Remembering the Battle of Coral-Balmoral

This article was originally published in the October 2018 Edition of Reveille to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Coral-Balmoral.

By Ashley Ekins

In May 1968, Australian soldiers fought their largest, most sustained and arguably most hazardous battles of the Vietnam War. Units of the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) confronted regiment-sized formations of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA or People’s Army of Vietnam) in a succession of fierce actions around fire support bases Coral and Balmoral in Bien Hoa province.

Australian soldiers prevailed, at a heavy cost to the enemy and their own troops, yet the significance of these battles was not widely recognised at the time. Fifty years later, they can be seen more clearly as the inevitable culmination of major military and political events unfolding in the wider war.

By 1968, the Vietnam War was “mired in stalemate”, in the words of American CBS News reporter Walter Cronkite. Despite a massive escalation of American ground, air and sea forces, victory in South Vietnam seemed no closer than it had three years earlier, when the United States and Australia first committed combat troops.

The Viet Cong, together with their North Vietnamese Army allies, had suffered a major setback in South Vietnam during their Tet Offensive, launched during the Lunar New Year ceasefire. But despite their heavy losses, they achieved an unintended propaganda and political victory. US President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a halt to the aerial bombing of North Vietnam and extended the offer of peace negotiations to the communist regime in Hanoi.

Formal peace talks were scheduled to begin in Paris on 13 May. But a week before they commenced, the communists launched a second major offensive in the south, with a wave of attacks on Saigon. Meanwhile, in early April the 1st Australian Task Force had joined Operation Toan Thang, the biggest allied operation in the war so far, involving 70,000 South Vietnamese, American, Australian, New Zealand and Thai troops. The focus of operations shifted to the northwest.

On 12 May, two Australian infantry battalions with artillery and support units moved to establish Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral, north of Bien Hoa city, on the approaches to Saigon. This move was a leap into the unknown. The area contained infiltration routes used by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces that had attacked Saigon one week earlier. The enemy were now expected to use these routes in withdrawing from the capital.

During the insertion, little proceeded according to plan. The fly-in by helicopter was delayed and there was confusion over the misplacement of some units. Despite detailed intelligence reports, the enemy threat was underestimated – concerns about a substantial enemy presence only arose after the force was committed. The Australians were about to face a much more aggressive, better equipped and better trained enemy than they had encountered previously during counter-insurgency operations in the Phuoc Tuy province.

As night fell over their scattered positions, infantry, artillery and supporting arms were located around Coral in a hurried deployment, intended to just last the night. With few prepared positions, most men only had time to dig individual ‘shell scrapes’ less than a metre deep.

The Australians were unaware that enemy reconnaissance soldiers had observed their protracted and confused insertion and reported back to their headquarters. Under cover of darkness and rain, an augmented battalion of an NVA regiment dug in undetected just 250 metres from the base and attacked in the early hours of 13 May. Australian units withstood enemy attacks, during which a mortar platoon and two gun positions were partlyoverrun. They drove off the enemy after more than two hours of fierce, close-quarter actions. The battle abated at dawn.

The task force suffered losses of 11 killed in action and 28 wounded, with an average age of 22. In one mortar platoon, five soldiers were killed and eight wounded from a total of 18 men.

The enemy left 52 dead in and around the fire support base.

Radio Hanoi and local communist propaganda claimed victory, yet the Australians knew they had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, even if it had been a close contest.

The action led to a change in the concept of the operation. With well-defended fire support bases sited squarely on the enemy’s line of approach, Australian forces induced NVA commanders to launch repeated attacks, which were repelled with heavy enemy losses. Combined infantry/tank patrols resulted in further enemy casualties and the destruction of enemy bases.

Over four weeks, the actions of Australian soldiers led to more than 300 enemy soldiers being killed and hundreds of enemy weapons captured. In return, 26 Australian soldiers died and approximately 100 were wounded.

Australian soldiers had performed with distinction. Regiments involved were later awarded battle honours, with the honour title ‘Coral’ awarded to 102 Field Battery and 34 decorations awarded to individual soldiers. On the 50th anniversary of the first battle at FSB Coral, a Unit Citation for Gallantry was awarded “to recognise all participants . . . for extraordinary gallantry in action…”.

The battles marked a watershed for the Australian Task Force. For the first time since Long Tan, the Australians faced North Vietnamese Army forces in regimental strength. Initially poorly prepared, they had engaged the enemy in pitched battle more akin to conventional warfare than counter-insurgency and had repelled a massive attack.

The actions demonstrated the changing nature of the war, and the changing composition and tactics of enemy forces. The conflict had increased in intensity. The emphasis would now be on facing large formations of regular North Vietnamese Army troops, as well as southern Viet Cong guerrilla and main force units. The Vietnam War would continue to confound strategists, and shift in scale and intensity, until Australian forces withdrew in 1972.

Image: General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, US Military Assistance Command Vietnam, speaks with members of 1 Troop, C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps (RAAC), about an enemy attack to the Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral, in North-West Bien Hoa Province. Identified, left to right, in front of a Centurion tank, are Corporal Bill Burton, Crew commander; Troopers Jock Kay, Phil Payne, and Peter Lukeis. Source: Australian War Memorial.