OPERATION BALLARAT AND THE BATTLE OF SUOI CHAU PHA
Operation Ballarat was planned as a battalion-sized search and destroy operation between 4 and 16 August in an area of operations north-west of Nui Dat called AO LION. The Commanding Officer's concept called for an 'overt move by foot into the area by companies so that the element of surprise would be preserved much more than if insertion were to be made by helicopters'. Corporal Bill Fogarty of the Fire Assault Platoon wrote to is father:
The operation was to be supported from a Fire Support Base (GIRAFFE) with the 106th Field Battery and the battalion mortars with protection provided by the lst Australian Reinforcement Unit. Companies were firstly to gain knowledge of the enemy dispositions, strengths and tracks and then to capitalise on this knowledge by ambushing. When the ambush phase had been completed, enemy camps and installations were to be destroyed. Battalion Headquarters was located on Nui Nghe throughout the operation. Private Barleif 'Leif' Harstad of A Company wrote to his parents on 2 August:
A Company had been in the area of operations since 3 August. It needed a resupply on 5 August, which was accomplished as quickly as possible using RAAF Iroquois helicopters and a technique used for SAS insertion. In this way, the complicated resupply process was completed in 2 min 40 sec with a minimal compromise of security. A Company's experiences on the next day were carefully recorded in the diary of their artillery forward observer, Lieutenant Neville 'Nobby' Clark. His description of the events follows:
Second Lieutenant Ross repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire while throwing grenades so that his men could adopt better fire positions. He dragged two wounded men to safety. During the remainder of the battle, he reorganised his platoon and moved around it under heavy fire, encouraging his men and directing their fire on the enemy. Although he suffered a shrapnel wound to his leg, he refused medical attention until the enemy had been beaten off and all the other wounded had been treated. Private Dennis 'Bottles' Bathersby, a machine gunner in the platoon, was wounded in the arm when he exposed himself to fire in order to gain a better position to return fire. He continued the battle, throwing two grenades with his left arm. He then saved a badly wounded comrade by dragging him back to a safe area, returning to his machine gun to keep firing. Finally, his right arm became completely numb. He was then ordered back, but at platoon headquarters he continued to help the other wounded and went around giving out cigarettes. Private Keith Downward, a forward scout in 2 Platoon, came under heavy fire early in the battle. He continued to crawl towards the enemy until he was within 10 m of a machine gun that was causing the casualties. He leapt to his feet and, disregarding his own safety, charged the machine gun, killed its operator and captured the weapon. He was wounded shortly afterwards by a hand grenade but continued to bring fire on the enemy. When it became necessary to order him to move rearward for treatment, he dragged a wounded comrade with him.
Lieutenant Clark's narrative continued:
1 Platoon had really walked into it. Within minutes, two sections were leaderless, 'Lofty' Aylett being shot leading his men into action, and 'Gabby' Hayes, taking cover at the head of his men behind a log which unfortunately lay the wrong way, receiving a direct burst from a machine gun not ten yards away.
Two section commanders dead, a dozen men wounded, and Rod Smith was in trouble. A shot for shot battle commenced.
Private Des Burley, the machine gunner in Corporal Hayes's 3 Section of 1 Platoon, (who was later wounded) said:
Lieutenant Clark continued:
Lieutenant Clark had acted calmly, methodically and with complete disregard for his own safety throughout the action. His calmness under fire and his professional skill were an inspiration. Major O'Donnell showed courage, leadership of an outstanding calibre, coolness under fire and calmness in directing all his resources during the battle. His resolve dealt the enemy a severe blow.
After the engagement, while reviewing the captured material, Colonel Smith assessed that A Company had engaged the Reconnaissance Platoon and C2 Company of 3 Battalion 274 Regiment. The enemy had shown themselves to be well disciplined, well armed and well trained, and their tactics were similar to our own. He praised the RAAF helicopters and their determination in evacuating the wounded despite the fire that they took (which, as well as wounding the pilot, Squadron Leader 'Big Jim' Cox, and a crewman, Corporal Reginald Atkin, on the first helicopter, rendered its winch inoperative). Squadron Leader Cox's aircraft was hit eleven times. Five other RAAF helicopters, disregarding the enemy fire, evacuated the casualties to hospital. US Army helicopters also assisted in the Dustoffs. The RMO, Captain Tony Williams, was winched down to assist in the treatment of the wounded.
The Commanding Officer believed that at least a second company of 274 Regiment helped the enemy recover many of the bodies of their killed, perhaps staging through the battalion-sized camp found 900 m away by B Company the next day. Brigadier Graham assessed that the length of the contact indicated that the enemy company was fighting a delaying action to allow the rest of its battalion to move. He also found that a notable aspect of the contact was the 'hugging' tactic employed, whereby the enemy remained close to our troops to limit the effect of our artillery. Nonetheless it appeared that our artillery had inflicted moderate casualties on the withdrawing enemy, evidenced by the many blood trails found.
A Company suffered heavily in this action. Five of its soldiers were killed in action and a further one died from wounds. The letters of Privates Leif Harstad and David Milford quoted above were their last. This toll was the heaviest suffered by 7 RAR.
On 6 August, seventeen casualties were evacuated and a further three were evacuated over the next two days suffering from 'minor shrapnel wounds which went unnoticed on 6 Aug 67'. Three of those evacuated, including one who was wounded, had been stung by wasps. These wasps were disturbed from their nest in a tree early in the battle when Lieutenant Ross was throwing grenades. The wasp stings were so severe that some soldiers (including Corporal Tredrea) were incapacitated during the battle. It is interesting to note that twelve of the wounded had returned to duty with the company by 19 August. One of those who was hospitalised, Private Laurie Hoppner, wrote on 13 August in his first letter to his fianc6e after being wounded:
The aftermath of being wounded was often traumatic. Private Rick Brown was transferred to the US 36th Evacuation Hospital at Vung Tau. While he was recovering consciousness, his camera and the money he had drawn for the rest and recuperation leave he had expected to take in just a few days were stolen. Although he informed the Military Police, no investigation effort was evident to him. He received few visitors and no debriefing on the battle prior to being evacuated to Australia to recover from his wounds. Like too many National Servicemen, he felt abandoned by the battalion and the Army. He was not invited to join the battalion's march through Sydney when it returned. To its shame, the military often did little to thank those who had sacrificed most in its service.
Five enemy bodies, including those of a platoon commander and two non-commissioned officers, were recovered after the battle as well as several weapons including a B40 rocket launcher that was painted red and had been conspicuously visible throughout the action. There is little doubt that the enemy suffered crippling casualties, most of whose bodies were dragged from the battlefield.
Although the number of enemy soldiers killed is probably the least important aspect of this battle, there is an unwarranted slur cast on it in Terry Burstall's Vietnam-The Australian Dilemma. Because Burstall had not found the record of enemy casualties he deduces that the five enemy were 'possibles'. He therefore implies that enemy casualties were exaggerated by 7 RAR in this instance. He does not make clear that he had not been granted access to official records. These records confirm the enemy killed as bodies counted, however unnecessary this detail will seem to those taking part.
Artillery played a vital part in the battle, emphasising the close cooperation that had been achieved with the infantry. The number of rounds fired is not recorded, but the average monthly expenditure rate of nearly 46 rounds per gun per day in August (more than twice the usual monthly average for the 105 mm guns) was greatly boosted by this one day's firings. To commemorate the part played by the guns in this battle, the accommodation of the 4th Field Regiment in Lavarack Barracks, Townsville is called 'Suoi Chau Pha Lines'.
The Battle of Suoi Chau Pha, as it is called by the battalion, was a relatively minor but vigorously fought engagement between approximately equal forces. Three Military Crosses were awarded for bravery during this action (to Major O'Donnell, Lieutenant Clark and Lieutenant Ross). Sergeant Sutherland was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for repeatedly exposing himself to fire while moving among his soldiers, reassuring the wounded and directing the fire of the remainder on enemy strong points until he himself was seriously wounded. He arrived at lst Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau without a pulse but responded so well to repeated transfusions that within 12 hours of having a leg amputated above the knee and losing his left eye he sat up in bed and wrote two letters home. He spread hope and inspiration among the other wounded and kept their morale high by his example. Although even a change of bandages required a general anaesthetic, he never failed in his cheerfulness and exhortations to others. He was visited at Vung Tau by General William Westmoreland, the US Commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV), who was so impressed that the General recommended him for a Congressional Medal of Honor (which was not awarded). He also wrote to Sergeant Sutherland's sister saying how impressed he was with his heroism during the battle and with his determination and cheerful attitude while hospitalised.
Private Downward was awarded a Military Medal. Corporal Spradbrow, a section commander in 1 Platoon, showed cool and calm bravery in this action which contributed to a later award of a Military Medal. Corporal Tredrea and Corporal Bathersby were Mentioned in Despatches. Squadron Leader Cox's part in the action contributed to his later award of a Distinguished Flying Cross.
As a result of A Company's battle, B Company was deployed by the helicopters of a US airmobile company to a blocking position to A Company's north. Once again, difficulty was experienced with this emergency move. The airmobile commander advised that one aircraft could fit in the landing zone and take five soldiers at a time. Two aircraft actually used the landing zone and picked up six soldiers at a time. The company estimate of the landing zone was that it would take five aircraft at once. The Officer Commanding B Company also experienced quite a deal of difficulty with the radio communications in the aircraft used for command and control. He felt that an aircraft commander gave an incorrect order to troops on the ground to prepare for immediate extraction. Although this air move was eventually completed successfully, it was far from efficiently achieved.
On 7 August, A Company wounded one Viet Cong who was spotted by a sentry from 2 Platoon. Later that day, B Company located an extensive track system and patrolled along it, engaging three Viet Cong without result. The tracks led to a freshly vacated newly dug battalion-sized bunker position. Warm rice sufficient to feed 50 men was found. On 8 August it was decided to continue the search for enemy from 274 Regiment with companies in groups of two: one searching while the other was close enough in a firm base to give support if needed. B Company experienced several stoppages with M16 Armalite rifles during this operation and the Officer Commanding (Major Des Mealey) withdrew it from use in his company. M16s were frequently criticised by experienced soldiers for their proneness to failure and perceived lack of hitting power. The age of the battalion's M16s, which were handed down from unit to unit, was a contributing factor to the former. Many soldiers chose to carry the heavier LIA1 self- loading rifle to compensate for the latter.
The possibility of further contact with 274 Regiment caused lst Australian Task Force to have 2 RAR stand by to fly into the area if needed. US forces were also positioned to the north. No further contact occurred until 13 August when at 1100 three Viet Cong were engaged by Lieutenant McGuinness's 4 Platoon B Company. Private Ross Jack described the contact:
One enemy soldier was killed and the other fled. 4 Platoon had a further three Viet Cong approach its ambush position at 1600 hours the same day. This group exercised quite a degree of caution and it was felt that they were attempting to recover the body of their comrade killed earlier. A further Viet Cong was killed in the resulting fire fight, the other two were wounded and escaped despite M79 fire by Corporal Michael Logan. The dead enemy was from the Chau Duc District Company.
Private Chris Seymour of C Company recorded an encounter on the evening of 14 August:]
At the end of the operation the next day, the unthinkable occurred. A soldier from C Company became lost. Private Allan West had been the 'tail-end charlie' of the company and had not been remembered after a halt. The company had split into its platoons and Private West found it impossible to follow their tracks. Two helicopter searches and one by a fixed wing Cessna aircraft were conducted without finding him. The Assistant Adjutant told what happened:
Private West had been lost for almost eight hours. He described being picked up by the helicopter:
Operation Ballarat caused a heavy enemy toll. As well as the confirmed seven enemy killed, a further five dead had been seen but their bodies not recovered. Twenty-eight enemy soldiers had been wounded and a considerable quantity of their equipment captured or destroyed. In summarising the lessons from this operation in his report, Colonel Smith suggested that thought should be given to training section and platoon commanders to control their groups by a simple system of whistles and passing orders from man to man, rather than the existing practice of shouting orders. He pointed out that the enemy used whistles, did not shout and had good fire control. He noted that the enemy practice of firing very short bursts from their light machine guns made them very difficult to locate on the battlefield. He also noted that the M79's projectile failed to arm on many occasions, and saw the need for a weapon like it that produced an enhanced shrapnel effect and that would be able, for example, to dislodge an enemy behind cover if it were fired at a tree above him. This weapon could be used just as the enemy used their RPG's. Once again, the Commanding Officer commented on the need for section radios: 'Radios from platoon to section are absolutely necessary. These should be obtained at once'. And again it would appear that his advice was not heeded. It took the Army until 1993 to raise a project (called PINTAIL) to acquire section radios for all infantry battalions.
This is an excerpt from the book "Conscripts and Regulars" by Michael O'Brien, Published by Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
A primary source for this account is the Operation Ballarat Analysis Report (After Action Report)
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