Battle of Coral-Balmoral
For an account of the Centurion tanks, check out this Army History Unit article here.
The battle occurred in May 1968, after the main elements of the 1st Australian Task Force, compromising 1RAR and 3RAR, established FSB Coral 20 kilometres north of Bien Hoa (see map courtesy of Australian War Memorial, Used with Permission). Coral’s purpose was to provide cover for foot patrols and to intercept the route of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong withdrawal from their assaults on Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.
Within hours of the Australians establishing Coral on 12 May, the hastily prepared perimeter was attacked by the North Vietnamese who overran several positions. In the grim, close-quarter fighting that ensued, the Australians were able to drive the North Vietnamese back with the assistance of mortar and artillery fire. The base was heavily attacked a second time on the night of 15-16 May. Less intense assaults on Coral occurred in the following weeks, while skirmishes also occurred during patrols into the surrounding territory.
Later in the month, the North Vietnamese turned their focus to FSB Balmoral, established by the Australians on 24-25 May, 4.5 kilometres to the north of Coral. As at Coral, the North Vietnamese attacked Balmoral shortly after its establishment. The weight of Australian firepower, bolstered by the arrival of tanks, enabled the Australians to repel the assault. A further incursion on 28 May was dealt with similarly, inflicting heavy losses on the attackers.
By 6 June, the assaults had ceased in a battle that was costly for both sides. The Australian newspaper’s front page headline after the first day of fighting at Coral bluntly declared, ‘Second Worst Day of War for Australia’. Australian casualties throughout the battle were 25 men killed and 99 wounded, with a further ten New Zealanders and Americans wounded. The battle was certainly more damaging for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, who lost upwards of 250 men killed.
The fighting during the Battle of Coral-Balmoral was atypical of the Australian experience of the Vietnam War, which generally focussed on counter-insurgency. Whereas the enemy generally avoided open conflict, on this occasion they brought the battle directly to the Australians after actively seeking them out.
Coral and Balmoral heralded a marked increase in the number of troops the enemy was prepared to commit to battle, and an increase in the weight of firepower they used. The battle emphasised the need for improved operational planning, and prompted a review of Australian Army tactics, which among other findings reinforced the need to make better use of intelligence. Further, the battle helped to cement the value of armour in South Vietnam. Prior to Coral-Balmoral, some elements of the Army were sceptical that Centurion Tanks could operate effectively in a jungle environment. Their minds were changed after witnessing the powerful contribution the tanks made in support of the infantry during the latter stages of the battle, both in defence and in bunker assaults.
The Royal Australian Regiment, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, and the 1st Armoured Regiment were subsequently awarded the Battle Honour ‘Coral-Balmoral’ for their role in the battle. Most notably, the Honour Title 'Coral’ was awarded to 102nd Field Battery, forty years after the battle, in recognition of the professionalism, dedication and courage the battery displayed under extremely dangerous and confusing conditions. This Honour Title is the only one of its kind awarded by the Australian Army.
Images below courtesy of Australian War Memorial - Accession numbers located on the images:
- An M2A2 howitzer with dirt bunding surrounding it.
- Centurion tanks arrive at Fire Support Patrol Base Coral.
- Gunner Lundt who was to be wounded six times during the battle. (AWM accession no: awm_p02364.001)
- The No 6 gun which was overrun by the enemy before being re-captured.
- General William Westmoreland, commander of allied forces in Vietnam, visits FSPB Coral.
- A crewman from a Centurion tank en-route to FSPB Coral pauses to say hello to some Vietnamese children.