The Battle of Nui Le (21 September 1971) was the last major battle fought by the Australian Army in South Vietnam. The battle was fought between 'B' and 'D' Companies of the 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Battalion (4 RAR/NZ) and elements of the 33rd Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army in Phuoc Tuy Province during Operation Ivanhoe.
The decision for the Australian withdrawal from Vietnam, was made by the Australian Government and commenced in November 1970, and combat forces were to be reduced gradually during 1971. Intelligence pointed towards a major buildup of Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army forces in the north of Phước Tuy Province and abductions and assassinations had increased in the adjacent Long Khanh Province. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese were preparing for the withdrawal of the 1st Australian Task Force from Phước Tuy Province, which was gradually being withdrawn from August 1971, and were hoping to defeat the Australians.
4 RAR/NZ was committed to a reconnaissance in force operation, named Operation Ivanhoe against any North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces in the north of Phuoc Tuy Province. D Company, 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, 1st Troop, A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, 4th Troop, C Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, 2 Troop, 104th Field Battery, elements of 104th Signal Squadron and 161st (Independent) Recce Squadron were also committed to the operation.
North Vietnamese Army forces fired rockets and mortars at a South Vietnamese Regional Force outpost at Cam My on Route 2 on 19 September 1971. The Australian M113 armored personnel carriers sent to investigate and relieve the outpost were ambushed and came under attack from rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire from what was considered to be large force.
11 Platoon of D Company 4 RAR/NZ made contact with an enemy platoon on 20 September and after a half hour skirmish, four dead enemy soldiers were found on the battlefield. Their uniforms and equipment and study of the tactics used during the skirmish pointed toward the unit being from the North Vietnamese Army. Tracks made by the enemy force indicated about two hundred soldiers had passed through the area.
The commander of the 33rd Regiment NVA set a number of ambushes for the expected Australian relief forces, however the Australians did not follow the route that was expected by the North Vietnamese and the Australian went around the ambush sites.
Patrols by 11 Platoon, D Company 4 RAR/NZ on the morning of the 21 September, found sawn logs near the south eastern part of the Courtenay rubber plantation which suggested that there were major fortified bunker positions nearby. B and D Company 4 RAR/NZ moved forward near Nui Le to attack these fortifications.
12 Platoon, D Company 4 RAR/NZ made first contact with a bunker system, suffering one dead from a rocket propelled grenade and four wounded. An estimated platoon strength assault attacked 11 Platoon, D Company 4 RAR/NZ and after a 15-minute firefight the enemy forces withdrew to their bunkers after removing their dead and wounded form the battlefield. The Australian platoons were ordered to withdraw to an area to the south so airstrikes and artillery could be called in to soften up the bunker systems.
United States Air Force air strikes were called in and F-4 Phantoms and A37 Dragonflys bombed the area with napalm, air to surface missiles, flechette and 500 pound bombs. Iroquois and Cobra helicopter gunships and artillery strikes also hit the bunker system. Pilots reported enemy forces fleeing to the north.
At 14:00, D Company 4 RAR/NZ was ordered forward to search and destroy the bunker systems. The North Vietnamese let the Australians advance some 50 metres (55 yd) into the bunker complex before opening up with everything they had. 11 Platoon, suffered three killed and two wounded. Many grenades thrown by the North Vietnamese fortunately did not explode, reducing casualties. Unfortunately for the Australians this would be fought hand to hand as the Centurion tanks of the 1st Australian Task Force had left Vietnam. 12 Platoon was also pinned down and could not move forward.
The bodies of the three killed Australian soldiers could not be pulled back and orders were given to pull back, which under heavy fire did not happen until 16:00. Just as the sun was setting the Australians ran into another enemy force, with the commanding officer of 11 Platoon, Gary McKay being hit twice by a sniper's bullet in the shoulder. The bunker system they had come across was found later to be the 33rd Regiment's Headquarters. Artillery fire was brought down onto the surrounding area as more North Vietnamese forces joined the battle. The North Vietnamese disengaging at 21:00 just as the Australians were running low on ammunition.
After a number of hours of fighting the elements of the 33rd Regiment NVA pulled out of the bunker system and moved north after recovering the dead and wounded they could carry. The Australian wounded were evacuated by helicopter in the morning of 22 September. Five Australians had been killed and 30 wounded. Total North Vietnamese losses are unknown, however fourteen bodies were found on the battlefield. The three Australian soldiers left behind were recovered by the New Zealand company of 4 RAR/NZ. For his role in the battle, Second Lieutenant Garry McKay, who was badly wounded, received the Military Cross.
- Rowe 1989, p.159.
- "Vietnam War 1962–1972". Website. Army History Unit. Archived from the original on 5 September 2006. http://web.archive.org/web/20060905054108/http://www.defence.gov.au/army/ahu/HISTORY/vietnam_war.htm. Retrieved 24 September 2010.
- Ham 2008, p.552.
- Ham 2008, p. 553.
- Rowe 1989, p.160.
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