1st Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment

Between 1966 and 1971 each of three “sabre” squadrons of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) completed two tours of Vietnam. The SAS was based at Nui Dat where they acted as the “eyes and the ears” of the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) and operated throughout Phuoc Tuy province as well as in Bien Hoa, Long Khanh and Binh Tuy provinces. The SAS personnel were highly trained and their role in Vietnam varied from conducting reconnaissance patrols and observing the enemy’s movement to offensive operations deep in enemy territory. The SAS had the highest “kill” ratio of any Australian unit in Vietnam. The Australian SAS operated closely with the New Zealand SAS and New Zealand SAS soldiers were attached to each Australian squadron.

1 Squadron began its first tour when its main body arrived at Nui Dat on 2 March 1967, replacing 3 Squadron. The squadron conducted its first operation on 8 March and conducted ambush and fighting patrols for the next five days, but had no contact with the enemy. On 13 March the squadron took over part of 5RAR’s area of the Nui Dat feature and began patrolling the area north-west of the Australian base. The first clash occurred on 20 March when a patrol saw a group of approximately ten Viet Cong (VC), one of whom was killed. The squadron subsequently patrolled north of Binh Ba and in the Nui Thi Vai and Nui Dinh hills complex. By May the squadron was operating throughout Phuoc Tuy province.

These patrols were small, normally only five men, and were usually inserted into an area by helicopter. The patrol would than either set an ambush or concentrate on gathering information. This information included locating VC bases, monitoring their movements, and reporting on enemy numbers. Once a mission was completed, the patrol was then extracted back to Nui Dat.

In early September the SAS assumed responsibility for patrolling the area around 1ATF base. Many patrols during this time included US Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol personnel from the 101st Airborne Division. In September the squadron participated in Operation Santa Fe, a joint operation conducted by Australian, Amercian, and South Vietnamese troops, focusing on the VC stronghold in the Nui May Tao mountains.

In February 1968 men from 2 Squadron began joining 1 Squadron at Nui Dat, as the latter’s tour came to an end. At 7.30 am on 26 February, 1 Squadron left the base for Saigon and Australia; they were in Perth almost 12 hours later. During its first tour the squadron had mounted 246 patrols, killed 83 VCs and recorded a further 15 possible killed.

1 Squadron returned for its second tour of Vietnam on 18 February 1970. By this time, though, VC activity in the province was decreasing and the squadron faced the frustrating prospect of operations limited to reconnaissance tasks around Nui Dat. Some patrols went months without enemy contact or sightings. During March and April the SAS patrolled the approaches to the Nui May Tao mountains. Patrols were also inserted into Binh Tuy Province and other long-range patrols were also conducted.

After five years of SAS patrolling the VC had finally become familiar with SAS insertion techniques: from June it was not unusal for the Australians to be fired on by the VC shortly after landing in an area. To counter this, the SAS began using “cowboy insertions”. In a cowboy insertion, the helicopter carrying the patrol was followed by a “slick” helicopter with a second patrol. Both patrols would be inserted and would travel together for five minutes. The second patrol would then stop and wait another five minutes, while the first patrol continued its mission. If there was no contact with the enemy the second patrol would then return to the landing zone where it would be extracted.

At the end of August and during September 1 Squadron participated in Operations Chung Chung II and III. In January 1971 patrols continued to be inserted deep into Binh Tuy province. The squadron had its last contact on 4 February when a New Zealand patrol killed two VC north-west of Thua Tich. By now the advance party from 2nd Squadron had arrived and on 18 February 1 Squadron was flown home to Australia.

Glossary

Battle Honours

  • nil

Casualties

  • First tour
  • 2 died, 7 wounded and injured
  • Second tour
  • Nil died, 4 wounded and injured

For more information please see the Roll of Honour and Vietnam War Nominal Roll (external website) databases.

Commanding Officers

Decorations

  • First tour
    • 1 MC
    • 3 MID
  • Second tour
    • 2 MID

For more information please see Honours and Awards database

References

  • AWM95/7/10/1: 1-31 May 1965, Narrative, Duty Officer's log, Annexes unit diary
  • Horner, David Murray, SAS : phantoms of war : a history of the Australian Special Air Service, (Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2002)
  • Malone, Michael John, SAS : a pictorial history of the Australian Special Air Service 1957-1997, (Northbridge W.A.: Access Press, 1997)
  • McKay, Gary., Sleeping with your ears open : on patrol with the Australian SAS, (St Leonards, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin, 1999)