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102 FIELD BATTERY

ROYAL AUSTRALIAN ARTILLERY

AFTER ACTION REPORT
BY LT IAN F. AHEARN - GPO

 

In May 1968 there were eleven allied brigades operating in the "Rocket Belt" around Saigon/Bien Hoa. 1 RAR Group, including 102 Field Battery, joined those forces in early May. The battery occupied Fire Support Patrol Base (FSPB) Harrison some 15 kms East of Long Dien and proceeded to support 1RAR in the mission to suppress NVA rocket attacks on the US bases at Bear cat and Long Bien.

On the 10th May, II Field Force Vietnam (11FFV- known as "two field force victor") requested that 1 ATF be deployed into AO Surfers, a Tactical Area of Operations (TAOR) north of Saigon on the Southern edge of the infamous War Zone D. The Australians were to block enemy escape routes from Saigon to Cambodia in the aftermath of Tet. Unfortunately the NVA was involved in reinforcing their elements around Saigon.

The 1 ATF concept of operations was:

3 RAR to deploy by helicopter on 12th May and secure FSPB Coral for the subsequent fly-in of I RAR and the guns of 12 Field Regiment. 3 RAR to conduct blocking operations in the Western part of AO Surfers.

I RAR to move to the Eastern portion of AO Surfers. The 2/35 battery (US), HQ 1 ATF, Task Force Maintenance Area (TFMA) and armor to deploy to Coral by road on 13th May.

The battalion tasks were:

I RAR.

Establishment 102 Field battery in Coral

Clear Route 16 to Tan Uyen and secure it for the move of the rest of the TF

Establish blocking positions to interdict enemy withdrawal routes from the South and South West.

3 RAR

Secure LZ at Coral for fly-in of TF airborne elements.

Establish blocking positions to interdict enemy withdrawal routes from the South and South West.

Provide a company to defend FSPB Coral.

In summary the TF was deployed to prevent enemy withdrawal from the South.

12 Field Regiment reconnaissance party consisting of the Second-in-Command’s (2IC) Group and the reconnaissance parties from 102 and 161 (NZ) Batteries landed by helicopter at about noon on 12th May. The Group was led by Major Brian Murtagh and Lieutenants Ian Ahearn (102) and Rod Baldwin (161) were in charge of the battery parties. Baldwin and Ahearn traveled in the same helicopter and discussed the possible locations of their respective batteries in the expected regimental gun position. In accordance with normal practice the two officers expected that the three batteries of 12 Field regiment would be deployed in an area about 400 metres square. The proposed area for the FSPB was marked on both officers maps and as the helicopter circled the proposed area was clearly identifiable.

On deplaning the battery parties were surprised to find the area secured by US troops. There was no sign of 3 RAR nor the 2IC’s party. Some 4km to the South major airstrikes were under way and discussions with the Americans revealed that they had been in the area for some time and had been engaged in heavy fire fights with the NVA. The OC of the US infantry company prophetically observed "Charlie will come looking for you…you won’t have to find him".

There was no sign of the 2IC and an element of his party. Radio contact was established and he advised that he was "not far away". The Battery Captain (BK) of 161 Battery was still trying to establish the location of the 2IC when the Chinooks carrying the 161 guns arrived overhead. At this stage none of the drills associated with the layout of a regimental gun position had been carried out and although BK 161 attempted to delay the landing of the guns, the Chinook flight leader insisted that the guns be accepted. The guns were accepted when the 2IC repeated he was not far away and the Kiwis could accept their guns in their present location. That location was the location for the Regimental position as briefed in the orders.

The 102 Recon Party was instructed to move to join the 2IC. The latter was unable to give an accurate location and was requested to throw smoke. A smoke grenade was ignited to the North East and Ahearn took a compass bearing and, with the 102 and the balance of the Regimental party set out to locate the 2IC. The 2IC was located some 1500 metres away and on arrival Ahearn indicated the considerable distance that now separated the batteries. Murtagh was not concerned indicating that the position needed to be large to accommodate all the elements of the TF that were to be deployed. Ahearn mentioned that there had been no contact with 3 RAR elements and requested information on their location. Murtagh replied that they were "over there" pointing to the SouthWest. 102 never discovered where "over there" was.

At this stage the physical location of the proposed 102 position had been determined by compass bearing and pacing from the initial fly-in point. To fix the location more precisely the 102 party, equipped with survey instruments moved to what appeared to be a group of buildings to the West. The buildings proved to be the ruins of rubber plantation facilities and the party, using their location as a basis, carried fixation back to the selected Battery Centre. As they moved back along the track they noticed a large number of mounds under the surviving rubber trees. On investigation they proved to be a large number of freshly dug shell scrapes from which were retrieved two untarnished AK 47 round and some sweet paper wrappers embossed with a picture of Ho Chi Min.

The finds were reported to Murtagh who indicated that the information was of no consequence.

The 102 Recon Party completed the layout of the Gun Position and awaited the arrival of the guns. The first Chinooks began to arrive but contained I RAR elements not the expected main body of 102. Delays began to occur in the fly-in and iRAR was not complete until approximately 1600 hours. The guns did not start to arrive until after this time and further delays meant that the battery defence stores were among the last sorties. Once the guns were deployed it was decided to order all personnel to dig personnel sleeping/weapon pits to Stage 1(approximately four feet deep) rather than the normal eighteen inch shell scrapes. This decision was deliberately made in view of the indications of enemy activity.

The battery bulldozer and defence stores were among the last sorties. The bull dozer was put to work first on the CP, the battery ammunition bunker and then, by pure luck on Gun numbers 4,5 and 6 which were the northern most guns. At this stage the centre of arc for the battery was 1600mills which meant that all the guns were pointing East.

HQ 1RAR was not concentrated until about 1700 hours at which time it was decided that it would remain in the vicinity of Coral and not move to its planned location 2000 metres to the North East. At about 1700 the last sorties delivered the 1 RAR mortars that were sited on the left of the gun position.

At this stage it was normal practice to hold an Orders Group to co-ordinate the defence of the FSPB. No orders were held and as observed by Lieutenant Tony Jensen, the Officer Commanding 1 RAR mortars:

" The Defence of the FSPB was not fully developed…"

The defensive arrangement for FSPB Coral were as follows:

  • No defensive barbed wire had been laid due to the late arrival of defence stores.
  • Coordination of arcs of fire of MGs was not carried out to an overall plan laid down by the FSPB commander but left to the initiative of sub element commanders.
  • No Claymore anti-personnel mines were sighted due to confusion over the location of elements of 3 RAR.
  • Despite the late arrival all defensive activity was ordered to cease on the normal last light stand to.
  • The FSPB defence net and telephone system was not fully established.

At approximately 0245 hrs (local time) a number of Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) were fired into 102 Bty's position at FSPB CORAL. Almost simultaneously the machine gunners of N0 4 and No6 gun began to fire at the enemy assault line that had appeared about 60 metres from their positions. Both MG pits were located forward of their respective guns.

The machine gunner of N0 6 gun fired a burst and was then forced to withdraw when the enemy rushed the pit. As the two sentries (each MG post was manned by two personnel) moved back to the bund around No 6 gun they were subjected to intense small arms fire. The machine gunner was wounded in the hand and was forced to drop his M60.

Following up very quickly, the enemy threw themselves against the bund around No 6 gun and began throwing grenades and directing machine gun fire into the pit. The gun detachment was forced to withdraw to No 5 gun pit where both gun detachments began to engage the enemy with small arms fire.

On the right flank, the machine gunner from No 4 gun was forced to withdraw to his gun pit when his M60 jammed. No 4 detachment also began to engage the enemy with small arms fire.

Enemy RPG and small arms fire was now intense. Despite the heavy incoming fire all gun detachments were standing to around their guns. The detachments in Nos 4 and 6 pits began to call for Small arms ammunition and they were resupplied by runners from the ammunition bay

Although the gun communications system (a loudspeaker system known as the Tannoy system connected each gun to the Command Post [CP]) was shot to pieces (only No 5 speaker and sometimes No 4 speaker were working) the Command Post was aware that No 6 gun was in enemy hands. No 4 requested permission to SPLINTEX ( anti-personnel 105mm rounds that contained thousands of fleschette darts) and was ordered to do so. He was then ordered to fire HE rounds over open sights. (Each gun carried only six SPLINTEX rounds, in fact SPLINTEX from other guns was transferred to No 4 before he ran out and was ordered to fire HE).

At approximately o315 hrs enemy fire was still intense from the front of the position. In addition there were at least two enemy snipers active; one in the tree line to the left flank and one to the rear of the position.

At this stage a fire mission was called for (initiated by one of the companies of 1 RAR who were also in contact- from memory it was D Coy). Orders had to be relayed by voice from outside the CP and passed on by all personnel. Three guns began to fire on the mission even though the position was still receiving heavy incoming fire. The enemy were in the pit of No 6 gun; No 4 was firing over open sights and No 2 had been hit in the trail by an RPG round which also destroyed a tyre. One of the detachment of N0 2 had been wounded when the round struck the gun. (No 5 was manned but it was laid on No 6 gun in case the enemy decided to move it).

Although the position was still under fire the enemy assault now swung to the left flank through the mortar position (1 RAR). Two of the mortar soldiers managed to crawl from their position into No 5 pit; both were slightly wounded.

No 4 began to call for ammunition and all spare personnel were used to ferry ammunition to the guns (a reserve had been formed from the of duty CP staff and was held centrally behind the CP). At approximately 0400 hrs the ammunition bunker of No 1 gun was hit by a RPG round. Although the detachment aided by signallers and surveyors, attempted to control the blaze, the bunker was completely burned out. None of the gun ammunition exploded in the fire,

Light Fire Teams (LFT) (helicopter gun ships) appeared over the position at about 0345 hrs. From this time until dawn the LFTs put down heavy fire around the perimeter.

The battery continued to fire missions employing four guns. No 2 had been brought into action by extensive manhandling. No 4 continued to firing over open sights at the enemy that he could still see in front of his pit. The HE rounds from No 4 were exploding 100 metres from the gun; one round passed through the bund before exploding amongst the enemy.

Enemy in No 6 gun's MG pit began to engage the position with the M60 dropped by the wounded gunner. Using M79 grenade launchers and small arms the detachment in No 5 pit killed the two enemy operating the weapon and silenced the Machine gun's fire.

Although the personnel in No 5's pit had repeatedly called out to the mortar position they received no answer. At approximately 0500 hrs however, the CP received orders to engage the area of the mortar position with SPLINTEX. No 5 fired five rounds across the mortars; these rounds proved very effective.

Just before dawn the mortar position acknowledged the calls made to them. They requested help to withdraw to the gun position. Six men were sent from No 5 pit to sweep through to No 6 pit and forward of the mortars. This group contacted and killed two enemy in their sweep; they then went to ground while a second group moved out to aid the mortars.

At approximately 0630 hrs the enemy broke contact. Thirty eight enemy bodies were found in and around the perimeter. Two enemy wounded were captured. A large number of weapons 9Ak 47s, SKS rifles, RPG launchers and Bandalore torpedos) were captured along with a large quantity of ammunition.

Two members of 102 Bty were wounded, five mortar soldiers were killed and eight wounded; RHQ of 12 Fd Regt suffered two killed and three wounded. The battery fired three fire missions whilst under heavy fire. No 4 gun fired 84 rounds over open sights and No 5 fired 5 rounds over open sights.

On the 16 May 68 at approximately 9245 hrs, FSPB CORAL again came under heavy attack. I RAR had moved in around the gun position and this unit bore the brunt of the ground attack. 1o2 Fd Bty and A Bty 2/35 US Arty ( A Bty had moved into CORAL on 14 May) received heavy mortar fire.

Two guns of 102 Bty were placed out of action by the mortar fire. The gun position once again came under heavy small arms fire.

During this attack, despite heavy incoming fire the battery fired simultaneous section missions from 0315 hrs until dawn. Once again all gun communications were destroyed. All orders had to be relayed by voice; this was made difficult by the activities of a sniper who gave the CP his undivided attention.

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