50th Anniversary of the Battle of Nui Le: 21 September 1971
Fifty years ago in September 1971, Australia had been involved in the Vietnam War for over nine years. With no end in sight to an unpopular war, the Australians – like the Americans – were reducing their forces as they prepared to pull out of Vietnam. The withdrawal would take time and would not be easy.
While Operation Overlord in June had forced the enemy to withdraw, by September Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces were back in Phuoc Tuy Province, again looking to lure the Australians into a large-scale ambush to score a propaganda victory. The Australians would have to meet the challenge again.
Operation Ivanhoe was launched on 19 September. Three companies of the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, including a company from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (4RAR/NZ), and one company of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) – supported by artillery, engineers, armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and helicopters from 9 Squadron, RAAF – were inserted near suspected enemy concentrations south-east of the Courtenay Rubber Plantation. But importantly, this time they had no tank support. As part of the staged withdrawal, 1 Armoured Regiment had recently departed Vietnam.
On 20 September an ambush and a series of contacts suggested the enemy was trying to provoke a reaction, luring the Australians into a well-prepared bunker system. As they continued patrolling the Australians saw more and more tell-tale evidence of an enemy presence. One officer remembered “… an uneasy feeling throughout the Battalion … a sense of foreboding”.
The next morning, 21 September, platoons from B and D Companies, 4RAR/NZ resumed patrolling, looking for the enemy. Both companies had several minor contacts with the enemy from morning through to mid-afternoon.
B Company’s 6 Platoon had been following a telephone cable they found running along the ground shortly before noon. More than two hours later they spotted an enemy soldier rolling up the cable. The man bolted to warn his comrades. At 1545 hours, 6 Platoon suddenly came under mortar attack, resulting in fifteen casualties. 4 Platoon, also from B Company, were sent to their aid. After fighting through contacts to reach their mates, arrangements were made to winch out the most seriously wounded by helicopter. Airstrikes from Australian and American gunships helped kept the enemy at bay. 4 Platoon then led the survivors of 6 Platoon back towards the relative safety of the company headquarters position, some 400 metres away. Guided in by shots to get their bearings, the men held onto each other’s webbing to ensure nobody got separated and lost. They made it by 2000 hours.
Meanwhile, D Company, four kilometres away, had also been in contact with enemy troops throughout the day. Around 0900 12 Platoon suddenly came under heavy fire and quickly suffered multiple casualties. They had run into an extensive bunker system and with some elements pinned down by heavy fire, air support was called in and the enemy position was pounded for four hours. Hearing reports that the enemy were pulling out, at 15.40 hours D Company pushed forward again but were immediately forced to ground by withering fire. Four more Australians were hit. Looking to extricate themselves as darkness closed in around 1815 hours, the Australians unwittingly withdrew into a more precarious position within the bunker system. Trapped, surrounded, with reduced artillery support and no tanks, they were forced to rely on US airstrikes and RAAF helicopter gunships to keep the enemy at bay.
Running low on ammunition, D Company was in dire straits as casualties continued to mount. Artillery support kept them alive throughout the night, their shells landing within 100 metres from where they lay. Some expected an enemy attack at dawn to finish them off, but it never came. In the morning the enemy was gone; the battle of Nui Le was over.
Nui Le was the last major enemy engagement by Australian troops in Vietnam. The five killed in action there were the last Australian soldiers to die in combat in Vietnam. A further 30 were wounded. For their bravery under fire, seven Australians were recognised with awards. 15 enemy soldiers from 33 NVA Regiment were killed and about the same number were thought to be wounded and carried away. Operation Ivanhoe concluded on 2 October. The following month, Nui Dat base was handed to the South Vietnamese and by December nearly all Australian troops had left Phuoc Tuy Province.
We remember those who fought in that battle 50 years ago. We pay our respects to those who died, and to the survivors who returned home.