Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Weather Goes to War - The Battle of Long Tan

In 1966, decimal currency had arrived in Australia, (see http://passingparade-2009.blogspot.com/2009/07/australian-banknotes-1914-to-1966.html), National Service had been introduced and our Vietnam commitment had grown to Task Force size. But 1966 would always be remembered for an incident that took place later in the year.

In the early afternoon of August 18, 1966, D-Company, 6 RAR, consisting of 108 men, began a routine patrol, moving in a south-easterly direction after leaving the Task Force base at Nui Dat. This formation consisted of 10, 11 and 12 Platoons together with a company headquarters unit.

Above: Nui Dat, as seen in 2010
(Click on image to enlarge)

After a tough time hacking through head high elephant grass the Company fanned out through a rubber plantation near the small deserted village of Long Tan, following two distinctive cart tracks that disappeared into the distance between the rubber trees.

The path D Coy took between Nui Dat and Long Tan - as seen in 2010
(Click on image to enlarge)

Coming across a small pathway at right angles to the line of advance, 11 platoon commenced a tactical crossing, one man at a time, to a further area of rubber trees on the other side of the track.

As Bob Buick, the Sergeant of 11 Platoon, commenced to cross the track he glanced up the hill and was amazed to see a small party of enemy soldiers sauntering down the hill towards him, totally unaware of the presence of the Australians. Instinctively he turned and fired, with two of the enemy falling, but the others immediately grabbed their wounded comrades and melted into the rubber. The Commander of 11 Platoon, Gordon Sharp, then advanced with his men, following up on the retreating enemy wounded.

The pathway where Sergeant Bob Buick first encountered the enemy.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Abruptly, all hell broke loose. The stuttering crackle of enemy AK-47 assault rifles erupted through the rubber together with the staccato bass drumbeat of numerous heavy machine guns. The sharp crack of Australian SLR’s (Self loading rifles) was also audible in the rising din.

Immediately the airwaves sprang to life, as Sharp radioed the Company Commander, Major Harry Smith, advising that his platoon had taken casualties and was pinned down by a larger force.

Smith sent 10 Platoon, under the command of Geoff Kendall, to the left, feeling for the enemy flank, but they too soon came under heavy fire, indicating that the enemy force was a large one.

The battle then escalated, with all three platoons coming under heavy fire as the enemy continued with major frontal assaults and sent smaller probing forces to the left and right, feeling for the Australian flanks. The Australians were pinned down, adopting the classic combat position, prostrate with arms extended forward and firing their rifles.

The site of the Battle of Long Tan as viewed in 2010 (Click on image to enlarge)

A continuous sheet of bullets streaked overhead, only 40 to 50 cm above the ground, making it sudden death to raise the head. Tragically Gordon Sharp was fatally wounded when trying to steal a quick look from a slightly more elevated position. His Sergeant, Bob Buick, then took command of 11 Platoon. See

Then it began to rain. August in Vietnam is part of the wet season, so rain at this time was not unusual, but even by Vietnam standards this was heavy. Thunder and lightning ripped across the battlefield, with nature imitating the conflict below, as torrential rain totally saturated the two opposing forces.

There is no record of how heavy the rain was, but monsoonal activity, combined with slow moving thunderstorms, as was the case here, can produce phenomenal totals in short time intervals. From eye-witness accounts it’s likely that we were looking at rainfall intensities of around 100 mm per hour at Long Tan on that afternoon – enough to produce flash flooding in the surrounding watercourses.

In addition, the rain produced a strange secondary effect. Falling in an intense deluge across the bare red earth beneath the canopy of the rubber plantation, a fine red mist was kicked upwards, rising to a height of around 50 cm, just high enough to conceal the Australians below.

This was of great assistance to the defensive position of the Australians, although the intensity of the attacks continued to mount, particularly on the besieged 11 Platoon who were in real danger of being overrun. Enemy bugle calls floated across the battlefield as light faded and evening set in.

A forward artillery observer, Morrie Stanley, was in the company headquarters group and he directed artillery fire, originating from Nui Dat, some 5 km away, onto the battlefield. Showing great skill and coolness under fire, Stanley accurately directed howitzer fire between the Australians and the enemy, producing a protective curtain of shrapnel that decimated the advancing forces. Deadly rifle fire from the Australians also took a heavy toll.

Running low on ammunition, the Australians requested a resupply by helicopter, and two Iroquois, flying at treetop height and highly exposed to enemy fire, were able to drop desperately needed ammunition down to the besieged diggers below.

An airstrike was also called and US Phantom jets, flying “blind”, dropped a series of bombs about 1500 metres behind the enemy front line disrupting his rear echelons.

US Phantom Jets - Wikipedia Commons. (Click on image to enlarge)

Dave Sabben brought two sections of his 12 Platoon in behind the besieged 11 Platoon, in an attempt to establish a corridor through which they could retreat. In the process 12 Platoon had several skirmishes with the enemy who were trying to encircle Bob Buick and his men.

Showing great bravery under intense fire, Sabben and his men were finally able to clear a pathway for 11 Platoon. Amidst apocalyptic scenes of bursting shells, torrential rain, deafening small arms fire and failing light, 11 Platoon were able to stage a strategic retreat and avoid annihilation. They had been under intense and unremitting small arms fire for more than three hours.

The three Australian Platoons were then able to join up with Company Headquarters to reach a final defensive position. Accurate artillery fire continued to fall on the enemy but such was the extent to which the Australians were outnumbered it appeared as though the position was untenable.

Then, in darkness, several Armoured Personnel Carriers that had been requested by Smith some time before finally arrived on the battlefield. These vehicles had covered the 5 km from Nui Dat, having to cross flooded waterways and muddy tracks en route. With their headlights on and engines roaring they emerged from the gloom and commenced firing on the enemy with 50 calibre heavy machine guns.

An Armoured Personnel Carrier showing the 50 cal machine gun mounted on top. - Wikipedia Commons (Click on image to enlarge)

This signalled a general retreat of the enemy forces who broke contact and melted away into the rubber plantation. The Battle of Long Tan was over.

The official list of casualties later published was

• 245 Killed in action (Body Count)
• 3 Captured
• 500 Wounded in action (Subsequent Intelligence estimate)

Australian Casualties
• 18 Killed in action
• 25 Wounded in action

Personal details of the Australian fallen can be retrieved from the official 6 RAR website at


The Battle of Long Tan, fought on the afternoon of August 18th 1966, was the most significant action fought in Vietnam by Australian troops. Post analysis by military experts indicates that the Australian victory in the battle probably averted a regimental attack on the Australian Task Force base at nearby Nui Dat that would have had disastrous military and political consequences for Australia at the time.

Long Tan was a model defensive battle in which an Australian infantry company (numbering 108 men) encountered what is now believed to be a regimental sized force comprised of elements of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong, numbering about 2500 men, fighting the much larger sized unit to a standstill and then forcing them to retreat from the battlefield.

It is a story of heroism, skill and poise under fire and the effective use of artillery, air power and armour, all co-ordinated by the officers, sergeants and corporals who fought side by side with the riflemen on that afternoon. It is also an interesting example of how weather can affect a battle, in this case for the good of the Australians.

Major Harry Smith, Lieutenants Sabben and Kendall, together with Sergeant Bob Buick were all decorated for gallantry.

For a fascinating insight into the battle, including interviews with Dave Sabben and Bob Buick, view the following Youtube clip:


Author’s note: During October 2010 I was part of a group that toured the battle site guided by Dave Sabben, one of the two surviving platoon commanders of the battle. Dave took us over the battlefield in real time, recounting the key events and pointing out the main features that shaped the battle, all in the same time interval of the battle itself. It was an awe- inspiring experience and one that I would highly recommend. You can see more details from Dave’s web site at


and the travel company that organizes these tours can be found at


For a more detailed view of the battle you can access the official account at


The Long Tan Cross located at the site where Gordon Sharp was killed.
Dave Sabben has his hand on the cross. (Click on image to enlarge)


Through Enemy Eyes, David Sabben, Allen and Unwin, 2005

All Guts and No Glory, Bob Buick, Allen and Unwin, 2000

The Battle of Long Tan, as told by the Commanders to Bob Grandin, Allen and Unwin, 2004

1 comment: