Did an NVA battalion lure unsuspecting elements of the Royal Australian Regiment into a knock-down, drag-out fight, or was it a chance encounter that escalated out of control?
As the lumbering Centurion tank made its approach to the village of Binh Ba very early in the morning of June 6, 1969, its Australian commander looked out over a peaceful scene. Only five kilometers from the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, Binh Ba and the surrounding hamlets were vulnerable to enemy infiltration, but under the protection of the Regional Forces (RF) of the South Vietnamese army they were believed to be free of Viet Cong (VC). The tank crew, accompanied by a recovery vehicle, had every reason to expect that it would carry on without incident on its assignment to support elements of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment engaged in heavy fighting eight kilometers north of Nui Dat. That is, until a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) burst out of a stand of rubber trees and hit the Centurion squarely on the turret.
Fired from close range, the impact and explosion rocked the tank, jamming the turret and wounding the radio operator. Unable to traverse his main armament and without infantry support, he would be unable to hold off an attack. Securing the tank was the only option. He spotted the most likely place for the RPG team to have fired from and put down suppressing fire with his 7.62mm machine gun.
Simultaneously, the recovery vehicle came up and fired its two machine guns into the same area. No more firing came from Binh Ba, so the damaged Centurion rolled away to a secure area. Believing the antitank round may have been an accidental discharge triggered by a nervous VC, the tank crew sent a report to its base at Nui Dat. For the moment it appeared to be a minor incident—but, as it turned out, this was just the first shot in what would turn peaceful Binh Ba into a fierce killing ground for the next 48 hours.
Heavy armor had at first been considered a useless part of the Australian army, especially in Vietnam, and the infantry and the tankers did not get on particularly well. The armor boys were referred to as “Koalas,” the quiet, cuddly little creatures which, according to Australian wildlife laws, were not to be shot at—or sent overseas. Despite the jokes, the men and machines of 1st Armoured had proved their worth in earlier battles at fire bases Coral and Balmoral, and tanks became indispensable in operations to clear out dug-in VC. By 1969 the ground troops hardly wanted to go on operations without tanks.
On that June morning, the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) was mostly on stand-down, and A Company was on a short R&R at the seaside town of Vung Tau. For most of the troops it was a day in which they could get cleaned up, repair their equipment, relax and read some mail from Australia.
Brian Bamblett, a section commander in Number 10 Platoon, D Company, was looking forward to a quiet day of “house keeping, making beds and cleaning equipment.” D Company, however, was the designated ready-reaction company, so it had to be ready to move and engage the enemy on 30 minutes’ notice.
Binh Ba was a village of about 1,000 farmers and plantation workers typical of the area, set among the rubber plantations. The houses of the village were of solid brick and tile construction. Peace and relative prosperity, as well as proximity to the Australian Task Force base, had made the village a frequent target for VC assassination squads and tax collectors.
During the Australians’ first tour, they had occupied the village with a rifle platoon and mortar support to provide security as part of a “hearts and minds” campaign. It was an effective deterrent to the VC, but eventually the Australian troops were committed elsewhere and the South Vietnamese Regional Forces (RF) assumed the security mission.
After the RPG strike on the Centurion, D Company commander Major Murray Blake evaluated the available intelligence and concluded that two VC platoons had apparently infiltrated the village and that the RF elements were no longer in control. Presumably, an RPG team from one of these platoons had fired on the passing Centurion. The incident ended D Company’s day of light duty as Blake ordered the company to Binh Ba. “Our kit and ammunition were already packed,” Bamblett later said. “We knew we were on standby and anything could happen.” No one knew if the VC would even still be there by the time the Aussies arrived.
The reaction force consisted of D Company, a troop of M-113 armored personnel carriers (APC) and a troop of Centurions. They moved up the road to Binh Ba as fast as the APCs could manage.
At 1030 hours, they formed up south of the village and discovered RF troops were engaged in heavy fighting. Although reports were still confused, it was becoming apparent that the estimate of just two platoons of VC in Binh Ba was wrong. As the APCs assembled, the Diggers could see that the RF troops were trying to evacuate the villagers. The more experienced hands knew right away that this would also be an obvious escape route for the VC.
Major Blake attempted to coordinate with the Vietnamese district chief. Binh Ba would likely be ruined by the 84mm main guns of the Centurions and then the inevitable infantry assault, handing another propaganda victory to the Viet Cong. The RF unit fought on, but was making no progress. At 1120, when the Australians began taking RPG fire, Blake received word from the district chief to “Do what you have to do.”
Four tanks under 2nd Lt. Brian Sullivan led the advance toward the village, and the APCs carrying D Company followed. Three hundred meters from the village the infantry dismounted and deployed between the APCs. The scheme of maneuver called for D Company to use Route 2 as the line of departure and to assault westward, rolling through village streets and clearing the enemy. As the Australians reached an area of the village perimeter cleared of all trees, they could see that they would encounter stiff resistance. Brian London in Number 10 Platoon said he saw “about 40 figures running to take up defensive positions. The next moment several RPG smoke trails were heading in our direction.”
As Bamblett and his men dismounted from their APC, they too saw “figures running at the edge of the village. I could see no pith helmets or floppy hats, no red stars. I couldn’t tell whether they were NVA or VC. Then I saw a smoke trail from an RPG. The APCs used bursts of .50-caliber to chase them off.”
Bamblett looked for cover as the RPG fire became more intense and D Company organized. Blake was waiting with the rest of the unit in an open area in the rubber trees, about 300 meters out. D Company was taking increasing amounts of fire while its men waited, but the RPG teams were beyond effective range.
Number 9 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force was on call to support the assault. A light fire team of two Bushrangers—UH-1 Hueys armed with miniguns and rockets— went in to soften up the defending enemy and to prevent their escape from the village, sweeping in the direction of the Australian assault. With air support now backing them up, the tanks and APCs moved in.
Binh Ba was compact, just 200 meters north to south and 500 meters west to east, with a grid system of four roads running through it. The initial plan was simple, with tanks, APCs and infantry advancing to each block of houses. The infantry would then clear the houses with support from the Centurions. A mopping-up force was to bring up the rear.
Resistance, however, was far stiffer than anticipated. As they pushed through the village, Sullivan found that the well-built houses were absorbing a lot of fire and providing the enemy good cover. He quickly found that firing an 84mm high-explosive round through the wooden doors would kill anyone inside without causing too much structural damage. Despite support from the tanks, both vehicles and men were still coming under heavy small-arms fire.
“We received quite a shock when we came under sustained heavy fire from the first houses as we entered the village” said APC commander Corporal Nick Weir. He was also taken aback when, in the midst of the battle, a French plantation owner “swearing and spitting at us as we moved up” confronted him. “All he cared about was his rubber business,” recalled Weir.
The Australians found they were extremely vulnerable to a determined enemy in a built-up area as the destruction of the houses merely provided roaming RPG teams with more cover. The enemy’s willingness to engage the tanks further indicated that the intelligence estimate was wrong. The enemy was not acting like a typical local VC force. It was increasingly clear that there was a strong North Vietnamese Army presence in the village. Still, each small element of D Company pushed forward, making contact after contact. The APCs and tanks fired thousands of .50-caliber and 7.62mm rounds at every suspect doorway or point of fire while the Centurions’ main guns engaged any hardened position.
Major Blake now realized that the enemy was in Binh Ba in force: “They were everywhere. It was like you see in the movies. I even saw a few blokes dragging a 12.7mm machine gun up. The other problem was that there were still lots of civilians around. I saw my men stop what they were doing and run to move frightened civilians out of the way.”
In an hour of fighting, three tanks were disabled from battle damage and crew casualties, and Binh Ba had not yet been taken. D Company pulled out to the western side of the village. Weir was surprised by the intensity of the action, and Bamblett felt he had been “kicked out of Binh Ba.” Blake saw it mainly as a problem of supply—in particular, the Centurions were out of ammunition—but there was no thought of abandoning the village. As he recalled, “We just had to go back in.”
The Diggers prepared to assault again, this time west to east. A fresh troop of tanks moved up. The infantry led off at 1400 hours, clearing the houses while supported by X Troop, B Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment. But with the enemy now in a strong defensive position aided by the massive rubble, the going was getting even tougher. Every position of concealment had to be searched and cleared. Binh Ba was turning from a mechanized battle into hand-to-hand fighting.
Each infantry platoon was supported by one tank and two APCs. The platoons were organized into house-clearing teams of three men each. Control of the teams and support vehicles proved to be problematic in the urban environment as the loss of line-of-sight contributed to confusion. The teams were supposed to clear one row of houses at a time, and then wait. If all went according to plan, they would step their way through Binh Ba one fire team at a time.
As D Company moved forward again, the infantry got out of the vehicles and made immediate contact with the enemy. As his platoon reached the first line of houses, Private Wayne Teeling was shot dead.
London ran to the rear of the platoon’s Centurion and picked up the external telephone, but it wasn’t working. He climbed up on the tank and shouted down the hatch for a round of high explosive to be fired into the building. The house exploded and the Diggers rushed inside, finding six dead NVA in the smoldering ruins. That tactical pattern was repeated again and again.
In the heavy fighting, the Australians pushed onward with or without direct orders. Sometimes a private led the way if no one else could. Another street was taken and another corner held; then another bunker or another room was taken. The battle became a minute-by-minute venture by privates and NCOs. Bamblett called it an intense fight replete with “split-second choices and close-in fighting inside houses and inside rooms.”
With it now obvious that the resistance was far greater than what might have been expected from two platoons of VC, a U.S. Air Force forward air controller offered support, though Lieutenant Richard de Vere was confident that the Australians could manage with their own resources. De Vere himself was directing rocket fire from the Bushrangers onto targets. But the situation was difficult enough to require reinforcements from B Company, which arrived in the late afternoon.
Bill O’Mara of B Company’s Number 6 Platoon had expected the whole affair to be “a walk in the park.” A photographer, O’Mara was hoping he would finally get the chance to take some good pictures. It was late afternoon as he took in the view from atop an APC as they approached the village. “As we got closer, I saw that the houses were on fire and there were gunships buzzing back and forth.” O’Mara began to realize that it might not be so easy after all.
Company B was supposed to ensure that no enemy forces left or entered the village, so they deployed among the rubber trees on the outskirts of Binh Ba. The enemy was now reeling from the grinding effect of Australian combined arms. Many chose to fight to the finish in their defensive positions, but some decided that a tactical withdrawal was the best way to serve the revolution. A light helicopter carrying 5RAR’s intelligence officer flew over some of the NVA troops as they fled from the ruins of the village. As two Centurion tanks chased them, one was stopped by an RPG round. Without infantry support, further pursuit by the tanks would have been foolish.
At sunset, the firing had tailed off as the last of the houses were cleared. Most of the buildings in Binh Ba were now hardly recognizable and the search went underground as the Diggers pulled open the coverings of dugout shelters built close to or within each of the houses. Many of the enemy added to the chaos by changing into civilian clothing in an effort to escape.
It had been a long and hard day for the Australians, but if anyone was to get some rest he would have to sleep through the artillery. Harassing fire commenced with Number 105 Field Battery working off an extensive list of targets. B Company’s men and APCs formed into a 360-degree defensive perimeter with the M-113s and riflemen facing out.
The night was quiet. But at 0600 on June 7, a large group of NVA soldiers moved toward B Company’s position. In a bizarre exchange, perhaps because of the Australians’ floppy hats and jungle green uniforms, the two sides initially waved at each other. Regional Forces were still in the area and B Company thought it was a column of friendlies—before a brisk exchange of fire ensued.
For D Company that morning, the endgame was in sight. Its last sweep of Binh Ba was to finish the job once and for all. Then the awful, final clearing tasks had to be done—probing for booby traps, bringing out the dead and searching corpses for vital documents. Abandoned weapons and ammunition had to be collected as indicators in the difficult business of estimating enemy casualties. Intelligence gatherers were always pressing for prisoners, wounded or not. The greatest tragedy of all, however, was the deaths of civilians who had been unable to escape.
The battle of Binh Ba concluded after a final sweep at 0800 hours on June 8 and was followed by Australian civil affairs elements to assist in the resettlement of the villagers. O’Mara and the Number 6 Platoon moved into the devastated village and encountered a camera crew. “I was just amazed,” he recalled. “They were trying to get some of the Diggers to reenact the battle so they could film it.”
The intelligence picture that soon developed confirmed what the Diggers had already suspected. Binh Ba had been occupied by the NVA’s 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment when the Centurion rolled up to the village.
Most of the Australian casualties had been from small-arms fire and fragmentation. Despite the intensity of the battle, Private Teeling was the only Australian killed in action. On the other hand, the NVA had been severely mauled in the action, with 91 confirmed killed. Captured documents later showed that the 33rd Regiment had been moving across Phuoc Tuy province to reach sanctuary areas in the northeast.
There is no doubt that the NVA made a valiant stand at the village and was determined to destroy large elements of the Australian Task Force. But it remains unknown whether the battle of Binh Ba was a deliberate choice by the NVA or not. Certainly the first shot on the morning of June 6 was not much of an ambush. Was the NVA surprised by the Australians’ retaliation, or was it a ploy to lure a part of the task force out to fight on ground that it had not chosen?
There had been classic encounter battles before, but few where the NVA had been so prepared to take on armor. Since the actual intentions of the NVA 33rd Regiment that day are not known, debate will surely continue.
What is certain, though, is that 5RAR engaged relentlessly and overcame a formidable enemy, bringing to bear a high level of combined arms skill that has long distinguished the Australians in combat.
Raymond Gallacher writes from Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, England. For additional reading, see: Australia’s Vietnam War, by Jeffrey Grey, Peter Pierce and Jeff Doyle; and Vietnam ANZACs, by Kevin Lyles.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.