Operation Toan Thang 1 - FSB Coral / Balmoral 12 May - 6 June 1968
This series of engagements at two separate locations over a month-long period, marked the largest scale, most intense and sustained combat engagements experienced by 1 Australian Task Force units during the six years of its involvement in Vietnam. The value of the Centurion tanks, taken somewhat controversially to Vietnam, was vindicated in the most emphatic way. Most importantly it was the resilience, initiative, training and resolve of ordinary soldiers, augmented by that most powerful combat multiplier, good luck, that carried the day, averting, in what at FSB Coral in particular, could have been a disaster.
These engagements took place under the umbrella of Operation Toan Thang "Complete Victory" from 12 May to 6 June 1968, involving most of the Australian Task Force deployed well away from its familiar base at Nui Dat, on the back of the well known NVA / VC Tet Offensive. The Area of Operations was an area known as "The Catchers Mitt" in Bien Hoa Province, north of Saigon. It was astride a major North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong (NVA / VC) infiltration route, off the southern end of the 'Ho Chi Minh Trail', the re-supply route connecting north and south.
The aim of the operation was to interdict NVA and VC forces withdrawing from Tet operations in Saigon. While the Tet Offensive had failed tactically, it was arguably a strategic victory for North Vietnam given the way in which it was portrayed by the media in the West, feeding the anti-war movement in the US Europe and Australia, despite crippling losses sustained by the NVA / VC. The imagery of VC and NVA forces penetrating into the grounds of the US Embassy in Saigon conveyed the impression that the US and South Vietnamese Allies had completely lost control of the conflict.
To regain control, it was intended to locate, disrupt and destroy as much of the withdrawing NVA/VC force as was possible. Establishing Fire Support Bases provided artillery and mortar fire support to patrolling infantry formations as they sought contact with the enemy and to interdict their passage north (and south as it turned out).
Australian & Allied Forces
HQ 1 Australian Task Force (1ATF) (tac - meaning a 'tactical forward element' of the HQ, the main component remaining at Nui Dat)
1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (12 May)
3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (12 May)
12 Field Regiment comprising Regt HQ, 161 (NZ) Battery and 102nd (As) Field Battery (12 May)
elm 131 Div Locating Battery
elm 104 Signal Squadron
C Squadron 1 Armoured Regiment
A Squadron, 3 Cavalry Regiment
A Battery 2/35 (US) Medium Artillery
Source - Wikipedia. AO Surfers, subordinate AOs and locations of Fire Support Bases. The red arrows indicate direction of advance of 7th NVA Division
The Area of Operations was designated 'AO SURFERS' with subordinate Tactical Areas of Operational Responsibility (TAOR), named for beachside locations in Sydney; 'MANLY' 'NEWPORT' and 'BONDI'. Within each, a Fire Support Base was to be established; first up was FSB 'CORAL' in AO 'BONDI' in the south, then FSB 'COOGEE' in AO 'MANLY' in the west and FSB 'BALMORAL' in AO 'NEWPORT' to the north.
1RAR, 3 RAR, 12 Fd Regt HQ and it 161 (NZ) Fd Bty and 102nd Fd Bty were airlifted in on the 12th May
The Armour elements had to drive in and did not arrive until the 13th May along with the other force elements.
A CH47 Chinook delivers a 102 Bty M2A2 105mm Howitzer and ammunion to the Landing Zone (LZ) at FSB Coral 12 May 1968
From an Australian perspective, it appears with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that 1 Australian Task Force (1ATF) entered this fray as if they were dealing with scattered irregular forces, as they had been used to fighting around Nui Dat, when in fact they were to land in the midst of large well trained aggressive regular forces, heading TOWARDS Saigon rather than AWAY from it.
This impression was in part fuelled by poor passage of intelligence information through the chain of command. The intelligence feed clearly identified the presence of large regular forces. Perhaps the situation was best summed up by a local US Commander to an Australian counterpart; "You won't have to go looking for Charlie; he'll come looking for you". And so it was to be.
[AWM P03022.008] Aerial view of FSB Coral 13 May 1968. 'North up'. The cluster of armoured vehicles are A Sqn 3 Cav Regt M113 just arrived from Nui Dat The purple smoke marks the Landing Zone (LZ) adjacent to 102 Fd Bty. 1RAR Mortar Platoon is to the north of 102 Fd Bty. It was in this vicinity that the first enemy attack was directed
This environment was compounded by a disrupted and 'shambolic' (to quote some participants) fly in, caused by aircraft delays and re-allocation of air assets which were diveted in support of a major US firefight in the near vicinity. This served to confuse the order of march and compromised the proper establishment of Fire Support Base Coral on the opening day of the Operation. Doubt about the prescribed location of the gun batteries, artillery elements arriving before their infantry protection, incomplete occupation and a dislocated defensive orientation close on dusk with inadequate time to dig in and secure the position compounded to create a situation of extreme danger.
A graphic depicting the relative locations of the 1RAR Rifle Companies on the first night (L). Established to interdict small parties of enemy they were too far away (as far as 2km) from the FSB and each other to provide effective mutual support. The circled inset graphic depicts the relative positions of the 1RAR Mortars and the 102 Fd Bty guns within the Coral perimeter exposed to the north east. Army Museum of WA Inc
Most telling, the key infantry elements were too dispersed to provide coherent all-round defence and mutual direct fire support leaving the core of the FSB dangerously exposed.
Unknown to the Australians, they were under observation of their enemy who determined to attack as quickly as they could and immediately despatched reconnaissance parties. Their objective was the 102nd Field Battery (102 Bty) and its guns which were seen as a very attractive target. Reconnaissance parties quickly established the guns were were aligned to the east. They therefore planned to take them from the northern flank.
First Attack 0400 13 May
The Battle for Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral began with a number of small contacts against the dispersed rifle companies of 1 RAR to the north and east of FSB Coral in the afternoon and early evening of 12 May.
In the meantime hundreds of enemy troops were moving into their Forming Up Place (FUP) just to the NE of Coral under cover of darkness. Fortuitously one section (three guns) of 102 Bty had earlier fired in support of D Company 1RAR and were now pointing to the north; right across what would become the enemy axis of assault.
At about 0400 hours on 13 May, soldiers in 1 RAR's Mortar Platoon on the norther perimeter of the position reported hundreds of enemy troops preparing to assault. Mortar fire began to fall and scores of Rocket Propelled Grenades arced into the position. The 1RAR Mortarmen and the 102 Bty Gunners were now fighting for their lives.
Pandemonium erupted as the 1RAR Mortar Platoon was overwhelmed and over-run with the enemy firing into any standing shelter, although it appeared they had not realised the mortars were there. The Mortar Line Officer, Lt Tony Jensen, began calling in fire on his own position as he realised he was losing men all around and the enemy were trying to turn the captured 1RAR mortars back into Coral. Close by, the Gunners' forward machine guns had to pull back under a hail of fire and the enemy swept up to the bunds that protected the guns. Unfortunately for them they were looking into the maw of a section of three guns which had earlier realigned to the north, and now fired point blank into the enemy scything them from the bunds and inflicting heavy casualties.
A stylised graphic taken from an excellent animation of the events of Coral Balmoral by the Army Museum of WA (see link in sidebar) of the moment 102nd Battery fired Splintex anti personnel rounds into the advancing enemy, illustrating two key factors in the defeat of the first attack; three guns were aligned facing the enemy attack thanks to an earlier fire mission, and they had Splintex ammunition. The absence of either of those factors would likely have resulted in a disaster for the Australians
No 6 gun was overrun but not before the gun sergeant removed the firing lock rendering it unuseable. At Lt Jensen's request , having ordered his remaining Mortarmen to take cover, No. 5 gun fired Splintex anti personnel rounds across the Mortar line, unleashing a blizard of ballistic steel darts that tore through the ranks of the enemy clearing everything above ground in in an instant. A desperate hand-to-hand counter-attack by the Gunners cleared the enemy from No 6 gun and fire support from other fire units and a very welcome "Puff the Magic Dragon" C47 gunship firing into the enemy assualt drove the enemy back. By 0600 the enemy withdrew. The 1 RAR mortar platoon had lost five killed and eight wounded from a strength of just 18. A total of nine Australian KIA and 28 WIA were sustained across the position.
FSB 'Coral' had come perilously close to destruction.
During the course of the following day, (13 May) chastened by the near disaster the previous evening, the position was consolidated drawing back in the 1RAR Rifle Companies, and newly arrived elements 'filled in the gaps'. Courtesy of Army Museum of WA Inc
As a result of the attack on 12/13 May, the defensive posture around Coral was contracted significantly, as more force elements including armoured vehicles, arrrived.
On 13 May, FSB 'COOGEE' was established by 3 RAR and 161 (NZ) Battery to the west of FSB 'CORAL'.
Second Attack - 16 May 1968
On the evening of 16 May the NE sector of the peimeter was once again subjected to a heavy attack supported by mortars and rockets. This time the attack ran into well prepared and sited infantry in the form of A Company 1 RAR backed up by by US artillery fire and close air support, with Ground Attack aircraft and Helicopter gunships. The attack was repelled with 5 Australian soldiers killed and 19 wounded.
The Tanks Arrive
Having been called forward from 'The Dat' (Nui Dat), by acting Task Force Commander Colonel Don Dunstan (later General Sir Donald Dunstan and Governor of SA) Centurion tanks of C Squadron 1 Armoured Regiment had a made a 120km two-day road run to get to AO Surfers on 24 May.
FSB Balmoral 25/6 May
On 24 May 3 RAR moved into AO Newport to establish FSB Balmoral. No artillery was deployed forward, just the 3 RAR Mortar Platoon. Following up next day and screened by B Company 1 RAR was a troop of (four) tanks. Along the way they bumped enemy bunkers. They would be dealt with in detail later by D Company 1 RAR supported by another troop of tanks. They then reinforced Balmoral which by then was set up with a close-in conventional all round defence posture, now augmented by the Tanks. Balmoral was just 1.5km from the so-far un-detected NVA 7th Div Headquarters.
The Defensive posture at Balmoral with the companies providing mutual support and tight integrated all round defence in a classic 'circle the wagons' posture. Un-detected by enemy reconnaissance were two tanks in daylight 'hides' in depth which moved into the gaps either side of D Company at night. Graphic courtesy of Army Museum of WA - see link in sidebar.
As was the case at Coral, the enemy attack chose to strike in the early hours of the morning at 3:45 am on the 26th May. A simultaneous attack was put in against FSB Coral. Again accurate mortar fire supported the attack which was largely directed against D Company. on the northern sector. Accurate intense mortar fire preceded the assault. The tanks had an equivalent to the artillery's Splintex; "Cannister" - a steel tube containing hundreds of pieces of steel rod about 20mm in length, set to burst at a pre-set distance from the gun. Its effect was devastating. That and a well sited defensive position stopped the attack.
In the early morning of the 28th another series of attacks were launched against Balmoral, by the enemy 141st Regiment. The attack again focused on D Company but with a feint against A Company on the southern side. Using Bangalore topedoes to breach the barbed wire protection, the perimeter was attacked in several places but the defenders fire, some night vision capability and artillery and air support once again carried the day and stopped the enemy attack at great cost. 42 enemy dead were recovered with evidence of a great many more having been dragged away.
After this last attack the battle of the Fire Support Bases was effectively over. A few sporadic minor actions occurred but on 6th June the 1ATF evacuated AO Surfers and returned to Nui Dat.
26 Australian soldiers died in the three week long series of actions: two from 12 Field Regiment; one from 104 Signals Squadron; 16 from 1 RAR; 6 from 3 RAR and one from 161 Independent Reconnaisance Squadron. Over 100 Australians were wounded. Enemy losses were estimated at over 300, with hundreds of weapons captured.
Operation Toan Thang "Complete Victory" 1 had been judged a victory and at a tactical level it was, but not perhapos as 'complete' as might have been hoped. However strategic developments were starting to re-shape the conduct of the war, and perceptions of it at home.
** Footnote . Lieutenant Tony Jensen Mortar Platoon Commander 1 RAR was awarded the Medal of Gallantry for his actions at FSB Coral on the early am of 13th May 1969. Aswarded April 2020.
Steve Larkins May 2018 (updated May 2021)
3. DVD 'Battle of Coral' 'A Gunners Perspective' - Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery production
4. https://www.1rar.org.au/fsb-coral/ 1RAR Association website
5. Vietnam: The Australian Experience John Rowe 1987 Time-Life ISBN 0 9491 18 07 8 p 104-119
6. Fire Support Patrol Base (FSPB) Coral Remembered Pts 1,2 and 3 occasional papers Military History and Hertiage Victoria
7. Army Museum of WA video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzpRvzw1fFI