Battle of Long Tan - Aftermath - Assessment


Despite being heavily outnumbered, D Company held off a large Viet Cong assault of regimental strength supported by heavy artillery fire from Nui Dat, before a relief force consisting of cavalry and infantry fought their way through and finally forced the Viet Cong to withdraw. Although initial estimates of the Viet Cong force at Long Tan ranged from several companies to a battalion, following the battle Australian intelligence concluded that communist forces had numbered between 1,500 to 2,500 men, including three battalions from the 275th Regiment, reinforced by at least one North Vietnamese Army battalion and D445 Battalion, while 1,000 soldiers were estimated to have directly engaged D Company, 6 RAR. Achieved against odds of ten to one, the fighting left one-third of D Company killed or wounded. A decisive Australian victory, Long Tan proved a major local set back for the Viet Cong, indefinitely forestalling an imminent movement against Nui Dat and challenging their previous domination of Phuoc Tuy Province. Although there were a number of other large-scale encounters between the Australians and Viet Cong in later years, 1 ATF was not fundamentally challenged again. The battle established the task force's dominance over the province, and allowed it to pursue operations to restore government authority in Phuoc Tuy. Yet large-scale battles were atypical of the Australian experience, and although 1 ATF invariably inflicted heavy casualties on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese when encountered in large numbers, such actions were less important than routine dispersed patrolling to separate the Viet Cong from the population and maintain constant pressure on them, coupled with pacification operations designed to extend South Vietnamese government control. Nonetheless, Long Tan represented a watershed in the campaign, increasing the confidence of the Australians in their ability to defeat the Viet Cong and enhancing their military reputation.

The key reasons for D Company's success included superior radio communications which had allowed Stanley to co-ordinate the fire of the guns at Nui Dat, the weight of the artillery which repeatedly broke up the assaulting Viet Cong formations, the aerial resupply which prevented them from running out of ammunition, and the mobility and firepower of the APCs in the relief force which finally broke the Viet Cong's will to fight. The battle highlighted the power of modern weapons and the importance of sound small-unit tactics, and has since been cited as an example of the effect of combined arms, demonstrating the importance of the coordination of infantry, armour, artillery and aviation. In particular, the artillery had been the mainstay of the Australian defence, with D Company, 6 RAR supported by twenty-four guns from the 1st Field Regiment, RAA and A Battery, US 2/35th Artillery Battalion. Indirect fire support provided close protection to the infantry, allowing D Company to hold their line and repulse any Viet Cong soldiers that succeeded in getting through the barrage. Meanwhile, likely Viet Cong forming-up positions and withdrawal routes had also been heavily engaged throughout the battle. In total 3,198 rounds of 105 mm ammunition were fired by the Australian and New Zealand field guns and 242 rounds of 155 mm high explosive by the American medium battery. Ultimately the Viet Cong made the error of attacking within range of the artillery at Nui Dat and had to withstand the fire of three field batteries and one medium battery as a result. Meanwhile, Long Tan also confirmed the importance of armour to support infantry, even in dense jungle.

In the wake of the battle the Australians were left to speculate on the reason it had occurred. One hypothesis was that the Viet Cong had intended to attack and overwhelm Nui Dat, with the initial plan to mortar the base to draw a response force into an ambush after which the base would be attacked and captured, but that they had been prevented from doing so after clashing with D Company. A second possibility was that the operation may have had the more limited aim of drawing D Company into an ambush in an attempt to destroy it and secure a small victory over an isolated force. Finally, it was possible no ambush was planned at all, and that the Viet Cong had been moving on Nui Dat in regimental strength when they were unexpectedly intercepted by D Company, resulting in an encounter battle. The evidence suggested the Viet Cong had intended an attack on Nui Dat in some form, while the lack of prepared positions from which to mount an ambush made this unlikely. Jackson believed the Viet Cong had indeed been on their way to attack Nui Dat on the night of 18/19 August when D Company had intercepted them and this had been supported by information received from a prisoner captured after the battle. Meanwhile, the Viet Cong force had been carrying large quantities of ammunition and may have had sufficient strength to seriously damage the base even if its defences were likely strong enough to withstand such an attack. However, from the earliest he had been of the opinion the Viet Cong would have to engage 1 ATF in a major battle if they wished to retain control of Phuoc Tuy, and this interpretation may have fitted his thinking. Yet in dispatching patrols east of Nui Dat following the mortar attack on 16/17 August Jackson had reacted to his opponent's first move, and in so doing may have allowed himself to be shaped into responding as the Viet Cong had intended.

In his after action report Townsend wrote that he also believed D Company had disrupted a regimental attack on the 1 ATF base. Yet years later he stated that he doubted whether the Viet Cong ever intended on attacking Nui Dat. He felt they would have gained more from attacking a soft target such as Ba Ria and that the defences at Nui Dat would have been sufficient to withstand a regimental assault, having been improved significantly in the 11 weeks since its occupation and protected by aggressive patrolling and overwhelming artillery support, even if they were still to be fully developed. However, there were suspicions a battalion from the 274th Regiment had also been approaching Nui Dat from the west at the same time 275th Regiment was approaching from the east, and if true such an attack may have been feasible, even if it still would not have achieved the nine to one superiority communist doctrine required. The southern side of the base was only lightly defended and an assault from this direction would have allowed the Viet Cong to attack the gunline first, and if they succeeded in breaking in they would have then crossed 500 metres (550 yd) of open ground before reaching Headquarters 1 ATF. On the other hand Ford believed the mortar attack on Nui Dat had served to lure an Australian reaction force into an ambush, arguing the Viet Cong would have been unlikely to telegraph their intentions to attack Nui Dat and that they had left a clear trail to trap any force dispatched to find the mortar base plate and RCL positions. Townsend disagreed, arguing the Viet Cong mortar crews and RCL teams had actually tried to hamper the progress of the follow up by breaking into small groups, and that this deception indicated no such trap had been planned. Meanwhile, Honnor believed the mortar attack on 16/17 August had been used by the Viet Cong to register targets and that D Company had subsequently stumbled across the communist force as it was preparing to launch an assault on the 1 ATF base two days later, with the encounter battle that ensued preventing this from occurring.

A year following the battle, Nguyen Van Nuong (alias Loc), a Viet Cong soldier who had rallied under the Chieu Hoi program, claimed to have been second in command of a platoon from D445 Battalion at Long Tan. He stated they had planned to destroy Nui Dat to allow further operations in Phuoc Tuy, and that the force had consisted of three battalions from the 275th Regiment, together with D445 Battalion and medical units from the 5th Division and Ba Ria; in total some 2,000 men. Loc claimed the Viet Cong had estimated Australian strength at Nui Dat at 3,000 men and that the plan had been to mortar the base to draw a response force into an ambush by two battalions from the 275th Regiment and D445 Battalion, while the remaining battalion would capture Nui Dat. They had expected to quickly overwhelm the ambushed force as well as any relief force, thereby leaving the base relatively undefended. He stated D445 Battalion's role was to close the rear of the ambush and that they had suffered only light casualties during the battle. Loc told his captors that despite Viet Cong claims he believed only 100 Australians had actually been killed or wounded and that the official number of Viet Cong casualties was 200 killed, although he had seen more than that number of dead on the battlefield and believed many more had died during the fighting. According to Loc the Viet Cong were concerned about the fighting capabilities of 1 ATF and would attempt to avoid contact in future. In accounting for the fact Nui Dat had ultimately escaped attack the intelligence officer who interrogated Loc surmised that D Company may have entered the killing zone before the ambush had been prepared and that because of this the third battalion may have been unable to be released. Other possibilities included the Viet Cong being forced to abandon that part of the plan by the weight of the Australian artillery or that they had overestimated the size of the Australian force and retained the third battalion to complete the ambush.

The information provided by Loc was consistent with that already known or suspected by the Australians, and other than the notion of a single battalion overwhelming Nui Dat, it was considered plausible. Yet Smith was adamant D Company had not been ambushed, instead believing the action to have been an encounter battle regardless of what the Viet Cong may have intended. He argued the troops in the rubber plantation had not been sited for an ambush, while the presence of 2,000 to 3,000 men so close to Nui Dat without prepared positions indicated they were still moving when the initial contact occurred. Equally, D Company had been left in possession of the dominant terrain and had not been drawn into a killing zone as the plantation offered too much concealment. Meanwhile, no attempt had been made to cut them off from any relief force sent from Nui Dat, no artillery or mortars had been fired into the engagement area, and the thick vegetation to the north prevented the Viet Cong from manoeuvring into a favourable position. He reasoned that if the Viet Cong had intended on mounting an ambush it would have been more effective near the original mortar base-plate position as that was the only location they could have been sure the Australians would investigate. There would have been no way of knowing D Company would move another 1,500 metres (1,600 yd) east after their hand over with B Company where they ultimately contacted the 275th Regiment. Finally, doctrinally communist ambushes were completed in less than three hours, yet Long Tan had continued for over four. He concluded that since the tactics used by the Viet Cong had been contrary to many of the principles of the area ambush the battle was unlikely to have been one. Arguably though too many facts are missing to make an conclusive assessment of Viet Cong intentions. To date no definitive Vietnamese account of the battle is available, while those that exist are contradictory or unreliable.

In 1988 several former PAVN officers and communist officials, including Hong and Kiem, claimed no more than two battalions had been involved in the battle—less than half the most conservative Australian estimate. Kiem stated the primary force had consisted of D445 Battalion reinforced by one company of North Vietnamese from Headquarters Military Region 7, a total of 720 men. Hong stated the 275th Regiment had also been involved, but only one of its battalions, and with D445 Battalion the total strength was 700 to 800 men. They believed an entire Australian battalion had been engaged, along with two squadrons of APCs, and that the relief force had consisted of 1 ATF's second battalion. They claimed the Australians had suffered hundreds of casualties, citing a BBC broadcast after the battle which allegedly reported 500 killed and 21 tanks destroyed. Viet Cong losses were stated to have been significantly lower than the Australian claims, with Kiem estimating the total number of dead and wounded as approximately 30, mainly from artillery fire. Hong agreed, stating the figure of 245 killed was exaggerated by a factor of ten. Yet such claims may have been accurate for D445 Battalion only, and were at odds with Viet Cong records later captured by US forces which indicated their losses may have been as high as 500 killed and 750 wounded. Yet total Viet Cong and North Vietnamese losses may have been even higher still, with 1 ATF uncovering Viet Cong documents during Operation Marsden in 1969 which listed casualties of 878 killed, died of wounds or missing and 1,500 wounded. Such claims also contradicted the Dong Nai history which stated the 275th Regiment and D445 Battalion had both been involved in the attack. Indeed the majority of the dead buried by the Australians after the battle had been wearing green uniforms, and this, coupled with their weapons and equipment, indicated they were either main force Viet Cong or North Vietnamese.

Both Kiem and Hong claimed the plan had been to mortar Nui Dat to draw a reaction force into an ambush, not to attack the base itself. They confirmed the dual military and political aim of the battle, emphasising the disruption 1 ATF had caused by lodging at Nui Dat and the intention to affect public opinion in Australia. The forced evacuation of Long Tan and Long Phuoc had curtailed the Viet Cong who regarded it as a liberated area and it had been chosen as the ambush site to demonstrate to the local population they were still able to operate effectively despite the Australian presence. Hong explained that the ambush had been sprung within range of the artillery at Nui Dat because the Viet Cong had correctly assumed no Australian reaction force would move outside the cover it provided and instead they planned on rapidly closing with and destroying the relief force before artillery or air support could be brought to bare. According to Hong the Viet Cong had planned to occupy prepared positions in the Long Tan rubber plantation and to destroy whatever force the Australians sent to locate the mortars following the attack on Nui Dat. A stop force had been placed in the east of the plantation, while another had been deployed to the south to hold the Australians in place, reasoning the thick undergrowth to the north would force them between the two. D445 Battalion was then to close the rear of the ambush, attacking from the north-west. Meanwhile, he claimed the 274th Regiment had been occupying a position north of Binh Ba astride Route 2 to ambush a squadron from US 11 ACR which they anticipated would attempt to relieve 1 ATF. A larger ambush would then have been staged outside of artillery range along the withdrawal route used by 275th Regiment. He later expressed his amazement that the Australians could look on the battle as a victory: "How can you claim a victory when you allowed yourselves to walk into a trap that we had set? Admittedly we did not finish the job, but that was only because time beat us and your reinforcements arrived. I mean you did not even attempt to follow us up. How can you claim a significant victory from that sort of behaviour?"

While the plan as outlined by Hong had many of the components of an annihilation ambush, and the tactic of drawing the enemy out his base areas was a standard communist stratagem, a number of weaknesses were evident including the lack of a means of neutralising the Australian artillery, as well as the absence of indirect fire weapons for the ambush, and the comparatively small size of the ambushing force. Equally the plan to establish a second ambush position outside artillery range would have been ineffective as the Australians would have been unlikely to proceed that far unless their guns had followed. Ultimately Hong believed the ambush failed for a number of reasons, stating the soldiers at the front of the ambush—those facing 11 Platoon—had fired before the entire Australian force had entered the ambush, while it should have been opened from the rear against 12 Platoon. Meanwhile, D445 Battalion had more than three hours from the initial contact to close the gap at the rear of the ambush and failed to do so. Yet a number of issues cast doubt on this version of events. Firstly, if the Viet Cong had been in the plantation on 17 and 18 August preparing the ambush they would likely have been identified by patrols from A or B Company, 6 RAR. Secondly, the alleged size of the force is questionable. Indeed a force of just 700 men would have been insufficient to mount such an operation with any certainty of success, while according to communist doctrine it would have required more than a regiment to achieve overwhelming force. Ultimately the reaction of the Viet Cong indicted they had not detected D Company's presence in the rubber plantation until the first clash with 11 Platoon.

In 2005, Nguyen Nam Hung—deputy commander of the 274th Regiment—claimed the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had indeed intended to destroy 1 ATF and liberate Ba Ria province. Hung stated that a two-phased offensive had been conceived, with the Viet Cong first planning to draw the Australians into the open and destroy them in an ambush, and then attack the weakened base at Nui Dat. Yet ultimately their goal had been political and the capture of Nui Dat was not itself considered important. According to the official D445 Battalion history, the officers of the units involved had meet in early August to finalise plans for the battle. The account claimed that following the mortar attack on 16/17 August, the force had formed up in a 3-kilometre (1.9 mi) wide semi-circle at 10:15 on 18 August to lie in wait, with the 275th Regiment given the "middle battle" position and tasked with springing the ambush, while other units from the 275th Regiment and one company from D445 Battalion occupied the "front block" position near the village of Long Tan, and two companies from D445 Battalion under the command of Major Sau Thu had been tasked with occupying the "back block" position to encircle the Australians by sweeping beneath their "tail" and destroying them. In support, the 80-strong Vo Thi Sau militia company, most of them women, was located nearby to help drag away the wounded following the battle. In 2006, Thu confirmed he had been ordered to lure the Australians out of Nui Dat, kill as many as possible, capture their weapons, and then overrun the base. Yet this explanation also suffers from inconsistencies. In particular, the delay of over a day between the mortar attack and the battle suggests another purpose, and it is possible it may have served to test the Australian reaction and the speed with which counter-battery fire could be directed against them in preparation for a full scale attack.

The Australian official historian concluded that while Vietnamese statements consistently maintain an ambush was planned at Long Tan, whether they also intended on attacking Nui Dat remains uncertain. McNeill argued that the fact no large Viet Cong force had been identified in the rubber plantation prior to midday on 18 August suggested no such force was there, and consequently they could not have been occupying an ambush position waiting for the arrival of the reaction force from Nui Dat. Regardless, it seems likely the 5th Division did intend ambushing the Australians, although they seem to have been ill-prepared to do so due to a lack of co-ordination which occurred following the morning of 17 August and the selection and occupation of the intended site. As a result they appear not to have been ready when D Company entered the plantation and were likely somewhere on its eastern edge instead. The Viet Cong were probably still conducting their reconnaissance and establishing the ambush in the vicinity of where the rubber met the jungle when the battle occurred and it seems likely the Australians upset the Viet Cong plan, perhaps moving faster than the ARVN and US troops they had previously fought. What followed then appears to have been an encounter battle as the two advancing forces clashed on open ground in a meeting engagement. An alternative explanation is that the Australians had approached the ambush from an unexpected direction, thereby physically dislocating the Viet Cong. Indeed, according to Thu "...we didn't know how many you had in Nui Dat. We tried to draw them out... We thought they would go one way but the Australian soldiers went the wrong way and came behind us." In July 2006, Sabben and Buick visited the site of the battle for a television story on 60 Minutes, where they met Nguyen Minh Ninh, former vice-commander of D445 Battalion. Minh said: "You won. But we won also. Tactically and militarily you won—but politically, we won. In this battle you acted out of our control—you from our trap." According to journalist Cameron Stewart, it was the first time a senior North Vietnamese officer had admitted being defeated at Long Tan.

At the time of the clash the 275th Regiment had been advancing with two battalions forward and one in depth, while D445 Battalion was on its southern flank. The six to eight-man Viet Cong squad initially contacted by 11 Platoon was likely a standing patrol moving into position ahead of the force, and may have been the first warning they received of the Australian presence. Yet 11 Platoon had drawn ahead of the other platoons due to its rapid follow-up and was isolated when the remainder of D Company was forced off the line of march by mortar fire and then halted. As a result it could not be supported and had become cut-off. Regardless, their steadfast defence was critical in holding up the Viet Cong as they moved east, gaining time for the relief force to arrive. After pinning down 11 Platoon frontally, the Viet Cong repeatedly attempted to outflank them but were interrupted by 10 Platoon and then 12 Platoon as each tried to move to their aid. The initial dispersion of the Australian platoons made it difficult for the Viet Cong to locate their flanks, while after D Company concentrated it had been attacked from the south-east, with supporting efforts from the east, north-east and south, all of which were halted by small arms and artillery. The combination of indirect fire and the reverse slope on which they found themselves afforded a degree of cover, while the heavy rain produced a mist that provided some concealment. Meanwhile, a large Viet Cong force had been observed moving around the southern flank and was only broken up by the cavalry after fears it might be ambushed on leaving Nui Dat proved groundless. Although D Company had initially been protected by indirect fire, the mobility and firepower of the cavalry proved decisive. On the verge of being surrounded when the relief force arrived, they would have been quickly overrun had the Viet Cong succeeded. Jackson considered Long Tan to have been "a very close thing...", believing that another 15 minutes would have seen D Company destroyed, while A Company and 3 APC Troop had "...undoubtedly saved the day."

Although D Company ultimately prevailed they would have been defeated were it not for the timely arrival of the cavalry and the availability of overwhelming artillery support. Indeed, the battle had come close to disaster for the Australians and brought home the dangers of a dismounted platoon or company being overwhelmed by a larger force. A number of deficiencies had been evident in 1 ATF's preparation and response to the battle. As the fighting began there had been no ready reaction force available at Nui Dat, and this resulted in a lengthy delay reinforcing D Company. After Long Tan a rifle company with armoured support was dedicated to this role, on standby to respond to an attack or exploit any opportunity. Meanwhile, the Viet Cong had been armed with weapons at least equal to those used by the Australians. Most had carried modern Soviet assault rifles, as well as a large quantity of ammunition, which allowed them to sustain a high rate of fire. In contrast, the quantity of ammunition carried by the Australians had been insufficient, and following the battle the minimum load was increased to 140 rounds per rifle and 500 for each machine-gun. Equally the aerial resupply of D Company had been delayed because such a requirement had not been anticipated, with no prepacked ammunition holdings readily available. This also changed afterwards, while in future ammunition would be supplied preloaded in magazines for quick use. The Viet Cong had also employed 60 mm mortars, yet such weapons were no longer standard equipment for Australian rifle companies, and although battalions were issued 81 mm mortars they were controlled by Support Company. Such weapons would afford integral fire support in situations where their opponents had closed within the safety distance of the artillery, and consideration was given to their re-issue. Yet the added weight would limit the ability of sub-units to patrol and M-79 grenade launchers were issued instead, while a number of APCs were later modified as mortar carriers.

The magnitude of the battle and its proximity to Nui Dat shocked the Australians, and later it was suggested that Jackson had either suspected a Viet Cong regiment was nearby or that after being presented with SIGINT suggesting its presence he had refused to accept it. Yet while 547 Troop had detected a transmitter from the 275th Regiment moving west towards Nui Dat, such intercepts were unable to predict Viet Cong intentions with certainty, while patrols through the area had also failed to detected it. Although a number of indicators of the coming action were evident after the battle, ultimately no one had forecasted it. Regardless, such threats had been taken seriously and 1 ATF had responded by maintaining patrols company strength when outside Line Alpha while ensuring a level of base security. Yet Townsend had not been given access to SIGINT and some officers were later critical of the restrictions placed its availability. Indeed, although it would not have altered the requirement for a company patrol it might have changed the way the battle had been fought, and following Long Tan both battalion commanders were regularly briefed on such intercepts. The value of patrolling in depth and in sufficient strength to disrupt Viet Cong efforts to concentrate their forces was also emphasised and while no change to the pattern of Australian operations occurred, when a significant engagement was possible patrols would be required to be a minimum of a company, while platoons and companies would be required to operate close enough to reinforce each other rapidly to prevent a sub-unit from becoming isolated. Meanwhile, the command relationship between infantry and APCs when operating together had been problematic during the battle and changes to standard operating procedures were subsequently implemented to provide clearer directions in such circumstances.

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