The Australians began an intensive patrol program in AO Columbus and were soon fighting up to platoon-sized Viet Cong units in a series of bunker complexes. Between 25–29 January the Australians conducted reconnaissance-in-force operations and a series of minor patrol clashes followed up to the end of January. On 26 January B Company, 2 RAR/NZ fought a two-hour action against about 25 Viet Cong entrenched in a bunker system. While on the same day 9 Platoon, C Company, 2 RAR/NZ also assaulted and occupied a camp initially believed to be of similar strength and held it for 19 hours after repeated attacks from a Viet Cong force estimated to be of company strength.
Meanwhile, whilst providing flank security the New Zealanders in V Company, 2 RAR/NZ engaged in a series of skirmishes which resulted in 12 Viet Cong dead and many weapons captured with two New Zealanders wounded. On 27 January there were heavier contacts still, resulting in 14 Australians wounded and one Viet Cong killed.
Although 1 ATF was well placed to deny the communists the use of its AO, it was increasingly obvious that there was little role for the SAS. Indeed, the heavy presence of Viet Cong prevented them from operating normally, and the first attempt to insert a patrol was called off due to the presence of hostile forces in the vicinity of the landing zone; two Viet Cong were subsequently killed and the patrol was extracted after only 30 minutes.
A second attempt lasted only fifteen minutes longer, and they were also extracted following a brief contact. Finally, two patrols were joined together in an effort to provide more protection, and on 29 January they patrolled out from 7 RAR battalion headquarters. After only 30 minutes the Australians encountered a small party of Viet Cong; however, they tried again two hours later but were detected. The following day they tried for a third time and were contacted. Unable to operate effectively, the SAS patrols were withdrawn and returned to Nui Dat on 1 February.
Meanwhile, on 29 January D Company, 7 RAR contacted a battalion concentrating in bunkers during a two and half hour battle that saw nine Australian casualties, including one killed, while seven Viet Cong were also killed. On 31 January Viet Cong overran the village of Trang Bom, just 1,500 metres (1,600 yd) south-west of FSB Andersen.
The Australians reclaimed it that afternoon only for the communists to attack again the next day. Once again the Australians recaptured it, this time in savage house-to-house fighting involving D Company, 2 RAR/NZ and A Squadron, 3 CAV. C Company, 3 RAR was subsequently inserted to assist with the protection of FSB Harrison.
In response to the attack on Trang Bom, D Company, 7 RAR was dispatched forward to search the area. The lead platoon advanced on a Viet Cong camp—later found to be battalion-size—and was almost destroyed in the ensuing firefight. With half the platoon soon becoming casualties, another platoon was moved forward to aid their extraction.
Close support from artillery protected the Australians from further casualties however, and the Viet Cong was eventually forced to withdraw. Six Australians had been killed and 36 wounded in the engagements up to that point, while one New Zealander had also died and one wounded. More than 40 Viet Cong had been killed and nine wounded.
In the early hours of 31 January key installations in the Long Binh–Bien Hoa complex in AO Uniontown had come under heavy attack by the Viet Cong 5th Division, as part of the second prong of the communist attacks against Saigon.
With the Tet offensive erupting across South Vietnam, Bien Hoa airbase received heavy rocket fire that caused extensive damage to buildings, aircraft, and facilities, while the Long Binh Logistics Depot and the prisoner of war camp were also hit.
Over the next three days the US 199th Light Infantry Brigade—later reinforced by the US 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and an infantry battalion from the US 101st Airborne Division—were forced into heavy combat fending off communist indirect fire and ground attacks. By 1 February the Americans had gained the upper hand however, winkling out the last remaining Viet Cong following a sweep of Bien Hoa that cleared the town.
The attacks on Bien Hoa forced a change in tactics for the Australians, and 1 ATF’s mission was quickly changed from reconnaissance-in-force to a blocking operation designed to intercept withdrawing communist forces.
Between 31 January and 1 February, the Australian battalions moved into company blocking positions and a number of minor contacts occurred, resulting in some Viet Cong casualties and the capture of more weapons and equipment.
Once in position, the intensity of these clashes increased as the Australians sprung platoon ambushes. Indeed, during early February, the nature of contacts in AO Columbus began to change, with the Australians increasingly faced by larger company-sized Main Force units located in static defensive positions.
During the first week of February the Viet Cong began streaming through the AO, retreating from Saigon in the wake of heavy losses during Tet. Although the Viet Cong managed to avoid becoming decisively engaged, around 90 were killed and five captured, as the Australians maintained their blocking positions.
C Company, 7 RAR had been detached in order to protect the task force headquarters as well as to act as a reserve, and was particularly heavily engaged during this phase. The force had been gradually patrolling, when 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) north of Trang Bom on the morning of 5 February, it contacted a large Viet Cong force consisting of a regimental headquarters and three companies in a well constructed defensive position defended by several heavy machine-guns.
The Australians assaulted the position on three occasions over the next three days in vicious fighting supported by airstrikes, artillery and helicopter gunships. During one such attack on 7 February, Lieutenant Mark Moloney—one of the company’s platoon commanders—charged forward with six M72 rocket launchers to attack a series of bunkers single handed. Moloney succeeded in destroying several before he fell badly wounded; he survived, and for his actions was recommended for a Victoria Cross.
Moloney’s award was never made however, although Gunner Michael Williams and Corporal Graham Griffith were both awarded the Military Medal for their actions under fire. The battle continued for seven hours, with the Australians eventually routing the defenders in the bunker system in a battle later hailed as “probably one of the most brilliant actions ever fought by an Australian rifle company.” However, amidst the confusion of Tet such efforts went largely unnoticed by the western press.
Early the same morning the night harbour occupied by the New Zealanders from V Company, 2 RAR/NZ had been attacked by a Viet Cong force consisting of elements of three companies from the 274th Regiment, shortly after stand-to at 06:15. The incident proved to be the most intense fighting involving New Zealand forces in Vietnam to that point, and over the course of an hour the attack was successfully repelled with the assistance of highly accurate artillery support from the 108th Battery, RAA operating in direct support, as well as from mortar fire.
The Viet Cong withdrew following the arrival of a light fire team of gunships, leaving behind 13 dead and a number of other blood trails. Nine New Zealanders were wounded in the engagement, six of whom subsequently required evacuation by helicopter.
Elsewhere, Tet had also engulfed Phuoc Tuy province and although stretched thin the remaining Australian forces there were soon drawn into heavy combat as Viet Cong units simultaneously attacked the main provincial towns. Dunstan was forced to dispatch the Task Force reaction force from Nui Dat, with A Company, 3 RAR under the command of Major Brian Howard moving to reinforce South Vietnamese government forces following an attack by a 600-strong force from D445 VC Battalion on Ba Ria, the provincial capital, before first light on 1 February.
Fighting from street to street in a series of firefights at close quarters the Australians successfully repelled the attack, killing 40 Viet Cong. Later, on 3 February, D Company, 3 RAR spoiled a harassing attack on Long Dien, and conducted a sweep of Hoa Long. Overall, the fighting in Phuoc Tuy between 1–9 February resulted in 50 Viet Cong killed, 25 wounded and one prisoner. Five Australians were killed and 24 wounded.
While the Australians in AO Columbus had successfully interrupted the pre-positioning of communist forces on one of the main approaches to Saigon, in hindsight they had been deployed too late to interfere seriously with the offensive.
Over the period 9–12 February 1 ATF redeployed, moving south back towards the fire support bases. The remaining companies of 3 RAR subsequently relieved 7 RAR and moved north on 11 February, while 2 RAR/NZ returned to Nui Dat on 13 February. FSB Harrison was abandoned and all command and support elements concentrated at FSB Andersen. Contact was minimal during this period, with just three Viet Cong killed.
Photo: Private Ian Carter, a 22 year old National Serviceman from Glenelg, South Australia slams a shell into the breach of a 105mm Howitzer during Operation Coburg in north-east Bien Hoa Province. Private Carter is member of Support Company, 3 RAR, with the 1st Australian Task Force in South Vietnam. Source: Trove.