James Townley - 22nd April 1966 to 18th Aug 1966


These recollections cover events that took place about 50 years ago. I have never been a keeper of diaries or records, so I am relying on an imperfect memory. Please allow for this when you come across errors or omissions.

Early Days in 131 Div Loc  Bty

I got some idea of things in Vietnam in 1963. I was then in Malaysia with 103 Fd Bty, as part of 28 Commonwealth Brigade. The officer training syllabus in 103 Fd Bty included Bernard Fall’s book “Street Without Joy” and Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”. The Australian officers in the brigade were also rotated through Vietnam a couple at a time for a week or ten days. My stint was with Barry Campton (also then with 103 Fd Bty) with US advisers in Pleiku and Kontum in the Central Highlands.

I joined 131 Div Loc Bty in early 1965 as an ACBO (Assistant Counter Bombardment Officer). This was before we adopted the UK term “Artillery Intelligence”. With the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, I now think that the change was probably a mistake in our Australian / South East Asian context. However, that’s another story.

 131 Div Loc Bty was then an integrated ARA / CMF unit commanded by Major Pat Gowans. The ARA component consisting of Bty HQ and about one third of the battery were stationed at North Head (North Fort and the ARMCO in fact). The remainder, the CMF component, were at a depot on Pittwater Road. The ARA component, other than BHQ, consisted of a CB Section, a radar troop, a survey troop and a RAEME Wskp. At this stage, it was pretty clear that we would be in Vietnam in the not too distant future, because in early 1965, 1 RAR, supported by 105 Fd Bty had been deployed there.  Although what was to become Det 131 Div Loc Bty had not then been formed, a lot of preliminary work was initiated by Pat Gowans, including identification and coding of stores, compiling  ledgers and earmarking  personnel for the detachment.

At the end of 1965 or the beginning of 1966, the ARA component of 131 Div Loc Bty relocated to Holsworthy and shared barracks with 1 Fd Regt. The CMF component remained at Pittwater Road and became 133 Div Loc Bty.

Preparations Prior to Departure

I think it must have been sometime in March that we were warned for deployment to Vietnam. Things then got pretty busy, and I can’t remember much of the detail of what went on except for our pre-deployment medical which I do remember was conducted in the middle of the night at the Camp Hospital at Ingleburn.

I can only recall one pre-deployment exercise with HQ 1 TF and Tac HQ 1 Fd Regt, up the Colo-Putty Range. In hindsight, our immediate preparation was all a bit once over lightly, but we didn’t have a lot of time given that HMAS Sydney, which took our equipment, was to sail about mid- April and the equipment had to be readied for a couple of weeks at sea on an open flight deck. It was also necessary to grant pre-embarkation leave of a week. It was really due to the preliminary administrative work, initiated by Pat Gowans, that we managed to squeeze it all in.

During this period also, the Detachment was formally raised, consisting of an Artillery Intelligence section, two Listening Posts, a radar section of two radar detachments, a survey section a small admin section of a WO2 and (maybe) a clerk and a Q clerk cum storeman. Also raised at the same time was the Det 131 Div Loc Bty Wksp commanded by WO1 Bill Prenter.


Deployment to Vung Tau  and Nui Dat (Operation Hardihood)

The detachment’s deployment to our Vung Tau staging area was split between air and sea. I went with a small advance party, including WO2 Frank Perry, our Detachment Sergeant Major, and all our equipment on HMAS Sydney in about the second week of April 1966. It must have been about then, because I can remember an ANZAC Day dawn service somewhere up in the Coral Sea. It was pretty moving as we were about to go on operations, and we already had other Australian units on operations in Vietnam and in Borneo.

Training on a very crowded ship was limited to small arms shooting and PT. There was little or no scope for any work on equipment, which of course had been heavily greased up for sea travel.

On arrival in Vung Tau Harbour, the ship was visited by General Westmoreland, the American force commander. He arrived in a highly polished Huey with a couple of equally highly polished aides. We all looked very shabby by comparison. Australian greens and jungle hat do not lend themselves to stylishness.

Unloading began that day, over the side into barges. My own vehicle with my party and me in it was hoisted over by crane about midnight; not a comfortable feeling. However we survived the experience and arrived at a landing slip to set out for our staging area somewhere on the outskirts of Vung Tau out past the airfield. I should add at this stage that our knowledge of what was going on and what to expect was not good. The only map I had was a 1:1 000 000 Michelin Road map of Vietnam, containing not a lot of detail. It goes without saying of course that there were no guides to get us to the staging area. All there was, was a cheerful wave and the dreaded words “you can’t miss it” from an MCO corporal at the top of the slipway. I had unhappy thoughts of taking a wrong turn and ending up in Hanoi. We did find the staging area, however, and flopped, only to be awakened at dawn by a lot of shouting and the sight of a couple of hundred black pyjama clad armed Vietnamese on the road nearby. As I said we really didn’t have too good a grasp on the situation, so I thought our end was nigh. Fortunately, they turned out to be trainees from a nearby training depot and, at that stage at least, on the government’s side.

After about a week or so (I am a bit hazy on the details), a second advance party led by Andrew Opie, the radar section commander, arrived by air from Sydney, courtesy of QANTAS, RAAF Caribous and USAF C123s.  Finally, again a little later, the main body of the detachment arrived, also by air, led by Peter Sadler, the Survey Section commander. The main work in this period was the degreasing of equipment and getting it back into operating order.


From the staging area we deployed to the feature that became known as “Nui Dat”. Again, I can’t recall the actual date of our deployment from Vung Tau to Nui Dat, but it was by air and road. The area of what was to become the 1ATF base was secured for the 1 ATF deployment by 173 (US) Airborne Brigade, which included 1 RAR and 105 Fd Bty.

Nui Dat Deployment and Operations

The Task Force Commander’s orders before we left Vung Tau had included the areas within the Nui Dat perimeter to be occupied by each unit and a general outline of his concept for immediate operations. This was to establish defensive positions and then for the infantry battalions to begin aggressive patrolling to clear out to gun range (9000 metres).

The Arty Int party deployed to Nui Dat by Huey with Tac HQ 1 Fd Regt as part of the task force headquarters. The rest of the detachment deployed by road with the main body of 1 Fd Regt in a protected convoy.

On arrival, Andrew Opie deployed the two radars, one (“A” commanded by Sgt Don Simmons) in the vicinity of 103 Fd Bty, and the other (“B” commanded by Sgt Fred Lennon) in the vicinity of 105 Fd Bty.  Sgt Bill Finlay set up the Arty Int office with Tac HQ 1 Fd Regt. The two Listening Posts commanded by Bdrs Al Thomson and Dave Doyle went to the two infantry battalions. The Survey Section provided the link between the Topographical Survey Troop and the regimental survey section of 1 Fd Regt to place the guns and radars on theatre grid. (By now, we had something more than Michelin road maps to work on.) WO1 Bill Prenter deployed the Workshop collocated with the 1 Fd Regt LAD.

I won’t attempt to go through the ensuing days and weeks in detail, but rather pick out some highlights that I think I can remember.



Equipment and Processes

Aside from landrovers, radios, theodolites and tellurometers our major equipment was our AN/KPQ1 radars, originally developed for the USMC. They were probably late 1950s technology, as the RAA introduced them in the early 60s. They needed a ready and reliable supply of spare parts to keep them running, (think first generation 1960s TV set reliability as a yardstick).  We deployed with three radars, two for mortar locating and one in the Workshop detachment. Without going into a lot of technical detail, which I am certainly not qualified to do, they had certain characteristics which governed how we operated.

We had deployed with a 90 day scaling of spare parts, by which the supply chain from Australia was to have been set up. Whether it was or not, I don’t know, but I do know that in rather less than 90 days problems of keeping the radars “on the air” through lack of spares became acute. We knew of a USMC unit at Da Nang who were equipped with AN/KPQ1s. So with the help of the staff at HQ AFV in Saigon, Bill Prenter and I headed off to Da Nang to do some begging.  When we got there we were told that the unit concerned had been shipped back to the US as their AN/KPQ1s had been totally unsuccessful at locating mortars. Fortunately for us, they had left behind all their spares boxed for shipment, which the HQ AFV staff very kindly bought and shipped down to us. I would like to able to report that this solved all our problems, but regrettably, it was not so. It did however lessen them.

The second defining characteristic was that when it was operating, to locate a mortar the AN/KPQ 1 needed to track a bomb in flight for about 10 seconds having first been directed where to search by information from the LPs. Given terrain masking limitations, the likelihood of getting a ten second track on a 60mm mortar, with which the local VC were reputedly armed, was pretty slim.

The unreliability of the AN/KPQ1s and their probable difficulties with 60 mm mortars meant we needed a “Plan B”. Our Intelligence assessment was that we faced an enemy, who was unlikely to have any technological way of directing his mortar fire. We reckoned that he would probably limit his firing positions to natural features that he could find at night and orient by compass or by marks made during a day recon. Based on this, Bill Finlay and the Arty Int section pored over maps to identify likely creek junctions, track junctions and so on, out to 60 mm and then 82 mm mortar range. I can’t remember if we did 120mm mortar range as well. We then grouped these targets by locality, allocated a nickname to each group of targets and then produced an AB545 fire plan for 1 Fd Regt including the attached US 155 mm battery. (The original Fire Plan “Cracker Barrel”).

In the event, all this work paid off during the mortar attack on the TF base in August that preceded Long Tan. The TF was attacked by 82 mm mortars and an old Japanese 70 mm howitzer left over from WW2. Based on mortreps and locreps, the appropriate targets were engaged. After action reports, quoted by Ernie Chamberlain in his translation of the unit history of D445, record body parts and bloody dressings in the areas shelled by counter battery fire. The 70 mm howitzer story is interesting. It was identified from an unexploded projectile found on the road outside the 1 Fd Regt Adjutant’s tent. The shell had gouged  a rubber tree to which his tent was tied. The shell had failed to explode because the fuse had not been screwed completely in. As I was not about to handle it to measure it, the shell was identified from photographs sent to the Captured Materiel Exploitation Centre.



I was very fortunate to have Peter Sadler and Andrew Opie as officers in the detachment. That the calibre of the NCOs was also high can be judged by their success in later careers. It is probably unfair to single out individuals, but some do stick in the mind even after 50 years.  Last I head of them (some time ago now):



I left Vietnam in August on posting to a Gunnery Staff Course at Larkhill, via a week in Sydney to collect my family and sell our elderly Holden.

 I handed over to Barry Campton, whose recollections I guess come next.