Colin F. Jones
THE CONFLICT IN VIETNAM: Part 9
7 Platoon, Charlies Company, ran into heavy fire from a determined enemy sheltered in bunkers. Two soldiers were killed, another dying from his wounds. Seven other men were wounded including the Platoon Sgt and the ‘Skip’. (Platoon commander), who was later awarded the military cross and the Sgt the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The platoon had come upon a bunker and checking it out found it to be empty. They moved on with extreme caution finding another bunker that was also empty. The area was thick with bamboo growth hampering stealthy progress. Suddenly they had come under blistering fire. A section of the Platoon was sent to the right flank. A signalman had been hit in the chest and the Platoon commander risking his own life managed to extract him. As another section moved up to assist the Machine gunner was hit and the Platoon Commander was hit in the leg.
They advanced slowly returning fire, ammunition running perilously low. The Platoon Commander was again hit in the leg but he ignored these painful wounds to concentrate on the job at hand. The Platoon Sergeant was leading the assault in the thick of the action. The enemy were in bunkers on top of a hill but were unable to repel the Platoon advance.
Finally a bunker was knocked out with a grenade and the battle was over. The action had lasted for over an hour both sides fighting bravely.
The RAAF ‘Dustoff’ (medivac Iroquois helicopter) did a marvellous job evacuating the dead and wounded.
After three days Victor and Whiskey Companies moved to the De Courtenay rubber plantation. Whiskey Company flew in by Iroquois helicopter and Victor Company moved in by APC. Victor Company set up blocking positions on the western edge of the plantation while Whiskey Company conducted a sweep to the west.
Many small contacts were made with the enemy the New Zealand forces losing a soldier killed in action. A large cache of medical supplies and food was located.
The battery vacated FSPB Gabo to establish FSPB Wattle. As they did so Victor and Whiskey Companies flew to new AOs in the AO code-named Canowindra. The rest of the battalion had flown in on the previous day, 15th September thus Bravo and Charlies Companies had secured their positions in their respective AOs and support Company who had occupied the area of the FSPB remained there when the battery moved in.
The extensive patrolling that followed met with many enemy contacts and the battery was called on to fire many supporting actions. One night the battery was called to stand to as VC soldiers were probing the defences of the base. The gunners moving swiftly and silently manned all strong points and weapon pits and deployed skeleton crews on the guns.
The most centrally located gun was quickly loaded with splintex and the barrel lowered for direct shooting. Voices of the enemy could be heard in the darkness on the edge of the perimeter. A flare went off on the left flank and from strong point 2 the area lit by the flare was observed through the starlite scope. The perimeter wire was still intact and no enemy were observed.
The battery stood too for another hour without further incident, and then half of the battery was stood down to get some sleep. However half an hour later they were again called to stand too and man the guns. This time enemy soldiers were more in evidence on the front perimeter wire and the central gun was ordered to fire a round of Splintex. The results were spectacular.
The round exploded a few feet from the muzzle in a shower of sparks and flying red-hot pieces of shattered steel. The thousands of arrows the shell contained swished through the jungle like a violent tempest, like a giant shotgun. Silence followed and the enemy did not return.
The following morning patrols located four fresh graves. A check of the perimeter wire revealed minor damage caused by the Splintex but it had remained intact and this was good news.
The battery for the first time on operations had to a degree tested its defence capability, namely the effectiveness of Splintex. It had proven to be an awesome weapon indeed that it was little wonder that the enemy had fled.
There were other probes on the wire and a soldier crawling out to toss an M26 grenade in their general direction seemed to deter their intentions.
My personal view regarding ‘Splintex’ was that the battery did not have enough of them, each gun being equipped with six rounds each. This lethal weapon was a most successful defensive deterrent, and in an environment such as that in Vietnam at least 20 per gun would seem more appropriate
The Companies all had their share of contacts with the enemy and Victor Company killed 11 enemy soldiers in 10 days. During the same period of time A Platoon ambushed and killed three more, the following day A Coy ambushed and killed a further seven. Bravo Company made contact with a large force in bunkers.
Charlies Company deployed in a stop position and the VC withdrew into the Charlies Company ambush losing four men killed.
Normally when a patrol made contact with the enemy the Artillery FO’s moving with them would direct battery fire upon the enemy position.
On occasions the battery would drop shells as close as 50m from the patrols that when one considers that a field gun is considered accurate if it lands a round within an area of 150m, then the meticulous pin point accuracy of the gunners can be realized for not one infantry man received wounds from the falling shells and flying shrapnel, though in deed it kept their heads down and gave them many moments of anxiety.
One can imagine the horrific situation as the rounds screamed in blasting the jungle apart around them. Those who were responsible for directing such fire missions were very brave men indeed.
The withdrawal of the VC into the Charlies Company ambush indicated that there was probably a more complex bunker system in the area. This proved to be true and the gun battery was called in to fire upon it. This was an intense engagement the bombardment being heavy and sustained. The gun position was again choked with cordite smoke, held by the humidity in the pouring rain.
The guns leapt and bucked as cartridge cases, still with flame belching from them were hurled from the breeches to fizzle into steam in the mud.
When the guns ceased firing Charlies Company moved in and secured a 150 bunker-system VC camp. Two VC were found dead in the position and large amounts of equipment and normally maps of all the enemy installation throughout South Vietnam were captured. Many Armour were captured including two 122mm rockets.
It should be noted that although it seemed that enemy casualties were very light in these actions the ability of the VC to remove their dead from the battlefield was to be admired. This was standard practice for the VC to demoralize the opposition troops. It was not always possible to tell what the enemy losses were due to this very effective system perfected by the V C, but their losses without a doubt were considerable.
Documents captured indicated that the HQ of 84 Rocket Regiment had occupied the bunker complex. The enemy had withdrawn but remained in the area and two USAF Sabres bombed a ridge near the Charlies Company position. The action was observed by the battery gunners as the Sabres screamed over the FSPB.
After the bombing one of the Sabres swept back changing direction and strafed the enemy bunker complex before zooming off into the invisible distance. This was a grave error as Charlies Company were still in the complex and 14 men were wounded in this foolish action.
Fortunately due to the rapid deployment of ‘Dustoff’ the wounded were quickly evacuated and the lives of the wounded soldiers were saved.
An airy silence pervaded over the gun base. The gunners overwhelmed by the event Sick to the stomach, no words were found to describe how they felt. It was a day of gloom.
However a report that elephant tracks had been found broke the ice with suggestions that the VC were using elephants to tow captured American tanks into jungle hide-outs.
Other speculative suggestions restored humour and the fact that the operation was over turned thoughts to other things though non would ever forget this unfortunate incident that was not only a sad occasion for those wounded, but for the Company that was already much depleted from the effects of Malaria.
On September 24 4RAR were air lifted back to the task force base at Nui Dat. Four soldiers had been killed and 21 wounded. Malaria was rampant among the soldiers of the Battalion to such an extent that it was severely short of manpower.
The British forces operating in such places as Malaysia had proven that an effective method of anti guerrilla warfare was to deprive the enemy of his asset’s, such as food, weaponry and other materiel and equipment. This could be more effective than killing his soldiers in combat. With this idea in mind, the Battalion Companies conducted two operations.
The first was Operation Stirrup Cup, conducted by Victor Company east of route 15 near Thai Thien. The other operation was Trackduster.
Stirrup Cup was a one-day operation, part of which was called the annual rice-denial programme. The company deployed in AO Mace on October 3rd and effectively recovered and destroyed 56,000ibs of rice, other food and materials, which included 1,000 bags of salt. A VC caretaker force displayed feeble resistance losing one man as a result, the Coy returning to Nui Dat without any further conflict.
The battery conducted an Artillery attack a one-day affair deploying by convoy without the protection of a base. The main excitement was the fast return that got us back to Nui Dat just on dark.
Bravo Company relieved D Coy at the established base Horseshoe to allow D Coy to conduct the shakedown operation Trackduster. It took place in the area recently vacated by Victor Company. They moved by APC, accompanied by a Squadron of Centurion tanks, C Squadron to an AO code named Cougar. The fire support battery deployed South of Thai Thien. Ambushes were set up along the river and on various well used tracks. The VC however was too clever to expose themselves to river ambush, though on one occasion such an event did occur. Delta Company was successful in locating and destroying 17 tons of rice and in many other caches destroyed food and equipment.
It was not normal for the Battalion to operate by moving along tracks where they were vulnerable to ambush by the enemy. The hazards of doing this were highlighted on this operation, when the enemy, using claymore mines and automatic small arms fire, ambushed 12 Platoon Delta Company. Two men were killed and six were wounded in this action. As only two enemy soldiers were killed on this operation, in terms of manpower it could not be considered a success.
However the mission reaped the rewards in that much food and equipment was denied the enemy. Thus on these terms the operation was a success in that it achieved what the Company set out to accomplish. The Company returned to Nui Dat on October 12th.
The Rear Services Group, the unit responsible for maintaining the 274 VC Regiment, traditionally occupied their home area in the northern part of the region, Thua Tich. This area was a staging area for enemy troops moving between Hat Dich, which lay west of Route 2, and the May Tao region east of the province of Phuoc Tuy. The SAS reconnaissance and other reports that verified their conclusions reported that extensive cultivations and rice caches were in the area. Units of the VC 274 Regiment had been observed and also elements of Group 84. These forces were thought to be caretaker units securing the cultivations and rice caches.
The SAS (Special Air Service) are an Australian unit traditionally demanding respect and high regard. They are a commando-like force that operates behind enemy lines as well as in the field of battle. They train most vigorously and only the fittest of the fit gain entry. At Nui Dat, they occupied a hill near the front gates, the hill being appropriately nicknamed SAS Hill.
A good friend of mine, Harry, my boxing coach from Malaysia (1965 – 67) once a gunner Bombardier, had joined the SAS, and was killed on the perimeter wire at Nui Dat. I would never forget this fine soldier and good friend.
The SAS are uniquely a unit unto themselves and carry out secret missions that most are unaware off.
SAS patrols carried a variety of weapons, mostly of individual choice. Some of these were shot guns, Automatic rifles, the M16 Amourlite fitted with starlite scope or, equipped as an ‘under and over’, an M79 grenade launcher fitted below the rifles barrel. Some carried the American Thompson sub machine gun, though I don’t know why such an inferior weapon should be favoured. The FN FAL AR, (automatic rifle) was however, a more acceptable choice of weaponry. Some preferred the Browning shotgun
FSPB FLINDERS (Operation Capital)
Operation Capital involved both 4RAR (Anzac) Bat and 1RAR, carried out in two phases. It was recce in force type operation carried out in the Thua Tich region. It had been a long time since Australian forces had operated in this area thus it was expected that the VC would be feeling relatively safe.
It could also be expected that they would be of considerable numbers who would defend this important region most vigorously.
The centre section of Tua Tich was code named AO Downer, and AO Curtain was the code name for the northern region.
4 Battalion deployed by air on October 13th near a deserted village called Ap Xa Bang, by the ‘Emus’, U.S. Assault helicopter company. 9 Squadron RAAF deployed 1 Battalion. Charlies Company secured Trentham, (used also on operation Hawkesbury) to allow the fly-in of the battalion HQ, and afterwards moved to their own AO.
On the eastern edge of the De Courtway rubber plantation the Battery deployed with Whiskey Company establish and occupy FSPB Flinders.
Delta, Charlie and Victor Companies began patrolling the east of their respective AOs, but by October 6th the Company had withdrawn and deployed the eastern edge of AO Downer.
Through this region flowed the Song Rai River. Phase one of the operation did not last for very long. The battery began constructing Flinders: patrols made only minor contacts with the enemy. The battalion was withdrawn flying back Nui Dat. The idea of this was to fool the enemy into thinking that the Australians had left the region thus creating a false sense of security.
Meanwhile the construction of FSPB Flinders continued. High earthen bunds were dozed up around the position and sandbagged around the summit, the entire inside slope being then reinforced with layer after layer of sandbags. Sleeping bays were built; ammunition bays and fighting pits all with considerable sandbag protection.
Each gun platform was linked by giant sandbagged walls, in depth weapon pits were dug in the inside open areas, and extra fighting pits were moulded into the bunded walls, all equipped with belts of M60 ammunition, M26 grenades and small arms ammunition contained in waterproof cases. The strong points were built in counterbalance configuration, dug deep into the ground below the bunds, roofed with 12”x12” beams supporting steel sheets and five layers of overhead sandbags.
Trip flares were set up in four rows of staggered lines around the entire perimeter, cordite bags, discarded from previous actions, piled in rows among the flares, that if a flare was to ignite the whole frontal perimeter would be engulfed in a murderous wall of flame (this in fact was my idea)
Inside the rows of flares were four staggered lines of claymore mines with wires running back to the trigger mechanisms held in the strong points. Beyond the flares and claymore mines was the concertina wire, piled three rows wide and three high, and beyond that was low entanglement wire set 25 meters wide and further out another ring of concertina wire.
Work parties toiled tirelessly through out the daylight hours in scorching heat that Flinders, resembling a medieval fortress, grew stronger and stronger with the passing of each day. Many names were applied to the base by various people and to the battery as a whole: such names as ‘Sandbag City’, ‘the Fortress’ and, in reference to the battery, ‘104 Engineer Battery’ and the ‘Construction Battery’. One particular sand bagged wall was dubbed ‘The Great Wall of China’. 26,000 sandbags were filled by the gunners and used in construction of the base within a period of 7 weeks of occupation.
The Battery Captain personally directed the continual defensive progress of FSPB Flinders. (BK) who set up his foldaway table and chair in the middle of the base from where he could observe initiatives and direct efforts put in by the gun crews.
His organisational powers were beyond criticism. From the moment the battery left the task force base to the time of its return, the responsibility of deployment and defence was his. He did his job admirably. The gun crews dubbed him, ‘The Man’ and the most common song around the base was ‘Working for the man’, which was sung, not in jest but with great respect for this tireless efficient Captain of the battery.
His was a lonely job, but the pride in him instigated by the respect and obedience of his men must have been considerable.
As it was in Concord, Flinders also suffered from a plague of rats, though perhaps not to the same extent. Despite concentrated attention to hygiene and cleanliness nothing, it seemed, could deny their occupation. The longer the base remained the greater the increase of these filthy rodents became.
Dust was a constant problem, the incoming supply Chinook helicopters churning it up into masses of dense choking clouds, so much so that some of the helicopters were unable to land due to lack of vision.
The heat was extreme, mosquitoes were in plague proportions, and boredom was rife. Fire missions were frequent but short lasting.
The battery fired its only linear target along a road upon enemy transport shipments. As time dragged, weariness was evident among the troops; dysentery attacks became frequent. The guns fired mostly at night, and piquet had to be maintained around the clock. Sleep was a rarity. Then Malaria struck depleting the battalion forces as well as those of the battery.
The morale of the battery was seriously tested on this operation and they came through it with admirable fortitude.
Phase 2 of the operation began when the battalion flew back from Nui Dat to the area they had previously vacated in the hope of catch the enemy by surprise. Delta Company arrived at Flinders and Victor and Charlies Companies moved to their respective AOs. Phase 1 had been Whiskey Company’s final operation in South Vietnam.
Despite the crippling depletion of soldiers from malaria the battalion set up ambushes on all the tracks likely to be used by the enemy. Patrols searched tirelessly for Group 84 asset’s thought to be hidden in the area.
Again the Viet Cong showed that they were prepared to use tracks on which they had been previously ambushed, probably because the trails were so vital for their troop movement and supply operations. There were many successful ambushes and contacts. Many camps were found and subsequently destroyed.
With their numbers seriously depleted from malaria, Victor Company moved into Flinders, and Delta Coy moved out to a region southeast of the base. It was November 26th. An air strike was called, but deciding against the idea, the call was cancelled. However a combat skyspot winged in out of the blue and dropped a bomb on the Charlies Company perimeter, throwing men bodily into the air. It was a miracle that no one was hurt.
Operation Capital ended on November 30th after 48 days of continuous operation. Two soldiers had died and nine had been wounded. Countless soldiers had been medivac, suffering from various forms of malaria. Indeed it had been a very difficult operation, one which had tested the moral, courage and strength of both the battalion and the battery and not found them wanting.
In a Fire Support Patrol Base each gun is enclosed in a horseshoe shaped bund of earth and or sandbags. Where the battery does not have a small bulldozer, normally airlifted in to push up the bunds, the defensive walls are built entirely of sandbags filled with soil dug from the earth.
The height of the bund is limited by the horizontal position of the gun barrel, for the gun must be able to fire over it. These bunded structures are referred to as gun bays and the ground the gun actually stands on in the gun bay is called the gun platform. The gunners work and sleep within the confines of the gun bay. The bay also contains the ammunition bay, a sand bagged structure built around and over the ammunition, the personal sleeping pits for each member of the detachment, weapon or fighting pits built into the earthen bund and a stores area.
A large tarpaulin is erected to provide shelter and shade over the gun stores and to provide a place where the gunners may rest and eat their meals. The gun can be traversed only so far, thus has to be manhandled when it reaches these limitations to allow for a reasonable shooting arc.
Each gunner in every detachment is equipped with an SLR 7.62 rifle, a bayonet, flak jacket and helmet in addition to his normal equipment such as, bedding, webbing ammo pouches and packs etc. The Sergeant might some times carry an AR 15 (armourlite). There is a GPMG-M60 in every gun detachment, one man being nominated as the machine gunner. Each man carries three magazines (60 rounds) in his ammunition pouches but also there is a steel box containing many more in the stores.
M26 grenades are kept available in the weapon pits and strong points and spare flares and claymore mines. Water is stored in plastic containers under the tarp.
The ammunition for the guns is delivered in boxes (2 per box), which must be opened. Inside the boxes the rounds are inside cardboard canisters, which must also be removed before the ammunition can be stacked in the ammunition bay. The fuses that come in other boxes are fitted before the rounds are stacked also, and the shells are married loosely to the cartridge cases.
A sleeping pit is a slit trench about 8 feet long by 4ft 6 inches deep and covered with at least three layers of filled sandbag s. A plastic sheet called a hoochie is erected over the top in a low profile to offer shelter against the weather and provide a little shade. A hole big enough for a man to climb through is left at one end of the pit (preferably at the end farthest away from the gun).
Inside a “mossie” net is erected over a nylon blow up mattress that is very easily punctured and is not very comfortable, and a thin nylon sheet is used as a blanket. The soldier sleeps fully clothed with his boots on. Normally it is to hot for the blanket but when one is soaking wet at night it can get quite cold. No lights are allowed and smoking is forbidden, though most soldiers learnt how to smoke unseen inside their pits.
Later units operating in Vietnam used oval shaped lengths of corrugated iron over their sleeping pits (covered with sandbags), which were a great improvement over current methods.
In Vietnam, a soldier is always soaking wet either from sweat or from the constant rain. His clothes were filthy and stinking despite the fact that they were changed regularly More often than not a pit would contain at least a foot of water in the bottom, but after a while one got used to sleeping in it. The earth smelt terribly and worms and other earthen creatures usually shared ones bed. Weapons had to be kept clean and dry and were held alongside the sleeper on sticks or some other cleverly devised contraption.
Every gunner was required to do 2 hours sentry duty each night in the strong point (bunker) despite the fact that most fire missions were also conducted at night. Staying awake in the strongpoint was very difficult indeed.
During the day the gunner works, building sandbagged walls around the bays and linking them together to form a complete perimeter, digging weapon pits, erecting defensive wire fences and carrying out gun maintenance and fire missions.
The building of the defensive structures was continuous the base becoming stronger and stronger the longer it was occupied.
Every night claymore mines and flares were set around the perimeter.
Clearing patrols and listening patrols were required daily. A team (ammunition team) under the control of the BSM or battery Guide met the incoming supply helicopters bringing the ammunition to the base, using a short wheel base land rover in which they distributed the ammunition to the guns. Normally each gun would have 200 rounds of ammunition unboxed and ready to fire.
A cleared area such as a FSPB soon became a dust bowl in the dry and stenching slush in the wet season. Conditions are never comfortable in a FSPB, and attention to personal hygiene is accentual.
Toilets are set up and birdbaths taken every day, clothes changed as frequently as possible, normally every second day, though they were filthy within an hour.
Socks were discarded as the MO had reported that they were a direct cause of foot rashes and other problems. Mossies were an awful problem particularly as darkness descended. They came with the end of the day in their millions that nets and repellent seemed to have little effect. Breaks from the constant heavy work came in the form of a change of work or volleyball played on the helipad, cards, chess and even darts. The heat made it impossible to sleep during the day and at night little sleep was available. One seemingly just managed to get to sleep when he was wakened for some reason or another, usually a fire mission or stand too, or for sentry duty. A Fire Support Patrol base is simply an area cleared in the jungle to dimensions that allows the guns to fire in all directions. The frontal aspect is defended by the gun battery, which set their guns in a staggered formation, the front three guns being laid in horizontal ready for any ground attack against the base.
A Company of infantry dig in to the rear and share the defence of the flanks with the artillery. The Battery command post is normally to the rear and central to the gun positions. The Battery was required to have all personal pits dug and at least two layers of sandbag overhead protection on the first night, regardless of what time of day the battery deployed. All water was sterilised and attention to minor complaint was not overlooked.
Dysentery, diarrhoea, ulcers and rashes were common, heat exhaustion being another early problem. Scorpions crept into webbing and bedding, and the snake, the crate, was often discovered under a mattress after one had slept with it there overnight. It became an automatic action to check ones gear and clothing for these reasons.
At any time the battery might be ordered to another location. Which meant the recovery of all equipment, repacking stores and ammunition, and destroying all of the structures previously built.
All wire was recovered and every pit and trench was filled in again before departure. All sandbags were recovered or slashed so that the enemy could not use them. A move would be rapid and in deploying in the new site it would all start over again.
Just before the termination of the operation I became a victim of the Malaria epidemic. I was first aware of the effects as I was filling sandbags near our gun platform. In particular the back of my head and neck began to ache and I felt tired and weak. I took a break lying down in the confines of my sleeping pit, but later when I tried to climb out I was unable to and called for assistance.
I returned to Nui Dat by helicopter and attended the regimental aid post (RAP) The medic there took my temperature and decided that it was not high enough to worry about and sent me back to the battery lines.
When I arrived I reported to the BSM, who was not satisfied with the report, particularly as I was somewhat delirious, spasmodically. He drove me back to the RAP immediately and demanded that my temperature be taken again, “and this time his temperature had better be high!” It proved to be the case and at 1400hrs I was flown with others to Vung Tau.
It took about twenty minutes to reach Vung Tau and as the Australian hospital was full I was taken to an American hospital.
Entering a small surgery type room at the end of a very long building I was examined by four or five white coated individuals who carried out a series of pokes, touches and squeezes, before steering me out onto the end of the line to await a similar sequence in a similar little room containing similar white coated individuals. This process continued for a long time. I do not recall how many times I was examined or by how many people. In any case, by this time, I was too sick to care. Finally I climbed into bed in a crowded ward at 2300hrs, eight hours after being medevaced.
I was surprised to see one of the battery members in the bed beside me, an FO, who was also suffering from malaria. On my right was a young American Lieutenant who had been blown up by a mine.
He was pretty lucky having his thumb blown off and losing a bit out of his right leg. The thumb had been sown back on again and it looked bloody awful.
In the bed opposite was a Viet Cong soldier who had not been lucky. He appeared to have been stitched up everywhere, particularly the chest and stomach areas, which were a mass of stitched up massive wounds. He was wide awake and showed no sign of suffering except when the doctor came in to look at him and ripped the plaster from his wounds; that certainly produced a response.
His replies to my smiles were vicious scowls reminding me of a trapped dingo confronted with its hunter. My smiles however were short lived for I was indeed very sick, and my sympathy for the Viet Cong was soon forgotten.
There were many enemy soldiers in the ward the worst cases being perhaps those who had been burnt with white phosphorous. They were skinless and pink suffering intolerable pain. It made me think about how many of the WP rounds we had fired had caused such agony.
For seven days I writhed in constant aching agony oblivious to any thing else. It was impossible to lie in a position to relieve it, for I ached in every part of my body. Beside me the FO was packed in ice, shaking and sweating in violent spasms.
After seven days the drugs began to take effect and I floated in a world of temporary peace.
Unlike the Australian army hospital system, there seemed to be no restrictive discipline. There was a bar down the corridor from the ward, where in, if one was capable, one could consume a bit of liquid amber, and no one seemed to mind if you wandered around the outside area of the grounds. There was a movie theatre, which one could attend, if one was well enough to walk that far.
Later, a friend from 102 Fld Battery visited me; we had served in Malaysia together. He lent me some clothing and we walked out through the front gate, completely ignored by the guards to spend a few hours in town.
I was however unable to take a drink and frankly was grateful when I arrived back in the ward for some much needed rest. I recovered fairly quickly and soon returned to the battery, although after that, I never quite felt the same again.
Although the direct aim of soldiers fighting in a counter insurgency conflict to defeat the enemy in the field, the extended aim of course to create the conditions which enable the re-establishment of Government and social order where the threat of terrorism non existent. To this end intelligence units and others establish as much as they can friendly liaison with the people of local and outlying villages.
Some villages are known to be ‘enemy’ villages, while others may be observation villages that normally lie deep in our controlled areas or along the communication lines. They have an organised intelligence group to which the villages report the movement of our troops. Such villages are careful to avoid any action that might bring reprisals and in fact many of the villages may be neutral and even favour the government forces.
Other villages are known as ‘passive’ and are usually fortified in some way. These are often protected with booby traps and snipers.
Attacks upon villages normally involve troops at company level, but obvious units include Artillery, tanks and Aircraft. Many villages of a hostile nature are surrounded with wide trenches filled with punji spikes and reinforced with bamboo. Mines and early warning devises are set up and tunnels will be dug to allow escape.
When house searches are conducted extreme caution has to be maintained. Normally two men will search each house covered by a gun group who also cover the flanks, rear and watch for snipers hidden in trees, adjacent huts, or concealed in ‘pop holes’ which link up with more extensive tunnel systems.
Any enemy who are captured are searched quickly hands being tied behind backs and evacuated as soon as possible. Every part of the hut must be searched and the area around it. Weapons were found hidden, under fireplaces, in false walls and ceilings.
Booby traps are most prevalent and cunningly set. Eggs in a ‘fowl pen’ for example might attract a soldiers attention, but in picking up an egg blown apart by a trap using the egg as the lure.
Children and women are often used as decoys. Many Guerrillas hide in tunnels and underground dugouts on the edge of the village or along a nearby waterway. They dig out holes under the banks of streams leaving a gap to breathe while they sit with most of bodies under the water. Hollowed out trees are often passageways into a hide dug under the root system. Villages are very deceptive in that nothing can be taken for granted.
PRISONERS OF WAR
To enable troops to operate effectively in the field there must be efficient administration. This means that the re-supply of ammunition, rations, water, weapons cleaning materials and stores must be instantly operational. Equipment and clothing must be kept in ready supply; replacement weapons and soldiers trained to repair weapons must be available. Mail needs to be delivered to where ever the soldiers might be deployed.
There must be an effective organisation for the extraction of wounded and dead soldiers, medical care, and burial details. Every soldier carries a first aid dressing ‘shell dressing’, normally strapped to the butt of his weapon. The dressing provided for personal wounds and not for the wounds of another soldier, unless circumstances deem it relevant.
Reinforcements are kept at the ready fully acclimatised and trained for instant input into a depleted unit.
To many, the worst thing that can occur is to be taken prisoner of war, particularly when one is aware of the cruelty he might expect from and enemy who does not necessarily respect the rules of the Geneva Convention.
Capture comes as a mental shock resulting in a sudden drop of morale. The prisoner thus becomes a vulnerable source of information to the enemy who will, by fair means or foul, do his level best to extract information from the prisoner.
The modern soldier is not ‘ordered’ to refrain from giving information, but encouraged to ‘carry on the fight’ in any way that may be open to him.
The soldier does not wear any military insignia, and is advised strongly not to carry documents, letters, diaries and such that may provide information to the enemy.
If time permits the soldier who knows he cannot avoid capture, will destroy his weapons or hide some essential part to render them inoperable.
The Australian army, though it has the training manuals, does not train its field troops in nuclear warfare, as a general rule. Despite all of the technical and manual training undertaken by the gun battery, not at any stage was the prospect of nuclear warfare considered.
Certainly the type of warfare being conducted in Vietnam did not indicate a requirement for such training. In the higher ranks, of course, nuclear warfare was a subject of study.
Despite what ‘might not be a requirement’, I always felt that the modern field soldier, and indeed all other serving soldiers should to some extent be acquainted with an understanding of nuclear warfare.
The power of a nuclear weapon is expressed as either kilotons or megatons. A five-kiloton weapon, for example, is the equivalent of 5000 tons of TNT and a five-megaton, the equivalent of 5,000,000 tons of TNT.
When a normal (TNT) explosion occurs there are three things that cause damage to the target, these being heat, blast and fragments (sometimes called shrapnel). In a nuclear explosion, all of these things are intensified accompanied with additional effects, namely, flash and radiation.
When a nuclear weapon is exploded a flash many more times brilliant than the sun occurs, which may cause temporary blindness, which can last for a few seconds or for many hours. At night the flash is even more damaging since the contrast is greater. The flash can be avoided by turning away or closing or covering the eyes.
The blast is received as a severe shock wave accompaTurning away or closing or covering the eyes can avoid the flashlight buildings and hurling any unattached materials over considerable distances. The blast, unless one is close to it, normally will not harm the soldier unduly, but he is at high risk from the materials thrown about as a result.
Protection in this event requires the soldier to seek the sanctuary of his weapon pit, or trench, or just lying flat on the ground as far away from buildings and other structures as possible. In the jungle of cause falling limbs and trees make this hazardous.
Heat waves from a nuclear explosion travel at the speed of light and are very intense. These travel in straight lines for several seconds over considerable distances. Soldiers in this event receive moderate to severe burns to the exposed flesh, which of course is dependent on how close one is to the explosion. If the weapon is an airburst then the heat rays are considerably increased.
In the jungle the soldier has good protection against heat waves, and also his clothing will provide adequate protection, since the jungle fighter always has the maximum amount of his body covered, for camouflage and against insect pests.
The most lethal aspect of a nuclear explosion is radiation, immediate and residual. Immediate radiation is emitted for up to a minute after the explosion occurs. 75 per cent of its effect is delivered during the first second. It will penetrate heavy materials though with considerably reduced effects. The effects are not immediately apparent, but enough dosage will cause nausea and vomiting and critical dosages will eventually cause death. One may not be subject to the effects for many hours and after the initial vomiting often several days pass before any other effects become apparent.
Protection is only adequate if the soldier can take cover in a trench or weapon pit that has overhead protection, because if the weapon is airburst the rays, which scatter in all directions, will fall upon him like rain.
When a nuclear explosion takes place close to or on the ground then residual radiation occurs. It is emitted from contaminated ground, mud, dust or water thrown up by the explosion. Many other materials are also contaminated.
When some of these materials are carried by the wind it is called ‘fallout’. Residual radiation contaminates for months and even years over wide spread areas where fall-out has occurred.
Soldiers must try to avoid contaminated areas and cover their bodies against ‘fallout’.
Brushing the clothes as soon as possible can also be an adequate protective procedure.
There is an obvious need for soldiers to become familiar with nuclear weapon types and gain an understanding of their characteristics. They need to follow a policy in constructing sleeping and weapon pits that give protection against nuclear attack, and being always aware that such an attack might occur.
When an explosion does occur there will be an immediate shock, but soldiers must be trained to instantly lie flat on the ground automatically ‘hit’ the ground with his head facing away from the explosion.
He will need to wash himself thoroughly as soon as possible, wash his change of clothing, and cover all exposed parts of his body. Let us hope that such warfare does not ever occur.
The effects of the explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be considered as typical of the expectations of similar explosions occurring over major European or US Cities, as the Japanese towns, though densely populated, had few substantial buildings. Most of the structures were in fact ‘lightly’ built inflammable dwellings. This meant that they were most ‘vulnerable’ to nuclear attack. But in considering this aspect, it should not be overlooked that because there existed little or no knowledge of the destructiveness of the bombs, they were dropped from a height that would now be considered optimum. Cities vary one from another in this respect, and it may be of interest to appreciate that although London and Moscow and Parish, also New York, have populations of similar content, it would take twice as many warheads to provide a given effect in London than it would in Moscow.
In both Russia and the USA today there are (ICBM) inter-continental ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, launched from strongly protected ‘fixed’ sites that can be directed upon targets 8000 miles away.
They are capable of covering these distances at something like 4 miles per second. The Russians have the largest warheads, with explosive powers of 50 megatons, though most missiles would carry much smaller warheads.
Shorter-range ‘land-mobile’ missiles can be quickly deployed and nuclear submarines carry (SLBM) submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can be launched from below the surface of the sea.
It has been said that the Russian missiles of this type are capable of hitting targets over 4000 miles away. The USA has the Minuteman III that has three MIRV warheads each of 170 kilotons. It can fire over 7000 miles to its target, it has a ‘Circular error probable’ (CEP) of about 400 metres, this being the radius of a circle round the point of aim within which there is a 50 per cent chance that the warhead will arrive; very accurate indeed.
The current trend concerns equipping ICBM and SLBM with multiple warheads that can distribute destruction over a wide area. The warheads are separated while outside the earth’s atmosphere and adjusted with small-programmed rocket motors, to fall back to earth in pepper pot configuration.
Poseidon is a missile (USA) deployed in Lafayette-class submarines, each which can carry 16 missiles. They carry at the moment 10 MIRV 50 kiloton warheads.
Nuclear missiles leave the Earths atmosphere and therefore require a re-entry vehicle to manoeuvre them. These ‘vehicles’ are used on the last stage of the missiles journey, primarily to evade interception. No doubt research is continuing to develop these ‘vehicles’ for more complex uses.
The defensive interception system in the US was closed down in the USA in 1976, although research is probably continuing. More in line with the soldiers thinking is the existence of very large numbers of ‘tactical’, nuclear weapons, such as guided and unguided missiles, artillery shells, bombs and demolition charges. I believe there is something like 7,000 such devises throughout Europe.
The American ASROC, (antisubmarine rocket) use nuclear depth bombs. In context with the highly mobile requirement of modern armies the development of fast, powerful and heavily armoured tanks.
Man-portable guided missile systems have warheads that can penetrate a foot of steel over a distance of two miles. It would be rare that the soldier firing it would miss if he could see the tank. Instant mine fields have been developed; laid in the path of an advancing tank by airborne dispenses or mobile rockets fired from land. There are laser guidance systems that allow an FO to call down incredibly accurate fire upon tanks from ten miles away. There are low-light vision systems, missile-dispensed heat-seek sub-missiles, and thermal sensor systems, which can find a tank in total darkness.
The physics of a nuclear explosion are indeed quite simple, though quite horrifying.
There are natural radioactive elements in Nature. Elements that emit radiation then decay into other elements. One such element is Uranium, from which the ‘A Bomb’ (Atomic Bomb) was made.
When a particular type of Uranium atom (U235) decays it emits small, uncharged neutrons. When a neutron collides with another uranium atom it is absorbed by it. In so doing, however, the new atom becomes unstable and splits, emitting other neutrons that are absorbed by other atoms, thus this reaction continues perpetually.
In Uranium, which occurs naturally, there is a mixture of atoms, consisting of very little of the unstable U235, and a great many of the stable U238. Most of the U238 are removed in making a bomb, thus it consists mostly of the dangerous U235.
If there is enough reaching critical mass, the neutron chain reaction occurs too rapidly, causing masses of neutrons to be emitted too quickly. The metal heats, thus causing the reaction to speed up. The uranium goes super critical, (in a millionth of a millionth of a second)
An Atomic bomb is basically two pieces of uranium, which are forced together very rapidly, the two pieces having to be smaller than the critical mass (otherwise it would itself explode), limiting the size of the bomb that can be made. This led to the development of the ‘H’, or Hydrogen Bomb.
The Hydrogen Bomb works in the same way as our sun. Small atoms of Hydrogen are combined to form helium causing an enormous amount of energy to be released. The problem was how to get the temperatures hot enough to cause the hydrogen to fuse. The hydrogen has to be heated to over 100 million degrees Centigrade.
The Hydrogen bomb is two bombs in one; the first being an Atomic bomb, which when detonated causes the hydrogen to fuse with itself, to become the second massively more potent weapon. The major advantage of the Hydrogen bomb over the atom bomb was that there is limit to size that can be built.
The other potentially lethal form of warfare in which, the gun battery anyway, never received instructions about was the use of gas by the enemy. Even in limited warfare gas is not widely used but it is used, and can have devastating effects.
The Americans in fact used tear gas to dislodge the enemy in the battle for Hue. They also used to pump acetylene gas into the VC tunnel complexes and ignite it. Those who were not destroyed by the blast suffocated.
Protection against gas is considered to be the responsibility of the individual soldier, but he is neither provided with, nor instructed in the equipment and methods of evasion.
If it is suspected that gas might be used then equipment will be supplied (if available) and doubt some in field ‘rapid instruction’ would probably occur.
Soldiers are not taught how to recognise the presence of gas and perhaps they should have an understanding of that is equal to the high standards achieved concerning other elements of warfare.
The information of course is available and no doubt there are experts in the field. Often the presence of gas can only be discovered when soldiers become affected by it. Gases used in warfare are classified according to the effects on the body and are grouped accordingly. Bombs, sprays, artillery shells, rockets and mortars can distribute gas.
There are five main types, nerve, tear, blister, nose and choking. Nerve gases are colourless liquids that produce invisible vapours. The liquid is capable of penetrating the clothing and being absorbed by the skin. Small doses cause contraction of the pupils of the eyes, runny nose, tightness of the chest and headaches and this will occur within two minutes or perhaps a little longer.
The only real deterrent is avoidance but a respirator will protect the eyes, nose and throat, with washing and removal of effected clothing being the method of removing liquid from the body and skin. An effected soldier must be moved from the area as quickly as possible and injected with atropine.
Tear gas is a non-persistent gas that causes the smarting of the eyes and tears to flow. There are usually few ill effects unless liquid enters the eye, which then should be washed out with running water. A respirator provides complete protection against tear gas.
Blister gases are persistent liquids which produce invisible vapour, with both the liquid and vapour affecting the skin, as well as the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. A small drop of liquid in the eye can cause blindness and if internally taken will at least cause severe injury. Within eight hours blisters will probably develop on the skin.
Vapours can cause temporary blindness and will cause serious injury to the throat and lungs. This may be accompanied with skin irritation and blisters. Again a respirator will protect the nose, mouth and eyes. Clothing worn to protect the whole of the body will guard against vapour. Blisters which form must not be broken and need to be covered with a dry dressing.
Choking gases are non persistent and attack the breathing passages and the lungs. This causes coughing and choking, the symptoms of which recur within 24 hours. Choking gases are likely to cause death. Respirators offer complete protection.
The effected soldier is kept inactive and given warm sweet tea and evacuated as quickly as possible. Nose gases cause sneezing through a painful nose and pain attacks the throat, chest, teeth and head. The effects will persist for quite some time, but fresh air and exercise will ensure recovery within one two hours.
If the alarm ‘GAS’ is given the first thing one needs to do is hold one’s breathe while fitting a respirator. Respirators were available to the gunners of the battery, though not issued as personal equipment.
There is little available information regarding the use of agents in Chemical and Biological warfare. It is likely though, that most major military powers would have laboratories that have developed new toxins and virus related agents.
The defoliants used in Vietnam are subject to a highly controversial debate. The use of lachrymatory gases, particularly in riot control and counter-insurgency operations is becoming more common than ever. Again I reminded that Australian soldiers are not trained with regards to these agents.
The Russian soldier on the other hand is regularly exercised in the use of protective clothing and respirators. It may be that due to the vast costs and the significant media coverage of nuclear threat that there will be a reduction in this regard.
More probable is the expansion of research into ‘germ’ warfare, for is less generally thought about, less costly, and potentially as lethal as the nuclear aspect. Because the dangers are less explicitly recognised, development can, and probably is continuing in laboratories all over the world.
The significance of this is most demoralizing, for invisible threat is greater than one that is obvious. It should become a subject of observance and control not only by the armed forces but also by governments and people generally.
©Copyright 2004 by Colin F. Jones