1 Armoured Regiment
The 1st Armoured Regiment was raised on 7 July 1949, as part of the new Australian Regular Army. The regiment's nucleus consisted of personnel from the 1st Australian Armoured Car Squadron, which had returned from Japan several months earlier as part of the occupation force. 1st Armoured Regiment was based at Puckapunyal, Victoria, where it was initially equipped with the British-built Churchill tanks. This was only a temporary measure and in 1952 the British tanks were replaced with Centurions.
Australian-armed units had been serving in Vietnam since 1965. As Australia's contribution to the war increased, so too did the deployment of Australian armour. In October 1967 the government announced it would increase the size of the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province, from two to three infantry battalions and a tank squadron.
The first tanks from the regiment's C Squadron arrived in Vietnam in February 1968. The squadron initially comprised two troops, each of four tanks, and two tanks of the squadron headquarters, as well as two dozer tanks and two bridgelayer tanks. A third troop was created by placing the two headquarters' tanks together with the two dozer tanks. This number constituted only half of the squadron and it was not until August the rest of the squadron, with another two dozer and two bridgelayer tanks, arrived from Australia. This brought the squadron up to its full strength of 26 tanks.
Before coming to Vietnam the Centurions received a number of modifications: a large external fuel tank was fitted on the back of each vehicle to increase its range; the main gun system was upgraded; a ranging machine-gun was fitted; and an infra-red illumination system was also installed for improved night vision. However, once operations began the external fuel tank was found to be potentially hazardous - if hit by a shell or bullet they could exploded. The modifications continued "in country" once the squadron began operating in Vietnam: The tank's side skirts were removed, as they became clogged with mud and scrub, the track guards were replaced with heavy gauge steel plate; and storage racks were welded to the back of the turret so ammunition and other equipment, such as an additional radio to allow communication between tank and infantry soldiers, could be carried.
The squadron's first operation was Operation Pinnaroo (27 February to 15 April 1968), also involving a troop from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment and artillery, as well as engineers who supported the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR and 3RAR) for a "reconnaissance-in-force" mission to destroy the Viet Cong (VC) base installations in the Long Hai mountains. The area had long been a centre for Vietnamese resistance and was "riddled" with mines. C Squadron's armoured bulldozers were used to help clear some of the mines and from 18 March the squadron's Centurions protected 3RAR, as the infantry cleared the low ground east of the mountains.
For the next three years, until 1971, the 1st Armoured Regiment's tanks worked closely with the Australian infantry and the armoured personnel carriers (APCs) of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, on operations throughout Phuoc Tuy and Bien Hoa provinces. The Centurions provided fire support for infantry patrols, were used to directly attack enemy positions, and helped defend Task Force's perimeter at Nui Dat.
The tanks played a significant role during the battles of Coral-Balmoral in May 1968, when the VC made determined attacks against the Australian fire support bases and their presence proved decisive. At one point during the battle an infantry company was pinned down very close to enemy bunkers. APCs were able to extract some of the troops but were unable to reach one platoon. The two Centurions were sent forward and rolled through the heavy jungle, reaching the Australians and the VC bunkers. The Centurion crew fired every thing they had: canister, solid shot and high explosive shells, and machine-guns. Each shell cleared more jungle and opened up further targets. The platoon was able to be withdrawn, and with APCs providing machine-gun support as well, the tanks destroyed a series of bunkers.
C Squadron's performance at Coral-Balmoral demonstrated the advantage of using armour in jungle operations. Offensively, the tanks were able to destroy enemy bunkers without air support and reduced infantry casualties. Defensively, the tanks' fire was able to break up an enemy attack. The Centurions were able to move through the countryside more easily than expected, while their heavy armour proved to be nearly impervious to almost all enemy ordnance.
Before Coral-Balmoral, some infantry had doubted the usefulness or necessity of the Centurion tanks; after the battle, the infantry did not like working without them. Indeed, the tanks were considered to be "worth their weight in gold".
In February 1969 C Squadron was relieved by B Squadron, the latter remaining in Vietnam for the rest year. On 6 and 7 June B Squadron it was involved in the fierce action fought at Binh Ba, a village five kilometres north of 1ATF base. The attack began at 11.20 am on 6 June when three Centurions, APCs, and D Company, 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR), advanced towards the village which was occupied by VC and North Vietnamese troops. As the fight continued, 5RAR's B Company took up a blocking position around some of the village to prevent enemy escape.
The fighting was hard, savage, and slow. The troops had to clear each house of enemy, who shot at them before retreating into tunnels as the Australians passed. Each time the Australians were fired on, the tanks would blast a hole in the wall of the building, through which a small team would enter to silence any opposition. This work continued through the afternoon and the next day, concluding on the morning of 8 June.
In December B Squadron was replace by A Squadron. A year later A Squadron was in turn relieved by C Squadron for its second tour. However, by late 1970 Australia was beginning to reduce its commitment to the war and the size of 1ATF was reduced from three infantry battalions to two. Throughout 1971 more and more troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, as the government reduced Australia's commitment to the war. Consequently, C Squadron returned home in September.