When things go wrong!

Submitted by Lloyd Roberton on Tuesday, 3 June 2008 - 8:02pm

Imagine, you are reading a newspaper article that gives details of my first attempt at this excellent method of dissuading the nasty enemy from moving at night. It would probably read something like this…

Kiwi soldiers create havoc in rubber plantation! Last night a group of Kiwi soldiers attempted to set up a brothel in a local rubber plantation, to announce the opening of their new business they let off a series of red flares…

Our first operation

Having arrived safely in Nui Dat we prepare for our first ‘shakedown operation’. This means packing our ten days rations, along with our first line ammunition and extra water bottles.

At this stage we were issued a good deal of the previous company’s ammunition. This ammo was not necessarily in ideal condition. In one particular case we were issued with a type of flare that required banging on the ground to make the flare fire into the air, a parachute would open and the flare would waft down giving a reasonable area of light. This would enable us to fire accurately at the enemy [at night in the jungle one could barely discern ones’ hand in front of ones face]. Now these flares had no hand writing on them to tell us what colour they were. Through extensive wear and tear the writing had been rubbed off. When I asked how we would know what colour the flare would be. I was told, ‘oh, they must be white, otherwise why would they be issued?’ Feeling a little skeptical I accepted this statement from the old vets’ as I had not encountered this type of flare before.

As well as allocating additional equipment to the specialist appointments in the Platoon and zeroing our weapons, we attended our company ‘O’ Group and received our orders. We were to set up ambush positions at various grid references in the northern parts of the Courtney Rubber Plantation. This was supposedly a disused rubber plantation owned by a French gentleman.

The rubber plantation

Well, we duly arrived in the appointed area of our operations and then patrolled to the platoon firm base, at grid reference something. This was located right on the edge of the rubber plantation and jungle. Of course we are well hidden in the jungle. Ha! So, Alec W [my lead scout] is first out on sentry, within a short space of time a traditionally dressed group of Vietnamese women arrived, to ‘tap the rubber’.They can be heard in our platoon harbour position giggling as they observe Alec, shall we say ‘relieving’ himself.

Tapping the rubber was an excuse to ascertain our strength and disposition as the rubber had long since been neglected. These ladies were the wives and family members of a local VC group hiding out in a small hamlet not far from our position.

Whilst my section remained in the platoon harbour Old Man and Collins’ section went out for a wide reconnaissance of the area. As a result a good deal of activity is found and based on this information our platoon commander decided to send my section out on an ambush mission. My first! Yahoo.

I duly prepare the section. A most cunning plan is hatched, this plan will require my section to go out the next day and patrol to a certain grid reference and there, ascertain a suitable area for a night ambush. Having done that we will return to our firm base and wait till dark. Once it is dark, we will then move out to the position and put in our deadly ambush!

Night Ambush

Morning breaks and we set off in arrowhead formation. The first thing we noticed was, we were being followed. We could see two men in the distance of the rubber plantation, they stand observing us. From their demeanor we can tell they are not civilians. No matter how we try to shake them off they stick with us. Our rules of engagement require us to positively identify ‘the enemy’ and as they are not carrying weapons there is little we can do. There are a number of civilians in the area, [this makes our task all the more difficult] so we will not engage these two, we will let them follow us.

Now, each of us has an arc of responsibility, so, no matter what our formation might become each of us will look in a particular direction. Thus giving a wide area of covering fire, should the need arise.

The reason I have made mention of this is, Les my 2IC was having [as we all were] great difficulty observing anything let alone his allocated arc. I would look back at Les as he struggled with his enormous pack and see him with his nose almost touching the ground. And so on this first patrol we had a number of rest halts as we adjusted to our new conditions. All these years later I can still see [in my minds eye] the look of desperation on Les’s face as he struggled with his pack.

Because we were being followed we needed to apply a little subterfuge and so, on our last rest halt we worked out a cunning plan to identify exactly where each person would be in the ambush position. So without stopping at the actual ambush site we patrolled right through the area and marked each persons spot. Then, counted the number of steps we would need to find our position again later that night. This done we set of again back to our base harbour.

To give you an idea of what the position looked like, the rubber plantation ended somewhat like our New Zealand pine plantations. This would then give way to jungle, with a very clear track running parallel along the edge of the rubber. As we moved back down the track that day we could clearly see the unmistakable imprints of the enemy’s shoes. So we were more than hopeful we would have a very successful night ambush.

Our ‘enemy’ continued to shadow us back to our platoon base harbour. I guess they were eventually satisfied that we would be remaining there for the rest of the night as they moved away towards a local hamlet. This would become another place of interest to us later on in the operation.

Murphy's Law

At approximately ‘no you may have the night off!’ hours we set off towards our night ambush. This time in light order, [light order simply meant without our heavy packs.] We duly arrived and silently began establishing our positions. I had, during the day, mistakenly anticipated enemy movement would come directly from the jungle side of the position. So, all my small arms fire plus the claymores were pointing in that direction. One must however always allow for Murphy’s Law. If I ever catch up with the b*****d. We duly settle in to the night routine and for the first few hours we would all remain awake. Then, each person will take an hour and then tap the other on the shoulder for his turn at sentry. A trip flare was placed next to the track that came in from the jungle a claymore was hooked with instantaneous det cord to that flare. If the enemy tripped the flare the claymore would do the work of ten men.

The ambush initiation point for the remaining claymores is at our M60 gun position. This position forms apex of the ambush. I am in rear [with my feet touching the gunners feet] facing back down the rubber plantation [just in case.] My radio operator Johnno lays at my side. At 2200hrs we all hear the sound of foot falls on the track! They are coming from the opposite direction. F**k! I crawl back to Mac [my gunner] and get him to turn the gun around in the general direction of the oncoming enemy. We roughly point the gun towards the sound, I tap Mac on the shoulder to open fire, he does. Murphy you b*****d! The gun fires a couple of rounds and stops. Now, I only had one claymore facing down the rubber to the track I did not want to fire that in case we had too many enemy to deal with. So…I remembered my M26 grenade. I pulled the pin and in my best French accent called ‘grenade!’

I threw the grenade in the general direction of the enemy. Incredulous remarks emanate from our ambush position. Remember, the area is still in total darkness. In my enthusiasm I forgot that the grenade could well have bounced of a rubber tree and blown up in our ambush area. Fortunately it sailed right between the rows of trees and landed exactly where I wanted it.

Mac whispers loudly to me, "The gun has a broken …something [I cannot remember what it was] and will need a little time to replace." Mac was an outstanding soldier. All of our company machine gunners were trained by previous M60 machine gunners who served in Viet Nam. The training was second to none and as a result each of our company machine gunners were outstanding. Mac had to completely strip down the gun, determine the problem and remedy it. All this is done total darkness, within a short space of time Mac has the gun working again. Mac, if you are reading this thank you and well done.

Red flares

What to do? Don’t panic, right we need to get some light on the subject. I grasp the Para flares and bang the base of the flare on the ground. Whoosh up it goes, pop! Now it is snagged in the top of the tree! Ah, what a lovely scene we had. Yes, instead of a white light we now have red! Laughter is heard. The comment is made, "Robby it looks like we are in a brothel." As the flare burnt it also swung from the tree and cast shadows all around the immediate area. I was not put off by this first attempt to cast light on the subject. I immediately took another flare and banged it on the ground [thinking, ‘at least one of these b*****d things has to be white’.] No! F**k you Murphy it’s f*****g red again. Ok several more are let loose now we have a lovely soft red glow all around us. All we need now is wine, women and song!

The following day we would back track the enemy’s foot prints. We found an area further down from our ambush position where they must have congregated and [I guess] they must have been pissing themselves with laughter. Let me tell you readers this is no laughing matter as we are highly trained kiwi soldiers - we always get our man!

Now back to the ambush. I now decide to call for arty fire support and request illumination. Johnno relays instructions. The first round pops and casts lovely white light nearly over our area. So, a quick fire adjustment and we await the next pop!

Murphy has struck us yet again. Johnno try’s to contact arty to call for a number of rounds to give us an opportunity to comb the area looking for the enemy. We hear the arty call sign asking for further instructions. Johnno replies, no answer. The reason, our battery has collapsed we can’t raise anyone. We can hear them but we cannot communicate with them. So, arty keeps up the illumination and we now desperately try to stop the fire support.

The aftermath

The following day the boss arrived in the company of one the sections, he informed me we had cost the New Zealand tax payers $45,000. I thought I could hear a cash register as each round popped. Where did he get his figure from? Perhaps the gunners sent him a bill; we never had to pay it.

There is a program here in Australia on TV called, When things go wrong - had this program been running at the time we would have been stars. So, now we have more illumination than we know what to do with. The enemy knows where we are and are not likely to came back our way again. Everything that could have gone wrong has. Mac finally gets the gun operating. As for our radio it’s never going to work until we get a new battery.

Prior to going on this ambush Johnno had checked the radio and thought he had put a new battery in the set. It turned out this was not the case as he had actually put a near expired one in by mistake. He did this because someone had replaced the worn battery back in it's plastic wrapper.

The enemy tracks indicated their hurried return back to the hamlet. We would encounter them a couple of nights later. As told in the story 'Another Night Out’.

As I said at the beginning of this story this was my first encounter with the enemy, if anything could have gone wrong it did. This set the tone for my section until we ran into trouble later in our tour. Lessons learnt, if it can go wrong it will, always double check everything. Never assume anything. If you think the enemy will approach from a certain direction plan for the other…as well. Oh yes find that b*****d Murphy!

Read more Lloyd Roberton memories here.


Lloyd Roberton


How to cite this page: ' When things go wrong! ', URL: https://vietnamwar.govt.nz/memory/when-things-go-wrong, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 05-Sep-2013