Part 4 Generals
The Royal Australian Armoured Corps has been said to ‘punch above its weight’. In an Army dominated by Infantry in numbers and ‘clout’ and other Corps in numbers, it is instructive to note the following two officers reached the highest rank and office available in the peace time Army, that of Chief of the General Staff. For any officer to bulldoze his way to general (or ‘star’) rank is a mark of each man’s character and quality. To reach the highest as these two have shows them to be, without modesty from one of the same Corps, outstanding! Indeed, in the same era, yet a third RAAC officer had the top job, Lieutenant General John Grey, AC.
Lieutenant General Lawrence George O’Donnell, Companion of the Order of Australia
Lawrence George ‘Laurie’ O’Donnell was commissioned into the Royal Australian Armoured Corps from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in December 1954. He was posted as a Troop Leader to ‘N’ (for Nucleus) Squadron in East Hills, near Holsworthy, in New South Wales. ‘N’ Squadron was proposed to be the nucleus of a Second Armoured Regiment which never came to fruition.
N Squadron rejoined the 1st Armoured Regiment at Pucka punyal and was designated C Squadron, in time to participate in the Guidon Parade of 1956. This almost legendary function (at least for some of the older members of the Corps) was reviewed by Field Marshal Lord Slim, the then Governor- General of Australia, who presented the initial guidon to the Regiment. Along with his fellow Troop Leaders, O’Donnell had to fill in (by giving the necessary orders) for his Squadron Commander, Major B J McLean, who had lost his voice during the rehearsals.
At the Royal Military College, Cadet O’ Donnell did the Engineering Stream (one of three, the others being Science and Arts) up until his final year when the Corps preferences were allocated during the first term. “I opted to got to Armour as I didn’t want to be a military engineer, which upset Professor Sutherland who was the pure mathematics lecturer, as I was good at maths and other engineering subjects.
“I never regretted that. We went on to do our Corps specialization in the last two terms with a lot of interesting guys who graduated into Armour from my class. We did a trek, with two Staghounds (an obsolete Armoured Car) and a couple of Ferret Scout Cars along with a GMC (truck) which was our support vehicle. So, we trekked to the Jenolan Caves and the Blue Mountains area, down to the coast and back up to Canberra. Whilst driving a Staghound, with (Cadet, later Lieutenant Colonel) Geoff Sims as crew commander, one of our engines caught fire!
“Geoff immediately ejected the (side mounted) petrol tanks, one of which rolled down the mountain side, which meant we had to stay there all night, parked on the side of the mountain, with small fires lit at each end of the convoy to ensure no traffic would run into us. Next morning, we were recovered by our support vehicle. We had to tow the Staghound by use of crossed tow ropes. I was still ‘driving’ which was very heavy going without the engine and power steering. The classic happened; we came down through Braidwood. There’s a ‘T’ junction where you come off the hill road and you turn right to go through the centre of the town back towards Canberra.
“The GMC was towing us-Craftsman Lyle Kraft was driving it- and going at a lickety-split pace. We came to the corner and he swung wide and there we were at the end of the towropes in this bloody great Staghound driving, or rather, steering it. We swung just as wide and clipped off the verandah posts of the town store, one, two, three, four; click, click, click, click! The whole verandah roof collapsed! Quite amusing, in retrospect!”
The legendary Warrant Officer Class One ‘Fango’ Watson was the RSM of RMC at the time, except that during the middle of O’Donnell’s final year, 1954, he accepted a Quartermaster’s Commission. Not unusual, except Fango opted to stay on as the RSM to finish that year. So, he conducted the graduation parade as the RSM, albeit a Lieutenant, wearing an RAAC black beret and carrying a pace stick. A truly unique occasion! After the graduation, the class presented him with a gold watch and he wore that with pride. Many years later, many graduates were at a Barbeque at RMC and he was there. It was most amusing to see many of the officers who’d been cadets under him as the RSM standing to attention as he walked past pointing to their shoes and saying ‘You haven’t cleaned those, Mr so-and so!’”
General O’Donnell recalls when ‘Fango’ was Quartermaster of 1st Armoured Regiment. “I can recall him doing the sword drill with the officers for the Guidon Parade. Fango was acting as the RSM of the officers, if you like! As recent graduates, we (junior officers) knew it but some of the others didn’t and I remember him giving the CO some stick! He was a tremendous character!”
When asked about the attitude of other Corps to Armour in his early days, O’Donnell says that infantry-tank cooperation was good and some of the other Corps people had been to Korea and worked with British Armour there. Owing to the great fire-power demonstrations held at Puckapunyal, he opines, the knowledge of Armour was, “Pretty good! But, of course, the tanks were stuck in ‘Pucka’-that was the problem. It was only much later that the mechanised infantry concept got going.”
In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Armour was regarded as a ‘go nowhere’ Corps. However, the Vietnam War saw the Corps going places and General O’Donnell says that while Vietnam didn’t ‘make’ Armour, “We had two significant things happen there. Firstly was that we got the 113 and we got the diesel version, the M113A1. We went to Vietnam with it and it proved to be a winner from our point of view. Even the Americans were envious as they had the ‘E’ version, the petrol type. (This version had a propensity to catch fire). So, getting the M113A1 into Vietnam was a very great plus for the Armoured Corps! Of course the second thing was getting the tanks up there in 1968! That was, obviously, a long slow process of getting it done, but when it was, it was most advantgeous for the Corps. It brought us into the combined operations side of things.
Author: In your relatively junior days, about 1965, when our APC Troop went over, I gather that Colonel K R G Coleman MC, the Corps Director at the time, had the Devil’s own time convincing people that we ought to go. Is that so?
O’Donnell: Well, maybe. I was at Staff College at that stage. I was posted to the Directorate from there in 1966, as Staff Officer Grade2 Policy and we had a lot of argument and discussion as to whether we should send tanks or not. I think (Major) John Keldie at that time was in the Directorate as the Technical Officer. It was a long slow process convincing the powers that be to do this and K R G Coleman pushed hard, as did the other (Corps) directors, they were all pushing hard. They were all trying for their own.
And (Brigadier) Stewart Graham, despite being maligned about the mine field, he was also there helping as was (Major General) Tim Vincent amongst those who wanted tanks in Vietnam. And we got them there!
A: I was just glad that we went.
O’D: Oh, yes! When you look back at some of the comments that came out from the Commanding Officers of the Infantry Battalions who had tanks supporting them in Vietnam, they had nothing but glowing compliments. There was a very interesting one written by (Lieutenant Colonel) Jim Hughes of 4RAR at that stage and (Major) Peter Burke who had C Squadron (of the 1st Armoured Regiment) when the tanks were withdrawn. It was a very poignant comment as to how they’d lost something they’d worked with so well.
But, it was good for the Corps to get the tanks out of Puckapunyal into Vietnam and yes let’s face it, it was great!
In relation to the question as to whether the Corps has lost its tank versus tank capability, General O’Donnell says that it could be argued that, “We haven’t had the opportunity for tank versus tank battles, which is a good thing in another sense. I think, though, our training has been first class, if you go back and think of the things we used to do-Troop battle runs, (shoots at) moving targets and all those sorts of things and the manoeuvre exercises and so forth. It (the experience) was there and we did all the shoots against tank targets; but, we didn’t have the experience of being shot at by other tanks.
“So, you can’t say we’ve lost the capability, it’s a question that we have never experienced it in battle. You’ll probably ask later about the T54 (Russian tank) versus Centurion. The T54 was in the Arab/Israeli wars. The Israelis were using Centurions, modified to a certain extent, but even so… and they performed very well! The Centurion, of course, had a very good hull and very good armour and that made it a very competitive tank, and this allowed them to survive a lot of terrible stuff in Vietnam.”
General O’Donnell opines that the ‘trickle’personnel replacement system in Vietnam worked well, particularly with National Service in being. But he also says that either (trickle or whole unit replacement) would work depending on circumstances in which you do it.
When asked as to the proposition that the Corps, and the Army generally would have suffered through a diminution of experienced soldiers if Australia had stayed much longer in Vietnam, O’Donnell is quite firm in his opinion.
“We had a 45 000 man Army then, with National Service in being. We had a task force in Vietnam of, what, three, four thousand plus people and, so, we had one there, one in training and one in reserve. You could do that, with a 45 000 man Army! Whilst you might have a trickle system replacing those people, you had nine battalions, three there, three training and so on.
“You work that against, for example what happened in Timor and we got away with that, luckily, I suppose, to a certain extent. If it had gone any longer, we didn’t have the depth or the numbers in the Army to sustain a brigade in Timor. But we could do it in Vietnam.”
On the point of the loss of depth of experience, he says, “Well, you could argue that, let’s face it, if you have the where with all for three groups as I said before, you have the ability to build up that experience. But, no, we’ve always been a very small Army, with experts in what they do and obviously there will be an attrition process. Training people to take their place just takes time.”
The interface between senior officers in operational situations can, at times, become strained. General O’Donnell says that he had no problems on that score. “Personalities come into it. We had the First Battalion and Three and Four RAR, they all worked well. I recall taking the whole Squadron out to a Fire Support Base well up to the north (of Phuoc Tuy Province) and presenting myself to the CO of the First Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Phil Bennett (later General Sir). I walked into his Head Quarters tent and said, “Colonel, I’ve come to take your Battalion away!” And he replied, a little testilly, “What d’you mean?” Of course, I was there to uplift his unit. He saw the droll aspect of my remark!
“Generally speaking, I think the Cav Squadron In Vietnam did an outstanding job, not only in patrolling….one of the regrettable things of course is that they were sometimes used as tanks, which they weren’t! As far as patrolling was concerned and escorting and all those sorts of things and, God knows the tremendous amount of ambushing that went on as well which was also terribly good!”
A recurring theme in observations and answers to questions is the lack of knowledge passed back to Australia in regard to conditions and operations in Vietnam. General O’Donnell says that, “It varied. You find that the training we did before going, Jungle Training Center and all that was good, but you had to do a little delving yourself to find out what was going on and what was happening! (You mentioned Lieutenant Colonel) Bob Hill. He was my Platoon Sergeant in 14 National Service Training Battalion over in Western Australia many years ago. He went on to do a tremendous job, and was awarded the MC.
“Generally speaking, we punch above our weight. Our guys are well trained, they contribute to what’s going on, they’re good communicators to get things done.”
O’Donnell’s preparation for Vietnam didn’t quite reflect the norm, as he went to a Staff job, at least initially. “You had to be aware of the circumstances happening there (in Vietnam), all the information flowing back and forth in SITREPS (Situation Reports) for example, what you were going to do….and who you were taking over from, too! I had a personal brief and that was most helpful.”
His initial job was as GSO2 (Operations) at Head Quarters Australian Force Vietnam (AFV). “ The Commander, Australian Force Vietnam (COMAFV) was (Major General, later General Sir) A L Mcdonald, a very fearsome general! I arrived in Vietnam in May 1968, just about the time when (the battles of) Coral-Balmoral took place. Where the tanks were involved as well and did a tremendous job. I remember going with General McDonald up to visit the troops after the action had taken place, and he was very ‘gung-ho’ wanting to get up there to have a close look.
“We got to the forward trenches, the vehicle bunds, if you will, of the Fire Support Base. They’d had the night before a massed VC/ NVA assault on that base and they’d (the tanks) used canister rounds to great effect. (Canister-a full bore, shot gun like round, discharging some hundreds of lead pellets). Interesting to see the damage they did!
“I remember the General striding out in his greens and and he was wearing his khaki cap with its red Staff Corps band. I said, “For God’s sake, Sir, give me your hat.” He replied, gruffly, “What for?”
“I said ‘They haven’t cleared the place yet and there are guys out there who’d like a ‘red hat’, they’ll shoot you!’
“ ‘Ah, they won’t do that!’ he replied, and kept walking. That’s a Commander, I suppose, demonstrating his ability.”
The Cavalry Squadron establishment and organization was modified to reflect the reality on the ground, as General O’Donnell relates. “I think what we did in Vietnam was to modify it to the extent that you knew what you had to do in relation to lifting a company with a Troop. So, instead of having 13 APCs we reduced it to 11, so we had enough to be able to lift the companies as they were and this gave us extra vehicles to put into Squadron Headquarters and other places to do other things, like resupplys and so on.
‘There was a tremendous variety of things we did, apart from escorting convoys, lifting infantry, getting involved in fire fights, you know what happened at (the battle of) Long Tan and providing all the extra support. And there was ambushing. (Captain) Tom Arrowsmith and 2 Troop were extraordinarily good at that, ambushing at river sides and tracks and so on.”
The subject of the barrier minefield draws definite comment. “Laying that sort of minefied in those circumstances obviously proved to be not the best thing to do. You can’t blame entirely, I suppose, the people on the ground as they thought that it was the best thing to do at the time. When you think of it, any barrier minefield has to be protected and defended (with) fire over it and that’s what they failed to do. So it was available for the Viet Cong to come and lift it. It obviously wasn’t really a good idea.”
The logistics system was quite good, according to O’Donnell. His 2i/c, Captain (later Lieutenant General) John Grey stayed in Nui Dat making sure the squadron was well supplied. “We were always out in some Fire Support Base somewhere and Squadron headquarters usually got the job of Fire Support Base defence coordinator. As well as the other things I’ve outlined! But John worked back at Nui Dat and we never had a problem. Certain things we couldn't get sometimes, but that's like everything else. So, you scrounged them usually off the Americans, or whoever!”
The honours system in Vietnam failed to impress the General. “I don’t think it worked well. It was too hidebound in the sense there was a quota and all those sorts of things. I can recall putting up some people who in my opinion deserved a Military Cross, for example and all they got was a Mention in Despatches. And that happened more often than not because the people in charge of it back in Australia and other places didn’t recognize the nature of the beast and just put a quota on it.”
“That’s a tough one,” General O’Donnell replies when asked as to who influenced him mostly during his career, “because there are a lot of good people out there who you have been mentored by. When you think about it, I suppose, it’s the commanders at each level that you experience; as a Troop Leader, your Squadron Commander; as a Squadron Commander, your Regimental Commander and so on down the line. I think that we (the Corps) were blessed with good commanders; people who knew what they were doing and who could pass on their skills and knowledge to their subordinates.”
‘Characterising the Corps’ evinced the comment, “That’s a difficult one. Probably a ‘can do’ attitude! Everyone says ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that’-we just get on and do it! And all those good things you read about, the (textbook) characteristics of Armour; flexibility, speed, armoured protection, communication, they’re all there. And that was demonstrated by our guys. Also, we have a very good Regimental system. We look after our troops and our families. We have a very positive ‘can do’attitude.
(The ‘looking after families’ aspect was, in the Vietnam times at least, called the ‘No Dad’ arrangement, ie, the family temporarily had ‘No Dad’, and a person left in Australia (of the man’s Regiment) would be detailed to see to the welfare of a particular family.)
The ‘wear and tear’ aspect of AFV operations is neatly divided by General O’Donnell into the ‘sharp end’, that is at the Troop level in the field and the command and control part. (For) “The guys down there on operations it is very physically difficult. For those running the show, it’s quite mental in a sense-you have the combination of the two things. The training by our Corps, when you had to do a Troop battle run or somesuch and went on to the next phase-your communications had to be right, map read on the move all these became second nature after a while. Then, the crewman has the physical side, keeping the vehicle going, doing all the maintenance-but the crew commander is involved with that aspect, too, so he has a ‘double whammy’ so to speak.”
(Map reading on the move in an AFV is no mean feat, especially in poor weather conditions.)
When asked as to his most satisfying posting, General O’Donnell, laughing, says, “I suppose you’d have to say CGS, wouldn’t you! That was the pinnacle of being in the Army. It was very satisfying. As with all things, there was good and bad about it. For example, in my time, we made the decision and moved the First Armoured Regiment from Puckapunyal to Darwin. That saved the tank, or the Armoured Rgiment from a point of view in the Army at the time. I can recall, for example, in early 1990, when the Minister for Defence Mr. Beazley and myself went up to Palmerston and we turned the first sod for the new barracks.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Who’s the sod?’ Anyway, that was the start of Robertson Barracks. One of the good things, amongst many others.”
“Back in the Malayan emergency,” the general recounts, “We used to send a couple of young officers, Troop Leaders and a sergeant to Malaya to spend time with a British Armoured Car Regiment. Ivan Bates, myself and Sergeant Kennard went up to First King’s Dragoon Guards in 1957/58. It was an intersesting time. We were, in fact, there when Merdeka (Freedom) was declared on 31st August 1957.
“Not long after arriving in Malaya, the Squadron I was with moved from Kuala Lumpur to Kluang in North Johore. During a routine patrol one day-we had two ferrets, two Daimler Armoured Cars and a (Saracen) APC in the Troop. The sergeant would run half the Troop and the Troop Leader the other half. We were patrolling through a pineapple plantation when there was a rapid burst of fire off to our flank followed by ‘Contact right!’ The sergeant wanted to get stuck in, to sort it out.
So, we did the classic, quick contact reaction-‘fire support left, APC right, dismount the assault Troopers,’ and did an assault on the area of the plantation from where the fire had come, only to find a ‘deer stalker’ acetylene gun, those set up with a water drip release set to fire at intervals to frighten off deer and other pineapple predators. So, it was a very good example of a classic contact drill manoeuvre against no one. Amusing in retrospect!”
The Warrant Officer and Non Commissioned Officer part of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps was, “Very strong. The backbone of the Corps, I think! In more ways than one. They were the men who kept the new young officers in line. You’ll probably ask me who was the best, but I can’t say. I can remember guys like Cross, Heathwood, Langtry, Ballentine, Cabban, Hughes, Maher, Ghilchrist, Woods, R K Hill, Fitzpatrick, Malone-they were characters who were irreplaceable.
“But the thing about the Corps-we were small, we knew everybody, we were like a family, we looked after our soldiers and they looked after us, in a sense. We looked after their families-there was a great esprit-de-corps. The regimental system we operated in the Armoured Corps, apart from the Army in general, was the envy of the Americans and other people. They just couldn’t understand how it worked!”
‘Laurie’ O’Donnell was awarded a Mention in Despatches for his work in Vietnam, appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 1986 and elevated to the degree of Companion of the Order in June 1989. After retirement, Lieutenant General O’Donnell was appointed Honorary Colonel of the first Armoured Regiment and the Representative Honorary Colonel of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps.
Looking at an enemy soldier for the first time.
Lieutenant General Henry John Coates, Companion of the Order of Australia, Member of the Order of the British Empire
General Coates was kind enough to be interviewed and this is reproduced almost verbatim, without the ums and ahs, extraneous material and irrelevant side comments. (Mainly those of the author!) The General frequently uses the second person singular, ‘you’ in the abstract rather than the personal.
Author: Sir, you were Commissioned in ’55?
Coates: Yes, commissioned from Duntroon in December ’55.
A: And you retired in 1991 as Chief of the General Staff?
C: No, to the former, May 1992 and yes to the latter.
A: Now, Sir, you served with B Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment and Headquarters Australian Task Force?
C: Correct. For the first half my tour I was commanding the Cav Squadron, the second half I was G2 Operations which you well know is the Brigadier’s principal operations officer, you write all his orders and send out Frag Os (Fragment Orders) and all that good stuff.
A: Sir, in your essay in the Australian Army in the Vietnam War,* you quote (from) Tanks Against Japan. I remember reading that many years ago. One of the things then Colonel Graham said was that ‘AFV crews when they go overseas should be about ten per cent overweight’.
C: Yes, I remember that. I’ve always been surprised at that because if you’re over weight you’re not fit. And his notion was the exigencies of the Service are going to cause you to lose weight anyway, but I wouldn’t have wanted to go to Vietnam other than fit. Certainly when I was G2 Operations I lost weight, I can remember that. You would be woken up in the middle of the night, you didn’t eat properly and so on. I don’t necessarily agree with General Stuart Graham’s admonition.
A: You might remember in the letter I wrote to you I mentioned a Captain Norman Whitehead. His task with tanks (at Buna) was pretty much what our tanks did in Vietnam which was close support. As far as I can see, that’s all we’ve done with tanks. We’ve never had a tank versus tank battle-have we lost the tank versus tank capability?
C: Let me answer that in a rather round about way. At one stage of my career I went on exchange to the British Army as a tank Squadron Commander with the Royal Scots Greys in Germany. Admittedly we weren’t up against a real live enemy although the Russians were always watching us from the other side of the Elbe and we were watching them.
There you were such a small fish in such a big pond and you were reacting in your training to what happens if the Russians come at you that, God, you were all over the place. I can remember we were the heroes of the hour for ‘clearing’ a village in five minutes. I got to Vietnam and it (the same type of operation) took me about a bloody week because you had to dig the enemy out! So you do things in training that differ in some respects from actual operations, and your question is a good one; when you’re put under the microscope of the fast moving sort of training I had in Germany you literally sink or swim. You have to be very fast, to give orders quickly, receive orders quickly, you have to do it all verbally, you have to do it in the middle of the night. I think apropos of your question being able to do those things and also work very closely with infantry is what Battle Groups and Combat Teams were all about. It was a bit different from what I was used to in Australia, because you got so much pressure from the top.
I’m not sure whether the same terms apply (here) but there, the Scots Greys was allied with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment. (Infantry) My Squadron had an affiliated company that I worked with most of the time and very often I was commanding more infantry than I was my own tanks and the OC of the infantry company which was of course APC (mounted) was commanding more of my tanks! And you swapped that over depending on what the nature of the countryside was.
Germany’s funny; they talk about the North German Plain-it’s nothing like that at all, it’s built up, and there are bloody great forests and so on, so you’re switching composition all of the time, whether you’re withdrawing or advancing or attacking or whatever. That’s something I’ve never found particularly replicated in the Australian Army. You can do it, but it’s like every thing else it’s not just a technique, I’ve never felt Armour was a technique it’s a state of mind-you’ve got to be very, very quick. If you can’t get your personality across on a radio set you’re out of business-go and join some other Arm (of the service).
I’ve met a lot of officers in my time, very good infantry officers, who are very stolid, very successful, very methodical but that’s not the sort of mentality you need in Armour.
A: The pace of the boot, as Brigadier Bryant put it.
C: Yes, you really have to do things bloody quickly-certainly Cavalry found that in Vietnam, as you know because your Troop was chucked around all over the joint. Once we got to Nui Dat you had ready reaction Troops on instant readiness and we prided ourselves on being able to get on the move in three minutes and all of that stuff and so you set norms that people lived up to because they were doing it.
But, the question you have asked- we’ve tended to leave a lot of that highly flexible stuff behind and it’s a great pity. You really only get it when you train with a large force overseas. I’ve also operated with the Americans at Fort Hood in Texas and although I don’t think their drills are anywhere near as good as ours they had to react in the same way, and we haven’t done that for a long time.
A: So, that’s one of the characteristics of Armour; flexibility which I’ve noted…
C: Yes, absolutely! I mean, it is and to be a bit crude about it, you need the sort of person who’s prepared to go ‘balls to the wall’ if he has to. I had to go one night out to Xuyan Moc, as it was under attack. The Brigadier said “Can you get your ready reaction force and go out there” (which is a polite way of saying ‘get moving!’) and I thought, well, this is getting a bit complicated, because we don’t really know the size and shape of it so I commanded myself. I usurped the ready reaction Troop Leader’s prerogative and I ended up with a mixed force of part of my Squadron Headquarters, a Troop of tanks from the Horseshoe (a prominent feature near the Australian base) and other bits and pieces that we picked up on the way, Infantry from 7 RAR and you’ve just got to be able to do that. And I can remember afterwards someone said ‘you perhaps took risks’. Well, If you don’t do it, you don’t do any thing- I knew the road could have been mined-in a sense I fully expected it to be but nevertheless, you’ve got to do it!
A: It’s better to be damned for doing something than be damned for doing nothing.
C: Absolutely right! I’d rather have a Troop Leader who was fast even if he was a bit stupid rather than some one who was a bit stolid and wouldn’t arrive on time. ‘Ask anything of me but time’, said Napoleon. But any level you’re at in Armour you have to be able to move bloody fast and do things on time.
A: Would you have been like Napoleon when one of his Generals was proposed to him for promotion to Marshal and it was said of him, good tactician, good with the soldiers, good planner etc and Napoleon replied, “Yes, but is he lucky?”
C: Yes, exactly, you’ve got to have luck. That’s right. But in a sense, you create your own luck and you do that through life. You have to take some risks.
A: So, the ‘trickle’ system against the whole unit replacement. What was your preference?
C: Oh, look, I would have far preferred to train the whole outfit in Australia as an entity, done test exercises with the comparable infantry battalion which was also working up to go then go as a whole group if I could. A lot of people thought the trickle system was very good. I really didn’t. I thought in a lot of ways what it did was to perpetuate the worst lessons of our type of soldiering rather than the best. I remember when I got to Vietnam I noticed the blokes took the Brownings (machine guns) out and dunked them in a mixture of deiso(line) and petrol and then dried them off and put them straight back. I said ‘Why the hell haven’t you done your checks, your six point checks?’
The answer was ‘Well we knew the guns were firing properly the other day and we didn’t want to upset the timing and headspace’. (two of the critical tests done before firing). That’s bloody stupid! You’ve got drills to do that but that sort of lesson was being perpetuated. I also found that everyone seemed to be using American radio procedure and I was pretty keen to stick to our own rather than use theirs.
So, on the other hand, as I explained in that article, there were quite a few things you needed to know and having an outfit there which had been doing these things and sending the info back was very helpful to the unit back in Australia. I was commanding the mirror image of our Squadron in Vietnam when I was at Holdsworthy and getting information back from people, often in the form of personal correspondence was helpful. I still think on balance, though, I’d prefer to go en masse rather than trickle.
A: Fine. Which leads me into my next question about passing on of experience. Brigadier Bryant said that hardly anyone did. I know that (then) Captain Bob Hill drained all our brains including his own, wrote it all up and offered it onward, so to speak, but people seemed to say ‘thank you, but no thank you, we know what we’re on about.’ So, would you agree that the passing on of information, at least in the initial stages, wasn’t all that good?
C: Oh, absolutely! I found that a lot of it came down to your friend in Vietnam sending you back personal correspondence and tips. But you shouldn’t have to do it that way! I mean that there’s a hell of a difference between declaratory doctrine and practical doctrine, declaratory being the stuff that’s put out in pamphlets and what the various schools put out but then you’ve got to massage that into something that the people can use in the field and it’s got to be timely. I mean, you’ve got to get it to people before they bloody well go there, rather than after they’ve arrived and trying to catch up!
In the Squadron I took over, we didn’t have Standing Operating Procedures (a set of standard methods to operate). (Captain) Bob Hill came over as my 2ic and he’d been my Troop Sergeant way back and I said ‘listen, we’ve got to bloody well do this’ so we started to get all this stuff together and get people who’d done something that was very good.
For example, we got (Sergeant) Ed Levy who’d carried out some very successful ambushes and said ‘righto, you’re Mister Ambush-write up a chapter for the SOPs on APC ambushing’ and someone else did the same thing for ready reaction-there were a whole series of them. But it’s a bit late in the day to be doing that- I didn’t get there until 1970 and the Squadron had been around for a fair while. But, you tend to get rushed off your feet and it’s better if you’re not!
A: That’s exactly right. Brigadier Bryant…
C: Is that Luigi Bryant?
A: Yes. He got that (nickname) at RMC I understand.
C: I had to go up when I was CGS to the Northern Territory and he looked after us and I said the only thing that hasn’t changed around here is Luigi’s mustache which was just as big as it was when I remembered him way back!
A: He said that if the Australian Army had stayed in Vietnam past about 1971 we would have got a “bloody nose”. He described it as saying that ‘the depth of experience was rapidly running out’. Do you agree with that?
C: Oh no-I didn’t think so! Quite the reverse in fact. I thought we got better. I’m not suggesting the people before were not smart or professional but I think a number of things had settled down-so that you weren’t living from hand to mouth in terms of your equipment. I take my hat of to the Troop from 4th/19th because you had bugger all. They even expected you to go out there and carry stores for the logistic outfit. No one knew what APCs were! We should have known all that! I’d been using them in the British Army on exchange. Admittedly the way they used them there was different from that for counter insurgency, but a lot of these things got better over time. I think we got more professional over time.
We probably weren’t thrown around as much as you guys were. I know that your time with 1RAR (First Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment) Group that you were on the move a hell of a lot. One of the differences that I found when I got there as distinct from my predecessors who commanded the Squadron who told me all about it was that that the enemy weren’t coming at you in quite the way they were, say, in 1967/68/69. They realised that the Americans were going to get out and so they sat back a bit and you had to go and find them. So, in a sense, you had to hone your skills even more fervently. On just about any day in Vietnam, there were usually four helicopters up in the air.
Three of them belonged to the Battalion Commanders, the other one belonged to me. I was going around with my nose just off the ground in this bloody Sioux and your crown jewels are so very vulnerable. You’re down at almost ground level looking to see how recently someone has crossed that particular stream, whether there are fresh foot marks and so on, looking for the enemy. Trying to work out which way he was coming at you or where he was, where his resupply parties were going.
We were starting to get pretty good at it and in the series of Cung Chung operations trying to separate the guerillas in the sticks from their supporters in the populated areas. That was starting to become the sine qua non of counterinsurgency as I saw it. That is, you have to separate the insurgent from his support; doesn’t matter what the support is, if it’s Al Queda you have to cut off his money, cut off his source of recruits.
A: That’s Mao’s classic phrase, the guerilla swims in the sea of the people…
C: Yes, at one stage of my life I wrote a thesis on the Malayan Emergency and it’s since been published as book called Suppressing Insurgency. I can remember when I was cranking myself up to do this I thought ‘This will be easy’. All I had to do was go and find out what the Navy did around the coast, what the Air force did over the top, what all the infantry battalions, the artillery and the (British) Armoured Car Regiments did and just write it up.
It was a complete mistake; I mean all of that sort of stuff is antiquarian. What I needed to get into was how the Police Special Branch operated; what was the real cutting edge against the insurgency and really, the military side of it, although very important, because you’re the only outfit with all the firepower to restore the balance if anything goes wrong. The real people that you need are the Police Special Branch and very good police officers. Because they’re the people who know how to interact with the civilians and how the local government structure works and so on.
There are a couple of key officers in this structure. One was called the MILO, Military Intelligence Liaison Officer, who liaised as the name implies. The other one which was absolutely key was the Military Intelligence Officer, The MIO. What you did was to get a good combat officer who was a bit smart, who knew something about intelligence already and stick him in the Police Headquarters to work with the Special Branch. His special job was to extract the information on which you could base ambushes and patrol actions and so on, from the massive amount of stuff the Special Branch got. And this guy was worth his weight in gold because he could give you the sort of information some poor suffering infantry Platoon Commander needs before he starts laying an ambush.
We were starting to do (just) that in Vietnam and do it bloody well! I mean on any night there could be up to 50 ambushes around Dat Do and they frequently were triggered. A lot of them weren’t, but we picked up a hell of a range of information over time and we cut them off; these people would come down from the Long Hai hills to get into Dat Do to pick up torch batteries, drugs, food, money et cetera.
A: I’ve always said that the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese knew they had the war won as soon as they went to the peace table and your remarks that they seem to have faded in ‘70/71 indicates to me that they were just laying back until they knew everyone was going to leave.
C: I think that there’s a lot in that. There was a particular North Vietnamese army unit, 33 Regiment NVA. Now, they’d been, on paper, decimated three or four times. By the Americans at the Parrot’s Beak (at the Cambodian border), by our own tanks at (the battle of) Binh Ba in 1969 and who reappears in the bloody Province in the second half of 1971? 33Regiment! Here was this unit, completely refurbished, new green webbing, new green pith helmets, AK 47s, RPG7s the whole box and dice! And, with very professional tactics, the ‘close embrace’ so you couldn’t hold them away from you so as to use gunships, artillery. They would get right up against you and hold onto you.
A: ‘Hugging the belt’
C: Exactly! And punch with the other fist! And so that was an example of them keeping their credibility, presence et cetera, but they did it pretty sparingly. I mean, there were not so many big contacts as had been in previous years, certainly not on the scale of 1968.
A: Now sir, as a hypothetical, if the other side had had tanks, the T54, how would the Centurions have gone in a tank versus tank battle?
C: Oh, extremely well in my opinion. I mean the Centurion, even with the 20 Pounder (gun), which was an old gun but a bloody good gun! And you would have needed more of them, that’s the difference. I mean the North Vietnamese folk played this very cleverly. It shouldn’t escape notice that although they had run the South Vietnamese ragged in counterinsurgency, their eventual assault from the North was done in conventional fashion. So the Americans, who had first of all trained the South Vietnamese Army to resist a North Korean style invasion, were not as wrong as a lot of people believed. You had to be prepared to do both. Fighting from fire support bases is very different to fighting from a properly organised defensive position and being prepared to counter major thrusts that come at you in a mobile fashion. So you needed to be a jack of all trades. We all know that one of the most important things you need to do as a soldier, an officer, is to be an ‘all rounder’ because you don’t know what the hell is going to happen next!
Doctrine must be able to cope with that and so must your drills. I’ve always been a firm believer that you train people across the board as much as you can. I can remember one of my Troop Leaders (with whom General Coates had discussed the subject) when I took over the Cavalry Squadron saying ‘Sir, if we use fire and movement from outside the Nui Dat gate down to Baria we’re going to be laughed out of the Province’. I said ‘Yes, but you’re not going to do that! You only need to use fire and movement once you’ve made contact’. You don’t laboriously do that for the sake of doing it. It’s a means to an end. You have one ‘foot’ (supporting vehicle/ unit) on the ground so it can fire in your support while you’re moving.
A: That’s one thing we did-we had the old ‘snake patrol’ (moving vehicles in a snake or caterpillar like manner) and that was useless. As one of the French generals said, ‘In war, you do what you know’ and when you’ve done what you know and it doesn’t work you have to think of something else.
C: You’re absolutely right! You have to be very careful about what drills you practice and train people on and maybe they have to be modified. That’s the nature of the Military Art; you’re continually modifying what you do. But you’ve got to start off with a pretty solid base of doctrine in my opinion and its got to be well thought out and has to be translated into SOPs so at least the unit knows what it’s doing at that point in time. If you have to change it, OK, change it, but change it from a firm base. Don’t be continually reacting to some ethereal things that someone else said or some soothsayer told you about you’ve got to do it from a firm base.
A: That reminds me of the old public service joke about doctrine where the public servant gets to a conference and says ‘you did what?’ and the other fellow says, ‘yes, I did, and it worked very well’. And the public servant says ‘well, it might work in practice, but how does it work in theory?’
C: Yes, I know, and it really gets your goat. I mean, you don’t want someone to quote ‘page five line seven’, and it says so-and-so; you’ve got to use some common sense and be prepared to adapt it yourself. But it has to be from some sort of firm base.
A: Exactly. Sir, what about stress? I heard that Major ‘Blue’ Keldie got some psyches down from Saigon to do a brief study on AFV crewmen and its findings were that they suffered the same degree of stress as World War 2 pilots. Is that so?
C: I would think that could very well be the case depending on what situation they were in. ‘Blue’ was there during (the battle of) Coral and Balmoral and subsequently for some of those (other) actions. It could be pretty stressful. I had a driver once- we went out in ambush and he kept coughing. I had been chewing gum for about three bloody days and I gave him some and said ‘Chew that and stay quiet or you’ll give us away!’ But I think that was stress. I’m not sure that I may be saying something that might affront you, but I had a number of blokes who had come back on their second tour. While some of them, I remember a bloke called Bob Hunter, he was bloody good, but there was another guy, I won’t tell you his name, who sort of ‘lost it’ and so I think that was also the result of stress.
But it’s also the result of the fact that he wasn’t smart enough to realise that. When he came back for his second tour the whole complexion of the war had changed. And he was a dog that couldn’t learn new tricks. I remember fronting him and I was going to fire him but I didn’t. I probably should have. But I think that was the result of a lot of stress on the first tour which he couldn’t remember in retrospect and when he came for the second tour he just wasn’t with it.
A: I think I know who you mean, but ‘no names, no pack drill’.
C: It’s just one of those things. You’ve got to be very careful, and people have to keep their standard of discipline up. I remember I went out to visit this bloke one day and we were all talking in the back of the track (APC) and he said ‘There’s only one Noggy here and that was the Vietnamese scout, who spoke English. He was a Sergeant and I hauled him out and really went right ‘up him’ and said, ‘Don’t you ever say that in front of someone and don’t bloody well call people slopes and gooks. It’s so offensive as well as unprofessional.’
A: Well, it is, it is. You commanded the Squadron. How did the Squadron organisation work? I mean, was it flexible enough or too restricted or what?
C: It’s an interesting thing. I wrote a paper while I was there, and what I was saying (in it) was that the APC organisation was a better Cavalry organisation than the Cavalry organisation itself. And the reason was that when you are doing the sorts of things we were in counterinsurgency, the greatest thing you can have is a hell of a lot of small sub-units (APC sections consisting of three vehicles) that you can move all over the place and have all over the place, decentralised but controlled.
For example, we obtained some intelligence that they were going to attack Ngai Giao, that Roman Catholic village up north of the Task Force base. So, I sent a section of carriers up there under a Sergeant and they created a presence. But just the fact that you put this small outfit in the village was a wonderful deterrent. I just found that the ability to decentralise a 13 carrier Troop into its various bits under good Sergeants was a better organisation. I mean if your’re doing reconnaissance and providing security just by your presence. And it is important to do is just that. You’re not trying to fight the way a tank outfit does; it’s rapier versus broadsword stuff, the Cavalry being the rapier.
You almost deploy as if you are going to attack but you don’t put the attack in; in other words, you put yourself round the opposition as much as you can without delivering the coup de grace because that’s not your job. Your job is to feel him out, find out where his flanks are and what his positions are. Where he’s strong. I just reckon that the APC organisation being as big as it was and being able to be decentralised under these Sergeant patrols was just fantastic.
A: What about the logistic system?
C: We were much more flexible in the way we were doing things in Vietnam as compared to what they were doing in the Second World War. I think mainly because the means for logistic re-supply were so much better and for repair and recovery and re-supply of ammo and all the rest of it. When you’ve got the ability to fly stuff in with helicopters when you were a bit short, gee, that makes a difference. You asked the question what would have happened if he had produced tanks; what really worried me is what would have happened if he’d produced ‘stingers’ (the hand held anti-aircraft missile), or any of the equivalent shoulder fired anti air weapon. Because, boy, oh boy, if your helicopters start getting shot out of the sky, you’ve got a real problem. You have a (logistics) problem anyway but I still think it would have worked well.
A: Colonel Bob Hill was your Troop Sergeant before he was commissioned. Is there a tale to tell there?
C: Who, R K? He was my Trop Sergeant at Puckapunyal (Army Camp). I don't think that we had been well tutored enough to be able to train our Troops then as I was able to do later. I certainly- my experience in Germany taught me a hell of a lot- I’ll tell you something else. I went back to the Armoured Regiment as (a squadron) 2i/c in 1960 and the Squadron Commander I had was a fellow by the name of Frank Duncan. Frank was a most unusual bloke. He was irreverent, he was iconoclastic, he was a terrible bugger in a lot of respects. He would have an ‘orderly room’ (disciplinary hearing-in days long gone it would be heard in the orderly room) but he would take the bloke aside before the hearing and they would agree what the bloke would get (as punishment).
And then he would go in there for the hearing-it was all a farce, but by God he was bloody good! He taught me more-and we worked together- we developed a series of SOPs. We were dealing with a three tank Troop then; two tanks forward, one back, and we had all these clever things, bombing up drills and refueling drills and I wrote them up. We talked about them; I wrote them. And I found that when I got to the Scots Greys that the drills I produced there were better than what they had.
The difference he (Duncan) made was that he had been teaching people coming through the Armour School where we used to have an ‘L’ system. That is, the CMF units would come down, take over a squadron of tanks and then the CMF officer would be given an ‘L’, (a regular Troop Leader.) to keep him on the straight and narrow. I was an ‘L’ a couple of times. I would sit on some blokes tank turret and tell him what to do or what not to do.
Now Frank sort of got the essence out of that and we developed a hell of a system for moving very quickly. I would ‘nick-number’ the features so you could tell a bloke where to move to next very quickly One of the hard things I found was that the CMF blokes were not confident about how to handle a troop; especially how to give orders. on a microphone. You’d give a bloke a microphone and say ‘Hey, what I want you to do is to tell your Troop to move from here to there’ and he wouldn’t know how to do it.
He’d hold onto the microphone and freeze! He’d ask ‘Do I tell them to go around that tree and that stump and all that stuff, or what do I tell them to do?’
C: Exactly! And what you needed to do was to was what I did in Germany was ‘nick-number’ the features so that you could call the shots very quickly. I remember I got into strife with some boffin from D(efence) S(ignals) D(irectorate) who said ‘The enemy can read you.’ I replied ‘Bullshit! I’ll be moving so fast it won’t do him any good!’ And I reckon that’s the answer to it. So, you develop everything down to sets of drills that your soldiers can understand and that they can use.
A: That’s the key to it. I use as an example a new officer to Vietnam who took a minute and a half of radio time to tell a call sign to move to a particular place. When he’d finished I came up with ‘One One Alpha, right twenty (metres) out’, at which my call sign moved quickly to that place. The officer looked over to me as if I’d used magic. I think that pushed home a lessoC: Yes, that’s absolutely right. You just can’t afford that time! You can’t afford someone to be taking up the air while he says something laborious. My commanding officer in the Scots Greys was a fellow named John Stanier who later became Chief of the General Staff of the British Army and a Field Marshall.
We were operating this particular night with a company of the Gordon Highlanders who’d just come back from Konfrontasi against the Indonesians. They’d been fighting a real bloody war! We in the Rhine Army weren’t. We thought we were pretty hot but we weren’t fighting a real enemy. Any way, this company commander came up to me (on the radio) and was explaining something and he said, ‘I don’t know about the veracity of this’.
John Stanier cut in (on his radio) and said, ‘Stop talking such fucking cock!’ This blast went all around Rhine Army, I mean every crew commander could hear it, every driver could hear it (each crewman has earphones and while drivers can hear radio transmissions, they can only talk to fellow crewmen), and our hair stood on end. You become sharp as a tack when you have some bloke who’s putting this sort of pressure on you from the top-you realise that you’d better shape up!
A: The honours system in Vietnam. A lot of people have said they knew people who should have been honoured but weren’t because of the ‘quota’ system. Is there any comment?
C: I have to tell you that every bloke I put up for something got it. I put Ed Levy up for a Distinguished Conduct Medal and he got it, I put someone else up for a Military Medal and he got it. I’ve since been putting people up and I’ve never had a miss. You must realise very much in advance how a citation is (to be) written and a hell of a lot of people don’t. It has to begin in a certain way and end in a certain way-the stuff in the middle can be what you like, but the way it ends must be exampla gratia ‘a great credit to himself, to his organisation (whatever it is) and the Australian Army’. Something along those lines.
I had to put some bloke up for an Australian award not long ago. I think a lot depends on how you phrase it and how you do it and how timely it is. Yes, there is a quota system of sorts-there certainly was in the Second World War. I’ve written a book about the 9th Australian Division in New Guinea and there was a man named ‘Dad’ Woods (he was older than most) who was put up for a Victoria Cross for an action at Kumawa, south east of Sattelberg. It (the citation) went all the way up to the Division Commander, Major General Wooten who recommended it.
Then, two weeks later, (Sergeant) ‘Diver’ Derrick almost captured Sattelberg by grenading a whole company of Japanese out of their pits one at a time. And they put him up for a VC and he obviously got it. Woods was reverted back to a DCM so there was a bloody quota. Certainly for decorations like that. (In the imperial system, the highest, VC the second highest, DCM. The Victoria Cross is retained in the Australian system with the suffix ‘for Australia’). I think it’s easier to put someone up for anything less than a VC. The quota always seemed to me to be on VCs, much less than the others.
A: In your article you quote Santayana; there’s another one-I can’t remember who said it and it is ‘the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history’ which is an oxymoron, I guess. Do you agree with that sentiment?
C: No. I believe that one of the problems I detected in the Army is that every now and then someone does something that he thinks is a smart suggestion, and if we went back through history we’d probably find we were doing the same bloody thing and probably doing it better in a previous incarnation. Admittedly things change and equipment changes, but I’ll tell you what, human nature doesn’t change all that much and if you’ve been good at identifying quality, just in the way that I said before about Frank Duncan, really distilling the essence of the way Armoured troops should be trained. Not by some dull, rote system, but by using imagination and rat cunning you realise the difference. No one else had done that, in my experience in the Armoured Regiment, or anywhere else in the Armoured Corps until we, Duncan and I did that then.
And as I say, even though he was as unorthodox as all hell, nevertheless, that was something that stayed with me for just about the rest of my life.
Now of course you have to adapt (that sort of thing) to different circumstances but the reason why I push military history is that you can learn a hell of a lot from it. But you’re learning much more from the interaction of personalities and circumstances than you necessarily are from the hardware and the technology.
A: Can you remember your first contact?
C: Ah, In Vietnam? Yes, some bastard shot at me!
A: How dare they!
C: (Laughs) I went through this little village just near Dat Do and there were a whole lot of people in the market place and I waved to them and they waved back. Next day I went back-I must admit I used the same route and it was the same time of day and some bastard shot at me. It goes over your head like a bee; you know you’ve been shot at. I just said to the driver, ‘Go go’ and we got out of there.
To be entirely truthful, you tended to find yourself reacting to some of your Troop’s contacts and trying to do what a good OC ought to do, that is, back them up and try and settle the guy down and see how you can help if necessary but not interfere. When I got there, I was losing a carrier a week on mines and some of them were bloody big mines! In the order of 40, 50, 60 pounds of Chicom plastic explosive with the simple sort of switch made out of a nail, a boot polish tin and a battery.
I reckoned that we had a big morale problem. So, what I did-I had a crew of two in (my vehicle) call sign 9 and I said ‘We’re going to start moving around on our own’, and we did. We hit a mine one day, only an M16 but it frightens the hell out of you-but the reason I was doing it was that I always believed that as an Armoured officer you have to lead from the front. That’s your key aim in life. It doesn’t mean to say you’re out in front of every other bugger all the time.
A: It’s not a literal thing.
C: Exactly! And the crew (members) were bloody fantastic! They came to me after I’d been there a month and they said, ‘Sir, we’ve motored as far with you in a month as we motored with your predecessor in a whole year. And I thought that’s pretty good stuff. I told the Brigadier this, and got a great boot up the arse and he said ‘Don’t you ever go on your own again’.
I was actually on my own again when we hit the mine but I didn’t tell him! People knew I’d hit a mine because I’d contacted our control station back in Nui Dat. (Brigadier) Bill Henderson was dead against my going on my own, but I reckon that’s the only way you can do it. I used to get my crew to warm up the carrier near to where the diggers had breakfast so they would know the Boss is going out-it can’t be all that bad! I’d literally go where I’d normally send a section or a Troop.
(Soldiers are most sensitive to these sorts of signals. They can sense when another, particularly a nominal leader, is prepared to go where they go and do what they do, and vice versa. They also realise that the leader can’t, and indeed sometimes shouldn’t, be waving his sword at the enemy, so to speak but rather being involved in getting support, DUSTOFF et cetera organised. Author.)
A: Why did you select Armour at RMC or were you allocated?
C: I’m buggered if I know! I just thought it would be right for me. There were three other blokes in my class who also went to- Armour-Alec Smith, who commanded the tank squadron, Gordon Murphy and Miles Farmer. I think that Alec and I weren’t all that technically inclined whereas the other guys were. We didn’t think it was below us because I can remember at the Armoured Regiment apprenticing myself to one of the Light Aid Detachment (mechanics) blokes to learn more about the beast. (Centurion tank)
But it gets back to something like a state of mind. You know that you’re temperamentally suited to it or you’re not. I suppose I can’t stress that enough in the case of Armour because you can be stupid and fast, but you can’t be stupid and slow! You just known that sort of thing is right for you. I’ve never been as technical in the sense of being able to fix up cars and things as good as I’d like to be, although you do develop that ability. I’ve always liked the idea of being able to talk into a microphone and the idea of tank tactics and moving tanks around and how you did it. I found that this, in a sense, the harder art than knowing about it technically.
A: There were two things in your article that have been discussed ad nauseum over the years and they are the Long Hais and the barrier minefield. And to lead into that, I understand that the USMC policy around Da Nang and in the north of the country was that you can’t take ground. Ground, to the guerrilla, is useless. You take ground for a day, you walk away and they come straight back. Their policy was to look after the people, the villages, the cities, the rice fields the communications and so forth. If the guerrillas want to get up in the hills well they can do that and whatever they like. And relating to the Long Hais, does that make sense?
C: I thought that any time we tried to attack them in the Long Hais we got such a bloody nose that it was just not worth it. But what was worth it was recognising what their pattern of movement had become. That is, coming out of the Long Hais and making contact with the villages. Well, not just the Long Hais but any of those key base areas. You had to contain the bastards with the idea of cutting them off so that you could get intelligence, that’s the key thing. So when you run an ambush that’s what you’re after. You’re also after cutting their links. But, about chasing ground.. you’re absolutely right; it is next to valueless . The Marines in I Corps ( pronounced ‘aye’ Corps, the northern most of the four Corps areas of responsibility) were doing pretty much what we were doing. They had these CAPs, (Civic Action Programs). They lived in the village and so forth and we and the New Zealanders did exactly the same thing. We were really basing it on the Malayan style ‘framework’ operations. That is, no matter what else you do, in terms of ‘priority’ operations that you might launch somewhere because there might be a lucrative target or a lot of caches of food and so on, the way that you convince the guerrilla enemy that he’s not going to win is by ‘framework’ operations which are spread all over the country, all of the time. So, I never thought going to the Long Hais made any sense at all.
On the barrier minefield, I suppose I’ve changed my opinion a bit, but only a bit. In that if you put any sort of barrier down you have to patrol it. And the patrolling has to be absolutely spot on. If you allow it to become an ‘on the hoof’ storehouse of mines for the opposition you completely negate the whole purpose of it.
I can remember talking to (Brigadier) Stu Graham after we got back from Vietnam. He told me that one of the things that influenced him in putting the minefield down was the example of the French in Algeria using the Morice Line which was a bloody great electrified fence which went, I think, for several hundred kilometres. That’s OK in open country because you can see, so to speak.
This electrified fence used to zap camels and goats and God knows what. (Whatever its value) It caused him (the guerilla) to do something different. That doesn’t really apply in jungle and particularly in a place where that minefield went which wasn’t continuous, there were parts where you had to leave off because it was too boggy or flooded. In any case, if the ground is too boggy or flooded, the mines aren’t going to work after a period of time anyway.
So, I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I can understand what Graham was on about. He only had two battalions (for manuoevre purposes) and he had to find some way to neutralise one part of the area. But Gordon Murphy and I probably disagree about that because he was there in Graham’s time. He reckoned that what Graham did was probably all he could do But it’s a pretty forlorn hope if it is not properly patrolled.
(on the subject of mines) While I was there, I on Cambrai Day (which celebrates the first proper use of tanks in WW1-it is the Corps day) invited the CO of (the US) 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment to come down and stay with us overnight. One of his officers, who was a smart young captain, said ‘Sir, we’ve got this mechanical ambush’. I asked what that was. He said what we do is we choose an area of a couple of hectares and we go out there and really booby trap it to the nth degree with a series of traps so that if you kick it off the whole bloody thing goes up in one big explosion, or a series of explosions. And then we go off and leave it.
I thought you’ve got to be joking! From the first day I was at Duntroon I was taught if you lay a minefield you must cover it and keep on covering it! This idea of doing something and them leaving it to fate and hoping that the South Vietnamese would patrol it-anyway, we had the job of patrolling it on the enemy side, the so-called eastern side of that mine field but we didn’t do it very well. There are apologists for doing it. But I think it was wrong.
A: Who in the Corps would have had the most influence on yourself?
C: Frank Duncan. Yes, I had a squadron commander before, I won’t tell you his name, he came out of the Second World War- I didn’t learn a bloody thing! I thought that Frank had the essence of what I thought Armoured warfare was all about. It really worked I applied the same techniques (in Germany) we got a commendation from Sir John Hackett, commander of the British Army on the Rhine who reckoned we were one of the best squadrons he’d ever seen. And that was due a lot to Duncan’s influence. I’d applied many of the drills we’d worked out together and which he’d instilled in my mind.
A: Didn’t he write The Third World War?
C: Yes, he did. ‘Shan’ Hackett was smart, bloody smart. Spoke beautifully, wrote beautifully. He was just a wonderful guy.
A: There are only three professions; Arms, Medicine and the Law.
C: Ah, yes!
A: How would you sum up the character of Armour, of the Armoured Corps?
C: Of the Armoured Corps? I think it’s a state of mind! If you’re not mobile minded, as long as your backside points to the ground, you’re never going to understand the way Armoured people think.
A: And what is the hardest aspect of Armoured Operations; physical or mental?
C: Oh, mental! Absolutely mental! Being so self assured that you can commit blokes to operations and give them the best possible chance. That you’re not going to needlessly throw their lives away. I don’t want to appear over dramatic about this, but you’ve got to be prepared to do it yourself. If you do it yourself, you’ve got a good idea of what the limitations of it are, knowing you’ve got to commit blokes a bit later on when it’s dark, cold, you’re tired, they’re tired you can do it with confidence that you won’t put them into a situation that you shouldn’t.
A: Everyone else is saying the hardest thing is thinking in three dimensions.
C: Thinking in three dimensions…..
A: Probably that’s not very apt- I mean, radio going in one ear from the Task Force Commander, the artillery net blaring in the other ear, the air net in your third ear and your Troop Leaders calling in your forth ear.
C: Ah, you’re absolutely right! The reason I had a crew of two as well as my self-I would stand in the cargo hatch (of the M113) monitoring five radios. That’s quite apt. I can remember giving a lecture to the Australian United Services Institute about the battle of Alamein and as you read Hamilton’s biography of Montgomery, read up about Lumsden, the commander of Monty’s Corps de Chasse. He used to motor around in a white tank with him driving-here I am as a major monitoring five radio sets and having to be competent on them all! And there’s this silly bugger driving around with his scarf flying trying to impress the troops! Your job’s command! And you don’t impress the troops with that sort of thing!
A: Finally, sir, the nick name-is it useable?
C: Oh, yeah, of course it is. Every time I see Ray DeVere he says ‘G’day, Dreamboat!’
A: Is there any thing else of interest you would like to discuss?
C: No, I can’t think of anything else.
A: Sir, thank you very much for that.
C: It’s a pleasure talking to you.
*The Australian Army and the Vietnam War1962-72 The Chief of Army’s Military History Conference 2002 (Ed Dennis and Grey)
Every where: helicopters, helicopters, helicopters!