Saturday 3 November 2018

Centurions in the Jungle

The participation of Australian forces in the fighting in South Vietnam in 1965-1971 is a relatively rarely explored part of history. Even rarely is it mentioned that Australia sent its tank forces to the front, armed with British Centurion tanks. The fate of Australian Centurion Mk.5/1 tanks in the Vietnamese jungle was not a bright one, but the tanks and their crews did their job honestly.

Centurions past the equator

The Royal Australian Armoured Corps existed under various names since 1927. Before WWII it was a "virtual" branch of the service, nearly devoid of vehicles and individual formations. Australia only acquired a significant number of vehicles during WWII. Large units were trained and fought on the front lines. Australian regiments and brigades fought against Germans and Italians in North Africa, with the Vichy French in the Middle East, and with the Japanese in the Pacific.

The Corps was radically reduced in size after 1945. This was connected with the optimization of the armed forces and the reforms meant to create a small professional army that was always ready for battle. The core of the RAAC was the 1st Armoured Regiment, formed in 1949 chiefly out of the experienced 4th Tank Brigade. In addition, armoured vehicles were included in a number of mechanized cavalry regiments and reserve formations.

The 1st Armoured Regiment consisted of only the A squadron armed with Churchill Mk.VII infantry tanks. Australia received 51 such vehicles. These tanks were seen as a temporary measure, and talks to equip Australia with new Centurion MBTs began in 1949. The regiment was not considered fit for battle during the first few years of its life, which allowed it to avoid fighting in the Korean War, although several officers did make it to the front as a part of other units. Australian infantry received experience in fighting alongside Centurions, albeit British ones.

Infantry of the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment on a British Centurion tank. Korea, 1951.

Supplies of Centurion Mk.3 tanks began in 1951. After training and trials, 39 vehicles finally entered the 1st Armoured Regiment in the summer of 1952, which allowed the formation of the 2nd and 3rd (B and C) squadrons and put the unit into a battle ready state. Before the 1960s the Australian army received 117 (or 143 according to some sources) Centurion Mk.3 tanks, as well as engineering vehicles on its chassis: 4 bulldozers, 4 bridgelayers, and 6 ARVs. These vehicles were spread out between the 1st Armoured Regiment, mechanized cavalry units (both regular and reserve), and the armoured forces training center.

The 1st Armoured Regiment did not take part in the Korean War, and its role in the armed forces remained vague for some time. Even though the Australian military actively fought against Communist partisan movements in Malaysia in the 50s, these operations had no room for tanks, which put the value of such tanks being used by Australia into question. Suffice it to say that the first joint exercises between tanks and infantry were held in 1959, and the first exercises in the jungle (in Queensland) in 1960. The subsequent years put things in their place.

Baptism by fire

Australia was pulled into the war in Vietnam in the mid 1960s. Both the fear of the Red Menace and the obligations to their American allies (as a part of the ANZUS bloc) played a part. A group of Australian military advisors was present in South Vietnam from 1962, and in 1965 Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that he was sending a combat force to Vietnam, despite criticism from the opposition.

Based on the agreement with the American command, Australian forces were to control the territory to the east of Saigon (in the area of Viet Cong activity). Initially, the force only consisted of an infantry battalion, an armoured cavalry squadron, and a number of auxiliary units. New units were constantly rotated into Vietnam, and the 1st Australian Task Force grew to 4000-5000 men, controlling the Phuoc Tuy province in South Vietnam. The Australian navy and air force also took a limited part in these operations.

The Australian zone of responsibility in Vietnam.

Initially the use of armoured vehicles was limited to a squadron of tracked M113A1 APCs that arrivd with cavalry regiments. The vehicles fought starting with 1966, which revealed their vulnerability and poor firepower. Suddenly the Australians were facing a powerful enemy with heavy machineguns, recoilless rifles, and anti-tank rocket launchers. Heavy fighting in February of 1963 that cost 15 men killed and 53 injured in just a few days is said to have played a key part in the decision to reinforce the Australian task force with tanks.

The 1st Armoured Regiment's preparations for battle in 1967 included the modernization of the tanks to the Centurion Mk.5/1 standard, which included:
  • Strengthening the front armour.
  • Replacing the BESA machineguns with a Browning one, including the commander's MG mount.
  • Installation of a floodlight and IR lamp.
  • Installation of an additional 100 gallon fuel tank in the rear.
The tankers began their journey to war on February 10th, 1968. The combat diary received its first entry:
"The 1st Armoured Regiment put together a going away party for the C squadron and the maintenance unit. C Squadron marched past the RAAC orchestra playing "Waltzing Matilda". A large crowd gathered to watch the unit's departure."
C squadron commanded by Captain Peter Badman arrived in the Republic of Vietnam on February 27th.  It included two squads of four tanks apiece, two commander tanks, two bulldozers, and two ARVs. Tankers got down to business immediately upon arrival. In March-April the Centurions and the APCs of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment provided fire support during Operation Pinnaroo: the discovery and destruction of Viet Cong positions in the mountains. One tank was disabled by a mine, but was repaired.

A C Squadron tank and two crewmen during Operation Pinnaroo.

The fighting for remote Balmoral and Coral firebases against Viet Cong partisans supported by the 7th Infantry Division of the Vietnamese People's Army was a real trial for the Australian forces. Nearly all Australian units in Vietnam at that point took part in the fighting: the 1st and 3rd infantry battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment, A Squadron from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, batteries of the 12th Artillery Regiment. Fire support was provided by Australian UH-1 helicopters and Canberra bombers. The fighting for Balmoral and Coral became the most action-packed event for the Australians in the Vietnam War.

On May 22-23rd C Squadron made a 120 km march from their base in Nui Dat to the Coral base, losing one bulldozer to a mine. The two squads of tanks were split up between the 1st and 3rd Infantry Battalions and fought to repel Vietnamese attacks on both bases for over a week. Periodically, the Australians would counterattack to destroy enemy field fortifications and firing positions. The tanks actively took part in these raids. Many hits of RPG-2 grenades were registered on the Centurions, but they could not penetrate the armour. No losses were recorded, but a number of crewmen suffered light wounds. The attacks stopped in early June and the squadron returned to Nui Dat. It is considered that the Australians lost 25 men killed and about 100 wounded, the Vietnamese lost over 200 killed.

A Centurion during a counterattack on May 26th, 1968.

A view from one of the tanks near Balmoral base.

Marks from an RPG-2 hit.

When the number of Australian tanks in theatre reached 28 in September of 1968 the main tactical unit became a four-tank squad. No large battles took place, but C Squadron was used to control the area. On August 21-22nd two squads of Centurions were used to deflect an attack at Long Dien. The tanks survived another RPG barrage, but this time one tank was lightly damaged.

The main enemy of Australian tankers in the fall-winter of 1968 was enemy mines. One tank hit a mine and was completely disabled on September 15th (Vehicle Beyond Local Repair). Two more tanks were damaged in December, one of which killed the driver. Another two tanks were damaged in January of 1969.

Experience gathered during 1968 led to some modifications made to the Centurions of the 1st Armoured Regiment. Tankers attached spare track links to the front to offer extra protection. A carrier for additional machinegun ammunition was welded onto the turret. The smoke grenade launchers, IR lamp, and skirt armour were removed, as they were considered useless. American PRC25 radios were often installed on tanks. Other minor changes were made as well.

A typical modified Centurion Mk.5/1, 1969.

Fighting in the jungle was difficult. One tanker recalled:
"Naturally, the tank heated up. It was very hot from the red-hot gun, cordite, the heat of the engine, the constant heat of everything. It was very uncomfortable."
 The daily life of an Australian tanker

The first rotation of the 1st Armoured Regiment was made in February of 1969. C Squadron crews were replaced with B Squadron (commanded by Major Bill Reynolds). The newly arrived tankers were immediately put to work in a wide scale operation to clear a large area east of Saigon ( from Viet Cong forces. Heavy fighting broke out on February 16th. A squad of tanks engaged Vietnamese RPG crews. The head tank was immediately knocked out with three RPG hits (the Vietnamese were using new RPG-7s) and five tankers from the squad were wounded. The official history of the 1st Armoured Regiment claims that the squad commander, 2nd Lieutenant Brian Sullivan, exited his tank and suppressed one RPG crew with his pistol.

The tanks participated in protecting supply lines and offering fire support to light infantry in anti-partisan fighting. The Centurions were hit by mines and RPGs several times in April-May. A relatively large battle took part on May 7th:
"14:05: callsign Bravo was knocked out with a Chinese mine. Light damage was caused. One Australian was evacuated with light wounds. At 17:00 callsign 24 was shot up by six enemies with small arms and RPG-7s. One Australian was wounded (evacuated), the tank received medium damage. At 19:20 D and E platoons attacked under cover from B Squadron. As a result of the engagement the enemy suffered one casualty. One Russian 7.62 mm rifle was captured." 
Patrol in the jungle. Men of the 9th Infantry Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and a tank from B Squadron, April 1969.

Active fighting (by Australian measure) broke out for Binh Ba village, considered an important Viet Cong base, on June 6-8th, 1969. A combat group of the 5th battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment with support from nearly all of B Squadron, M113 APCs from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, and Australian UH-1 helicopters tried to take the village by storm, but encountered heavy resistance. The Vietnamese had new RPG-7 launchers and knocked out two tanks from the leading squad. The other tanks continued to successfully support their infantry, and the Australians announced victory on the morning of June 8th. They lost only one man killed and ten injured. Such low losses are explained by successful use of tanks. It is considered that the Vietnamese took about 100 casualties.

B Squadron tank and infantry in Binh Ba.

After the fighting for Binh Ba B Squadron returned to its routine. The intensity of the fighting for the whole Australian force decreased. Successful anti-partisan actions forced the Vietnamese to change their methods in the Australian zone.

A Squadron arrived on rotation in December of 1969, commanded by Major Jack Chipman. Soon after, they took part in a wide scale anti-partisan operation (Operation Hammersley). Nearly the whole squadron supported the 8th Infantry Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment in its attack against a large partisan base in Long Hai on February 17-18th. The Centurions took heavy RPG fire but the losses were limited to several wounded tankers.

Footage of Australian armoured vehicles in Vietnam.

The tanks took part in routine anti-partisan fighting throughout the year. Long periods of silence were broken up by short bursts of combat. The A Squadron combat diary lists a number of examples.
"April 25th, 1970. 22:10. Supporting a mine disposal squad at Timothy checkpoint. Fire support of 9th platoon C company of the 7th Infantry Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. 45 HE shells fired, presumably successful hit at the given coordinates. Four dead Viet Cong were found in the morning, plus traces of blood and dragging."
"May 21st, 1970. 15:15. The third squad attacked an enemy bunker alongside an APC squad and an infantry platoon. 3 Alpha was knocked out by an RPG-7 (?). The commander, Sergeant Chambers, was wounded in the head, the driver, Private Gebhard, in the hand and foot, the gunner, Private Lynch, was contused. All were evacuated. Sergeant Chambers returned to duty two days later, Private Lynch on the next day, Private Gebhard was evacuated to Australia. The tank was penetrated through the gun mantlet. 8 Bravo covered 3 Alpha and it was later evacuated."
The tanks' missions included protection of supply lines, covering engineering and construction work, and periodically fire support for light infantry. The Vietnamese were occasionally recorded as using RPGs. On June 16th a Centurion used for fire support took two hits. The tank caught fire and was fully disabled. One crewman received burns.

A parade of tanks from the 1st Tank and 3rd Cavalry Regiments in November of 1970. The last Cambrai Day in Vietnam.

Operations of A Squadron continued until December of 1970, after which it was replaced by C Squadron (commanded by Major P. Burk). This period was not very eventful, and the tankers prepared to depart from Vietnam in May of 1971. On August 29th, 1971, the combat diary declared: "OPERATIONS OF TANKS IN VIETNAM HAVE CEASED". In September the tanks were moved out of the fighting area. The rest of the Australian forces followed in October-November.

Generally accepted information on the fighting in Vietnam states that 58 Centurion Mk.5/1 tanks from the 1st Armoured Regiment took part in the fighting in Vietnam, of which six were damaged to the point where they could not be repaired. 2 man were KIA, and the official website of the veteran's association records 7 more as having died of wounds. The 1st Armoured Regiment officially received three Battle Honours for Vietnam: Corall-Balmoral, Binh Ba, and Hat Dich. 

The Centurion Mk.5/1 tanks did not remain in service for long after Vietnam. The Australian army began to compare the West German Leopard 1 tank and the American M60 Patton in 1972. The German tank won out. In November of 1976 the last parade of the 1st Armoured Regiment with Centurions was held, after which training with new tanks began.

Some Centurion Mk.5/1 tanks became museum exhibits. Among them, the vehicle stored in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra stands out has having taken part in the fighting in Vietnam and retained its wartime configuration.

A Centurion Mk.5/1 from the Australian War Memorial. The tank fought in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. 

1 comment:

  1. Once again disproving the myth that tanks were useless in fighting against a jungle insurgency.