Australian troops entered the Vietnam War with their own counter-insurgency tactics, which they had learned fighting in the jungles of Malaysia during the Malayan Emergency guerrilla war (1948-1960), and this was often in conflict with US concepts of a counter-insurgency war. The 1ATF light infantry tactics such as patrolling, searching villages without destroying them, and ambush and counter ambush drew criticism from some US commanders. General William Westmoreland is reported to have complained to Major General Tim Vincent that 1ATF was not being aggressive enough. By comparison, US forces sought to flush out the enemy and achieve rapid and decisive victory through brazen scrub bashing and the use of massive firepower. Australians acknowledged they had much to learn from the US forces about heliborne assault and joint armor and infantry assaults. However, the Australians seemed to be more effective in fighting deep in the jungle, without the fire power from helicopter gunships, silently organizing ambushes that killed entire companies of Vietcong troops, without suffering heavy casualties. Thus, the US measure of success—the body count—was apparently held in contempt by many 1ATF and battalion commanders. Australian tactics characterized by stealth and surprise, for the Aussies were calm and phlegmatic soldiers.
In 1966 journalist Gerald Stone described tactics then being used by Australian soldiers newly arrived in Vietnam:
“The Australian battalion has been described …as the safest combat force in Vietnam… It is widely felt that the Australians have shown themselves able to give chase to the guerillas without exposing themselves to the lethal ambushes that have claimed so many American dead. Australian patrols avoided jungle tracks and clearings… picking their way carefully and quietly through bamboo thickets and tangled foliage…It is a frustrating experience to trek through the jungle with Australians. Patrols have taken as much as nine hours to sweep a mile of terrain. They move forward a few steps at a time, stop, listen, then proceed again.”
Looking back on ten years of reporting the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, journalist Neil Davis said in 1983, “I was very proud of the Australian troops. They were very professional, very well trained and they fought the people they were sent to fight—the Viet Cong. They tried not to involve civilians and generally there were fewer casualties inflicted by the Australians.” Another perspective on Australian operations was provided by David Hackworth, Vietnam’s most decorated US soldier. “The Aussies used squads to make contact… and brought in reinforcements to do the killing; they planned in the belief that a platoon on the battlefield could do anything.”
For some Viet Cong leaders there was no doubt the Australian jungle warfare approach was effective. One former Viet Cong leader is quoted as saying; “Worse than the Americans were the Australians. The Americans style was to hit us, then call for planes and artillery. Our response was to break contact and disappear if we could… The Australians were more patient than the Americans, better guerilla fighters, better at ambushes. They liked to stay with us instead of calling in the planes. We were more afraid of their style.” However, The American concept of how the war should be fought remained unchallenged and it prevailed almost by default.
The tactics used by the Australian Army in Vietnam were successful. Australian tactics were focused on seeking to engage the Communist forces in battle. Nevertheless, due to political decisions and budgetary limits, the Australians did not devote enough military resources in arms and personnel to disrupting the logistical infrastructure which supported the Communist forces in Phuoc Tuy province and popular support for the Communists remained strong. When 1ATF was withdrawn in 1971, the insurgency in Phuoc Tuy province rapidly expanded.
Australian in Vietnam (footage)