Keeping Troops in the Field Part 3: Resupply

Robert HallArticles, Australian ArmyLeave a Comment

Bob Hall and Andrew Ross 

The system and frequency of resupply affected the soldier’s load. The length of the gap between resupplies determined how many days of rations and water the soldier was required to carry. The ability to deliver an emergency resupply of ammunition when necessary could also influence the ammunition load the soldier carried.

Background

Counterinsurgency operations in tropical Southeast Asia tended to pose particular problems for the logistic support of deployed forces. This was especially so for dismounted troops. Throughout the 1960s, in both North Borneo during Confrontation and in the Vietnam War, the utility helicopter enabled the rapid deployment of forces into areas of operations (AO) in which there was no surface road or track link between the supporting base area and the deployed forces. The deployed force was often totally dependent upon helicopter resupply. The enemy deliberately sought out remote, usually jungle-covered areas in which to establish his base areas since his aim was to avoid contact unless on his own terms. When attempting to avoid contact he dispersed into small groups, usually in dense jungle, well away from civilian population centres, roads and other means by which allied forces might more easily be deployed to search for him. These remote areas provided him with cover from observation, thereby allowing him to avoid the effects of our massive advantage in heavy weapons. Hence Australian operations aiming to search out and destroy enemy forces in his base areas required deployment into these areas.

The resupply of dismounted troops in remote AOs could involve a wide variety of means including helicopters, trucks (including the quarter-ton Landrover and trailer) if road access was possible, APCs, foot patrolling and portering. Other means (such as ox carts), or a combination of methods were also tried. However, the utility helicopter was highly flexible and as a result, was often used. But despite its flexibility the helicopter was not free from constraints on its use as will be discussed below.

The frequency of resupply and the method used was often determined by operational considerations. It is therefore necessary to briefly consider the operational settings in Phuoc Tuy Province in Vietnam.

Vietnam

Australian operations in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, from 1966 to 1971 were conducted in the context of a revolutionary war waged by the combined forces of the Viet Cong (VC) complemented with units and men of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), known colloquially as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).[1] The VC/NVA supported the enemy’s political arm, the National Liberation Front (NLF) which ran a system of government in parallel to that of the Republic of South Vietnam. In supporting the NLF, the VC/NVA conducted military operations aimed primarily at attacking the South Vietnamese government and its military arm, the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN).

The United States and its allies, including Australia, adopted a strategy of attrition to win the war. This strategy aimed at bringing the massive firepower available to the Allied forces to bear on the VC/NVA. This, it was believed, would cause casualties to the VC/NVA in such numbers that North Vietnam would be unable to sustain the war.

However, US Army strategy was not static. It developed through the course of the war, generally moving from a sharp focus on attrition towards a focus on pacification and ‘Vietnamisation’. However, despite these changes the Free World Military Assistance Forces (FWMAF) mainly sought to bring the enemy’s main force units to battle under conditions where the Allied firepower advantage could be devastating to him.[2]

The VC/NVA sought to nullify the great firepower advantage enjoyed by the Allies by avoiding battle except under circumstances deemed favourable to themselves. Their main force units endeavoured to avoid battle with the FWMAF, by dispersing into large, often remote, jungle swathes of South Vietnam.

To locate and bring the VC/NVA main force units to battle required FWMAF units to conduct ‘search-and-destroy’, later termed ‘reconnaissance-in-force’ (RIF), operations. These involved weeks and sometimes months of intensive patrolling by both dismounted infantry and armoured patrols. In the 1ATF AO in Phuoc Tuy Province, the Australians applied their counterinsurgency doctrine and aggressively patrolled often breaking down into platoon and half-platoon elements (of about 14 men) to cover more ground as they searched for the elusive enemy.

The enemy enjoyed a major strategic advantage in fighting an insurgency. By adjusting his level of commitment to the war the VC/NVA could wage war virtually indefinitely. The US and its allies, on the other hand, faced domestic political realities that required them to not only win the war, but to do so within an acceptable (and relatively short) timeframe. Domestic political support would not be sustained unless there were clear signs that the struggle would end in victory and that that end would not be too distant or too costly. It followed from this that the US and its allies were under pressure to win the war, but for the VC/NVA it was acceptable to simply avoid losing.

The implications of this for dismounted soldier patrolling and load carrying were that 1ATF infantry was often heavily loaded for lengthy RIF operations conducted deep in the jungle with minimal vehicle support. Helicopter support was available but the use of helicopters for resupply could alert the enemy to the presence of searching patrols. Meanwhile, the enemy operated far less encumbered. When not conducting a major operation his troops sought to avoid contact with Free World Forces and so could carry light loads giving them enough firepower to ensure that they could break contact and get away. These light loads also gave them high mobility. On the other hand, the enemy was able to plan his major operations over months, giving a lot of time and effort to preparing the battlefield. These preparations could include building caches of ammunition, food and other supplies on routes to and from the objective and pre-positioning support elements such as casualty evacuation teams. These preparations freed his assault troops from the task of carrying heavy loads into battle, and carrying casualties away from it.

Impact of helicopters on deployments and resupplies

Some senior Australian commanders hoped that the helicopter would similarly free 1ATF dismounted troops from carrying heavy loads as they patrolled in search of the enemy. Brigadier S.C. Graham, Commander 1ATF from January to October 1967 believed that the helicopter offered the best, and perhaps the only chance of helping to free the dismounted soldier from the necessity of carrying his heavy load. He wrote:

There will be occasions when it is easier to move soldier’s packs and other equipment by helicopter than on his back and opportunity should be taken of these. Apart from this I see little progress in the old problem of lightening the infantryman’s load. He still looks like a pack-horse and it seems we have gone about as far as we can go in this field. The lighter ammunition of the Armalite simply enabled the soldiers to carry more ammunition, for instance, and Parkinson may yet produce a law that “loads increase to match carrying capability”.[3]

He added, ‘perhaps the problem needs looking at from some completely new angle.’ Attempting to do just that he also considered how the helicopter might free the infantry to employ a range of more specialized, and therefore potentially more lethal, weapons and equipment. He suggested a kind of ‘gun-room’ idea in which troops on patrol could call forward for delivery by helicopter specialist weapons and equipment needed for a particular task. He wrote:

We have always sought to equip units with weapons which can meet every contingency in every sort of operation. I believe this should change with the airmobile concept. Heavy fire power and good defences are needed in defence (as indeed they always have been) but now with the helicopter we have the capability to see that the soldier travels lightly in advance and attack but can be rapidly re-supplied with what he needs, even for short periods. There is no problem in re-supply of ammunition and a defensive position (even temporary) should project a mass of automatic fire and have sophisticated defences; it need not be limited to what the troops can carry on foot into the position. This presupposes that units hold a pool of weapons so that sub-units can be armed more specifically for the task in hand.[4]

But Graham’s idea failed to materialize. Though the helicopter offered remarkable flexibility and freed deployed forces from the constraints of roads and tracks, it had several shortcomings that tended to preclude its use in the way Graham hoped. First, it was vulnerable to enemy fire, even small arms fire, as described below. Second, helicopters could not be relied upon to deliver the lift capacity to quite the extent Graham hoped. The use of helicopter support was constrained by weather and light conditions and by tasking priority. They could not be relied upon 100% to be available when needed. Third, too frequent use of helicopters for deliveries to patrolling troops tended to compromise patrol security and surprise. Most infantry battalion commanding officers in Vietnam sought to keep helicopters well away from their AOs for as long as possible lest the enemy observe their movements, deduce the locations of patrols and either avoid the area or adopt higher levels of security.

Duration of operations/patrols

When 1RAR deployed to Vietnam in May 1965 its operations tended to be of short duration, usually 7 to 10 days (although one was a month long). Company operations usually had the role of search and destroy or of providing protection to a HQ and fire support base. But, as Major J.B. Healy, OC A Coy, 1RAR wrote:

As a general rule, short operations are not as profitable as longer ones. A short operation, or one in which a lot of ground is to be covered, does not allow time for thorough searching and follow up of leads. It is preferable to plan a long operation and shorten it than to have to extend a short operation.[5]

Also, too large a proportion of short operations tended to be taken up with deployment into the AO and extraction from it. This tended to consume time otherwise available for operations against the enemy.

When 1ATF deployed into its FOB at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province in May 1966 operations continued to be of relatively short duration each of perhaps less than 10 days duration. This was because many operations at that time were aimed at establishing the security of the Nui Dat base. The main patrolling effort was initially directed at clearing the enemy out to ‘Line Alpha’, defining the area within 4000 metres – mortar range – of the Nui Dat base. However, as the security of the base became better established, patrols ventured further afield and operations tended to last longer. In particular, the duration of operations extended beyond the point where soldiers could conveniently carry sufficient rations and water in their field equipment. This in turn led to a greater need for resupply to dismounted troops deployed in the field.

By 1967 1ATF troops were spending on average twenty four days per month out of the Nui Dat base on operations, consuming combat rations.[6]

Routine Resupply

Routine resupplies occurred when soldiers exhausted their rations and/or water and required resupply to remain in the field. They could be planned 24 or more hours in advance, with helicopters or other vehicles booked to do the delivery, rations ‘culled’ and water bottles filled, the company or platoon lots packed into sandbags by the Company Quartermaster Sergeant (CQMS) and his staff, ready for delivery the next day. Also packed were any other items the company or platoon needed such as replacement batteries, clothing to replace torn items, weapons or radio equipment to replace malfunctioning items. Platoon sergeants were responsible for ordering these replacement items using a ‘commodity code’, when they placed their orders by radio prior to the resupply. The CQMS would also organize the company cooks to prepare a fresh food ‘finger meal’ such as a bun with salad and meat, some fruit and ideally a carton of milk per man, to be prepared and packed for delivery into the field.

Usually, the last piece of information provided to the agency tasked to deliver the resupply was the delivery LZ, DZ or rendezvous.  Since the approximate locations of the units to receive the resupply were known, this piece of information could be provided as late as 30 minutes before resupply delivery.

On the morning of the resupply, the CQMS delivered the resupply fully weighed and packed, to the pickup LZ, usually the battalion LZ within Nui Dat. There it was loaded into the delivery vehicle, often a helicopter, for delivery to the troops in the field. Any soldiers to be sent out to the company as reinforcements would also be assembled, fully kitted, at the LZ together with items such as mail. Sometimes the battalion Intelligence officer, medical officer or padre, would use the opportunity of the resupply to visit the company in the field.

Meanwhile, in the AO, the company might concentrate on a single LZ to receive its resupply, or alternatively, one or more platoons might receive their resupply at their own LZ. The company resupply was often favoured because it gave the company commander an opportunity to personally discuss operations and issue orders for the next phase of the operation with his subordinate commanders.

The LZ would be prepared as required. The company carried machetes and folding saws to clear the selected LZ site of light trees and shrubs to accept the resupply helicopter. If necessary, explosives such as slabs of C4 or detonating cord could also be used to remove obstacles, such as larger trees, from the LZ. Marker panels would be pegged to the ground to indicate the precise point the helicopter should land. A working party would be gathered and a senior NCO readied to direct the helicopter pilot. Smoke grenades of a single colour would be readied. Any personnel or items needing to be backloaded to the 1ATF base (such as sick personnel and mail) would be readied at the LZ.

On hearing the approaching helicopter, one of the company radios would be flicked to the aircraft’s frequency and communications with the pilot established. On approaching the LZ the pilot would request that smoke be thrown. A coloured smoke grenade would be thrown. The pilot would describe the colour he could see and the company would confirm that it had thrown that colour. This would assure the pilot that he had indeed made contact with the company and was not about to be ambushed by the enemy.

Soldiers from D Company, 8 RAR unload a resupply of rations, ammunition, and mail from a RAAF UH-1D Iroquois during Operation Atherton. Note the rations have been packed into sandbags for issue of one sandbag per soldier. This system made for a quick resupply and reduced the rubbish left behind.

On landing, the working party would rush forward on the pilot’s signal to begin unloading the aircraft. Once unloaded, any personnel or items needing backloading would be loaded onto the aircraft and it would depart. The aim of the process was that the helicopter should be on the ground for the minimum possible time.

Rations, water, mail and other items would be distributed to the platoons. Soldiers would consume their fresh ‘finger meal’ while packing their resupplied items. Any rubbish would be collected, burnt and buried. The company would then usually move quickly away from the LZ to resume their search for the enemy. Occasionally a stay-behind ambush would be left at the LZ in case the enemy visited the site in an attempt to gather intelligence or to retrieve useful items from the rubbish pits.

Emergency resupplies

Emergency resupplies delivered essential items to the troops on operations. These items might include new maps (particularly if the operation was being redeployed into a new area at short notice) or communications equipment to replace malfunctioning items. However, most emergency resupplies were for replacement First Line ammunition required by companies or platoons heavily engaged in a contact and running low on ammunition.

An emergency resupply of ammunition had been required during the battle of Long Tan in August 1966 and many lessons had been learned from this experience. On that occasion, ammunition in its original packing, was dropped from RAAF Iroquois helicopters to D Company 6RAR in the Long Tan rubber plantation. The soldiers had had to recharge their magazines from these bulk supplies while the battle raged around them. Following the battle of Long Tan, infantry battalions and the SAS maintained a First Line ammunition scale pre-loaded into magazines, which were then packed into metal ammunition boxes, ready for emergency delivery. These ammunition boxes were each painted a particular colour signifying the type of ammunition they contained; blue for 7.62 mm in SLR magazines, white for 5.56 mm in M16 magazines, red for 7.62 mm in linked belts, etc.

When a contact occurred, good platoon signalers and platoon commanders would provide a running commentary for company headquarters and the other platoons. If possible, battalion headquarters would also monitor the developing battle. If it appeared likely that the fire fight was developing into a significant battle the battalion commander might quickly place supporting elements on standby. These supporting elements might include the direct support field battery, helicopter gunship support, Dustoff and, of course, an emergency resupply helicopter. In ordering these elements to standby the CO sought to compress reaction time.

The First Line ammunition resupply would be moved to the pickup LZ and readied for delivery.

Meanwhile, at the contact, the platoon sergeant would monitor ammunition consumption, if necessary redistributing ammunition within the platoon to ensure that the soldiers most heavily engaged were not running low. As the battle continued the platoon sergeant would be faced with a difficult decision. The emergency resupply helicopter might take up to 20 minutes to deliver more ammunition and it needed to arrive when the platoon still retained sufficient ammunition to defend itself and recover and distribute the dropped resupply. In a heavy fire fight modern small arms consume ammunition very quickly. When should he call the emergency resupply forward?

The larger the stock of ammunition carried by the platoon the larger the window in which to make this decision. Many platoon commanders and platoon sergeants (and some section commanders) carried small ‘reserves’ of ammunition. Platoon commanders and platoon sergeants rarely became involved in the fire fight themselves. Their job was to coordinate the battle. Therefore their personal requirement for ammunition was low. Most of the ammunition they carried was for distribution to their soldiers in situations such as these.

The platoon in contact may have helicopter gunship support (or other kinds of air support). If this was the case, the platoon would be marking its position by throwing coloured smoke grenades. The platoon would need to maintain these coloured smokes continually, while the air support was being delivered. However, the enemy, seeing this coloured smoke, might throw their own smoke to confuse the air support. Thus, by the time the emergency resupply arrived overhead, the situation on the ground may seem highly confused to the pilots. This might take some time to sort out before the emergency resupply pilot can identify the platoon location and deliver the ammunition.

Emergency ammunition resupplies were most frequently air dropped through jungle canopy direct into platoon positions on the ground. This brought the aircraft into close range of the enemy. Helicopters delivering emergency resupply often received ground fire. The dropped ammunition boxes would be gathered and quickly distributed by the platoon sergeant.

Helicopter vulnerability

The resupply of dismounted troops, particularly when dispersed into numerous company or platoon strength patrols over a wide AO, is often reliant on helicopter support. Helicopters are capable of providing highly flexible delivery to remote areas otherwise cut off from ground resupply. If helicopters are used to deliver resupply, then the availability of helicopter support may determine the gaps between resupply and hence, the load the soldier must carry to cover that gap. The factors affecting helicopter availability include competing tasking priority and vulnerability. The records we examined showed that in Vietnam, helicopter support for resupply was generally available whenever needed.[7] The US Army operated a massive number of helicopters in Vietnam and the Australian Task Force had access to these as well as those of 9 Squadron RAAF. We were unable to locate any instance when a pre-planned resupply was cancelled, but there were some cases of postponement or delay due to competing tasks. In the main, the gap between resupplies was driven by infantry commanders who, with few exceptions, said that helicopter visits into their AOs tended to warn the enemy of the presence of Australian patrols and therefore reduced the chances of bringing the enemy to contact.

However, we were able to locate some data on helicopter vulnerability and how it might affect resupply of dismounted troops in widely dispersed patrols.

By June 1970 concern was mounting in Headquarters USMACV about the level of helicopter losses. The COMUSMACV, General Creighton W. Abrams, wrote to his subordinates on 19 June 1970 saying:

The enemy offensive against helicopter operations has resulted in unacceptable losses of personnel and helicopters. Since 1 January 1970, a total of 2582 US helicopters have been hit by enemy small arms and automatic fire. Of these, 206 were shot down, including 164 which were lost or totally destroyed. As a result of these actions 957 personnel have been killed or wounded.

It is my desire that ground and air commanders at every echelon place priority command emphasis upon reduction of helicopter losses.[8]

LTGEN Michael Davison, Commander, II FFV and therefore, 1ATF’s senior commander, underscored the urgency of Abrams’ call to reduce helicopter losses. He wrote to the subordinate commands of HQ II FFV, including Commander 1ATF, saying:

The halcyon days of minimal interference with our helicopter operations are over. The VC/NVA know only too well the importance of Army Aviation and are taking full advantage of our every careless mistake we make.

The present loss rate of Army aircraft is unacceptable. We must take a hard look at the employment of our aviation assets and reverse the downward trend immediately.[9]

Davison urged that commanders at all levels should study Combat Lessons Bulletin no. 8, ‘VC/NVA Anti-Helicopter Techniques/Capabilities’, and apply its suggested techniques to reduce losses.

Combat Lessons Bulletin No. 8 – VC/NVA Anti-Helicopter Techniques/Capabilities noted that many of the helicopters shot down had been single aircraft flying without gunship or other escort and at altitudes well within the effective range of enemy light weapons. That is, they were performing tasks similar to resupply missions. It noted that ‘The VC/NVA have a tendency to withhold fire on “paired” aircraft in favor of firing on single reconnaissance aircraft and individual resupply helicopters’.[10] Missions that required low altitude flying on restricted flight paths were particularly likely to attract enemy anti-aircraft fire. The Combat Lessons Bulletin warned that the ‘enemy studies our habits just as we do his. In situations such as illustrated above, he can position himself for the kill.’

The VC/NVA employed virtually every weapon in their arsenal to engage helicopters.

Table 1: Capabilities of enemy weapons used in the anti-helicopter role:

Weapon Calibre Maximum range Effective range
Soviet HMG model 1938/46 DShk 12.7mm 7,000m (23,000 feet) 915m (3,015 feet)
Soviet HMG model SG43 7.62mm 3,000m (9,850 feet) 500m (1,650 feet)
Soviet HMG Model SGM 7.62mm 3,000m (9,850 feet) 500m (1,650 feet)
Soviet LMG model RPD 7.62mm 2,500m (8,200 feet) 500m (1,650 feet)
Soviet Assault Rifle Model AK47 7.62mm 2,500m (8,200 feet) 500m (1,650 feet)
Soviet Carbine Model SKS 7.62mm 2,500m (8,200 feet) 500m (1,650 feet)

Second Lieutenant Ross Goldspink, 24, of Millendon, WA, points out a patched bullet hole in his helicopter. Lt Goldspink, an Army helicopter pilot with the 161st (Independent) Reconnaissance Flight, is based at Luscombe Field at Nui Dat.

7.62mm weapons accounted for the majority of hits on helicopters. The following table was derived from the analysis of after action reports for April 1970 and showed the percentage of hits by small arms in relation to the altitude of the target aircraft.

Table 2: Effectiveness of 7.62mm weapons against helicopters[11]

Altitude Number of aircraft fired upon Number of aircraft hit Percentage hit (%)
0-1500 feet 731 402 68
1500-2000 feet 78 35 45
2000 feet and higher 73 7 10

VC/NVA small arms fire was most effective below 2000 feet. The document asserted that the effectiveness of VC/NVA small arms fire against helicopters was likely to increase in the near future. This was because the enemy had recently issued a simple sight to attach to small arms to allow the firer to adjust his ‘lead’ according to the estimated range and speed of the target aircraft.

In addition to his use of small arms caliber weapons against helicopters, the enemy’s 12.7mm HMG presented a significant threat to aircraft below 3000 ft. The Combat Lessons Bulletin gave the following table to illustrate this threat.

Table 3: Effectiveness of 12.7mm weapons against helicopters[12]

Altitude Number of aircraft fired upon Number of aircraft hit Percentage hit (%)
0-1500 feet 103 78 76
1500-3000 feet 27 12 44
3000 feet and higher 11 1 9

The Bulletin stated that ‘the VC/NVA were fully aware of the great advantage afforded to the allied forces through their use of the helicopter’. It warned that

In an attempt to minimize this advantage the VC/NVA go to great lengths to provide anti-helicopter training and to devise unique helicopter warning systems. … They will use any effective weapon available to destroy helicopters. The mines and booby traps the enemy have developed are reliable, extremely dangerous, and can be employed in any location. The VC/NVA also employ mines and booby traps in helicopter landing zones. Directional fragmentation mines in trees, on poles, and on the ground have been encountered. Grenade traps with ingenious fuzing methods are not uncommon. Wire has been strung between trees and hardwood or bamboo poles have been placed in landing zones for disabling helicopters.[13]

The Bulletin urged commanders to know the enemy’s anti-aircraft capability in their assigned area of operations, avoid repetitive flight paths, limit single ship low-level missions, plan for gunship support for low-level missions and recognize the effectiveness of enemy small arms fire below 2000 feet.

The Bulletin also discussed VC/NVA anti-helicopter techniques. It stated that VC/NVA soldiers were trained to shoot at particular vulnerable parts of helicopters depending on their weapon. Soldiers armed with the AK47 or the SKS carbine were trained to shoot at the pilot and engines. Those with MGs were trained to shoot at engines. Many units were instructed to hold their fire until the helicopter was within 100 metres of the LZ although, according to interrogation reports, there was no single doctrine for when to open fire and this range of engagement tended to vary from unit to unit.

Sappers from 2 Field Troop, 1 Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers (RAE), inspect the wreckage of Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter of 9 Squadron RAAF. On 7 June 1971, while undertaking a resupply mission for troops engaged on Operation Overlord, the helicopter crashed in the jungle after being hit by ground fire. The captain, O316996 Flight Lieutenant Everitt Murray Lance, and the gunner, A317809 Corporal David John Dubber, were killed in the crash, while two other crewmen escaped with relatively minor injuries. The sappers later used C4 explosive to destroy the wreckage to prevent any part of it from falling into enemy hands.

The VC/NVA used a range of early warning devices to alert themselves to allied helicopter operations. They used radios to monitor allied radio conversations to provide early warning of helicopter operations planned for particular areas. One interrogation source said that radio monitoring in this way gave his unit 10 to 30 minutes warning of helicopter activity.

They also used observation posts and listening posts near probable LZs. The Bulletin noted that:

Allied forces also give the VC/NVA early warning. The VC/NVA have noted that certain preparations are made by the Allies before heliborne attacks. [Free World Forces] usually make extensive reconnaissance of probable landing zones before heliborne operations. … Prior to friendly heliborne assaults, tactical air and artillery usually lay preparatory fire in the landing zone.[14]

When the VC/NVA suspected that a particular LZ may be the site of a heliborne assault, they may prepare it for defence. The conditions that usually prevailed in these circumstances were that the VC/NVA believed themselves to be numerically superior to the allied assault force, that there was good cover and concealment from both air and ground, that the terrain was favourable to defence (e.g., that the LZ was dominated by a nearby hill), that the surrounding area provided good routes for reinforcement/withdrawal, and that the probable LZ was near a significant VC/NVA installation. The VC/NVA sometimes dug defensive positions such as bunker systems in the jungle fringes surrounding particular LZs.

The VC/NVA also attempted to confuse Allied helicopter assaults by diversionary tactics to draw attention away from the real point of resistance. For example, a small unit or sub-unit may engage the enemy helicopters with high volumes of fire, thus tending to draw the commander into believing that this small unit represents the site of the resistance. Other enemy techniques included the exposure of groups of enemy in the open to draw away the attention of supporting gunships and the use of heavy camouflage to conceal the existence of particular locations of anti-helicopter weapons until the last moment.[15]

Resupply missions exposed helicopters to these risks. They usually involved single aircraft landing at remote LZs or hovering at low altitude while they winched or free-dropped supplies to troops on the ground. A typical example occurred on 14 June 1970 when C Company 8RAR was moving two platoons to a pick-up zone (PZ) for a helicopter extraction. One of the platoons on its way to the PZ encountered the enemy in a bunker system and a vigorous contact ensued resulting in the platoon taking four casualties. These men were safely extracted by Dustoff helicopter, but another helicopter delivering a resupply of ammunition to the hard pressed platoon was hit 25 times by AK47 fire and was force to limp back to Nui Dat.[16] 1ATF Combat Operations After Action Reports describe numerous other instances of helicopters delivering resupply being hit and in some cases, being brought down by enemy small arms fire.

Deception in resupply

Infantry battalion commanding officers universally supported the need for the preservation of security and surprise in the insertion of troops into an AO and their subsequent resupply there. For example, the CO of 3RAR wrote that:

The methods used to deploy into the AO should be varied to achieve surprise. However the pressure of operations severely limited the employment of varying techniques. APCs rather than UH1H were used to insert companies to maintain security as the entire AO was under ‘grand stand’ view from the MAY TAO Mountains. Getting away several thousand metres from an insertion point could be valuable but could also be counter productive if 2-3 days out of the 5 days rations on the man must be consumed in doing so thus requiring resupply shortly after arrival in the new area. Water resupply also is an even greater limiting factor in the dry. Notwithstanding these arguments, every attempt must always be made to maintain surprise. It was found that the simplest and even the most  obvious ploys were effective. No measure should be disregarded because it appears too simple. Again the enemy’s intelligence information passes slowly. Companies inserted obviously by air, but kept away from by aircraft for 2-3 days, surprised unprepared enemy who should have known that friendly forces were in the area.[17]

Helicopter insertion and resupply presented particular problems in the maintenance of security and surprise because they were highly visible from the enemy’s observation posts. Various techniques for the maintenance of security were considered and applied. A Combat Lessons Bulletin on ‘Tactical Cover and Deception’ for helicopter operations was distributed in April 1970. It emphasized the need to preserve security and surprise in helicopter operations and listed numerous techniques for doing so. Most of these applied to the insertion of troops into an AO, but many could equally be applied to resupply missions. Included in the Bulletin were techniques such as:

  • ‘False insertions’ in which helicopters would land at several LZs only one of which was actually used to insert troops. Some LZs were prepared with artillery. In some cases, troops were inserted and the helicopters departed only to return after a short time to re-lift the troops to the actual LZ. The Bulletin reported that ‘several of these operations proved successful in deceiving or confusing the enemy as to the actual location of maneuver units.’
  • ‘False extractions’ in which helicopters, having landed at an LZ, would erect cardboard cutouts of soldiers in their cargo bays so that distant enemy observers would see the silhouettes of soldiers in the open helicopter doors and think that an extraction had taken place.
  • ‘Insertions covered by smoke’ to mask the LZ from likely enemy observation posts. [18]

Use of other means to deliver resupply

Australian Army patrol doctrine placed a high emphasis on the need for deception. The 1985 doctrinal pamphlet on patrolling and tracking, drawing heavily on the lessons of Vietnam, noted that:

One major consideration when planning patrolling is the requirement to move patrols into their sector without the loss of surprise and security. Every means of avoiding observation must be used including deception, movement by night and the use of indirect routes. Security and deception are essential to conceal the intention and size of patrols.[19]

This concern for security and deception drove commanders to keep helicopters out of their AOs as much as possible. It resulted in commanders ordering troops to carry six or more days rations, and it also caused them to seek other means of delivering resupply.

One way of confusing or deceiving the enemy was to deliver resupply in ways that did not involve the (perhaps) expected helicopters. Some battalions used APCs and portering. LTCOL F.P. Scott, CO of 3RAR during its 1971 tour in Vietnam reported that:

Although the battalion was very air minded … the APC troop became the normal means of inserting and extracting companies. Companies would fly forward by UH1H or CH47 from the FOB to the FSB or an LZ secured by the APCs and then be inserted by the APC troop. The same system was used for extraction.

Similarly APCs were ideal for coy resupply either out of the FSB or from an LZ well away from the company. APCs themselves carry spare ammunition and have a reserve of water of the greatest value in an emergency to the infantry company.[20]

One company in 8RAR used ox carts driven by ARVN soldiers masquerading as timber getters. The resupply was hidden under leaves in the carts. As the ox carts plodded along the fire trail towards their rendezvous with the receiving company, an 8RAR rifle platoon kept pace with them in the nearby jungle, providing security.

Some lessons

In future campaigns in environments similar to that found in South Vietnam (e.g., throughout South East Asia and the South West Pacific, the area of Australia’s prime strategic interest), deployed forces are likely to confront similar (though not identical) problems.

Ground vehicles and jungle don’t mix. An enemy seeking to avoid contact except on his terms can be expected to make use of the most remote and densely vegetated areas that provide him with the best cover from observation. Dismounted patrols will be required to pursue the enemy into these areas. Patrols searching for the enemy are likely to be of considerable duration, perhaps up to one month or more. Such patrols will require regular resupply and this will probably be achieved by various methods including by helicopter. The techniques of patrol resupply used in Vietnam may be usefully adapted to such future campaigns.

Resupply by helicopter will probably face similar limitations to those faced in Vietnam. Although today’s helicopters are more powerful and better armoured than the Iroquois of the Vietnam War era, they are also larger, more expensive and carry larger, heavier loads, making them more lucrative targets. Anti-aircraft weapons have also improved and helicopter fleets are generally smaller. Damage caused by ground fire, even small arms fire, may reduce helicopter availability and cause their use in single aircraft resupply missions to be limited.

Deception in all things, including resupply, will remain important. Deception techniques used in Vietnam will probably remain useful in future campaigns.

Finally, lessons collected at great cost during the Vietnam War and carefully recorded for future use, will be worth revisiting if the ADF finds itself conducting combat operations in similar environments in the future.

[1] Although PAVN is the correct nomenclature, the term NVA will be used in this report because this ‘short hand’ title was commonly used by 1ATF during the war and it appears frequently in the documents consulted for this study.

[2] See for example: P Edwards and G Pemberton, The Politics and Diplomacy of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948-1965, AWM; Ian McNeill, ‘To Long Tan: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War 1950-1966‘, AWM 1993; R H Scales Jr., Firepower in Limited War, Presidio Press, California, 1995.

[3] Brigadier S.C. Graham, ‘Observations on Operations in Vietnam, Australian Army Journal: A periodical review of military literature, nn, p.11. nd

[4] Ibid. p. 13.

[5] AWM275, item 78, [Papers concerning the Vietnam War collected by Lieutenant Colonel R. Breen when researching his book First to Fight], Records concerning tactical lessons learned in Vietnam, written by 1RAR officers. Tactical Lessons Learnt in Vietnam by Major J.B. Healy, OC A Coy, 1RAR.

[6] AWM98, item R8970/1/3, HQ AFV, Operational Ration Packs General Lightweight Rations.

Letter, S.C. Graham, Brig Comd 1ATF to HQ AFV dated 30 Jan 67, titled ‘Introduction of two man training rations’.

[7] However, see AWM115, item 56, AHQ, Lessons Learnt by 3RAR in the 1971 Vietnam Tour. Report, ‘Lessons Learnt by 3RAR in the 1971 Vietnam Tour’, by F.P. Scott, LTCOL, CO 3RAR, dated 29 Dec 71 (3RAR Woodside, 569/71/3(A)). Scott states that ‘The resupply system worked with few hitches. Variations in delivery times occurred, often due to operational commitments of aircraft outside the unit.’

[8] AWM103, item R173/1/4 Part 3, HQ 1ATF, Circulars General – US Army – Combat Lessons Bulletin. Memo, Creighton W. Abrams, General, US Army Commanding HQ USMACV, ‘Anti-Helicopter Threat’, dated 19 Jun 1970.

[9] AWM103, item R173/1/4 Part 3, HQ 1ATF, Circulars General – US Army – Combat Lessons Bulletin. Letter, ‘Anti-Helicopter Threat’ by Michael S. Davison, LTGEN, Commanding HQ II FFV, dated 30 Jun 70.

[10] AWM103, item 306, HQ 1ATF, HQ MACV Lessons Learned – No 83 – Helicopter tactics with reconnaissance teams. US Army Vietnam, Combat Lessons Bulletin No. 8 – VC/NVA Anti-Helicopter Techniques/Capabilities, dated 20 May 70.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Major A. Clunies-Ross (ed.), The Grey Eight in Vietnam: The History of Eighth Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment, November 1969-November 1970, Eighth Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, Enoggera, n.d., p. 84.

[17] AWM115, item 56, AHQ, Lessons Learnt by 3RAR in the 1971 Vietnam Tour. Report, ‘Lessons Learnt by 3RAR in the 1971 Vietnam Tour’, by F.P. Scott, LTCOL, CO 3RAR, dated 29 Dec 71 (3RAR Woodside, 569/71/3(A)), p. 13-14.

[18] AWM103, item R173/1/4 Part 3, HQ 1ATF, Circulars General – US Army – Combat Lessons Bulletin. MACV Combat Experiences 1 – 70, dated 1 April 1970, ‘Tactical Cover and Deception’.

[19] Australian Army, Manual of Land Warfare, Part Two, Infantry Training, vol. 3; Infantry Techniques, pamphlet no. 3, Patrolling and Tracking (all corps), 1985, Headquarters Training Command, 18 September 1985.

[20] AWM115, item 56, AHQ, Lessons Learnt by 3RAR in the 1971 Vietnam Tour. Report, ‘Lessons Learnt by 3RAR in the 1971 Vietnam Tour’, by F.P. Scott, LTCOL, CO 3RAR, dated 29 Dec 71 (3RAR Woodside, 569/71/3(A)), p. 28.

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