Secret Zone.
Lucky Charlie Company was given the job of sorting out the D445 HQ complex within the Minh Dam Secret Zone. The tanks of 2 Troop A Squadron 1st Armoured Regt and the APCs of 3 Troop B Squadron 3 Cav Regt would assist in the assault. The Minh dam Secret Zone lay above the treeline in the big valley that was formed by the apex of the L shape of the Long Hais.
“Charlie Company was mounted in APCs and we were advancing down the fire trail where the land clearing teams had been through,” Tex Weston said. “A lot of the APCs were running over mines which were banging off. They were only M-16 APERS mines which would go THUMP under the vehicle but not stop us.”
As the C Coy column approached the D445 HQ bunker complex, a wall of fire erupted from every direction. The lead APC, carrying company headquarters took a direct hit from a rocket propelled grenade and burst into flames. The APC commander and the driver were killed, but the five member Charlie Coy HQ team in the cargo bay were alive but all badly wounded.
“Just prior to the contact we had all been sitting in the APCs, but were soon returning fire from inside the APC,” Tex Weston said. “Confusion reigned. There were bad guys running everywhere. We could clearly see them from fairly close range, but we couldn’t dismount because of the mines which were everywhere.”
The contact intensified, but the sheer weight of enemy fire forced the Aussies back from the burning APC. Finally the five wound Coy HQ personnel were recovered by the actions of 8 RAR’s Lance Corporal Coe and Corporal Macey of 3 Cav – both of whom were to earn Military Medals for their efforts on that day.
The action was so close that while Barry Coe and his mate were extracting the casualties from the burning APC, the enemy were trying to get the .50 cal gun off the top of the APC.
The Minh Dam Secret Zone
C Coy had virtually pulled up right in the middle of the bunker system, which was well camouflaged and sited at the edge of the tree line to the side of the cleared fire trail.
Under fire from what appeared to be all sides, the Aussie APCs had nowhere to go, so the three surviving APCs pulled up right at the edge of the tree line facing into the bunkers and began to slug it out with the VC inside.
Inside the APCs, 9 Pl was once again in the think of things – backing up the heavier .30s and .50s on the buckets with their own small arms. While the C Coy team and the buckets gave a good account of themselves, it was obvious that the APCs would have to withdraw.
After pulling back to regroup for another assault on what had now been christened Charlie Valley, 8 RAR watched artillery and airstrikes reduce the positions before returning to the bunker complex the next day.
The burnt out APC was recovered with tank support and heavy casualties were inflicted on the VC defenders of the Minh Dam Secret Zone. But the situation was far from resolved.
By the evening of Feb 18, a little over three days since the initial contact, three companies of 8 RAR were locked in the Long Hais and posed to make a co-ordinated attack on the remaining pockets of NVA/VC resistance at first light the next morning. The tense wait in the buckets was cut short when the entirely unexpected happened – everyone was withdrawn a couple of clicks.
“That night they put a B-52 strike down on the entire area,” Tex Weston recalled. “We couldn’t see a thing because we were still locked down in our APC, but what we heard was awesome. The noise was massive. While not everyone agreed with the tactical decision to withdraw when they had their enemy cornered (and others thought the withdrawal would have signalled a B-52 strike to the VC and given them time to escape), everyone was awe struck at the damage done by the Buffs.
“The main HQ area which we first hit in the APCs was totally obliterated, ” Tex Weston said. “It turned out to be a training camp. We saw lecture areas and barbed wire entanglements made of bamboo which had obviously been made for training VC to slip through our wire. Further searches uncovered underground hospitals and caches of weapons.
There were still hundreds of these bunkers left along the hills. The various Companies working over the bunker system and system for the next ten days – every bunker holding the promise of another huge contact, but fortunately there was almost no-one home.
When Alpha Coy Eight joined the Long Hai hunting party on the 21st, the entire battalion had now been drawn into the mine rich environment that 1 ATF had so assiduously avoided for so long.
Success still flowed, a slow but steady stream of killed or captured VC was flowing from the bunker systems, augmented by ambushes. Bravo Eight scored ten enemy who ran through their own mines trying to escape a well sited ambush.
But, 8 RAR’s initial luck in Operation Hammersley was turning sour. On the 18th an unfortunate blue on blue incident occured in which an APC crew fired on Bravo Coy wounding ten men – some seriously.
With hundreds of personnel now walking in mine rich ground it was bound to happen, and on February 28 it did.
One Platoon from Alpha Company was working its way slowly (100m per hour) towards an ambush site when an M-26 grenade IED with an anti-lifting device was located. A Splinter Team moved in to defuse the booby trap when they detonated another M-16 mine. Seven Aussies were killed and 13 wounded in the blast. It soon got worse, a Digger guiding in a Dustoff helicopter to evacuate the wounded trod on another mine which killed two and wounded two more of the platoon.
At the End of the Day
In the little under two weeks that Operation Hammersley ran, the Diggers of 8 RAR suffered nine dead and 40 wounded. Total Aussie casualties were 11 dead and 59 wounded – a serious number made worse by the fact that two tiny mines accounted for 24 of the casualties.
Only 45 enemy bodies were recovered during the operation and one prisoner was taken, but the real count was likely three times that many. More than 70 rifles and five crew-served weaps along with thousands of rounds of ammunition, grenades, mines and mortar shells, along with large quantities of food and medical supplies were captured from the enemy.
There is no doubt that Operation Hammersley severely disrupted D445 Bn’s pattern of activity. But the VC battalion fled prior to the B-52 strike and set itself up for business again in the Dat Do area where 8 RAR were to meet them in March during Operation Hamilton.
A few weeks after Operation Hammersley, the Australian Government decided not to replace 8 RAR and reduce the Australian commitment to two battalions and support.
The Alpha Company mine incident was the beginning of the end for the Australian involvement in South Vietnam. The Government was not inclined to risk more Australian boys in the war, and the public didn’t think the war was worth the suffering.
End results aside, the original Charlie Company ambush was one of the most productive of the entire ADF deployment. 8 RAR’s ambushes continued to succeed – but that is another great Australian and NZ Defender story.