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The announcement

On 29 April 1965 the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, made a statement on Vietnam to a half-empty House of Representatives. At eight o'clock at night he announced the extension of Australian commitment in Vietnam both militarily and economically. After three years of providing military advisors to help train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, Australia was now to send its own army into the South East Asian country in the form of an infantry Battalion (soldiers who fought on foot).

The Australian Government is now in receipt of a request from the Government of South Vietnam for further military assistance. We have decided - and this has been done after close consultation with the Government of the United States - to provide an infantry battalion for service in South Vietnam…. The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South and South-East Asia.
Excerpt from Prime Minister Robert Menzies' speech in Parliament, 29 April 1965

This speech did not look like the beginning of the biggest ever deployment of Australian troops outside the two world wars. The rather low key announcement underplayed the extent of Australia's eventual involvement. Like the USA, Australia got slowly drawn in to what was essentially a civil war and a nationalist battle for independence. The Vietnam War never fulfilled any of its promise as a heroic battle against the evils of communism that the US and Australia thought it would.

The first troops

In 1962, after requests from the US and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), Australia had sent in 30 military advisors to assist with the training of the RVN Army. These advisors were highly skilled in jungle warfare. They had been involved in the confrontation with Indonesia and had learned from Australian action in the jungles during World War Two. A Royal Australian Air Force squadron was also posted to nearby Thailand to act as back up.

By 1964, it was clear that the South Vietnamese forces would be beaten by the combined efforts of the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. If nothing was done, the South Vietnamese democracy (such as it was) would fall into communist hands. America began sending in more troops and asked for more countries to become actively involved so it would not seem like just an American action, but a group of countries helping out a beleaguered democracy. In June, Australia responded to the 'more international flags in Saigon' campaign and upped the number of its advisors to 60. By 1965 that number rose again to over 100, and, of course, by April the infantry battalion announced by Menzies in parliament was on its way. The Vietnam War had begun in earnest and so had Australia's participation in it.

The 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), consisting of 778 soldiers, arrived in Vietnam in May 1965. These were career soldiers, men who had chosen a job in the army - conscripts were not sent until the next year. Conscription had been re-introduced to Australia in November 1964. It was called the National Service Scheme and required all men to register when they turned 20. Each year certain dates were drawn and those whose birthdays were on that date (and who passed the medical and educational tests) had to serve in the army for two years. Anyone who did not fulfil their National Service obligations without a good reason could be fined or imprisoned. The first army units containing National Service conscripts entered the Vietnam War in early 1966. See image 1

More troops sent

In the next two-and-a-half years, the Australian commitment to Vietnam was expanded on a number of occasions. By August 1965, there were over 1000 soldiers making a Battalion group. In May 1966, that became a task force of 4500 men and by October 1967, the Australian troop numbers reached a peak of 8300 men. From 1962 until 1971, nearly 50 000 Australians served in Vietnam. Although it was a large number of troops by Australian standards, it was only a small proportion of the overall numbers, especially compared with the 500 000 troops sent in by America. See animation

Although the majority of Australian troops fighting in Vietnam came under American command, they were able to use their own tactics in fighting the Viet Cong. The Australian troops spent the majority of their time walking the jungles and searching villages for Viet Cong troops, but they also fought in quite a few major engagements. See image 2

The 1st Battalion RAR was originally based in Bien Hoa Province near the South Vietnam capital of Saigon. The battalion joined US forces in clearing the area of Viet Cong forces to secure the nearby air base. Then, between 1966 and 1971, the main Australian Task Force, containing the 5th and 6th Battalions was based in Phuoc Tuy province.

The Battle of Long Tan

In 1966 Australian soldiers took part in the significant and now famous battle of Long Tan. They beat the Viet Cong after being lured into an ambush in a rubber plantation. The company involved in the battle received the United States Presidential Citation for their victory and along the way proved themselves to the Viet Cong, who, after Long Tan, would no longer readily engage Australian troops in that area. The Viet Cong came to realise that unlike the majority of the Americans, Australians had previous experience of jungle warfare and were a force to be reckoned with.

During the battle of Long Tan, 17 Australian servicemen lost their lives compared with 245 on the Viet Cong side. Australian troops had proven themselves, but it did not stop the Viet Cong continuing to grow in size and strength. Instead of being able to put down the insurrections with the troops that were already in the country, both America and Australia had to keep increasing their commitments to meet the growing threat from the Viet Cong. See image 3

Counting the cost

Australia's troop numbers kept climbing, as did the budget. The war in Vietnam eventually took 520 lives, wounded over 2000 more men and cost $200 million. The year 1968 was the worst year for Australian casualties. By 1969, in line with American policy, Australia began scaling down its presence in Vietnam, although the last Australian soldier would not leave until 1971.

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1. How many Australian soldiers died in the Battle of Long Tan?






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