Remembering Long Tan: Australian Army Operations in South Vietnam 1966–1971 by Andrew Ross, The Strategist
The 50th anniversary of Long Tan reminds most Australians that despite winning that iconic high intensity battle, the Australians and New Zealanders lost the Vietnam War. In fact, the First Australian Task Force (1ATF) fought at least 16 big battles, and through superior firepower from artillery, armor and airpower, won them all, sometimes by a narrow margin.
But most of the struggle in Phuoc Tuy province and South Vietnam was a prolonged low intensity guerrilla war. The big battles only mattered if the US and her allies had lost them, as big battle success allowed the allies to stay in the War. Enemy defeats just forced the enemy to revert to low intensity guerrilla war, which the allies had to control if they were to win.
Long Tan was significant in that it demonstrated, for the first time in South Vietnam, how quickly 1ATF units could reconfigure themselves from low intensity war into the combined arms team needed for high intensity battle. Although denied close air support by a tropical thunderstorm, D Company of 6RAR received supporting artillery fire that at times was directed accurately to within 30 metres of the Australians. The enemy could gain no relief by ‘hugging’ their foes’, and consequently suffered very heavy casualties from artillery fire, as well as from small arms.
1ATF units were to continue to demonstrate this ability throughout the war, with close coordination with air power, armor, and artillery fire support. So 1ATF could defeat the enemy when he escalated the intensity of the war through using his main force battalions.
But the enemy’s low intensity guerrilla war saw him disbanding many of his battalions down to small units of five to 10 men, to harass allied forces and wear them down over time. The US forces failed to adapt to the enemy’s change in strategy after the Tet Offensive in 1968. The enemy no longer presented large targets that could be attacked so effectively by American firepower…