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Chapter Three: The Soldiers Respond

The intelligence summary, the positioning of both 161 Field Battery and 102 Field Battery, the purpose of two Final Preventative Fire tasks, and the use of splintex and ricocheting artillery as mentioned in Chapter Two will be discussed in this chapter. As will become clear, there are substantial differences between the soldiers’ memories of these events and the Official History’s version.

Intelligence

The Official History states that through intelligence reports, captured documents and prisoners questioned, contact with enemy regiments had occurred in AO Surfers. It states that the Task Force was to interdict enemy withdrawing from the south and southwest. The Commanders’

conference referred to the presence of 7 NVA Division (to which 141 and 165 Regiments belonged) to be somewhere within AO Surfers. The intelligence reports went on to state that

‘this was not considered a significant threat to FSPB Coral’. The Operational Orders noted that the enemy units expecting to pass through AO Surfers would contain a substantial enemy main force and local force units. They would be deployed tactically, be well-coordinated, and possess high morale. The Operational Orders also listed additional local force elements operating in and around AO Surfers. In total, enemy numbers were estimated at over 4000 in the area.1

1 Australian War Memorial, AWM95 Australian Army commanders’ Diaries [Vietnam] Infantry Units 7/1/78 Part 2, 1 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, Narrative, Duty Officer’s log, Annexes, Maps part 2, Operational Orders Annex A to 1ATF Frag No.5 to OPO No. 19/68 (10 May 68). http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/AWM95/7/1/

(accessed 10 January 2014).

39 The veterans interviewed state that the intelligence reports and Operational Orders were not passed down to them. They are critical of the fact that the Official History does not make a point of addressing the failures of command evident in the fact that the intelligence provided to Hughes at the Commanders’ conference at Long Binh was not communicated to the Task Force Commanders’ ‘orders group’ at Bearcat who, in turn, were not able to provide their next in command with the required intelligence. Instead, as Don Tait remembers, the men were expecting an entirely different scenario:

First of all I need to dwell on the intelligence. There is no doubt, absolutely no doubt that we were told from an intelligence point of view that we were going in against a rifle battalion that had been reinforced and we expected to operate against groups of up to 10.2

Ian Ahearn is just as emphatic:

This information was not passed on to us, the intelligence provided to all deployed components only indicated enemy withdrawing from Saigon, not reinforcing Saigon.3 It seems strange, but I never saw the actual orders until about 10 years after the event.4 As is Tony Jensen:

The enemy that we went in to fight were stragglers coming out of Saigon after the second Tet Offensive and we were told that we were there to pick them up. We were there to interdict their lines of movement and so on. There was no indication any way, shape or form of what we were up against, but subsequently years later we have seen the Op O [Operational Orders], and that indicated that there were fresh reinforcements coming down and all those other sorts of things, yet we knew nothing. The CO [Commanding Officer] declares to this day that he knew nothing about that at all.5

2Don Tait, (interview conducted, 11 April 2013), p. 1.

3 Ahearn, p. 2.

4ibid., p. 3.

5 Tony Jensen (interview conducted, 17 February 2013), p. 3.

40 In essence, the men went into AO Surfers expecting minimal contact with the enemy and, as yet, have been offered no explanation for the blunder evident in the chain of command.

Battery Positioning

Fly in plan

To understand the substance of the veterans’ view of events at Coral, it is necessary here to outline the general procedures that govern the establishment and defence of an FSPB. An FSPB may contain elements of infantry, artillery, armour, engineers, signals and logistics units. This was the case for FSPB Coral and the command and control arrangements should be clearly stated in the operational orders. It begins with the insertion of an infantry company into the area chosen for the FSPB. Its task is to secure the landing zone, making it safe for units following. In the case of artillery, the Regimental Reconnaissance Party flies in next and is responsible for allocating the areas within the regimental fire position or FSPB, and the allocation of positions to each of the batteries (in this case, 161 Field Battery, 102 Field Battery and the American ‘A’ Battery 2nd/35th which was to arrive the following day).6

The Regimental Second-in-Command (in this case Major Murtagh) indicates the general areas for each of the arriving batteries and the Battery Gun Position Officers (in this case Lieutenant Ian Ahearn for 102 Field Battery) lay out their gun positions siting the individual gun platforms, the command post and where appropriate the battery helicopter landing zone. The infantry may land and transit through the FSPB or may use separate landing zones depending on their

6 Ahearn, p. 2.

41 role and tasks. The artillery guns arrive after the gun positions have been identified and are received by the batteries within the regimental gun position or FSPB. The nominated FSPB Local Defence Commander (in this case Murtagh) is responsible for the plan to defend the FSPB.

The Official History states that the air landing at FSPB Coral was delayed due to enemy contact in the area.7 It states that 161 Field Battery was landed at an improvised landing zone, and with 102 Field Battery located 1500 metres away from 161 Field Battery, left Murtagh with a difficult task of how to defend the base.8 It also states that Murtagh was not at K Pad to meet the following parties but offers no explanation for his absence.

The veterans interviewed disagree with the Official History. For them, Murtagh was completely inept and misunderstood his role as the FSPB defence commander. He was absent at the K Pad, which caused confusion for the arriving reconnaissance parties and Murtagh positioned 102 Field Battery further north than it should have been to effectively defend the base from any potential attack.

Regimental Reconnaissance Party

3RAR was to secure K Pad before the arrival of the Regimental and Battery Reconnaissance Parties, the artillery batteries and supporting elements.9 Although the Official History stated that this was to happen, what actually happened was something very different as 3RAR were not sighted at K Pad when the Battery Reconnaissance Parties flew in to establish the gun positions at FSPB Coral.

7 McNeill and Ekins, On the Offensive, p. 358.

8 ibid., p. 360.

9 ibid., pp. 354-356.

42 12 Field Regiment was deploying two gun batteries to FSPB Coral by air, 102 Field Battery and 161 Field Battery, with the American 2nd/35th arriving the following day. This made three batteries in total, occupying (according to artillery doctrine) an expected area of approximately 400 to 500 metres square.10 The position of 102 Field Battery was to be determined by Murtagh.11 Upon arriving at K Pad, Murtagh disappeared into the bush. His absence created a problem as no artillery gun area was designated; this was his primary role.12 The fly in procedure to FSPB Coral was followed according to the plan, what was not followed was the implementation of the FSPB plan.

Battery Reconnaissance Parties

12 Field Regiment, 102 Field Battery and 161 Field Battery Reconnaissance Parties flew into FSPB Coral to establish the Regimental artillery gun positions.13 The Battery Reconnaissance Party was provided with the only grid reference, XT925284, K Pad (Figure 3.1). This was supposed to have been secured by 3RAR and was the grid reference the Battery Reconnaissance Parties flew into.14 Figure 3.1 shows the planned layout and positioning of the batteries at FSPB Coral.

10 Ahearn, p. 2.

11 Ian Ahearn, ‘South Vietnam: First Battle of Coral’, p. 10.

12 Ahearn, p. 2.

13 ibid., p. 1.

14 Ahearn, ‘South Vietnam: First Battle of Coral’, p. 8.

43 Figure 3.1: Planned landing zone layout for the fly in to FSPB Coral 12 May. Indicating the designated positions for 3RAR, 1RAR, 102 Field Battery and 161 Field Battery. 15 Note: Red rectangle indicates 3RAR landing zone, designated K Pad. This is also the landing zone that 102 Field Battery Reconnaissance Party landed at. The blue X marks the position 102 Field Battery eventually established. This was approximately 1500 metres from K Pad.

Flying into FSPB Coral, Ahearn who was the Gun Position Officer for 102 Field Battery and part of the Battery Reconnaissance Party is adamant that his battery’s flight into FSPB Coral had not been delayed by enemy fire as stated in the Official History. Ahearn was witness to airstrikes occurring about one kilometre to the west of K Pad and recalls that a ‘god almighty’ fight was going on, the Americans; ‘had eyes like organ stops’. Yet the Australians were not informed

15 Australian War Memorial, Australian Army Commanders’ Diaries (Vietnam), Infantry Units, 1 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, Narrative, Duty Officers Log Annexes, Maps, part 2 (1-31 May 1968), AWM95-7-1-78 Part 2, http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/record/awm95/subclass.asp?levelID=1309 (accessed 10 April 2013). Note: 102 Field Battery position (blue X) provided by Ian Ahearn.

44 about this prior to the helicopter insertion at FSPB Coral and it did not delay the battery insertion.16 According to Ahearn,

The airstrikes did not delay the insertion of the 12 Field Regiment, 102 Field Battery, 161 Field Battery and 1RAR Reconnaissance Parties. They arrived on time at the landing zone designated in the orders. No indication was given to the reconnaissance parties that the fly in had been changed.17

Upon arriving at K Pad, Ahearn did not see Bravo Company 3RAR who were supposed to have secured K Pad, any Australian infantry or Major Murtagh.18 The Americans securing the area reported to the arriving reconnaissance parties that a group of Australians had moved out of the area into what the Americans called ‘Tiger Country’.19 This group of Australians contained Major Brian Murtagh who was the FSPB defence commander. His absence created the problem for 161 Field Battery and 102 Field Battery as now there was no area allocated for the two gun batteries.

Arrival of 161 Field Battery

The Official History states that 161 Field Battery landed 1000 metres to the southwest of K Pad.20 This is incorrect as the Duty Officers’ logs clearly indicates the grid reference where 161 Field Battery landed. 161 Field Battery was positioned 100 to 200 metres from K Pad (See Figures 3.2 and 3.3), and not 1000 metres from K Pad as stated in the Official History. The Duty

16 Ahearn, p. 1.

17 ibid.

18 ibid.

19 ibid, McAulay, The Battle of Coral, p. 34.

20 McNeill and Ekins, On the Offensive, pp. 359-360.

45 Officers logs match more closely with the veterans’ version of events and they question why the Official History has neglected this evidence drawn from a primary source.

Figure 3.2: 1RAR Duty Officers Log indicating 161 Field Battery at K Pad, XT926284.21 Note: This log shows a discrepancy of 100 metres from their landing zone.

Figure 3.3: Headquarters, 1 Australian Task Force Duty Officer’s Log indicating 161 Field Battery at K Pad, XT927284.22 Note: This log shows a discrepancy of 200 metres from their designated landing zone.

The confusion for 161 Field Battery and 102 Field Battery resulted as no area was allocated for the artillery guns and Murtagh was absent from the area.23 The area that 161 Field Battery Reconnaissance Party landed at was understood as being the grid reference for the FSPB. The ground was relatively flat and cleared. With the positioning of 161 Field Battery at the correct location, the remaining elements of the arriving Task Force were to be built around the 161 Field Battery location.24 When the artillery guns of 161 Field Battery arrived overhead by Chinook helicopters, approximately two hours before they were expected, the 161 Field Battery Reconnaissance Party accepted the guns and set them into position.25 The planning, detail and execution of the First Australian Task Force at FSPB Coral can only be described as lacking.

21 Australian War Memorial, Australian Army Commanders’ Diaries (Vietnam), Infantry Units, 1 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, Narrative, Duty Officers Log Annexes, Maps, part 2 (1-31 May 1968), AWM95-7-1-78 Part 2, http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/record/awm95/subclass.asp?levelID=1309 (accessed 10 April 2013).

22 Australian War Memorial, Australian Army Commanders’ Diaries (Vietnam), Headquarters units, Headquarters, 1 Australian Task Force, Duty Officer’s Log (cont), (1-31 May 1968),

http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/records/awm95/1/4/ (accessed 16 October 2013).

23 Neil Bradley, ‘Battles of Coral and Balmoral Part 2: Time Spent in Reconnaissance Is Rarely Wasted’ Ministry for Culture and Heritage, (30 January 2009), http://www.vietnamwar.govt.nz/memory/battles-coral-and-balmoral-part-2/ (accessed 30 April 2013).

24 ibid.

25 Ahearn, p. 2.

46 According to Neil Bradley, written orders were never seen; the only orders were through word of mouth. 26

Position of 102 Field Battery

The Official History accurately states that 102 Field Battery was located 1500 metres away from 161 Field Battery, leaving Murtagh with a difficult task when it came to defending the base.27 What the Official History has failed to understand or has failed to correctly acknowledge is Murtagh’s role in this. It was Murtagh who chose to have 102 Field Battery 1500 metres away from 161 Field Battery, for reasons he never explained. It was his decision that put the lives of approximately 100 men in jeopardy when 102 Field Battery and the 1RAR Mortar Platoon were attacked on 13 May 1968.

At K Pad, Ahearn needed to locate Murtagh to be able to establish the gun lay out for 102 Field Battery. Ahearn eventually established radio contact with Murtagh who advised Ahearn that

‘he was up the track’. Ahearn requested Murtagh to throw a smoke grenade to indicate his position, which he did. Ahearn and the 102 Field Battery Reconnaissance Party then headed in Murtagh’s direction.28 At Murtagh’s location, Ahearn took a compass bearing of the last known position, counted the paces, took the theodolite and with the Section Commander and a Battery Surveyor conducted a resection from an old French establishment and rubber plantation. This method established their exact position which was 1500 metres away from K Pad and 161 Field Battery. They then bought the coordinates back in under the rubber trees,

26 Bradley, ‘Battles of Coral and Balmoral Part 2 (accessed 30 April 2013).

27 McNeill and Ekins, On the Offensive, p. 360.

28 Ahearn, p. 2.

47 and it was here they discovered about 200 freshly dug NVA round weapon pits. An AK47 (Kalashnikov Assault Rifle) bullet and a Ho Chi Minh lolly were also discovered. This was relayed to Murtagh who told the party ‘not to worry about it’.29 Ahearn remarks, ‘this didn’t fill us with much joy’.30 Confirmation was received that 161 Field Battery was 1500 metres away from 102 Field Battery’s position.31 At this, Ahearn recalls he commented to Murtagh:

That’s a hell of a long way away for when we [102 Field Battery] get on the ground’, to which he [Murtagh] replied ‘there is a lot of people to fit in here.32

At around 2.00pm, the six 102 Field Battery guns arrived by Chinook helicopters at the new location designated by Murtagh. The artillery gunners set their howitzers in their allocated zones and began preparing their gun stores.33 Ahearn is certain that Murtagh did not know where he was and did not know that 161 Field Battery was 1500 metres away.34

Ahearn recalls,

I’m at a complete loss as to why Bravo Company 3RAR could not find the landing zone as we flew straight into it and I’m at a complete loss as to why the 2iC [sic] of the Regiment [Murtagh] was so far out.35

Gunner David Thomas (Tomo) believes that Murtagh had made an error with the positioning of 102 Field Battery. Although not involved with the planning, the artillery gunners had been at other FSPB’s before heading to FSPB Coral. The gunners understood their role as artillery, along

29 ibid.

30 ibid.

31 ibid.

32 ibid.

33 ibid.

34 ibid.

35 ibid., p. 3.

48 with what was considered adequate protection for a FSPB, being barbwire, claymore mines, trip flares and infantry close by for protection.36 Thomas recalls:

Some big mistakes were made at Coral and why Murtagh had 102 Field Battery so far out of position only he will know. He was supposed to be in control of the base defences.37

102 Field Battery was the support unit for 1RAR, so when Bravo Company 1RAR flew into FSPB Coral, they did not fly into K Pad, but flew into 102 Field Battery’s new location. Ahearn was asked by three or four Forward Observers where they were.38 Captain Don Tait was the Forward Observer for 1RAR and recalls:

When we touched down at Coral, I had no idea where we were [sic]. I knew it was not the grid reference that we were supposed to be at, and the first thing I did, obviously as a gunner is that I went around and spoke to Scrubber [Ahearn] and said ‘where the hell are we’ and he said ‘we are here’ and I said ‘are you sure of that’. I walked up to the main route and confirmed the track junction and yes we were where Scrubber [Ahearn]

said, so that turned out to be right. When I overflew the thing my view was that we should have been further south, but anyway we turned up where we were.39

Clearly the position Murtagh had set for 102 Field Battery was further north of K Pad than Tait had been expecting. With the infantry establishing that they were at 102 Field Battery’s location, they then moved out 2000-3000 metres to establish their night harbour position.40 Figure 3.4 shows the 102 Field Battery Officers involved at FSPB Coral.

36 David ‘Tomo’ Thomas, (interview conducted 5 March 2013), p. 2.

37 ibid.

38 Tait, p. 2. Note: Huey is the unofficial term used to describe the Bell UH-1Iroquois helicopter.

39 ibid.

40 Ahearn, p. 2.

49 Figure 3.4: 102 Field Battery Officers, left to right are Captain Don Tait, Second Lieutenant Bob Lowry, Second Lieutenant Matt Cleland, Lieutenant Ian ‘Scrubber’ Ahearn, and Captain Dave Brook. Note:

Captain Don Tait replaced Captain Dave Brooks as Battery Captain (BK).41

1RAR Mortar Platoon was to fly into FSPB Coral at 12.00pm, but arrived at 5.00pm, around one hour short of last light. The late arrival of the 1RAR Mortar Platoon severely reduced the amount of time they had to prepare their weapons pits and establish their defensive fire positions before last light.42 Lieutenant Tony Jensen was met by Captain Hugh McInally and was taken to the Mortar position. McInally apologised that the 1RAR Mortars were situated on the perimeter of the 102 Field Battery gun position and told Jensen ‘it will get sorted tomorrow’43 before McInally returned to the Battalion Headquarters. The 1RAR Mortars were positioned 50

41 Robert ‘Cossie’ Costello, personal collection.

42 Jensen, p. 1.

43 ibid.

50 to 70 metres out, slightly in front of and located between No. 5 and No. 6 guns.44 Jensen approached Murtagh and asked where everybody was and what was going on.

Murtagh informed me that 3RAR was about somewhere providing protection and waved his arms in the general direction of the rubber plantation. I asked about manning machine guns and was told by Murtagh it was not necessary. I stated that my men were only just in country,45 and we should man a machine gun sentry, yet Murtagh was not interested.46

Jensen recalls:

I went and found Scrubber [Ahearn], who was the GPO [Gun Position Officer] of 102 [Field Battery] and we sighted the machine guns to look after our defences.47

Ahearn adds:

Two Lieutenants basically coordinated the machine guns that went out which was not our job.48

With 102 Field Battery and 1RAR Mortars being further north than planned, the discovery of enemy weapons pits, and Murtagh’s dismissive attitude of the situation regarding defences, added responsibility was placed upon Ahearn and Jensen. The two Lieutenants now had to establish defensive fire positions for the machine guns. Siting a track running nearby, Jensen elected to position his machine gun there and then Ahearn would establish his two machine guns across the front of his artillery position. Ahearn had access to two M60 machine guns which were located 50 to 70 metres out in front of the artillery guns; the 1RAR Mortar machine gun was in front of the mortars. The track they elected to use gave them a firing position back

44 ibid.

45 ibid., pp. 1-2. Note: In country means that the soldiers had only recently arrived in Vietnam.

46 ibid.

47 ibid., p. 1.

48 Ahearn, p. 4.

51 down to 12 Field Regiment Command Post which was to the southwest. The 12 Field Regiment Command Post machine gun was placed in position and the four machine guns were now in supportive firing positions. The organisation of base defence was the responsibility of Murtagh who failed to conduct more than one of his roles as the FSPB defence commander.

Murtagh eventually arrived back at 161 Field Battery’s position sometime after the artillery arrived. Murtagh had a large map, folded concertina style and was flipping it about. As far as the men at 161 Field Battery’s location were concerned, Murtagh was completely lost and well out of his depth. It was pointed out to Murtagh where 161 Field Battery was located and the position he chose for 102 Field Battery. According to Bradley, ‘He (Murtagh) had the desperate look an Opossum gets when caught in the headlights’,49 meaning that Murtagh looked bewildered about what was now occurring at the FSPB.

Two Final Preventative Fire Tasks

The Official history states that, at 6.09pm, 3RAR viewed multiple enemies moving across their front. Shortly after, 1RAR engaged 10 enemy soldiers. As a result of the enemy contacts, 102 Field Battery was called to provide a fire mission.50 An omission in the Official History is the conversation between Battery Commander Major Gavin Andrews and Lieutenant Ian Ahearn that centred on two Final Preventative Fire tasks. The result had a significant impact on the battle that was to occur at FSPB Coral.

49 Bradley, ‘Battles of Coral and Balmoral Part 2 (accessed 30 April 2013).

50 McNeill and Ekins, On the Offensive, p. 364.