Operation Hammersley began on 10 February 1970 as a routine security operation when C Company, 8RAR, along with a troop of M113A1 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) from 3 Cavalry Regiment, a troop of Centurion tanks from 1 Armoured Regiment and a mortar section from 8RAR’s Support Company were deployed to protect 17 Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers at a quarry on the western foothills of the Long Hai hills.
Fire Support Base (FSB) Isa was established near the quarry from where C Company undertook reconnaissance-and-ambush operations. With the known mine danger in the area, the men were ordered to wear their flak jackets and helmets as an added precaution while on operations. They also travelled in the APCs which were buttoned down, to minimise casualties from the mines.
The first major contact took place in the evening of 15 February when 9 Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant Peter Lauder ambushed a large force from D445 Battalion. The initial ambush was successful, but the enemy conducted counter-ambush drills. Lauder and his men fought a 45 minute engagement supported by mortar and artillery fire. The enemy withdrew when the Centurion tanks based at FSB Isa arrived and swept the area. Lauder was awarded a Military Cross for his courage and leadership.
The following day, B Company, 8RAR set up ambush positions while C and D Companies searched south east and south west respectively in an attempt to drive the enemy into B Company’s positions.
After a brief contact on 18 February, an enemy prisoner was captured. He provided intelligence to O’Neill and accompanied the CO on an aerial reconnaissance of the area, pointing out bunker systems in what was known as the ‘Minh Dam Secret Zone.’
C Company, 8RAR, mounted in M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs & colloquially known as buckets) led the advance on the bunker system. After one APC became hung up on a tree stump, the enemy opened fire from well-concealed bunkers. All the APCs took fire and an armoured mortar carrier to the right of the hung up APC was hit by a blast from a claymore mine which had been mounted in a tree. The shrapnel badly wounded the driver, Trooper Hugh Carlyle and crew commander Lance Corporal Barry Whiston, both of whom collapsed back into their vehicle. Five members of C Company were also wounded. Members of 8RAR and 3 Cavalry Regiment ran to the APC under heavy fire and after forcing the rear door of the vehicle, rescued the 8RAR men. However the two APC crewmen were killed during the recovery of their vehicle when the enemy threw a satchel charge into the APC, which detonated, killing both men instantly and burnt out the APC. An image of the vehicle burning can be found in the Memorial’s collection P01381.028.
After three unsuccessful attacks against the D445 Battalion bunker positions the Australians withdrew. Airstrikes were called for and after a delay of two days, the use of B-52 bombers was authorised, but the Australians had to withdraw a further 3,000 metres. This gave the enemy, who were vulnerable, time to escape. The men of 8RAR regretted that an opportunity to eliminate an enemy battalion had been allowed to pass. Over the following days 8RAR patrols located many weapons, caches of food, medical equipment and supplies but D445 Battalion was gone.
A black day in the Long Hais
The Australians were bitterly disappointed that their quarry had escaped, however, the operation still continued. During the morning of 25 February there were three separate mine incidents within two hours in the Long Hais. One APC was destroyed by a contact mine and the two crewmen were injured. Shortly after, 8RAR’s Sergeant Douglas Baker a member of A Company Headquarters was killed and two other men wounded when a mine was detonated. A further incident occurred when a Centurion tank detonated a mine, which wounded a crew member and blew off a track. The explosion also caused an electrical fire inside the tank that burnt out the tank’s fighting and driving compartments.
Worse was to come however. During the morning of 28 February, Sergeant Bill Hoban, acting platoon commander of 1 Platoon, A Company moved cautiously into an ambush position that he and his men had been ordered to occupy. With the mine threat still a major threat, two engineers with mine detecting equipment helped the infantrymen into position near a creek line. Once in position, Hoban radioed his company HQ to advise he was in position and to request permission for the engineers to detonate a mine they had discovered.
As the platoon had stopped, men removed their flak jackets in the heat. Around 11am, a water collecting party moved down to the creek and a concentration of soldiers occurred around the platoon headquarters. A moment later, one of the engineers triggered an M16 mine. As the men were bunched in a natural hollow, the effects of the blast were concentrated and seven men, including Sergeant Hoban were killed and 13 others were wounded, one of whom died after being evacuated.
Lance Corporal Bob D’Arcy used his bayonet to prod towards the radio whereupon he called in a dustoff. He and two other men then prodded towards the wounded and began to assist them.
Others used a mine detector to clear a path to a landing zone. Disaster struck again when a RAAF Iroquois helicopter was lowering an engineer by winch. Corporal Jim Barrett, directing the helicopter, accidentally stepped outside the cleared area and triggered another mine, which killed him instantly. Three more soldiers were wounded.
The men of 8RAR were angry and frustrated that there was no enemy nearby to strike back against and what made things worse was that the M16 mines almost certainly came from the Australian-laid barrier minefield.
The Long Hais had still not finished with 8RAR. At around noon on 6 March members of B Company located an abandoned bunker system. During a reconnaissance of the bunkers a booby trap was triggered which wounded seven Australians, two of whom died from their wounds.
Operation Hammersley concluded on 3 March. It had been a costly operation for for the 1st Australian Task Force which suffered 12 men killed or died of wounds and 59 wounded. However, they had inflicted heavy losses on their enemy, with 42 enemy bodies counted with estimates of as many as 100 enemy killed. One prisoner was taken, along with a large amount of weapons, ammunition and other materiel. Operation Hammersley was the last time 1ATF entered the Long Hais in force.
Operation Hammersley Roll of Honour:
1 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers
|Service No.||Rank||Name||Date of Death|
|55566||Sapper||R.N. Hubble||28 February 1970|
B Squadron, 3 Cavalry Regiment
|Service No.||Rank||Name||Date of Death|
|43941||Tpr||H. Carlyle||18 February 1970|
|1202024||L/Cpl||B.J. Whiston||18 February 1970|
8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment
|Service No.||Rank||Name||Date of death|
|43555||Sgt||D.A. Baker||25 February 1970|
|1200097||Cpl||J.J. Barrett||28 February 1970|
|15400||Sgt||W.J. Hoban||28 February 1970|
|2783512||Cpl||R.J. Jackson||28 February 1970|
|3795935||Pte||L.J. MacLennan||28 February 1970|
|3795712||Pte||B.J. Munday||28 February 1970|
|7154||Pte||T.E.A. Pesonen||28 February 1970|
|3796110||Pte||P.M. Richter||28 February 1970|
|61912||Pte||G.M. West||28 February 1970|