Snapshot: The Australian Army 1969/70

Robert HallArticles, Australian Army, National Service, Uncategorised, Vietnam War

By Bob Hall

Throughout the Vietnam War the Australian Army remained quite small compared to the other forces involved in the campaign such as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the US Army and the Army of the Republic of Korea.[1] As of 30 June 1970 the full time duty component of the Australian Army consisted of 27,999 regular soldiers, 16,208 National Servicemen (NS) and 306 Citizen Military Forces on full time duty (CMF FTD) soldiers giving a total strength of 44,513.[2] The Army also employed 9,615 civilians of whom 352 were filling military positions. Most of the civilian positions were in Army Headquarters, Central Army Records Office, Command Pay Offices, Headquarters of Regional Commands, Ordnance Depots and Schools and Training Units. Although some units in Vietnam may have felt the pinch of manpower shortages from time to time there was no general shortage of available military manpower in Australia as there had been during the Second World War. This enabled the Army to be highly selective in its recruitment leading to high quality members – both ARA and NS – manning the Army. As a result, General Westmoreland, Commander, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, observed:

Aside from American soldiers, the Australians were the most thoroughly professional foreign force serving in Vietnam. Small in numbers and well trained, particularly in antiguerrilla warfare the Australian Army was much like the post-Versailles German Army in which even men in the ranks might have been leaders in some less capable force.[3]

The Royal Australian Infantry Corps (RAInf) was the largest corps in the Army. As at 30 June 1970, it had 998 officers, 146 Warrant Officers Class 1, 578 Warrant Officers Class 2, 212 Staff Sergeants, 670 Sergeants, 1108 Corporals, 725 Lance Corporals, and 4,835 privates. This gave a total strength for the corps of 9,272. Of these, Nashos provided 89 officers – mainly Second Lieutenants – 85 Corporals, 211 Lance Corporals and 3107 privates giving a total of 3,492 men or roughly one third of the corps’ strength. More senior NCO positions such as Sergeants and Warrant Officers required many years of service to build the necessary depth of experience demanded of those ranks. The two-year commitment of National Servicemen did not provide enough time to build the experience to allow Nashos to fill these more senior NCO positions. However, by 30 June 1970, 692 National Servicemen had enlisted in the Australian Regular Army. Many of these men went on to achieve higher rank.[4]

The next largest corps was the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE). It had 438 officers, 91 Warrant Officers Class 1, 210 Warrant Officers Class 2, 74 Staff Sergeants, 353 Sergeants, 516 Corporals and 253 Lance Corporals, and 1,766 privates. This gave a total of 3,701 men. Of these, Nashos made up 29 officers, 84 Corporals, 83 Lance Corporals and 1062 privates giving a total of 1,258 men or again, about one third of RAE total strength.[5]

Interestingly, the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps (RAAMC), Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps (RAAOC) and Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) drew on the civilian skills many NS soldiers brought with them into the Army. This tended to result in these corps having higher ratios of NS men as NCOs. For example, the RAAMC had 82 NS Corporals – a figure similar to the Infantry – but only 309 NS privates. Unlike RAInf, the RAAMC also had 6 NS Sergeants. Likewise, RAAOC had 4 NS Sergeants, 76 NS Corporals and 39 NS Lance Corporals but only 564 NS privates.

It is sometimes thought that all National Servicemen served in Vietnam but that is not the case. Most did not. The total number of persons who registered for National Service was 804,286. However, during the Vietnam War Australia operated a selective National Service scheme in which birth dates drawn randomly from a barrel determined those who would be actually called up for service. Of those who registered, only 63,740 men were selected to serve in the army. Of those who served in the army, only 15,381 served in Vietnam. Those who did not serve in Vietnam performed their service in Australia, Malaysia or Papua New Guinea.[6] For comparison, 25,763 ARA members, 766 CMF FTD and 47 ARA female soldiers – a total of 26,576 – served in Vietnam.[7]

The Army carefully monitored the causes of ‘wastage’ – the term the Army used to for those who left the service for any reason – for both ARA and NS soldiers. Unfortunately, there is no way of comparing the reasons for leaving the service for ARA and NS soldiers because of differences in the way the data for each group is recorded in the Army Manning Review.[8] However, some interesting observations can be made. Unsurprisingly, the most common reason for leaving the service for both ARA and NS soldiers was completion of their engagement. But some soldiers, both ARA and NS, left the service before expiry of their engagement for disciplinary reasons, because they had become medically unfit for service, or because they were judged to be unsuited to being a soldier. A small number of reasons for wastage applied only to NS soldiers. These included transfers to the ARA or to the RAN or RAAF and exemptions from NS obligation.[9] Of course, one reason for the termination of their service for both ARA and NS soldiers was death. Obviously, this cause related mainly (but not exclusively) to those men serving in Australian Force Vietnam. The Army Manning Review noted that in the year from July 1969 to end of June 1970, 99 ARA soldiers had died. An equivalent figure for NS soldiers cannot be extracted from the Review data but between the first NS intake (intake 1 of 1965) to the last intake covered by the Review (intake 2 of 1970 – the 20th intake) 287 NS soldiers had died. The Manning Review does not mention the cause or location of death so it is not possible to identify those deaths relating solely to service in Vietnam.


[1] For relative force strengths in Vietnam see the article ‘Comparison: Force strengths and casualties’.

[2] ‘Army Manning Review 1969-70’, Colonel R.K. Fullford, Director Manning, Army Headquarters Canberra, 12 August 1970, p. 1.

[3] General William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, Doubleday, New York, 1976, p. 258.

[4] ‘Army Manning Review 1969-70’, p. 39. A further 17 National Servicemen enlisted in the RAN or RAAF.

[5] Ibid, p. 38. Note that these ARA and NS strength figures exclude trainees.

[6] Ashley Ekins with Ian McNeill, Fighting to the Finish: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War, 1968-1975, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2012, p. 837.

[7] Ibid, p. 834.

[8] The Army Manning Review 1969-70 presents data on wastage for ARA Other Ranks, and for the period July 1969 to June 1970 (inclusive) only. However, data for NS is presented for all NS ranks (including officers) from the first NS intake (intake 1 of 1965) to the second intake of 1970 (intake 2 of 1970). The terminology used to describe the reasons for ARA wastage is different to that used for NS wastage. For example, ‘not suitable to be a soldier’ applies to ARA soldiers but the slightly different term ‘unsuitable non-discipline’, is used for NS soldiers. Thus no comparison can be drawn. See the ‘Army Manning Review 1969 – 70’, p. 16 for ARA wastage figures and p. 39 for NS figures.

[9] ‘Army Manning Review 1969-70’, Colonel R.K. Fullford, Director Manning, Army Headquarters Canberra, 12 August 1970, p. 39.