3rd 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 it 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. SAS personnel were highly trained and their role in Vietnam varied from conducting reconnaissance patrols and observing enemy 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.

Australian military advisors had been serving in Vietnam since 1962. In 1965 Australia’s contribution to the war increased to an infantry battalion and, the following year, to a self contained task force of two infantry battalions, an SAS squadron, and other support elements.

Flying to Vietnam from the SAS regimental base in Perth, 3 Squadron arrived at Vung Tau via Saigon on 16 June 1966 and moved to Nui Dat the next day. From 20 to 22 June each troop conducted a 24-hour patrol of the area immediately around the base at Nui Dat. The first enemy contact occurred on 25 June when 3 Squadron was fired on by a group of Viet Cong (VC).

By the end of June, as Nui Dat developed and the Australian infanty began patrolling the area around the base, the SAS began patrolling further afield. 3 Squadron’s first long-range patrol was to the Nui Dinh hills, seven kilometers west of Nui Dat. In July the SAS began patrolling around Long Tan village, Nui Dat 2, Long Tan, Binh Ba, and other areas. Following the mortar attack on the task force base in the early hours of 17 August, patrols were sent to locate the enemy. However, it remains a matter of conjecture if the SAS discovered the presence of the VC force before D Company, 6RAR during the battle of Long Tan. For the rest of the year and into 1967 the squadron patrolled throughout the province.

The squadron carried out a number of different tasks in addition to jungle patrolling. Personnel went on exchange with American Special Forces, while American personnel joined the Australians. In November the squadron supported 5RAR during Operation Hayman, manning assault boats and patrolling the waterways between Long Son Island and the mainland.

On 15 February 1966 the advance party from 1 Squadron arrived in Vietnam, followed by the rest of the squadron on 2 March. After a handover period, where personnel from 1 Squadron accompanied 3 Squadron on patrol, the latter left Vietnam in the third week of March. During its nine months “in country”, 3 Squadron conducted 134 patrols and tried and tested many of the techniques that would be used by later squadrons.

3 Squadron returned to Vietnam for its second tour in February 1969. As with its previous tour the squadron patrolled across Phuoc Tuy province and into Bien Hoa province. Most time though was spent patrolling around the May Tao mountains. These and the other mountains in the north-east of Phuoc Tuy were enemy strongholds. The VC were located in a vast tract of jungle, which could not be isolated, outside the artillery and mortar range of the Australians at Nui Dat. It was the SAS’s task to detect and report VC routes and at the start of December, 6RAR/NZ mounted a month-long operation to clear the May Tao moutains. The operation’s success was a direct result of information gathered from SAS patrols.

During this tour emphasis was on the SAS’s reconnaissance role, rather than ambushing or other tasks. Indeed, the squadron’s commander, Major Reginald Beesley, kicked down the “kills boards” erected by other squadrons during earlier tours. “We were not there to kill people but to gain information,” he later said.

1 Squadron began arriving at Nui Dat during February 1970 and 3 Squadron left Vietnam for Australia on 18 February.

Glossary

Battle Honours

  • nil

Casualties

  • First tour: 1 died, 7 wounded or injured
  • Second tour: 1 died, 7 wounded or injured

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

Commanding Officers

Decorations

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

For more information please see Honours and Awards database

References

  • AWM95/7/12/1: 1-31 June 1966, 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)