On the 23rd May, OC B Coy 3RAR (Burt Irwin) was picked up by observation helicopter to fly to HQ 3RAR at FSB Coogee for orders for the next phase. That was to be a move by 3RAR battalion group to a new FSB Balmoral to be set up in AO Newport to the north of AO Surfers. B Coy had no Coy 2IC and as had been Burts practice in the past, he left me in charge to move the company (about 5 km in a direct line) and meet up with him at FSB Coogee. We went by foot via the area of an earlier artillery engagement. We gathered the equipment and papers off the dead and buried the bodies in shallow graves.
On the 24th May leaving at first light, a two company group of D and B Coys with D Coy leading, then walked the 5 km into the new battalion defensive position at Balmoral. The 3RAR HQ moved in APCs. My real memory of it was a long hot move that stopped and started as we went. A lot of hurry and wait as we use to say. This had been caused by D Coy having a number of contacts with small groups of NVA along the way. Once the site of Balmoral had been secured, both A and C Coys flew in by helicopters.
The move of 3RAR to Balmoral was a deliberate ploy by the Acting 1ATF Commander Colonel Don Dunstan. His aim was to draw out another NVA Regt that was known to be in the area. The tactic was to use the battalion as a “tethered goat”, draw out and then hit the attacking NVA with all the supporting fire that could be mustered, just as 1RAR had done the night 15/16 May.
The surrounding country
Balmoral was sited in light bush on the southern side of a large clearing. The clearing was natural, caused by a depression in the sandy soil making it too wet for bush to easily grow. Cart tracks ran through the area, with a main track running parallel to the southern edge of the clearing but about 50m into the bush to avoid the wet ground. There was also a track across the centre of the clearing running north-south. Like most of the countryside, sections of the land were pockmarked with artillery and bomb craters.
It was thought that any attack, given the lack of any other feature, would use the bush to cover any approach as they did at Coral and then use the main track parallel to the southern clearing edge as an axis. Both B and C Companies covering these approaches were sited in depth while the remainder formed company positions with the depth created within each platoon. The tank troop which arrived the next day were split into two groups of two covering the two most likely approaches, east and west as well as the clearing.
Defence stores were flown in. The position was dug in with full fighting pits and wire put up. Digging in and wire was not a usual activity for 1ATF infantry away from Nui Dat or a fire support base, so their expertise in this part of defence was not so good. In contrast the artillery were well practised and did it routinely. I spent some time helping the B Coy soldiers pin the wire down so it could not be lifted. They looked at me as though I was stupid, but they did what I said.
Extensive patrolling took place, initially in company groups. A lot of time was also spent registering targets round the base as close as possible. Because most of the defence stores were being flown in during daylight hours, registration missions were restricted to being an evening activity, usually during stand-to. Everyone was very tired but spirits were high. When I would arrive at one of the front trenches to undertake a registration mission, there was a lot of banter and good feeling and of course good humoured curses as shrapnel came zinging about. One smart Aussie yelled “you Kiwi drop shorts, you’re trying to kill me”. I had been allocated 102 Bty RAA, so I yelled back, “no those were Australian guns firing, so you better keep your head down”. To which there were great hoots of laughter. It was quite clear this was not going to be another Coral.
The troop of tanks arrived the second day. On the move in, the tanks escorted by a 1RAR Coy came across an NVA camp of some indeterminate size. After fixing its location, and because time was short to get to the new position, the camp was bypassed and given to 1RAR to deal with, which they did the next day with another troops of tanks from Coral.
Positions were prepared for two tanks at each end of D Coy capable of covering the clearing and the tree lines that ran away around the clearing from both B and C Coys. They were not put into their positions until last light so any reconnaissance would have been unaware of their tactical locations. But their siting was too far forward which caused problems getting in the way of fire support between B and D Coys later on.
The attack begins
On the second night, Balmoral was attacked by 165 NVA Regt. It started at about 3am with an initial mortar barrage and a peppering of RPGs. Three soldiers were killed or wounded by this, usually because they were sleeping or moving above the ground. At the same time a coordinated mortar attack was made against FSB Coral.
The bombardment did serve as a warning to stand-to. This was followed by the attack. Unexpectedly, the attack came across and down the eastern side of the clearing. The enemy seemed relatively unconcerned about being in the open and seemingly used the side of the clearing as a flank axis of attack. This took them directly into D Coy right flank, two tanks head on and B Coys left flank.
The enemy tried to make use of the movable wiring kniferests that were used to close gaps in the wire left there for the armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to get in and out of the base. They also lifted and bounced the concertina wire ahead of themselves in front of D Coy, which had clearly not been pinned dwn as we had with B Coy. However inside the concertina wire, the low wire entanglement slowed them right down so they became easy targets, having been silhouetted by flares that were being fired behind them.
While the tanks from elevated positions got good lines of fire, especially with their canister, their hulls and the bunds behind which they were sited, obstructed enfilade machine gun fire from B Coy.
The rightmost extremity of D Coy 3RAR on the clearing bore the brunt of it, although that quickly spread across their whole frontage as the enemy spilt round to their right. Scared soldiers attacking are under pressure and like water, they tend to follow a route of least resistance when confronted with obstacles. The NVA were no different. The 3RAR infantry performed well.
The Bty FO with D Coy (c/s 34) was Capt Martin Steads. He called in fire support from both 161 Bty and the US SP155s. I was covering the eastern approach and used 102 Fd Bty firing danger close missions right down to the wire. This had the effect of forcing them further out into the clearing. The artillery proved to be devastating. The GPO of 102 Bty let me know that they were being mortared while this occurred.
Capt Wally Steward the FO with C Coy (c/s 33) had been quick off the mark when the first mortars landed. He called for fire and swept it up and down his perimeter. The problem was he had no enemy to fire at. The Battery Commander (BC) Major Geof Hitchings (c/s39) or his Bty Sgt Ted Graham (I can no longer remember who) had to cancel Wally’s fire mission and give the Bty’s fire to Martin Steeds where the real action was.
The attack lasted about an hour and was fought off. In cleaning up the battlefield the next day eight NVA bodies were found, signs of blood trails and dragged bodies existed and discarded weapons. Talking the next day with Martin Steeds and Major Peter Philips the D Coy OC, they had been intrigued by how young the NVA soldiers had been, estimated to be between 15-17 years. The other point was how devastating the 155 artillery had been compared with the 105 field artillery.
The BC, Major Geof Hitchings use to meet with the FOs everyday so long as we were not out on patrol. The day after the attack, we gave Big Wally a real ribbing for hogging 161 Bty's firepower; all taken in good humour. One day Mike Thornton turned up. I never did find out what he was doing, I think he may have been attached to the APCs that were starting to regularly travel the route between Coral and Balmoral. By the time we got back to Nui Dat the following month, he was on his way back to NZ at the end of his 12 month tour.
Balmoral continued to be developed and a very active patrolling programme was put into effect with two platoon company sized patrols. Without a Technical Assistant in my FO Party who was capable of calling in fire, or B Coy a 2IC, this meant that both Burt Irwin and myself were almost continuously on patrol during daylight hours. I would spell my signallers by carry one of the sets myself.
A second attack
A second regimental size attack occurred on the night of 28/29th starting about 2:30am. The pattern was the same with mortars and RPGs, except this time the mortar fire was more accurately targeted. At B Coy HQ (where I was located) a mortar round landed in an open fighting trench, killing one Coy HQ soldier in his adjacent sleeping bay. No one had thought about it prior, but the B Coy HQ backed onto the 3RAR Mortar Platoon that was mounted in Mortar APCs. This was targeted by the enemy and while the Mortar Platoon position was OK within their tin boxes, B Coy HQ and my FO party took many of the near misses.
The ground assault started with a diversionary assault on the Southern perimeter fronting onto A Coy. The attack in this area was forewarned by the blowing of a gap in the outer wire. The small ground assault was halted by small arms fire before it breached the remaining wire. Any contact then faded away as diversions do.
The main attack came directly across the clearing to the north rather than down the clearing edge as previously. This provided great fields of fire for both D Coy, all four of the tanks and Martin Steads with his artillery. This attack was pushed harder than the previous one, but the defences were also stronger, including the wire. The defence was again supported by flare ships and helicopter gunship teams. After two hours the attack started to give way. However a number of the enemy took up positions in old bomb craters and had to be cleared out the next day, with several taken prisoner.
The tank troop commander located between D and B Coys got hit by RPG shrapnel in the lower back as he scrambled from where he was sleeping under his tank, up to his position in the turret. Speaking with him later, he said he was almost unaware of the wound until after the attack had been defeated and he leaned on his backrest!
In all, 42 NVA bodies were found and 7 prisoners taken as well as the usual mass of equipment that was left behind with accompanied drag marks and blood trails. Over the next few days a number of wounded and further bodies were found by patrols in areas to the north-east.