The battles for Coral and Balmoral in South Vietnam during May-June 1968 were the biggest battles that the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) was involved in during its time in SVN. They were bigger than Long Tan and with greater loss of life on both sides. Unlike Long Tan it was not all over in an afternoon, but went on for several weeks. In all 25 Australians were killed in action and just under 100 wounded. There were no NZ casualties. Of the North Vietnamese, 276 were killed with a possible further 69. An impossibly low 9 North Vietnamese wounded are also recorded.
I attended a reunion in Canberra to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the battles and it stirred memories. I thought they were worth recording from a 161 Bty RNZA Forward Observers perspective while I was still capable of doing so. I have also researched some of the histories that have been written and talked to others who were there to fill out my own knowledge of what happened in parts of the battlefield away from where I was.
I have divided this into four parts. The first concerns the strategic situation that led to the deployments. The second is about the battle for Coral. The third the battle for Balmoral and the fourth is the aftermath.
Operation Toan Thang
For Operation Toan Thang (Complete Victory) 1ATF was placed under US command. The operation ran from April to June 1968, and involved about 70,000 troops from all the so called Free World armies fighting in Vietnam. 1ATF’s task was to intercept NVA units moving into and out of Saigon.
Following the start of the Mini Tet on 8 May 1968, the 1ATF was deployed on 12 May 30km north of Bien Hoa on Route 13, into an AO called Surfers. It was in a region known by US forces as the Catchers Mitt. The name came from the shape of the river that runs along the southern and eastern sides of the general area. The Catchers Mitt was a known concentrating area for NVA units and formations that had moved down the many parallel infiltration trails known collectively as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We now know, and it was known by US Intelligence at the time, that there were up to 12,000 NVA passing through this area for their Mini Tet offensive.
These escalated activities by North Vietnam were designed to capitalise on the political success that they had with their Tet Offensive earlier in the year. That political success was a strange outcome for that offensive. By any military measure, it had been an expensive military failure to the North Vietnamese and had decimated local Viet Cong forces.
The political outcome can be largely attributed to the US media, which unwittingly took on the role of the propaganda arm of the North Vietnamese. Their editorial line was followed by most other western media editors and eagerly seized upon by fifth column protest groups. The propaganda victory was so great; it was to cast disarray within the higher echelons of the US. It resulted in President Johnson announcing that he was not going for re-election and that General Westmoreland, the US Commander in Vietnam, was to be moved upstairs as they say, and replaced.
Such are the fortunes of war. General Giap in North Vietnam became a hero over night rather than being shot for the military disaster he had created. The North Vietnamese found it provided an opportunity to be exploited. With the Paris Peace Talks about to get underway on 13 May, they ramped up the pressure.
We were largely unaware of much of this strategic stuff at the time. We had been successful in what we had done up until that time and we just got on with the next task we were given. So for us, without any other information, one operation was the same as the next. We were to be woken up with a surprise.
1ATF consisted of two battalions (1RAR and 3RAR) plus a full range of supporting arms and services, including a squadron of tanks. 161 Bty RNZA were deployed to provide artilley support to 3RAR. Elements of the Bty were involved in all parts of the battles.
As hindsight has revealed, the whole 1ATF operation was not well planned, execution was mostly poor and the troops on the ground were left to make silk purses out of many a sow’s ear. Sometimes they did this transformation very well in spite of the obstacles placed in their way. But mostly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that soldiers either died or were wounded during this period because of poor planning at higher levels.
There seems to have been a lack of distributed intelligence of the capacity of the NVA to react to the 1ATF operations. This information was known, as US units operating in the area of the Catchers Mitt were involved in some substantial fights in the days immediately before the deployment. Some of this is the fog of war, but many of these mistakes were made in advance of the 1ATF Operation and are therefore unforgivable. As a result, wrong decisions were made and that just added to the woes of commanders and soldiers on the ground.
1ATF deployed on the 12 May into FSB Coral. 3RAR and 161 Bty were redeployed there from another operation. There had been no real warning. We had been in the field about a day and a half after replacing 2RAR in-place in AO Columbus when we received the warning order. Columbus was just to the north-east of Long Binh and about 15 Km south-east of Surfers. The move was a harbinger of the rushed planning and poor execution that was ahead of us.