Before Vietnam, the Royal Australian Armoured Corps was viewed by many, especially infantry, as unnecessary and a waste of resources that would be better given to the other fighting Corps of the Army. Their memories were short, forgetting the invaluable support given by tanks at Buna, Balikpapan and other places during World War Two and in Korea. (Although Australian Armour was not involved in the latter conflict, an RAAC officer, Lieutenant D J Duff was attched to 1st Royal Tank Regiment for experience there. As written in The Tanks-The History of the Royal Tank Regiment 1945-1975 by Kenneth Macksey, ‘He received it in the shape of five hits from enemy shells and returned the compliment by destroying a tunnel sheltering a Chinese gun.’ )
The doctrinal and operational thinking was toward jungle fighting, forgetting the lessons of Malaya in 1941, where the 8th Australian Division took anti-tank weaponry to war under (presumably) the assumption that the Japanese could take tanks where Australians could not. In defence of this, the tank strength of Australia at the time was almost nil. However, the Japanese did use armour.
So, when Vietnam exploded, so to speak, The Director of Armour at the time, Colonel K R G Coleman MC, had his work cut out to persuade the powers that were to send even the Corps’ first modest contingent.
Character and Esprit-de Corps.
So, where does the character of the Armoured Corps truly lie? It must be with the Troops, the ‘Sabre’ Troops as they were known in the past. These are the fighting elements of a Regiment, with due respect to everyone else. And the men! The young, enthusiastic Officers, the hard nosed Sergeants and the eager Troopers who put their trust in those just mentioned superiors to, at the very least, afford them the best possible preparation before they go in harm’s way!
And those same Troopers, the good the bad and the ugly, are those mentioned in First Parade. Almost without exception, the men spoken of in this book started their career in a Troop, where the abilities and knowledge of Armour are learned and honed, where personal character is formed and tested in the sometimes white hot furnace of combat. They speak of their experiences, good and bad, with reticence and in general, laugh off the bad along with the good.
Certainly, the old battlefield, with front lines and rear areas is gone. In today’s conflicts, nowhere is truly safe. Having said that, the safety in a fortified base, or a defended Fire Support Base is of a much higher degree than that of an AFV assaulting a bunker system. Indeed, the unsung courage of AFV drivers in the face of the mine menace, when each knew that if one exploded he would most likely be the first to suffer, must be acknowledged. To knowledge, there was never a combat refusal by a driver, or anyone else for that matter.
Poor training must be mentioned here, especially first aid. The shock experienced by young men who have had to deal with horrendous wounds could have been lessened by more comprehensive first aid training. The Army had in those days and may well still have, a fake wounds kit, the extensive use of which might have reduced such shock. The conflicting and sometimes downright wrong reports and indeed in some cases, the non existent reports coming from Vietnam to nervous and sometimes apprehensive Troopers was disgraceful.
The quality of the men posted to Armour, especially National Servicemen, was above par. To a man, Regular Army members are proud to have served with them. The comradeship of shared experience, danger and excitement form a bond without peer. Were the men of Armour braver than men from, for example, the infantry? No, and no member of the Corps would claim so! But certainly, their degree of courage was no less than any other!
It is instructive to quote some casualty percentages for Vietnam as calculated by Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Cameron MC, himself a Vietnam veteran. The relevant ones are Royal Australian Armoured Corps, 12.3% of RAAC members involved, Royal Australian Infantry, 12.1%. Others of the ‘Arms’ Corps are Royal Australian Engineers 4%, Royal Australian Artillery, 2%. As a contrast which clearly illustrates the difference in danger, the Royal Australian Air Force had but 14 deaths* all told, three killed in action, two missing in action, one died of wounds and eight non-battle casualties. From approximately 4000 RAAF members who served there, this equates to about .6 of one percent of RAAF members who served in Vietnam. Actual deaths caused to these men by combat equate to .3 of one percent.
*The RAAF in Vietnam 65-72 by Chris Coulthard-Clark
The Armour spirit is clearly illustrated in that almost every time Australian RAAC soldiers have been sent to England, either as individuals or exchange units, they have outshone their hosts, and not by any small degree! It simply can’t be good English manners to not embarrass invitees! It shows the different mind set, perhaps between strictly controlled and disciplined troops compared to the more easy going and perhaps mentally less constricted Australian attitude to these things.
But from where does this attitude spring? These were ordinary men from all strata of society. It must go back to the Anglo/Irish settlers of our nation and the example set at Gallipoli; that of discipline and, more importantly, self discipline. Those soldiers from that time, almost exclusively civilians enlisted for ‘war and four months’, had an ethos of self-sufficiency, ability to withstand hardship and an inate way of improvising to enhance their military efficiency.
And the protesters? Where are they? Those who most vociferously condemned us for complying with the lawful decisions of the democratically elected government of the day? All gone to well paid corporate jobs, or living well in retirement perhaps, or living the nuclear family dream in suburbia. In any case, they’re scattered to the winds and their voices are stilled. We, however, remain and while we too are dispersed across the nation and many of us are dead and dying of all the dreadful circumstances in which we were placed, we have a bond which all the ravers and paint throwers can never have.
We can but feel sorry for these people, who have never had the experience of shared danger, comradeship, support and value. Was Communism stopped by the Vietnam war? Was the sacrifice of 500 Australian lives worth the game? It can be argued yes, as the Vietnamese leadership, while still shouting the Party line, seems to be almost as capitalist as the West. In any case, the Communist philosophy is perhaps the most discredited of all political ideologies. Historians and scholars will argue this point and much good it will do them. The men of Armour know that they did their duty, it is as simple as that.
It is history now that the Royal Australian Armoured Corps made its name to shine in Vietnam and has left an indelible impression on the thinking of other Corps. As for the future, given the equipment and opportunity, the Knights in Green Armour will be both, as Shakespeare (the Bard) has the King say in Henry V, “warriors for the working day”, and as the motto of First Armoured Regiment states, Paratus! (Ready!)