Title: Canister! On! Fire! Australian Tank Operations in Vietnam
Author: Cameron, Bruce
Edition: 1st Edition
Publication Date: 2012
Cover: Hard Cover with Dust Jacket – 968 pages (Two Volume Set)
Volume 1 – 541 pages
Volume 2 – 387 pages
Comments: The history of the 1st Armoured Regiment in South Vietnam from 1968 to 1971.Now out of print.
Canister! On! Fire! tells the remarkable, but little known story of Australian tanks in the Vietnam War. Based on twelve years of research, including personal letters and diaries, extensive searches of official records and numerous interviews, this book brings to life a previously unheralded aspect of the conflict. It is the story of a select group of soldiers, both regular and conscript, serving their country against all odds.
The 53-tonne Centurion tanks were not only involved in intense fighting in conjunction with infantry and artillery to capture enemy defences and defeat attacks, but also fought their own battles against enemy mines, ambushes, and an unforgiving terrain and climate.
This book takes the reader inside the tanks to share the experiences of their crews in action in the jungle. We see the gunner, trying to survive the heat inside the turret, while identifying designated targets; the operator trying to maintain communications, while keeping the guns loaded; the driver, trying to see his way forward, while keeping his head down; and the commander, trying to locate enemy positions, while directing his driver and giving fire orders to his gunner. The account also reveals how the mechanics overcame extraordinary challenges to maintain the twenty-year-old tanks, while the field engineers risked their lives protecting them against mines.
In 1968, the deployment of a squadron from 1st Armoured Regiment was controversial; their Centurions were considered totally unsuited to jungle warfare. Not only did the men and machines prove their worth, but they became an indispensable part of Australian combat operations. So much so, their subsequent withdrawal was equally as controversial as their deployment.
This exciting and enthralling narrative deserves to be read, not only as a military history, but also as a contemporary account of the resolute attitude of Australian soldiers often asked to do the impossible.
The 1st Armoured Regiment was raised on 7 July 1949, as part of the new Australian Regular Army. The regiment’s nucleus consisted of personnel from the 1st Australian Armoured Car Squadron, which had returned from Japan several months earlier as part of the occupation force. 1st Armoured Regiment was based at Puckapunyal, Victoria, where it was initially equipped with the British-built Churchill tanks. This was only a temporary measure and in 1952 the Churchills were replaced with another British tank, the Centurion.
Australian armoured personnel carrier (APC) units served in Vietnam from 1965. As Australia’s contribution to the war increased, so too did the deployment of Australian armour. In October 1967 the government announced it would increase the size of the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province, from two to three infantry battalions and with the addition of a tank squadron.
The first tanks from the regiment’s C Squadron arrived in Vietnam in February 1968. The squadron initially comprised two troops, each of four tanks, and two tanks of the squadron headquarters, as well as two dozer tanks and two bridgelayer tanks. A third troop was created by placing the two headquarters’ tanks together with the two dozer tanks. This number constituted only half of the squadron and it was not until August the rest of the squadron arrived from Australia. This brought the squadron up to its full strength of 20 tanks (another six tanks were held by the Detachment 1 Forward Delivery Troops).
Before their dispatch to Vietnam the Centurions received a number of modifications: a large external fuel tank was fitted on the back of each vehicle to increase its range; the main gun system was upgraded; a ranging machine-gun was fitted; and an infra-red illumination system was also installed for improved night vision. However, once operations began the external fuel tank was found to be potentially hazardous as they could catch fire if hit by a shell or bullet. The modifications continued “in country” once the squadron began operating in Vietnam: The tank’s side skirts were removed, as they caused mud and debris to build around the tracks behind them, the track guards were replaced with heavy gauge steel plate; and storage racks were welded to the back of the turret so ammunition and other equipment could be carried, such as an additional radio to allow communication between tank and infantry soldiers.
The squadron’s first major operation was Operation Pinnaroo (27 February to 15 April 1968), also involving an APC troop from 3rd Cavalry Regiment, and artillery, as well as engineers who supported the 2nd Battalion/NZ (ANZAC) and the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment [2RAR/NZ (ANZAC) and 3RAR] for a “reconnaissance-in-force” mission to destroy the Viet Cong (VC) base installations in the Long Hai mountains. The area had long been a centre of Vietnamese resistance and was “riddled” with mines. C Squadron’s tank dozers were used to help clear some of the mines and from 18 March the squadron’s Centurions worked closely with the infantry and they cleared the low ground east of the mountains.
For the next three years, until 1971, the 1st Armoured Regiment’s tanks worked closely with the Australian infantry and the APCs of 3rd Cavalry Regiment, on operations throughout Phuoc Tuy and neighbouring provinces. The Centurions provided fire support for infantry operations, were used to directly attack enemy positions, and helped defend the Fire Support Bases.
The tanks played a significant role during the battles of Coral–Balmoral in May 1968. North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regimental-sized forces made determined attacks against two Australian fire support bases and the firepower support of the Centurions proved crucial at Fire Support Base Balmoral. On 30 May two infantry platoons patrolling from Fire Support Base Coral became pinned down very close to enemy bunkers. APCs were able to extract some of the troops but were unable to reach one platoon. Two Centurions were sent forward through heavy jungle, reaching the Australians and the VC bunkers. The Centurion crews fired everything they had: canister, solid shot and high explosive shells, and machine-guns. Each shell cleared more jungle and opened up further targets. The platoon was able to be withdrawn, and with APCs providing machine-gun support, the tanks destroyed a series of bunkers.
C Squadron’s performance in the battles of Coral–Balmoral demonstrated the advantage of using armour in Vietnam. Offensively, the tanks were able to destroy enemy bunkers without air support and reduced infantry casualties. Defensively, the tanks’ fire was able to break up an enemy attack. The Centurions were able to move through the countryside more easily than expected. Although they were vulnerable to enemy anti-tank weapons and mines, their firepower and shock action had a decisive effect on the battlefield.
Before Coral–Balmoral, some infantry had doubted the usefulness or necessity of the Centurion tanks; after the battle, the infantry did not like working without them. Indeed, the tanks were considered to be “worth their weight in gold”.
In February 1969 C Squadron was relieved by B Squadron, the latter remaining in Vietnam for the rest of the year. On 6 and 7 June B Squadron was involved in the fierce action fought at Binh Ba, a village five kilometres north of 1ATF base. The attack began on the morning of 6 June when tanks and APCs advanced with D Company, 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) towards the village which was occupied by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. As the fight continued, 5RAR’s B Company took up a blocking position around some of the village to prevent the enemy escaping.
The fighting was hard and savage. The infantry had to clear each house of enemy, who shot at them before retreating into tunnels as the Australians passed. Each time the Australians were fired on, the tanks would blast a hole in the wall of the building, through which small teams could enter to silence any opposition. This work continued through the afternoon and resumed the next day.
In December 1969 B Squadron was redesignated A Squadron. A year later in December 1970 A Squadron was in turn redesignated C Squadron. By late 1970 Australia was beginning to reduce its commitment to the war and the size of 1ATF was reduced from three infantry battalions to two. The tanks, however, continued to be engaged in operations in 1971, providing decisive armoured firepower in many actions, notably during Operations Overlord (5-14 June), Hermit Park (14 June-27 July), and Iron Fox (28 July-5 August). In these and many other engagements the Centurions were credited with preserving the lives of Australian infantry soldiers.
During 1971 troops were progressively withdrawn from Vietnam, as the government reduced Australia’s commitment to the war. In June and July the tanks of C Squadron were progressively phased out of operations and the squadron returned home in September.
Proceeds from sales of the book which would normally accrue to the author have been donated to assist the 1st Armoured Association’s endeavours.
The 1st Armoured Regiment Association was formed in 1996, a time when those who had served together both in Vietnam and subsequently, were going different ways. As well as providing a means of keeping in touch, assisting those in need, and maintaining Regimental history, the aim was to provide a means whereby those who had served before, could encourage and assist their successors. At a time when Australian tank crews are on stand-by for service in Afghanistan , the goals of the Association are even more important today.
Includes Detailed Nominal Roll showing casualties and awards