AATTV – WO2 Jock Rutherford MM

AATTV Jock Rutherford 2RAR museum

This Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) brassard and Military Medal group are held in the 2 RAR Historical Collection. The brassard is noteworthy as it features the distinctive locally made variation of the AATTV patch which was introduced as stocks of the Japanese made patches started to run out in the final years of the Team’s service in South Vietnam. Far fewer locally made AATTV patches were made and all those with confirmed provenance exhibit the same manufacturer characteristics as this example indicating that they came from the same maker, noteworthy when one considers the vast array of faked ‘in-country’ AATTV patches that have been made for the collector’s market.

The items belonged to 18237 Warrant Officer Class 2 Robert Boyd Dale Rutherford MM or ‘Jock’ as he was known, whilst serving with the Mobile Advisory Training Team in 1971. The  MATT (sometimes also referred to as the Mobile Assistance Training Team) programme was initially overseen by Major Patrick Beale who had been brought down to Phuoc Tuy from Special Forces in II Corps, shortly after the Battle of Dak Seang in April 1970, to facilitate its introduction.

Each MATT was to consist of six Australian advisors, two warrant officers, four corporals and a Vietnamese interpreter. Of the corporals, two were drawn from infantry, one from engineers and one from the medical corps. They would work with Regional Force (RF) companies, Popular Forces (PF) and People’s Self Defence Forces (PSDF) platoons. Their role was to advise on field defences, booby traps, patrolling, ambushing and infantry minor tactics as well as providing medical assistance to the units as well as villagers as part of the Civic Action Programme.

The ten minute film below, is an Australian Directorate of Public Relations production (DPR201) showing Training Team advisors from MATT 8 and MATT 11 working with South Vietnamese Peoples Self Defence Force, Regional Force and Popular Force troops in Phuoc Tuy Province.  (Australian War Memorial Accession Number: F03235)

 

The brassard is from Rutherford’s second tour of Vietnam, the first being in 1966 where he had won the Military Medal.

Originally from Old Cumnock, Scotland, Jock first enlisted in the Australian Army in 1955 and served with 1 RAR, then on staff at Canungra until he took his discharge in 1958. He re-enlisted in 1963 and was posted to 2 RAR at Enoggera. In 1965 he was among 200 men from the battalion who were selected to form the newly raised 6 RAR. In June 1966 Corporal Rutherford arrived in Vietnam as a section commander in 6 platoon B Company. During Operation HOBART on 25 July 1966 his platoon bore the brunt of fierce attacks by a force of Viet Cong. Taking over from the wounded platoon sergeant, Rutherford, under heavy fire and mortar attack, distinguished himself by tending the wounded and distributing ammunition at great personal risk. As a result, he was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery, one of two awarded on that day and the first such awards for 6 RAR.

The citation accompanying the Jock Rutherford’s MM reads,

“On 25 July 1966, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment was engaged on a Search and Destroy  Operation in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam.  Corporal Rutherford was a Section Commander in B Company.

In the early afternoon of that day an enemy force of well-trained and well-led  Viet Cong  guerrilla forces contacted B Company in a hastily organized mission.  Corporal Rutherford’s  platoon bore the brunt of the subsequent enemy attacks and suffered during the short fierce engagement ten casualties, including the Platoon Sergeant.  Corporal Rutherford, on his own initiative, immediately took over as Platoon Sergeant.

During the close and very heavy fire fight and mortaring which ensued, he moved with complete disregard for his own safety around the weapon pits tending to the casualties and the administration of the platoon. He moved forward to assist a wounded soldier but was driven back by heavy fire falling around him. Nevertheless, he persevered and again moved forward to dress the wounds of the casualty and pulled him back to his own shell scrape for safety. He continued to assist the wounded in this manner.

In addition, he took on himself the task of distributing ammunition to these positions where ammunition was running low and exposed himself to enemy fire whilst doing so. Throughout the action he continued to control fire and give orders in such a calm and confident manner as to inspire and encourage the men under his command.

Corporal Rutherford’s actions were outstanding, and he took far greater risks with his life than his duties as a Section Commander required.  His inspiration to all present by his actions and his timely and effectively treatment of the casualties deserve permanent recognition.”

6RAR Op Hobart 1966-Edit

Xa Long Tan, Vietnam. July 1966. Men of the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) find some food and oil supplies in a camp. The soldier using the radio is probably 2781821 Private William Albert (Bill) Cox, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), contacting Platoon Headquarters during Operation Hobart. Note the M60 machine-gun crew with the gunner (second from the left) holding an M60 and the next man on his left, his No. 2, carries bandoliers of extra ammunition. Note also the sweat rags draped around their necks, a necessity in jungle conditions. Operation Hobart was in two parts from 24 to 29 July when members of 6 RAR were sent in to search the area in and around Long Tan. Long Tan was confirmed as being a well used transit area for Viet Cong. Large quantities of rice and cooking oil were found and destroyed, and some tunnels and caches destroyed. Two men were killed and seventeen wounded during the operation. (Donor W. Cox). Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P02763.020

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More detail about Operation HOBART can be found in this pdf of A Duty Done (A summary of operations by the Royal Australian Regiment in the Vietnam War 1965-1972) By Lt Col(Retired) Fred Fairhead. Jock completed his first tour with 6 RAR and returned to Australia on 14 June 1967.

Jock Rutherford returned to Vietnam when he was posted to the AATTV on 7 January 1971. Initially unallotted as part MATT MR III, in February when he was assigned to MATT 6 which was advising the 701st RF Company in Hoa Long and then in April he went to MATT Phuoc Tuy where he remained until returning to Australia in October 1971.

Jock Rutherford passed away after a long battle with cancer in July 2012. RIP.

South Vietnam. June 1971. Portrait of Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) R. B. D. Rutherford, MM.

South Vietnam. June 1971. Portrait of Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) R. B. D. Rutherford, MM. Photo: John Alfred Ford. Australian War Memorial Accession Number:  FOD/71/0356/VN

 

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Mike Force, the AATTV and the relief of Dak Seang, April 1970

AATTV Shilston Group 01-01

Various insignia, including an exceptionally rare local made variation AATTV patch belonging to 25415 Captain Peter Shilston of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam whilst CO of the 1st Battalion 2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in South Vietnam, March to August 1970. Note that key detail of the locally made AATTV patch has been intentionally obscured to deter unscrupulous fakers from making copies for the lucrative collectors market. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Over the years I have been fortunate to acquire a number of Australian Army Training Team Vietnam and ARVN Mike Force insignia from the family of the late Peter Shilston MC who is featured in some of the iconic Special Forces related photographs of the Vietnam War.

Mike Force was a colloquial name for the Mobile Strike Force (MSF) which was a key component of the United States Special Forces involvement in the Vietnam War. They were made up largely of indigenous Montagnard soldiers trained through the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) programme and led by American Special Forces (USSF) and Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) personnel. The Mike Force units fulfilled a number of roles during the war but are best known as a quick reaction force, securing, reinforcing and recapturing CIDG / USSF A-Camps. The short film below, shot by  a member from the 221st Signal Company in early 1969 shows Special Forces at Ban Me Thuot and also includes the Pleiku based Australian Army Training Team advisors who trained and led Mobile Strike Force units in II Corps.

25415 Captain Peter John Shilston, an infantry officer, deployed to Vietnam in late August 1969, initially serving with the Headquarters, Australian Force Vietnam (Army Component). On 28 February 1970 he was reassigned to the AATTV in Pleiku as commander of 211 Company 1 Mike Force Battalion, 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command, Det B-20, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).

AATTV Shilston Fairley photo July 1970-01

South Vietnam, July 1970. Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) advisor, Captain Peter Shilston checks over the radio that a cordon was around a Montagnard village in central South Vietnam before sweeping through to search it. Captain Shilston is the commander of the 1st Battalion 2nd Mobile Strike Force, which operates out of Pleiku. A soldier of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), Captain Shilston comes from Williamtown, NSW. Photo: John Fairley. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: FAI/70/0595/VN

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In April 1970 Peter Shilston was involved in the action to lift the siege on the Special Forces camp at Dak Seang, that would result in the award of a Military Cross in recognition of his bravery and leadership. The siege and relief of Dak Seang was hard fought and came at great cost to the allied troops. It also resulted in two American’s, USSF Sgt Gary B. Beikirch and Ranger advisor, SFC Gary L. Littrell, being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Dak Seang Camp was located approximately 15 km north-east of the Tri-Border intersection about 12 km east of the Laos border and 64 km northwest of Kon Tum. It was an area of Kon Tum Province where the mountains rose to 1218m and the camp was on the eastern edge of Route 84 that ran along the Annamite Chain. The camp was first established by the 5th Special Forces Group and CIDG troops in 1964 to monitor infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was part of a long line of border outposts stretching from Lang Vei in northern Quang Tri province to To Chau in Kien Giang province in the south. From October 1966 it was manned by USSF Detachment A-245 plus, at the time of the siege, some 400 locally recruited Montagnards commanded by Vietnamese Special Forces.  

On 1 April 1970, the camp was besieged by the 28th North Vietnamese Army Regiment supported by the 40th NVA Artillery and elements of the 60th NVA Regiment. 1 Bn 2MSF, under the command of Australian Major Patrick Beale was, along with two Vietnamese Ranger Battalions given the task of breaking the siege. Of the three companies in the 400 strong Mike Force battalion, two were commanded by Australians whilst the third, by the USSF. 211 Company, under the command of Shilston, with fellow AATTV advisors, Warrant Officers Class 2 John Petit, George ‘Geordie’ Jamieson, Des Cochrane and Peter Sanderson serving as platoon commanders, were to lead the assault.

On 3 April, after redeploying by road to Dak To, the 1st Bn 2MSF then prepared for a direct air-mobile assault by helicopter onto the camp that same afternoon, however after doing a helicopter reconnaissance of the assault area they realised that air activity was too intense and an alternate LZ was selected some 2500m south of the camp. By 1700, just before dusk, Shilston’s, company was finally airborne and whilst in the air they received bad news. There would be no artillery or air support softening the LZ as it was needed in direct support of the camp itself.

As the first wave of UH1D helicopters began to descend they were met by an intense barrage of rifle, machine gun and rocket fire from the surrounding jungle. Shilston and Sanderson were in the first helicopters to touch down, right into the sweeping fire of a 12.7mm heavy machine gun at the side of the LZ. Followed by their Montagnards, the two advisors charged towards the emplacement whilst at the same time Cochrane’s helicopter moved to within meters of the bunker. Cochrane jumped out and silenced the gun with grenades. As the helicopters disgorged their troops a further six bunkers were cleared. WO2 Sanderson who had been wounded by a grenade was evacuated. The landings had been delayed by events prior to their departure from Dak To and by nightfall only 250 of the Mike Force troops were on the ground before the remainder of the insertion was postponed.  The troops on the ground dug in and were subjected to mortar, rocket and heavy small arms fire throughout the night.

The following morning, 4 April, the battalion waited for the remaining troops and supplies to arrive whilst enemy fire continued to rain down. Smoke and dust reduced visibility and caused mayhem as one of the helicopters landed with both gunners firing into the battalion area killing one soldier and wounding three. Then a helicopter gunship accidently shot up the battalion wounding the American commander of 213 Company and four Montagnards. Incoming mortar rounds eventually forced off the remaining helicopters with only six out of the ten scheduled able to get in.

At 1300 the battalion started to move off to Dak Seang with Shilston’s company leading but within 20 minutes the lead platoon, commanded by three tour AATTV veteran WO2 John Pettit, had run into a bunker complex. Three Montagnards were hit and Pettit crawled forward alone, applying first aid to the wounded before attacking the nearest enemy bunker. Firing as he went, he got to within two meters of the enemy before being fatally wounded. For his bravery he was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches and in April 2002 awarded the Silver Star by the USA in recognition of his ‘personal heroism, professional competence, and devotion to duty’.

Progress was slow and by the end of the first day the battalion had only managed to cover 500m before they were forced to halt for and aerial resupply of food, water and ammunition. The following morning, WO2 Lachlan ‘Locky’ Scowcroft arrived to join Shilston’s company. Shortly after beginning their advance north they encountered a new line of enemy bunkers which were eventually cleared by airstrikes and grenades. The NVA defences consisted of a serious of mutually supporting, camouflaged positions about 100m in depth. As one strongpoint was attacked it drew fire from at least one other. The Mike Force troops accounted for at least ten bunkers but had no time to check for enemy dead and continued to push forward.

After two hours the battalion had reached a point approximately 1300m south of Dak Seang when the NVA opened fire on Shilston’s company which had been given a ‘breather’ in the rear. The battalion closed into a defensive position, but no sooner had this been completed than they came under a heavy ground attack from the south-west and south-east from a company sized force which quickly overran two perimeter positions. The attack was only stalled by the arrival of a ‘Spooky’ gunship. Then as the attacks continued various sorties arrived over the area, delivering payloads of bombs, rockets and napalm. Unfortunately, one of the napalm cannisters exploded in the middle of one of the platoons killing four and wounding a further seventeen Montagnard troops. Fighting continued for the remainder of the afternoon and into the night as the NVA pressed the attack with mortars and ground probes.

The following morning, 6 April, dawn clearing patrols found enemy dead, discarded weapons and blood trails all around the position. All the patrols encountered resistance, but it became apparent that the largest concentration was to the south-western side facing 212 Company, commanded by AATTV  WO2 Alan ‘Aggie’ White, who also had fellow Australians WO2 Alex McCloskey and WO2 Ray Barnes serving as platoon commanders. This area to the southwest was the only ground which could possibly be prepared as a helicopter LZ. But, despite continued fighting the enemy would not be budged and the situation was becoming desperate. Surrounded, low on ammunition, out of water and with depleted numbers an atmosphere of fatalism had become to settle over the weary Montagnards. Death chants could be heard as the more seriously wounded began to die. Then, at dusk, with patrols fighting to keep the NVA at bay, the helicopter pilots decided to take a risk and descended into the clearing from tree-top level, evacuating the wounded and then the heavens opened with heavy rainfall, both delivering a much needed morale boost to the Mike Force troops.

That night and the following day mortars continued to fall on the position and the battalion was still fighting to keep their position intact when, in the afternoon, reinforcements from the 4th Battalion 2MSF, which also included AATTV advisors, arrived by helicopter from Nha Trang, landing on top of their position. They were placed under Beale’s command and sent to form the outer perimeter as NVA the assaults continued. ‘Locky’ Scowcroft was badly wounded necessitating his evacuation with the other wounded.

At first light of 8 April a clearing patrol from White’s 212 Company made contact with an enemy bunker just 30m outside the perimeter and withdrew with one killed and two wounded. A company of the 4th Battalion made three assaults into the position, supported by airstrikes and was forced back, but by early afternoon they had eventually fought their way into the enemy area. They found an extensive well developed HQ complex, measuring 100 by 250m, consisting of seventeen big bunkers, observation posts in trees and an outer perimeter with weapon pits and more bunkers. The reason for the savage reaction by the NVA was now obvious, the Montagnards perimeter was within meters of the NVA regimental headquarters and also between that and their objective of Dak Seang. By coincidence, the Mike Force troops had caused a major disruption to the control of the siege.

The following morning, the Montagnards moved out, with the 4th Battalion leading. When they reached a river obstacle, the 1st Battalion formed a perimeter on the west bank and the 4th on the east. Here the 1st Battalion was subjected to further attacks resulting in three Americans and five Montagnards wounded. In the afternoon a LZ was established in the 4th Battalion area, enabling the casualties to be evacuated and an ammunition resupply. But for the 1st Battalion on the other side of the river, ammunition had once again, become desperately low and they were only able to survive due to the bravery of four Vietnamese helicopter pilots who ran the gauntlet of enemy fire to throw out ammunition boxes over the position. Of the four helicopters, three were so damaged by fire that they were forced down on their way back to base and the fourth, which managed to limp home was written off as beyond repair.

On 10 April, under continuing heavy mortar bombardment, the 1st Battalion commenced moving along the west bank of the river White’s company leading. After covering 300m, 213 Company hit a bunker system which they engaged. Meanwhile, Shilston and White’s companies moved around a flank and formed a hasty position on a hilltop. They had reached the edge of the jungle adjoining the clearing around Dak Seang and could see their objective, a smouldering fortification, ripped, smashed and surrounded by bomb craters and the black napalm scars. Then, after fighting through and clearing two more bunkers, 213 Company joined them in the battalion position.

It had taken seven days of constant fighting to move 2500m to the outskirts of the camp. Then, whilst Major Beale contemplated the next move, a small group of Montagnards from the camp arrived to greet them. It indicated that whilst there may still be fighting ahead, the siege had been broken. Beale decided to keep the battalion in its position and received a further resupply of ammunition in the afternoon. Overnight, the NVA continued to mortar and probe the Mike Force positions causing more casualties but it appeared that they were beginning to pull back from the camp.

This realisation prompted Beale to follow up the enemy and at 0800 on 11 April the battalion moved around the southern and western perimeter of Dak Seang and along a bamboo covered ridge running north-west from the camp. White’s company had covered 500m when they hit another enemy bunker, killing several enemy soldiers before being pushed back by heavy machine-gun fire. Adopting a defensive position, an airstrike was called in and then, after four separate assaults, the position finally taken.

In the evening, after dark, a clearing patrol from Shilston’s company, led by ‘Geordie’ Jamieson went to investigate noises outside the perimeter. Just 30m outside the battalion perimeter they encountered more occupied bunkers and Jamieson was shot in the stomach during the ensuing firefight. WO2 Alex McCloskey from 212 Company crawled forward and dragged the badly wounded Jamieson back to safety. Shilston immediately led a reaction force into the area and with the help of 213 Company cleared the enemy. Jamieson plus other wounded, including an American advisor and six Montagnards were evacuated later that night.

The following morning, the battalion continued to move forward clearing enemy from the edge of the bush surrounding the camp and it was clear that resistance was crumbling, but after ten days of almost continuous fighting the strain was also showing on the Mike Force troops. The soldiers were tired and becoming more reluctant to go into action relying more and more on the advisors, both Australian and American plus a handful of hard-core ‘Yards’ to do the fighting.

At first light on 13 April clearing patrols were once again sent out, but this time there were no contacts. The danger to Dak Seang had passed and the NVA had withdrawn to positions 3000m away. The Mike Force troops had begun to follow them up when orders came over the radio net that the battalion was to be relieved and that afternoon at 1445 helicopters arrived outside Dak Seang to commence the battalion’s extraction to Ben Het. The following day they were taken by road back to Pleiku.

The siege had been broken, but it had come at a heavy cost to the Mike Force troops. They had suffered over a hundred dead or wounded casualties, over a third of the battalion’s strength. Five of the USSF advisors had been wounded. Out of the ten Australian advisors, one, John Pettit was KIA, ‘Geordie’ Jamieson and Lachlan Scowcroft were both badly wounded and evacuated to Australia. Peter Sanderson who was also wounded was evacuated but after a period of recuperation would return to the unit. For their actions during the battle, George Jamieson and John Pettit (posthumously) were Mentioned in Despatches. Des Cochrane received the Military Medal, Alex McCloskey, ‘Aggie’ White and Ray Barnes all received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Pat Beale was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Peter Shilston, the Military Cross. In 2010, through the efforts of Bruce Davies, co-author of The Men Who Persevered: The AATTV – the most highly decorated Australian unit of the Vietnam War, the Australian members were also officially recognised as recipients of the US Army Valorous Unit Award (VUA).

Around the same time as siege of Dak Seang was occurring plans were being made to demobilise the Mike Force units as part of the ‘Vietnamization’ programme. Arrangements started for the conversion of the Mike Force Battalions into Vietnamese Regional Force (RF) or Ranger battalions, with the advisor personnel being withdrawn or reassigned. According to Ian McNeill’s The Team: Australian Army Advisors in Vietnam 1962 – 1972, “From a strength of fifteen advisors in Pleiku… it fell to eight in May, five in June and four by 1 July.”

Towards the end of April, Pat Beale had become the senior RF/PF advisor in the Phuoc-Tuy sector and command of the 1st Bn 2MSF went to Peter Shilston. He took the 1st Bn 2MSF on its last operation near Route 509 on the Cambodian border from 14 June to 4 July. The operation was largely uneventful but was accompanied by Sergeant John Geoffrey Fairley, a photographer for the (Australians) Directorate of Public Relations whose images of Shilston have become some of the most recognised photographs featuring the Mike Force troops of the war.

On 26 August 1970, Captain Peter Shilston became the last Australian soldier to leave Pleiku and returned to Australia the following day. According to the AATTV Monthly report for July 1970 (R723/1/35) serial/para 7on that date AATTV will sever its seven year association with US and Vietnamese Special Forces.’ After returning to Australia, he continued to serve in the Australian Army, including spending time as an instructor at the 1st Recruit Training Battalion at Kapooka and ending his career as a major. He was formally presented his Military Cross by the Governor of NSW, Sir Roden Cutler VC,  during an investiture ceremony in April 1971. Peter Shilston died on 30 August 1993 and his ashes are interred at Ballarat New Cemetery.

MIKE Force banner presented to Captain Peter Shilston MC (AATTV)

MIKE Force banner presented to Captain Peter Shilston MC (AATTV) at the conclusion of his tour in August 1970.


AATTV beret badge Peter Shilston

Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) beret badge worn by Captain Peter Shilston whilst commanding the 1st Bn 2MSF (MIKE Force). Collection: Julian Tennant

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The New South Wales State Aviation School

 

NSW State Aviation School

The insignia related to Australian aviators of the First World War are one of my areas of collecting interest. Whilst most of these are associated with the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), there are also some lesser known badges which are closely linked to the Australia’s early military aviators. The New South Wales State Aviation School was a civilian organisation whose existence is directly linked to the story of the AFC. The school wore military styled uniforms and distinctive insignia on their caps and jacket sleeve. Very few surviving examples are known to exist and I am still searching for examples for my own collection. If anybody can help, please contact me. 

NSW Aviation School

Cap badge of the New South Wales State Aviation School. The badge is embroidered in coloured cotton on khaki-grey wool twill with a brown eagle in front of a yellow rising sun. Beneath the eagle’s head is a yellow edged circle bearing the badge of the State of New South Wales in red, yellow, pale blue and white. Around it is a pale blue and yellow scroll ‘AVIATION SCHOOL N.S.W.’ in red. Collection: RAAF Museum, Point Cook.

 

nsw state aviation school -01-2

New South Wales State Aviation School sleeve badge embroidered in coloured cotton on grey wool twill. The embroidery is backed with lightweight buckram. This badge was worn by Alan Ernest Buzacott during his training at the NSW State Aviation School at Richmond, near Sydney, between July and October 1918. He was a member of the 6th class run by the School and obtained his aviator’s certificate on 25 October 1918. Although Buzacott qualified as a pilot he graduated too late to be able to serve in the First World War. AWM Accession Number: REL33412

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The New South Wales State Aviation School opened on 28 August 1916 as a supplement to the Australian Flying Corps Central Flying School (CFS) at Point Cook in Victoria. The school was located at Ham Common, now site of the Richmond RAAF Base. The Premier of New South Wales, William A. Holman was a keen proponent of military aviation, so he put New South Wales State finances behind the development of the school, financing the procurement of two American Curtiss training aircraft, with two additional Curtiss JN-B4 aircraft acquired in 1917. Whilst the aim was to train pilots for the AFC, it was foreshadowed that after the war the school would continue to train pilots for civil aviation purposes.

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Twenty-five students were chosen from 230 applicants for the Flying School’s first course. Applicants had to be 18 to 30 years of age and in good health. Preference was given to commissioned officers, engineers, mechanics or other specified trades. All students trained at their own risk and no compensation was offered on account of death or injury. Instruction included lectures and practical training over 12 weeks followed by an examination. Workshop training, to familiarise students with the construction and operation of aircraft and engines, was required for at least 160 hours while only four hours of flying time were required, of which not less than two were to be ‘in complete charge of the aeroplane‘. The applicant also had to pass the test for the Royal Aero Club Certificate. If unsuccessful, an applicant could qualify as an Aircraft Mechanic, provided he demonstrated ‘the necessary mechanical ability and sufficient merit‘.

Of the initial course, 19 trainees qualified despite delays due to bad weather. Students were housed and taught in purpose-built accommodation on site and referred to themselves as BPs, probably from the term Basic Pilot Training. A total of six training courses were conducted by the flying school with the last completed just before the announcement of the Armistice in 1918. The rationale for the school had always been driven by politics rather than demonstrated need and this did cause some friction with the military. Graduates were deemed as being inexperienced in military flying and tactical skills and as a civilian training school, pilots did not automatically gain commissions in the Australian Flying Corps, but had to submit for further examination by the Central Flying School in Victoria.

 

 

Only a handful of qualifying pilots secured commissions with the AFC leading to considerable frustration. Their services were offered by the Prime Minister to the Royal Flying Corps and some embarked for England to serve either as cadet pilots or mechanics. There was uncertainty as to how long the war would last and their training was also seen to be inadequate by the War Office for the same reasons as those of the Australian military. By the fourth intake a group of students were making their dissatisfaction over their future known. There was also wrangling about allowances and having to fund their own travel to the UK or Egypt to enlist.

Nevertheless, Premier Holman persisted, and two further courses were run prior to the war’s end. The sixth course started in August 1918 and by Armistice in November, a total of 71 pilots had graduated with 20 joining the AFC and 40 going to the RFC (and, after April 1918, the Royal Air Force). Seven graduates lost their lives during the war, 3 in the AFC and 2 in the RFC and 2 in the RAF.

After the war, effort was made to convert the school to a civilian flying school, but the costs associated were becoming prohibitive and the NSW Government eventually asked the Commonwealth Government to take control. In 1923 the Commonwealth purchased the site and in 1925 became RAAF Base Richmond, home to No 3 Squadron.

nsw state aviation school -01

Richmond, NSW. 1917. Studio portrait of Wallace (Waddy) Andrew McDougall showing both the cap and shoulder sleeve insignia being worn. McDougal initially enlisted in the AIF as a Gunner (Gnr) on 27 November 1916. He was discharged on 4 January 1917 having qualified as a pilot at the Aviation School in Richmond. On 5 January 1917 he was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) and embarked overseas on 21 November 1917, where he completed further training in England, and served in France before returning to Australia on 28 February 1919. (Donor A. McDougall). AWM Accession Number: P02844.001

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nsw state aviation school -05

NSW State Aviation School graduate Nigel Love in the cockpit of his RE8 serial B3420 along with comrades from 3 Sqn Australian Flying Corps circa 1917/18. Nigel joined the army in 1915 at age 23, and was about to leave for Gallipoli as part of reinforcements for the 18th Battalion when he saw a circular about learning to fly. He was selected in the first intake of 25, out of 230 applicants, for the NSW State Aviation School in August 1916. He graduated as an officer/pilot and received strategic battle training in England before joining 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (AFC) in 1918. The squadron was attached to the newly formed Australian Army Corps on the Somme in northern France, under John Monash. On his return from the war he marked out the site of the new airport at Sydney, with the first passenger leaving from there in November, 1919. Nigel Love also established Australia’s first aircraft manufacturing company and piloted the airport’s first commercial flight from Sydney to Melbourne. Photograph: The Nigel Love Collection

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content as often as possible and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

 

The Darwin Aviation Museum – Northern Territory, Australia

Darwin Aviation Museum-17Replica of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk VIII on display at the Darwin Aviation Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Darwin Aviation Museum (formerly known as the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre) is situated about 8km from the Darwin CBD, on the Stuart Highway in the suburb of Winnellie. It grew out of the activities of the Aviation Historical Society of the Northern Territory Inc  which was established in 1976 with the aim of recovery, restoration and document of aviation relics related to the defence of Darwin in World War II.

Darwin Aviation Museum-08

Wreck of the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M-2 Type ‘O’ fighter of Petty Officer Hajime Toyoshima who was forced to land on Melville Island during the attack on Darwin of 19 February 1942. Toyoshima was subsequently captured by a Tiwi Islander, Matthias Ulungura and interned at Cowra in NSW under the alias, Todao Minami. He was one of the camp leaders of the infamous escape attempt on 5 August 1944, blowing the bugle to start the breakout. After recapture he committed suicide and is buried in the Japanese Cemetery at Cowra. Photo” Julian Tennant

Darwin raid Toyoshima POW

Wreck of the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M-2 Type ‘O’ fighter of Petty Officer Hajime Toyoshima on Melville Island shortly after his crash landing. Inset shows Toyoshima’s POW identification photo. The wreck is on display at the Darwin Aviation Museum.

Over the years the museum has expanded to cover all aspects of aviation history in the Northern Territory and today it features one of the largest private collections of aircraft and aviation artifacts in Australia. Housed in a custom built hangar that was opened in 1990 after the Society was able to secure a B52 G bomber and currently exhibits 19 aircraft, 21 engines and numerous other related displays.

Aircraft include a B-25D Mitchell Bomber (one of the few surviving in the world), a replica Spitfire, Mirage, Avon Sabre, a Royal Australian Navy Wessex helicopter that assisted in the clean-up of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, F-111C and the centerpiece, the aforementioned  Boeing B52 G Stratofortress 92596 “Darwin’s Pride.” This aircraft entered service with the USAF in December 1960 and made its last flight (to the museum) on 1 September 1989. The museum was chosen for its final resting place as Darwin Airport allowed B52 Bombers to take off at their maximum ‘take off weight’ with full fuel tanks or payload.

This relationship with Australia’s American allies is well documented in the museum and includes several artifacts from the USAAF’s 33rd Pursuit Squadron which flew P-40 Kittyhawks and was virtually wiped out when the Japanese attacked on 19 February 1942, right up to the present day deployment of the  Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF – D).

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Uniform and flying helmet of Lieutenant Robert F. McMahon of the 33rd Pursuit Squadron USAAF who engaged the attacking Japanese aircraft in his P-40 Kittyhawk during their bombing raid of Darwin on 19 February 1942. Photo: Julian Tennant

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United States HMLA-367 patches from the MRF-D 2019 deployment. US Marine Corps Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 (HMLA-367) is a United States Marine Corps helicopter squadron consisting of AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters. Photo: Julian Tennant

One of the aircraft that I was pleased to see was the De Havillland DH104 “Dove” called Manatuto after a town on the north coast of East Timor. My interest in this aeroplane relates to a beautiful civilian Transportes Aéreos de Timor pilot’s wing  that I hold in my collection.

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Pre 1975 Transportes Aéreos de Timor Pilot wing. Brass and enamel multi-piece construction with rotating propeller. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Transportes Aeros de Timor (Timor Air Transport) De Havillland DH104 Dove ‘Manatuto’  Photo: Julian Tennant

The Manatuto was registered to the Portuguese Government and operated by the Transportes Aéreos de Timor (Timor Air Transport). Originally based at Dili, Manatuto provided regular passenger, mail and cargo service throughout Timor and to Darwin. In October 1975, just before the Indonesian invasion of Timor, the aircraft flew to Darwin. It was admitted to Australia as an ‘aircraft in transit’ but was subsequently declared an illegal import and impounded after the Indonesian invasion before finally being donated to the society by the Portuguese Government in 1978.

Unlike the Darwin Military Museum, which I reviewed in my previous post, the provenance of the exhibits here are well documented and as a collector whose focus is uniforms and insignia I found several pieces that aroused my interest including some of the less well known RAAF uniforms from recent times.

RAAF Flight Service Uniform c1980-1990. Photo: Julian Tennant

RAAF Flight Service Uniform c1980-1990. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Helicopter Air Crew Vietnam display. The mannequin is wearing the Gentex SPH-4 Helicopter Helmet, which was first produced in 1969 although this particular helmet appears to be a post war example. He is also equipped with a US Army issue 2-piece “Nomex” flight suit and the “Armour, Small-Arms-Fragmentation Protective” jacket which was commonly referred to as the “chicken plate.”  Photo: Julian Tennant

The museum also has a small cafeteria and bookshop which, in addition to their range of aviation and military histories also has model aircraft as well as generic Northern Territory related paraphernalia for sale. Overall, this is an interesting museum well worth the few hours I spent examining the exhibits. It is quite easy to get to using public transport as the number 8 bus stops at the front gate, but if you have a hire car and can set a day aside, I’d suggest combining it with a trip to the Defence of Darwin Experience and Darwin Military Museum at East Point which is about 20 minutes away.

Entrance to the Darwin Aviation Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Darwin Aviation Museum
557 Stuart Highway
Winnellie Darwin, NT 0820
Australia

Phone: +61 (0)8 8947 2145
Email: info@darwinaviationmuseum.com.au
Website: https://www.darwinaviationmuseum.com.au/

Open: Every day 09:00 – 17:00

Entry Fees:
Adults: Au$16
Children under 12: $8
Seniors (65+): Au$12
Family pass: Au$36.00

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content as often as possible and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

The Darwin Military Museum & Defence of Darwin Experience – Northern Territory, Australia


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Keith Swain: ‘Japanese air attacks on Darwin Harbour, 19th February 1942.’ Swain’s painting depicts the Japanese air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942. Japanese aircraft fly overhead, while the focus of the painting is the Royal Australian Navy corvette HMAS Katoomba, in dry dock, fighting off the aerial attacks. Of the 13 ships in the harbour at the time of the attack, 9 were sunk. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: ART28075

 

On 19 February 1942, Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. It was the first direct attack on Australian soil. At least 243 civilians and service personnel were killed, and it was the first of over 60 bombing raids on the frontier town between February 1942 and November 1943. Darwin’s proximity to Southeast Asia made it a strategically important location for the war in the Pacific and at its peak in 1943, there were over 110,000 servicemen and women based in the town and surrounding areas.  

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Parade at a 6-inch gun emplacement, East Point, 1942. Photo: Northern Territory Library

The strategic value of Darwin was recognised as early as 1892 when military planners perceived a threat from Japan. In 1911 Field Marshall Kitchener had recommended that two batteries of 6-inch guns be situated at the east and west points of the harbour entrance although this was not acted upon. In 1919 as part of Admiral Jellicoe’s plan for the defence of the Pacific a recommendation was made to establish a Far Eastern Fleet in Singapore with a secondary bases in Australia including Darwin. However, with the development of the ‘Singapore Strategy’ in 1923, Darwin’s role as a major naval base was removed and instead it was to be a naval refuelling facility protected by four 6-inch guns.

In 1932, Australian Army troops arrived to construct the fortifications and garrison accommodation and by 1936, four 6-inch guns, two each at East point and Emery Point, magazines, command posts and searchlight stations had been installed. In 1944 the 6-inch guns were replaced by 9.2-inch guns, but apart from firing test rounds in March 1945, not a shot was fired in anger and after the war, the guns were sold as scrap to the Fujita Salvage Company.

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9.2-inch gun at East Point at the end of World War II. AWM Photo Accession Number: 126155

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Replica of a 9.2-inch gun in its emplacement at the Darwin Military Museum, East Point. Photo: Julian Tennant

The battery emplacements at East Point are now the home to the Darwin Military Museum and co-located Defence of Darwin Experience. Originally established in 1965 by the Royal Australian Artillery Association (NT) Inc to showcase Darwin’s history during WWII, the museum has expanded to include exhibits from all Australia’s conflicts from the Boer War to the present day.

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The exhibition spaces have spread beyond the original museum which was situated in the command post bunker and are a mixture of indoor, covered outdoor and open air displays. Being in the tropics, this is presenting obvious preservation issues for some of the exhibits, particularly some of the paper and textile items that are not housed in sealed climate controlled environments.  

Naturally, emphasis is given to the Northern Territory’s role in Australia’s military history, past and present and there are some very interesting exhibits. of particular interest to me were the displays related to the little known 2/1st North Australia Observation Unit (NAOU), nicknamed the “Nackeroos” or “Curtin’s Cowboys” which had been raised by an anthropologist, Major William Stanner. The unit was tasked with patrolling northern Australia looking for signs of enemy activity, patrolling in small groups on horseback and maintaining coastwatching outposts. As the threat of Japanese invasion passed, the unit was reduced in strength and disbanded in 1945. The concept was resurrected in 1981 with the formation of the North-West Mobile Force (NORFORCE), which is based in Darwin and one of three Regional Force Surveillance Units employed in surveillance and reconnaissance of remote Northern Australia.

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WWII Buffalo LVT amphibious transport. Powered by a 250hp Continental radial engine, the Buffalo was originally of Australian design (according to the museum’s description panel, which I think may be incorrect) but its manufacturing rights were sold to the USA during the war. This particular example was slightly modified to allow it to be operated from outside the driver’s compartment, which would have become unbearably hot due the tropical weather and the engine being mounted directly behind the driver. Holes were cut into the armour plating on the front and the steering columns, accelerator and brake pedals extended through these apertures. Whilst the Buffalo had potential to be an outstanding utility vehicle, its design did not allow it to operate in any but the calmest of seas without taking on dangerous levels of water. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Turret detail of a 1954 Ferret MkII Scout Car. The ‘Nightcliff 1st Cavalry’ insignia is a mystery to me as no such unit is known to have existed and the badge appears to be a variation of the British Royal Hampshire Regiment (minus the crown). Photo: Julian Tennant

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1968 Australian variation of the Pandora Productions satirical anti-war ‘Fly Far Eastern Airways: This vaction visit beautiful Vietnam’ poster. Photo: Julian Tennant

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‘Cheap Charlie’ badge. The ‘Cheap Charlies’ were like a lot of other clubs of its type in Vietnam and served the same purpose… to break the monotony and drink booze. To qualify one had to be first and foremost a cheap bastard. Meetings were held every two weeks and fines were handed out to those found guilty of not being cheap, i.e. giving someone a smoke, buying someone a beer etc. The badge had to be carried at all times and be produced to another member on the demand of “Cheep Cheep” – the shower being a popular challenge location. Photo: Julian Tennant

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1943 dated Imperial Japanese Navy hat issued to Hiro Hikita (Volunteer No. 25664) of the Kure Naval Arsenal, which was established in 1903 near the city of Hiroshima. The Kure Naval Arsenal was one of Japan’s largest shipbuilding and repair facilities. The battleship Yamato was built here and commissioned in December 1941. Photo: Julian Tennant

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However, as a collector and researcher there are also some disappointments. My interests are quite focused, and my knowledge reflects those limitations but some of the mistakes in the exhibits are glaringly obvious to even somebody with a more general interest in Australian militaria.  These include presenting contemporary uniforms and insignia in displays that are described as being from earlier conflicts and including reproduction items as originals without identifying them as copies. Whilst these omissions may escape the notice of the general viewing public, they do undermine the integrity of the museum and the accuracy of its representation, which is unfortunate if its role is to preserve history and educate.

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A somewhat strange RAAF ensemble featuring a post WW2 Officer’s summer tropical jacket with current RAAF buttons and WW2 period pilot wings, plus pre-1950 tropical pith helmet. Photo: Julian Tennant

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One of the unusual ‘creative’ interpretations on display in the Darwin Military Museum. The mannequin includes a British Para smock, which I think may be the 1959 pattern, with Airborne forces Pegasus patch and Parachute Regiment beret but it also includes a Glider Pilot Regiment shoulder title which would not be worn by members of the Parachute Regiment and was not worn on para smocks. The Glider Pilot Regiment was disbanded in 1957. Unfortunately this is one of several mistakes that are displayed in the museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Melbourne Argus front page of 20 February 1942. (National Library of Australia)

One of the newer areas of the museum, which is done very well, is the co-located Defence of Darwin Experience. This is presented as a stand-alone attraction in a lot of the tourist orientated promotional material but is really just a new section of the museum which was added in 2012 and included in the one admission fee. This section tells the story of Darwin’s role in World War II through a combination of objects, firsthand accounts and multimedia presentations. Naturally there is an emphasis on the bombing of Darwin and unlike in some of other sections of the museum, the provenance of the artifacts is well documented presenting an engaging insight to the war in the top end by connecting the objects to the participants and their experiences.

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War Damage Commission armband on display in the Defence of Darwin Experience gallery. The War Damage Commission was established to enact the Australian ‘War Damage Compensation Act.’ From 1 January 1942, under the ‘national Security Act’, every owner of fixed property in Australia was guaranteed compensation for war damage and was compelled to contribute to a fund from which the compensation would be drawn. After the boming of Darwin, skilled builders and tradesmen were recruited to assess the damage and make compensation recommendations. The assessors wore these armbands to ensure entry into all areas across the military-run district. The War Damage Commission made two major visits to Darwin, in August 1942 and July 1943. Claims were not limited to purely bomb damage; many buildings were purposely destroyed or stripped of materials for military purposes and claims continued to be made by property owners well into the 1950’s. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Uniform of Sergeant F.G. Jarvis during his service with the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC) during WW2. The VDC (aka Dad’s Army) was made up of recruits too old to enlist in the regular forces. The majority of the men in the VDC were veterans of the First World War. Sgt Jarvis was one such veteran having served at Gallipoli as evidenced by the brass ‘A’ on the colour patch indicating active service with the 27th Battalion AIF. The cross-flags insignia represent qualification as a signaller. Photo: Julian Tennant

Overall, I found the Darwin Military Museum to be a mixed bag, sometimes disappointing due to the inclusion of fakes or reproductions that were not identified as such, obvious curatorial errors and the effects that poor display conditions are having on some of the objects. But the exhibits also include some very engaging personal stories and unusual artifacts that are not often found in the public domain. I spent half a day examining the exhibits, jumping back and forth between the various exhibition areas. Visiting the museum resulted in a much better understanding Darwin’s history during the war and when complimented by the ABC’s Bombing of Darwin Podtour,  I was able to develop a much more informed exploration of the military related sites in the area.

 

Darwin Military Museum Map

The Darwin Military Museum
LOT 5434 Alec Fong Lim Dr
East Point, Darwin, NT 0820
Australia

Phone: +61 (0)8 8981 970
Email: info@darwinmilitarymuseum.com.au
Website: https://www.darwinmilitarymuseum.com.au/#/

Open: Every day 10:00 – 15:30

Entry Fees:
Adults: Au$20
Children aged 5 – 15: Au$10
Children under 5: Free
Seniors (65+): Au$10 for Northern Territory residents, interstate and international visitors, Au$15
Family pass(2 ADULTS, 3 CHILDREN U16): Au$45.00
University/TAFE students: Au$10.00
Disability carers: ​Au$12.00
Serving Military Personnel: Au$15

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content as often as possible and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Nungarin Heritage Machinery & Army Museum, Western Australia

With the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, and the bombing of Darwin four days later, fears of a Japanese invasion of Australia began to reach fever pitch. The air raid on Broome in Western Australia on 3 March exacerbated concerns about the vulnerability of the state to Japanese invasion and led to the formation of III Corps and a bolstering of Western Australia’s military preparedness. One armoured and two infantry were deployed to the state and a rapid expansion of Western Australia’s defences commenced.

Nungarin, a small wheatbelt town situated approximately  278 km (173 mi) east of Perth became an important part of the supply network and at its peak was the third largest Army camp in Western Australia with around 1200 service personnel stationed there at any one time. The region was an integral part of the defence network as it was considered sufficiently inland to be outside the range of Japanese carrier-based aircraft. The town of Nungarin was selected for development, due to its location as a road and rail junction, had electricity and a good water supply.

In September 1942, the army acquired 1720 acres of land in and around the townsite and began construction of the Nungarin camp which was home to No.5 Base Ordnance Depot (5BOD), which at the time was the largest army ordnance storage facility in Western Australia and continued to operate there until its closure in 1960. The depot facilities included a vehicle workshop housed in a massive timber clad building which was sold to the Nungarin Shire.  It is now home to Nungarin Heritage Machinery and Army Museum, which officially opened on the 8th of October 1994.

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Nungarin Heritage Machinery and Army Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

As its name implies, the museum is more than just a military museum and also includes displays of farm machinery and other cultural artifacts related to the local community. However, it was the military aspects that interested me and after paying another visit to the Merredin Military Museum on the Saturday, I made the 30 minute drive to Nungarin early Sunday morning, just in time to arrive for one of the museums renowned Sunday Breakfasts ($10), which was a great way to begin the visit.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the exhibits are the vehicles and equipment of the type that were stored or repaired at the depot during its operation. Run by a small team of volunteer staff, the shed is filled with an assortment of military equipment, some complete and some still under restoration. Surrounding the shed are dozens more vehicles at different stages of disrepair, ‘projects’ is how Phil the caretaker/curator described them to me.

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Restored Australian Dingo Scout Car 1942. The chassis and wheels were donated by Anthony Thomson and Kodj Kodjin whilst the armour was found on Bruce Watson’s Nungarin farm. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Fully working WW2 period searchlight and generator, which has occasionally been dragged out to illuminate the night sky around Nungarin. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Unrestored M3 Stuart tank which was acquired by the museum in 1988 after it had been used for farm clearing at Nukarni after the war. Photo: Julian Tennant

In one corner of the shed there are a couple of rooms holding smaller artifacts including communications equipment, uniforms and personal effects. As a former communicator, of particular interest to me were a couple of Vietnam era patrol radio sets used by Australian Special Forces.

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Delco AN/PRC-64 and 64A radio sets used by Australian Special Forces in Vietnam and during the 1970’s. Photo: Julian Tennant

The lunchbox sized AN/PRC-64 was a spy radio set developed by Delco in the USA in the early 1960’s as a radio intended for Special Forces use and for espionage activities. Most of the original AN/PRC-64 sets were upgraded to the PRC-64A variant which included provision for the AN/GRA-71 Electro-mechanical Burst Encoder to allow for faster morse transmissions. These radios were used by the Australian Special Air Service Regiment in Vietnam and also by 1 Commando Regiment. SASR soldier, John Trist recounts his experiences using the 64 set as a patrol sig in the early 1970’s on the Crypto Museum website  and was one of many ex sigs (myself included) who bought one when the Department of Defence disposed of stocks in 1995. These days, on the rare occasion when they do turn up in the marketplace, they sell for quite a bit more than the Au$50 asking price at the time.

The building housing the collection is an important part of the museum’s story, but unfortunately, a largely timber structure out in the middle of a dry and dusty wheatbelt town does not create an ideal conservation environment for textile artifacts. And although the staff have made considerable effort to try and protect the handful of uniforms and insignia on display in their cabinets, these are not the museum’s strong point. The uniforms that are on display represent a small selection of (mostly) Royal Australian Ordnance Corps uniforms, most of which are post war and reflect more recent connections with the Australian Army.

The main attraction is really the vehicles, and this is very much a hands-on type of museum where visitors can clamber around most of the displays to check out important details.  One of the vehicles that I found quite interesting was the Austin Champ, which was developed  to meet the British Army’s requirement for an off-road light vehicle in the early 1950’s. The Australian Army ordered 400 new Champs, plus a similar number of ex-British Army vehicles, but they were not popular due to their unsuitability for Australian conditions and were replaced by the Land Rover which was much better suited to requirements and significantly cheaper.

4 Cylinder Series B Austin Champ used by the Australian Army in the 1950's.

4 Cylinder Series B Austin Champ used by the Australian Army in the 1950’s. Photo: Julian Tennant

Staghound Armoured Car. Photo: Julian Tennant

Staghound Armoured Car. Photo: Julian Tennant

For visitors a trip to the Nungarin Heritage Machinery and Army Museum can be done as a day-trip from Perth, although if you have time I would recommend staying overnight (possibly in nearby Merredin), which will give you time to check out the Merredin Military Museum as well as the Nungarin museum, plus explore the old military buildings that are spread around the area. These are well documented on the Central Wheatbelt Visitor Centre website  or you can use Jane Hammond’s When war came to the wheatbelt piece for the Royal Automobile Club of WA (Inc.) as your guide for the trip east from Perth.

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Ammunition bunker near Nokaning East Road, between Nungarin and Merredin. This is one of 46 concrete bunkers scattered around the area which were used to store various munitions during the war. Photo: Julian Tennant

Nungarin Heritage Machinery & Army Museum
26 Second Avenue
Nungarin
Western Australia, 6490

Phone: +61 (0)8 9046 5040
Email: nungarinheritage@bigpond.com
Website: www.nungarinmuseum.com.au

Open: Every day from 09:00 to 16:00.

Entry Fees: $5 per person

You may also be interested in this review of the nearby Merredin Military Museum

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every second Sunday (at least) and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Australian War Memorial update and SAS trooper Don Barnby’s Vietnam items.

The Australian War Memorial will be reopening to the public on 1 July 2020. However due to COVID-19 restrictions visitors must now have a ticket (free) to gain entry. Tickets may still be obtained at the entrance, but as availability is subject to museum capacity, a better option is to pre-register for tickets online as some time-slots have already been booked out.

For those who cannot visit, the AWM has also been working hard to make its collection and archives available to the public online, including virtual tours of the galleries via Google Street View plus podcasts, the AWM YouTube Channel  and a collection of over 6000 archival films which have been digitised and available for viewing online. For collectors, the AWM collection archive is a particularly useful resource to find out more information about the objects that are on display.

AWM SASR Barnby

US ERDL pattern camouflage uniform and equipment used by 217585 Trooper Donald Richard Barnby whilst serving as a member of Patrol Two Five, F troop, 2 Squadron, SASR in South Vietnam from 17 February until 10 October 1971. On display in the Vietnam Gallery of the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Julian Tennant

I took the above photograph during my most recent visit to the AWM, which was back in 2018 when I flew across to Canberra to check out the Australian Special Forces exhibition, From the Shadows.  This photograph shows a display in the Vietnam War section of the 1945 to Today Galleries that features items belonging to Australian SAS trooper Don Barnby during his service with 2 SAS Squadron in South Vietnam in 1971. Using the AWM’s collection search facility  uncovers a trove of material related to his service, some of which is shown below.

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Nui Dat, South Vietnam. Trooper Don Barnby, patrol signaler in Two Five Patrol, ‘F’ Troop, 2 Squadron, Special Air Service (SAS), Prior to commencing a patrol. AWM Accession Number: P00966.083

Donald Richard Barnby was born in Brewarrina, NSW on 8 April 1950 and joined the Australian Regular Army aged 17 in May 1967. After completing basic training at Kapooka in New South Wales, Barnby was allocated to the Royal Australian Ordnance Corps and after completing his initial employment training was posted to 2 Base Ordnance at Moorebank, NSW. Frustrated by not having a combat role, Barnby volunteered for service with the Special Air Service Regiment. After completing the selection and reinforcement cycle, including Military Free-Fall parachuting,  Barnby became part of F Troop of 2 Squadron.

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Nui Dat, SAS Hill, South Vietnam. 1971. Trooper Don Barnby, ‘F’ Troop, 2 Squadron, Special Air Service (SAS), outside his tent “316 Wilhelm Strasse”, named after a brothel at 316 William Street, Perth, WA. AWM Accession Number: P00966.021

From 17 February to 10 October 1971, Trooper Barnby deployed to South Vietnam as a member of Patol Two Five, F Troop, 2 Squadron, SASR. This was 2 Squadron’s second tour of Vietnam and the last of SASR’s involvement in the conflict. Based out of the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy Province, the squadron conducted clandestine reconnaissance and offensive operations against the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong.

After returning from his tour, Don Barnby decided to leave the Army in early 1973 and joined the Australian Capital Territory Police Force, which later became the Australian Federal Police (AFP). He served in numerous roles during his police career including as a United Nations Australian Civilian Police Officer (UN AUSTCIVPOL), with the AFP 1st UN Police Contingent, deployed to East Timor on behalf of the United Nations and responsible for organising the independence referendum in August 1999. His story is recounted in detail in an interview that features  on the AWM’s podcast series, Life on the Line. The podcast is worth listening to as Don goes into some detail about his tour, the equipment he carried and other aspects of this service.

In addition to the photographs that Don Barnby took whilst in Vietnam, searching the collection database also shows many of the individual items in the display, with the descriptions providing valuable additional information. Click on the smaller photos below to enlarge and read caption the details.

SASR Don Barnby bush hat

Australian bush hat : Trooper D R Barnby, 2 Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment. Description: Modified Australian Army issue cotton patrol ‘giggle’ hat with shortened brim and green nylon chin strap attached. The nylon chin strap is attached to the hat by a pair of holes made into the side of the hat with a knot keeping it in place on either side. An adjustable plastic toggle allows the wearer to tighten or loosen the chin strap. A pair of circular metal ventilation holes are on both sides of the crown. A mixture of faded green and black paint has been randomly applied to the exterior as a means of camouflaging the hat. History / Summary: The Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) in Vietnam were well known for modifying issued equipment for their own unique purposes. This hat is an example of this adaptive attitude. The brims of many SASR hats were removed to allow a better field of vision for the wearer, and the added chin strap ensured the hat would not be lost on patrol or in transport. AWM Accession Number: REL/14214.002

SASR Don Barnby beret

SASR beret : Trooper D R Barnby, 2 Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment. Item Description: Special Air Service Regiment fawn coloured wool beret, with gilded metal badge. The badge is superimposed on a black shield shaped felt patch. The badge is a silver dagger with gilded wings, superimposed with a gilded banner reading ‘WHO DARES WINS’. The beret has four cotton reinforced ventilation eyelets, and is lined with black cotton fabric. The headband is made of sandy coloured synthetic material. The drawstring has been removed and replaced with a decorative bow. A maker’s label marked ‘SIZE 7’ is sewn into the lining, and another label ‘217585 BARNBY, 2 SQN’ is sewn into the left hand side. Maker: Beret Manufacturers Pty Ltd Place made: Australia: Victoria Date made: 1967 AWM Accession Number: REL/14214.007

In addition to the links and mentioned above, there are also curated online collections and the Australian War Memorial blog which includes a fascinating selection of articles from the AWM’s historians, curators, librarians and exhibition team that covers Australian military history, recent acquisitions, events and exhibitions. There is more than enough material to keep one engrossed for days and I found that once I started looking new avenues of exploration just kept on opening up. It is an incredible resource, even if you cannot visit in person.

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The Australian War Memorial Collection database also includes some home movies of 2 SAS Squadron during Don Barnby’s tour of Vietnam, which were made by another F Troop soldier, Ian Rasmussen. To watch the movies click on the link below: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C191676

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every second Sunday (at least) and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Help preserve the Musée Somme 1916

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Unidentified diggers of the 5th Division AIF having a smoke and resting by the side of the Montauban road, near Mametz approximately 7km east of Albert, while enroute to the trenches. December 1916. Photograph: Herbert Frederick Baldwin. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: E00019

 

ANZAC Day, the 25th of April, is a day where Aussies and Kiwis remember the sacrifices made during times of war. Dawn service commemorations are held around the country and at memorials across the globe. This year, lock-downs due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a huge impact on the way 2020’s commemorations and also on the places we visit to remember. Memorials, museums and local businesses have been forced to close their doors to the public and for some, who rely on the patronage of tourists making the pilgrimage to the sites where their forebears fought, the impact may be fatal.

This morning, whilst checking Facebook I stumbled across a cry for help from the non-profit Musée Somme 1916 in the French town of Albert, approximately 7km southwest of Pozieres, in the Somme region. Albert would be familiar to thousands of Australians who have made the pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Western Front and many may have visited the museum which is located in the tunnels under the Basilica of Note-Dame de Brebieres.

The Basilica was home to the famous leaning Golden Virgin statue of Mary and the infant Jesus which was hit by a German shell in 1915 and knocked to a near horizontal position. A number of legends developed among the thousands of soldiers who passed through Albert around the ‘Leaning Virgin’ including the myth that whichever side caused the statue to fall, would lose the war. It was eventually knocked down and destroyed by allied shells in April 1918 after the Germans recaptured the town during their Spring Offensive. After the war, the Basilica was faithfully rebuilt according to its original design, complete with a replica of the statue.

1916 Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres

1916 postcard of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres, France. The postcard is folded in half and opens up to twice the size of a regular postcard, with text ‘Guerre 1914-1916’, and featuring black and white photographs on the front, with the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres in Albert, France on the right, and on the left a photograph of the Basilica showing the destruction done to the building after 15 months of bombardment. The postcard was sent by No. 171 Private Philip George Pittaway of the 27th Battalion AIF to his sister back in Australia a few months after arriving in France. George Pittaway enlisted in South Australia on 14 January 1915 and served in Egypt and Gallipoli for three months before being sent to France in March 1916. He was killed in action on 5 November 1916 in France during the 27th Battalion’s attack on German positions in Flers, and has no known grave. State Library of South Australia Artifact Number: PRG 1675/6/4/R

 

The Musée Somme 1916’s entry, which is on the side of the Basilica, takes visitors down into tunnels that were first built in the 13th century, before being converted to an air raid shelter in 1938 and then finally the current museum in 1992. Its tunnels and dozen alcoves stretch for 250m and provide visitors with an overview of what life was like for soldiers during the July 1916 offensive. The photographs of the museum that you see here were taken during a pilgrimage that I made to the battlefields of the Somme in 2015. The trip was a humbling and moving experience, made even more poignant by places such as the Musée Somme 1916 which contextualise the sacrifices that were made by all sides during that terrible period in history. If you are able, I encourage you to give the museum whatever support you can, to help preserve the history for future generations.

The museum’s crowd funding page can be found here and you can find them on Facebook here.

Lest We Forget!

 

Musée Somme 1916
Rue Anicet Godin
80300 Albert
France

Phone: +33 (0)3 22751617
Email: musee@somme1916.org
Website: www.musee-somme-1916.eu

Open:                                                                                                                                                         The Musée Somme 1916 is usually open everyday 09:00 until 18:00 (last entry at 17:30). However due to the COVID-19 pandemic it is temporarily closed until further notice.

Entry Fees:
Adults –  7.00 €
Children 6 to 18 years old –  4.00 €
Children  under 6 years old –  Free
Veterans –  5.00 €
Disabled –  6.00 €
Adult groups (10 pax or more) –  6.00 €
Guided tour (25 pax maximum) –  50.00 €

 

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

A Vietnam War MIKE FORCE Zippo to an Australian Advisor

Unfortunately due to work commitments related to the COVID-19 virus, I have not been able to complete the content that I had planned for this week. So, rather than miss my Sunday deadline, here is one of the pieces from my small cigarette lighter collection. Collecting military lighters is a sideline to my insignia collection and is focused on Australian airborne and special operations unit Zippo (or other brand) lighters. If you have a lighter that fits into this area and you wish to sell or trade for insignia or other militaria, please contact me via my Facebook page.

AATTV John Vincent Zippo-01

Zippo lighter presented to AATTV advisor WO2 John Vincent who served with  2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in 1969/70. Collection: Julian Tennant

This is a 1968 dated Zippo lighter that was presented to Australian Warrant Officer Class-2 John Roderick Vincent who served with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) as an advisor to the Pleiku based 2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in 1969/70.

WO2 Vincent deployed to Vietnam as a member of the AATTV on the 28th of May 1969. Upon arrival, in June, he completed the 5th SFGA Combat Orientation Course at Hon Tre island off Nha Trang. After completing the course, he was posted as a platoon commander with 223 Company of the 2nd Mobile Strike Force battalion (2MSF) based at Pleiku. On the 23rd of June, shortly after taking command of his Montagnard platoon, Vincent’s MIKE Force unit was committed to the Battle for Ben Het, where 3000 NVA troops had besieged a camp housing a twelve man US Special Forces A-Team (A-244) and their 200 CIDG Montagnard tribesmen plus families.  In September 1969 Vincent was reassigned to the Training Company of 2MSF in Pleiku where he remained, apart from a brief period in early April when he provided support during the Dak Saeng Special Forces camp siege, until completing his tour on 14 May 1970.  The concluding date on his lighter states 14 April 1970 and I am not sure why this is earlier than the other documentation related to his service.

jvincent-1

AATTV advisor WO2 John Vincent, with soldiers of 2MSF Pleiku. Far left is the Montagnard Company Commander, next is John’s radio operator and to his right is John’s bodyguard. John described them as “the most loyal soldiers I have ever worked with.” Photo courtesy of Tom”Stumpy”Burke, Pleiku Mike Force, 5th Special Forces Group.

AATTV John Vincent Zippo-02-2

WO2 John Vincent’s Zippo lighter that was presented to him towards the end of his tour as an Australian Advisor with MIKE Force. The front reads “1st June 1969 – 24th April 1970″ and features an enameled C-4 Mike Force, IV Corps ‘beer can’ badge. The reverse is panto-graphed to “WO John R.Vincent 29581 From the Officers and Men of the 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command (Mike Force).” Collection: Julian Tennant

aattv john vincent

Pleiku, South Vietnam. 1969. Warrant Officer 2 (WO2) John Vincent of Northwood, NSW, a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) watches carefully as a Montagnard soldier receiving parachute training practices landing from the height of a few feet. At the end of five days training the wiry Montagnard will jump from 1200 feet into a training area. WO2 Vincent, an Army Physical Training Instructor is one of the AATTV men who train the Montagnards and operate with them. The Montagnards of Mike Force, part of the Special Forces in Vietnam, are taught their basic infantry skills and given parachute training by AATTV advisers. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: EKN/69/0135/VN

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Dropping into the Cu Chi Tunnels

In January 1966, the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), which had been attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) after arriving in Vietnam the previous year, participated in  Operation CRIMP. This was an operation involving over 8000 allied troops and is described in detail in Bob Breen’s book, First to Fight and in Blue Lanyard Red Banner by Lex McAulay, whose customised Australian Army lighter that he carried during the operation was featured in a previous post. CRIMP was the battalion’s first major foray into an area which has become synonymous with the famous Củ Chi Tunnels and the pioneering ‘tunnel rat’ work carried out by its sappers.

For 1RAR, the objective of this operation, which involved over allied 8000 troops, was a series of underground bunkers believed to be in the Ho Bo Woods area of Củ Chi district. Intelligence indicated that these bunkers housed the headquarters for the Communist committee that controlled all Viet Cong activity in the Capital Military District and a large complex of tunnels was subsequently uncovered by the battalion. For the first time, engineers of 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers (3 Fd Tp RAE), under the command of Captain Alexander (Sandy) MacGregor breached the network recovering large quantities of  weapons, food, equipment and documents.

Sandy MacGregor recounts the experiences of the sappers from 3 Fd Tp as they entered the tunnels for the first time in his book, No Need for Heroes.

We had three tasks. The first was to investigate the tunnels as fully as possible to discover what they were being used for. The second was to try and map the tunnel system so that we could work out its extent, and if need be, dig down to a soldier who might be trapped. The third, once we discovered what a treasure trove the tunnels were, was to recover everything we could – weapons, equipment and paper – all of which was invaluable for the intelligence boys.

Op CRIMP tunnel rat demo

Photograph by Captain Alex ‘Sandy’ MacGregor, OC of 3 Field Troop, who developed the ‘tunnel rat’ concept first used during Operation CRIMP. Here, soldiers are demonstrating a “Tunnel Exploration Kit”, which was developed as a result of the developments made by MacGregor’s soldiers. Note the ear plug in the soldier’s right ear, the throat microphone and the switch in his mouth used to operate the torch strapped to his forehead. He is armed with a Smith & Wesson 38 calibre revolver equipped with a silencer and pinpoint-light sight. Photograph: Alexander Hugh ‘Sandy’ MacGregor. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P01595.021

It was not an easy mission to accomplish as this was a departure from the American policy of sealing and destroying any tunnels found. Captain MacGregor had previously recognised the inadequacies of the American approach and had begun training his engineers to enter and clear tunnels. The 3 Fd Tp sappers had built a mock tunnel at their base, experimented and developed clearance techniques but they were still entering somewhat untested territory when they commenced the operation. The “Tunnel Rats” as they would come to known, had their work cut out for them. As soon as 1RAR hit the LZ they came under fire from snipers hidden in underground firing positions, trenches and tunnels. Bob Breen describes the situation in First to Fight,

There were snipers and small groups of Viet Cong everywhere – in and behind trees, popping up from spider holes and tunnel entrances at ground level, and scrambling away after firing quick bursts. The area was seeded with numerous booby traps. Diggers (Australian soldiers) noticed the ominous wires and saw shells and bunches of grenades dangling from trees and clumps of bamboo.

In an ambush on the first day of the operation, a Viet Cong firing position was discovered inside an anthill. When the sappers blew the anthill, a tunnel was discovered leading away from the position. Clearance teams from 3 Fd Tp began entering the network but breaching and securing the tunnels was no easy task.

We blew smoke into the tunnel and I divided the men into smaller sub-units of twos and threes and sent them off to investigate Once we’d blown smoke, then tear gas, then fresh air down the tunnels, I sent a couple of men down to investigate. The entrance was so narrow it was hard to imagine it was intended for people at all. There was a straight drop then it doubled back up, like the U-bend under a sink. The tunnel turned again to go along under the surface and became a little wider, but there still wasn’t room enough to turn around. It was terrifying down there, armed only with a bayonet to probe for booby traps and a pistol to defend yourself.

Once you’d negotiated the tight entrance and the U-bend, you had to crawl along tiny passages, rubbing your shoulders on each side of the tunnel, on all fours, with no way of turning around if you got into trouble. Often, you’d find larger ‘rooms’, sections of tunnel that were big enough to crouch or kneel in, but you weren’t to know that when you first set out. The further the men went, the more complex the tunnel system was revealed to be. There were drops, twists and turns, corners around which the whole North Vietnamese Army could be waiting, for all they knew. The men burrowed away, ever further, ever deeper, until they discovered a hidden danger in the operation. Some of them began passing out in the tunnels due to lack of air. But, despite the fact that there was no room to turn they were all dragged back to the surface, usually after we’d blasted more fresh air down to them.

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground ...

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground during Operation Crimp in the Ho Bo Woods with troops of 1 Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). The trapdoor of concrete is covered with earth and grass and saplings are grown in it so that it carefully blends in with the rest of the vegetation, and is virtually impossible to detect. Photo: Peter Kelly. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: KEL/66/0021/VN

Unfortunately, one of the sappers, Corporal Bob Bowtell, succumbed to the lack of air in one of the antechambers and had died of asphyxiation by the time his body could be brought back to the surface. The operation took its toll on many of the sappers as George Wilson recalls in Gary McKay’s book,  Bullets, Beans & Bandages,

Those long periods spent underground, often in total darkness, where at times the only ‘light’ was the luminous face of your watch, were my most vivid memories of Viet Nam… Our troop casualty rate was particularly high on that operation with only 12 out of 35 men remaining until the end… of the operation.

During the six days that 3 Fd Tp spent on Operation CRIMP, the sappers had investigated tunnels for 700m in one direction and another 500m across that line, recovering truckloads of documents and equipment, including photographs of the Viet Cong’s foreign advisors. On the final day of the operation, the sappers found a trapdoor which led to a third level in the system, but before they could investigate it further the Americans decided to end the operation and pull out. The tunnels that had been discovered were lined with explosives and tear gas crystals in an attempt to either destroy or make them uninhabitable. Later, long after the end of the war Sandy MacGregor finally learned what lay beyond that final trapdoor. It led to the military headquarters of the Viet Cong’s Southern Command.

They had been that close.

However, Operation CRIMP had uncovered a massive amount of equipment and intelligence information and as a result, American units throughout Vietnam received orders to clear tunnels before destroying them. The tunnel system breached by 3 Fd Tp was later discovered to consist of over 200 kilometers of tunnels in multiple levels, and included living, working and storage areas, forming part of the much larger Củ Chi tunnel complex. For his contribution, Sandy MacGregor was awarded the Military Cross by the Australian government and the Bronze Star by the Americans. He recounts his experiences developing the ‘Tunnel Rats’ concept and service in Vietnam in an interview that was recorded for the Life on the Line podcast series, which is worth listening to.

Viet Cong haversack : Sapper P M Cachia, 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers

Viet Cong locally made canvas haversack captured by Sapper Peter Cachia of 3 Fd Tp RAE during Operation CRIMP. It consists of a central compartment made from light brown canvas with fold-in weather flaps. This compartment is closed by a large external flap secured by tying together lengths of synthetic cord. The flap has a large external pocket of green canvas with a plastic button closure. The straps are of light brown canvas 60 mm wide tapering to 12 mm wide. The narrow end of each strap is passed through a loop of synthetic cord sewn to the bottom of the haversack and knotted. This is how the length of the straps can be adjusted. Lengths of synthetic cord have been machine sewn to the both the straps and the haversack along the joins as a means of reinforcement. The haversack, which originally contained an aluminium lighter and a large quantity of documents and other printed matter. The printed matter was taken by army intelligence for analysis, and Cachia was allowed to keep the haversack and lighter. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: REL43475

cu chi tunnels model-01

The district of Củ Chi lies approximately 60 kilometers northwest of Saigon bordering an area known as the Iron Triangle, the heartland of the Viet Cong guerrillas operating in the region. The tunnel system took advantage of the hard, red, soil which was suitable for digging and did not become waterlogged during the monsoon season.  It was first developed by the Viet Minh in their fight against the French and in 1947 only 47 kilometers of tunnels existed, but with the formation of the Viet Cong the system expanded. By the end of 1963 it was estimated that around 400km of arterial tunnels, trenches, connecting tunnels and bunkers existed in an area that covered 300 square kilometers. The Củ Chi Tunnel complex was big enough to conceal an entire regiment, some estimates put the figure at 5000 troops, enroute to its area of operations and proved to be an ongoing problem for the allied forces. Later, they were used as a staging area for the attack on Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive and their utility was only somewhat restricted after a heavy bombing campaign by B-52’s in 1970.

During the course of the war it is estimated that at least 45,000 Vietnamese died defending the tunnels and after 1975, the Vietnamese government preserved sections of the tunnels and included them in a network of war memorial parks around the country. Today, visiting the Củ Chi tunnels are rated as one of the top five tourist destination activities in Vietnam, with some estimates placing the number of visitors as high as 1000 tourists per day.

There are two different tunnel display sites, Bến Đình and Bến Dược. The tunnels at Bến Dược are smaller attracting fewer visitors than the Bến Đình site which is closer to Ho Chi Minh City and is more popular with the multitude of tour groups offering the Củ Chi ‘experience’. Both tunnel sites offer a somewhat sanitised experience, allowing visitors to crawl around a ‘tourist friendly’ modified section of tunnel, check out displays depicting life for the occupants, boobytraps, weapons, equipment and be subjected to the usual pro-communist version of events. Personally, I think that the visitor parks are somewhat over-rated in terms of education or real historical value, but for a visitor with an interest in the military history of Vietnam they are worth visiting, just to check them out.

It is quite easy to reach the tunnels and there are lots of half-day or full day tours that include the Củ Chi Tunnels on their itineraries. Trip Advisor list several on their website which will give you an idea of what you can expect, however I think that it is best to visit them independently instead of an organised group tour. This can be done by bus or private taxi/driver, which is easily arranged and allows more flexibility with stops and timings.

Some of the organised full-day tours include a visit to the Cao Đài Holy See at Tây Ninh, approximately 96km northwest of HCMC as part of their package tour. Visiting this site is actually the main reason why I have made return visits to the tunnels at Củ Chi as its proximity makes for a good day trip and is worthy of consideration if you are organising your own visit.

The Cao Đài is a Vietnamese religious sect that was founded by a French colonial bureaucrat named Ngô Văn Chiêu and based on a series of messages he received during seances in the early 1920’s. Its doctrine is a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and occultism which deified an unusual mix of figures including Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen. Officially recognised as a religion in 1926, it adopted a clerical organisation structure similar to Roman Catholicism, established its headquarters at Tây Ninh.

In the years following its establishment, the Cao Đài became increasingly active in politics and at its peak, during the French period, had a militia of around 20,000 troops under its command. The French Indochina wars form a large part of my interest in Vietnam and the sect was a major player in the south during the French era.

cao dai illustrated london news 9 june 1951

An article about the Cao Dai from a 1951 edition of the Illustrated London News which talks about the support of their militia in battling the Viet Minh alongside the French.

 

In 1933, the Cao Đài commenced construction of its main cathedral, the Holy See, which is described in Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American as “a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolour.”

Completed in 1955, the temple is a rococo extravaganza that mixes the architectural idiosyncrasies of a French church, Chinese pagoda, Madam Tussaud’s and the Tiger Balm Gardens in Hong Kong. Prayer services are held four times per day, when uniformed priests and laity enter the building to perform their rituals. Visitors are free to enter the balcony section of the temple during these prayers and it is a very colourful spectacle to watch the priests and dignitaries carry out their observances. The best time to visit is just before the midday prayers (held every day except during Tet) and then head on to the tunnels as the second stage of a full day trip.

Cao Dai Holy See-11

An usher takes a nap during the midday prayer service at the Cao Đài Holy See in Tây Ninh. The yellow, blue and red stripes on his armband are the colours of the Cao Đài. Photo: Julian Tennant

In the next few weeks I’ll take a closer look at the Cao Đài’s political and military activities as I begin a series of posts devoted to some of the French Indochina period insignia that I have in my collection.

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

Items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter in the middle of the picture has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges. It was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this period. The Viet Cong badge attached to the lighter was found in one of the tunnels when he was participating in Operation CRIMP in January 1966. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages