50th anniversary of Battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of Australia’s involvement in the Battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral in the Vietnam War.

The Battles have been described as Australia’s costliest and most protracted of the war and veterans from all over the country will be meeting in Canberra on 13 May to attend a national service.

Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War began in 1962 with the introduction of military trainers whose role was to instruct South Vietnamese troops.

Over the following years, Australia’s commitment to the war grew first to a battalion and then to a task force. In 1968, elements of the Australian task force established Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral in the vicinity of routes used by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Forces to attack and then depart Saigon, the southern capital now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

A 54-ton Centurion tank pictured right with a soldier seated on top while another soldier middle plays with a group of children

A 54-ton Centurion tank arrives at a village en route to Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral in north-west Bien Hoa Province. During a break, the crew of the tank spared time to speak with some of the local Vietnamese children (AWM ERR/68/0545/VN).

One of the soldiers who served through the Coral Balmoral fighting was Neil Weekes. Neil died almost two years ago and is fondly remembered by his colleagues, friends and family. In an interview before his death, Neil spoke in detail about his experience commanding a platoon in Vietnam during the Battles of Coral and Balmoral.

This is his story.

Neil Weekes was a young schoolteacher when his country called him up for national service.

“I wasn’t of the view that ‘one in all in’. And my marble had come out (in the national service ballot), that was the luck of the draw and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do my bit’.”

He was trained as an officer and sent to Vietnam. It was a bit of a shock.

“The ox carts and the little Lambrettas all getting around with fifteen or sixteen people hanging off at all angles, the smells. Never knowing who was the enemy because everyone wore a conical hat and everyone dressed in black and we were taught that anyone in black and wearing this hat was a possible enemy and yeah. It was mind-boggling, to say the least.”

As a platoon commander, Neil led his men on numerous patrols. Then came the Battles of Coral and Balmoral.

“The Battle of Coral/Balmoral during the 12th of May to the 6th of June, 1968, was by far Australia’s largest, longest, bloodiest battle involving more soldiers of both forces, Australian and enemy, and suffering more casualties than any other battle of the Vietnam War.”

Coral and Balmoral were fire support bases – bases to which artillery and sometimes armour were deployed to support infantry patrols in areas removed from the Task Force base at Nui Dat. Neil’s platoon was part of the battalion sent to establish Coral, but the operation began badly.

Four soldiers pictured in the foreground sitting and standing amongst trees and brush and a tank pictured in the background with two soldiers on top

Battle weary soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), `mop up' in a heavily wooded area after bitter fighting with an estimated two battalions of North Vietnamese troops at Fire Support Base (FSB) Balmoral, about twenty five miles north of Saigon (AWM CRO/68/0577/VN).

“When the first infantry arrived, they were met by Americans who said, ‘Hey, listen, you won’t have to go looking for the enemy, they’ll come looking for you.’ There were burnt out hulks of APCs in the area. The Americans had just been in big, heavy contact. But no one changed the plans. The plans were made and the plans were stuck to, regardless of the changing tactical situation in the field.”

Arriving in a piecemeal fashion with the last troops reaching Coral very late in the day, the Australians had no time to organise their defences as thoroughly as they would have liked. That night, the North Vietnamese Army attacked.

“This is not just a little attack. This is mortars, this is rocket fire this is heavy, heavy machine gun fire; a lot of small arms fire, two Huey helicopters and a Cobra helicopter going in and firing rockets, there was a ‘Spooky’ which is a DC3 with Gatling gun firing; there was a great deal of firing and we knew that the fire support base was in dire trouble.”

Though some Australian positions, including an artillery piece were overrun, the enemy were forced to withdraw. Nine Australians lost their lives and 28 were wounded. Over 50 the North Vietnamese soldiers were killed. A few days later the base was attacked again and though the Australians were better prepared to meet the assault, Neil Weekes still found the defences inadequate. 

“No defence wire comes in, no defence stores come in, no sandbags come in, no extra shovels or picks to dig the holes that we want to get right down so you’re looking out of a fire pit. Nothing like that comes in, so we’re now at last light. One roll of concertina wire. One roll of concertina wire. It goes for about 15 metres. That is the only defensive store I had in front of my platoon. Besides my Claymore mines.”

“And by the way we had no protection. Like the soldiers have nowadays. They go out into battle and they wear bulletproof vests. The only bulletproof vest we had was a green khaki shirt. We had no helmets; we had little, floppy hats and shirts.

A portrait of a veteran speaking at a stand

Neil Weekes speaking in Townsville in 2016

“At roundabout two thirty (in the morning), all hell broke loose. And we were suddenly under very heavy attack. You can’t imagine the sound of battle. You’ve got big explosions which are enemy mortars, you’ve got the artillery now just behind us, they’re starting to fire. The mortars are firing; we’ve got artillery coming in from Tan Uyen, the big American guns. It is horrendous. You can’t yell, you can’t scream.

“You’ve either got to get right up beside a guy and give him the word of command and even then you’re screaming your lungs out. I try to plug the hole with artillery fire, calling it in very close, ‘danger close’ as they call it, 25 metres out, and I move it left to right, forward and back. At this stage there was a danger that the whole battalion could be overrun. Had the enemy come through that gap and had we not blocked them through that gap, had they been able to regroup and come through that gap, they’d have taken out the whole battalion. We’d have lost 700 men.

“I had to counter-attack and take that position back. By the way the enemy are very close at this stage. We’re shooting enemy from here to you away. It wasn’t until roundabout 10 o’clock that morning that we secured the fire support base. By that time, we’d had a Sioux helicopter up in the air saying the enemy are out here in their hundreds, pulling their dead and wounded away. I had seen quite a few enemy dead by then.

“And you, again, how to say this without seeming to be some horrible beast. You couldn’t really look at them as fellow human beings. It would have turned you mad. This guy was going to kill me; he’s dead, get on with the war. But seeing your own dead, the guys that you knew, you’d trained with them. And then we have a company service. Padre, prayers. We have a battalion service after that. The whole battalion gets together. And we go through playing of The Last Post, a minute’s silence, The Ode… and then the war goes on.”

Neil was awarded the Military Cross for his courageous leadership that night.

The full interview can be view below.