TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975) : Part 2

TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975) : Part 2

1968 – THE BREAKPOINT

PART 2/8 – KANGAROO 28-CENTS : Read Part 1
Australian troops with a Centurion during an operation in South Vietnam during 1968

Participation of Australian Centurion tanks in the Vietnam War is more of a slogan than knowledge – everybody has seen pics of the tanks but can hardly tell anything more than their origin as a Kangaroo place. The information is scattered and a clear picture is somewhat uneasy to recreate (besides a couple of thick books). The overall impact of small Australian armored units employed during the war cannot be compared to US scale but in any case this is a part of a story.

Australian 1st Armored Regiment Centurion Mk.5/1 tanks reached Vietnam on February 24, 1968 aboard SS Japerit. C Squadron, 1 Armor, force consisting of 2 Troops (4 tanks each), 2 command tanks, 2 ARVs and 2 AVLBs. Australian ‘big bosses’ generally replicated the US Army situation a couple of years back. The request for tanks was opposed by the task force (1ATF) commander, Gen Graham, a former Armored Corps officer, who believed that the tanks could not be maintained successfully in Vietnam. Gen Tim Vincent, Australian Forces Vietnam CO, a former Signals Corps officer, was convinced that the tanks would provide additional firepower and mobility. Interestingly, getting the tanks off the SS Jeparit and up to Nui Dat was a unique problem.

The Americans helped by bringing down a 70 tonnie ‘Big John’ floating crane from Saigon which lifted the tanks onto an American Landing Craft Universal (LCU). The LCUs then made a short trip, three tanks at a time, upriver to a ‘hard’ near the city of Baria (close to Nui Dat). There they were offloaded and moved on their own tracks to the 1ATF base. 

Formally there were 2 Troops but C Sqn CO Mj. Peter Badman decided to improvise and set up a third troop of command and bridgelayer tanks. 

Despite the decision, C Squadron was initially deployed only in half-strength and was reinforced in September to the full strength of 28 tanks in 4 Troops, HQ and LAD (Light Aid Detachment), in some sources referred to as 5-Troops. 

From an Australian soldier in Vietnam:
“By the time the tank squadron was committed to Vietnam in early 1968 the Centurion was a very old tank. It weighed 52 tons, was full of quaint technology, but in critical aspects it was first class. In particular, it was both robust, and had a very good gun. It had very thick armor in the turret and could take massive punishment from mines, which it hit frequently, and from RPGs where its turret armor was all but impervious to the earlier enemy RPG-2. The HEAT jet went in but did not penetrate into the crew compartment.
The RPG-7 which succeeded the RPG-2, however, was more lethal.

It did penetrate but, unless it hit a vital spot, the hole was eventually arc-welded and the tank kept motoring. A further advantage which the Centurion had, for example, over contemporary American vehicles was in the nature of its road wheels and running gear, which were designed to shear if it hit a mine. The solution then was to drill out the broken studs and refit the gear which could be done (and was) in the field. In comparison, the prevailing US tank (M48A3) with its torsion bar suspension, had to be taken to a base workshop to be repaired.

The Centurion’s other great advantage was its 20pr (83.4mm) gun with a range of ammunition:
  • Canister (like a gigantic shot-gun), which could be used to strip away enemy cover and camouflage, e.g. against bunkers.
  • APCBC (armor piercing capped ballistic cap—known as ‘shot’) which followed up to either weaken or demolish, or completely destroy the now-exposed bunker.
  • HE(high explosive) which might or might not be needed and could be used to finish the job provided the range was not so short as to make it a hazard to accompanying infantry. 

Because the Centurion’s technology was old, its crewmen needed to be very skilled. Its main armament was stabilized and learning to use it to shoot accurately on the move required as good hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity as any other highly specialized job in the army. Driving the tank was easier, but, because it had a crash type gearbox and no synchromesh it took a lot of practice to be proficient. Most officers were lousy drivers, much to the delight of the regular drivers.

Troops of the 1st Armoured Regiment during a briefing at Vung Tau
An ideal Centurion tank driver was short, stocky, and bullet-headed, with a left leg twice as thick and strong as the right (to work the clutch which needed about 30 kilos’ pressure), and a great sense of humor. It helped a lot if he also had a good eye for ground. The last thing a crew commander ever wants to do is habitually to have to call ‘left-stick’ or ‘right-stick’ to his driver.”
After a short training with infantry, they participated in March 1968 in their first combat operation PINNAROO.

Its task was to destroy strong Vietcong units, occupying the badly accessible Long Hai Mountain range, south from the main Australian forces base in Nui Dat. The first challenge was to get to the area of operations itself – the tanks had to move on tracks for over 100 km. During the five week “search and destroy” operation, the tanks working with 3RAR infantry and APCs of 3rd Cavalry proved themselves to be very good at destroying enemy positions. These positions were very well placed and only direct tank gun fire could destroy them at a distance of several hundred meters. 

The real trial of fire for Australian Centurions came in the last week of May, during the NVA attacks on FSBs Coral and Balmoral. After heavy NVA Regimental size attacks on FSB Coral, C Squadron, 1st Armor, was ordered to move from Nui Dat to FSB Coral on May 22. By then this would be the longest haul the tanks attempted to drive and by midday 23, the Squadron successfully arrived just having only one tank lightly damaged hitting mine that ripped off the suspension unit. 1 Troop was left in Coral and 2nd got ready to move towards FSB Balmoral to assist 3RAR and 3 Cavalry. On the May 26th and 28th FSB Coral was again bombarded by mortar, reinforced by recoilless rifle and rocket fire. 

On May 25, at 0730H, B Coy 1 RAR, with tanks of 2 Troop, departed for FSB Balmoral, with 3RAR some 6000m away.

On the way and just before midday, the force struck the outskirts of an enemy defended base some 2500m north of Coral. There was a sharp action and the group broke contact to allow air strikes to be directed at the enemy position. The tanks remained at Balmoral with 3RAR.  On the 26th D Coy 1 RAR, with tanks of 1 Troop left FSB Coral to engage the enemy position found the previous day. Without pausing to allow air strikes to be put down on the enemy position, the tanks and infantry began to assault the enemy position.

With Tanks leading, the infantry commenced to clear the position, which was heavily fortified and vigorously defended. Using a combination of tank fire and flamethrowers from the assault pioneer platoon of 1 RAR, the battle continued from bunker to bunker until 1500H. The engagement was then broken off due to failing light and the necessity for the group to return to FSB Coral in order to assist in the protection of FSB Balmoral.  FSB Balmoral came under heavy attack on the night May 27/28 by an entire NVA regiment and only the fire barrage and cover provided by the tanks and APCs prevented the Vietnamese from penetrating the base. Several tankers were wounded by the mortar fire. 

On May 30 a further heavy action occurred within the Coral patrol zone.
Viet Cong fighters crossing a river

C Coy 1 RAR, had made contact with a reinforced enemy regular company at 0830H and been pinned down by mortar fire, RPG and small arms fire after penetrating part way into the enemy defended position. The Coy was reinforced at 1000H by APC’s of 1 Troop, A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regt, which could not penetrate the jungle.

The jungle was so thick that the M113 APCs were not even able to turn around and two Centurions (Lt McCormack and Cpl Reeves) were called to relieve them. They assaulted the enemy position to allow the extrication of infantry. The company, which had been stopped and pinned down, was slowly being encircled, and was coming under increasingly accurate enemy mortar fire. The action was broken off after the company had mounted the APCs and withdrawn under cover of the tank gunfire.  

A combined arms operation in Vietnam. M113s clear the way through heavy bush while infantry follows.

Engagements around Coral and Balmoral continued for another several days and on June 4, just a day before tanks of C Squadron was planned to leave the area, ‘32’ tank was disabled by two RPG hits at FSB Balmoral. During the August tanks had a chance to employ the tanks/infantry training and procedures during sweep operations. From the Command Diary:

“17-22 August 1968

Defense ops continued without contact until 0830H (22 August). 3 Tp and 1Tp were committed to Long Dien with B Coy and C Coy 1 RAR. It was a successful day, even though the tanks were confined to the road. Inf /Tank co-op as taught was used and was a success. The infantry moved astride the road and indicated targets to the tanks that moved forward to engage them. The infantry were overjoyed.”

UH-1D helicopters airlift members of a U.S. infantry regiment, 1966

Both tanks and APCs quickly learned to work together and became highly proficient at certain types of operations, and worked out their own squadron procedures, frequently in conjunction with the battalion they were supporting.

The tank’s relative invulnerability was great against enemy in prepared defenses, especially bunkers, making a great difference, both in lowering friendly casualties while massively increasing enemy casualties. Again, Australians learned tanks were unmatched against massed attacks and, even in relatively tough terrain like around the foot of the Long Hai Hills, they were able to move and fight successfully.

A US “tunnel rat” soldier prepares to enter a Viet Cong tunnel.

Furthermore, because the principal Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army tactic was to ‘hug’ their opponents to inhibit their use of artillery or gun-ships, the introduction of the tanks into Phuoc Tuy province provided the shock action, mobility and direct fire means to act as a force multiplier. Formerly, the enemy broke contact when it liked and in circumstances favorable to itself; the tanks vastly complicated the enemy’s design, and helped change the nature of the battlefield.

Here is account from the later action near Song Ca given in the book “Jungle Tracks”:

“Once they entered the battle area they were very effective. But as they came forward between us all they were pushing down trees that had the effect of camouflaging the enemy and the bunkers … I remember [Lieutenant] Bruce Cameron getting out of his tank or attempting to get out the first time and an RPG-7 whistled past his ear and down he went again. Eventually he got out and jumped down and came and spoke to me on the ground and so that was excellent. The other thing was that they had a tremendous shock effect, particularly when they put their barrel down a bunker and went kaboom! And also in driving over bunkers. The end result was fantastic I guess and we made the most of that situation with that troop of tanks and their cooperation was tremendous. The movement of the platoon was dictated largely by where the three tanks went and that’s the way I played it. It was futile for me to be dictating the movement of the tanks because once the tanks came in I realized that they were the ones that were vulnerable but they were also the ones that had the firepower.”

Written by Efim Sandler

Editor of Tanks In Action

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TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975) : Part 2

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TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975) : Part 2