In September 1971, just weeks before they were due to leave for home, soldiers of the Australian Task Force fought their last battle of the Vietnam War. In what became known as the Battle of Nui Le, 24 soldiers were wounded and five were killed – they were the last Australians to die in combat in Vietnam.

33 NVA Regiment was the most dangerous enemy force confronting the Australians. The North Vietnamese soldiers, said intelligence officer Captain R. L. Sayce, “planned well, carried out detailed reconnaissance and moved carefully. They were past masters at laying out ambushes . . . They employed snipers from tree tops, built well-sited, solid bunkers and cut effective fire lanes. They were generally well disciplined, making little noise during movement or while in camp, and strictly adhered to the doctrine of always carrying out their wounded and dead after a contact if possible.”

33 NVA Regiment was the only enemy main force formation in the general area capable of militarily exploiting the Australian withdrawal from Phuoc Tuy — and this they were apparently directed to do. In mid-September 1971, signals intelligence indicated that 33 NVA Regiment was moving from southern Long Khanh into the northern part of Phuoc Tuy.

The threat materialised quickly. Task force commander Brigadier Bruce McDonald knew his force had to respond. He believed it was even more essential now to keep enemy forces at a distance and prevent them establishing themselves in the province, perhaps inviting the risk of ambush or surprise attack on increasingly vulnerable targets. But, he said, it was “a difficult decision for me . . . to commit most of the elements of the task force, including 3RAR, which at that stage was less than a fortnight away from going home”.

On September 19, the task force mounted Operation Ivanhoe, a search-and-destroy sweep of the area south of the Courtenay rubber plantation. Battalions deployed into the central northern border region, supported by APCs (armoured personnel carriers), artillery and engineers — although conspicuously lacking the fire support of the tanks, which had left Vung Tau five days earlier.

As the rifle companies of 4th Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment (4RAR/NZ) searched the jungle, they soon came across signs that hundreds of enemy were using the muddy foot tracks. Numerous sawn logs and concealed tree stumps also indicated recent bunker construction. “Things started to look decidedly spooky,” recalled Second Lieutenant Gary McKay, commanding 11 Platoon. Major Jerry Taylor, commanding D Company, remembered: “There was an uneasy feeling throughout the battalion . . . a sense of foreboding.”

In the early afternoon of September 20, 11 Platoon, D Company had the first contact when they encountered a party of 15 enemy on a track 1km northeast of Nui Sao. The platoon opened fire and the enemy reacted instantly and aggressively, mirroring the combat drills of the Australians and returning fire with automatic weapons. The Australians killed two in the brief firefight, without incurring casualties themselves. Lance Corporal Warren Dowell, commanding the support section of D Company headquarters, recalled that by the evening of the first day of the operation, the enemy had already “showed they were looking for a fight”.

Platoons of B and D Companies harboured in their separate defensive positions overnight and began searching early on the morning of September 21. By late afternoon, B Company was concentrating into a secure night defensive position where platoons could receive a helicopter re-supply of ammunition and evacuate their casualties.

Meanwhile, 4km to the northeast, D Company’s search had run into heavy opposition. At about 9am, while following a track, 12 Platoon came under heavy fire from an enemy bunker just 10m away. RPG rounds killed machine-gunner Private “Jimmy” Duff instantly and wounded two others, including platoon commander Second Lieutenant Graham Spinkston. Private Colin Kemp crawled forward and tried repeatedly to retrieve Duff’s body under intense fire until he was ordered to withdraw.

With the forward section pinned down, artillery and then air fire support was called in while other platoons moved in closer to assist. As 11 Platoon approached, they encountered another enemy group and after a brief firefight drove them off. The platoon continued to repel repeated attacks over the next two hours. With the enemy attempting to outflank their position, 11 Platoon was running short of ammunition when 4RAR/NZ CO Lieutenant Colonel J. C. “Jim” Hughes dropped supplies to them from his observation helicopter.

From the air, it appeared that D Company had struck the western edge of a large bunker system. Major Taylor ordered his platoons to hold their positions while air and artillery fire support was called in. American forces quickly provided massive air support, employing 30 aircraft.

While air strikes and artillery constantly pounded the enemy positions, 11 Platoon closed with the main group and Major Taylor was able to concentrate his company. His plan was to attack through the bunker system if the enemy started to withdraw. At about 3pm, after four hours of intense bombardment, pilots reported that large numbers of enemy were pulling out from the bunker complex and moving northwards. Taylor called his platoon commanders together and told them the company would be assaulting the bunker system. They were not expected to encounter heavy opposition as the enemy was reportedly fleeing. Soldiers were issued with extra ammunition and grenades and the platoons moved forward and “shook out” into a “two-up” assault formation with two platoons in the lead.

At 3.40pm, D Company attacked. Within 10 minutes, after moving just 50m into the system, 11 Platoon was hit by heavy fire from the front and flanks. The forward section was struck by ferocious machine-gun and small arms fire. The enemy were well dug in and had prepared wide fire lanes; they also displayed excellent fire control, aiming for areas from which commands were shouted and concentrating their fire on D Company’s automatic weapons. Four soldiers — the two leading machine-gun teams — were hit in the initial bursts of fire. Privates Brian Beilken and Rod Sprigg were both killed immediately and fell just 15m from the nearest bunkers; machine-gunner Private Ralph Niblett was badly wounded in the chest. Moments later, as Private Keith Kingston-Powles attempted to bring his machine-gun into action, he too was hit and killed.

The attack quickly stalled. Pinned down, soldiers lacked retaliatory fire power. Without the close support of tanks, or even M72 rocket launchers which had been withdrawn due to malfunctions, they had nothing more than their rifles, M79 grenade launchers and machine-guns, two of which were now out of action. “We were caught right in the middle of their fire lanes and to move any further forward would have meant more casualties,” recalled Second Lieutenant McKay. “We’d have given anything just then to have had the tanks back, but they’d been shipped home.”

National serviceman Private K. G. “Fred” Casson, the last surviving rifleman in the section, crawled forward into the fire lane in which the casualties were laying and checked that each of them was dead. He then retrieved the M60 machine-gun from under one of the bodies, gathered belts of linked ammunition and crawled back. Casson was later mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. McKay also moved forward, steadying his men, and recovered the other machine-gun. He then used it to engage the enemy who appeared to be attempting to outflank them and to cover the withdrawal of the remainder of his section.

Platoon Sergeant Daryl Jenkin, although wounded himself, organised other members of the platoon to provide fire support. As they pulled back, soldiers were ordered to abandon their heavy packs and leave their three dead comrades behind — the enemy fire was too intense to risk more lives in an attempt to extract the bodies.

The platoon withdrew, followed by the rest of the company. The company re-grouped and organised the evacuation of wounded soldiers by dustoff helicopters. Despite the efforts of company medic Corporal O’Sullivan, Private Niblett died during the evacuation, 30 minutes after he was wounded. Meanwhile, enemy groups had left their bunkers and followed up behind the withdrawing troops. Staying close to avoid the air and artillery fire support, mobile parties of NVA now began to fire on the company flanks. The enemy also took advantage of the jungle canopy and high ground to pour automatic weapons fire at the supporting helicopter gunships and control aircraft.

At 6.15pm, in fading light, Major Taylor ordered his company to break contact and begin pulling back 400m south to form a secure night harbour position. Napalm would then be brought in on their present position. Almost immediately, the enemy again began following up. Platoons went to ground and a fierce firefight followed in which several enemy were seen to be hit. It was soon apparent that the southern perimeter established by the company had also run up against another bunker system. “We were in contact all the way around,” recalled Corporal Warren Dowell, commanding the support section, “So while they were fighting to the company’s rear, 11 Platoon and 12 Platoon were trying to extract themselves from the system.” The enemy were also directing fire into the company’s night defensive position from an observation post 10m up in a tree. “In the end we didn’t extract ourselves — we had to stay because it was last light and we couldn’t move,” said Dowell.

D Company, now reduced to some 85 men, was in a rough, defensive circle, approximately 35m across. Soldiers lacked even shell scrapes for protection. They were running low of ammunition and were under fire from a strong and aggressive enemy force which had virtually surrounded them. “We had them all around us,” Dowell recalled, “but we did get back into a semblance of all-round defence.” Platoons linked up and “our spirits lifted once we were all together”.

The enemy continued harassing fire into the company’s position until well after last light. D Company’s flow of messages to the battalion command post at Courtenay Hill conveyed the vulnerability of their position:

6.51pm. We are completely surrounded and we need more ammo.

6.58pm. I want every available support, the enemy are getting bad.

7.03pm. Every time we move, they fire. We are lying flat . . . Can’t accept Iroquois (helicopters) — too dangerous.

Crouching under enemy fire and unable to read his map in the darkness, Lieutenant Gregory Gilbert, D Company’s forward observer, had to recall his grid references and mentally calculate distances and angles to call in close artillery fire. Gilbert “walked” the fire in to within 100m of the perimeter. The enemy continued to fire RPGs and small arms and throw grenades into the position; but on Taylor’s command, the soldiers of D Company held their fire to conserve their ammunition. Meanwhile, the artillery rounds took effect and forced the enemy to pull back. As darkness descended the enemy fire grew erratic and finally ceased.

In a sudden burst of fire shortly after 9pm, Second Lieutenant McKay was hit by a sniper in a tree. In pain and bleeding profusely, he hung on during the night, unable to be evacuated by dustoff helicopter until morning. He was later awarded the Military Cross for his outstanding bravery and leadership throughout the action.

As the enemy activity began to subside and things began to go quiet, it was unsettling, recalled Corporal Dowell, because soldiers could not be sure the enemy would not attack again. The Australians dropped their artillery support back, but “we put in a very, very long night. There were wounded within our position that had to stay there because they couldn’t get them out.”

At first light the next morning D Company sent out clearing patrols. They found one dead NVA soldier, armed with a loaded RPG2, some heavy drag marks and blood trails. But the enemy had withdrawn during the night leaving few other traces.

The New Zealanders of V Company moved up to reinforce D Company and on September 23 the two companies moved back into the area of the bunkers.

In torrential rain, they recovered the abandoned packs and the bodies of the three Australian soldiers killed two days earlier. V Company cleared a track to a helicopter winch point and the New Zealand riflemen shouldered arms and formed an impromptu “guard of honour” in tribute as the litters passed.

The fighting left its mark on the battalion. In the 14-hour-long engagement, Australian losses were five killed and 24 wounded, including three platoon commanders. Enemy losses amounted to nine killed and an unknown number wounded. The five soldiers who died were not only the battalion’s last deaths on the tour but the last Australian soldiers to die in combat in Vietnam.

There was some bitterness among soldiers over their casualties and at the government’s decision to withdraw the tanks before the end of combat operations. A soldier of 4RAR/NZ later complained: “The army should have never, ever withdrawn the armour before they pulled us out of the bush — we wouldn’t have lost the same amount of blokes killed as we did and I think we would have got a lot more of them.”

Some commanders believed the engagement, although inconclusive, had “bloodied the noses” of the communist forces and deterred them from any further aggressive action during the final stages of the Australian withdrawal. But the heavy Australian casualties led others to question whether the sacrifice of soldiers had resulted in any advantages at this stage of the war. Survivors felt they were lucky to escape a heavy mauling by the well trained and equipped NVA regiment. Major Taylor believed it had been “a near thing”: D Company attacked, withdrew and defended and “came closer to potential annihilation as any Australian sub-unit had since Long Tan”, he said.

Deputy opposition leader Lance Barnard argued in parliament that the “tragic encounter” had “exposed as an illusion” the government’s claim that Phuoc Tuy province was secure and that the task force could be safely withdrawn; it also revealed that the task force was still actively seeking out enemy main forces in search-and-destroy operations. If the task force, with its reduced strength and capability, continued to seek out enemy units and engage them, more heavy casualties could be expected. All these problems, he said, stemmed from the government’s decision to withdraw the task force “piecemeal” in stages over the past year; this had clearly not achieved the aim of allowing the territorial forces to develop and take over control of the province and the protracted withdrawal had signalled task force intentions to the enemy.

The reality was not lost on perceptive commentators. The Australian military effort in Phuoc Tuy “deserves more credit than it has been given or is likely to get”, wrote Creighton Burns of the Melbourne Age, as the withdrawal began. With limited troops and inadequate support and resources, the Australian task force had kept substantial Viet Cong forces off balance, disrupted their supply routes and occasionally inflicted heavy casualties on them.

But “the Australians never did manage to clear the Viet Cong cadres out of the villages”, a task for which they were not properly equipped and which was the responsibility of local South Vietnamese.

Yet the government “still insists on maintaining the myth that Phuoc Tuy is a model of counter-insurgency security”, Burns noted. There was a strong likelihood that after the Australians left, the province would “slowly revert to apathetic acceptance of Viet Cong control”. In the meantime, Australians should be asking why their soldiers had been sent to Vietnam in the first place, what difference their presence had made, what Australia had gained from its military involvement, and whether the loss of over 400 Australian dead and over 2000 wounded had “the slightest influence on the course of the war”.

Fighting to the FinishThis is an edited extract from Fighting to the Finish: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War, 1968-1975, by Ashley Ekins with Ian McNeill (published by Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1184pp, $100 HB), available in all bookstores. Fighting to the Finish was officially launched at the Australian War Memorial by General Peter Cosgrove.