Battle of Nui Le
The Battle of Nui Le (21 September 1971) was the last major battle fought by Australian and New Zealand forces in South Vietnam. The battle was fought in the former Phuoc Tuy Province between elements of the 33rd Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army and 'B' and 'D' Companies of the 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Battalion (4 RAR/NZ) and during Operation Ivanhoe. Nui Le, a hamlet of Quang Thanh commune in Chau Duc District, is today in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province.
The decision for the Australian withdrawal from Vietnam, was made by the Australian Government and commenced in November 1970, and combat forces were to be reduced gradually during 1971. Intelligence pointed towards a major buildup of Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army forces in the north of Phuoc Tuy Province and abductions and assassinations had increased in the adjacent Long Khanh Province. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese were preparing for the withdrawal of the 1st Australian Task Force from Phuoc Tuy Province, which was gradually being withdrawn from August 1971, and were hoping to defeat the Australians.
4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Battalion (4 RAR/NZ), consisting of two companies of Australian infantry (B and D Companies) and one company of New Zealand infantry (V Company), was committed to a reconnaissance in force operation, named Operation Ivanhoe against any North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces in the north of former Phuoc Tuy Province. D Company, 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, 1st Troop, A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, 4th Troop, C Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, 2 Troop, 104th Field Battery, elements of 104th Signal Squadron and 161st (Independent) Recce Squadron were also committed to the operation.
North Vietnamese Army forces fired rockets and mortars at a South Vietnamese Regional Force outpost at Cam My village on Route 2 on 19 September 1971. The Australian M113 armored personnel carriers sent to investigate and relieve the outpost were ambushed and came under attack from rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire from what was considered to be large force.
11 Platoon of D Company 4 RAR/NZ made contact with an NVA platoon on 20 September and after a half hour skirmish, four dead NVA soldiers were found on the battlefield. Their uniforms and equipment and study of the tactics used during the skirmish pointed toward the unit being from the North Vietnamese Army. Tracks made by the NVA force indicated about two hundred soldiers had passed through the area.
The commander of the 33rd Regiment NVA set a number of ambushes for the expected Australian relief forces, however the Australians did not follow the route that was expected by the North Vietnamese and went around the ambush sites instead.
Patrols by 11 Platoon, D Company 4 RAR/NZ on the morning of 21 September, found sawn logs near the south eastern part of the Courtenay rubber plantation which suggested that there were major fortified bunker positions nearby. B and D Company 4 RAR/NZ moved forward near Nui Le to attack these fortifications.
12 Platoon, D Company 4 RAR/NZ made first contact with a bunker system, suffering one dead from a rocket-propelled grenade and four wounded. An estimated platoon strength assault attacked 11 Platoon, and after a 15-minute firefight the North Vietnamese forces withdrew to their bunkers after removing their dead and wounded form the battlefield. The Australian and New Zealand platoons were ordered to withdraw to an area to the south so airstrikes and artillery could be called in to soften up the bunker systems.
Under the control of the Forward Observer, United States Air Force air strikes were called in and F-4 Phantoms and A37 Dragonflys bombed the area with napalm, air to surface missiles, flechette and 500 pound bombs. Iroquois and Cobra helicopter gunships and Australian artillery strikes also hit the bunker system. The American pilots reported NVA forces fleeing to the north.
At 14:00, D Company was ordered forward to search and destroy the bunker systems. The North Vietnamese let the Australians advance some 50 metres (55 yd) into the bunker complex before attacking. 11 Platoon, suffered three killed and two wounded. Many grenades thrown by the North Vietnamese did not explode, reducing casualties. This was fought hand to hand as the Centurion tanks of the 1st Armoured Regiment had previously been withdrawn from Vietnam. 12 Platoon was also pinned down and could not move forward.
The bodies of the three killed Australian soldiers could not be recovered and orders were given to pull back, which under heavy fire did not happen until 16:00. Just as the sun was setting the ANZAC forces ran into another NVA force, with the commanding officer of 11 Platoon, Gary McKay being hit twice by a sniper's bullet in the shoulder. The bunker system they had come across was found later to be the 33rd Regiment's Headquarters. It was now pitch black and the Forward Observer, Captain Greg Gilbert, unable to use his map or compass, and unable to speak to the Company Commander, Major Jerry Taylor, brought artillery fire to within 25 metres of the company under difficult circumstances as more North Vietnamese forces joined the battle. To compound the artillery problem the company was in range of only three guns and these were at the limit of their range. The North Vietnamese disengaged at 21:00 just as the Australians were running low on ammunition.
After a number of hours of fighting the elements of the 33rd Regiment NVA pulled out of the bunker system and moved north after recovering the dead and wounded they could carry. The Australian wounded were evacuated by helicopter in the morning of 22 September. Five Australians had been killed and 30 wounded. Total North Vietnamese losses are unknown, however fourteen bodies were found on the battlefield. At 1739 hours the New Zealanders of V Company moved up to reinforce D Company. On 23 September, D and V companies moved back into the area of the bunkers. V Company began the assault on the NVA bunker system at 1105 hours moving in very short bounds in torrential rainfall through bomb and artillery craters and fallen timber and it was not until 1725 hours that they reached the bunkers where they found the bodies of three Australians from 11 Platoon who had been killed in the previous bunker assault by D Company. V Company cleared a track to a helicopter winch point and the New Zealand riflemen shouldered arms and formed an impromptu "guard of honour" in tribute as members of D Company moved forward with litters for the fallen. For his role in the battle, Second Lieutenant Garry McKay, who was badly wounded, received the Military Cross.Captain Gilbert was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 2018 for his actions during the Battle.
- Rowe 1989, p.159.
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