Australian tanks at the battles of Coral and Balmoral
The above photograph depicts General Westmoreland, Commander, US Military Assistance Command Vietnam, speaking to members of 1 Troop, C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment about the enemy attack on Fire Support Base Coral. Both Fire Support Base Coral and Balmoral had been attacked a few days before General Westmoreland made his visit.
Australian participation in the Vietnam War began in 1962 with the commitment of the Australian Army Training Team. In 1965, the commitment was expanded to include an infantry battalion supported by ten M113A1 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs). Operational requirements soon had the APCs being utilised in a number of roles, including that of direct fire support, but thin armour and limited firepower meant that APCs were fundamentally unsuited for such a task. As operations progressed the case for the addition of tanks to the Australian task force grew and, in October 1967, the Prime Minister announced that an increase to Australian forces in Vietnam would include a squadron of Centurion tanks.
In early April 1968 American and South Vietnamese forces launched a combined operation in the northern approaches to Saigon designed to eliminate any remaining enemy forces involved in the Tet Offensive. In late April the Australian Task Force was told that its own operations would become part of the allied operation and in early May it established three Fire Support Bases (FSBs) Coral, Balmoral and Coogee some 45 kilometres almost due north of Saigon and some 60 kilometres north-west of the task force base. The enemy forces reacted violently to the establishment of these bases and on 13 May and 16 May launched night attacks on Coral. The Australian’s suffered heavy casualties with 9 killed and 28 wound in the first enemy assault on 13 May 1968 and 5 killed and 19 wounded in the second assault on 16 May 1968. After suffering these losses the Australian Deputy Task Force Commander ordered that the tanks be brought forward from the Task Force base at Nui Dat to aid in defence of the FSBs. Four tanks of 1 Troop, C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, moved to defence of Coral, while the tanks of 2 Troop, C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, proceeded to Balmoral.
On the night of 25/26 May a battalion of North Vietnamese troops made a sustained assault on Balmoral, which was occupied by 3 RAR and the troop of Centurions. The main enemy attack wilted under the under the sustained fire produced from D Company infantry weapons supported by canister rounds and machine gun fire from the two tanks sited directly on the enemy approach. In contrast to the earlier North Vietnamese assault on Coral, the enemy at Balmoral were stopped at or near the wire perimeter of the base. 3RAR suffered three dead and fourteen wounded in the attack.
The following day, a reconnaissance-in-force operation was conducted by D Company 3RAR and 1 Troop of C Squadron out of Balmoral to destroy the remaining enemy forces. The tanks and infantry soon engaged a North Vietnamese bunker system and the fight continued for three hours. The infantry indicated targets to the tanks which moved forward two or three abreast, destroying bunkers by shellfire, or simply crushing the bunkers under their tracks. Throughout the battle enemy actions against the tanks proved relatively ineffectual, with fire from RPG projectiles inflicting only superficial damage. Against lighter APC armour such rockets had a devastating impact, but against the thicker Centurion armour they were largely ineffective and failed to penetrate. Late in the afternoon, amid heavy rain, the Australian attack was called off having destroyed 14 bunkers, capturing a quantity of arms and ammunition, and killing at least seven North Vietnamese. This action was the first Australian infantry/tank assault since the Second World War.
Fire Support Base Balmoral was attacked for a second time in the early morning of the 28 May. This time the attack was carried out by an estimated Regimental sized force. Again the main thrust of the assault fell on D Company and the two tanks suited on the enemy approach. As in the previous assault infantry weapons, canister rounds from the tanks, and artillery fire, stopped the attack on the wire perimeter. The next day 42 North Vietnamese dead were found on the battlefield while casualties amongst the Australians were one dead and eight wounded.
The attack on the 28 May was the last attempt by the enemy to destroy the Australian bases. The final Australian infantry/tank action around Coral/Balmoral took place on 30 May when C Company of 1RAR carrier out a reconnaissance-in-force operation east of Coral. Encountering dug in enemy forces, the Company was pinned down by aggressive enemy forces. Two tanks and a troop of APCs went out to assist. The tanks penetrated the enemy bunker system and, firing canister rounds, cleared the jungle to open up more enemy targets. As the battle developed the enemy responded with multiple RPG shots which either glanced off the side of the tank or exploded on the armour. The battle lasted for three hours, but the tanks enabled the pinned down company to break contact and withdraw. Returning to the battlefield three days later, C Company found the area strewn with enemy dead and equipment.
The Australian Army’s experience with tanks at Coral and Balmoral reconfirmed many of the lessons learnt during the Second World War: the vulnerability of light vehicles such as APCs when attacking heavily defended enemy positions; the value of tanks in reducing Australian casualties; and the mobility of medium tanks in even the heaviest of jungle terrain. Post-war the Australian infantry had limited exposure to working with tanks, so many had initial misgivings about the benefits of tank/infantry cooperation. The battles of Coral and Balmoral soon convinced them otherwise, and the tank/infantry partnership that developed from these two actions remained unshaken throughout the remainder of the Vietnam War.
Australian Army History Unit