Veterans remember Battle of Coral-Balmoral

The Battle of Coral-Balmoral was a series of fierce attacks fought in Vietnam 50 years ago this May.As the sun set over south Vietnam, n soldiers settled into their hastily dug, muddy fighting positions, unaware that an overwhelming attack by North Vietnamese Army soldiers was imminent.
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Some felt uneasy. Their commanders had been briefed about a strong enemy presence. Official historian Ashley Ekins says afterwards they reported feeling a sense of foreboding.

“You won’t need to find Charlie. They’ll come looking for you,” warned one American officer.

And they did, opening their attack about 3.30am with an intense barrage of rocket and mortar fire and following with waves of infantry, over-running some artillery and mortar positions.

“It was vicious. It was the worst kind of night time assault, in the dark, tracer from automatic weapons streaming in, together with rocket-propelled grenades. It would have been terrifying,” Ekins said.

Eleven n soldiers died, most from the overwhelmed mortar platoon, while 28 were wounded before the attack was beaten back.

So opened the Battle of Coral-Balmoral, an almost continuous series of fierce attacks fought over 26 days from May 13 to June 6, 1968, 50 years ago.

These were by far the largest battles n forces participated in during their decade-long involvement in Vietnam, although they have mostly been over-shadowed by the better known Battle of Long Tan almost two years earlier.

Long Tan involved 108 ns, with more in support, in a fight for their lives against a combined force of up to 2500 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Eighteen ns died and 24 were wounded.

Coral-Balmoral involved many more on both sides – 3000 or more ns, with 26 killed, and hundreds of enemy dead. Among the n wounded was Second Lieutenant Tim Fischer, later deputy prime minister.

That year, 1968, was a watershed in the Vietnam War. On January 30-31, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the Tet offensive, attacking throughout South Vietnam.

Phase 2 of that offensive, later called mini-Tet, ran from April 29 to May 30. The US asked to establish a fire support base on a likely North Vietnamese withdrawal route about 40km north of Saigon.

A fire support base (FSB) was a temporary artillery position set up to support operations beyond artillery range of established bases. Using the great tactical innovation of the Vietnam War, the helicopter, these could be established in hours.

For the First n Task Force (1ATF), this was to be a different kind of war, well away from their familiar operational area in Phuoc Tuy province. Up until then, ‘s war had been one of counter-insurgency, involving patrols, ambushes and some deliberate attacks on enemy positions.

Ekins said they were now heading into the big league. Coral was placed right on the North Vietnamese Army exit routes from Saigon and they were certain to respond.

FSB Coral was set up on May 12 with the insertion of two infantry battalions, 1RAR and 3RAR, plus 102 Field Battery and 161 New Zealand Field Battery and other support units.

Their arrival was protracted and confused. There weren’t enough helicopters for a speedy lift. The artillery arrived before their defending infantry. Soldiers dug shallow scrapes, which filled with mud in the evening downpour. There was no wire for perimeter defences.

Ekins said the enemy was watching and concluded the n position was vulnerable.

Their initial attack might easily have overrun the base but was eventually beaten off by a combination of stolid defence, air support by US gunships and aircraft and n artillery.

As the sun rose, 52 enemy dead lay strewn inside and outside the perimeter.

A second attack followed on May 15-16, again beaten off by massed infantry and artillery fire from stronger defensive positions, plus some American gunners.

It was decided to redeploy 3RAR to set up another position, called FSB Balmoral, about 4.5km north of Coral.

North Vietnamese forces attacked Balmoral in the early hours of May 26.

This time defences were more formidable, reinforced by n Centurion tanks, which had made the long road trip from the main n base at Nui Dat.

The Centurions arrived two days before the attack and helped to repel the enemy assault. The same occurred in a second attack on Balmoral on May 27-28.

Far from content to sit in their bases waiting to be attacked, n units launched offensive patrols against enemy forces and their nearby bunker positions.

With enemy contacts diminishing, the n units returned to Nui Dat on June 6, closing down base defences and handing over the area of operations to the US Army’s 1st Division.

Fifty years on, many veterans of what were the largest and most sustained action of ‘s war in Vietnam will be in Canberra to remember.

A national service will be held on Sunday, May 13 at the n Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra.

The n War Memorial’s Last Post Ceremony at dusk on May 13 will commemorate the life of Corporal Robert Hickey of 1RAR and all those killed at and around FSB Coral.

The Last Post Ceremony on May 26 commemorates Private Lindsay Brown of 3RAR and those killed around FSB Balmoral.

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