Part 3-The Regulars
Warrant Officer Class Two William Russell ‘Bill’ Bennett
Bill Bennett could be described as one of the ‘military maniacs’; that is to say, he was a mad keen soldier. (There are military morons, too, the hide bound, inflexible, regulation choked types). Bill was devoted to the Army and loved in particular military bands. As Company Sergeant Major of A Company, Second Recruit Battalion, Bill could never resist getting up from whatever he was doing watch the Battalion Band as it swung by, he moving to the beat, as it were, earning him the nick name ‘The Swinging Sar’Major.’
Bill joined in mid 1948 and was allotted to Armour and the 1st Armoured Car Squadron which had returned from Japan. On arrival there, he found the Armoured might of Australia to consist of 2 Willeys ‘Jeeps’, one two ton truck and a ‘Doodlebug’, a sort of armoured scout car. These items he and others were kept busy polishing. This military juggernaut was supplemented later when Bill and one Corporal Harry Murray were detailed to go by train to pick up two Churchill tanks, with Bill driving the AFVs, which they delivered to the 1st Armoured Regiment.
A WW2 veteran, one Corporal ‘Bomber’ Brown was Orderly Corporal when Bill first arrived at the Puckapuyal Camp and except for two cooks was the only man in camp. The NCO told him to drop his gear and go with him. Their destination was the canteen, where ‘Bomber’ introduced Bill to the delights of beer. Bennett was no drinker at the time and the next day was somewhat ill.
(‘Bomber’ served in North Africa, was captured, escaped five times and was re-captured four, finally remaining free and returning to Australia by various means.)
Later on, Bill was promoted to Lance Corporal, which was not so good, as an ex AIF Corporal by name Harry Wright had been demoted and Bill, his room mate, was detailed to keep him in check. Now, Wright was an ex ‘Rat of Tobruk’. So, Bill, a recently promoted ‘half track’ (ie, he had only one chevron or ‘track’), barely twenty and in the Army only 18 months, had to keep an eye on a battle seasoned and experienced ex NCO years older than he! Still, as Bill says, it worked out OK and indeed Harry had his stripes returned later. The two, in later years, became good friends.
(Wright had raised his age to join the 2nd AIF, along with his father, a WW1 veteran who lowered his to join as well. The two, as father and son, served in the same battalion at Tobruk, indeed in the same platoon! Harry later served with the AATTV, the only Rat of Tobruk to do so.)
By this time, the Korean war was well under way and volunteers were called for ‘K’ Force. The Armoured Regiment was tapped on the shoulder and because Bennett was a radio operator he (and others) was picked. A change of Corps took place and in 1951 Bill put up the crossed rifles of infantry, being posted to A Company, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment
(Old Faithful). In September, the Battle School at Haramura, Japan took his attention and he was thrashed around to learn the infantry ‘go’.
Bill says he wasn’t in any terrific engagements, but saw enough by means of frequent patrolling to know what it was all about. He indeed carried a radio, one nothing like today’s (or even yesterday’s) light weight sets. “It was
bloody heavy, and when it was used it was so loud I swear the Chinese could hear everything!”
He was on a standing patrol with another infantryman at Hill 317 (known to Korean veterans as Maryang San) only to be wounded by mortar fire, taking shrapnel in the arm, head and face. His mate copped 16 pieces (by
count!) Bill’s relatively quiet tour (as these things go) finished in November 1952 and in January 1953 he was reallocated to Armour.
There was some dissent between those who had volunteered for Korea and those who stayed behind. Many who had been Troopers when Bill left for
the ‘Police Action’ were Corporals when he returned. Bennett of course had to drop rank to go.
As an excellent example of the old saying ‘It’s not what you know but who you know’, Bill’s immediate future was decided by an old time RSM at the Royal Park Personnel Depot who took him in tow, so to speak, and he was posted to his choice in South Australia. A series of changes took him to Victoria for his first stint at training National Servicemen and to a CMF Cavalry Regiment, 4th/19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse. Later, (1959) the Army decreed that a Regular Squadron of that Regiment should be raised, and Bill served with it for some time, including his tour of Vietnam.
Before this, however, he did a tour with 1st Armoured Regiment, including trials on a Canadian vehicle, the Bombardier Muskeg, a sort of wide-based load carrier designed for the harsh conditions of the Canadian Muskeg swamps. This curious vehicle, employing a six cylinder Chrysler engine was both tracked and wheeled, having pneumatic tyres around which ran a rubber track fitted with aluminimum cleats. He was promoted Sergeant but later, a little disillusioned with the Army, Bennett took his discharge in 1963 only to enlist the next day in 2nd/14th Queensland Mounted Infantry (CMF) as a Warrant Officer Class Two!
Civilian life disagreed with him, (A syndrome common to many men who leave only to reenlist within a short time) and he conformed to the syndrome. After another series of calls to some senior people was taken back into the fold as a Sergeant with a pay group of 6. This was another case of having friends in high places, so to speak, as Bill had to make a few phone calls to an previous Officer Commanding who in turn made a few of his own.
Again with 4th/19th Bill was surprised to see that he had not been selected in the first Troop to go to Vietnam. His SSM, the inimitable John ‘Chesty’ Bond was determined to keep him back and Bill had to make some representations to his OC, Doug ‘George’ Formby, reminding him that he had been on the M113 trials in North Queensland and should be included.
With the well trained but poorly prepared unit, Bill went off for his second tour of operational duty in May 1965, commanding an APC section of three vehicles. He ran his section hard but fair. When one of his crew commanders had to shoot an enemy soldier, Bill was able to ease his quite natural feelings of horror at the act and set his mind at ease. By the same token, that particular NCO, after leading the section astray on one operation (he’d reconnoitered the area for Bill) made a point of avoiding him for a while. The error was quickly picked up. Bill’s tour was ended prematurely by an accident and he came home about a month before the rest of the troop.
He and the troop Sergeant, Larry Symons, helped train further Troopers for Vietnam and after several different jobs including as CSM of the Battle Wing at the Jungle Training Centre, Canungra, he settled on the job he perhaps loved the most, training recruits at the Second Recruit Training Battalion. Forgoing promotion to Warrant Officer Class One, he sought and was given a posting to Tasmania where eventually he took his discharge.
Trooper A E Phillip ‘Paddy’ Gentry
Philip ‘Paddy’ Gentry is an Irishman who has served in four armies, with stints in the British, French, Rhodesian and Australian armed forces. Gentry could be described as a non-mercenary professional. Unlike mercenaries, Paddy soldiered for the love of the soldier’s life and although he wouldn’t admit so, through a sense of loyalty to the United Kingdom.
Gentry was a fitness fanatic, spending long hours in the gym. When leaving the Rhodesian Light Infantry (1 Parachute Commando) the General Service Officer Grade2 at the Combined Operations HQ, Captain D Scott-Donelan, in a reference for Paddy, noted that ‘despite his age he is a man of great stamina and has achieved gold medal fitness awards for men half his age.’ (Then 47.)
His service with the Corps was with 4th/19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse in Vietnam as an APC driver. He was particularly good at this, with a fine sense of ground and a keen eye for the VC from his lower vantage point.
On short leave in Saigon, the author and Paddy called into a gym where the super-fit Irishman astounded the Vietnamese with a rapid fire workout of huge proportions! On the same outing, Gentry bought a superb looking watch from a man with about ten of them up on each arm, and was most disappointed when the thing stopped, never to go again. On subsequent short leaves, Paddy sought the fellow without success and it is open to speculation as to what damage he would have done to him.
His habits were, like most serviceman, cursed with intemperance and an overindulgence in the amber fluid caused him not a few brushes with authority. He was, however, usually quiet and reserved. While not reclusive, he enjoyed his own company. One Trooper from the 1st Armoured regiment, a hulking six footer, found out how fit Paddy was when he expressed a dislike for the Irish in general and Paddy in particular. In the resulting fracas, as the old saying goes, Paddy hit the tankie, the tankie hit the ground and the ambulance hit 90 miles per hour on the way to the camp hospital!
His British Army service was with 15/19 Kings Royal Hussars, undoubtedly some of which service would have been in the British Army on the Rhine. After his Australian service, he was posted to the 17th/21st Lancers, they of the silver skull and crossbones badge with the motto (Death) Or Glory.
After his British Army service finished, Paddy left the UK and volunteered for the famous Legion Etranger, the French Foreign legion, where he served with the Parachute Battalion of the Regiment Deuxieme de Infanterie. Paddy served in Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Namibia.
Following this, he joined the Rhodesian Army. Paddy is reluctant to speak of his time in the Rhodesian Army, but it is certain that he was engaged in operations against the ‘Boys in the Bush’ as the then rebels were called. This was a vicious, no holds barred affair and apocryphal stories tell of cruelty and rapine from both sides. Paddy would have fought with honour; it is not in his character to do otherwise.
While with the Rhodesian Light Infantry, he qualified as a static line, free fall and HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) parachutist. He recounts jumps exiting the aircraft at 14 000 feet and opening at 2000.
When his field service finished there, he worked as a lay counselor in the Rhodesian Forces Convalescent Centre at Tsanga Lodge where his fitness and patience with rehabilitating veterans was praised by the OC of the Centre, Lieutenant R M Paget.
His final service took him home to the UK and the strain, physical and mental of thirty years of soldiering now sees him in frequent stints at the UK Combat Stress Centre. He is 75.
Unbidden MemoriesCrashing an APC through jungle where it really shouldn’t be.
Staff Sergeant Allan John ‘Pokey’ Coughlin
Pokey Coughlin could well fit the definition of ‘hard man’. Pokey was never short in strength of character or resolve. His (unspoken) creed was ‘never back down, never take crap from anyone’. Here is a perfect illustration of this trait.
The 1st Armoured Regiment had to supply a Guard of Honour for some visiting dignitary. The Guard was being prepared by the RSM, the redoubtable Warrant Officer Arthur King. He also took no nonsense from any man. As the marching continued, King saw Pokey’s arms drop from the required height (Breast pocket high, get ‘em up!) and called out, “Get your arms up Coughlin!”
Pokey replied “Righto, King!”
Now, for the uninitiated, this is a huge no-no. Warrant Officers, especially those in RSM postings are addressed as ‘Sir’ by Troopers, and to use only a surname in the American fashion is worse.
The RSM shouted “Guaaaard, halt!”
Given RSM King’s nature, the Guard expected there to be a clap of thunder, a flash of light and for the earth to open and swallow Pokey, never to be seen again.
Instead, King said, (or words to the effect) “You just heard a soldier address me by my name, instead of ‘Sir’, to which I am entitled. Everyone is entitled to be called by the proper rank or title, and it was wrong of me not to use it correctly. Isn’t That right Trooper Coughlin!?”
To this, Pokey replied in the loudest voice he could muster, “Yes, SIR!”
So, lesson delivered and honour satisfied, the Guard continued its training; the incident shows something of the character of both men.
One thing Pokey had above all else was the ability to drive a Centurion Main Battle Tank better than almost anyone of the Corps in his time. He could make a Panzer (as he called them) cruise like a Ferret Scout Car, as he worked his way up and down the five speed gear box of the 50 ton machine.
Now, Pokey in those days, was no saint, hence his nick name-that is, he spent more than a little time in the pokey. His misdemeanors were never the stuff of the villain, but more the actions of a man who, as noted before, took no rubbish from any man. More than one bumptious person found this to his dismay, as Pokey could throw a mean punch.
When Pokey first arrived at the Armoured Regiment he was greeted by the Orderly Corporal and sent to a room for the night. The room he was given, however, was occupied by one Ronald William Byrne, nicknamed ‘Humprey’ because of his size. When Humphrey arrived after lunch, he promptly evicted poor Pokey saying that he had this room to himself.
When the Orderly Corporal came to get him for another matter, he berated Pokey for not being in his room. Coughlin protested, saying he’d been kicked out by “that big fella!” The Corporal thundered that Humphrey had no right to throw him out and to “get back in there” which Pokey did.
Lo and behold, when the gigantic Byrne returned after a session in the soldiers mess, he promptly kicked Pokey out again. He finally spent the night on the rug next to his friend’s bed in the next room!
Coughlin was (is!) fiercely loyal to Corps and Regiment. In his early days in the 1st Armoured Regiment, he felt a little on the outer, until he heard a Craftsman from the (then) 101 Field Workshop call one Trooper a “tankie poofter”. Now, his father had told him that “when you go to a new school, find the biggest bastard you can and fight him-then you’ll be accepted.”
So, with this in mind, Pokey asked the man to accompany him outside the mess and proceeded to amend his way of addressing Armoured Corps soldiers. From that day he was truly accepted , and the Pokey Coughlin legend started.
On another occasion, with his very good mate ‘Bluey’ Twomey, whilst both in civilian clothes, were drinking with the ordinary soldiers natural enemy, a group of Military Policemen, also off duty. The conversation got around to what Provost members did and one voluble man called himself ‘note book Henry’ because “I’ve kept every note book on every soldier I’ve arrested. And do you know, as I drive the paddy wagon, I’m a Screw Driver!” (‘Screw’ is a derogatory word for them.)
Pokey, by now incensed at the others bragging said, “Yeah? And I drive Screws!” and proceeded to clean up the whole lot. Twomey in later years said there were six, but Coughlin demurs, saying he doesn’t recall how many!
On one occasion, being out of beer, he went to the back door of the Sergeants Mess and when the steward came out asked for a dozen bottles. The steward told him that only Sergeants could buy take away. Pokey said, “Well, I’m Sergeant, err, Sergeant Pokey Kinnane-sell me the beer!”
The man did so. Pokey, however, like John King earlier, couldn’t let well enough alone, saying to the steward, “Tell the members in the bar hello from Pokey Kinnane!” The inevitable happened, and next day Pokey was had up, fortunately before an officer who could see the funny side, so his punishment was not too severe. The key was that there was only one ‘Pokey’ in the Regiment.
Pokey became famous in the Regiment, mainly because of his unstinting loyalty and driving ability, and it was a shock to all when he decided to take his discharge after his initial six year enlistment. He gives no reasons for this. The RSM at the time, ‘Logga’ Wood, tried to persuade him otherwise, telling him obliquely that big things were soon to happen (he meant National Service and the Vietnam commitment) and Pokey would be a Sergeant within six months. Pokey was not persuaded, and left, only to find, as so may others did that the Army had him for itself and that “Civilians don’t speak the same language.”
After four years learning that, Pokey fronted up to one of the reserve units for enlistment. Again the ‘old boy’ network roared into action and through the good offices of Major Keith Yeo our man was back in the Green Machine. However, a mix up in communication saw Pokey back, not in A Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, but A Field Battery of the Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery! Now, Pokey was incensed at this and the ways of artillery folk suited him not at all.
Pulling a veil over the details, the result of this saw Coughlin awarded 28 days confinement, which was reduced to 22 for good behaviour. Allan says that no one in the artillery seemed to hold a grudge, posting him to 4 Field Regiment, which was shortly to go to Malaysia. Still fighting to return to Armour, he made some more submissions and finally was granted his wish. Shortly before leaving, his Battery Sergeant Major confided that he, Pokey was mad to turn down such a posting. It shows his love of Corps and Regiment.
On returning to Armour, Pokey had to go through all the recruit nonsense again. When he finally arrived at Puckapunyal, he was standing at the entrance of the Armoured Center AFV hangar with a group of fellow recruits. The author, then a WO2, spied him from across the hangar floor and rushed over shouting, “Pokey Coughlin, good to see you back” and other such welcoming phrases.
Pokey replied “G’day, Nev, how are you?” The others, amazed at this display between such obviously disparate ranks, could only marvel at Pokey and his contacts. The Coughlin legend continued.
Vietnam claimed him next. His first contact was a mine incident at Fire Support Base ‘Kerry’, after only three days in country. A Centurion had been mined and to get it mobile again, it had to be ‘half tracked’, that is, with half the track removed and the other half joined short of any missing running gear. Pokey relieved the Crew Commander and in a few days had the thing repaired (with a little help from the well respected RAEME Fitters).
The mission was to break ground (or as crewmen called it “bush bashing”) to allow land clearing operations to continue. During this activity, the 20 Pounder gun barrel was jammed into the dirt. Pokey and his crew pulled the gun through with the staves used for the purpose and deemed it to be clear. About three hours later, his Troop was ambushed, with the VC using MG fire and RPGs. Pokey’s gun barrel was struck at the same time he fired his main armament and the tip of the barrel peeled back like a banana, rendering his main gun useless.
Now, each tank had two.30 calibre MGs fitted, one co-axially with the main gun. As the gun was now jammed, it was unusable, so Pokey ‘hooked in’ with the second MG mounted close to where the crew commander sits. After a belt or two, the firing pin on this one broke and the tank was effectively defenceless. Not to be deterred, Pokey started to use his 9mm pistol and ordered his loader to get up on top with his M16 rifle. It’s not too fantastic to speculate that he would have thrown rocks, if the need had been!
Another incident saw him close to the old battlefield of Long Tan. As his SHQ Troop passed by, a group of Vietnamese women, with children in tow, made several angry gestures and a yellow smoke grenade was thrown. No one could see by whom. Pokey decided to ignore them and reported the incident on return to the Task Force base.
Some time later, a senior officer from the Task Force HQ had him called to the SHQ command post and berated him for not engaging them. Pokey remonstrated, saying they were women and children with no obvious action except a show of defiance. The officer insisted he should have shot them. Pokey’s OC, Major ‘Tanglefoot’ Smith sided with our man and sent the other officer packing.
None of them at the time had heard of My Ly or Lt. William Calley and such an action as was urged on Pokey would have haunted Australia’s armed forces yet.
Allan admits that his early impression of National Servicemen was a poor one. He recounts an incident where several Troopers were found gambling in the barracks, an even spread of regular and ‘nasho’. The Orderly Sergeant charged all of them, only to have his OC tell him that only the regular Troopers charges were to be proceeded with, this causing more than a little dissention.
There weren’t many ‘nashos’ in Pokey’s Squadron (B) but he found three to be in his crew. He can’t speak highly enough of them and like ‘Slim’ Kennard observed that they were treated with much deference later.
Later in his tour, Coughlin was posted to the Squadron Headquarters Troop. The duties of part of this Troop were to re-supply the Sabre (fighting) Troops in the field. This they accomplished by means of an APC escort and three ton trucks. So? The trucks would be loaded with high-octane petrol to the tune of 3000 gallons or so, ammunition of all calibres and types and rations and spares, a fair target for the angry men which, if struck, would have supplied a half way decent fireworks display, not to mentionin what would happen to the operators!
All the men of this Troop except Pokey were National Servicemen, and titled themselves ‘Pokeys Pirates’ and Coughlin himself describes them as “No more loyal group of guys you’ll ever meet.”
After Vietnam, Pokey was posted to the Armoured Centre, with the intention of his duties being with the Driving and Servicing Wing, he being the best Centurion driver ever. Some internal politics intervened, and he found himself in the Department of Loud Noises, more commonly known as Gunnery Wing where he had “The highlight of my career.”
Pokey, while fiercely loyal, could never be described as an emotional man, but the day he heard that Percy White had died, he wept and no more fitting tribute could he have made.
His hard life caught up with him and he experienced a myocardial infarct while at the Gunnery Wing, a stressful enough place as it was. This caused his down grading, medically, and he was posted to the Trainee Troop at the Centre. From there to Reserve postings and finally discharge.
Allan John Coughlin was discharged as a Staff Sergeant, but it is certain he would have achieved Warrant Rank but for his heart attack. A hard man, but true to his ideals, Pokey was one of the ‘military maniacs’ and would have had to have been carried out of the Army but for circumstance.
The dry throat and skipped heartbeat when you radio for the first time for real, “Contact, wait out!”
Trooper Ian Bates.
Ian declined to be interviewed. The following short account of his service and fortitude is drawn from various sources, particularly When the Scorpion Stings- History of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, Vietnam, 1965-72 by Paul Anderson.
Ian Bates drove an APC for his Troop Leader, Second Lieutenant Roger Tingley during the battle of Baria, a fair sized town situated south of the Australian Task Force Base and about a third of the way to Vung Tau.
On the way to Baria, Bates recalls that the Viet Cong attempted to ambush the Troop with its infantry company aboard with puffs of dust rising from bullet strikes on the road and its verges. An RPG round was fired at the Troop, but it missed.
Bates’s carrier, call sign 30A (Three Zero Alpha) was tasked with a section to protect the Baria Sector HQ. RPG teams were reported in the area and five rounds were fired at 30A. They missed, even from such short ranges as 20 metres. After more confused action, more RPG rounds were fired at Bates’s carrier and one struck it on the front right hand side.
Now, this type of weapon relies on a ‘jet stream’ to do its damage, that is, when the explosive charge is ignited, it uses the physics of shaped charges to form a narrow but extremely high temperature stream of matter to penetrate its target. This ‘jet stream’ penetrated the vehicle and the force of it slewed the vehicle to the right, causing it to crash into a building and rendering Bates unconscious.
The round also blew the back off Bates’s drivers seat and wounded him severely in his back, at the same time smashing the radio set-up and dazing the radio operator. This action also blew 2nd Lieutenant Tingley out of the vehicle. Bates regained consciousness in time for him to see his Troop Leader screaming at him to reverse away from the smashed building wall.
In spite of his wounds and in great pain, Bates did so and continued to drive the vehicle, albeit the thing was by now operating on only three cylinders. Keeping the wounded M113 going until it reached the main cross roads in Baria and with the other APCs in a defensive position, Bates finally collapsed from his wounds and was evacuated to 36 Evacuation Hospital at Vung Tau. Even here his troubles were not over, as the enemy decided to mortar the Australian logistics base which included the Australian Field Hospital. As the mortar strike came in, Bates and his fellow Cavalry wounded were told to get under their beds. Bates, still semi-conscious, had to be lifted down from his bed and covered with a pile of mattresses.
Through his actions, Ian Bates displayed the basic character of Armoured soldiers, courage, fortitude and willingness to keep going despite wounds and adversity.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Keith ‘Bob’ Hill. Military Cross, Bronze Star for Meritorious Service (US)
This urbane, charming and thoroughly professional soldier had the onerous task of taking the first Armoured formation overseas since World War 2. Given an almost impossibly short time, with a mixture of brand new equipment (the M113A1 APCs and .50 caliber machine guns which had to be learned on HMAS Sydney in transit to South Vietnam) and the most ancient of clothing and personal weapons, the (then) Lieutenant Hill faced a truly Herculean task.
As the Navy would say, Bob Hill came up through the hawse pipe, that is, commissioned from the ranks. While Hill’s competence was never questioned by anyone to the author’s knowledge it seems passing strange that an officer from the more traditional sources (Royal Military College, Officer Cadet School) was not given the task. In retrospect though, perhaps it is not so strange.
Colonel Hill is a Korea veteran, seeing service with the Second Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. He had served in 1st Armoured Regiment and volunteered for Korea so he at least had some operational service to fall back on. In any case, given the lack of maturity and experience many of the junior RAAC officers of the time the choice of Bob Hill seems proper.
For all that, Bob Hill’s work in welding his Troop together in the short time available is an achievement in itself. The Troop’s previous vehicles were British, and the crews had to be re-trained on the M113A1 almost up to the point of disembakation from the Sydney.
Among the tasks he had to do were; finding a suitable protection device for the exposed crew commanders; securing and having fitted the absolutely necessary radio sets; obtaining proper ammunition and spare parts for the machine guns; liaising with the infantry battalion to which the Troop was attached (1RAR) and overcoming the bias which the ground-pounders had against Armour; linking up with the 173rd Brigade APC Company (D company, 16th Armor Battalion) to compare notes and a miriad of other petty and not so petty things.
On the protection for crew commanders problem, Hill relates about the shields that were obtained:
“That was purely my own decision. I saw some of theARVN carriers about the place and I thought what they’ve got is better than nothing at all. The Americans got me some paper templates of a couple of different types of gun shields and I selected one which appeared to be the biggest and we test fired at them. It would stop small arms and shrapnel but nothing bigger.”
The equipment side of things might have come good by it self, although the general thought of the Troop members at the time was that if Hill had not soothed a few ruffled feathers, stroked a few egos, and generally charmed a few birds from a few trees, we would have had to wait much longer than we did for all the bits and pieces we needed to be viable.
Indeed, the Australian Logistics Support Company, to which his Troop was nominally attached, thought that the Troop was supposed to act as ‘tracked trucks’ for them to use to carry stores. Bob was quick to speak to the CO, 1RAR and soon the Troop was attached for duty with the infantry.
Bob’s charm worked with our allies as well. Captain Joe Jordan, CO of D Company, 16th Armour Battalion, the US APC Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was a special contact, and Bob made good use of this easy going American. So well did he see to the equipment and training of his Troop that, when he took it on operations with the aforementioned Jordon for the first time, The US Captain reported to the Australian Battalion Commander that far from needing to ‘keep an eye on them’ he reported that his Company could, ‘Learn a few things from them’.
Lieutenant Hill’s Troop had its first major contact at a village called Phuoc Loc. He, rather laconically, recalls the incident;
“There was a barney on there at Phuoc Loc. We had the new Infra Red equipment and one set of those ‘Dr Who’ IR glasses. I knew the IR lights would draw a lot out of the batteries, but they were new, so so for a few seconds at a time I got the callsigns to switch on their IR lights. I was sitting behind the .50 and could see over the paddy bund. I could see people moving around in the darkness so got busy and fired five or six hundred rounds, just to warm up the gun, as it were. (A belt of rounds holds 100.) One of Bob’s crew commanders related “…next morning choppers blasted the area and we found a few hanging from trees-VC, that is.”
Hill was promoted to Captain later and through his contacts on the officer ‘net’ became pally with a US Air Force Skyraider pilot. Whenever this guy was airborne, he would call on Hill’s Troop frequency and offer assistance if needed and Hill used him on occasion. One time he radioed to Captain Hill that, “I have to go back to Bien Hoa to refuel an’ I’ll call again when I’m back in the air.” He didn’t and we learned later that he’d crashed shortly after his call.
Bob used US airpower often. At a place called Gia Ray, he; “Had two Skyraiders with napalm and they were loitering not far away. We had an airborne Forward Air Controller, an Australian, in the air. The aircraft were all out of sight but not far away. I called him and within two minutes the whole bloody hill was covered with napalm.”
Besides his ability to get along with subordinates, peers and superiors, Bob Hill’s great strength was in the fact that he was always ready to be innovative. Three examples will show this.
Along with Major Don Kenning, Officer Commanding the New Zealand Artillery Battery, Captain Hill came up with the idea of stripping the battery Mountain Pack Howitzers and seeing if they could be placed into a 113. The exercise was most successful and the 1RAR CO, Lieutenant Colonel Lou Brumfield, was most impressed, saying, “We used the guns most effectively at Ben Cat. Weather chopped out air support, but we could get arty support through the tracks.”
(Ben Cat was the scene of a highly successful AFV ambush by the Viet Minh against the French.Going there made a few of the historically minded of Hill’s Troop a little nervous!)
When his Troop was issued with the Mortar version of the M113, Bob initiated training for his crews. As well, he developed a contact drill for them from the line of march. The two vehicles would have the mortar tubes trained right and left of that line, with two white phosphorous rounds ready. On contact, the two vehicles would crash halt and fire the two WP rounds immediately and if needed, corrections could be given from those rounds fall of shot. The technique worked very well.
Later, his Troop was operating with the 1st US Infantry Division, known from its shoulder patch as ‘The Big Red 1’. There was a requirement for a large convoy to be escorted to the Courtney rubber plantation. At the briefing for this, such was his reputation, as Hill says, “…..the Cavalry Operations Officer of the Division’s ‘Quarter Horse’ (First/Fourth Cavalry regiment, ie ¼), A Major, expected to command the operation. The Deputy Commander of the Division, Brigadier Hollingsworth, said, “No, Captain Hill will command the point of the advance. It’ll be task force Hill.”
“The American cavalryman looked at me and said, ‘I’ve been in country three months and I’ve had five tracks shot out from under me.’ I replied, ‘I’ve been in country eight months and haven’t lost one yet!’” (And didn’t!) Later, Captain Hill was introduced to the Commander of the Division and the introduction, being mishandled by the American officer doing the introducing, caused the Major General to think he was being introduced to the Prince of Wales!
Bob also recounts an incident which illustrates his ability to adapt the thorough training he had received in Australia, as he relates;
“The VC had mined the road and we’d called in a dozer tank to clear through. I sent two of the US M48A3 tanks up on to the high ground and told them to stay there until we’d all crossed the cut in the road. Well, we all (the elements of Hill’s advance guard) did that. The rest of our part of the (main) column went through, the tanks came down off the hill and we got through to Courtney all right. When the very first march unit (the next ‘packet’ of vehicles) went through that particular point after us, the VC blew up a US carrier and killed four people! We, however, had done something different. We’d cleared that particular point!”
Captain Hill was never anything but direct when speaking about his Troop. At one stage, the Troop had been directed through the Plain of Reeds, or perhaps it should have been called the Plain of Mud. Several of his Troop’s vehicles were bogged and it took great effort to get them out, bar one.
Hill called in that it would need a huge effort to shift and asked for a CH47 Chinook helicopter to provide the ‘grunt’ to extricate the thing. This was approved, but Hill;
“……got an order relayed from higher authority that if I couldn’t get the bogged carrier out by 1600 on that day, I was to destroy it in situ using incendiary grenades. I sent back a message to ‘higher’ that: a-I would not destroy it and b-if I got any other suggestions like that I would bog the other seven along side of it! That didn’t go down too well!”
The carrier was recovered.
Another occasion later in the operations with 1 Div saw Bob in action as he describes;
“That was interesting. I took off with one carrier, my own and thought ‘I’ll catch these bastards’. There they were on the track up ahead of us, a milling mob of (VC) and I opened up with the machine gun and they scattered in six different directions! We knocked over a couple as I recollect. A little while later, (Lieutenant Ross) Guymer arrived on the scene and we stopped at the creek bank.
“We couldn’t drop over, it was too far down and they’d scattered onto this low hill and were running through the bushes. So, I started firing from the top of the hil, working my way down from left to right… as they were running up the hill, they were running into my fire. Then we got a light fire team (two helicopter gunships) up there very quickly and they slammed rockets into the hillside, so yeah, that was a pretty interesting exercise. My driver ran over one fellow…there was one fellow right at the dge of the creek line-he jumped off into space. He had about a 15 foot drop into the creek and I could see we’d shot the foresight off his rifle.
“There was another guy who went behind a big tree as Guymer arrived. He’d moved around the side of the tree to get himself out of sight of Guymer so as to shoot at him, but Ross spotted him anyway and shot him through the tree. One burst hit him in the head and blew his head off and the next hit him in the fork and basically cut him in half.
“What happened after that was Major MacFarlane (Officer Commanding B Company, 1RAR) whose company we’d taken down there sent some men over to pick up the captured enemy weapons and I told them to piss off!-you never got them, we got them and we’re keeping them! But, in the after action report, it was B Company killed etc etc.”
For his personal bravery at Phuoc Loc, Bob was awarded a Military Cross and his Citation is reproduced at Annex A. To this must be added his great effort in forming his Troop and getting it to such a high standard of professional operational superiority.
Lieutenant Colonel Bob Hill’s personal charm, professional ability, willingness to adapt mixed with a determination to have the best available for his men and direct speech to superiors when needed, allowed him to ‘sell’ armour to the infantry and to likewise ‘sell’ Australian service capabilities to the Americans. He is the epitome of a Light Horse Officer.
Cordite fumes inside the tank after ten belts of .30 calibre when you know you can’t get out but your lungs are screaming that they need fresh air.
Brigadier Ian Bryant, Member of the Order of Australia
Brigadier Ian ‘Luigi’ Bryant graduated from RMC in 1964 and retired in 1997. He is not, of course, Italian, the nickname having been given him by his classmates. A snappy dresser, they said he looked like someone from the Italian Embassy, and the appellation has followed him throughout his career.
He chose Armour because of “it is decisive and has a battle winning capability”.
His greatest initial influence in the Army was those Warrant Officers at Duntroon and in the Corps he came across in his early years. They “gave the standards to you and you were expected to conform to those standards.”
Bryant is forthright in saying that the Australian Army, had it stayed in Vietnam beyond 1972, would have been given “A bloody nose” because of the dilution of experienced and willing NCOs and Officers.
“We were chewing through experienced NCOs and Officers at a rapid rate (and) despite that the nashos were bright and good soldiers …. they needed the depth of soldiering experience that only experienced NCOs can give them. After about 1970/71 that experience was running out so rapidly that we would have had that ‘bloody nose’.”
Lieutenant Bryant commanded a mixed ‘Company’ of soldiers doing their training stint at the Jungle Training Centre, Canungra, prior to going to Vietnam. This was a made up group, two ‘Platoons’ of Armoured Corps members and one of Artillery and Survey Corps. There he met Percy White for the first time and Percy took this hodge-podge under his wing for their stay.
The instructors at the JTC were of course, mainly Infantry soldiers. They were initially ‘ticked off’ that an RAAC Warrant Officer should be the Wing Sergeant Major of the relevant wing, Battle Wing. Percy took Bryant into the Sergeants Mess and showed him a picture of a young man in a slouch hat holding an Owen Machine Carbine standing somewhere on the ‘Golden Staircase’ in Papua New Guinea. The soldier was of course Percy. “That’s why I’m WSM of this wing”, he told the Lieutenant.
Brigadier Bryant is enthusiastic about the relevance of sending non Infantry soldiers for such training, as it is Infantry oriented. The value Bryant says was to “Push the group together as a cohesive crew and to emphasise that they had to rely on each other.”
In his later career, Bryant taught tactics at the same center, renamed Land Warfare Center, as Chief Instructor Tactics
Brigadier Bryant opines, like Bruce Richards, that his course at RMC was “hard and tough, four years of it”, and taught he and his fellows to be “all- rounders. I was subject to a whole range of courses, field engineering, a 3 inch Mortar course, 25 Pounders (an obsolete artillery piece, even then more suited to a museum, though of value for training), conversion to 81mm Mortars and as a basic signaller, amongst many other things”.
He recounts incidents on exercises where, as enemy, he would “fire an OMC into the base of a tree, into a whole I’d dug. (Experienced) people were expected to use common sense with these sorts of things which doesn’t seem to exist these days on what they could do to simulate a contact”.
He recounts the time when he was safety officer for a practice being conducted by the next Squadron due for Vietnam. With the need for realism but with safety in mind, he and the OC devised a “free running battle run”, that is to say, a tank in the second part of the tactical formation would be able to fire past those in front.
With call signs painted large in white on the back each tank along with white bands across each turret and along the gun barrels, Bryant hovered above in a helicopter overseeing the action. As a crew commander acquired a target, he would give a contact report on his radio net, with Captain Bryant listening.
If the contact was valid (ie one of the targets set up previously) Bryant, after checking that any round fired would not exit the firing area or endanger another vehicle, would OK the commander to proceed. It would be a little too daring for today’s safety conscious people.
His first contact in Vietnam was almost gentle, as these things go, “just isolated shots.” It demonstrates the vagaries of war, when one man’s first contact is a mere distant rattle of rifle fire and for others, a full on battle like Long Tan. Bryant had previously been out on his feet as a so-called Forward Tank Officer carrying an AN/PRC 25 radio set on his back.
The Brigadier was not impressed with the standard of information, or perhaps non-information given to he and his Squadron prior to getting to Vietnam. Much information was reduced to writing by the first Troop to go but it was never disseminated to follow-up personnel. “We never had a proper training regime to prepare us for Vietnam”.
For example, Bryant and his men had been told the ‘black pyjama’ myth by those who ‘knew’, that is, that all people wearing the black cotton trouser/jacket combination were enemy soldiers. The fact was (is) that this is the most common form of dress for rural Vietnamese and while the Viet Cong wore the same, it didn’t mean that all Vietnamese were VC!
The organization of the Cavalry Squadron was supposed to be such as to support a Brigade. The brigade (or ‘task force’) didn’t materialise till much later, so the Squadron organization was cut to suit. There were two APC Troops and a Supporting Arms Troop, the latter of which Lieutenant Bryant Commanded. The two APC Troops were to support a battalion each, but proved to be inadequate owing to the number of extra tasks allotted them.
Later, a third troop was added by “sloughing off APCs from the other Troops to form troops of 11 vehicles each which gave the flexibility to allow one to support each battalion and one for all the other maid of all work tasks which we had to do.
“This Troop was called four Troop… and used to wander around the Province (Phuoc Tuy) with a platoon of infantry and a brace of mortars and would come in to do the odd jobs, so as not to interfere with the relationships that the other two Troops had with their infantry battalions”.
The new arrivals had to work hard with all the tasks required to set up a camp. “Quite frankly, we were buggered. There was no such thing as R(est and C(onvalesence) in the first year I was there although I did go on R(est) and R(ecreation) as most of us did. I had one day (in the year) when I could drink beer in Vung Tau. (This was also, it is rumored, the R and R Center for the Viet Cong, with a supposed unspoken agreement not to attack each other.) There was no rest whatsoever.
“You’d come in, service the (vehicles), change tracks-there were shortages of everything until the L(ines) of C(ommunication) became established with the ships but certainly we were still living in tents, sand bags , wire, mud, the lot of it until I left in April 1967. I would have been lucky to have spent two nights (in succession) back in Nui Dat.” (The Australian Base)
“The Army never properly prepared its infantry battalions to work with APCs. The infantry of course were overconfident. I remember going to a conference at the Armoured Center and the infantry were rather nonchalant saying it would only require an hours worth of work to familiarise a battalion with an APC Squadron and that’s just nonsense. They were obsessed with the ‘pace of the boot’ (infantry walking pace) and that’s why the APCs were manned by Armoured Corps men.”
The question of who was to command when Infantry and APCs were working together was well established, with the RAAC man in charge while the infantry were mounted and the reverse when dismounted, except, “when some infantry commander became excited and wanted to dismount in some place where it wasn’t safe to do so.”
The change over of battalions sometimes caused some dissent on this score until mutual agreement was reached, always in the manner described.
Brigadier Brayant directed some of the more important exercises in Australia such as Tandem Thrust and the Kangaroo series.
He makes some controversial statements about the Army’s preparation for Vietnam in general. When related some of the author’s experience in this regard, he said, “It’s a disgrace! An absolute disgrace! (not solely for the author but in general). I think that if our staffs and our senior commanders had stopped worrying about the paper war and focused more on preparing our units and soldiers for war, within the costs they were assigned, we could have been much better off”.
At the end of each major war experience, the Army is at a high pitch of experience. When asked if that pitch evaporates and the cycle of ‘finding out about it all’ starts again, he was of the opinion that, “ We still are. We have a continual ‘flow through’ of young people in the ranks. If you look at the average age of Sergeants and Corporals when we went to Vietnam, you had Corporals who had twelve years under their belt and Sergeants who had that and more. We create Sergeants at about six years now or seven if we’re lucky and that’s the flow through, a high attrition rate; you’re not getting the expertise staying in the ranks for any length of time so expertise is not being passed along.”
He is quite scathing about the Logistics (re-supply) system which always takes time to catch up with a campaign. “For too long in campaigns we (Australians) rely on allies for materiel until our people catch up. We bludged off the Brits in Malaya and the Americans in Korea and Vietnam.” However, he praises the Medical services, particularly the famous ‘Dust Off’ medical evacuation helicopter service. (‘Dust Off’ is a US Army acronym for Devotion Under Stress To Our Fighting Forces). “Unless you were in a difficult situation where you couldn’t get Dust Off in, they were there in very short time.”
He says the best soldier he has served with is Warrant Officer Peter ‘Pedro’ Rosemond. He recalls Rosemond as a Sergeant in 2nd Cavalry Regiment and he was very sharp, very dedicated, very direct and when as a Lieutenant Colonel he took over that Regiment he detached Rosemond to the Armoured Center as an instructor and to help assess the new Officers of 2nd Cavalry who were doing their ‘Young Officers Course’.
A story Bryant tells on the same matter was when he went down to the Armoured Centre to check on his officers progress, there was not enough money in the proverbial ‘bag of gold’ to fly and he had to go by staff car. This wasn’t too much of a burden, except that the regulations at the time stated that a staff car could not be taken outside State borders, so he had the humiliation of stopping his car in Albury and transferring his kit into one sent up from the Centre!
The Brigadier expresses distaste for the honours system as it was practiced in Vietnam, describing it as “lousy, I think it was awful, I think it was dishonest!” He describes a fellow officer who “worked his backside off, made a lot of enemies here advising infantry Brigadiers and Lieutenant Colonels on what not to do and how not to use Armour and they didn’t like him much because he told them what they didn’t want to hear. He was never honoured and should have been”
He describes the quota system for the issue of decorations as “a farce!”
His best posting after Vietnam was with 28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade in Malaysia where he served as a General Staff Officer Grade 3 (Air) with plenty of flying time, flitting around over some of the bigger exercises, “seeing how it all goes. I enjoyed it very much!”
He characterises the Corps as “Can do! We will do it! And that’s a thing to remember-we never lost a bloody battle! We were pulled out four years before the fall of Saigon.”
Bryant tells a story about his Young Officers Course. (Equivalent to Initial Employment Training for Troopers-sometimes known as Corps Training). “When I was at the Armoured Centre the second wing (subject) was D(riving) and S(ervicing). Slim Kennard was one of the instructors there and he took us out to the range and at lunch parked under a tree and asked ‘who is the senior officer here?’ Now, he had a crew of Second Lieutenants and Lieutenants and the senior was me as I had one ‘pip’ more than the rest.
“Kennard said, ‘check the log book and tell me what needs to be done.’ I said that the engine oil needs to be changed and he set me to that task. So, off came the belly plate and off came the drain plug. I’d forgotten to carve a little trench to allow the (very!) hot engine oil to run away successfully from the point where I would have to replace the plate and plug.
When this was done, I asked where the replacement oil was. Kennard replied that that was my job to find that out. Well, I had no idea where the oil was, and we had a tank which was immobile. WO Kennard took pity on me and pointed to another tree where he had stashed the necessary, and I had to lug it all from there to the tank deck and fill the thing by myself.
“The next week the exercise was repeated, except this time I ensured that the oil was in place, but was so excited by this small triumph that when I’d successfully changed the engine oil with the assistance of my fellows and put every thing back together, Kennard pointed to the log book and asked about the gearbox oil.
“So, belly plate off, gearbox drain plug out, gearbox drained and ‘where is the gearbox oil, Mister Bryant?’ With a sigh, I admitted that I didn’t know and the dance was repeated. Still, it drove home the lesson about AFV servicing-preparedness is paramount.”
Brigadier Bryant when asked about the most stressful side of AFV operations agreed with other interviewees that is mental. “Keeping track of where your people are, where they’re going what their ammunition states are because we don’t fight battles at the ‘tempo of the boot’ because ours is a fast moving battle and you have to look beyond the next ridge, so to speak, not how to get there. And in fact you have to think beyond there again because the range and killing power of weapons today means you have to think beyond that range all the time.”
Brigadier Ian ‘Luigi’ Bryant’s career as an Armoured Commander typifies the “can do” attitude of Armoured service, dedication and humour mixed with the drive to make the complicated mental and physical demands of serving in Armoured Fighting Vehicles the satisfying adventure that it can be.
Canister rounds and why, oh why are they so heavy? But then, the effect on charging VC can be worth the sweat!
Warrant Officer Class One John Barry (Bat) Staunton-Latimer
‘Bat’ Latimer as he was universally known, was a Warrant Officer’s Warrant Officer. A big, (well over six feet) tough ex boxer, who’s capacity for beer was legendary, Barry impressed everyone with whom he came into contact. His man management skills were par excellence. He knew men and their capacities, when to rouse on them and when to take a softer approach.
Latimer studied the oboe at the Melbourne Conservatory of Music in his younger days and was perhaps on the verge of a musical career. He was advised by his mother to choose between music and the Army and of course chose the latter. As a young man, he was interested in motorcycles, owning a Vincent Black Shadow which he modified to the point where he would be booked on weekends riding between Puckapunyal and Melbourne.
While SSM of A Squadron, 4th/19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse, he got wind of a couple of desperadoes who had just finished a test run of their troop’s Saracen APC. The problem was that the two soldiers concerned had done a fair part of the test at the (then) Trawool pub while a mechanic came to fix the vehicle, having a beer or six and taking some tourists for a joy ride.
When the SSM found the two, they had just finished a snooze behind the vehicle hangar.
“Where have you two bastards been?”
“Err, taking the Troop Saracen for a test run, Sir”, was the rather shaky reply.
“Any damage?” “No Sir!”
“No one hurt?” “No Sir!”
“Right! Now fuck off back to work!” And the two did just that. Latimer knew his men, and any other action would have been counter productive.
Barry, as mentioned before, liked a light shandy on a hot day. He took sick on one occasion, and a diagnosis revealed hepatitis. The doctor warned him off alcohol for six months, which to Latimer would have seemed like six years. However, he stuck religiously to the ban and after the period and on the day he received a clean bill of health, had a session in the Sergeants Mess of epic proportions.
While a strict disciplinarian, Barry was also an egalitarian. On one occasion he and the author had repaired to the Prince of Wales Hotel in Seymour for Wednesday ‘sports’ afternoon, to do some ‘weight lifting’ that is, seven ounce weights. A digger of advanced years entered the pub, and Barry quickly noted that the soldier had two and a half rows of ribbons, including a Combat Infantry Badge. His shoulder titles showed him to be a cook.
Latimer asked him over, and in his normal way put the digger at ease (Barry was in uniform as a WO1) and over a beer or three, the talk got around to “Seen a bit of action?” Our new friend replied, “Never seen a shot fired in anger! Joined up in ’44, was made a cook, and followed different battalions from the islands (South West Pacific Area) to Korea, Malaya, and Vietnam and was always in the back areas!”
As SSM of the regular Squadron of 4th/19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse, ( the remainder of the Regiment was Citizen Military Forces, as the Army Reserve was called in those days) Barry was fiercely proud of that Regiment’s forebears and Battle Honours. When the Squadron was moved from an independent location back to the (then) Kapyong Barracks, he took a lot of ‘stick’ in the Sergeants Mess as to being in a ‘plastic’ outfit, a ‘weekend warriors’ mob and other derogatory remarks.
Barry bided his time. It came to pass that a parade was to be held with 4th/19th as well as the 1st Armoured Regiment. When the parade was being formed and dressing the ranks took place, Latimer saw his chance. Now, for those who don’t know the drill, each unit used a Sergeant who stood at the right of his unit’s line to, on command, correctly align the men in each rank.
Latimer, being SSM of an independent Squadron, assumed this task. Once the command “Parade-Right Dress” was given the soldiers mentioned would turn right, march out a set number of paces and dress each rank in turn. This was for form’s sake, as the soldiers of both units, being regulars, were more than capable of aligning themselves. The sergeant from the Armoured regiment called out “Headquarter Squadron, front rank, steady”.
The 4th/19th SSM, however, called out “A Squadron, Fourth Nineteenth the Prince of Wales’s Light Horse, front rank, third man, dress back-steady! A Squadron Fourth Nineteenth the Prince of Wales’s Light Horse, front rank, sixth man, dress forward-steady!” and went on in this vein for all of the front rank of his Squadron, dressing around six men. The final command in this sequence is to say ‘steady’ which our man called out, again using the unit title complete.
The RSM of the Armoured regiment, who had command of the parade at this juncture, was rising and falling on the balls of his feet in anger at the time Latimer was taking, his face getting red.
The other unit’s Sergeant turned and ‘dressed’ his centre rank in the manner described before. Latimer repeated his litany, further infuriating the RSM, whose face by now had gone from scarlet to puce! This went on till all ranks were dressed, with the members of the Cavalry Squadron almost unable to hide their glee, as they too, had taken much ‘stick’ about the CMF part of their Regiment. What was said between Latimer and the RSM in the Sergeants Mess after the parade is unknown, but it is safe to assume that harsh words were exchanged.
Latimer, like many of his contemporaries, did not see overseas service until late in his career, his higher rank precluding him from Korea, although it seems that, also like his fellows, he volunteered to drop rank to do so. In any case, he was posted to the Australian Army Training Team, Vietnam and distinguished himself there.
He feared nothing and the following yarn told by him to the author illustrates this.
He was adviser to a South Vietnamese Armoured Unit, (4th ARVN Cavalry Regiment) in the Danang area, along with an American equivalent, (Probably Sergeant Robert Culp, US Army). They were in the habit of having an ‘esky’ full of beer and ice in the bottom of their M113. As their operation proceeded, they were contacted with a hail of RPG and MG fire, causing the American to drop down into the troop compartment to take cover. Latimer called down, “While you’re down there, Bob, hand up a beer will you?”
He was almost casually brave. In the same action but some time later, with a fair fire fight going on about him, Bat noticed from his command carrier a Vietnamese soldier waving and pointing to him in relation to another carrier some distance away. Latimer dismounted and ran over to the carrier in question, where another Vietnamese was holding a 106mm flechette round for his recoilless rifle, apparently confused as to how to use it. Using the side of the carrier as a black board and a finger on the dusty side of the APC, he demonstrated the setting for the round, loaded it, fired it and watched the soldier as he repeated the exercise with the next round.
He was later posted to the ARVN Armoured School at Thu Duc, just north of Saigon.
Barry’s attitude to commissioned officers was ambivalent. Those who he thought were worth their pay he helped and supported to the hilt. An excellent example of this sort was his (then) OC, Major Keith Yeo, a WW2 veteran up from the ranks. Barry was asked at a latter stage of his career by a junior officer, “Why haven’t you taken a commission, SSM?”
Barry merely snorted, saying, “What!? And become one of you lot!”
Mines: seeing the 12 tonne vehicle in front of you rising in the air and not believing it.
Warrant Officer Class One Mervyn Rex Harris
Many of Rex Harris’s contemporaries would be surprised to learn that he has a second name, especially when his ‘second’ name is in fact his first. Universally known as Rex, Harris could be described in the same vein as ‘Pokey’ Coughlin, in that he never took a backward step from any man, and never took rubbish from them either.
He wanted to go to the Royal Australian Engineers after recruit training, mainly because he had a ’dozer license. The allocation officer asked him “Why Engineers?” Rex replied that he liked to drive big machinery. The officer said, “Well, we’ve got the biggest machinery of the lot in Armour!” And off he went.
When he arrived at 1st Armoured Regiment, they said you’ve put in for tank driver straight away! Rex was amazed and asked, “Have I?”
Harris played Rugby at second row, attaining a high level, playing in the Combined Services team. One incident he relates is when, during a match, he took the ball from a scrum close to his own line and with a kick to make Mark Ella jealouse, placed the pill neatly into touch at the halfway line.
Happy with this result, he trotted up to the touch line for the lineout only to have his team captain, Major Arthur Fittock (Later Major General and Officer of the Order of Australia) tell him that, “When I want bone headed forwards to kick for touch, I’ll tell them!” Rex was quite piqued!
To illustrate how strong willed Rex was in regard to Rugby, he once had a cast cut from an arm, played and asked his wife (an ex Army Nurse) to replace it after the match!
He played aginst a new chum to the game who usually played Australian Rules football. On one occsion, the new chum leaped for the ball, Rules style. Rex tackled him a little gently (he says, which would be like a small truck) and told the fellow, “In this game, you don’t jump up, you can really gat pummelled if you do! The next time he did it, I flattened him!” (Which would have been like being hit by a ‘double B’.)
When he recovered, he bawled Rex out saying that he’d ‘get him’ and ‘you knew I’d jump up’ and so on. Not too long ago, at a function, the two laughed at the memory, and Rex reminded him that “You did get me back when you were CO of 4th Cavalry and gave me all the crappy jobs!”
Rex’s first Troop Sergeant was ‘Slim’ Kennard and was an early influence on him. Rex could see the other side of Slim which many others couldn’t. His first Christmas in the Corps was spent on duty with Slim and at a function, “My kids ran rings around him. I could see quite early on that he was tough as nails, he wasn’t as tough as he’d let on. He’d say things like ‘I don’t care what you do tonight, if work is five in the morning, you be there!’ Slim (at times) would rant and rave and when he’d finished, I’d ask him what he really wanted me to do.
“The other guy who influenced me most was Iven Maher. He was the sort of guy you could actually speak to and while he didn’t say much, what he said stayed in your mind. I really got to know him well when I was on the Mess committee. He taught me about Mess etiquette and how to do the books and it stuck with me. He was a hard man, but fair.”
(This theme goes along way to explaining the success of the main of the WO and NCO members of the Corps-most of the ‘old school’ spoke little, at least on the serious side of things, but when they did, people listened, from young Troopers to Commanding Officers.)
Rex says that the National Service men he served with were very good. “I meet a couple who didn’t want to do anything, but not in Vietnam! The guys in Vietnam were impeccable, I thought!
“There was one, a kid called Murphy. He said words to the effect that he was unhappy to be there, wouldn’t make any trouble, but he’d do what he was told, but no more than necessary and he did exactly that! Even though I knew he had tons of initiative and ability, he wouldn’t use it.
“We had another fellow, Trooper Mann. He used to disappear every day at 2 O’Clock. When you ‘fronted’ him next day, he would always tell you he’d been somewhere you hadn’t looked. One day we (all) said we’re going to ‘have’ him. Now, the diggers car park and barrack block were across a small creek from Squadron HQ. Mann had an Austin 1800 and we put a man there to watch. So, I posted myself in the (AFV) vehicle compound exit and waited.
“Nick Neihoff was detailed to follow Mann, in the compound but at about 10 to 2, he came up to me and said, “I’ve lost him!” So, we searched around but he couldn’t be found. Next morning, Niehoff fronted him and demanded to know where he’d been, he was told that, ‘I was down in the LAD workshop cleaning the gun on my Saladin (armoured car). And, of course, that was the only place we hadn’t looked! Out bush he was quite good, kept his equipment clean and so on, but in camp as far as he was concerned, 2 O’clock was knock off time and he did!
“But the rest of them, the Nashos, were great fellows! I keep in contact with quite a few of them, the Vietnam blokes. There is a very strong ‘Nasho’ network. There was one fellow, who lived in ***** dying of cancer and his doctor told him the use of a ‘controlled substance’ would relieve his pain. The fellow asked if the doctor could prescribe the substance and was refused. We put this out on the Nasho network and we had about half a pound in about two hours! So, guys would come up to see him with ‘biscuits’ and it all helped to relieve his last few days!
“When you meet them now at reunions or on Anzac Day, there’s lawyers and truck drivers, blokes that went straight back to the underworld, but, when they get together, they all seem to have something in common!”
Rex’s first contact was, “Good because noone shot back because it was pigs! Apart from mines, we didn’t have a contact at all in my first trip. Because our Troop leader was somewhat useless, we didn’t get jobs that placed us in danger. Poor old Jeff Howard, who was running 2 Troop and was very good, finished up as Corps Director, he was-when it looked like danger, 2 Troop got it!
“One night we were mortared by our own mortars because the leader didn’t know where we were! We didn’t trust him all that much. When he gave a LOCSTAT (Location State) for our night position, we decoded it ourselves. I went over to him and said, “That DF (Defensive Fire Task) you just sent (to the Squqdron HQ) is our (own grid reference). He said, ‘No, don’t tell me (what it is)’.
“One of the other Sergeants came over, (I was a Corporal at the time,) and he said the same thing and was told to ‘Mind your own business.’ In due course, he called it down during the night and we had mortars popping all around us and he (The Troop Leader) was giving “Contact, Mortar!” until he realised what was going on! And that they were ‘friendlies!’”
(This incident is illustrative of the inability, particularly of some (thankfully few) junior officers to differentiate between a query about professional correctness and insubordination.)
Another time, Rex’s section was in the same locale as a tank Troop, the latter commanded by a young officer who suffered from the nickname ‘change tanks’. (On an occasion in Puckapunyal, he’d been on exercise when his driver spoke on the IC that ‘You’ll have to change tanks’, that is, for him to get the loader to go down and change the fuel tank lever from one fuel tank to another. He promptly stopped the driver, hopped out of his tank, ran over to his troop Corporal’s tank and assumed command of it!)
The two sub-units were only 50 meters apart and Rex can’t say why they weren’t together. But! “Sometime in the night, he (the Troop Leader) saw some movement between us and his tanks! So, he decides..and mine is piquet (sentry) vehicle, with my big melon sticking out of the top, is to whip a couple of canister rounds between us and the tanks! And it was just pure luck that I decided to duck my head down as the thing went off! I didn’t know what had happened and there are heads coming out with eyes like mad cats everywhere! We used to have water bottles and such hanging on the side of the turret. Well! All of that had the arse knocked out of it, the (113) trim vane had about 16 holes in it! (Each canister round has a large number of lead pellets which at 50 meters would shred flesh.)
On his second tour, Rex’s contact ‘schedule’ was enhanced some what, with “Many more mine incidents. I put that down to the fact that on my first tour, we didn’t use the roads much. Cross-country, we’d pick out out a route and away we’d go! But when I went back, the first thing I noticed was a graveyard of busted carriers hanging around the Squadron and the first time we went out on a resupply thing, my driver just got on the road and took off!
“I asked him, ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going?’ He just said that he was on the road in the normal manner.
“I said, ‘No, we’ll go this way.’ (Indicting a cross-country route). He expressed surprise and said that’ll take hours! I replied, ‘So what? The war’s been going for 50 years! Another couple of miutes is not going to stop it!’ But they had a real (thing) of running along the roads. To me, it was just waiting to be blown up!
“One fellow, George Abdoo, hit about seven mines. One time the Squadron Commander came out to the field in a chopper, but had to go back by road, asking who was going there. When he was told that Abdoo was, he immediately opined that ‘I’m not going with him!’
“In the Long Hais there was an incident where those two guys were killed. They fell for the old ‘three card trick’, little ‘Charlie’ poking his tongue out at them then running back into the jungle, they followed them in and-boom! That was fairly horrendous, that. We were in there for a day and a half, then were pulled back. They waited two days then put in a B52 strike (‘Arclight’) and then said ‘We’ve done them over’, but they’d pissed off well before!”
Rex says that his best posting in the Corps was as SSM of A Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, which Regiment sadly lasted but about six years before it was downgraded and amlgamated with 3rd Cavalry and the two became B Squadron, ¾ Cavalry Regiment.
He was also posted to 1st Recruit Training Battalion as CSM of A Company, which was, “Probably the most rewarding job I’ve ever had! You could see the recruits stumble off the bus and 14 weeks later they’d march out as good ‘new’ soldiers.
“And I was also at 3 Training Group, in the recruit training cell. The difference in those guys (Army Reserve Soldiers) in a fortnight was absolutely phenomenal! Units would enlist these fellows and would be responsible for some very basic stuff (like wearing of boots and uniforms) and the recruit training cell would do the rest.
“We had one young fellow, about six foot four, permanent right marker material. (The tallest man in a group would inevitably be detailed as the first man on the right flank of a parade). He came from up in the hills, a member of Nine Forestry Squadron, an Engineer outfit. He had this tiny (slouch) hat, about eight sizes too small for him sitting up on his head.
“I asked him if he knew what size hat he had and he said he didn’t know but it was the same size as his other one he had at home. I asked him if he was sure.
“He said, ‘Oh yes, it doesn’t fit either!’ Apparently he’d got the idea that size 54 was his ‘go’, and the Q store issued him accordingly! I also got the message that this fellow ‘was not to fail’. Because he was the only registered saw doctor in the whole of the Defence Force-not just the Reserve! So, if any of the circular saws in the Army had to be serviced, he’d be the guy to do it. So, he passed!”
“A tight knit family!” This was Rex’s response to the question as to how he would characterise the Corps. “It’s probably because it’s such a small Corps, that you knew most people. If you were in a group of six or seven and you mentioned a name, at least half would know him. No matter what unit you went to, you knew most of the guys.”
Iven Maher gets Rex’s nod as the best Warrant Officer he’d come across in his time. “Because of his knowledge, the way he commanded respect, he didn’t have to rant and rave or any of that. He just had that, whatever it was, leadership quality, and when he spoke, you listened!”
Like Lee Bonser, Rex took parts of others to form his own military persona and quotes Maher as saying, “You can’t be anybody else! You have to be yourself. You can use little bits and pieces of other people, but you have to be yourself!”
One yarn Rex tells against himself with Lee Bonser was during his Saladin crew commanders course. Coming from the Centurion, with a three man turret crew, Rex embarrassed himself a little. During his first shoot, he gave immaculate fire orders to his gunner, loaded the first round (which the crew commander of that particular type of vehicle had to do) and ordered ‘Fire!’
The gunner fired the round, gave a gunner’s correction, relaid the gun and waited. Rex, observing the fall of shot, also waited-and waited-and waited. Losing patience, he called out, “Come on, loader!” Bonser, standing quietly behind the turret, merely leaned over and quietly said, “You are the loader, Rex!”
Another story he tells was when he was at the Recruit Training Battalion. He was in the habit of carrying certain items in an old pilot’s helmet bag. One day, after getting out of his car, with a hundred or so recruits close by, his daughter leaned out of her window with the bag and called out, “Dad, you forgot your handbag!” It’s not recorded what the recruits thought!
At Shoalwater Bay, Rex was involved in an exercise. At one stage, a “little lieutenant” (an Exercise ‘Umpire’) came out of the scrub and informed Rex that he’d hit a small mine and had lost three roadwheels and the track is broken. His driver asked what they should do. Rex said that as he’d run over the ‘mine’, he should get out and fix the bloody thing.
The Umpire said, no, no, your driver’s been knocked out and he can’t do it. Rex, “Pulled my pistol out, stuck it in my ear and told him I’d just committed suicide!” The Umpire toddled off and a little while later a Major Umpire came up and politely asked if, “Sergeant, could you please play the game? It’s his (the little lieutenant) first time out.”
“So, they gave us eight hours out of the ‘war’ which was quite good and I suddenly ‘came good’ so we sat there for a while.”
Rex opines, when asked about the hardest aspects of AFV operations that, “I think it’s a bit of both! (physical and mental) back in the old Centurion days, it was pretty physical. But, I think all that physical work tended to keep you fit and more alert than just sitting around doing nothing! In recconaisance when you had very very long hours not doing much, the mental aspect of it was very tough. Plus, in our Corps thing, you were supposed to be smarter than most of those around you and that kept you mentally alert.”
The comments Rex makes in reference to the difference between how he was trained for Vietnam reflect those of many others. “I would have to say it was completely the opposite (to how we were trained). In the last six weeks before we went, we were out on the Puckpunyal range living in holes in the ground, we dug in. Come dark (and stand to) there was no smoking, lights out, the whole box and dice. We were told that anyone wearing ‘black pyjamas’ was fair game, especially if they were armed. (This has been noted elsewhere).
“A group of replacements, including me, was sent up to Sydney and we all had Owen Guns with three rounds. I don’t know what we were going to do with that! So, we landed in Manila, and of course there’s all these people looking at us walking around with these sub-machine guns. (Sadly, men with sub-machine guns are a fixture at many international airports today!)
“When we finally landed at Ton Son Nuit (airport) and there’s thousands of these people in black pyjamas, we sort of went into all round defence and nearly put our three round magazines on!”
Shortly after arriving at the Australian base, an aquaintance of Rex’s invited him to a resupply run. As his ‘Onion Gun’ had been taken from him with its three rounds, and no pistols were available at the time, Rex drew an SLR (the hard hitting infantry rifle) and went off. “So, we’re touring out to this land clearing team on Operation Portsea and out of the woods come these fellows, not only in black pyjamas but they all had weapons. So, I’m over the side of the vehicle cocking this SLR and just about to leap into them, when my friend stopped me. I started to say ‘black pyjamas’ but he said, ‘Oh, black pyjamas and name tags, they’re all right!’
“A lot of the stuff we were told was totally irrelevant! I mean, the night we got there, we were shown to this tent and we were being shown around. When stand-to came, we were all quiet and so on. When stand-down came, we were (in the zone) for all quiet and no smoking and so on, when there’s lights on, yahooing, blokes shouting ‘Who’s going to the movies and the like!
“But there’d been enough people who’d come back to tell us exactly what was going on. I thought the prior training was very poor!”
“First aid training? Non existent! On the second trip, when we had the first aid kit with morphine and everything, I went up to the Aid Station at Nui Dat where the doctor put us through (the use of) morphine. But it was just assumed we’d had that (proper first aid) training somewhere, but we hadn’t!”
The honours system! “When I was down to the last six weks of my second tour, I was sent to work in the Air Cell (which coordinates aircraft tasking) at Task Force HQ, a bit of a reward, or punishment, I’m not sure which. (While I was there I heard on the radio) An infantry soldier in command of an ambush near Hoa Long observed these fellows going in to a position too far for his ambush to be effective. So, he shifted the position of his ambush and got ’em on their way back.
“The Task Force Commander and Task Force Operations Officer were in the CP and were talking. The upshot of the conversation was that if the Sergeant got the VC on their way out, he was to be given a medal. If he didn’t (because he’d shifted his ambush) he was to be ‘busted’. I’m listening to this and thought ‘there you go’. I thought that what he did was perfectly good, because he wouldn’t have had a good ambush from where he was, so he adjusted accordingly. If he made the wrong call, too bad.
Harris: But, yeah, that was the conversation. He was to be stripped…..
Author: Would that had happened if his Platoon Commander had made that decision?
Harris: Well, no it probably wouldn’t have. He would have got an MC or something or otherwise, ‘bad luck, old chap’.
Rex was half impressed by the administration afforded him and his fellows before he left for Vietnam. “I thought it was pretty good, except that when we were going over we didn’t really know what we needed. We took stuff that we never ever used, such as full webbing (equipment) and other stuff. It just got chucked in the tent and never used! I think the resupply system was really good, because we got most of the stuff we really needed!
“I got in a bit of strife for ‘selling’ boots to the Vietnamese. There was a fellow, he took size four boots, really small feet. (Vietnamese, at least then, were usually much smaller than Australians). I asked for a ‘resup’ of boots for him and was sent a set. The day after he got them, the sole fell off! That night, I asked for another pair to be sent up. They were, but with the Army’s equivalent of ‘come off the grass-two pairs of size four in one day?’
“When I got back (to base) I was questioned severely by the Squadron Commander as to how much I was getting for these boots. Luckily, I kept the first pair and was able to explain along with bringing the driver along to show his feet!
(The author had a similar experience. His driver had been issued with a pair of 1944 pattern jungle boots, much better for APC drivers than the boots Ankle, Black. These ‘J Boots’ promptly fell apart and the reupply system sent up a pair of Boots, Tropical, Studded, size 14 (the driver was size 8) bright orange in colour and like the ‘J Boots’, had been in storage since WW2.)
AFV crews are quite innovative in using ‘the system’ to circumvent it. Rex and his compatriots had a code for resupply of alcohol, as he explains. “My code for a bottle of Bundy (Rum) was ‘send up an IR (Infra Red) lead.’ The Bundy would be sent up and added to my Mess bill. For someone else it would be a bottle of Bacardi and so on. It was a very good system and nobody can crack this code, or so we thought.
“Except, some do-gooder RAEME chap in Task Force HQ decided he’d make a name for himself because of all these ‘IR leads’ going bung. He whacked in a Defective Equipment Report about them! Duly, an investigating officer was sent down from HQ to speak to the Squadron Commander and he was questioned about the massive use of these leads!
“Well, the boss said, ‘As far as I know, they’re all in the Q store. We don’t use the IR because of the fact we have to have the vehicle engine running at night because of the huge power drain.’ The other fellow said, ‘well, we have this use, around one a day!’
“So, our code was cracked! But, old John Henry got us all, the sergeants, together and told us he’d cracked it and indeed, had found the list in the Command Post. So, we had to use another way for our ‘resupply’.”
(Rex emphasises, as have other men on the subject of alcohol in the field, that it is used after moments of stress, or at the end of a long hard day on a ‘nip or two’ basis and not as a regular panacea.)
Author: The barrier minefield!
Harris: Ah! Yeah! I had the misfortune to be there to help build it and to help pull it down! (It) Would have to, in my mind, make Custer’s Last Stand a screaming success!
Author: That good!
Harris: Yeah! To me, it went against all the principles of minefields. You know, the first one is that it must be covered by fire at all times. We vastly under estimated ‘Charley’, the little peasant with rubber thongs on; well he wasn’t, he was a bloody good soldier! It was a real disaster!
Funny…well, I thought it was funny at the time. We were out there on the minefield and we were ‘hutchied’ up (small waterproof covers to make a tent-from the Japanese ‘uchi’, house) with these infantry fellows. We were protecting the Engineers building the thing. About three O’Clock in the morning, this guy comes around and he says, ‘I want you to wake up all your people as there are going to be some very loud explosions out to the west.’
I’m thinking to myself ‘stuff it, we’re at war, they’ve got to expect this sort of thing!’ So, they weren’t told. But, he didn’t tell me it was a great bloody B52 strike! When this thing went off about two miles of the side of the hill lit up and the antennaes are going like this (waving his hands). Well, these guys were coming out of their burrows like mad rabbits! You know, ‘What the….and all those other words! I didn’t have the guts to tell them that I’d known about it!
Rex Harris, although not saying so, conducted his career in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps as he played Rugby, with all his heart and without compromise. No one was allowed to take his dignity from him, no matter the cost.
Temporary Sergeant Gregory John Peake
Greg Peake served for six years in the regular Army, with two tours of Vietnam included in this time. He enlisted in 1966. He says that he asked for Armour, having to go through the mill of persuading the Allocation Officer to change Greg’s Transport Corps posting to Armour. He took his discharge “On a whim” in 1972 and says that there were a few personality issues at the time, but in hindsight he should have stayed in. He had an opportunity to attend the Officer cadet School at Portsea, Victoria, but circumstance precluded that.
When asked as to who was most influential in his short career, (Slim Kennard aside), Greg says that there was no particular person. Rather, an amalgam of Senior NCOs such as Barry Ness and John Fogarty, while in the Officer side of the Corps ‘House’, such luminaries as R K Hill for whom, “I have a great respect and admiration. (Colonel) Bruce Richards I also admired.” Greg also remembers Lynn Heron, a National Service officer who later went across to Aviation Corps.
Further to his remarks about Lieutenant Colonel Hill, Greg says that, “He was one of those officers who always acknowledged you and it was the way he spoke to people. When he said something you knew that he meant it, but he never became officious about it. And when he spoke, people listened!
Another officer Greg held in high regard was (Second Lieutenant Roger) “Tingley, ‘Tingles’. First tour he was Three Troop, I was One Troop. When I came home from my first tour, Tingley was there and he was another officer I respected. And if he said to do something, you did it! It was never given as ‘You will do this’, more in the fashion of ‘This is what were going to do, that is, all of us.’ I suppose it’s just people skills!”
When asked about his first contact, Greg says,
“Contact? In Vietnam? The first one I think was at (Fire Support Base) Anderson. No, before, we were in the Long Hais we had contact. The vehicle I was on didn’t fire at the time. So, the first when we returned fire was Anderson. And you think to yourself, ‘Shit, what am I doing here?’ (It is a recurring theme of momentary disbelief from most men that this is not really happening-then training takes over).
I was at the battle of Coral in May of 1968 and we went out….there were four tanks there and One Troop. Three troop was (left) at Coral, Two Troop was at Balmoral and a company had walked into the middle of a bunker system. By the time we got there, I think there was only one, maybe two tanks still going. And we had to push into the jungle to get the ‘grunts’ out and we did. No one was killed.
“We just hooked straight in to the middle of this bunker system. (Dangerous enough for tanks-quadrupley so for APCs being much more ‘thin skinned’) We fanned out and fired into bunkers and then we loaded up. I remember driving across a grunt who was lying on the ground. He came in through the back door. I recall someone knocking on the side of the carrier as if wanting to come in. I got up to see who it was but there was no one there, except a lot of marks. I thought, ‘There’s someone shooting at me!’ So I got back inside-bugger it! After we got them out, (other) infantry put in another push right through the whole bunker system and cleaned them out, but ‘Charley’ had gone.
“And Coral was one of those battles where you were always involved in something or other! Whether you were dropping infantry off, picking them up, going out to bring them back from an ambush, sometimes with wounded. At the time, it was scary, because we were being rocketed, mortared every night, ‘Charley’ was coming at us every night (The full ‘Monty’-bugles, frontal charges, mortars etc.) and at the time you were wishing I could get out of here! But, in hindsight, those two, three weeks we were at Coral probably-you came away from there totally mentally exhausted! I was glad to be out of there, but it was a place where you did something! A lot of times you do a lot of running around and get nowhere-‘hurry up and wait’. (A colloquial saying indicating urgency to get somewhere or to start something only to have to wait for the thing to develop).
Greg says he “Was paranoid about mines. Went over one in early ’68. We were down in the Long Hais and Charley had moved a lot of the mines from the minefield near the Horse Shoe and they’d placed them between the mountains and the sea. We were given all these ‘flak’ jackets to sit on and drove up and down trying to explode mines! They were the M16s. (But Peake couldn’t have known that-they could have been any combination of unexploded artillery shells, 500 pound bombs or other improvised devices) We were sitting there (in the driver’s seat) with two or three flak jackets under your bum and one on your back hoping that….but I hit one there and a few others (did) as well. They’d hit the back of the carrier because they jumped up out of the ground.
“When we left Coral, one of the carriers in our Section hit a mine. Mick Baxter was the Section Sergeant-and boom!-up they went. When we were out on the Firestone Trail I detonated one there, but it wasn’t very big. That’s when I became paranoid about it. Especially when I became a Crew Commander and I got Ray Howard as my driver. Before I left, he asked me to “Sign on, Blue, stay with me.” I didn’t and it was about three months after I was home I heard he went over a mine and it was a big one. He wasn’t killed but he was pretty well mangled up! I was always saying to Ray, ‘watch out for mines, get off the track, don’t do this, don’t do that!
We had mini teams (of Engineers with mine detecting equipment) with us and it became standard procedure that if you had an indication (of mines) or something just didn’t feel right you’d put the mini team out. But, in doing that…I remember doing a road convoy. We picked them up near the (Province) border, took them down to Baria and they went down to Vung Tau and we took them back in the afternoon. Driving up that road to Baria /Long Binh/ Saigon there was always some sort of a road block, some one would throw something across the road. You’d see all the local traffic stopped not knowing what was going on, hoping to see someone come along and get rid of it. Knock it over, or get knocked over! (The road block) All this with the fear of mines!”
When the battle of Coral finished, Greg took over the ‘hot seat’ as Crew Commander. His second tour saw him as a store-man, through the Army expedient of, ‘Anyone here had stores experience?’ to which Greg replied in the affirmative and so found himself working for the Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant. This was opportune, as he had been in a bad APC accident on exercise ‘Barra Winga’ where his carrier (he wasn’t driving) struck a tree, putting him in hospital for several months.
The Medical Corps people told Peake he wouldn’t get another tour as a crewman but would as a POGO. (Personnel On Garrison Operations, a derogatory name for people left in the Base Area.) So, he did a course on ‘How to count blankets’ and found himself in the re-supply system. Staying in base is not all beer and skittles. On more than one occasion, Greg had to, “When they brought the mined carriers back in…I have some photos of some that were completely annihilated and there’s bits and pieces of….I’ve got one where there’s boots still in there with ammo and bits and pieces of people. They’d have to be made safe-sometimes there’d be grenades (M36) with the pin out that hadn’t gone off and smoke grenades.
Peake’s best posting was with 3rd Cavalry Regiment. He served with 2nd and 4th Cavalry Regiments. 3Cav was best because it “Was an active service unit both at home and away. When you were with 3Cav you were out in the bush which at times you would get a bit pissed off because you’d change your undies and go out again! 2 Cav-we did a couple of small exercises, but it was a unit where when you came home they’d send you for a bit of rest or whatever. Or a unit where you had a lot of National Servicemen who hadn’t gone or were waiting for discharge. Sort of a holding unit. We did a lot of Victoria Barracks guards and ceremonials in Canberra. Pretty much a waste of time!”
To describe the character of the RAAC, Greg Peake says “My best mates were Armoured Corps-just the friendships, the memories-yeah, mateship! It wasn’t an easy training program! Like, when the infantry come back in, all they have to do basically is clean a rifle. You had the machine guns, the vehicle to service, the tracks to clean (of mud and detrius) and you worked like a navvy to get that vehicle back up to scratch as soon as you could. And even when you’re out in the bush, you still had first and last parade (service). All of that before you could rest.
“Our ‘living quarters’ were better. (The vehicle bench seats used as a ‘bed’). But you worked…the infantry used a lot of physical effort, walking, but we had to keep our vehicles….and if you were lucky, you got your one and a half days down at 'Vungers' (Vung Tau). I think I went there twice in eleven months on my first tour! Second tour, I went there twice and one time when I could, I spent the time on base, to catch up on sleep and ‘veg out’.
The best RAAC NCO in Greg’s opined that he couldn’t put one person ahead of another. He cites the ‘usual suspects’ from his time, John Fogarty, Barry Ness and others but won’t discriminate.
On the equipment side, Greg says that mostly it was OK, except that in the eternal soldier’s complaint, there could have been more of it. “Starlite Scopes, we got one per Troop, but might as well not have had it. Some of the restrictions toward the end of the war, in my second tour were a bit politically ‘iffy’. I see it now where politicians make the rules and not allowing the guy on the ground to make the decisions.
“This ‘shoot to kill’ business. Who’s going to make the decision if some one needs to be shot? Are you going to wait ten, fifteen minutes or 50 hours and in the mean time he’s shooting at you and you’re losing people? I can remember one incident where I was on a carrier and RPG went through the blade of the dozer (tank) we were working with and because we couldn’t fire, we had to get Task Force Headquarters approval. It took seven minutes! So, to me, it should be the person on the ground in command, to make that decision to fire and to stop firing. Because if some bastard is firing at me, I’m not going to shoot over his head or at his legs-you remember the figure 11s? (Man shaped targets) You shoot at the center!”
The M113A1s are praised by Peake. “We were on the move all the time! We had one squadron supporting three battalions and after the battalions became aware of our capabilities, they all wanted you! As well as the normal operations, Squadrons were required to carry out ‘working up’ operations with new battalions and so were constantly in demand. The vehicles did very well”.
Two of Greg’s characters are ‘Mopsy’ Madigan and ‘JC’, Jimmy Cranston. “It was just the way they carried on. Mopsy had a habit of grabbing a fellow’s genitals and saying ‘Customs! Checking your bags!’ Another was Lenny Heig ‘Crayfish’. He had an unauthorised discharge (allowing his weapon to fire by accident-it used to be called ‘AD’ accidental discharge) and the bullet went past ‘Gus’ Ballentine’s head and old Gus just said, “You missed me, Trooper Heig!” That’s being cool. That’s another character, Gus, ‘Vun Vun, the Fun Hun’”. (The first two words after his German accent on his call sign, ‘One One’)
Soldiers are great pranksters and Greg Peake was no exception. One night on return to barracks along the Liverpool road, he and some of his fellow cavalrymen were practicing APC formations, for example, line abreast, two up, three up which would have been OK if they had been walking! With four or five cars, the different formations could be practiced properly, except the Law happened to pass by and a patrol car followed the ‘troop’ back to camp.
The officer concerned saw the funny side of the event and after a very stern warning let the ‘APC’ drivers off. (And being on Commonwealth property, his authority had voided at the main gate, although a report could have been tendered which could have resulted in action being taken.)
“The aspect of APC operations? Physically it’s hard; mentally it’s probably harder! Getting to know the capabilities of the vehicle, the full capabilities; once you’ve mastered that, you’re right. Physically, servicing, changing tracks, that’s hard work. But, mentally- you think ‘I can take this vehicle there, I can push myself, push the vehicle to the limits’and know the boundaries. And later, I had a lot of confidence in the vehicle and I think that’s because of the training we had. I wonder now if they do enough actual training, not only on the vehicles but the gunnery and so forth. (Greg refers here, possibly, to the amount of simulation training the modern Army does.)
When he was made Crew Commander, Greg had a driver fresh from Australia.“Until we got to know one another, each others capabilities, there was that (tension) while I was thinking not only what a crew commander does, but also making sure that this person fresh from Australia knew about mines, knows where to drive, how to drive- there’s a lot of difference between driving in Australia and driving in Vietnam.
“And you’re trying to get him squared away on what he’s supposed to do, plus do your own thing.”
On leadership, Greg’s definition of a good Troop Leader is “One who brought every one back alive!”
Other thought s he had on the Corps were; “The Armoured Corps wasn’t a big Corps. (and still isn’t) There were guys there, the Regulars, who did two, three tours, you knew them. There were the National Servicemen who came through…they were passing through. They were there for two years, some said well, I’m here for the two years and so….others put themselves into it and made the best of it. The Corps couldn’t have done it without them! Every one in the Corps knew each other, even in the Vietnam days when, I suppose, it was the biggest it’s ever been. There was still that nucleus of people you knew and I guess….there was Zaccy Tinson and Greg Bowman and myself, we drove up to Barry Ness’s funeral.
“1400 kilometres there, 2800 kilometres round trip. We all thought, ‘He was a good mate. We just had to go! It’s what you do for mates!”
Greg Peake’s short career reflects the values of the Corps and it is a pity and a loss to the Corps that he didn’t continue. Experience such as his would have been extremely valuable in the time after Vietnam when the Army returned to the semi-comatose state it seemed to have before that conflict.
Warrant Officer Class Two John Albert ‘Chesty’ Bond.
This big, cheerful, thoroughly professional man impressed all who came in contact with him. His nick-name was drawn from the advertising cartoon character popular at the time, a barrel chested ‘chap’ showing off singlets and the like. He joined the Army in 1948 and like many others of his era, languished as a Sergeant until the Vietnam War commenced. Chesty played Rugby with the Manly club shortly after the end of WW2 and later, Rugby League for Liverpool.
He served on exchange in Malaya. A story related by an ex RAAC soldier, ‘Blue’ Roberts, who was serving in the British Army at the time in Malaya, shows Chesty’s irreverent side. The Regiment to which Chesty was attached and of which Roberts was a member, was the 13th /18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary’s Own). This regiment had a nightly parade called ‘Setting the Watch’. The Regimental Guard and all the duties would parade at 10 PM when the night’s arrangements would be formally set in place.
The Orderly Sergeant’s part in this activity was, at one point, to order ‘Trumpeter, sound off’, at which sound the Orderly Officer would appear and continue the ‘Setting’. Chesty, however, had been in the Sergeant’s Mess and had overindulged somewhat. The parade formed and Chesty took his place. Now, the regiment being cavalry, the Orderly Officer was dressed for the occasion, with spurs and sword. Chesty, hearing the jingling of spurs and the clink of sword scabbard, started to give the necessary order, but forgot, ‘Trumpeter, sound off’ said instead, “Bugler, blow your fuckin’ horn.”
At this, the Orderly Officer did a quick about turn and left Chesty to finish the job, while the rest of the parade broke into laughter. ‘Blue’ Roberts was in fact induced to join the Australian Army by Chesty.
Bond served two tours in Vietnam with the AATTV. When he left after his first tour, his South Vietnamese soldiers presented him with a set of gold identity discs. On his second tour, still carrying mortar fragments from his earlier time, he was killed at a spot 1 kilometre south west of a village called Lang Vei, A former American Special Forces camp near Khe San.
The action was a VC ambush, using pre-registered mortars. He was with the ARVN 7th Cavalry Regiment and the action destroyed three APCs and damaged three others. With awful irony, he died on Anzac day, 25th of April 1969 and coincidentally, was the 25th adviser killed. He had been wounded three times before, 2 June and 15 July 1967 and 30 January 1969. The headline in the Melbourne Herald of 26 April 1969 gave the news to his shocked friends in Australia;
BIG ‘CHESTY’ OF VIET DIES IN A TRAP
(As well, some of the material in this pen portrait was drawn from the same article.) At the time, the radio operator for one of the Forward Observers was a Native American, one Robert Kim King. King had volunteered to go on the mission. In an Email addressed to another RAAC member, Warrant Officer Class Two 'Abe' Green, he says that "I was with Chesty when he was KIA on 25th April 69 I and some of the ARVNs loaded his body onto one of the medi vac choppers."
King thought highly of Chesty. In a further email to Abe Green he goes on to say, "I ordered an Australian flag from the Aussie Embassy in Washington DC USA. It came a couple of days after the conference (he attended; a veterans healing meeting.) I took it to some Native American Pow Pows and brought it in with the Color Guards during Grand Entry in honor of Chesty Bond and all the Australians that fought and died in Vietnam." And that "I met the Company Commander for (A Company, 177th Armour Battalion); some of his men came to help us out (and) he said that Chesty was a very brave man and recommended him for a Bronze Star"
Many of his fellow Team members had congregated at Da Nang for ANZAC day and were told then by the Team CO, Lt Colonel Russell Lloyd. His good RAAC friend, Warrant Officer Terry Malone (who ‘destroyed’ Ivan Maher as seen elsewhere) said of him, “He was a tremendous bloke! One of his main reasons he came up here again was to save money so he could buy a truck with his brother Al when he went back and left the Army.”
Despite the pall of gloom cast over the Team gathering, his fellows kept drinking as, “That’s just the way he would have wanted it,” Malone said. (And keeping the soldier’s unspoken rule that life must go on. Mourn now, then get on with it.)
One of Bond’s other tasks in Vietnam was supporting the Training Officer of the AATTV and senior adviser in I Corps, one Major Ross Buchan. The task was to train an ARVN unit, a battalion of the 51st Regiment, in the field aspects of the (then) pacification policy which emphasised South Vietnamese protection of the populace rather than aggressive operations.
Chesty, a thoroughly professional soldier, once recounted a story to the author (before his second tour, obviously) about a unit of United States Marines with which he had been associated. The Marines had been recalled from the field to be issued with the new M16 rifles. As Chesty recounted this, the unit was apparently handed the weapons with all the kit and told to re-enter the field at once, without benefit of a familiarisation session with their new weapons, such as a zeroing shoot. Apparently, they had been told, “You’re Marines, just get on with it!”
Shortly after taking the field, they were engaged in a fire-fight, several being killed. Most of those killed were found with their new weapons stripped or half stripped, having experienced stoppages and, not having had time to be familiar with the new rifles, had found them highly susceptible to the poor conditions. Chesty was highly indignant at this lacksadasical attitude.
Chesty, like Allan Coghlin, was a hard man. On one occasion related to the author by a friend who was there, he applied ‘contact couselling’ to a Trooper. Bond as SSM, was interviewing two new members to the Squadron when, after a knock on Chesty’s door, an NCO came in with a somewhat tremulous soldier.
Bond asked, “Is this the one?”
The SSM promptly flattened the Trooper. He turned to the new men and said, “I hate thieves!”
(Thieving is perhaps the most anti-social act a soldier can commit against his fellows, especially in Barracks. Such miscreants don’t last long.)
A confirmed batchelor, Bond had a slight ‘attitude’ to married men, calling them, “You married pads!” and avowing that if the Army had wanted soldiers to have wives, they would have been issued with one!
Bond and his brother were to have started a waste disposal company on Chesty’s discharge and given his zest for life and inate ability for organization, it’s more than probable he would have made an empire of it.
He was awarded a US Bronze Star for Valour. That he probably deserved a higher decoration is open to speculation, but it would never have surprised any of his mates!
As a footnote to Chesty, here follows (in part) an Operational Report for period ending 30 April 1969. Unfortuneatly, no mention is made of the author or of the unit formulating the report. My thanks to Lt Col Bruce Cameron MC (retd) for forwarding it to me.
(P) At 0330 hrs on 25 April an estimated NVA battalion attacked the 2nd Troop, 7th ARVN Cav which was located at XD 012410. The attack started with a heavy mortar barrage which lasted for about one hour. One mortar round landed near the FDC track of C/1-40 Arty killing the battery executive officer and wounding evry man in the FDC. Following the mortar fire the enemy attacked the AR VN position using RPGs, small arms fire, automatic weapons fire, flamethrowers and small satchel charges. At 0600 hours the enemy broke contact leaving behind 33 NVA KIA. Afurther search of the area resulted in the capture of 12 AK47s, four (4) B-40 launchers, one (1) B41launcher, two (2) LMGs, one (1) bangalore torpedo, two (2) pole charges, 50 Chicom grenades, 300 satchel charges and one (1) flamethrower. Friendly casualties were; Eight (8) ARVN killed, one (1) Australian advisor killed, 2 (2) US advisors WIA, 2 (2) US KIA and three (3) US WIA. Three (3) ARVN personnel carriers were destroyed and one (1) tank from A 1-77 Armor was damaged.
Flares: showing you what you’d hoped was not there. But it is and you hope the MG won’t have a stoppage.
Warrant Officer Class One Leo James ‘Lee’ Bonser.
The old saying ‘by name, by nature’ applies to Lee Bonser. The Australian colloquialism ‘He’s a bonzer bloke’ applies to Lee without qualification. As well, while Barry ‘Bat’ Latimer has been described as a Warrant Officer’s Warrant Officer, Bonser is without doubt the Gunnery Instructor’s Gunnery Instructor. What Lee didn’t know about Centurion Gunnery nobody knew!
Lee joined in 1953 and took his discharge in 1981. The early ‘50s and into the ‘60s were lean times for the Royal Australian Armoured Corps and Bonser was one of the many who had to put up with the paucity of training and exercises of the time.
Lee worked in the Post Master General’s Department (now Australia Post) before joining. He knew the National Service Act was shortly about to make the ‘birthday barrel’ draws for those to be called up and decided to beat them to the punch. The PMG department was hugely annoying to him, mainly because of union ‘organization’. “If I was going to join, I wanted to go a little further than Swanbourne (Barracks) so I joined the ARA”.
After recruit training Lee was initially allocated to Signals Corps. He and another man whose name started with Bo seemed to have fallen into a group which happened to be in the ‘Signals’ range. Perhaps, as Lee had been with the PMG, the allocation officer thought he already had some communications experience!
Now, Lee was told in conversation with the allocation officer that vacancies existed with the ‘arms’ Corps such as Armour, Artillery and Infantry, so with a little judicious argument, he found himself off to Puckapunyal and the First Armoured Regiment.
Bonser, because of his outstanding knowledge of gunnery, was sent to England to the Royal Armoured Corps Center at Bovington, England as an instructor. Because of this and other circumstances, he almost missed out on his tour of Vietnam. On return from England and after a stint with the Armoured Centre Gunnery Wing, he was posted as SSM of B Squadron of 1st Armoured Regiment, scheduled next to go to Vietnam. As the Australian commitment wound down and the tank Squadron there was being withdrawn, Lee despaired that he wouldn’t get a gurnsey. His Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel ‘Doc’ Kepper, came to the rescue, having a “word to Canberra-the Corps Directorate-and I was away!”
Now, the Corps had decreed that a Fire Support Vehicle was required to supplement the .50 and .30 calibre machine-guns used on the M113A1 APCs and a hybrid vehicle was made. The idea of the ‘Beast’, as the vehicles were known, was to facilitate Fire Support Base protection and to free the tanks of 1st Armoured Regiment from this task.
This vehicle was a marriage (miss-marriage?) of a steel Saladin Armoured Car turret to an aluminum M113A1 hull, with the ides of supplying the firepower of the 76mm Saladin main gun with the mobility of the APC. It resulted in a vehicle which required (almost) for the crew to wear oxygen masks, it was so high!
Lee, of course, knew the 76mm backwards and so was detailed to go to Vietnam and supply the instructional know-how for the crews. Their crews were almost hybrids themselves, with several drivers on short time for return to Australia and most gunners and commanders recent arrivals. The drivers were exceptional and could, as Lee says, “Put those bloody machines through anything, with a millimetre to spare either side and not miss a beat and do it flat strap.”
As for the gunnery side of this, Lee did a few of his well known improvisations, especially as to canister shooting, which hadn’t been done back in Australia and as he says, “They went all right.” As well, the FSVs did some indirect shooting, that is, where the crews cannot see the target and rely on corrections from an observer. Lee went on operations with the two FSV sections, but after a short while was recalled to the Task Force base to assume the SSM’s role as the incumbent was recalled to Australia to undertake an officer qualifying course.
Lee’s first contact was a surprise to him and nearly resulted in roast pork for his crew. It was common for wild pigs to roam along jungle trails and at ‘0 dark hundred’ movement was detected to the Troop front. Claymores were detonated only to hear the screaming of porkers who unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately-the meat was often diseased) were unharmed and scampered off into the jungle.
Bonser tried to persuade some of the National Servicemen with whom he served in Vietnam to join the Regular Army, so impressed was he by them.
Lee was asked how he would characterise The Royal Australian Armoured Corps, and his reply is best given verbatim, less irrelevant side issues and umms and ahhs, with a few minor changes in context and some clarifications.
“Good at some things and not so good at others. Some things stick in my craw, about it. An ex RAAC soldier I know, no names, no pack drill, he was a bit before your time. A good digger in B Squadron of the Armoured Regiment. He got out and became a leading light in SAS. He confided in me a couple of times. He said that the ‘bloody officer (quality) in Armoured Corps was awful. I could see them willy-nilly killing men. It was just so bad and affected me so badly I got out of it.’
“In the earlier years, we attracted more than our proper share of bumbling, inept young gentlemen. You could say there was a fair amount of chaff mixed with the wheat! I was generally fortunate with my Troop Leaders and immediate superiors, mostly good guys-but some others! You seemed to find the dunces when you needed good’uns!
“Whether you were fighting bushfires in the Tallarook Ranges, building levees to hold back the Murray (river) around Mildura, Wentworth and Renmark, or searching for some bugger lost on Mount Baw Baw or Mount Hotham-look out! This was when you would get stuck with them. Right when you needed a leader with nous you would get a turkey. Never saw such a succession of people with so little knowledge of nature and the bush and its ways. Bloody dangerous, they were!
“The first thing that struck me about Armored Corps (as a Corps) was being ‘banished’ to Kapooka (Recruit Training Camp) for three and a half years. And the Corps forgot me! I was promoted to Corporal to go there for what was to be a ‘maximum, maximum!’ two year posting. I came back and all the diggers who had been under me were all Sergeants above me! Bloody marvelous that was!
(The same happened to RAAC soldiers who volunteered for duty in Korea. On return many had been over looked for promotion and those who had not stepped forward had been elevated. Bill Bennett is an example.)
“But what struck me was the level of personnel administration. This, at 1st Recruit Training Battalion at Kapooka, an infantry organization, was so good compared to Armour, where they couldn’t find your AAB83 (personal service record) or arrange a Quartermaster issue for nine months, that I considered changing Corps to infantry. Their (Armour) personnel administration was abysmal!
“They hung their things (decorations) on the most inappropriate people! Couldn’t tell shit from clay! I saw some person from the Armoured Center who they hung some BEM or other thing on who couldn’t get the sleep from his eyes! Absolutely ridiculous! But they give him an honour and awards when there were far more deserving people who were working night and day to get things done! They didn’t know how to acknowledge the right people.”
Lee says that it depends on the individual in regard to the physical and mental stresses and strains of AFV operation. For his own part, he says that except for the odd broken ankle and wrenched knee, he enjoyed “astonishingly good health. On the physical side of things, the tougher it was, the better I got.” On the mental side, “I was too stupid to know too much so that was easy too. (A gross calumny against himself!) It is definitely an individual thing! I enjoyed the harder stuff and when I went on exercise, on the tinned rations and so forth, I put on weight!”
He goes further when pressed. “To make the fast action and movement (of AFV operations) to work, you have to start your thinking process that much further in front. If you’re going to do any good, you always thought out what would be likely to happen and that would make the instantaneous bit (the particular version of Contact Drill) more correct than it might otherwise have been. It’s a mental thing having to exercise the brain and I guess the stress side of it comes from that. By and large I take things pretty much as they come and just get on with it. I tend to let somebody else worry about things like stress.”
(As a minor illustration of the physical side of gunnery instruction, each instructor used a sub calibre device which attached to the Centurion gun barrel by a set of clamps. This had to be put on and removed frequently as occasion demanded and usually by one person. The thing weighed about 60 Kg and was clumsy in the extreme to manhandle onto and off the barrel, let alone between tanks.)
Lee saw some characters in his time. One was Ronald William Byrne, a soldier who was plagued with extreme weight problems during his career, but none the less an extremely efficient man. For most of his time his weight topped 140 kilograms. Humphrey, as he was known, had a puckish sense of humour and when he knew he was about to die from cancer, as Lee relates-
“He organized his own wake, and made an arrangement with one of the Sergeants Messes in the Perth area. From this Mess he purchased the entire stock, only to sell back to them any excess! His contemporaries ‘roasted’ him, and it was a great occasion!” Lee and Bill Shakespeare did the ‘living’ eulogies.
The Army was a different place in earlier days. When on leave back to Western Australia on one occasion, Lee and a draft of men had to go by train, the dreadful three day trip Melbourne-Adelaide-Perth in what would today be called ‘cattle class’ carriages.
His elder brother and cousin knew he would be on his way, so they arranged to meet, or perhaps ‘intercept’ him at a place where they knew the train had to stop. So, the train duly stopped and they “Called out, ‘are you there, Bonser?’ There they were, pissed, waving a bottle at me calling out to ‘Come and have a drink!’ I called out that I couldn’t get off the train, but they persisted.
“The draft conducting officer, a Captain Patterson, said that if I got off the train he’d throw the book at me. My brother said ‘Throw it down anyway mate, we mightn’t have read this one!’”
So Lee hopped off, with Captain Patterson’s words ringing in his ears that he’d have the book thrown at him. His brother called out not to worry and that they’d have Lee back on the train at the next siding, which was named Waael.
Lee continues; “Patterson said to Humphrey, ‘You’re his mate, tell him to get back on!’ Humphrey says, ‘What are you doing, get back on.’ I told him, no, we’re going to Waael. He said, ‘What, you’re going whaling?’ He too climbed down from the train with a “Geez, here we go!” Patterson threw his hands in the air.
“So, we drove off down to Waael in the brother’s old Ford Mercury utility, a 44 gallon drum of ‘juice’ in the back and a dozen King Brown Emu Bitters in the front. With us four (and Humphrey was no chicken), that Toyota ad was 40 years behind the event! Singing our heads off and downing the dozen, we arrived at Waael in pretty good shape and re-embarked the rattler. (WA speak for ‘the train’) Captain Patterson opined of Lee, “You’re a bastard!” I said, “Do you want a drink? And he took one! And nothing happened about the ‘book’!
“The real point of the story, retold at Humphrey’s wake, was that he didn’t have a clue what he was getting himself into when he got off that train. All he cared about was that his silly bloody mate was heading for the South Seas to catch some big fish, was largely on his own and he, Humphrey, had better see to it that he was going to be all right. A good mate!”
In days gone by, the East Kilmore hotel had been put out of bounds to soldiers from the First Armoured Regiment. So, naturally, every one went there to drink. Now, the pub had a parrot which would talk up a storm, including the ability to swear like a Trooper. Lee takes up the yarn.
“The only toilet had an ‘out of order’ sign on it. One Trooper, ‘Tosher’ Byrne, went out to relieve himself, pissed of course and the parrot gives him a mouthful. So, ‘Tosher’ urinates on the parrot and removes the ‘out of order’ sign from the door and hangs it on the parrot’s cage! They went back a fortnight later and there’s the parrot, all bedraggled with all its feathers gone!”
On another occasion, after breaking an ankle at the Canungra Jungle Training Centre, Lee was allocated to the Regimental switchboard to allow his ankle to heal, needing crutches to get about. Along with the man who was actually working the switch at the time, and a couple of other Troopers, Lee had smuggled a half dozen of bottles of beer in, and they were having “a snort or two.”
The Regimental Orderly Sergeant was the much disliked James ‘Boxhead’ Dale. The ROS detected the party and made his way down to the switch. The ‘mates net’ however, had swung into action with the switch getting a ‘heads up’ from a fellow Trooper-“Boxhead’s on his way!”
The miscreants scattered “in all directions” taking the beer with them so that the switch operator wouldn’t get into trouble. The ROS arrived, with the switch operator as “innocent as the driven snow”. Boxhead was not to be deterred however, rounding up a posse from the Sergeants Mess which was close by.
Now Lee, figuring the best place to hide a tree is in a forest, foot-and-crutched his way to the Mess and found a hiding place between a set of curtains and a door that opened onto the Mess patio. The posse returned, telling Sergeant Dale that they had searched everywhere including his room and couldn’t find him. The ROS berated his fellow Sergeants, in that “a bloke on crutches, and you bastards can’t find him”, all this with Lee about ten feet from them!
Boxhead was still undeterred. The posse set out again, vowing to “get this bloke-he’s been getting way with too much lately!” With the coast clear, Lee set off home but thought that to go to his room this early would invite detection. In any case, as he worked his way there, he saw that the Regimental Guard was patrolling the area.
He slipped into a disused latrine and using his crutches (nick named ‘Huey and Louie’) he hoisted himself onto one of the parallel bars of a closet and bade his time. Two of the Guard entered with one of the Sergeants, saw that no one was there and left. After a suitable while, down he came and went back to his room.
The wash up was that Lee didn’t hear a word about it next day, at least officially, but the Regiment was awash with laughter that Boxhead couldn’t catch a man on crutches. (If truth be known, the posse of Sergeants probably enjoyed the chase as much as Sergeant Dale rued it, and were quite happy to see Lee get away!)
When asked who was the most influence on him during his career, Lee used the technique (as did Peter Rosemond) of selecting the best example of many. “Some people did certain things well, other things up to shit. If you’re ever going to be any good Bonser, I told my self, you have to take a bit of what a bloke does and do it, not the same, but with your own slant. Take the best of this bloke, the best of that bloke with your own way of doing things and you will become what you are anyway!
“I can’t be definite-people were good at things. Barry Latimer was good, Peter Roberts was good at certain things but a bit stilted at others but was always doing the right thing at the right time. Some other blokes with flair. A whole lot of people, but no one who I could set up as the be all and end all. Though, I liked the blokes who did things with flair!” (As did Lee!)
Lee, being a gunnery guru, was ‘loaned’ by the Armoured Regiment back to the Armoured Centre while being on the duty roster of both. The inevitable happened and on one occasion he was rostered for duty as Orderly Sergeant at both places. Lee;
“I did the Guard mount for the Regiment, then to the other ranks Mess for the Armoured Centre meal parade and of course had to write a report as Orderly sergeant for both!”
Lee tells the story of the ceremonial aspects for the burial of Ex Prime Minister Bob Menzies. The relevant staff officer at the 3rd Military District had died suddenly and Lee and a Lieutenant Colonel Peter Jarratt were called down to Victoria Barracks to undertake the staff work for the arrangements for the military side of the funeral. Having done so, they retired to take their own part therein.
Some years later when Lee was posted as RSM of the 5th Military District, the Staff Officer Grade 1 there, an RAAC officer, had to organise a Military Tattoo. He told Lee, ‘I’ll get Percy White to organise this. You wouldn’t have had much experience at this sort of thing!’ In fact, Percy and Lee had just done all the State’s 150th Anniversary ceremonials.
Bonser retorted, “And how many Prime Ministers have you buried lately?
It went straight over his head. Percy and I did a good job organizing the Tattoo, and I got free tickets.”
Lee made a great impression on the members of the Royal Armoured Corps in England. They (some of them!) made an equal impression on Lee. He argues that the RAAC followed too closely to the techniques of shooting laid down in the relevant training pamphlet issued by the British. Lee was somewhat surprised however at the flexible attitude of his British counterparts in that he was allowed to use commonsense in the application of techniques and make such modifications as were proper.
One aspect which Lee appreciated to the full was a small research and development section at Bovington. The man in charge of this was a Warrant Officer Class One who was referred to as ‘M’, a la James Bond’s boss.
Now, Lee’s reputation in England had been made through his practical application of what are known as ‘gunner’s corrections’, that is, corrections made to the fall of shot made by the tank gunner without reference to the crew commander. Through this, he came to the attention of ‘M’ and he came to Bonser one day and said, “You’re going out to the range tomorrow. Come and see me before you go-I’ve got something I want you to see and try for me.”
Lee duly did. A gun sight was produced, and Lee was told that he, ‘M’, had arranged a machine gun graticule pattern (a set of engraved lines and markings for the gunner to use as aiming points) over the normal one, and would Lee use it and report back as to its usefulness.
Lee did so and found that it was very good except for one aspect. As he was shooting on a side slope, he had to ‘aim off’ to compensate for the slope. He asked ‘M’ if he could arrange for the graticule to tilt to compensate for any slope. Two days later, he produced the sight again with a tilting graticule pattern for Lee to try. This was most impressive to Lee that something of this nature could be done in such a short time without reference to a gaggle of boffins, technicians and would be inventors that would abound in Australia.
Gunnery techniques for recruit gunners are rigidly taught and enforced. Only when a Trooper is as experienced as Bonser can he use that experience to make his ‘own’ modifications to such techniques. Lee tells a story of a night anti tank shoot in England using infrared. He selected a target, an old tank hull, at 2200 metres. At night, using infrared, the ‘book’ dictated that the range for such a shoot is a maximum of 1200 metres.
Bonser, using the ranging gun, (a modified .50 calibre machine gun with special ammunition) ordered his gunner to range at 2200 aiming at the top edge of the target. With a flash of the MG strike, Lee ordered the main armament fired and, “We blew the shit out of the thing!”
A crowd had gathered behind Bonser’s tank, all wanting to see how the ‘colonial’ would go with his presumptuous change in technique and a great cheer went up on seeing the target light up. The officer in charge saw him later and harrumphed at Lee, “Unconventional, but effective.”
Before, gunners corrections were mentioned. Lee, as gunner and firing the large calibre Chieftan tank high explosive round could sense, even with the round in flight near the target, that it would miss by “a fly’s dick” and apply a correction before the round had landed with the next on the way before the dust had cleared from the first. The ‘Brits’ were simply amazed at this.
Lee Bonser was never honoured by the Corps, not that he worries too much on that score. He was outspoken on things that he thought mattered and some in authority were not appreciative of direct criticism. There is an oblique example of this. When he was a living in member of the Sergeants Mess, Lee was quite protective of his rights. On one occasion, a morning tea had been arranged for the Mess member’s wives and the bar opened for the time.
Lee, having a day off, saw the bar open and duly ordered a beer, only to be told by a senior Warrant Officer’s wife that the bar was only for the morning tea and members were not to avail themselves of it. Lee took exception, an argument ensued and harsh words were exchanged. The result is unimportant; the incident illustrates Lee’s positive attitude to what he knew was right.
Another more pertinent example had to do with a policy about how long a crew should have to wait before unloading the Centurion main gun when a misfire occurred. The time laid down seemed excessive to Bonser. Using his extensive knowledge of Centurion gunnery and a possible misinterpretation of the way amendments to procedures (almost always from England) were interpreted by non-gunnery Staff personnel, Lee-
“Raised with certain identities the possibility of this scenario occurring, the response was such that as to leave me in little doubt as to the accuracy of my assumptions. In short, I was told to shut my mouth and perhaps should have.”
This attitude does not impress much those whose thinking processes seem to be ‘my mind is made up- don’t confuse me with facts!’ Bonser, like many of his peers, never shirked his responsibilities and spoke his mind whenever he thought it right to do so.
Perhaps because of this frank attitude to his profession, Lee Bonser was never honoured by the Corps and though he would deny caring about it anyway, many of his peers were disappointed that he was not.
Artillery: hoping they have the correct grid reference, correct quadrant elevation and correct number of charge bags.
Warrant Officer Class Two Leonard John ‘Bunny’ Elwell
Ask almost anyone in Armour from the Vietnam days and up to the 90s who Leonard Elwell is and most would say ‘who’? Ask almost any one from the same who ‘Bunny’ Elwell is and they know immediately. Len’s nick-name came almost from the moment of his birth, when his Grandmother, on seeing him for the first time (he was a quite small baby on delivery) said, “He looks like a rabbit, a bunny,” and it’s stuck ever since!
Bunny has a military background. His father served throughout World War 2 and finished that conflict with the 2/13 Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery. In his later career, he drove Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth during the Royal Visit of 1954 and in 1957 was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Elwell’s own introduction to warfare was almost as precipitate as that of his father.
Bunny had asked for Armour whilst at recruit training, specifically, “I asked for APCs, I didn’t want anything else! He was urged to become a tank driver-‘your size, you’ll make a good tank driver’- but I said no-I only want APCs. I’d seen them on the news and it was the quickest way to get to Vietnam, quicker than infantry.”
He was enlisted, recruit trained, Corps trained and sent to Vietnam all in ten months, and his introduction to combat not that much later! So quick was it, he did not have an exercise beforehand. He landed in Nui Dat, was told ‘here is your bed, now get on that helicopter, you’re off to the Horse Shoe.’ “I was shaking like a leaf-I was scared stiff! I didn’t know shit from clay. My Crew Commander fell asleep on piquet-he got 28 days in Vung Tau! (in prison-sleeping on guard duty-piquet as it’s known-is a, if not the, most serious offence whilst on active service.) I thought what the hell have I got myself into- I won’t fall asleep on piquet!”
As luck would have it, he stayed at the Horse Shoe only one night. His vehicle was recalled to the base to have its belly armour up graded to counter the mine problem. So, Three days after he landed, he was in Vung Tau having a beer.
In any case, there ought to have been an acclimatization period for him and all those just ‘in country’-the situation was so bad as to send Bunny straight onto operations. Even allowing for his quick visit to ‘Vungers’, Bunny calculates that he spent, “Only about ten or fifteen days in Nui Dat.” That equates to about 350 days in the field on operations, a burden which should not have been imposed on anyone. 350 days in a rattling, vibrating, noisy, dirty war machine, then 350 nights ‘sleeping’ on a camp stretcher or on one of the passenger seats, such sleep interspersed with piquet duty and perhaps enemy action.
One day, his section had been reacted to pull out a Platoon of infantry which had “Got into a big shit fight which was too much (for them) to handle and we had to go in about twilight and get them out.” This introduction to a firefight was when, as mortars were falling reasonably close, he heard a sort of banging on the side of his 113, thinking it was mortar fragments. It was in fact AK47 bullets striking the aluminium armour.
Initially, Bunny says he was, as a driver, “Very nervous, breaking out into a sweat. After I got blown up, I got a new crew commander, P J Mitchell, he taught me how to be a good driver. He really did and after that I wasn’t worried. There was no in-country training, you know, following exactly in the tracks of the vehicle in front, watching for mines.”
However, before this, Bunny had the worst experience an APC driver can have. His M113A1 struck a mine which detonated beneath the engine compartment. Whatever gods see to the fortunes of soldiers must have been on watch for Bunny, as he was only slightly wounded. He was blown half out of his place, landing draped over the vehicle front with, of all things, half of the left hand steering lever still in his hand.
Bunny shows the pictures of his wrecked carrier and, “It was only because the engine access cover wrapped itself around me that I survived! I was ‘DUSTOFF’ed and just so lucky!” How he conducted himself in this frightening situation is explained later.
Bunny, on one of his rare days in camp, conned his way into a flight in a Huey Cobra, albeit a non operational ride. “It was only around the Nui Dat area and he did a few dry dives at 180 knots or whatever it is. The pilot was gibbering on, but I was too busy hanging on! I was sitting in the front (gunner’s) seat. It was fantastic. Watching them fire-the tracer coming down-it was like watching someone peeing except it was red!”
He also saw “Puff” the C47 gun ship in action. “He came over us when we were in Long Khan Province where all the Australians-13 got killed in two days. Major T F H Walker called Puff in and it shot hell out of the creek line where they (VC) were all in.”
Bunny was made Lance Corporal just before he came home. However, he had had a contra temps with his section commander and threatened to “Brain him with a mattock handle. So, he charged me, I got in the shit, offering violence (to a superior officer) or whatever it was in those days.”
Now, his SSM was Lee Bonser, who didn’t want to see a good soldier like Bunny go home with too much of a black mark on his record. So, “He said, ‘Bunny Elwell, that was just a spur of the moment thing, wasn’t it?’ I said, no, no sir, I was going to brain him! Bonser, pausing a moment, said, ‘I’ll ask you that question again,’ and did so three times. I still said the same.”
So, military justice took its course and “March in, Lance Corporal Elwell-march out, Trooper Elwell! I was made up one day, lost it the next and was made up again three weeks later.” (Lance Corporal, in those days, was an OC’s appointment and could be bestowed or withdrawn at whim.)
Bunny was asked about the hardest aspect of AFV operations, mental or physical and says, “I reckon both. A little more physical, what with the changing tracks and with the extra armour plate on the belly-when you do your servicing, it’s very physical. I was a crew commander at the end-there was that extra concentration needed-listening to radios and watching your map. Yeah, so more physical as a driver, more mental as a commander.”
One incident at while crossing the Song (river) Dong Nai brought home to Bunny the value of the training Mitchell had given him. When entering the water, “I looked over to the left and saw this shining thing in the water and asked what it was. It was a mine and we’d missed it. PJ (Mitchell) would ask me every time when we came to a crossing or something that was dicey, he’d ask me if I wanted to go in or do you want to put the mini team (of engineers with mine detectors) in first. When I didn’t-you know when you’d get a feeling and you’d know something could happen here, I’d ask for the team. It worked well.”
His best posting was to the Jungle Training Centre at Canungra. (It’s now called Land Warfare Centre) There, he instructed students in their first subject for promotion to Sergeant. “I loved it! Because you could get a kid that knows nothing and he’d walk away with a bit of Bunny Elwell and a bit of each of the other instructors. He’d ‘pick the eyes’ out of each of us, so to speak. And you could impart knowledge to these young fellows! It means a lot to me, it really does.”
Bunny cites Warrant Officer Class One John Carter as the best Warrant Officer he had served with. “For professionalism-he was like the old school Warrant Officers, firm, fair, honest and approachable. He was a great gunnery instructor and one of the blokes I learned a lot from.”
On the character of the Corps, Bunny answers in an oblique yet most appropriate way. He says, “I think, seeing an armoured vehicle fully kitted out, going to war, is a very impressive sight. It’s awe inspiring to see a Leopard Tank, even though I’m not a ‘tankie’, I’m a cavalryman, to see a tank-and having been in a theatre of war, you know the destruction and mayhem that thing can do. It’s the same with a 113-you get a section or a Troop of carriers, even these lighter vehicles firing together can be-it’s amazing how destructive they can be. It’s awe inspiring!”
(And he reflects here two of the ‘book’ characteristics of Armour-shock action and firepower!)
When asked about first aid training Bunny Says, “Not very good….in actual fact, I think it was non existent! We might have had a couple of lessons…..but there was nothing about, you know, how to deal with a sucking chest wound. They talked about it but…no practical demonstration. And, well, the spare (113) road wheel, we had a mini team guy, he’d been in country about 28 days, he was sitting behind me. We used to carry the spare over the fuel cap and (when I hit the mine) it come up and smashed him in the back of the head. I could have got my hand (gesturing with closed fist) and put it in there. And all I could do was put my hand there (gesturing again) to hold it together.
“No, I didn’t have real practical training for what to do with this head wound-all I could do common sense stuff, stop the bleeding, apply pressure, that sort of thing.”
Elwell, like almost all his contemporaries, was prone on the odd occasion to bend the rules a little. With two others, Glen Keally and Lyndsay Yelland, they formed the Three Amigos, long before the movie if the same name.
The most notable character Bunny knew was Barry Pitt. “A typical Aussie larrrikin, but he knew his stuff, had all his shit in the one sock and knew what he was about. But, he hated snakes! One time when we were back in base, we got a dead snake and curled it up and put it in his bed. Well, he came back from the boozer full of piss and bad manners, pulled back the sheets to check for scorpions and so forth and there was this snake!
“Barry pulled out his 9mm and emptied the magazine into it! The floors were concrete as you know and so bullets were flying all over the place! We screamed out that it was already dead, but he took no chances!
“The day before Barry left to come home, he’d been on the piss. Next day, he said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this!’ and went outside with his Armalite. He had two 30 round magazines taped together and let one fly into the air on full automatic! His Troop officer, one Lieutenant Chris Stevens came out and said to Pitt, ‘What are you doing, Corporal Pitt?’
“Pitt replied, ‘I’m havin’ a yippee, any objections?’ ‘No’, says Stevens, ‘keep going!’ So Barry put the other magazine on and let it fly, too!”
Another was Ike Robbins. We were up on route 328, the one that goes through Xuan Moc, looking for a logging truck which was supposed to be carrying ammo. (for the VC)
“Anyhow, this truck came down. It’s the closest I ever got to a bad guy-I’m standing there with my Armalite (rifle) and telling him not to move. Robbins took off! I didn’t know where he went. He came back two or three minutes later and said ‘tell him to di di mau’ (go). I said to Robbins ‘where did you get to you, ****.’ He said ‘you’ll be right, mate.’ And the truck goes away.
“Next minute, boom! Up went the truck! What he’d done, he’d gone around to the other side of the truck to the fuel tank, got a hand grenade, removed the (safety) pin, wrapped a rubber band around the release lever and, you know rubber and fuel- he said ‘well, we won’t have to search that truck any more, will we!’”
Bunny tells a yarn against himself, where his section was working out of Fire Support Base Garth. They were set in ambush in a rubber plantation and Bunny was on piquet. Near the end of his time, “I heard this noise in the leaves and in my tiny little brain they (VC) were sneaking up on the carrier with a satchel charge. So I tried to wake up Barry Ness but he wouldn’t wake up! So, I got down into the turret, dropped the bolt latch (which secures the working parts to the rear, preventing the MG from being fired) on the .30 cal we had on the turret top and was just about to let rip! So, I sat there for another two hours, wringing wet with sweat and nerves. Finally Ness wakes up and says, ‘It’s only a couple of mongooses having a naughty!’”
On another occasion, on Operation Overlord during a gunship and artillery assault, a mate, Grant Sheahan was standing just outside the cargo hatch on the vehicle top when, “A lump of schrapnel (gestures-fist size) struck the tree beside him and he jumped back inside.”
Unfortunately for those inside, Sheahan had been urinating over the side and continued to empty his bladder with devastating results to those inside.
After Vietnam, Bunny went through a number of regimental postings, as well as the stint at LWC mentioned before. One of Bunny’s best jobs was on exchange to Germany for three months. His Squadron was attached to the 14th/19th Hussars, a British Cavalry Regiment.
He was unfortunate enough to have as the Officer Commanding the detachment a man whose man management left much to be desired. He called all the Troop Sergeants together and told them, ‘If my Troop Leaders don’t perform, it’s your career.’
Bunny “Arced up immediately and said you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink! So, I went back to my Troop Leader and asked him if he had anything to say about me as his Troop Sergeant. He told me ‘no, you’re doing a good job.’ I said to him why did you go behind my back? If you’ve got anything to say, say it to my face!
“The next day, he took sick, so I had to be Troop Leader. We took part in their ‘Paratus Cup’ equivalent. I did an advance to contact and won! (My Troop) beat the whole 14th/19th! We used their Scorpion vehicles. Two thirds of the way through the contest, the (exercise director) radioed that he’d seen enough and the exercise could cease. The Squadron 2i/c cancelled this, saying he wanted to keep going as ‘This is the only bloke that has used the fire support and infantry support correctly-I want to see how it goes right through!’ And we beat them! We didn’t win anything, a cup or whatever, but we beat them!”
After the ‘war games’ Bunny and several others took leave in the form of a tour through Europe. They decided to visit the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Bunny takes up the story.
“We were told that when you get to Belsen there are no birds that will fly over the place, the actual camp. There’s nothing there, just holes in the ground. Anyhow we didn’t believe this and then we went there and you can imagine ten Australians, all gibbering shit to each other: well, we went into this place and we all stopped talking and there were birds in the trees all around it but no birds flew over. They flew around, but not over!
“And in this place there’s this big hole in the ground with a sign, here lies 50,000 Jews. No buildings, just graves! We were going to go on to Auschwitz but didn’t! We got on the piss instead! We think we might have had it hard in Vietnam but these poor bastards did it harder in the Second World War! This was real, this happened, not something you read in a story book!”
In later years, Bunny Elwell served at the then Junior Leader Training Centre as the Course Sergeant Major. His experience, knowledge, good humour and man management skills learned during his career were of the utmost value. While the Senior Instructor kept the ‘political’ and logistic and staff side of the operation going, the day to day running of the nine week course was in Bunny Elwell’s more than capable hands.
Leonard John ‘Bunny’ Elwell is a typical rough diamond, who speaks his mind and is not too concerned if people don’t like what he says. He typifies the outgoing Australian and typifies the sort of man who qualifies as a Knight in Green Armour.
Sergeant John Joseph ‘Tiny’ O’Shea
‘Tiny’ O’Shea, in the old tradition of men being given nicknames opposite to their features was, in better days, a six foot two sandy haired man of big stature and, if you asked him, not bad looking. After a dispute with his parents which resulted in his occupation of a boat shed for six weeks, Tiny decided to join the army and after finishing in the top three of his recruit course, asked for and was granted posting to Armour.
The Corps did nothing with Tiny for some time and he spent a while breaking up various concrete edifices for make-work. Getting right royally sick of labouring, he went AWL. On return he was charged and given a job in the Officers Mess. Finally, he was sent on a Motor Transport course and was posted to the 1st Armoured Regiment Transport Troop.
All of the above serves to illustrate how blasé the Corps (and indeed the Army) was in preparing soldiers for war. At the time the above was going on, the prospect of active service was a distant dream for most servicemen and the Corps trained its soldiers accordingly. Shortly, it will be seen how this lack of training affected Tiny.
O”Shea was sent to Vietnam on HMAS Sydney, posted to HQ Australian Force Vietnam as transport driver. He landed with “15 rounds for my Owen (gun) and the blokes with pistols had only half a clip.” His job in Saigon (Now Ho Chi Minh City) was to drive an Australian Staff officer and to act as escort as the man made his way around Vietnam, by air as well as vehicle.
Tiny would make it his business to drop into the Australian Cavalry Troop at Bien Hoa, to give out the latest gossip and to keep everyone up to speed as to what was going on in the rest of the country. Now, that Troop had, like everyone else, been sent with minimum preparation and so was often short of personnel, what with an illness here and a leave there. Tiny volunteered to go on operations with the Troop and after gaining permission, he did a ‘soldiers five’ with one of the Troop drivers and went off to war. He drove the author for a while, who was perhaps a bit pedantic as to his instructions while on the move. Tiny takes up the story.
“So I hop in the driver’s seat then you’re saying ‘OK start up-driver advance, (pull the) left (steering) stick, right stick, slow down, speed up,’ I didn’t know what the hell was going on!” The short instruction he had was just not enough, although to his credit, he quickly assimilated the driving ‘go’.
On one operation, Tiny’s penchant for bad luck took hold of him. At the time, the Troop had pulled up in a protective formation around a large clearing to allow a helicopter re-supply. J. J. was preparing a brew for himself and his crew commander while two hundred metres or so away a platoon was sweeping around the location over a paddy field. One soldier approached a little too close to one of the larger water buffalo, which took exception to his presence and charged. The Digger swiped at it with a back hander, but unfortunately the hand he used was holding his M79 grenade launcher which discharged, lobbing a high explosive shell into our position. Murphy’s Law being what it is, the round landed about five metres from the rear of Tiny’s vehicle, not to mention his backside -peppering it with (he says) a million pieces of schrapnel.
He takes up the story;
“Jungles (nickname for his commander at he time) gives me an axe and says ‘Chop these trees down; we’ve got to clear a landing zone’, and next thing I’m flat on me arse. I got a hole in me bloody bum and a hole in me leg and me back.”
People clustered around and he was duly casevaced. While he was contemplating the vagaries of life, a captain from the 1RAR company involved rushed up and;
“…was screaming down my ear hole ‘What happened, where did it come from?’ I said fucked if I know! I mean, I was a green as grass and this bloke is trying to ask me where the grenade came from!”
Later, when Tiny came back to the Troop, he was reminded about the old army rule about never volunteering for anything. He replied, “Damn right!” However, he went against this dicta and extended his tour. This extension saw him involved in the battle of Long Tan. When the Cavalry Troop was activated to take Alpha Company 6RAR, to the relief of Delta Company, Tiny’s carrier (he was now a crew commander) was posted at a creek crossing while the rest of his section (two APCs) was sent back to pick up the Commanding Officer of 6RAR and the padre, amongst others. When this was achieved, the section went on to the battle itself.
Now, this was in spite of the fact that O’Shea had never done an APC drivers course, a crew commanders course, a radio operators course or training on the .50 calibre machine gun which was fitted to each vehicle. It well shows the fact of the Australian soldier’s willingness to adapt and just get on with things, but does no credit to the powers that were in regard to training its men for combat. Another illustration of this took place in an earlier incident, where Tiny was acting as radio operator to his Troop officer, Lieutenant Ruttledge. For some reason, Tiny had been given an M60 machine Gun, the Infantry main section weapon. As Tiny says:
“…and I had this M60, which I had never seen before and it had a belt of ammunition on it. I’m standing outside the cargo hatch with a foot each side of the seat and ‘Jungles’ is saying, ‘Cover the top of the houses, cover the rubber, cover this, cover that,’ and I’m swinging this thing around and would have shit myself if it had gone off.”
Tiny returned to Australia in September 1966. The Corps finally recognized that he should be properly trained and he undertook a Centurion gunnery and Crew Commanders course. He took part in the Australian trials of the Sheridan tank (“a bloody shocking thing”) and after further service at Puckapunyal was sent back to Vietnam to B Squadron Of the Armoured Regiment.
His bad luck continued. His Troop was conducting support operations in that disaster area for Australians, the Long Hai hills, when his vehicle was almost destroyed by a mine. He says; “There was some soft ground and my driver went down about five gears. I turned around to see what was going on and I got hit in the head like a sledge hammer.”
He was very badly knocked about, losing an eye. He was casevaced to Vung Tau and from there to the huge American base at Long Binh. While never to be described as a modest person, Tiny was horrified to realise that when he had commenced to recover from the operation to put him back together, he had a deep burning sensation when passing urine.
Now, the medical staff at the US hospital was mostly female and for some reason Tiny never had an opportunity to speak to male members on the fact that he thought he might have a ‘dose.’ Finally, when the pain became too much, he sought a senior nurse and confided to her his problem. She laughed, saying that he had had a catheter inserted in his penis and the pain was merely the result of its insertion and its removal, and the pain would go away, which it did.
After ten days in hospital he was returned to Australia and sent on five months theraputic leave. Towards the end of this, he received a telegram informing him that he was to attend a radio instructors course. He says that he was psychologically unready to come back to work, being most aware of the false eye with which he had been fitted.
In the normal way, the Corps didn’t give him the courtesy of attending the initial ‘how to instruct’ course, and he was lumbered with a lesson, ‘The Radio Net’ on almost the first day he was there. Although well enough physically, Tiny was still quite sensitive about the false eye he had been given and was somewhat reluctant to appear in the instructional mode.
Now, all the gurus of the Radio Wing sat in the back of the classroom, watching as to how the trainee would go. Tiny said to the class that he would love to tell them about the Radio Net but he didn’t have a clue and if they looked in the relevant Training Pamphlet, it would show them all about it and if they went outside they could look it up and that the Wing Staff would love to have a talk about his performance.
This they duly did, and after much argument about preparation time and other things, Tiny was taken off the course.
Tiny, like so many of his contemporaries, loved life in the Sergeants Mess. Unfortunately, he had a leaning to ‘playing up’. On one occasion, he and another rode a motor bike through the Mess while both drunk and naked. On another, he and the same man did a streak (almost-they left their underpants on, praise be!) through the Mess which wouldn’t have mattered too much except the annual Mother’s Day luncheon was taking place. The Mess President, Warrant Officer Ivan Maher, a fiery character in his own right, was singularly unimpressed and the duty roster reflected this for some time.
On another occasion much as that described in the section on Percy White, a mixed ball was decreed with both the Armoured Regiment and the Armoured Center participating. The evening went well enough, except Tiny couldn’t get his prawn cocktail. Incensed at this, he stormed into the kitchen to see one of the Quartermaster types, one ‘Chook’ Fowler, hoeing into several of the same along with the Sergeant cook and his minions who were, as Tiny puts it, “Pissed.”
Tiny felled the aforementioned Fowler and shut him in a refrigerator, then decked the Sergeant cook and one of his minions. The upshot of all this was that Tiny was hauled before his Major and an explanation demanded. The OC, seeing the funny side, told our man that he could consider himself as having the “Biggest kick in the arse ever.”
Just as Tiny was being marched out, the phone rang and of the following conversation Tiny heard little, until shortly after, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Laurie O’Donnell happened to speak to him on a social occasion, asking “Did you get enough prawn cocktails, Tiny?” O’Shea, after nearly choking on his beer, twigged as to what the phone call had been about, at the same time thanking the gods who look after errant servicemen.
O’Shea liked a practical joke. He found a dead black snake on the range and collected it. An exchange American NCO had expressed his dislike for the order Serpentes, so Tiny placed the dead snake onto the passenger seat of their vehicle and invited the American to hop in, which he did. As he did so, the snake, which Tiny had propped against the door fell out and the explosion of American oaths could be heard for miles.
On another occasion, there was a requirement for ice to go to an end of year party. O’Shea opined that they could get it from the (non- existent) morgue at the Camp Hospital. The American NCO expressed surprise at this. Tiny said yeah, it’s there for weekends; if anyone dies on weekends, we can keep ‘em there till Monday then take them into Seymour. In any case, we can pick out the dirty bits, get rid of any dirt or blood or skin, no worries, it only goes around cans. This didn’t go down too well until Tiny and his fellows explained the joke.
For all this, Tiny served at the Armoured Center with distinction. His health decline however, and he became a little too fond of the beer. As well, his inability (because of his injuries and especially having lost an eye) to serve elsewhere than in an Army School preyed on his mind, affecting his performance. At a party at the Range Camp, he got drunk, rode his motorcycle back towards the base and ran of the road, colliding with a fence post, injuring himself so severely that he now spends his days in a wheelchair. This caused his discharge and he was declared TPI. (Totally and Permanently Incapacitated To his credit, Tiny blames no-one but himself for his fate and in the tradition, just gets on with it. After two years in hospital, Tiny worked as a volunteer counselor with the Australian Quadrapedic Association for four years and later as a Director with that Association’s Victoria branch for seven. He is a passionate follower of the North Melbourne Football Club, or, as they call themselves these days, The Kangaroos.
Tiny’s service reflects well on him. Sometimes raucous, sometimes adversely aware of the Army’s lack of preparation, always cheerful, he is an great example of the Digger spirit.
Lieutenant Colonel John Fredrick Crossman
John Crossman was commissioned in 1966 from the Officer Cadet School, Portsea and resigned in 1990. Prior, he had served in the Citizen Military Forces with 4th/19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse. “The PWLH was a very good garden, if I can put it that way, of very good soldiers.” Because of this, he was dedicated to a Commission into Armour. At Portsea, he proudly placed his black beret with his PWLH badge at the end of his room layout, only to find it cast to the floor on return from his day’s training.
He topped his class, winning the Governor-General’s Medal and the Staff Prize (awarded by the School staff).
Colonel Crossman has a definite military background. He was born in India and his “Entire family, including all my in-laws, were in the British/Indian Army. My father had done 33 years in the Indian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and he was a very dominant personality, he’d been a heavy weight boxer. He’d come from being an Army apprentice to being a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army and in a technical Corps like IEME that wasn’t an easy thing to do. So, he was a major influence on me.
“I lost my grandfather at Gallipoli. He served with a British Regiment and is missing in action and at the Cape Hellas memorial-he’s on the wall, there. My understanding is his Yorkshire Regiment got ashore, how many I don’t know, but they got cut to bloody pieces.
“But there were a number of people who touched me greatly (in my career). One was a fellow by the name of ‘Happy’ Christianson. He was the RSM of the Prince of Wales’s Light Horse. He was a dyed in the wool believer in the part the Non Commissioned Officers played in the Army. He was one of these people who felt that it was the NCOs and particularly the Senior NCOs who would support the regime, even if the ‘officer’ wasn’t the greatest.”
Another influence on the young Crossman was Captain R K ‘Bob’ Hill, who had commanded the first Troop in Vietnam in 1965. He “Was a fountain of good advice, reassurance and confidence. He took we young ‘waifs’ and beat us into shape. Another of influence on Crossman was his CO at PWLH, Lieutenant Colonel JPF Dixon, who in civilian life was a cinematographer who did all the work on ‘The Man from Snowy River’. He was an inspirational leader, as Australian as a wattle and a believer in Australia-he was into audacity and panache and guile and such.”
His later career was heavily influenced by Major John ‘Blue’ Keldie. “I spent a lot of time in Squadron Headquarters with him, just the two of us. He was very generous with his time and a great believer in training subordinates. I’m deeply indebted to him. With people like these that I have described to you, it’s like osmosis. You see someone who is inspirational to you, or you like some of the characteristics an individual displays, some of the language, some of the attitude-I can remember a man called John Howard who went to Vietnam. I can remember him saying, ‘We’re too good for those bastards.’ (VC) You pick upon little things like that!
“My uncle, when I got back from Vietnam-the first time I saw him was at the Chester Hill Bowling Club in Sydney and after an initial hug and introducing me around during a lull he looked at me and said ‘Are you all right, boy?’ in a Bombay Welsh accent. I said ‘Freddy, we’re too good for those bastards!’ He replied, ‘We always have been, boy, we always have been!’”
John went to Vietnam on HMAS Sydney, (AKA HMAS Ferrous Oxide) to A Squadron 3rd Cavalry Regiment. His timing was superb, he relates ironically. “We left Sydney on the 17th of January 1968 and got there on the 3rd of February, two days after the TET offensive started! So, we went straight into it!
Crossman’s preparation for Vietnam, was, from a unit point of view, immaculate He and a fellow officer took great pains to ensure every Trooper’s service records was up to date. It was a ‘drip feed’ draft, as he puts it, with only a few men of various ranks going to replace on a one-for-one basis. The Sydney had to drop off, “A mob in Thailand who were going on a SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization) exercise and so we were delayed by having to divert to Thailand. So, when we got to Vietnam a couple of days later, the TET offensive had started. But we knew nothing about it, absolutely nothing as to what the ground situation was!
“The first indication that we had (that the offensive was on) was that there were no aircraft to lift us off the deck and in the distance you could see the ground attack aircraft going in and explosions near the Dinh Co monastery and other places! I thought, ‘Well, sunshine, you wanted a war, it looks like you’ve got one!’ So, with the exigencies of the Service, we ended up docking in the morning and reached Nui Dat at four in the afternoon, because we had to go to the airport at Vung Tau and then fly to Ton Son Niut (Saigon) and then get another aircraft to go down to the Dat.
“But, certainly, it was a very confused state when I arrived-Major ‘Guns’ Murphy was the OC- we had to take the ships barges to go to the shore and one of the officers, a Second Lieutenant Jim Parkins, his brother was a member of the Ship’s Company. He saw our black berets and said, ‘Where are you guys going?’ We said, ‘3Cav’. He said, ‘Christ, they got wiped out yesterday!’
“ ‘Who are you replacing?’ he asked me? And I replied ‘Roger Tingley’. ‘He’s in hospital full of holes!’ which he was. So, we got there at about 4:30. Guns Murphy was all pumped up, the adrenaline flying (he is a red head) and his mustache was being stroked about every three seconds. He looked like someone out of the Spitfire era!
“He said ‘You’ve arrived in the nick of time, you fellows!’ He gave us a briefing and said to The other officer ‘You’re going on the Headquarters so you’ll stay with me and you, Crossman, you’re going to Three Troop. He sent me off in the morning with (Sergeant) John Fogarty to try and locate an Australian school teacher who had been in (the town of) Baria. We were very fortunate. It turned out the lady was on leave at the time the offensive started.
“Now, I was as green as grass! I was going down the back streets of Baria looking, looking, looking! There was an ex British Paratrooper, Captain Barry Bradshaw, and he was saying ‘Watch out for trip wires, watch out for M16s (mines) watch out for this, watch out for that. I was one frazzled boy that morning!”
Second Lieutenant Crossman’s first job was as Troop Officer to Captain L M Herron and operated so for a number of captains. Of course, at times he led the Troop. Herron left the Corps to go to Army Aviation. After six months in the field, with very little time in the Task Force base, Crossman was appointed Squadron Liaison and Intelligence officer, exchanging jobs with another officer. He was sent on a number of tasks as a Task Force liaison officer.
“Not just working within the unit, but as an ‘outpost’ on the Task Force command (radio) net. So, I went to Tan Uyen which is on the Song (river) Dong Nai. I was up there for the vast majority of the operations in AO (Area of Operations) Surfers which included (the battles of) Coral and Balmoral. I was with the 48th ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Infantry Regiment of the 18 Division which had its headquarters at Xuyen Loc. Ironically, 18th Division was the last unit to fall when the Communists finally succeeded in overrunning the South.”
(The conversation is now verbatim, less extraneous material)
Author: They (the communists) won the third Vietnam war. They won the first one against the French, you could say we won the second one, declared victory and went home, and you could say the North Vietnamese won the third Vietnam war.
Crossman: Yes. Well, the Vietnamese people talk about the ‘American’ War. That’s their way of differentiating.
A: The big war.
C: Yes. Interesting enough, I was there two months ago…..
A: It’s such irony, that 30 years ago we were at each other’s throats….
C: Yes! Today, some 70 plus percent of the blokes that are running around there now have been born since 1975, so by and large there is a desire to just get on and live their lives. I found no bitterness! Which is very very refreshing!
A: I’ve observed, you know, the domino theory all that, we’ve got to stop Communism and all that sort of rhetoric and much more in depth than that, but when you come to look at it, Communism has been stopped. They’re more capitalist than we are, I think!
C: Well, I did think at the time, and having looked at the situation that developed with the installation of the Iron Curtain we then had the 1 million Chinese ‘volunteers’ that entered in Korea in 1951 ’52- we had fought anti-terrorist operations for 12 years in Malaysia. We had the Cuban Missile Crisis, we’ve seen the Chinese take over the whole of mainland China which had been our ally during the war and that happened in 1949. So, taking all that on board the idealogues were not unjustified in concluding that there was a real threat.
The mistake that they made, and which I think is now acknowledged, is that they saw Communism as a monolithic ideology. That’s like saying that all Roman Catholics are the same, all Muslims are the same and they were not! The Chinese Communists were quite different. The Vietnamese can’t stand the Chinese! I mean, they’ve fought them on a number of occasions, and will continue to do so! We didn’t have that perception at the time.
A: Well, perhaps you might say that all things considered, before they are Communists, they are Chinese, and before they’re Communists they’re Vietnamese and always will be.
C: Yes. And one thing that is pretty clear, taking my mind back to the Viet Cong general offensive in 1968, was that the North Vietnamese and the planners in North Vietnam really pulled the rug out from beneath the Viet Cong. I’ve heard it described by academics as the greatest bit of bastardry in the whole war! The VC in the villages and hamlets, like D445 (battalion) were told ‘Rise up, brothers, comrades and we will be with you!’
So they rose up and the North Vietnamese more or less stayed in the jungle! And the reason for that was that when the Vietnamese people, as one, fought against the French, it was very much a nationalist organization…
A: The Viet Minh….
C: Yes, and it means exactly that, Vietnamese Nationalists. And many of the people who were described collectively as ‘Viet Cong’ were not Communists at all. They were interested in liberating their country; they were proud people! They were the people, if you go back to the Communist counter-revolutionary warfare, they were the people who literally swam in the masses! They were the only people who could probably have constituted an opposition, ideological or otherwise to the Communist North, and that’s why they did it. It was quite brilliant. They set us up to kill them and then made a propaganda victory out of the lot!
A: As Clausewitz said, ‘War is the extension of politics by other means’ and they won the political side of it, no doubt about it!
C: Yes, well, they think ahead! And I’m not sure that we, with similar aims-in comparison say, with Iraq today albeit that the conflicts are dissimilar in nature-we did not have an exit strategy! And I still have some bitterness going back to John Fitzgerald Kennedy saying ‘We will fight any fight, bear any burden for a friend’ and when the going got tough politically, and the cost became unacceptable, it was Lyndon Baines Johnson who had to turn the thing around. And I think he was a broken man when he gave the speech about not accepting the nomination and so forth. It broke his heart.
A: It broke a lot of people’s hearts!
C: It did!
Service life, unless a man is of a nature which excludes regular social intercourse, (and the system quickly weeds them out) provides lifelong friendships, through shared experience and sometimes shared hardship. John Crossman formed such a friendship with an Artillery officer, one Dennis Casey.
“Denis is a very old friend. I met him in Vietnam, or just before. His brother was an Army Padre, Dermott Casey. Denis was in UNMOGIP, (United Nations Military Observer Group India Pakistan.) We had people there from 1948 until about 1982 or 83. I’m honoured to have many good ones; William Hugh Shakespeare, Gustav Konrad Ballentine and many fellow officers as well.”
On one confidential report, John asked for a job with the UN. The machinery ground away and eventually, “The next thing I know I got this piece of note paper from a lady in the Military Secretary’s office telling me to go and get a medical. So, I got a medical, sent it off and was on my way in mid May 1974.”
He was posted to the United Nations Troop Supervision Organization, otherwise known as UNTSO. This had its headquarters in Jerusalem.
“You didn’t know where you were going until you got there. I was sent to Damascus in Syria. Within a month and a half, I had been seconded to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, because when we had the ‘outbreak of peace’ on the Golan Heights, they immediately rushed in a battalion from the UNEF on the Suez Canal.
“So, they (also) brought in a Peruvian infantry battalion and an Austrian infantry battalion to fill the gap between the parties so there wasn’t going to be any friction. Before the 30th of May there’d been a war of attrition, a shooting match. Every day on the Heights there was an engagement, mainly artillery, sometimes tanks and mortars. And the observation posts of the UNTSO, the unarmed officers, were reporting this.
“UNDOF was an armed organization, light infantry battalions with standard light arms, they didn’t have mortars or such; they were purely a presence on the ground. Both sides were sick and tired of the war of attrition which was going absolutely nowhere so they agreed to this, and it became a question of putting men on the ground to achieve the separation, making sure there was no accidental brush between the parties.”
At this time, Colonel Crossman relates, which was at the height of the Cold War, it was one of the few places in the world where, of the 250 military observers, you had Russians, Americans, Frenchmen, Swedes, Norwegians and Finns. The first three, each nation being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, had 36 military observers, 18 of whom were in Damascus and 18 of whom were in other places.
“In the case of the French and Americans, they could be inside Israel, but the Israelis would not allow the Russians. So, the only other place the Russians could serve was in Egypt. At the height of the Cold War, all the major powers were in there trying to get what they could out of things.
“The Russians were an interesting crew; even though they all wore Soviet Army uniforms, it was quite clear that some of them weren’t Army at all! If you got one of them on his own, he might admit he was Air Force or whatever. Each and every one of them had a good command of the English language and they all had specialities.
“Of course, no one would confess to being KGB, but we suspected at the time, and I think we were right and by ‘we’ I mean the Western community, if I can put it like that, believed at least two of these guys were KGB officers. The rest of them were probably GRU, Soviet military intelligence. All of them, bar one, he was a racial minority, a Tartar, were members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. They were a pretty select bunch of people!”
When asked as to a definition of the character of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, Colonel Crossman gave it a few moments thought.
“There are a couple (of words) come to mind! I had a painting done some years ago, of a Corporal in the First Armoured Regiment, by Ken McFadyen. He was an official war artist-you’ve seen some of Ken’s work. He did ‘The Breakout’ the battle of Binh Ba for us but- yes-determination!
You have to keep the equipment up to the job, and certainly in the case of the First Armoured Regiment in Vietnam; that was very, very difficult to do! It required a lot of dedication and determination.
“You mentioned ‘Can Do’ used by someone else. That certainly applied to the Cavalry! We had to do every conceivable task! Casualty evacuation, convoy escorts, logistic backup (re-supply), night ambushes, delivering barbed wire, towing howitzers; we did the lot!
“So, I’d say aggression, persistence, determination! Those are the qualities we’re looking for in Armoured crewmen.”
As for the hardest aspect of operating an AFV, Colonel Crossman opines, “For commanders it’s mental. It doesn’t matter what sort of Armoured vehicle you’re in, if your going down the tarmac with your thumb in your bum and your mind in neutral, you’re just not doing your job.
“Certainly, you have to stay mentally on the ball and without seeking to diminish any other vehicle commander, it is the officer, who, at the end of the day, it’s they who are out attending orders groups, marking up maps, briefing this and doing that. And many of the officers I saw were pretty close to breaking point!
“When you get back to the Dat, or into a fire support base, and you can just see the commander’s shoulders sag as they realise that they are safe, or relatively safe for a day or a few hours. These guys have been ginned up for a long time-yes it’s a huge mental problem! For instance, at night, I would have the ‘pork chop’ (radio handset) next to my ear, and the chatter going on wouldn’t disturb me until I heard ‘Niner Echo’ (his call sign) and I would be instantly awake! And you’ve got hold of that handset and replying before you really know what you’re doing!”
Crossman has a definite opinion of the NCO and Warrant Officer part of the Corps. “They are well above average! Not to knock any other arm or service, but it’s very highly demanding and the senior NCO has to know everything that his soldiers know. Its not just the small arms and MGs, it’s the vehicle, the maintenance, it’s every thing. It’s the skill dimension.”
His best posting was Vietnam. He applied for an extension, but was refused. “I would do a ‘dog watch’ at the Task force Head Quarters then go out ambushing. I wasn’t getting a whole lot of sleep, but I loved it!” His OC Major O’Donnell tried to have his extension approved, and even the task Force Commander, Brigadier Pearson lobbied on his behalf, but to no avail.
Colonel Crossman tells the yarn about a classmate of his, one Lieutenant John ‘Rooster’ Wilson. This officer was a classmate and called Crossman ‘chocko’ in reference to his CMF background. (‘Chocko’-Chocolate Soldiers. This was a derogatory term used by AIF soldiers in reference to the Militia, those who didn’t volunteer for AIF duty).
On the day in question, Crossman was approached by Wilson at a fire support base and he opined that the tanks there looked ‘wonderful, Chocko and that there wasn’t a VC within a hundred miles of this place’. At the instant, there was an explosion and a burst of .50 calibre machine gun fire. The Armoured Command Vehicle was close by and two other officers made jig time to enter the door. ‘Rooster’ stood frozen to the spot- transfixed! What had happened was that a small tree had been knocked over by a tank and had detonated an M16 mine. An example of Opera Bouffe followed.
The mine had wounded the tank commander, who, through his wounds reported to Crossman what sounded something like ‘Imf wndra ina fth’ John declared on the radio that he should use proper diction. The poor tank commander finally got out ‘I’ve been wounded in the face.’ This made John feel, “Lower than a maggot!”
In the meantime, The Squadron 2i/c, Captain Vickers, told the still frozen Wilson to ‘Go and sort that out!’ He replied that he didn’t have a tank (the other incident was on the FSB perimeter) and was told ‘Take that one’. So, what had happened was that another, over enthusiastic tank commander, had fired the aforementioned burst of incendiary MG fire without too much of an aim and hit the external (armoured) fuel tank of another, setting it on fire!
With flame every where, the Panzer was abandoned, with the risk of ammo explosions concentrating minds wonderfully. The crew reported ‘We’re bailing out!’ The second officer of the ACV party, a stickler for proper stowage in tanks, called out to Wilson ‘Ask them if they’ve taken their ‘bail out bags with them’, this with the tank but 200 metres away and with crewmen and others racing around like bees in a bottle.
So, the now activated Wilson, in his borrowed tank, bored into action pulling up close to the flaming tank, he with a canister round in the breech of his 20 Pounder gun! The picture is now with one crew trying to put out the flames, Wilson asking questions of them which they probably didn’t hear, radio messages flying back and forth as to what the ‘contact’ was all about, another officer still demanding information about the ‘bail out’ bags and general mayhem.
Finally, order was restored. ‘Rooster’ came back and approached Crossman, looking “Like Marcel Marceau-dead white.” He looked Crossman in the eye and said, ‘They are out there, aren’t they, Chocko!’ To which the grinning Crossman simply replied, “Yes mate, they are!”
On the matter of the barrier minefield, as every other interviewee has said, Colonel Crossman says that one should never be laid which could not be covered by observation and/or fire. “And we didn’t guarantee that. They weren’t even regular ARVN they were ‘Ruff Puffs’ (regional forces). I can tell you, there are still children being killed in Phuoc Tuy Province by M16 mines! We couldn’t oversee it, guard it if you will. I remember seeing a New Zealand infantry patrol reduced from 25 down to about seven in the space of ten minutes.
“They were disgorged from the APCs, went across the road and there was an explosion, a plume of debris and you could hear the screams- ‘Medic! Medic!’ And then, about a minute later, another explosion! I subsequently met the Platoon Commander, one John Denison Wood and they came out of that mine field-they’d had to prod their way out with bayonets and what have you.
“We couldn’t get in there. (With APCs) That was my first thought-‘we might set off another half dozen’. They were traumatised and as a sub-unit, they were buggered!”
John relates another yarn about the SSM at the time, the redoubtable and fearsome Ivan Maher. At Fire Support Base ‘Lion’, towards the end of 1968, Ivan approached the OC, Major O’Donnell with a request. Crossman was there and the request was for Ivan to have a day away to get together with his old friend Warrant Officer Terry Malone who was coming down from ‘I’ Corps. (He was with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam)
Now, it would be a waste of type to write that the two old mates would have a drink or two, and a ‘session’ with either gentleman could be a dangerous undertaking. Put them together and…..
Leave was granted, with the enjoinder that Ivan be back next morning. Next morning, “Aircraft arrive, arrive, arrive, but no Ivan! Finally at 1600 a ‘Huey’ comes in and Ivan falls off the Huey and the crew chief, or door gunner, or whoever calls out to him, ‘Don’t forget this’ and throws a green hold-all to the SSM, who promptly drops it and says a few words to the crew of the chopper.
“He wobbled his way up to his stretcher set up under a tree, stood regarding it for a moment, then fell, onto it, rather like a tree collapsing.”
The boss, rather laconically, said, “I see the SSM’s back!”
“What was in the bag, which he had dropped, was a bottle of ‘Black Label’ or some such which he had brought as a peace offering! He was there until the next morning, didn’t move, and was a seedy little puppy, I can tell you!”
John Crossman can place the letters psc. and jssc. after his name, which stand for respectively, Passed Staff College and Joint Services Staff College, which indicates he was trained to the necessary level for higher command.
For his conspicuous work in Vietnam, especially for a junior officer,
Lieutenant Colonel John Fredrick Crossman was awarded a Mention in Despatches in 1969 for, as he so inelegantly puts it, “My repeated stupidity in the face of the enemy!”
Warrant Officer Class One John Carter. Medal of the Order of Australia, Distinguished Conduct Medal.
For private reasons, John Carter would not be interviewed. Suffice to say that his professional competence and abilities were of the highest and his bravery at the battle of Long Tan is described in his commendation at annex A. The formal and almost detached language simply doesn’t do justice to the act.
Colonel Bruce W Richards
Bruce ‘Rock’ Richards graduated from the Royal Military Academy, Duntroon in 1965. In his first year there he was determined to go to Infantry. However, during a field exercise towards the end of that year at Captain’s Flat- (“not at all flat”) while in the field, wet, freezing cold, tired and generally discontent, he was surprised to see a First Classman, one ‘Tubby’ DeLarue arrive in a Mark 1 Ferret Scout Car.
In DeLarue’s hand was a bacon and egg sandwich and shortly after his driver handed up a ‘brew’ of coffee. When questioned as to where these gifts of gold came from, DeLarue opined that this was how AFV crewmen lived all the time. Richards was hooked!
The course at RMC, he says, was truly a test of character and will, while the Directing Staff did their best to weed out those who failed to display the leadership qualities desired. Mere passing of exams was not enough! As with the confinement to barracks regime mentioned in the paragraphs about Roy Hughes, one of the lessons learned from this seemingly harsh treatment was that of teamwork. Cadets survived by the help and guidance they gave each other. Bruce expresses great pride in being commissioned from this prestigious establishment.
(The origin of the nick name ‘Rock’ lies in the mists of time, but perhaps in the Rock’n’Roll ‘60s it was appropriate for a young and forceful officer.)
When the ‘competition’, The Australian Defence Force Academy was established, Colonel Richards was its first Chief Instructor, thus completing a circle of involvement in officer training.
When about to leave for Vietnam, he was seen to the train by his friend Ray DeVere. Richards opined that it was very nice of DeVere to do this, then remembered that there was a beer strike and the only source of the amber fluid was on the train. So, an hour long farewell was held, presumably courtesy of a willing steward, as the train hadn’t left.
On the subject of alcohol, which for so many is, if not their downfall, has been an impediment to advancement, an incident occurred early in Richards service. A bush party was decreed and the young officer was tested by several senior NCOs as to his ability to ‘hold his beer’. At around about 0300 Lieutenant Richards with help from one of the more hard bitten Sergeants was rolling several others into their sleeping bags.
(While the ability to hold ones liquor is not and never can be a criterion of ability or for advancement, it doesn’t hurt in the company of hard men.)
His first contact in Vietnam was a surprise to him as it was for many, as the Viet Cong he saw seemed to be just ordinary civilians until it became obvious that the seeming tools they were carrying were in fact the ubiquitous AK47 assault rifles. So, it seemed appropriate to Bruce and his Troop Sergeant, ‘Bluey’ Boreland that they return the compliment of rifle fire with .50 calibre MG fire.
Later, the 1968 Tet offensive claimed his attention. At one stage, his Troop was ordered into a large village and he was told there would be street fighting at close quarters. Not having been specifically trained for this sort of warfare, he and his Troop had to ‘wing it’, forging their tactical moves as they went along, with B Company of 2RAR. To add spice to this task, an American unit probably from 11th Armoured Cavalry (which at one stage was commanded by Colonel George Patton Junior) blasted through the place firing as Richards puts it “Everything they had, port and starboard!” This left the Australians to a two day clearance, house by house.
War causes many hard decisions to be made. The (then) Captain Richards in the same engagement was fired on from behind a sandstone wall at close range. He retaliated with .50 fire which penetrated the wall and killed the shooter-who was female.
US fire support was a continuing marvel for Australians. A light fire team of helicopters was monitoring his radio frequency and offered help. Richards OK’d this, specifying “No rockets, mini gun fire only.” The US pilot agreed, but Richards was horrified to see rockets fired on the first pass. Since they’d already been used, he said to go ahead anyway.
The US unit mentioned before (on a later occasion) used the unusual but effective method of road clearance by means of an unserviceable M113 hull which they pushed in front of the lead vehicle. (Presumably, the hulk still had road-wheels).
When questioned about the effectiveness of the Cavalry Squadron’s organization, Colonel Richards opines that it worked well, although another mortar carrier would have supplied better flexibility for a Cavalry Troop especially when out of artillery range and indirect fire support was needed.
A Captain commanded a Cav Troop, with a Lieutenant as second in command. The relative seniority of the Troop commander as opposed to a tank Troop where a Lieutenant was boss, was needed because the cavalry would have a much closer liaison with an Infantry Company Commander who was a Major. Captains sometimes win arguments with Majors, Lieutenants rarely.
Another occasion saw his Troop engaged in a fierce, lengthy fire-fight. Richards radio operator caught his attention and told him “Niner (the OC’s radio call sign-it is in fact 9 but pronounced as shown) wants a situation report.” Captain Richards said to tell him ‘Wait out’. (That is, I can’t talk now and will give you the information when I can.)
This caused a blow up of a different kind as the OC, a Major, insisted he have his SitRep. Now, it concentrates the mind wonderfully when a battle is raging about you, your own callsigns are calling incessantly and a little man in black ‘pyjamas’ with a 12 gauge or thereabouts shot gun pops up about ten metres in front of you and lets eight rounds go, without your boss needing to talk to you.
The fire-fight went on for about an hour and a half and finally the OC received his SitRep, only for Richards to get a blast in return and to ‘See me immediately you get back!’ At the Squadron Command Post, Richards was greeted by Slim Kennard, a mug of coffee (50% rum) and an advice to ‘Keep cool’.
A blazing row ensued; the OC was a man not known for his sensitivity to the plights of others, nor his willingness to listen, with Captain Richards handing out a ‘mouthful’ and getting a rocket in return. On leaving the CP, Kennard said ‘I thought I told you to keep cool!’
On the subject of Warrant Officer Kennard, Colonel Richards likens him to Warrant Officer Ivan Maher. Both brash and harsh of tongue at times but behind the façade of the tough hard bitten Sar’major there was in both men a deep and abiding paternal love for their men.
The Colonel is in agreement with the proposition that the RAAC effort in Vietnam could not have sustained without National Servicemen. He says the standard of man reaching the Corps was outstanding, with men of talent, knowledge and inquisitiveness, and, more importantly, displaying the Australian Citizen/Soldier’s willingness to be led rather then driven.
He cites an example where an overzealous young tank Troop leader was continually giving his driver instructions over the intercom as to which gear to select, what to watch for as to ground, what revolutions he should have and so forth.
The driver, a National Serviceman, finally had had enough. He stopped the tank, applied the hand brake and the Lieutenant was most surprised to see his driver climb onto the turret and say, “Look here sir, I don’t tell you how to run the Troop, so don’t tell me how to drive the tank!”
The Honours System fails to impress Richards. The dreadful quota system whereby units would be allocated a number of decorations according to troop strength, no more no less, saw, in his opinion, several men who ought to have been honoured not done so. In any case, it seems to him that the powers that were, were of the opinion that the relevant Trooper was ‘just doing his job.’
He cites a study done on behest of his other OC, the well respected Major ‘Blue’ Keldie. The boss asked Psychologists from HQ Australian Force Vietnam to do a study on M113 crewmen and the result was that they suffered the same degree of stress as World War 2 pilots. The constant requirement of APC support for operations was that stressful. A slight exaggeration Richards relates, but not so far from the truth, is that a new man would be shown his tent and told ‘this is where you keep your kit. You’ll live in your APC.’
When asked what constitutes the character of the RAAC, Colonel Richards says it lies with the officers and NCOs. Given good leaders, with clear orders and encouraged to use initiative, the men of Armour are as good as any. The factors he states are mutual respect, the acceptance of responsibility for the job, response to challenge and the fostering of the aggressive spirit.
The great stress for Armoured leaders he says, is mental, coming from having to think in three dimensions. For example; constant updating of your own grid reference, (ie map reading) listening to radio messages upward from other call signs and receiving them downward from superiors as well as monitoring air, infantry and artillery nets, not to mention where the other vehicles of your Troop are and what they are doing. Add to this Devil’s brew the presence and actions of friendly troops.
Colonel Richards cites three postings as professional and personal favorites. The first was as the Officer Commanding B Squadron of the Third Cavalry Regiment. When he took over there were only four things wrong with the unit. The training was abysmal, the administration was awful, the Quartermaster account was all over the place and morale and discipline were dreadful. When he left they were tip-top.
The second is the Command of the 4th Cavalry Regiment and the best of personal satisfaction was as Commandant of the First Recruit Training Battalion. The personal satisfaction of seeing military blank sheets arrive and twelve weeks later seeing nascent soldiers leaving was “huge”.
After his retirement, the subject of an Honourary Colonel for 3rd Cavalry was raised. The soldiers were asked for their choice (and while not having the final say) it was granted and Colonel Bruce Richards was appointed according to that wish. Few higher honours are granted than this kind of accolade from the soldiers.
Warrant Officer Class Two Robert L ‘Bud’ Abbott
‘Bud’ Abbott is a National Serviceman who, depending on your point of view, either ‘saw the light’ and joined the Australian Regular Army, or went ‘troppo’ and joined the ‘Dark Side’. In fact, quite a few did, the former that is.
When asked by the allocations officer at recruit training as to his choice of Corps, Bud asked for and was posted to the RAAC. Not surprising, as his father used old World War Two vintage Matilda tanks on his property which Bud would help take apart and put back together during school holidays (and it is to be suspected at any other time that might have been convenient!)
Bud was a qualified mechanic, which gem of information the officer concerned might not have known, because it might have led Bud into the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. In any case, after Corps training, he found himself commanding an M113A1 Armoured Personnel Carrier in Vietnam. He was a B call sign (Bravo) the junior call sign in an APC section, the senior having no distinguishing letter, the next senior A (Alpha) and the section numbers for example might be 12 (pronounced One Two). Abbott’s full call sign would be One Two Bravo.
He was promoted to the Alpha call sign then as a Sergeant to command the section.
Bud’s first contact was while operating with Engineers on a land clearing operation. His section had just left its night defensive position by 200 metres when a mine exploded under one of another section’s APCs. The vehicle had a dented hull and ¾ of one track smashed away from the hull in a welter of links, track pins, track pads, torsion bars and road wheels. Bud’s thoughts, like so many, were of the ‘that could have been me’ kind. Luckily in this incident no one was hurt.
However, the next time was different. Arriving second up to a contact, his first sight was the body of a VC who was “a mangled carcass. I realised then that this was the real thing and it was my first dead body. The reality crashed into me like nothing else, ever. ” He was to see more as his tour proceeded. Bud and his section soon realised that a contact was never really over until proper confirmation that the enemy had indeed gone.
After a contact which he assumed had finished, he was astounded to look over at the APC of his friend ‘Davy’ Crockett just as it took two rifle hits, one on the turret and the second neatly clipping off an aerial at its base, leaving behind a peculiar puff of white smoke.
Some time after Vietnam, Bud Abbott was posted to the Driving and Servicing Wing at the Armoured Center, where he spent “the most enjoyable time of my career. It was most satisfying to see young men, many of them mechanical know-nothings, and see them pass out as competent drivers.”
Bud says that even if they moved the Wing from Victoria he would have volunteered to go with it. He eventually became the Wing Sergeant Major.
The normal post war run down of the Army took hold and the ‘track miles’ for driver training were decreased down to1000 kilometres for a course of six drivers which means only 166 kilometres per man, which is barely enough. Later, this was reduced to 800 meaning that drivers were being churned out with incomplete training. Indeed, Abbott on the last day of one course had to hassle his instructors in regard to a particular aspect of the course which they admitted they had not done for this reason. They’d decided that it was better to have a driver competent at least to drive safely and they could pick up the lost aspect ‘on the job’. Bud blew his top and sent the lot out to do the last task even as they were about to board their vehicles for return to unit.
Abbott is critical of the training received before he left for Vietnam. Little was done in regard to the jungle aspect of that unfortunate country.
Bud says the character of the Armoured Corps lies with its men. The way in which regular and National Servicemen pitched in was outstanding in his opinion. He also says that the mental side of things is the hardest aspect of AFV operations. The fear of mistakes when lives are at stake brings tension and apprehension. Having to navigate, call support from mortars, listen to radio transmissions and all the other things is, “Hugely wearing and debilitating to commanders at all levels”.
Bud Abbott’s career was not graced by decorations or awards, but rather typifies the ordinary RAAC soldier who just gets on with it. He is typical of thousands.
Bodies and parts of bodies.
Regimental Sergeant Major of the Australian Army, Warrant Officer Class One Peter William ‘Pedro’ Rosemond, Conspicuous Service Cross, (CSC) Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM)
Peter ‘Pedro’ Rosemond reached the peak of the ‘non commissioned’ military profession as Regimental Sergeant Major of the Australian Army. (RSM-A) This by itself would be an outstanding achievement, but to do it in an Army which has (with respect) a solid Infantry cast of mind perhaps before all others, it is almost unique. It is fair to say that Peter served as much time in non-Corps postings as he did in Armoured units, the mix being 17 years in Armoured Units and the remainder in Army Schools or higher level Formations. His abilities drew the attention of more than one high ranking officer resulting in a long series of Sergeant-Major jobs culminating in the ‘big one’. He served continuously as an RSM in successive appointments from 1983 until retirement, totalling 19 years. Warrant Officer Rosemond was offered a commission with the rank of Major when his term as RSM-A finished, but he declined for reasons which will become clear later.
(The more crude amongst his peers would say ‘rather be king of the shit, than shit of the kings’. Peter would never resort to this vulgarity.)
Rosemond joined the Army in 1967 and resigned in 2002, a career of almost 35 years. He was top recruit in his course at Kapooka and had a leaning toward the combat arms (infantry, armour, artillery, engineers) and as top soldier, he was allocated to Armour. When informed he was posted to Puckapunyal and being ignorant of the location of the Armoured Centre, he stated that he wasn’t very happy to be going to New Guinea! Even allowing for the fact of rapid promotion available in the Vietnam days, his promotion to substantive Corporal within two years is remarkable.
Rosemond initially trained for Vietnam with B Squadron of the First Armoured Regiment, but when the SSM found out that he was not the required age for active service, he was “booted out to A Squadron”. By the time he was of the age, 19, he had been promoted to Corporal and qualified as a Centurion tank commander and on his way to Vietnam.
Soldiers of the Corps were initially posted to One Forward Delivery Troop at Nui Dat, which held men and vehicles for acclimatization and immediate replacement into the Squadrons. Within 48 hours of arrival in country, Peter was plucked from the Delivery Troop by Lieutenant Frank Meredith of 1Troop, B Squadron. Soon after that, he was out in the scrub with his tank, albeit as a crewman to gain experience before taking command. Four hours into the operation, near Binh Ba, he had his first contact.
This was a mine incident. Peter was riding in the second tank, behind that of Corporal Auric Tomlinson which detonated a 35 pound device which exploded beneath the batteries in front of and below the gunner’s seat. The gunner was casevaced with a broken leg and the tank recovered back to the Task Force base and when the replacement tank arrived, Peter took it as his. Tomlinson was relieved and Rosemond, “Inherited the (radio) operator, the driver and a new gunner and away we went!”
Peter recalls two other incidents of note from his tour of operations. The first was another mine incident in February 1970 while operating with 8th Battalion, in The Long Hai hills. Tank Troops were being sent “all over the place”. Peter was ordered to take his tank along a track which had been traversed earlier that day, and while reluctant, went along and the inevitable happened. The mine was big enough to dent the under hull and to push the four round ammunition ready bin up into the breech of the main gun. All the ammo stowed in the floor bins was shattered. The turret floor was a mess of shattered shell cases, ammo bin parts, projectiles and batteries, all covered in cartridge propellant.
The crew suffered. The loader had a broken leg, the gunner a broken ankle and the driver was flash blinded. Peter hauled his crew out onto the engine decks for first aid and casevac. The tank, of course, was in bad shape and as the casualty evacuation was being achieved, the ammunition, as Peter describes it, “brewed up.” (For the uninitiated, a ‘brew’ is a mug of tea-‘brewing up’ is when something catches fire that you really don’t want to! The Centurion ammo load will provide a nice display of fire works!)
The rising heat from fire inside the tank was so intense that it detonated the rounds in the ammo belt on the Crew Commander’s machine gun which sits well outside the main body of the vehicle. The complete interior of the tank was burned out. The propellant inside the high explosive rounds burned well enough, although the shell heads them selves did not, as the spinning action of their passage down the barrel that arms each projectile did not occur.
Although Rosemond doesn’t mention it, one can only imagine the crew and any other bystanders taking whatever cover they could while a hundred thousand dollar deadly fire works display showers the vicinity with un-aimed though still deadly projectiles.
The aftermath saw the remains of the tank recovered. As it was being ‘skull dragged’ away, the remains of the firing switch were found as Peter describes it, “Basically two bits of bamboo separated by a block on each end, wire on each side connected to a nail and a bit of tin, sepaerated by a bit of rubber. Once the nail (depressed by the weight of the tank) went through the rubber and touched the piece of tin on the other side, (to complete the circuit) off it went.” The VC miners Peter describes as, “ Creative” with “Street cunning and their ingenuity was just beyond the imagination of a lot of people.”
In regard to the contentious operations in the Long Hai Mountains, Rosemond says that the dry desolate place (as it was at the time) was as intimidating as he had been told by others. “It was one of those places where, if you have to go, you go, but if you had a choice, you’d rather be somewhere else. The problem with the Long Hais,” Peter continues, “is that the advantage is with the people (VC) who were on the ground in gullies and on ridges and all of that, and for us manouevering, (in tanks) even for the infantry walking, they were at a decided disadvantage all the time. The history of the Long Hais was such that the senior Australian Commanders questioned the worth of going in there because of the casualties.
“At the time, we were aware that this was not a place where you would normally send Armoured vehicles. Back in January of ’70, we did an insertion of an infantry company into the area. The way we did it was the tanks were escorting a Troop of cavalry and the Cav guys did a running drop off where the M113s slow down, drop their ramps and the infantry dismounts on the run. The idea was to give the infantry some advantage. While not fooling anyone actually watching, enemy soldiers at a distance would not hear the vehicles stop and might be fooled as to our intentions.”
The US Army had laid a number of ‘Bailey’ bridges across various waterways in Phouc Tuy Province to replace less sturdy structures. On the return to base from an operation, one of these bridges had been removed and a prefabricated temporary structure put in its place. On arrival at this rickety bridge, Peter told his Troop Leader that, “This bridge won’t hold a tank.” The officer and Peter dismounted and inspected the thing and were assured by radio from Nui Dat that it was a “60 ton capacity bridge.”
Peter remonstrated with his Leader saying, “There’s no way on God’s earth this thing that’s bolted together with shackles and leaning poles is going to hold a tank. It might hold one, but won’t get four across.” His Troop Leader merely said “Pedro, get across!”
The first tank, commanded by the Troop Sergeant, Bill Heise, went across slowly with shackles popping and supports bending. The Troop leader followed and successfully made it, with more of the structure coming apart. Peter’s turn was next and as he made the centre, the whole thing collapsed with a roar and he and his tank were in the creek.
Rosemond remembers that, “The idler (foremost part of the track system) was on one span of the bridge and the final drive (rearmost part of the track system) on the other with the span in the middle collapsed. The question was how to get it out. We towed it backwards and destroyed everything!” (of the bridge).
Lo and behold, the engineers came up next day to rebuild the thing, which took two more days. Peter’s tank “Wobbled across it again-it started to move so we backed off-they shored it up and we finally got across.”
Soldiers take any opportunity to relax when possible. Rosemond’s Troop was operating on the beach north of the Long Hai Mountains. During part of the operation an opportunity arose to run the tanks along the beach on soft sand and in shallow water for a while to clean the tracks and running gear so as to allow them to be inspected and serviced. After this, the Troop decided to have a swim and duly stripped off and found relief from the heat and sweat in the South China Sea.
Murphy’s Law prevailed and as the men were swimming, a helicopter flew over, passed and returned. Peter counted the heads and realised that the whole Troop was in the water. No one on gun picquet, no one on radio watch! The chopper landed and an irate OC hopped out. The Troop Leader, naked as the day he was born, had to walk up to the OC, and stand to attention, hoping that everything that should stop when he did, did also!
Peter took pity on his boss, walked over to the one sided discussion and handed over a towel. Not until this moment had the OC truly realised that he’d been, “Dressing down this naked Lieutenant.”
Another side of the soldier’s lot is to obey orders, hoping that they are thoughtful and considered orders. Peter reflects on such an occasion and opines that sort of thing is done without thinking much of what you’re doing at the time. Later, when the action is mentioned, thoughtful consideration comes into play, and about the following incident Rosemond asks the rhetorical question, “Isn’t that what anyone would do?”
His troop was ordered to traverse a road of mud and bog about knee deep. They were told, based on intelligence, that it was highly likely it was mined. Discussion ensued as to how best to do this (there was no alternate route). Peter decided that the best way for him to get through was to reverse the tank along the road. (There are two reverse gears and a Centurion can go backward reasonably quickly) He off loaded his gunner and loader to a vehicle further back and positioned the turret as close as possible to enable him to see the driver from his commanders position. (The turret rotates 360 degrees).
Now, his Troop Leader was urging him to get off and guide the driver by hand signals. Peter “no way”ed this, saying that if the driver is in the thing, so will I be. Sanity prevailed and the road was traversed, luckily without incident. His crew thought this to be “Bloody marvelous” and as noted before, Rosemond thought nothing of it at the time.
(In the interview with Lieutenant General Coates this willingness to “do as they do” is discussed further.)
Peter was influenced by many people in his formative years. He saw some good examples of leadership and some less than good. He made careful mental note of what worked and what didn’t and made a silent promise to him self that “I would never treat people like that and, alternately, the other side is how I would treat people.” He defines leadership as “Doing the right thing as opposed to doing right.” The distinction is subtle though easily thought through. Some times doing ‘right’ is what regulation and strict interpretation of rules and discipline require. Other times doing ‘the right thing’ is what a decent human thinks needs to be done.
Peter suffered much the same feeling of displacement and disorientation on return to Australia as so many others did. Just days before he was due to return, he was still out in the ‘bush’. With a platoon of infantry, he had a contact. His driver and operator both were in the ‘very short’ category. He approached his Troop Leader on behalf of himself and his crew and opined that it was a little unfair on them. Other returnees were given a week in camp to unwind before departure and here they were, with “too bloody short and being shot at.” In any event, they were back in camp with sufficent time to hand over the tank and equipment and in the blink of an eye were back in Australia.
He took leave on return but wasn’t happy. “It was difficult unwinding, being around people who just wanted to have big celebrations.” Like so many others, Peter found that, as much as people were glad to see him back safe and sound, they simply didn’t speak the same language. Using jargon and military terms which is much of what conversation consisted of just days ago was greeted with confusion and indifference.
So, Peter returned to the 1st Armoured Regiment at Puckapunyal, one of the few Vietnam ‘tankie’ vets to do so. His Troop Leader had farewelled him with the words “I hope you get promoted (to Sergeant) soon.” This left Peter a little non-plussed as he was “Only twenty.”
Soon enough, the Armoured Centre called him, and after his gunnery instructors course he was posted such and promoted. However, before the third chevron could be ‘put up’, he had to wait a while for his twenty first birthday. The RSM at the time, the redoubtable Ivan Maher, refused to allow Peter to be promoted until he reached the (then) legal age to vote and drink alcohol! He rejected the idea of allowing a minor to be a member of the Sergeants Mess perhaps also because Ivan’s daughters were the same age as Peter!
When asked who was the greatest influence in his career, Peter named several individuals from the Gunnery Wing such as Sergeants ‘Jock’ Browning, ‘Blue’ Roberts and Nev Modystack. “They were the people who struck me as being so knowledgeable, so professional that I wanted to be like them. There were many more who influenced me in some way after that, such as my tank crew in Vietnam, John Hawton, Percy White and too many more to list.”
(Peter mentioned his first course at the Radio Wing but skillfully avoided any adverse criticism of the more gentle instructors there. The Gunnery Wing was (is?) a tad more physical and raucous.)
He praises one Corporal John Keys from his Vietnam trip who he says was “The most professional Corporal I knew, an absolute role model. For a young bloke commanding a tank, John Keys was the epitome of what I wanted to be like.”
When Army decided that a new tank was to be purchased, a trials unit was established to test the relative qualities of the American M60A1 and the German Leopard A3. Peter was selected as troop sergeant of the Trials Troop and as a crewman on the M60. After another stint at the Armoured Centre, Rosemond was posted to the Second Cavalry Regiment for two years as a Troop Sergeant. The Regiment then had two squadrons, a Cavalry squadron and an APC squadron. Peter served a year in each, as a Troop Sergeant in A squadron and a Troop Leader in B Squadron, which is only usual when officer numbers are low.
His performance there brought him to the attention of the powers that be and he was offered two alternatives-promotion to Warrant Officer Class Two (he was then 26) or a two year posting to Germany with the British Army. His decision was swift-“When do I leave?”
His job in Germany was as an exchange Troop Sergeant, but within months his Troop Leader had resigned and Pedro found himself as Troop Leader of 3 Troop, A Squadron, 1st Royal Tank Regiment. With six months to go of his tour, the ‘Brits’ asked that he be promoted, presuming that would be to Staff Sergeant. The Australian authorities said that if he was to be promoted, it would to WO2 and so it happened.
Now, in an Armoured Squadron, be it tank, cavalry or anti-tank, there is normally only one Warrant Officer, who is appointed as Squadron Sergeant Major. After some discussion on the point, Peter had to remind CO, RSM and SSM that he was in the Australian Army on exchange and assured them only interested in his Troop and had no intention of any way interfering in the SSM’s domain. His ‘squaddies’, the English soldiers in his Troop, were delighted to have a WO2 as their boss, especially one from the ‘colonies’. They were proud to have a ‘sir’ as a Troop Leader who they didn’t have to salute.
Rosemond compares these soldiers with their Australian counterparts, saying that, “Their professional knowledge was just incredible, but their professional competence was bloody awful.” So, he trained them in the same way as Australian Armoured soldiers are trained (of course adapted for their unit equipment and Standing Orders). In his second year, his crew came second (in the Regiment) and his Troop won the ‘Champion Troop in the Regiment’ competition, no mean feat especially for a ‘foreigner’. He also captained the unit Football (soccer) team which won the local league competition.
One event which he recalls from his time in Germany is the Silver Jubilee Parade for Her Majesty the Queen. As part of the Jubilee, the Queen reviewed The British Army on the Rhine. An airfield was used for the parade ground and four Regiments of tanks and four Regiments of Armoured Reconnaisance drove past the Sovereign in review. The day was completed with a static display and official luncheon. Peter was one of the exchange representatives from the ‘Colonies.’ (Ironically, this parade was held at Paderborn, the World War 2 German Tank School and “Cradle of Hitler’s Panzer Divisions.” (Chester Wilmot-The Struggle for Europe))
As a Warrant Officer Class Two, Peter served in 2nd Cavalry Regiment as an SSM. There, he was informed by his peers that he “should reform his manner and conduct if he had a desire to become an RSM.” Peter opines that this insulting attitude was because of his “Participation in sports and working on my own vehicle and perhaps demonstrating that he was indeed an Armoured soldier in all aspects.” With sweet irony, some of these ‘instructors’ were subordinate to Rosemond when he was an RSM.
Indeed, later he was RSM of 2nd Cavalry and relates the following yarn which illustrates his puckish side.
“While on Exercise Arnhem Phoenix ’85, the Adjutant, Captain Ian Chalmers, commented that he thought it unfair that I was seeing all the Northern Territory while out doing communication recconaisance, so I promised him he wouldn’t leave the territory without seeing a crocodile.
“A few days later, near Timber Creek, we came across a small ‘croc’. I dismounted, caught it by putting a bag over its head and took it back to Regimental HQ. Just on dark that night, I went to the Armoured Command Vehicle and asked if the Adjutant was in there, and the man himself answered.
“I took the bag off the croc’s head, opened the door and chucked it in, shouting, ‘Here’s the croc I promosed!’
“Well, the bloody carry on in there! They ‘bailed out’ and I don’t know if Chalmers ever forgave me! Though, things did settle down and we took some photos before letting the croc go.”
Rosemond describes the character of Armour as “Thinking at 40 miles an hour, not at five! Everything is done at motorised speed, navigation-and your reactions are accelerated! ” The hardest aspect of Armour operations he opines, as do so many others, is mental. “While so mentally alert, tuned and focused, thinking in multi channels (thinking ‘in three dimensions,’ as discussed in a later interview) all the time that by the time you got through a phase of training, or you get to a rest day, or you get to the end of an operation or exercise, you needed to have a good sleep.
“You’re listening to the intercom and two nets (a number of radios tuned to the same frequency is termed a ‘net’- one radio can monitor several ‘nets’) at least, your worrying about your crew and your vehicle, (especially) your driver, the turret must be traversed so as not to hit trees, as your turret can be going one way and the hull another. (Added to this) You have to worry about other vehicles and whether someone is shooting at you, so it is ‘multi channel.’ But the benefit of this is when I was ‘dismounted’ in senior appointments beyond my tank time, I could think on more than one channel, deal with far more than just one issue. Whereas I found some of my infantry mates I found at times were single task focused.” When asked about individuals from time to time by very senior officers, Peter at times described a person as, “Really good, but can only do one thing at a time”, and the response invariably was ‘that’s no good at this level’.
A stint at the Officer Cadet School at Portsea (since closed) was followed by promotion to Warrant Officer Class One and posting to the 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (QMI). This was followed by a short stay as RSM of the School of Armour (formerly Armoured Centre) from where Peter went as RSM of 1 Brigade, normally an infantry position. There, as well, he filled the role of RSM of the Bicentennial Military Tattoo. Infantry noses were out of joint, as Peter puts it, “It was during this time I was informed by a high ranking infantry person that I may be the first non infantry RSM of the Brigade but I sure as hell would be the last!” In fact, he was replaced by another RAAC soldier, WO1 Lou Walker, OAM.
Tough luck for our infantry colleagues!
During World War 2, Australian soldiers were sent to Greece and Crete, where they were soundly defeated, finally evacuating from Crete to Egypt. Rosemond senior had served with the 2nd/2nd Field Regiment (Artillery) and Peter, as RSM of the First Division was, “Honoured to have the opportunity to walk on the beach in southern Crete from where the remnants (including his father) were evacuated while engaged in the 50th anniversary commemoration of those battles.”
In conversation with some of the veterans, Peter found a theme of ‘bad boots’. This was the catalyst for some later action by him.
As his seniority increased, Peter Rosemond found himself to be nominated for the job of RSM of the Army. Without false modesty, he discussed the matter with the then current incumbent, Warrant Officer ‘Lofty’ Wendt and told him that he would decline. This was Peter’s self-analysis of his career at that stage, in that he considered himself too junior and had not been RSM of a Division. He was RSM of a Brigade and had handled the Army Tattoo but felt he needed to do more.
His Brigade Commander felt differently, but Peter’s view prevailed. He was posted as RSM 1st Division at Enoggera, Queensland. In the manner which is prevalent for Senior Warrant Officers, Peter reviewed the ‘field’ for the position of RSM-A. (This process bears no similarity to the narrow, sometimes antagonistic view of competing persons in the commercial world. Almost without exception, in the Authors experience, it is a process of critical self-assessment of suitability).
Again, Peter delayed his own case for the top job, and put his name forward for the job of Academy Sergeant Major of the Australian Defence Force College, it being the turn of the Army for that position. This, he felt, would prolong his career in the Army, afford him yet more experience and, on completion of that tour of duty, have him well placed both in experience and seniority for the ‘brass ring.’
The nabobs of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, however, had not been taking much notice, fully expecting Rosemond to take the RSM-A job at the time, and some were disappointed that he did not. Some, indeed, opined that he had “Shot him self in the foot and would be out of the mainstream and would be out of sight for three years.”
Peter scoffs at this silly thought -being at the premier ‘officer factory’ for the Services, the ASM there could hardly be less in the spotlight. Such senior Defence Force officers as the (then) ADFA Commandant, an Admiral, the Deputy Chief of Defence, the Chief of Defence supervised the place and indeed the Governor General of Australia, who Peter says, “Has an interest in it.”
During the latter stage of his posting at ADFA, Peter received a phone call from the Aide de Camp of the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General J M Sanderson, AC, who wished to see him at 8 O’clock next morning. (This is, of course, code for ‘be there, and on time!’)
Peter protested that he had parade rehearsals for the Chief of the Defence Force Parade. A little discussion took place, and sure enough, Peter kept the appointment.
After some chit-chat, General Sanderson told Rosemond that he had consulted widely and that he, Peter, was “Going to be the next RSM of the Army.” Now, to preclude any “rumors and secrets”, the General had decided to tell him in February but he would not take up the appointment until December and he was not to tell anyone until it’s officially announced! This didn’t happen until the June of that year, so Peter had to keep mum until then, although he did tell his wife!
Before taking up this most senior appointment, Rosemond became embroiled in some very difficult and challenging issues at ADFA. During his tenure, there had been a number of isolated cases of unacceptable behaviour within the Cadet Corps. (Peter does not use the word, but ‘bastardization’ is the generally accepted term).
It had taken two years for him to win the confidence and trust of the Corps of Cadets and to gain an intimate knowledge of the workings of the Academy. This trust had enabled him to bring to light and deal with a number of serious cases. These incidents of unacceptable behaviour prompted Peter to look at the training structure of the Academy and the cultural milieau in which the Corps of Cadets functioned.
This culture was supposed to supply leadership training for the cadets, in that they would manage their own affairs in relation to the day-to-day functioning of the Corps.
His analysis found that while the structure supposedly represented the ‘regimental’ model of team based hierarchy, was, in fact, class based (that is, the cadets were divided into junior, intemediate and senior classes) which was (in his view) dysfunctional and contributed to the concealment of the mentioned behavior as well as abuse of authority. In fact, the culture within the 1200 person Cadet Corps was alien to the requirement of all the services, Army, Navy and Air Force.
This raised two significant issues. The first was that leadership training was being corrupted by the class based culture, whereby all tasks in relation to the day-to-day functioning mentioned were delegated to the most junior cadets, not in a team based way where leadership, teamwork and accountability would be developed. This resulted in arrogance and abuse.
The second was that the Cadet Corps members believed that they were accountable to themselves alone, resulting in concealed unacceptable behaviour and a class or group mentality which covered up serious cases. A strong sense of misguided loyalty prevailed; that is, cadets do not report fellow cadets-cadets do not ‘cross the road’ ie speak to staff about cadet problems.
(The civilian equivalent would be ‘you don’t ‘dob’ on your mates.’ The same mentality allows work place bullies to hide behind this as they carry out their abuse of fellow workers).
Having found a serious problem, Pedro was confronted with the problem of informing his superiors. He wrote his evaluation and more importantly, wrote a proposition as to how an alternate solution would be wrought. He did this as a ‘thought paper’ and personally delivered it to the Commandant, an RAAF Air Vice Marshall. (This might have been with a little trepidation. Senior officers are not usually overjoyed when a ‘bomb’ is landed on their desk.)
Peter hoped the paper would evoke some high level serious discussion and perhaps a review (of the cadet structure). He was astounded to find the paper distributed throughout the Academy and to a wider audience in the Defence organization and this by a senior Staff officer! However, his name was on the signature block and more than one nose was out of joint. The Academy had been operating for 10 years, apparently well and here was a Warrant Officer, albeit a very senior man, telling the Senior Australian Defence Force commanders that it was broken!
A further aspect to the problem was that the chain of (Staff) command placed relatively junior officers Captains (Army), Lieutenants (Navy), and Flight Lieutenants (Air Force) in control of Cadet sub-units. These men had strong links to the Academy and would have cast a Nelsonian eye to the behaviour afore mentioned, thus reinforcing old cultures. Their attitude was, as Peter so succinctly puts it, “Look at me! If I graduated from here and I have done so well, it must be a good system.”
Peter calls these relatively inexperienced officers, “Cadets with work experience.” They were not expert in instruction and training as were the Warrant Officers used in other days at Portsea and Duntroon.
It is the mark of Peter Rosemond’s moral attitude to his role as a senior Warrant Officer and his sense of responsibilty to his duties that he chose to speak out about such things. The details are unimportant, but the weight of the matter, combined with (although he does not say so) the denigration which would have been put about in regard to him by those with an interest in nothing being done, almost caused his resignation.
In his words: “I had to take a break and think about that, because I thought it wasn’t about me, it was about credibility and respect and propriety and all that. I took a break, a long weekend on my property, because I knew whatever decision I made would have profound effect on the Armoured Corps, my position (as ASM of ADFA) and ultimately, me. After a couple of days off away from it; to separate myself from it all and look at it, I told myself ‘you’re bigger than this-go back to work and deal with it! If you’re ever going to be RSM of the Army and you can’t deal with this you don’t deserve to be.’ So, go and deal with it, I did.” (Sounding a little like Yoda from Star Wars!)
Peter’s hesitation in the matter is because of the trust placed in him by the senior levels of the Army and a slight worry that the imbroglio at ADFA would reflect adversely on he and the Armoured Corps and that the Chief of Army might be embarrassed by his selection. Indeed, the Sergeant Major of the United States Army at the time had been dismissed for misbehaviour and while having only marginal relationship to the Australian Army, the example was there for all to see. This would have been extremely embarrassing for the Chief of Staff of the US Army and Peter wanted no chance of such a thing happening in his Army.
During his tour as RSM-A, Rosemond traveled extensively, questioning Diggers at every opportunity about every aspect of soldiering, particularly focused on pay and, most importantly, their equipment. ‘Boots’ being one of the main complaints; the soldiers called the field boots, ‘Pooh’ boots as they were, like A. A. Milne’s character, brown and useless. Some placed a more odorous meaning to ‘pooh’.
Rosemond did some investigating and, “What I found was happening was that for ten years and millions of dollars we were training officers to work in this field. (The testing, ordering, procuring, supply and accounting for equipment.) They would qualify on a Technical Officer Staff Course, tour the world, follow the (defence) deparment process, conduct some trials and then get posted. There was no finite date to achieve anything as long as they followed the process. (Author’s italics)
“The process ‘died’ in my first year and I had some enemies but I was on a winner because the Chief (of Army) and deputy Chief realised they were being snowed, resulting in some resignations.” One year later, the Army had new and imprived boots!
After his four year, three month tour as RSM-A Peter was offered a commission as a Major. Generals Hickling and later Cosgrove were “quite keen” that he be commissioned and indeed the Commandant at ADFA, an Air Vice Marshall, wrote on his report about Peter that after his tour as RSM-A he would welcome him back as a Major in a command role.
Considering all the factors such as what he had done, who he had done it with and the influence he had had at the senior Warrant Officer level and what he could achieve as a commissioned man, Peter declined. Feeling that he didn’t wish for futher service in the Army just for its own sake and that he would not be able to contribute further made up his mind.
As RSM-A, Peter wrote a report after each of his field trips and was having direct input of these to the Chief of Army without auditing or adjustment. Rosemond knows such reports were being, “Filtered back down the chain of command and in to various branches of the Australian Defence Force and other headquarters. As a major, would I be able to write (such) unmodified reports and views and the answer is clearly, ‘no’!” Rosemond remonstrates a little about those sorts of Staff reports which are ‘bounced’ back to the author by seniors who don’t like the tone or are not partial to the truth and have no desire to have such experiences.
During his last year as RSM-A, he was called to see the Chief of the Defence Force. The Chief had intended to write, but rather decided to thank Peter personally for his efforts to explain the problems at the ADFA and more importantly, his suggestions to achieve change. He explained to Pedro that the changes had been made and (positive) results were beginning to show, in his words, “Thank you for writing your paper and explaining the faults and solutions”. This gave deep and personal satisfaction to the RSM.
(It cannot be emphasised too deeply the unusual aspect of this. For non- commissioned men to suggest changes such as Peter’s ADFA paper and his other critiques of procurement and supply, with these matters so dear to the hearts of commissioned officers and have them adopted in the face of what would have been a concerted barrage of dissent, is perhaps not unique but would be close to being so!)
Peter Rosemond’s stellar career concluded with examples of the best in Australian military tradition and the worst of petty and almost insulting inaction. On being extended in the position of RSM-A to help complete the Army Centenary, Peter was given the honour of receiving on behalf of all Diggers the newly created Australian Army Banner, a symbol of the Army and its traditions.
Before the Banner was to be presented, Peter thought hard as to what he would say at the moment. (He was wired for sound and being broadcast nationally.) He took the example of what he knew a WW1 Digger would have said to any of his officers in the same circumstance. So, when the solemn moment came and he received the Banner from the Governor General, after some general words, he simply said, “Thanks, mate!”
As happens so often, when people are in power and consider another person in a bad light, the nabobs of The Royal Australian Armoured Corps (at the time) made no attempt to farewell Peter after such a length of time and such high success which brought great honour to the Corps. He has never been invited to the annual Corps dinner. They insulted him gratuitously by posting his Armoured Corps Certificate of Appreciation with wrong dates, incorrect awards and incorrect spelling. So it goes!
In a most magnanimous gesture, Peter donated his RSM-A uniforms complete with embelishments, to the Royal Australian Armoured Corps Museum at Puckapunyal.
Ironically, Peter is invited regularly to the Infantry Corps Dinner and he was recently asked if he would consider becoming an Honorary Member of that Corps!
Colonel Robert Edmund ‘Bob’ Hagerty. Member of the Order of Australia
Just as (then) Lieutenant Bob Hill had the arduous task of raising and sending the first Cavalry Troop for service in Vietnam, Bob Hagerty had the many times onerous task of raising, equipping and training the first Cavalry Squadron for the same task. He was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy in 1956. His first choice of Corps was Armour and he was duly posted there. He has a family background in the military, his father having served in WW1 and a grandfather in the Boer War and WW1.
In 1965, the Army was expanding exponentially and this caused, in Colonel Hagerty’s words that, “A lot of the staff action was incomplete and poor. I was given in the June (of 1965) a copy of the establishment (of the Squadron) but I didn’t get other essential things. “I didn’t get the equipment table until we got to Vietnam! I didn’t get a training directive so I was told to go away and write my own. I wasn’t on my own. 7RAR and 2Field Ambulance didn’t get a training directive either! We got no Intelligence briefings as to what the place (Vietnam) was all about so I was doing it off my own bat. (He had previously toured with the AATTV, so had a good idea as to what to tell his troops.)
“But a lot of things which should have happened in a military organization just didn’t happen at all. For example, nobody came to inspect my training. The Director (of Armour) did come and sat in my office to discuss the training program. But no one came to the field to see what was going on! We were training without radio sets, in a new APC in a role new to our Army and I would have appreciated a few other ‘tactical’ brains for advice occasionally.
“The role of the APC Squadron was to give Armoured mobility to the infantry and while I continued to ask when was I going to get some infantry to train with, nothing happened. I had produced a six day program for a rifle company and it went through all the drills needed, loading, dismounting, marrying up etc. but we never got a chance to do it!
“In January 1966, I received approval to visit Headquarters, 1 Task Force in Holsworthy. There, the Commander, who I suspected did not know 1APC Squadron existed, gave me a long lecture on how helicopters were going to win the war in Vietnam. He was apparently unaware of the debacle of the Air Cavalry (US) assault into the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam only two months before.”
Instead, the Squadron was sent off to Canungra to train as infantry in a jungle setting. This absurdity had to be undertaken by every soldier who was to go to Vietnam regardless of Corps or job. This took three weeks out of Hagerty’s less than time prolific training program and he says, “The fact that there was no infantry/armour training at all before we left, that, to me, was a weakness in preparing the Task Force for operations in South Vietnam.
“I was told by Headquarters Southern Command that we’d have four weeks in country (to train) before you go on operations but I knew that was highly unlikely! When HMAS Sydney arrived (with the Squadron vehicles) at Vung Tau, the Task Force Commander wanted me up at Nui Dat that day! The vehicles, as well as having to be unloaded were still in a ‘jumbled’ state and had to be organized, the drivers and crew commanders needed to reorient themselves and we had to test fire the .50 machine guns. So, I got a 24 hour period to do this, then motor up to the Task Force area!
“So much for the four week preparation and training period with infantry before operations! So things like that were very bad. At times I was wondering exactly what was going on at Army Headquarters, who was doing the operational planning-it seemed to me that much of it was very optimistic.”
An APC Troop establishment then called for a Captain to command it. Hagerty had not one, and the relatively low rank of his officers caused him some concern. “An Infantry Company Commander, a Major, would look on a Lieutenant with askance, and on a second Lieutenant as some sort of acting blank file (an Army phrase for someone fairly useless). I applied to have them promoted to temporary Captain but this was rejected out of hand.
“With such junior people, Infantry commanders would inevitably try to tell them how to use their Armour. Later on when people became known to one another, there was no lack of respect and no lack of asking for advice. Even so, it was wrong that they sent subalterns to do a captain’s job. Fortunately, the APC Troop Commanders allotted to 5RAR and 6RAR were very capable, with good tank experience and maturity beyond their years.”
Another ‘embuggerence factor’ was that the superb team of vehicle mechanics and other RAEME personnel who had worked so hard to get the Squadron to its relatively excellent state was emasculated with only a quarter of them being allowed to go with the Squadron to Vietnam. The politics of the thing seemed to raise their ugly head, as Colonel Hagerty relates;
“If I remember correctly, the Government said, ‘we’re sending three and a half thousand men to South Vietnam.’ Later on they decided to send the Caribous and the helicopters. These needed about 250 men and I could be quite wrong here in what I’m saying, but if I remember the reason given to me was that the Army was told ‘you have to lose 250 men’ so that the RAAF detachment would be part of the three and a half thousand. That affected me taking less for the LAD. Other logistic units were similarly affected”
In the first few weeks as a senior Armoured officer, (then) Major Hagerty was asked by senior infantry and Task Force officers as to the proper employment of Armour. One of the battalions Hagerty found to be “a little bit awkward” in that when asked about Armoured aspects for a particular operation and given the advice asked, only to find that the Operation Order which was “incredibly long only to find things had changed and nobody had advised me.”
The same battalion tried to strip Hagerty’s Squadron of it’s Armoured Command Vehicle and the mortar ‘tracks’. He had to go to the Task Force Commander and ‘remind’ him of the fact that the Squadron was there to support the whole force, not just that particular battalion, to which the Brigadier agreed. “The other Task Force battalion was excellent. If a change was made to an order, I’d get a phone call immediately.”
On another occasion, Major Hagerty’s advice was questioned in regard to a cordon and search operation where his APCs were to sweep around a village at night on a particular route which would have taken 30 APCs through the village rice seedling beds. Mindful of the ‘hearts and minds’ aspect of such a move, he advised the Task Force Commander, who seemed bemused at this advice, but agreed to alter the plan. So, the Squadron became infantry and cordoned their sector on foot.
The Phuoc Tuy Province had its own ARVN battalion, and the Province Chief asked the Task Force Commander if he could ‘have’ the APCs to which the Commander agreed.
“So, off we went with them and they were excellent! We enjoyed going out with then. It was quite different. The Province Chief, Colonel Dat had this Sergeant Dinh, an interpreter, who looked more like a Korean, a thick set, bull necked fierce looking bloke! We also had an ARVN Sergeant interpreter, a university drop out who was grabbed by the Army when he failed his course.
“I took Dinh with me on several operations (Courtesy of Colonel Dat) so when we picked up any Vietnamese who weren’t in the right area, he could tell if they were Viet Cong or just where they shouldn’t have been.
“Most of the time I had a FAC (Forward Air Controller) with me. We worked very closely with him and placed a different (air) identification panel on each Troop Commander’s cargo hatch.
One of the bigger tasks the Squadron undertook was to escort battery A of the 2nd /35th US Artillery from Bien Hoa down route 15 to Nui Dat. They were M109 Self Propelled vehicles with the 155mm guns.
“So I hopped in a helicopter to meet the Battery Commander, Captain Glen Urie at Bien Hoa and when I saw the M109s, like tanks, I thought ‘who was escorting who?’ To facilitate the escort, I was given a Command and Control helicopter and with two Mohawks (ground attack aircraft) and a couple of helicopter gun ships and two AD6 Sky Raiders (a WW2 propeller driven aircraft) and really that was quite an exercise.”
This Squadron, well ‘run in’ after six weeks in country, was tasked to relieve D Company, 6RAR at Long Tan. Much has been written about the battle itself-the following will deal with Major Hagerty’s experiences with the senior people involved with the action.
When advised as to D Company’s plight, he went to the Task Force Commander to report that he had 27 carriers on 15 minutes notice to move and what do you want me to do,
“ I couldn’t find him at first-he wasn’t at the (Task Force) CP, wasn’t at the Fire Support Coordination Centre where all the other Operations staff were. I found him in his tent. He seemed in state of shock and could hardly speak.
I didn’t know until years later, was that he was aware that the radio set of 275 (VC Regiment) Headquarters had been detected moving across from east to west for the last three weeks! (toward the Australian Base) So, when I saw him at about quarter past four, he must have suddenly realized that the radio set was accompanied by a Regiment of Viet Cong!
“I asked him what he wanted me to do and he replied I was to send a troop over to 6RAR. I could hear the guns roaring and realised that there was something pretty big out there as I’d been monitoring the 6RAR radio net. I was concerned and advised him that a troop might not be enough and might not be able to fight its way through. As it was, (Second Lieutenant) Adrian Robert’s Troop had to fight an element of D445 Battalion attempting to out flank D Company, but fortunately it was not dug in as a blocking force.”
Further to the radio tracking incident, Colonel Hagerty recalls that the radio in question had been tracked by 547 Signals Troop, according to the official history. The only people who knew of the radio tracking were the Signals Troop Commander, the Intelligence Staff and the Task Force Commander. The Staff Officer Intelligence, a Major, went sick days before and the Captain had a nervous breakdown. “I didn’t know and the Battalion Commanders didn’t know about this transmitter.”
When asked why this intelligence was kept a secret, Colonel Hagerty is as puzzled as anyone. “It doesn’t make sense to me! Long Tan was a hell of a wake up call and we were proud of the job Three Troop did there!”
Equipment for Armoured units is almost always their biggest concern. The M113A1s were an excellent vehicle, but lacked protection for the crew commanders. The solution in 1965 was to fabricate gun shields in country. Later, in 1966, a small turret was fitted but this gave other problems.
As Colonel Hagerty explains;
“I saw the M74c turret in Vietnam in 1963 and sent a report to the Director of Armour in Canberra. There was an arrangement of two .30 calibre machine guns, but the left hand gun had to have a right hand feed.” (for the ammunition belt) All the guns sent from Australia were left hand feed. The problem was that the left hand gun’s ammo belt had to be fed over the top of the gun and this was unworkable. As well, much of the ammo reaching the Squadron was of Korean war vintage and many of the belt links were rusty and ‘frozen’, meaning that belts had to be stripped, cleaned and reassembled.
“The left hand gun never worked well and this was so annoying that such an elementary thing should be over looked when arranging for the supply of the gun.”
Crew Commander protection was a high priority for Major Hagerty. Returning personnel from Vietnam had told him of the ‘local pattern’ shields which the current Troop in Vietnam had had fitted, and he tried to do the same for his Squadron in Australia.
“I was getting tremendous cooperation from the Puckapunyal Area Workshop people, and had my eye on some old Centurion side plates (attached to the side of the tank over the tracks and road wheels). One of them was from a tank which had been used at Marlinga for the atomic (bomb) testing. I asked to take them as you couldn’t get armour plate and to have shields cut out and welded together on arrival in Vietnam.
“I didn’t get approval, but thinking back I should have just done it. It annoyed me that 1Troop (in Vietnam) was operating with shields and here I was taking APCs there and also wanted shields. It could have been in people’s minds already to get these M74c turrets but nobody told me they were coming.”
Radios are the RAAC ‘drug’ of choice. Good communications are the absolute necessity for Armoured operations, especially Cavalry. As well as providing the flexibility for which Armour is renowned, radios allow crew members to talk to each other as the vehicle is moving. Hagerty’s Squadron had none for training in Australia. He was assured that they ‘are in Australia, but we can’t find them’. One Friday evening at about 8:30, the Guard found Major Hagerty in his office at Kapyong Barracks. The Guard member informed him that ‘There’s a truck here with stores for the APC Squadron’.
Hagerty went down to the Guard Room to find, “A large semi-trailer throbbing away quietly in the darkness. The driver asked if I was from the APC Squadron and handed me a fistful of hand written indents and the first thing I read was ‘VRC12 radio ‘sets’. So, I said I can’t do anything now; I’ll unload you first thing Monday morning. His reply was that ‘it’s no good to me, mate, I’ve got to be in Adelaide by midnight!’
“So, 8:30 Friday, I’m trying to find a fork lift. I knew the Puckapunyal Workshop had one. Luckily, I found a Staff Sergeant from the Workshop who was in the Sergeants Mess and he brought it over. I dragged a few soldiers from the barracks and a couple of the Guard and unloaded these huge boxes into the Squadron hangar.
“Having got them, I stood the Squadron down from training and the Officer Commanding the Light Aid Detachment (the fitters, electricians and vehicle mechanics) and the Technical Officer from the Armoured Centre, Major Ken Philips to sit down and figure out the way to install the radios. This should have been a Workshop job, but I knew it would take months!
“So, using our own resources, we got them fitted, only to find we had been sent but six sets of (intra-vehicle) intercommunication! We didn’t get the rest until we got to Vietnam, and had to continue the business of shouting at drivers and using sticks to guide them. I would have thought somebody would have rung me and told me that a truck load of radios was coming my way.”
At one stage, on Melbourne Cup eve, Major Hagerty was at the Ordnance Depot at Bandiana to draw his second and larger contingent of APCs. He was told by an Ordnance officer who was shortly to go to Vietnam that ‘no, you’re not sending a troop, your whole Squadron’s going.’ A fine way to hear of a major change in plans!
Colonel Hagerty reflects that early problems when raising the Squadron were exacerbated by the fact that relations with ‘staff’ and ‘services’ at Headquarters Southern Command seemed to be poisonous at best. Without a training directive and an equipment table, things were going nowhere. Hagerty pays tribute to Colonel John Lynch, Commander Puckapunyal Area until December 1965, (formerly an Ordnance Corps officer) and to Lieutenant Colonel Jewell and Major Wiltshire, (then) Assistant Director of Ordnance Stores and deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Stores respectively at HQ Southern Command. Their guidance and assistance was in the best tradition of the Army.
Hagerty served with the AATTV and his first taste of combat was with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s 1st Armoured Cavalry Regiment near Ben Cat, in the Iron Triangle. “We had several fire-fights and triggered a couple of booby traps but the VC would melt away. This was with that Regiment’s 4Troop, about the same size as our APC Squadron, with 40 carriers, 113s, with some infantry on board. Quite a formidable force.
“While posted to AATTV, I was at a place called Hiep Khan, north of Hue, training the Civil Guard over a twelve week cycle. They came from all over Vietnam. We’d have between five and seven companies in training. It was very interesting and I think we were doing a good job. We were under the Americans initially, but they left and we were running ‘committees’ as we called them, each committee taking charge of several different subjects.
“These companies were under the command of Province Chiefs and under the overall direction of the President of South Vietnam. He wanted this force under his political control in case the Army raised a coup which unfortunately did happen just before I left in November 1963. They were doing virtually all the fighting. The ARVN were being kept back for the major North Vietnam push. So the people doing all the patrolling and being attacked by the VC were the Regional Forces, or Civil Guard as they were known then.
“We made quite a few changes to the Program of Instruction which the Vietnamese appreciated. So I got a good impression of the Vietnamese there. The Vietnamese staff and instructors were all regulars. Many of them were recovering from wounds, some quite horrific! This gave me a very good insight into Vietnam and the Vietnamese.
“I had a couple of detachments, one to 1st ARVN Cavalry Regiment down south and then to 4th ARVN Cavalry Regiment in the Quong Nai area south of Danang. Then to an ARVN battalion, the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, 1st Division which was up in the northwest.
“While with 1st Cav, we were driving up the road to Ben Cat and The Captain running the Troop turned to the American adviser and said, ‘Tell Dai Uy (Captain) Hagerty about the big ambush here.’ I later asked the adviser to tell me about it, which he did and I described it later in a tactics lecture to the APC Squadron before we went away as an example of the ‘annihilation ambush’ we could run into. I don’t know what the diggers thought of that! But it was useful in reminding them that this is a major war.”
The Colonel is definite in his condemnation of the barrier minefield laid down in 1967, saying that it “Was a terrible thing that it was ever laid. I don’t think it served any military purpose at all. The loss of life and the loss of mines to the enemy is something quite appalling. I’m probably not the only person who feels angry about it; I was angry about it when I heard it was being laid back in ’67 after I got home.
“Frankly, I felt quite sick in the stomach. Mines were always a worry to us (1APC Squadron), big mines, but as I said to you earlier (in a phone call) one knew how adept and resourceful the enemy were at recovering mines and setting their own types of booby traps. They’d been doing this since the days of the French! To hand them almost 20 000 mines on a platter was unthinkable. Every soldier is taught that anti-personnel mines must be under direct observation. You do not lay them in a barrier minefield.
“Tactically, I just couldn’t see the sense in it! How were you going to patrol the (mine field) at 11 kilometres long with only two battalions and expect the Vietnamese to patrol (one side) and (us) to patrol the other, when the task force base had to be defended and a battalion had to be available for operations. To lose 60 men and all those mines was just terrible because of it as some researcher has recently stated in the TV documentary.
“ The VC would have gone through it, made their own lanes, using them all the time and it wouldn’t have been an obstacle at all.”
When asked as to who in the Corps had influenced him the most, Colonel Hagerty cites Brigadier Ralph Eldridge, who was then (1957) a Lieutenant Colonel and Chief Instructor (effectively, the CO) of the Armoured Centre and also Director of Armour.
“He was a great thinker and he really kept the Armoured Corps in existence in 1960 when the Armoured Corps might have been packed up and sold. He made the decisions that we would take on (the) anti-tank (role) and he was a great soldier and a great man! When it came to supporting the Corps, developing the Corps, keeping the Corps alive, it was Ralph Eldridge.”
(Eldridge served in WW2 finishing at HQ 4th Australian Armoured Brigade. He was later Director of Administration at the Royal Military Academy, Duntroon. It is one of the military absurdities that Eldridge, with the dual ‘hats’ of Director of Armour and CI of the Armoured Center had to write letters to himself.)
Another person of influence on Hagerty was the renowned Regimental Sergeant Major of RMC, Geoffery ‘Fango’ Watson. “A brilliant RSM. A great soldier and a gentleman. They way he handled people on parade and ran ceremonials and guards was great. He put the ‘Military’ into ‘Military College’. Any one who served as a Cadet (then) keeps him in mind.
(Watson, in those times, was almost legendary. If there had then been a posting RSM of the Army, it would have been Watson. When he took a Quartermaster Commission, he was posted to 1st Armoured Regiment.)
The Colonel, when asked as to which was his best posting says he was seconded to the British Army in Malaya for a year, operating as an Platoon Commander and says, “I learned a lot from them. The Training Team was good, but the best job was forming, raising and training the APC Squadron and taking it away to Vietnam. But, being CO of 2nd cavalry regiment was good too. The other job probably I liked was in Operations Branch as a Staff Officer 1 in operational requirements. It was very rewarding, being on staff on the policy side at a very interesting time.”
He sums up the character of the RAAC in these words;
“Armour is an essential element on the battlefield and it must go hand in glove at times with infantry, artillery and enginers, always as a unit. The RAAC had for too long been isolated from the rest of the Army. We were geographically so in Puckapunyal and we never did enough training with the infantry. And from the odd question I ask today, that still seems to be the case. We don’t form combat teams and battle groups as does the British Army.
“In many ways I thought Armour was misunderstood. We just didn’t do enough ourselves to get out. We should have been much more closely allied with the other combat arms. That was a weakness in the Army and it certainly showed out when we (1APC Squadron) went to the Task Force in Nui Dat. Infantry just did not know how to use Armour. Nevertheless the RAAC can be quite rightly proud of what it’s done. We had a great esprit de Corps.”
Colonel Hagerty states that the hardest aspect of armoured vehicle operations is “Everything! You have to be physically fit and what I call ‘tank worthy’; You have to, in similar manner to sailor’s ‘sea legs’ have to obtain your ‘tank legs’, that is, learning how not to jam fingers, crack bones and cut bits and pieces off yourself.
(The simile is quite apt-there are metal protrusions in any armoured vehicle enough to trap the unwary or inexperienced. Simply riding in a Main Battle Tank or APC requires some caution.)
“Mentally a man has to be fit, too, and mentally tough so as to be able to soldier on. So you can do without sleep, being dirty, greasy and filthy and at the same time keep your map up to date and answering the radio. When I first got to the Armoured Regiment we had two months field training and it was quite exhausting. We were breaking Squadron leaguer (a night tactical defence position) before dawn and going into Troop hides (a daytime ‘laying up’ position preparatory to the day’s work). After the day’s training going back after dark into leaguer to refuel, cleaning and servicing and very little sleep because of guard duty. That two months made a great impression on me. In Armour, you don’t have to walk, but you still have to be physically tough!”
(It is not a matter of stopping in place and saying what will we do now? Everything has to be done to a sequence. Not all vehicles can be serviced at once for tactical reasons, and lifting 100Kg engine covers trying to be as quiet as possible is no mean feat. Similar to fighter aircraft, for every hour the tank is used there is an hour of servicing, depending on circumstance.)
When asked as to who he thought was the best Warrant Officer he had seen, Colonel Hagerty cites most of those who could be lumped under the heading ‘the usual suspects’.
“Percy White, ‘Bat’ Latimer, ‘Logga’ Woods, Larry LaMotte, Ted McMahon, Arthur King and Jim Birch. All of these were excellent; in my day, you really looked up to them. I wouldn’t want to single out any of them. I was blessed, so to speak, with having Arthur King as Lieutenant Liaison/Quartermaster and staff Sergeant Maurie Davis as Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant in 1APC Squadron.
“Officers? I can cite Kevin Latchford, who spent seven months with the British Army in Germany and this helped him immensely in organizing Squadron training. Colonel John Maxwell was very good ‘hands on’ Director in his turn.”
For a long time, the Cavalry unit, both while in Australia and Vietnam was known as 1 Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron, a most bland and uninspiring extension of the renamed original Troop, 1 APC Troop. Major Hagerty suggested it be named A Squadron 12/16 Hunter River Lancers (one of the CMF Regiments) but was told no because the Army was disbanding the Regular Squadrons which had for some time been part of some CMF units.
Rebuffed by this but determined, (and keeping battle honours in mind) Hagerty did some research and suggested the name of 6th Light Horse Regiment, one of the old First World War Light Horse. This Regiment had been disbanded in 1948 then reconstituted as a lorried infantry battalion in 1952. Quite apt, given the role of an APC unit! This suggestion went as far as the Chief of the General Staff, but was rejected, ostensibly as the Army was considering raising 2nd, 3rd and 4th Cavalry Regiments, all of which happened. Second Cavalry is still on the ORBAT, the Forth was amalgamated with the Third and now exists as B Squadron, 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment.
Colonel Hagerty also suggested a motto, Nil Nisi Certam (Nothing if not Certain) but this also was rejected. This motto was suggested by General Sir John Monash to Scotch College Melbourne for a House in his name.
(Monash was arguably the most competent allied General of WW1.)
Colonel Robert Hagerty received no Honour for his efforts in raising, training and commanding the first RAAC Squadron to serve overseas since World War 2. This, in spite of the under manning of officers and men, the junior officers he had to go with, the shortages and discrepancies of equipment, the negative attitude of some senior officers and the laissez faire attitude of staffs and some commanders. All of this he overcame through personal effort, supported by dedicated and professional men. His efforts surely were of such value as to attract at least mention. His later career was, happily, crowned by being made a Member of the Order of Australia.
Unbidden Memories.Bodies and parts of bodies.
Warrant Officer Class One William Hugh (Bill) Shakespeare
We’ll get the ‘Are you really William Shakespeare?’ story done first! Other yarns about his adventures owing to having his famous name appear in other places in this book, so one in Bill’s own words will do. (Or close enough!)
In Bill’s day, the recruit course at Kapooka was 16 weks of hard graft, divided by a mid course break. Bill and some others, all from WA, decided that they couldn’t make it home and back in time, so went down to Sydney town, like so many other young and impressionable young men.
They camped at a boarding house and rendezvous’d at the Civic Hotel, in those days having a less than savoury reputation. To stay after hours for the entertainment, a meal had to be purchased (“Mate, a plate of sandwiches‘ll do!”). After a while, with some of his mates already gone, Bill decided to leave. Descending the stairs, he was stopped at a small landing by two ‘gentlemen’ in suits, ties and the usual ‘pork pie’ hats. Now, Bill, 18, 5ft 11 and ¾ inches and 118 pounds and “Built like the proverbial racing pigeon” had no idea as to who they might be, as the following conversation shows.
1st Gentleman: Had enough Son?
Bill: Yes, I’m going
1st Gentleman: What’s your name, Son?
1st Gentleman: Yeah? William, I suppose?
“The carpet on the landing came up to meet me following what I believe was a vigorous right hook to the left of my skull!
1st Gentleman: Don’t get smart with us Son!
“I protested my truth and innocence, fumbled for my leave pass and shoved it in their faces.”
2nd Gentleman: Ahh! Oh! Where are you staying, Son?
Bill: At Country Boarders
2nd Gentleman: Come down stairs, we’ll give you a lift, Son.
“They duly took me to Country Boarders in their unmarked Holden, saw me to my room and left.”
(These were the days of the legendary “Bumper” Farrell and Sydney policing was very much a ‘hands on’ affair. It might have been the Bumper himself who clocked Bill, then gave him his ride home!)
The “Are you etc..” saga can be concluded by Bill’s statement that, “It was wise to use an alias from time to time, or to quickly produce ID when challenged!”
Bill joined in April 1960, swearing allegiance in Perth on the 26th. His father was also William and his great grandfather (who served in the British Army with The Life Guards) was found to be directly related to the Bard’s uncle. He joined with his life long friend Robert (Jock) Browning on the same day and recently had the most sad duty to read the eulogy at his friend’s funeral.
Bill and his fellow West Australians were a feeling a little flat and home sick on arrival at Kapooka, the weather being very cold and the reception very hot! One of the receiving NCOs was the inimitable Lee Bonser who called the roll only to dash it to the ground on hearing ‘Robert Browning, Corporal’ and ‘William Shakespeare, Corporal.’
Bill was most impressed by the standard of instructors and instruction. “Most of them were World War 2 veterans and one, Corporal ‘Bomber’ Harris wore a flying decoration having served in aircrew.”
Shakespeare sums them up by saying, “One realizes how good these blokes were. They really did hammer us day and night. We were extended physically and psychologically (many of us being in our late teens) and we achieved their demanding standards. However, they did this through leadership and not bastardization or shouting in faces. Later we discovered the meaning of following a leader because you wanted to, as against following him out of idle curiosity. One instructor, the PTI, was nicknamed ‘Psycho Sam’ which should explain his attitude to physical training!”
Bill, with others, suffered a suspected bout of meningitis which drew a lumbar puncture. “Fortunately it was clear, although I wouldn’t ever queue to have it again!” He evokes a picture of those days with, “The all female staff traditionally uniformed with sisters in red capes and of course Matron, unquestionably in charge of every aspect of care and administration. They were bloody excellent!”
(The author, as a very junior soldier, had occasion to meet Matron Vivian Bullwinkle, of the Banka Island incident-starched white uniform and veil, red cape, medal ribbons and all. A truly formidable woman! Bill had occasion to be reprimanded by her for returning a nurse to the hospital “two minutes late.)
Bill was posted to First Armoured Regiment and after the normal qualification courses and time as a crewman Gunner/Signaller (all crewmen were dual trained) he was promoted Corporal Crew Commander. During this time, he went with B Squadron of the Regiment to Tin Can Bay training area, the results of which he says, “Warrants a separate writing!”
As this was happening, the temperature of the Vietnam conflict was rising rapidly and National Service was introduced. Shakespeare was told off for a Regimental Duties Instructor course at Canungra and was posted to 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, except that it hardly existed!
The buildings were there, but little else. An RAAC officer, Major Malcolm Count had the task of getting the battalion in shape to receive 1750 recruits. Along with every hand, officers and NCOs, (there were almost no private soldiers), “Major Count was the architect and co-ordinator of this successful mega effort. We assembled and placed in rooms the beds and funiture, cleaned ablution blocks and got things ready for the big start.”
Major Count, during the first two ‘march-in’ days, “Would be everywhere on foot with a man-pack radio on his back co-ordinating everything. He did an outstanding job! (There were) Multiple platoons of trainees in all sorts of dress attempting not to collide as they marched between process venues hounded by immaculately turned out NCOs.”
Bill makes some telling observations about National Service and the results of this training. “When these blokes marched out they were different, changed permanently. Ten weeks of intensive multiple subject/skills and physical work can do the job on almost anyone and I believe in today’s world it should be on the go again! The trainees could go (after their service) to fire, ambulance, aged care, forestry or whatever appropriate service, not necessarily combat service.
“Although, to my experience, many would opt for that! OK, there was the occassional odd man out but 99% of those blokes trained well, qualified well and marched out in fine style on Battalion March Out day!”
Further on National Servicemen, Bill says, “Both in Australia and Vietnam the ‘Nashos’ were great value. I believe that, virtually to a man, they are proud to have served Australia and nowadays are good citizens. They will tell you that they are so very different to their mates who did not serve. To this day, I’m in contact with many and they are by and large achievers for themselves and their families!”
Back at First Armoured and promoted to Sergeant, Bill had success in the individual battle run competition, where each crew is tested in conditions a real as practicable. His OC was Major Peter Badman, “An excellent training OC who knew all the necessary stuff. He was FFF (fair firm and ferocious/friendly). One could accept his quietly spoken, unemotional counsel as he looked at you with steely blue eyes. You knew that it was deserved.”
However, on one occasion which Bill relates, Badman had reason to berate our man. The incident clearly illustrates the pressure under which an AFV crewman is placed. Add to the yarn below the problem of a real enemy and the point is made!
(To set the scene, two crews are placed, say, 4000 yards apart, given a rough advance line with boundaries and let loose. They fire main armament blank ammunition. All orders to each crew by its commander and radio transmissions made to ‘higher’ are monitored by the officer conducting the exercise.)
“One incident I recall was a single tank vs. tank (exercise). My adversary was Chris Jones who, tactically, was as cunning as a toilet block rodent. (Or, crudely, cunning as a shithouse rat!) So, being even more cunning that the aforementioned rodent, I was constantly ‘jockeying’ (a process where the tank is advanced to a crest line for a short time so as to observe, reversed away and driven forward again in to different spot. This observation position is called ‘turret down’, where all that can be seen of the tank from the front is the commander’s head and the aerials.)
“The day was clear, blue sky, late morning, with the ground features gently sloping. (Using an old trick) I was standing on top of the turret with binoculars trying to spot Jones’ aerials as they jiggled up the slope hidden from me-and Jesus! There he is! I fell into the turret, gave the orders to get my crew ready for action and gave the following radio message-TWO ZERO ALPHA, THIS IS TWO TWO ALPHA, CONTACT, TANK-AM ENGAGING, WAIT OUT!
“The ‘enemy’ tank would appear flank on, at about 45 degrees to my front, at about 500 yards range. All this was being watched and monitored by Major Badman in his M113. So, I seized the moment but in the blast of adrenaline forgot to change my bloody turret top (safety) flag! This was it! A moment of glory and victory over Chis Jones!
“I gave the fire orders: SABOT (a type of anti-armour ammunition) 800 (yards-the range-even though the actual range was less as we have seen, for purposes of procedure, a standard range is given here-don’t worry, it works!) TANK! Then laid the turret with my over-riding controller, ordered the driver to advance right and the gunner to report ON! when he had seen the target, at the same time telling the driver to halt when the gunner did so.
“Well! The driver went forward, the gunner shouted ON!, the 52 ton Centurion rocked forward on its suspension as the driver hit the brakes, the loader loads, I shout ‘FIRE!’, the gunner shouts ‘FIRING NOW!’ and….if ever there was a time when you wished you could have stopped an action, this was it!
“Badman, not seeing a red safety flag had advanced close to my line of fire and about a hundred yards away; a micro second after I said fire, I saw this APC with a blond bloke in a Black Beret and radio headset. We had charged up the hill focused entirely on the opposition-Chris Jones! My view of the OC was instantly and violently engulfed in flame, blast, flying pebbles, sticks and dust! I ordered my driver to ‘high reverse’ and drove back off the hill. The breeze quickly cleared the obscuration and I observed a dislodged Black Beret and headset on top of a very unhappy and still recovering blond head.
“It was definitely one of those, “Oh Shit!” moments! My crew started laughing, so I told them to ‘shuddup’.
“I was duly requested to attend an immediate audience with ‘TWO NINER’ (the OC’s call sign) and could see his APC with a peculiar arrangement of dust, pebbles and sticks on it. He spoke to me some way away from his carrier. (It is a canon of leadership, at least in the Army, that NCOs or equivalent are not disciplined in front of the Troopers.)
“ ‘Really, Shakespeare, what the hell do you think you’re doing, safety templates, safety flags, observation etc, etc’ was the tone of the finger wagging audience, his finger, not mine!
“ ‘Some form of retribution might have to be considered! Now go back to your tank!’So, I trudged back to my still grinning crew. As I got a few yards from the Major he called out, ‘And by the way, that was an excellent engagement!’
“I thought, he’s given me a compliment that really means ‘Don’t ever do that again, young man-think every second about what you’re doing and all that’s happening about you!’ I believe this yarn qualifies his successful style of leadership.”
Bill Shakespeare was sent to Vietnam in December 1967, just in time to be embroiled in Tet ’68. He was flown within days to Fire Support Base Anderson to relieve another Sergeant who was suffering from haemorrhoids. His job was as Control Radio Operator on the M113A1 of the (then) OC, Major Gordon ‘Guns’ Murphy.
“There was a lot of full on action there, with attacks on the position as well as outside it in the patrol area. One incident which comes to mind was one night when the OC ‘walked’ the fall of shot of the guns of another FSB into our western perimeter. (The process of ‘walking’ the guns is when an observer, with very careful observation and correction, adjusts the fall of shot by small increments, usually very, very close to friendly troops.)
“This resulted in a numberof VC dispatched and papers captured, some of which I believe were important to the enemy. The combination of Gordon Murphy’s skill with his artillery ‘calling’ and the accuracy of the guns themselves was copy book stuff. The overhead sound of shells arriving, explosions, machine guns, Claymore anti-personnel mine blasts and all the associated battle cacophony are well imprinted on my mind’s sight and sound recall. As they say in the classics, did you feel the earth move? You betcha!”
On another artillery moment, Bill laconically recalls when, “We were shelled by Thai Army 155s. (A seriously big artillery piece!) That was interesting!”
War can have humourous moments from time to time, usually after they have been layered with a fair gloss of lang syne. Just before Bill went to the field, the Adjutant, one Captain Chant, a laid back, unflappable type, arranged an orientation tour for him. Bill explains.
“There were just the two of us in a ‘Red Rat’ Land Rover (such being stencilled on the side) equipped with a machine gun on a pintle mounting, a pistol each and an SLR. (The recently retired, much admired rifle). I drove, with Chant in the passenger seat, no doors, windscreen etc. We toured the Task Force area which was well worthwhile. That done, we headed out for the 1st Logistic Support Group at Vung Tau.
(Or Cap St Jaques, as the French had it, situated on the end of a long peninsular. This is where the Australian Logistics were situated and through which much of the supplies were moved.)
“Now, vehicles in Vietnam were left hand drive, so I had to drive the RHD Rover almost in the gutter and perform interesting manouevres around round-a-bouts. New in country, I was fascinated by the totally foreign scene which confronted me. Ancient animal drawn carts; US Army heavy trucks; private cars; duc ducs (small 2 stroke vehicles); peasants labouring under huge loads, all making traffic chaos. Labourers in the rice fields; some smiled, some wore blank expressions, some glowered
“ARVN soldiers sat or ambled around in small groups, weapons carried any which way. They seemed somewhat disinterested in us or anything else for that matter. Maybe some had a night job as well. (Not unusual-more than one ARVN soldier was caught in Australian ambushes batting for the other side!)
“We arrived in Baria, turned left and headed for ‘Vungers’. However, while negotiating the roundabout there in very heavy traffic, we went the wrong way, having to go over the traffic island for a bit before correcting our heading. (This caused) A bus to swerve, unloading a roof rack of chicken cages, cartons and boxes together with a few fleet footed passengers jumping off, carts going every whichway and motorcycles doing manouevres not often practiced. In the midst of all this chaos, Captain Chant says in his slow, drawling way, ‘Drive on, Shakes, drive on!’
“So, on to the next point of interest, a series of single lane bridges across a tidal flat. Around the middle of the line of bridges was an old French stone and concrete tower. From this tower extended wire cables both north and south connected to large coloured metal discs atop windmill like towers at each end of the bridges.
“As we approach the first bridge, with the sun in our eyes, one of the soldiers manning the bridge pulled levers, the cables bounced and twanged and a disc on the tower to our front changed to red! I stared at this, slowed the Land Rover and asked, “What does that mean, sir?” Again, the Captain drawled, ‘Driveon, Shakes, drive on!’
“Acting on instinct, I dropped a cog and flattened the thing! We were onto the bridge before anyone knew it. One of the guys in the tower leaned out with his M1 carbine, gesticulating wildly and shreiking some high emotion stuff brought his weapon up to the shoulder, then- crack! crack! as the rounds flew over our heads!
“We were now huddled down at about dash board glove box level. I shouted, ‘Jesus Christ, the prick’s brassing us up!’
From the depths of the left hand front seat came a chuckle and a little louder than before, ‘Drive on, Shakes, drive on!’
“We exited the bridges at warp speed witnessed by wide eyed drivers and pedestrians awaiting their turn to cross the other way. They must have been thinking- ‘Crazy Uc Dai Loi!’ (Men from the south-Australians)
“We had a lunch at the Grand Hotel, looked at the Australian installations there and drove home, a little more cautious at the bridges this time! I recall thinking ‘War? What war? Every thing in Vung Tau seemed to be in party mode!”
“Shakes”, as we have seen, was quickly disabused of this.
Bill saw further action at the battles of Coral/Balmoral. The commander of the FSB was another RAAC officer, Bill’s Squadron Commander, Major J D ‘Blue’ Keldie, who Bill lauds as, “Just extraordinary! This man was one who soldiers would walk over broken glass for! We wanted to work for him! The soldiers would see him coming on a morning round (of the FSB) and would hope to get in conversation with him.
“The battles of Coral/Balmoral saw a complete change in the level of offensive and relentless activity by the VC compared to any thing (they did) down south. The area itself was not as populated as those areas we had been operating in and intuitively we realized that this would be much hotter. Just going in, (to the area) on the way, there was a sense of hightened alertness and vigilance. There were many mortar and rocket attacks which were well planned and executed by the VC.”
The next paragraph is quoted from ‘Jungle Tracks’ p176 (Gary Mackay and Graeme Nicholas, Allen & Unwin 2001)
Bill says; “The ground assaults were always preceded (by) a mortar attack, RPGs and thereafter small arms fire. (eg AK47, SKS etc) My APC section was targeted by a mortar squad one night, RPG-7s, which we had never come across before. We had experience with RPG-2s, but the RPG7 had a far greater effective range. But you could tell them by the sound of the booster motor because the RPG-2 goes 'squirt' and the RPG-7 goes ‘squirt’ followed by this quite audible ‘roar’ when the booster fires to get it closer.”
(The generally accepted ‘name’ for RPG is Rocket Propelled Grenade. The initials in fact stand for the Russian words ‘Ruchnoi Pulemet Grenata’, that is, Squad Level Grenade Launcher.)
Bill recalls that he (and all crewmen) were not supposed to take their boots off. He did one night, had to put them on quickly and wound up looking like Charlie Chaplin, with his right boot on his left foot and vice versa!
Shakespeare, like others interviewed for this book, has firm ides as to the stresses and strains experienced by AFV commanders.
“The main difference between tank and APC commanding is the speed of the APC across country. You really have to comprehend that from a navigation point of view. Whereas I never became ‘geographically embarrased’, the potential for it was huge. You had to be on it all the time, using the vehicle trip meter and every other navigational trick.
“I believe it was sometimes difficult as an independent section commander to actually have a handle on who you were to take orders from. Many of our ‘tankie’ peers had little or no idea of the number of independent tasks we were charged with! Sergeant Section Commanders were in some interesting situations fairly often! To my knowledge, these Senior NCOs accounted for themselves very well.”
Further on the physical versus mental aspect of AFV operations, he goes on to say, “I suppose another aspect of crewing an M113A1 in contact is how busy a section Commander becomes in controlling his own vehicle and the other two. (Sometimes three, if a ‘fitters’ track is attached to the section) He is crew commander, gunner, loader, radio operator, group tactician and liasion with the (local) infantry commander. (Sometimes up to Major level!)
“A major difficulty for APC crewmen in my time was fatigue and sleep deprivation. (Warrant Officer Joe Day, attached to the USMC during the second Gulf War, later elaborates on this.) This is, of course, part and parcel of the job. But when doing a thousand miles a week we had drivers going to sleep on the move! Long periods with little sleep didn’t help. Six or seven section members in a section have long shifts on sentry if you are at 50% stand to! In an ambush, at 100% stand to all night is another story.”
Bill is fulsome in his praise for the training he received in Australia before leaving for Vietnam. “(Lieutenant) Blue Guymer, having been there, introduced realistic training with overhead fire of different weapons, simulated mortar attacks and the like.”
As part of his service, Bill Shakespeare was posted to the Driving and Servicing Wing at the Armoured Centre. In this capacity, he was witness to an horrific crash involving an APC and a civilian car. The lead to this matter was the question asked about the standard of first aid training given to Troopers before going to war and he says, “After discharge, I worked for the Australian Red Cross and was trained to a quite competent level in first aid. After this I was more than aware of how poor our training in this matter had been in the Army.
“In fact, I suggest that compared to industry where anticipated casualties are very few, to an organization that can expect multiple massive trauma casualties, our training was extremely poor.Because we often operatred in isolation, a medic was often unavailable.”
Suffice to say about the accident that Bill was hardly prepared for, “A scene of devastating human tradgedy.” This was paralled in Vietnam when his Alpha call-sign struck a mine and was, “Flipped on its back with fatalities and wounded in numbers.”
(This criticism is echoed elsewhere. The trainingof soldiers must be of a nature to prepare them for some of the most horrific events humans can suffer. Even a stint with an ambulance crew or a time in an emergency ward would help. A soldier might go through a 20 year career and not fire a shot in anger, which is hardly the point. War does not stop to allow an unprepared man or woman to learn this sort of thing on the job!)
William Shakespeare was promoted to Warrant Officer Class 2 in that Wing and later posted to the Australian Army Staff (London) and sent on course to that Royal Armoured Corps Centre at Bovington. He achieved ‘A’ passes at the Driving and Maintenance School and the Gunnery School.
“The learning (curve) is quite profound, but the ‘Poms’ are also quite stunned at how the Aussie exchange students do it. (This is covered further in the interview with Lee Bonser.) In fact, I am told by the then RSM of the D&M School that the CO called the course and training officers together and put it on them that the Aussie Warrant Officer was producing outstanding results where they were not. A bit of a feather in the cap I suppose!
Bill was tasked by the Commanding Officer of the D&M School to conduct a survey and write a paper on the future of his school, including how to cope with an anticipated increase in training numbers. The CO was so impressed, he implemented most of Bill’s recommendations.
Other activities he undertook in the UK were as an ‘umpire’ on NATO exercise Advent Express, assessor on Chieftain tank equipped Squadrons (as part of the British Army On the Rhine, BAOR) Proficiency Range Practices, adviser at the Armoured Trials and Development Unit which dealt with various aspects of AFV innovations. He also staffed a stand at the Aldershot Arms Fair where the Australian High Commission directed that all ‘Australia’ shoulder tabs be removed from uniform jackets, as if the accent wouldn’t spill the beans!
About the honours system in Vietnam, Bill says “It is a raw point with some people about who should have and who should not have received awards and the circumstances surrounding particular awards. Someone has to see a man do a deed as opposed to the man who does something very courageous without a witness. (Of sufficient rank to submit the man for the award).
There is also, “The more relaxed standards of, for example, the US Army as opposed to the more conservative Australians. And of course the quota system!”
The resupply system Bill rates as excellent, at least at unit level, that is, what was on hand and needed by men in the field was sent to the ASAP. But the seemingly constant lack of equipment and other stores from Australia evokes memories from him of the oft and ironically quoted joke about a particular item, “It’s on the next Jeparit!” (A contracted ship which transported supplies).
“We purloined stuff from the Yanks and borrowed at other times. The helicopter system meant a lunch of fresh chilled ham and salad rolls with cold soft drinks! It just reflects the surreal aspects of the conflict!”
Sometimes, like many of his peers, Bill is turned off by the attitude of some older servicemen. He recently had an incident with a WW2 veteran who saw Bill’s RSL vehicle number plates and engaged him in conversation. Bill recounts;
“This old boy, 80 something, says with a condescending tone of voice, ‘Oh, you were in that Vietnam show-mmm-(nodding and looking at me with superiority all over his face)-of course you know I was in the big one! We call it the big one!’
“I suffered this ‘attitude’ and more, all the time doing every thing I could to stop giving this old fellow a spray, along the lines of ‘well what did you do in the big one-don’t you realise that I and my mates were shot at as much or more than some who went through the big one and who never fired a shot in anger?’ I didn’t know what this old fellow had done in the war, so I didn’t ‘spray’ him. You’d think he would have given me the same courtesy. It just really pisses me off!”
(Thankfully, this ‘attitude’ which many Vietnam veterans suffered has diminished greatly.)
Shakespeare was good mates with Ronald William Byrne, nicknamed ‘Humphrey’ after a cartoon character. He features elsewhere in the book. Humphrey was greatly generous of heart and spirit but loose with money, which meant he rarely had any, and Bill would, “Fork out the shortfall and he always cost me money. But when he died of cancer, he left me his car number plates, RSL37. So, I started the long procedure to have them put onto my caravan towing vehicle. It stunned me to have to payout $220 in transfer fees and stamp duty-the old dog got me from the grave! I can hear gravel voiced laughter from somewhere above me!”
Bill is, like many others, quite bitter about the Barrier Minefield. “In my opinion, it was a total waste of human and physical resources! We were part of the efforts to breach and clear it. One man, Craftsman Doug ‘Bootlace’ (a play on his name) Borlace was killed by a (M16) mine that jumped up at the back of his 113. Other operations (in areas not properly cleared) resulted in vehicles hitting old CS gas drums and causing temporary but serious incapacity to crewmen including me!
Bill has definite opinions as to the character of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps. He explains;
“What influenced me generally as well as militarily was the leadership and cameraderie in the RAAC during that period. We were told that the RAAC preferred soldiers with a better general intelligence and skills learning aptitude. It is so; in any case our lot was constant learning and moving onto higher skills.
“The RAAC would seem to outsiders to be top heavy with rank, there being a high ratio of officers and NCOs compared to other Corps. But this is explained by the different work and equipment the Corps operated. In any case, everyone, regardless of rank and certainly in the field, had to live and work, eat, sleep and defecate, shoot and be shot at in close proximity. Each had to know the others job, share hard dirty servicing, heave the same rope, so to speak. Reliance one on another to do it right first is a factor. In this light of common, close existence, the rapport between ranks was almost invariably excellent. At the same time, there was little or no familiarity as might be seen in other Corps.
“There were leveling factors, too. RAAC officers were better educated and possibly of greater intelligence. Through association, they lifted soldiers, some profoundly. Conversely, working hands on next to Troopers brought to officers, in some cases, large serves of humility. Not to be under estimated either, was the passage of information about exercises and operations. All ranks attended Orders Groups, saw maps and listened to radio transmissions (while in the field) which all served to keep them informed. We were probably the best informed line soldiers in any battle.
“These sorts of leaders and leadership examples were to influence me in my formative years in the Army. Their examples and demonstrations of timely and appropriate conduct were evaluated and emulated. Likewise, when an encounter with a not so viable character came to pass, that went into the ‘how not to’ file.” (A recurring theme.)
Conversely, later in his career Bill came across the worst example of ‘how not to’. On return from England, with two ‘A’ passes under his belt, Bill was interviewed by the Corps Director. The interview went;
Director: Now, your name was-ah….?
Bill: Shakespeare, sir.
Director: Of course! Now, we have a card for you.
Then; the Director fingers through a box file, finds no card for Shakespeare, William Hugh.
Director: (Calling out) New card here, adjutant!
Bill’s take on this at the time was ‘Career planning at its best! Huh!’
(It seems almost inconceivable that Bill’s personal file had not been produced and perused by the officer concerned beore Bill came in!)
Before discharge, Bill was RSM of the 4th Cavalry Regiment and had bee offered a commission, but declined. Shakespeare worked with the Australian Red Cross as State Co-Ordinator of Training as well as Army Reserve service at an Officer Cadet Training Unit, then in the Air Training Corps. Bill’s varied service to the nation was exemplary. He served with dedication and distinction.
Colonel Francis Adrian Roberts. Mention in Dispatches
Adrian Roberts commanded the relief APC Troop at the Battle of Long Tan. His actions there earned him the award of a Mention in Dispatches. Many voices say his award should have been of a higher grade. His actions at the battle were in the best traditions of the Corps.
Who was the most influence on you in your career?
Difficult to say-no one person stands out and I certainly didn’t have a mentor, if that is what you mean. The important figures in my early military experience in 10th Light Horse were undoubtably people like Major Dudley Cuminsky, my OC C Sqn., our S S M W O2 Peter Simms and rather more vaguely the Adjutant Captain John [Long John] Coates and later Captain ‘Curley’ Templeton and R S M Arthur King who both encouraged me to seek entry for OCS Portsea. Later, in 1Armoured Regiment, the dominant figures would have been the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel F J ‘Blue’ Hartridge and B Squadron OCs Majors Alan Wells and Richard Bird.
Probably the nearest I ever came to (having) a mentor figure was Major R E Hagerty, OC 1 APC Squadron, a man I admire to this day, one who evidenced all the best qualities of leadership as well as being a fine man.
I had been a Trooper and Lance Corporal in 10th Light Horse [CMF] so it was natural to seek entry into the RAAC on graduation from OCS Portsea.
Were you allocated or did you ask for Armour?
To get Armour you had to be selected in those times; it was competitive.
Can you recall your first contact?
Depends on what you mean; I came under fire while riding with Captain Hill at Long Phuoc on Operation Hardihood and subsequently in the Troop under Lieutenant Ross Guymer’s command after 1 Troop personnel had been withdrawn. Later, as 3 Troop we came under what was said to be mortar fire while in support of infantry in minor operations just North of Hoa Long. We were sweeping south in support of D Company 5 RAR under command of Major Paul Greenhalgh, who were on foot when we were subject to airbursts from what was subsequently reported to be enemy 120mm mortars.
During this action, Trooper (Terry) Johnson who was Nick Neihoff’s driver was seriously wounded in the knee and a Corporal from the D&E Platoon from HQ 1TF who was in a blocking line above Hoa Long was wounded and subsequently died. We also had a couple of minor mine incidents as I recall, one of which involved the write off of my Troop Officer’s carrier at Long Phuoc during an operation with 6RAR.
Long Tan was something else again and rather more than a contact as I remember!
How did the organization you found yourself in work?
I assume that you are talking about my APC Troop. We were established as a thirteen APC troop to provide a rifle company lift, four carriers lifted CHQ.
.the troop leader carried the company commander and party,
.the troop officer carried the company 2ic and party,
.the troop sergeant carried the CSM and infantry ammunition, and
.the fourth carrier could be fitted with stretchers and lift the company
Three APC sections [each of three APCs] each carried an infantry platoon.
Due to parts and track shortages early in the deployment, my troop’s vehicles, which had done a year with 1Troop, mostly could only field about ten vehicles. After Long Tan, to meet the demand for APC troops, the Squadron reorganized into three, ten APC troops [2, 3 and 4] and the specialist mortar carriers became Support Section under command of a sergeant.
The Troop organization was flexible and could operate as sections however after Long Tan and the level of combat we had experienced, we were rather more comfortable operating as a troop, or at least at distances that allowed mutual reinforcement, if necessary.
I suppose that I wished we had direct big gun fire support or tanks in the task force because they would have made short work of the enemy we faced at Long Tan and might have faced again but, as is always the case, you work with what you have got, in this case, APCs.
I did think and still do that there was a place for armoured cars as road convoy escorts over the longer routes from Vung Tau and certainly to and from Bear Cat.
Who was the best soldier (officer or other rank) with whom you served?
It would be appalling to nominate an individual, or even a level of command!
Certainly, I think the men of 3Troop, 1APC Squadron were the finest group of men, they were special and to this day I regard myself lucky to have known and commanded them; as I imagine other Troop Leaders would say of their men.
To answer your question, I would say my first troop sergeants in 1 Armoured Regiment:
Sergeant G. B. Snook, a quiet, laconic man who offered guidence to me and at the same time was an excellent sergeant to the troop. He later served with AATTV which really took the best and most experienced of our SNCOs.
Sergeant Tom Philips, who later died of wounds while serving with AATTV, was a kind, patient and fatherly mentor to me, always respectful of my position as Troop Leader, while at the same time an outstanding and knowledgeable sergeant who stood no nonsense. He had 19 years in the British and Australian Armies when we served togther.
In your preparation for Vietnam in regard to administration-was it sufficent? What was lacking, if anything?
I believe that it was as good as the times allowed, remembering it was a different Army in a different society to the one that we know today. The care for our families in our absence in South Vietnam was virtually non-existent by today’s standards and it is the trials of those we left behind in Puckapunyal that still makes me sad.
The administration of the squadron was obviously under pressure because of the realities of that time. Remember, 1APC squadron was raised in June 1965 and in South Vietnam in June 1966. It began with a small nucleus of SHQ and expanded to receive corporals and troopers mostly from 1 Armoured Regiment but also from A Squadrons 4/19 PWLH and 2/14th Q M I. The latter, after completing requisite qualifying courses, became the sergeants and corporals, then had to qualify on the brand new M113A1 APCs while concurrent with these activities the troopers who would initially become the drivers arrived from 1st and 2nd NS intakes from 2RTB at Puckapunyal.
Concurrent with this officers and NCOs were sent off to specialist courses such as mine warfare and formed cadres to train the squadron in such skills while others supplemented staff at Armoured Centre in training emembers of 1APC Squadron as drivers. Then, it was off to Bandiana to draw the brand new APCs and the novelty of driving tracked vehicles down the Hume Highway to Puckapunyal.
That done it was out to the Puckapunyal range for endless tactical exercises, unfortunately never with infantry. All the while reinforcements were trickling to 1 Troop in South Vietnam. Finally, everyone had to complete what was then a four week course at the JTC at Canungra.
I do not recall that in terms of times, we were lacking in administrative preparation. Rememer it was the beginning of a long commitment and by the time I went back as a member of AATTV in 1971 the Army’s administrative system was pretty efficient at processing one forward to South Viet Nam.
Were you and your men trained sufficiently in first aid?
In terms of the requirements of the times, yes we were however in terms of the realities of battlefield casualties; no we were not. Clearly, like the field dressings, first aid training and needs had not kept pace with weapons effects technology and the nature of 1960s wounds I would venture to suggest these were considerably greater than those inflicted in WW2; the era in which our field dressings had been packed! I remember we quickly learned that 1942 shell dressings were needed for gunshot wounds rather than 1942 field dressings.
What did you think of the honours system as it was in Vietnam? For example, a postal clerk in Vung Tau received an MID while one of the Platoon Commanders at the Battle of Long Tan and yourself also received the same relatively minor award.
First, let us be clear a postal clerk did not get an MID in Vung Tau; the first RAASC officer to run a postal service did [the task was previously an RAE concern], he was a fellow classmate of mine. The award of an MID was all that was available in the hierarchy of such things whether for outstanding administration or battlefield contribution. The awards at Long Tan, as I understand matters reflects someone’s idea of relativity. The reality of a quota system made it impossible to recognize all who deserved awards for their actions.
I can say that the three South Vietnamese awards allocated to 1APC Squadron after the battle of Long Tan went exactly as I had recommended to my Squadron Commander; when they eventually surfaced thirty years later.
Was there anyone who should have been honoured and was not?
Yes, there were, but I have come to realize that we were simply not trained in those matters nor were we as conscious of honours and awards as our brothers in other corps in 1966/67. I believe that we were naïve and innocent of any real knowledge of honours and awards.
What was your best posting in SVN and why?
This is an impossible question for me, because my first posting was with an Australian unit, 1 APC Squadron in the 1 ATF setting while my second was with AATTV in I Corps with 1 ARVN Armoured Brigade [Special] and for the final four months with US Special Forces and the FANK project [training and raising an instant army for Cambodia, Republique Kmer].
Both experiences were unique, both were special.
What was your best posting after Vietnam and why?
The posting I found most rewarding was as Armoured Instructor at the OCS Portsea and later as SI Military Arts and later still as SI Tactics. This was post my AATTV experience; I found OCS to be a demanding yet rewarding experience as I watched Cadets graduate, knowing that I had contributed to them as individuals and also to the Army at large.
I might remark that after returning fom Vietnam in 1967, I had a brief but intense time as 2ic of tactics wing at the Armoured Centre before going to 1 Armoured Regiment as Adjutant which appointment coincided with the initial tank squadron being warned for service, training and departing for South Vietnam; it was a demanding and stressful time.
Were you or anyone else trained in calling for artillery or mortar fire?
All officers are trained in the process as cadets but I do not recall that anyone else in the Troop was so trained; it is hard to see how we could have had the time for this despite the reality that it was a skill that could have been required.
Who was the best/most interesting character in your career and why?
That is a very hard question. In as much as a second lieutenant can comment on a CO, I would say Lieutenant Colonel F J ‘Blue’ Hartridge, when CO of 1 Armoured Regiment. He was a larger than life man with a sense of humour and a grasp of soldiering that began in WW2.
When I was a second lieutenant the CO was a god like figure so I was not unnaturally terrified when one day I was called to his office. There he offered me the use of his married quarter while he and his family were away for a couple of weeks.
Unknown to me he knew that there was no accommodation in either Seymour or Puckapunyal at the time, my wife and daughter were living in a backyard flat in Melbourne and that I only saw them on weekends; it was a magnificent gesture by a thoughtful and caring man, one which I remember to this day.
What is your funniest yarn about yourself or another?
Many years ago as a troop leader in B Squadron 1Armoured Regiment, I had made the habit of progressively marking the first two co-ordinates, easting and northing, on my maps in chinagraph pencil and adding the third number as we advanced across the range.
Unfortunately our rate of advance exceeded my progressive erasures as we passed grids, with the result that I added the third figures to a reference which was now behind us. I sent a contact report and an am engaging. Back came a query check grid reference.
Realizing that in terms of the reference I had engaged my Squadron Leader on the ridge behind me, I exclaimed: I’ve just shot the f…ing squadron leader in the backside ’ [unfortunatly, my switch was still on transmit, much to the amusement of the squadron!] Later, I apologized and my Squadron Leader was very decent about my radio gaffe!
How would you sum up the character of the RAAC?
The character of the RAAC, for me, is initially formed as the result of being in an AFV in which the crew is part of a close, cohesive team. It is an egalitarian body at its best, each man with different functions, all contributing to the whole.
By nature, Armour is fast and accordingly, it requires a quick and agile mind that can think well ahead of the rate of advance. This requires decisiveness and timing and a sense of the vital point on which to concentrate. Armour is the Arm of Decision; it brings combat to resolution and that is its raison d’etre!
Armour’s character I would assert is: egalitarian, quick thinking, decisive, timed and focused with an eye to the vital point; it is the combat arm of decision.
What, in your opinion, is the harder aspect of AFV operation-physical or mental?
In my view, and referring back to the previous answer the hardest continuing aspect is staying mentally alert ahead of the situation which confronts or may confront you. If you are moving at 20 kmh then you really have to think both of the immediate front and up to 20 km ahead; contrast that to the foot soldier's rate of advance and consequent thought process.
In a crew situation, the same alertness must be maintained in terms of each other and the vehicle systems. While there are tremendous physical requirements at such times as servicing, loading the main armament or debogging, I would emphasise mental stress!
Replacements-do you prefer the ‘trickle’ system or whole unit?
In the case of Armour, I would prefer a combination, by complete crew or troop. This allows a cohesive and formed element to be inserted into the context of a formed unit and progressively absorbed into the whole. The individual crewman has a problem in that he has to integrate into his crew and then into the wider context of his troop, squadron and theatre of operations.
Did you receive any tips about Vietnam from anyone? What were they?
An older RAEME Officer offered me two pieces of advice based on his WW2 service. If you make it through the first 28 days you will most likely survive. What he was refering is both the acclimatization and the business of learning what is normal and not normal in the terrain, bird and animals routine and in the people and their way of life and the environment around you; only with that sensitivity will you survive.
This was true in both the areas in which I operated, be they with Australian APCs in 1966/67 or the AATTV situations in 1971/72.
The other piece of advice was; Never volunteer unless you realize that in doing so you are volunteering the lives of your troop. This piece of advice speaks for itself.
Finally, Arthur King, then RSM of 10th Light Horse, once told me: “always look into a man’s eyes-if they don’t laugh when he’s laughing you’ve got a problem.”
Would we have received a bloody nose if we had stayed in Vietnam longer?
Certainly from the point of view of one who was in Phuoc Tuy after the Australian Task Force had left, that Province collapsed quickly back to the same level of insecurity as had existed before we arrived in 1966. The level of the enemy presence also increased.
So, it was a reasonable hypothesis to say that as South Vietnam was being heavily infiltrated by the North Vietnamese while Vietnamisation proceeded apace, our lot would have been both lonely and vulnerable, sans US forces, especially US airpower.
In my view, Vietnamization was a betrayal of the South Vietnamese people. It is equally true that had we left our comfort zone in Phuoc Tuy for more turbulent places such as I or II Corps we would certainly have faced more combat.
What was the logistics system like?
In 1966, we were serviced by the Jeparit which, had it carried all that was needed would have been one of the world’s larger ships. It wasn’t and it didn’t and consequently my recall at this remove, is one of waiting for track link, parts and radio harness for the squadron’s APCs and the new radios and harness for 3Troop APCs etc. The ‘log’ system did gradually improve over 1966/77.
Can you comment on the Long Hai Hills?
Not really, the barrier minefield was after my first tour. On my second tour with AATTV, the mines it provided did, on occasion, appear in our area, [B36 camp] at the base of the Long Hai Hills and access to that area was too costly because of mines. This enabled the enemy to regularly mortar B36 with comparative immunity given the cave systems in which to shelter.