Book Review – “Vietnam Vanguard: The 5th Battalion’s Approach to Counter-Insurgency”

The book Vietnam Vanguard, edited by Ron Boxall and Robert O’Neill, is an impressive piece of research. The main audience for this book will be those who served in 5 RAR at the time or have been associated with the battalion since it was formed in 1965. It’s also a comprehensive record for military historians and usefully supplements existing accounts – like Bob O’Neill’s excellent book Vietnam Task – The 5th Battalion, RAR 1966 – 1967, written while he was serving in Vietnam.

The book clearly demonstrates that long-term memory is more durable than short-term memory, with an impressive level of detail in the accounts by those who served with and were associated with 5 RAR more than 50 years ago. There are so many interesting first-person accounts in the book that I am reluctant to single out any one of them and therefore recommend you read the book for yourself.

Both editors are well qualified to contribute to the book. Ron Boxall retired as a Brigadier after a long army career, while Bob O’Neill is best known as a distinguished military historian. Both served with the battalion in Vietnam during 1966-67 – Ron as Second-in-Command of D Company and Bob as the Intelligence Officer for much of the deployment.

Bob O’Neill
Ron Boxall

For me the book was a fascinating assembly of 5 RAR’s experiences and “lessons learned” as the first Australian battalion to be deployed into Phuoc Tuy Province in May 1966 as part of the incoming 1st Australian Task Force (ATF).

I had been a platoon commander in 1 RAR in South Vietnam the year before so had some knowledge of the operational challenges faced by 5 RAR and had experienced the geographic environment of at least part of Phuoc Tuy Province. (1 RAR was based at Bien Hoa from mid-1965 to mid-1966 as the third battalion of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade. Most of our brigade operations were in other parts of South Vietnam, but 1 RAR had one operation in Phuoc Tuy Province, in March and April 1966.)

How 5 RAR would perform in the field was a matter of some interest to 1 RAR and the rest of the Australian Army. It was the first battalion containing “nashos” (national servicemen) to deploy on Vietnam operations (1 RAR being an all-regular battalion).  It also contained a large number of former 1 RAR members. When 5 RAR was formed at Holsworthy Barracks in March 1965, the nucleus for 5 RAR was created by taking officers and men from 1 RAR – which was also based at Holsworthy.

In May 1965, 1 RAR deployed to South Vietnam – to the great frustration of the former 1 RAR members who thought – in time-honoured fashion – that our operational deployment was going to be a “one-off”.

However, the Vietnam War continued to gain momentum and the members of 5 RAR got their opportunity to see action in 1966. The battalion soon showed that the mix of regulars and nashos was not an issue. As always, sound training and good leadership at all levels were the key to a well-performing unit. In particular, Lieutenant Colonel John Warr, the 5 RAR battalion commander, proved to be a capable, empathetic and respected commanding officer.

CO 0 Lt Col John Warr

The way that 5 RAR operated was the way 1 RAR would have liked to operate had we been given the choice. Unlike 5 RAR’s situation, our battalion’s itinerant lifestyle meant we did not have the opportunity to become familiar with any one area of operation. Most of 1 RAR’s operations were “search and destroy” operations requiring us to deploy out at some distance from Bien Hoa, including to the Mekong Delta. We would usually deploy to an area where there were no friendly forces and move in a limited timeframe from A to B to “clear” the area for incoming American units.

The 173rd’s emphasis was on finding or attracting the enemy and destroying him with firepower. This bold approach, while seemingly successful (based on inflated body-counts), proved costly for its “gung-ho” airborne battalions – who lost 1,606 killed-in-action in six years.

This was certainly not the way the Australian Army had trained to operate in a jungle environment. The RAR battalions had been accustomed during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) to patiently dominating their areas of operation through silent patrolling and ambushing – all the time avoiding moving on established tracks and trails. At that time, most Australian infantry officers of Captain level and above, and our senior NCOs, had Malayan Emergency experience operating against communist guerrillas. These were the skill sets that were to prove most useful in operations against the rural Viet Cong – as demonstrated by 5 RAR.

A more cautious operational approach suited a casualty-averse Australian Government, keen to show willing under the ANZUS Alliance, but wanting to avoid heavy casualties for political reasons – especially once nashos were involved. The casualty count for 1 RAR Group (28 killed) and the likelihood that casualty numbers would increase under American command were the main reasons (we believed) for the ending of the close arrangement with the 173rd.

The establishment of an Australian-controlled area in Phuoc Tuy Province meant that the Australian Defence Force would have autonomous control over the way our battalions operated. This changed arrangement was made diplomatically easier by Australia’s methodology of replacing whole battalions every 12 months. By contrast, American units remained in-theatre and replaced their personnel from the US as required.

On arrival in Vietnam, the first priority for 5 RAR was preparing the way for the ATF base at Nui Dat. This they did under command of the 173rd, working with the brigade’s two American battalions to secure the base area out to mortar range. (By now, 1 RAR was on its way home to Holsworthy.)

The main operational priority for 5 RAR over the next 12 months was restoring South Vietnamese Government control to Province areas that had been dominated by the Viet Cong.  This was achieved through “cordon and search” operations, successful ambushes, and by establishing a good local intelligence network – largely through close relations with senior members of each hamlet.

As the battalion did not have the manpower to patrol the areas in the north of the province in search of regular Viet Cong units, 5 RAR chose instead to concentrate on keeping the Viet Cong away from the local people – another methodology that had proved so successful in Malaya. The 5 RAR cordon and search operations were largely effective in achieving that objective, and the techniques developed for their execution were subsequently adopted by the battalions that followed them.

One of John Warr’s innovations was the creation, in October 1966, of the first specialist Reconnaissance Platoon to be used in Vietnam.

The official record states that prior to the arrival of 5 RAR only 24,775 of the inhabitants of Phuoc Tuy Province were under South Vietnamese Government control in 24 hamlets. However, by April 1967, 98,408 villagers were said to be under Government control in 105 hamlets.

In total, 5 RAR conducted 18 separate operations before it handed responsibility over to 7 RAR and returned to Australia in April 1967. 25 members of 5 RAR were killed in action or died of wounds, while 79 were wounded in action. By contrast, the Viet Cong enemy lost at least 70 killed.

As noted by Bob O’Neill “5 RAR had laid a sturdy platform for future battalions due to their innovative use of tactics, hard training, the professionalism with which they carried out their tasks and the subsequent respect won from the Vietnamese people.”

For me, as a former Intelligence Corps officer, one of the most interesting sections of the book was Ernest Chamberlain’s analysis of the enemy perspective, at Appendix D. (Ernie was a fellow Portsea graduate and Vietnamese interpreter, later to become Brigadier and Director of Military Intelligence and, in retirement, a noted military historian through his translation of Vietnamese war records.)

Vietnam Vanguard is available in print form for $55 but the size of print might prove hard going for some older readers. It might be easier for them to read it free of charge online at https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n6124/html/cover.xhtml?referer=&page=0#  where the text can be zoomed to 400 percent.

As a postscript, 5 RAR completed two tours of duty in South Vietnam before it was linked with 7 RAR to form 5/7 RAR in 1973. In late 2006, 5 RAR again became an independent battalion and has since served in Iraq, East Timor and Afghanistan.

Professor Clive Williams MG
Centre for Military and Security Law
The Australian National University
26 July 2020

Ron Boxall and Robert O’Neill Eds Vietnam Vanguard: The 5th Battalion’s Approach to Counter-Insurgency, 1966 ANU Press, 2020. It has 456 pages, comprising 17 chapters from 33 contributing authors, seven appendices, 44 photographs, 13 maps and three diagrams in full colour.

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