Note: The following is taken from the original after action report.
On the 25 June, following a series of contacts during the preceding few days, C/S 11 (1 Pl, V6 Coy, 4RAR/NZ) was uplifted by an APC troop which then delivered it to an RV with C Squadron, 1st Australian Armoured Regiment. On arrival at the RV C/S 11 was placed under operational control of the armoured squadron commander. C/S 11 had walked about 5,600 metres during that morning and that along with the news that Pte Harding from our company headquarters had just been killed placed a sombre mood over the platoon.
At around 1430hr the Squadron Commander issued a brief set of orders for an assault on an area which had been identified to contain an enemy occupied bunker system. The plan was simple, the tanks supported by the infantry would directly assault the objective. Fifteen minutes after the orders were given the Squadron group, consisting of centurion tanks, an APC troop and 1 Platoon, V6 Company crossed the start line and headed towards the objective.
Before advancing into the assault I had discussed with the Squadron Commander the best use of my platoon during the task. Unfortunately, this advice was acknowledged but not fully accepted and my platoon was tasked to follow the leading tanks and provide assistance if and when required. As an ex-tank troop leader and a qualified infantry platoon commander I considered that the infantry should have been used in a more offensive and effective role. There is no doubt in my mind that we could have provided more effective early warning and flank protection during the early stages of the initial assault to that which eventuated. Reconnaissance of the objective area was not even considered prior to the assault due to the time factor.
Not long after commencing the advance a leading tank ran over a buried 40-gallon drum. We never found out what was in the drum, but it caused the soldiers eyes to water profusely and it made their skin itch and burn.
We had advanced about 50-70 metres towards the bunker system when the forward left tank to my immediate front received a direct hit from what appeared to be an RPG round. The round hit the top of the turret around the area just in front of the tank commander’s cupola. Both he and his operator were immediately wounded as both turret hatches were fully open.
Once the contact was initiated, I immediately moved my platoon forward to the cover the left flank of the assaulting tanks which was exposed and to a position facing where it was suspected the RPG was fired from. The left forward tank was immobilised, and it was obvious that the crew had been injured when no contact could be raised with them. Smoke was coming out of the turret with no sign of crew movement, indicating that the crew could be in trouble. Being an ex-tank commander, I instinctively jumped up onto the tank which had been hit to check the crew. One of my section 2IC, LCPL John Adams (who was later awarded a military medal for his actions) joined me and we observed some enemy moving from left to right across our left flank. We fired at the moving enemy, they returned fire and I directed the platoon’s machine guns to the target area. At this stage we found that both the tank commander and the operator were injured. The tank commander’s machine gun had been totally destroyed by the RPG round and the top of the turret had been sprayed with shrapnel.
Pte Bill Papuni then joined Adams and me on the vehicle. After making a quick assessment of the situation Adams and Papuni removed the wounded tankies from the turret onto the
tanks engine deck and then to the rear of the vehicle. This activity was conducted by Adams and Papuni under direct enemy fire at great personal risk to both soldiers. It was certainly an act of gallantry in a most dangerous situation carried out by both soldiers. Once the wounded had been recovered by Adam’s section, they were placed on the ground and prepared for evacuation by the platoon medics, Pte John Galley and Pte John Williams. This activity was also conducted by the medics under incoming enemy fire. The rest of 1 Platoon continued to engage the enemy during the period the tankies were being removed from their vehicle and while first aid was administered.
The crew commander, I think was the troop corporal, had been badly wounded. From memory he had sustained severe wounds to the head, face, chest and his left arm was missing below the elbow. He was an extremely brave fellow, he told me he could not feel his arm. I remember advising him he had sustained a wound making it numb and placed my left hand in his right hand. I remember his response was a loud ‘that’s not my bloody hand it’s too small’.
The quick action under extreme circumstances by the platoon medics Pte Galley and Pte Williams had the wounded stabilised and made ready for evacuation even before the request for assistance came from the Squadron Commander. Once prepared the casualties were moved back about 30 metres to a waiting APC, which then took them out of the assault area. The damaged tank was also removed from the area.
It became obvious that the enemy had come forward from his bunker system to meet us as we advanced towards him, possibly with the view to turn the direction of the assault away from the bunker system proper. The exchange of fire in this instance lasted about 45 minutes.
Once the wounded were evacuated, we then moved on in the same direction towards the objective. Again, my platoon was directed to follow. We must have only gone about another 20 metres when an RPG opened fire. We clearly saw the firer and a few others. There was a distinct fire lane that the enemy had created which we only saw once we had moved in line with it. Almost simultaneously to my forward section firing at this enemy, we received heavy automatic and RPG fire in return. One of the RPG rounds exploded to our immediate front with shrapnel causing minor injuries to some of the platoon members and to two of my platoon’s radio sets. The deafening sound was just like being in the butts at the range with a large number of machine guns firing continuously with a few grenades and rockets thrown in for good measure, all from about 25 metres away.
The enemy again appeared to be trying to draw us away from the position of the objective. The platoon by this time had moved forward again along the left flank of the tanks. The forward tanks swung left into line behind the platoon and fired canister, 50 and 30 calibres into the general direction. The fire fight raged for about 15 minutes, which seemed to be an eternity. It was intense with rounds flying in every direction. The surrounding vegetation above knee height was totally shredded. We continued to crawl towards and close with the enemy. My platoon was in position and just preparing to assault the enemy group when the order was given to withdraw. This was done without any consultation with me as communications between the infantry and armour at this stage was almost non-existent. With one of my platoon radios out of action I had been using my mortar fire controller’s radio switching back and fro between the company net, the mortar net and the armoured net.
It was decided by the armoured commander to withdraw and consolidate the force for the night. This decision was obviously taken due to the lateness in the day and it must have taken into consideration the probable time to complete the original task of taking and clearing the bunker system.
It was a nervous evening, knowing that we had to go back and attack the same objective, basically along the same route. It was also annoying that we had been so close and then had to give up that initiative.
The direction of assault was changed slightly but the dense bamboo saw us eventually channelled along the same tracks that we had developed on the previous day. The strength of the bamboo was unbelievable, at one stage two centurions were trying to break through the bamboo and had to back off and move around it.
The second assault into the bunker system commenced at around 1000 hrs on 26 June. This gave the enemy the opportunity to regroup and refurbish just as we had done – and as it happened, time to withdraw under the cover of darkness. At about 1300hrs we reached the objective. The tanks moved forward at a faster rate than they had on the previous day, until we reached the point where the initial assault had been halted. There was no resistance as the enemy had withdrawn during the night.
There were about ten bunkers found in a “Z” formation. Unfortunately, when we entered the system the tanks collapsed most of the bunkers and we then spent a large amount of time digging them out. This was not a welcome task at this stage of the operation. It was claimed that five enemy bodies were found. However, my platoon cleared every bunker and the whole objective area, and we only found two dead enemy and both had been shot by small arms fire, probably during the fire fights the previous day. The intelligence network later reported that the bunker system had been occupied by C2 Company of 274 Regiment.
There is no doubt that the tanks provided my platoon with a secure feeling with their superior firepower and size. The assault certainly proved that the use of infantry with tanks in close country or built up areas needs to be flexible, remembering the infantry can provide protection and early warning for the armoured vehicles and they can move more quickly and manoeuvre with greater ease through the dense jungle.
I recall that use of the tanks main armament was restricted to canister rounds only due to the closeness and position of the infantry stop groups which had been put in place to the West of the objective.
Communications also proved to be a major problem, when trying to maintain links directly to the individual tank commanders, the Squadron Commander, the company commander, the artillery net, and the mortar net all at the same time.
Everything is easier to see in hindsight, but there is no doubt about one thing from this operation and that is there should have been more recognition for the actions of the soldiers from 1 Pl V6 Company that took part during this particular action of Operation Hermit Park. All elements and individuals performed with distinction. The Platoon’s efforts have been mentioned in a number of military publications including Canister, On Fire by Bruce Cameron, Last Out by Gerry Taylor, The Fighting Fourth and the official after action reports.
1. Norman Fry went on to command the New Zealand Army’s Ready Reaction Force Battalion. In 1988 he joined the Australian Army in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and served in training and operations roles until 1994. He is a graduate of the Australian Army Staff College and the Australian Joint Services Staff College.
2. Lance Corporal John Adams was awarded the Military Medal for his actions during the assault on the bunker system (Reference: Fighting Fourth documented history of 4RAR/NZ second tour).