Vietnam: The Complete Story of the Australian War

Vietnam: The Complete Story of the Australian War

by Bruce Davies, Gary McKay

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Vietnam remains one of most controversial and difficult wars that has been fought. On the 50th anniversary of Australia's first involvement comes Vietnam: The Complete Story of the Australian War, for anyone who wishes to understand why Australia went to war, and wants to make sense of the intensely unrelenting warfare. For Bruce Davies and Gary McKay, the history of Vietnam—its wars, colonial domination, its search for freedom, and its subsequent loss—speaks to an Australian anxiety of a very small population far away from the center of an empire to which it was firmly committed. The rise of Japan, the War in the Pacific, and the postcolonial independence of the peoples of Southeast Asia, coupled with the mercurial influence of Ho Chi Minh and the rise of communism, form the background to the commitment of Australian forces. Vietnam takes the reader to the front line, describing the experiences of soldier, politician, villager, enemy; and into the war room to unpick the military and political strategies. We see the challenges the Australians faced against not only a dogged enemy, but also those by the allies in their quest to defeat a powerful counterinsurgency. The authors' new archival research in Australia and America raises questions about the operational performance of both sides, and recently discovered documents shed new light on the enemy's tactical thinking. Meticulously researched and marked with acute critical analysis and a deep understanding of the place and the war, Vietnam shows the experience of Australian soldiers as never before.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781741760705
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 704
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Bruce Davies saw operational service in South Vietnam in part of every year between 1965 and 1970. He served with 1 RAR, an Australian Infantry Battalion and then twice with AATTV as an advisor with ARVN infantry in I Corps and the Mike Force in Pleiku. He was mentioned in Despatches in 1970 and received a Commendation for Distinguished Service in Vietnam in the End of War List. Bruce has several foreign awards for valor and service in Vietnam. In 1977, Bruce was appointed a Member of the British Empire for his military service. He is the coauthor of The Men Who Persevered, with Gary McKay, and author of The Battle at Ngok Tavak. Gary McKay was a national serviceman who served in South Vietnam as a rifle platoon commander with 4 RAR in 1971. He was seriously wounded in the last major engagement by Australians in the war, where he was also awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. He became a career officer in the Australian Army after the war, serving for 30 years.

Read an Excerpt


The Complete Story of the Australian War

By Bruce Davies, Gary McKay

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2012 Bruce Davies and Gary McKay
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74176-070-5



Two men are talking in a bar after the 9/11 attacks on America in 2001.

'This is just like Pearl Harbor,' says one. 'What is Pearl Harbor?' says the other. 'That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbour and it started the Vietnam War,' comes the reply.

Attributed to Susan Jacoby, commenting on why history is important

Dragons and elephants

Fifty male descendants of the water-dragon king and a supernatural mother, who had laid 100 eggs in the terrestrial highlands, followed their father to the river delta where they established a cantonment. The mother, Au Co, kept the other 50 sons in the high plateaux, where fable tells us that they formed ethnic tribes. Montagnards? Perhaps. The dragon king shielded his sons from the hordes in the north and his protective barriers — caused by the fire of his tongues — remain evident in the geographic forms of Ha Long Bay, the Mekong Delta and the S-shape of current-day Vietnam. In 1960, excavations at the Dong-son archaeological site south of Hanoi, near the current city of Thanh Hoa, unearthed pieces of pottery which supported the legend that an early kingdom existed in the Red River Delta (in the north of modern-day Vietnam). It was here that the peoples thought to be a homogeneous grouping formed from the mixing of early adventurers from Indonesia, Thai and Mongol stock cleared the lands and took up Chinese methods of agriculture, governance and religion. They were known as 'Viets'.

With the decline of the Chinese Qin Empire to which the Viets had submitted during one of that empire's expeditions, the Viet province was conquered by disaffected Qin generals and named 'Nam Viet', the 'Viets of the South'. After a Chinese civil war in 210 BCE, the Chinese Han pushed the Viets out of the southern Chinese land known as Kwang Tung into an enclave which remained a Chinese colony for almost a thousand years. There were rebellions, one of the most celebrated being that in which the Viet Trung sisters led a series of sieges against a lazy and careless Chinese force which had not fought a battle in Nam Viet for 150 years. Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were decreed queens for three years between 40 and 43 AD. The Chinese reaction was venomous. The Trung army was routed and the sisters committed suicide by drowning in the Day River. Two further uprisings, one in 248 and another between 544 and 547, were crushed. Under the powerful Chinese Tang Dynasty (618–907), Vietnam became known as 'Annam, the Pacified South', a derogatory term denoting subjugation for the Viets. Strong Chinese garrisons were deployed to keep the contemptuous natives in check while Chinese administrators continued the Han policies of assimilation through education, religion and the use of the Chinese writing script. The language, however, remained Vietnamese. Development in the Red River Delta also expanded as the population increased, with emigrants coming from the central provinces of China. Vietnam was 'Sino-cised' and this overwhelming Chinese influence appeared to suffocate Viet culture.

Although Chinese culture permeated Annamese society, it was not China. Despite the long and strong cultural links between the two, the Vietnamese fought the Chinese over the centuries for an independence that perversely required the approval of the Chinese Court. When the power of the vast Chinese Empire fractured, the Vietnamese took control of their own Red River Delta state in 940. Now the Vietnamese began to fight among themselves. Petty local chieftains fought each other until Dinh Bo Linh won out and proclaimed himself emperor of the Dinh Dynasty that lasted from 968 to 980. Relations with China were bound through customary tributary payments. However, one of Dinh's generals threw him out of office and it was not until around 1009 that the stable Ly Dynasty was established. Although Emperor Ly continually looked over his shoulder at the northern hordes with suspicion, his new state started to develop. Once the habitat of 'wild beasts and crocodiles', this land 'that consisted mostly of swamps and forests' became a new agricultural centre. The Ly Dynasty was to 'provide the new state with public revenues, with an army and with an administrative service, while the draining and settlement of the Red River Delta was completed, dykes constructed, and the capital moved to Thang Long (Hanoi)'.

That fiefdom — known as 'Dai Viet' — was no more than a small heel print at the northern end of a 1650-kilometre-long, S-shaped area of land, which at its narrowest point was no more than 50 kilometres wide. To the east was the sea, to the west formidable mountains, some of them 3000 metres high, and to the south were the Chams, a people thought to be of Indonesian stock but heavily influenced by Indian culture. A further attempt by the Chinese to invade the Red River region was defeated and the Vietnamese expanded their coastal redoubt to the vicinity of the 17th parallel. This delimitation was to come to the fore again in 1954 at Geneva, where the Chinese exercised old-fashioned suzerainty over their former subjects and 'advised' the Vietnamese to draw a line across their country against the modern colonialists at that spot.

In the 13th century the Ly Dynasty fell to the Tran, and Mongol armies attacked the Red River enclave three times between 1254 and 1287. They were defeated because of a lack of supplies, sickness and attacks by the Vietnamese Army. The Chinese tried again in 1406, and were finally defeated in 1427 by an army led by Le Loi, a wealthy landowner. Le Loi immediately despatched an emissary to pay homage to the Chinese Emperor. He then resumed tribute payments in the hope of discouraging any future Chinese invasion and the Vietnamese Army was reduced to 100,000 men. Le Loi also recognised that Annam remained culturally dependent upon China.

The next few hundred years were pivotal centuries in the formation of the region that was to become Indochina. The Funanese — Indian seafarers — had established a trading state in the Mekong Delta, probably around the beginning of the Christian Era. The Chams centred their kingdom on Fai Fo, modern-day Hoi An. The Southern Khmers (Cambodians) had a thriving society along the Mekong River and Tonlé Sap that extended southeast into lands near Prey Kor (pre-Saigon). Siamese (Thai) and Lao chieftains also made efforts to extend their frontiers, generally at the expense of the Cambodians, although they were involved in clashes with the Vietnamese as well.

This was a war cauldron that boiled and bubbled from China in the far north to the swamps of the Cau Mau Peninsula in the Gulf of Siam (Thailand). Funan disappeared, but the Southern Khmers survived for the time being. 'What happened next' — historian and war correspondent Bernard Fall wrote — 'was as thorough a job of genocide as any modern totalitarian state could have devised'. Historian Donald Lancaster agreed: the Vietnamese 'engaged in a succession of wars which ended in the annexation of the Cham kingdom and the destruction of the Cham race'. The recorded mid-15th century conquest of the Champa centre at Vijaya (Binh Dinh) is also evidence of Vietnamese expansion without assimilation. According to accounts by scholars Jean Chesneaux and Georges Maspero, between 40,000 and 60,000 Chams were massacred there when they could not escape the attacking Vietnamese army.

The Vietnamese dynasty then imploded. Success in battle and annexation of enemy territory inversely affected the morals and competence of the Vietnamese monarchs. General Mac Dang Dung usurped the throne. The Chinese Emperor was not happy about this, 'but doubts about the legitimacy of the [Mac] dynasty were finally laid at rest, after the distribution of bribes, cession of certain frontier districts, and ... the usurper to accept the rank of "Governor" instead of ... "Vassal King"'. Despite his title, the local populace was reluctant to kowtow to the new governor and revolution followed, splitting the Vietnamese kingdom into two major territories divided in the vicinity of the 17th parallel at Dong Hoi. The Nguyen family led those who moved south while the Trinh held sway in the northern Red River Delta. Both sides then prepared for battle.

The Mac had made themselves unpleasant in the Cao Bang region, a natural fortress of jungle and mountains in the far northwest, with the assistance of the Chinese. This activity sapped the military power of the Trinh. Something very similar was to happen around 275 years later when a new tribe, the French, ventured there.

The mutually ruinous battles between the Trinh and the Nguyen continued for 50 years. After seven failed attacks upon the Nguyen fortifications, the last one being in 1673, the Trinh gave up their efforts and a truce prevailed. The Trinh then concentrated on their northern realm, occasionally attacking Laos. The Mac were defeated and the Trinh and the Nguyen continued to bang their drums and threaten the elephants and the infantry of the other with the help of their Dutch (Trinh) and Portuguese (Nguyen) advisers who had arrived in the early 1600s. The line of fortifications built at Dong Hoi by the Nguyen held them apart during their 100-year 'truce', but the power of the Portuguese artillery probably helped as well. This stalemate was unfortunate for the other peoples who remained in the coastal lowlands, the land the Vietnamese preferred. They did not like the highlands: the jungle was cold and wet, and the savages (Montagnards) who lived there frightened them. The savages were a useful barrier against the Lao, the Khmer and the Siamese. This allowed the Nguyen to turn their attention south, away from the provinces of Quang Tri, Thua Thien and Quang Nam. With the paddy fields of the Chams now in their possession, they looked covetously at the Mekong Delta.

Thrusting the Khmers aside, the Vietnamese moved south towards the Gulf of Siam. By the 1750s, Cambodian provinces in the Mekong Delta region surrendered to — 'were colonized by' is a polite term — the Vietnamese in less than pleasant circumstances. Khmer (Cambodian) land in an arc that reached to Tonlé Sap was temporarily annexed in the early part of the 19th century, an annexation that was only stopped by war between Siam and Vietnam. This created a continuing enmity between Cambodia and Vietnam, as Vietnamese Lieutenant General Lam Quang Thi recorded in 1953 when, as a lieutenant, he was to take command of the 3rd Battery, 1st Vietnamese Artillery Battalion. The battalion was moving from Can Tho in southern Vietnam to Laos via Cambodia, a trip that took five days.

Surprisingly, we were neither harassed nor attacked by the Viet Minh ... [Communist-led, anti-French organisation] however, a regrettable incident took place at Kratie, located on the Mekong River. Some Cambodian officers, learning that we were a Vietnamese artillery unit, wanted to encircle and attack our battery. Obviously, they were upset that a unit of the Vietnamese Army, their historic enemy [emphasised], had entered their country without authorization, and, for them, this was equivalent to an act of war.

The European religion and more war

The early European sailing ships brought not only merchant adventurers and foreign military to Vietnam but Jesuit missionaries who had been expelled from Japan. The religious proselytisers of Catholicism established their first mission in 1616 at Fai Fo (Hoi An). Ten years later, Alexandre de Rhodes, a Frenchman and a father in the Jesuit domain of the Superior of the Order located in Macao, was sent to Hanoi. To make matters difficult for the missionaries, the ladies of the Vietnamese Court in the north expressed their misgivings about the Christian belief in monogamous marriages. Court officials were also displeased by the clash of precepts between Catholicism and Confucianism.

Soon after Rhodes was deported from Tonkin in 1645, he went to France in an attempt to raise funds for the protection of the clergymen in a land called Cochin China. This appealed to the French, as such religious matters were controlled by the duopoly enjoyed by the Portuguese and the Spanish. Money was raised, but approval was not given for the appointment of vicars 'and the maintenance of their dignity' until 1658. Rhodes died in 1660, but his translation of the Vietnamese language into Romanised script lived on. Even though there was a lack of money for religious expeditions and 'in spite of recurrent and on occasion severe persecution, the Vietnamese Christian community was estimated by the middle of the [18th] century to number 300,000'. The French had won control from the Portuguese over the Catholic missionaries, a decision that was to have ramifications far beyond the 18th century.

Another war, the Tay Son revolt, began in 1773. Military forces led by three brothers who had changed their family name from 'Ho' to the more esteemed 'Nguyen' came down from the foothills in the central region of the future South Vietnam and captured Qui Nhon, a pleasant seaside village with a naturally protected harbour that would be valuable in another war, many years hence. Tay Son was a canton centred on Binh Khe located on the eastern lowland side of the Central Highlands along modern-day Route 19, which connected the coast to Pleiku via An Khe.

The Trinh invaded from the north and captured Hue, while the Tay Son Nguyen and the ruling Nguyen Dynasty fought each other for control of the southern regions. The Tay Son Nguyen were victorious and then took the battle to the northern Trinh, defeating them, too. After this victory, Nguyen Hue from Tay Son declared himself emperor. That forced Nguyen Anh — the survivor of the vanquished ruling Nguyen Dynasty — to hide out in the swamps of the Cau Mau Peninsula and in the Gulf of Siam, where Monsignor Pigneau de Behaine, the French Apostolic Vicar, protected him. This meeting changed the future of the region. Although the monsignor had been based in Pondichery, in India, within the French settlements, he had moved to Ha Tien, in what is now the extreme southwestern corner of Vietnam. Following some shenanigan between the vicar, the French governor-general of their Indian settlements and the Court of Louis XVI of France, de Behaine believed that he had the French Court's approval to restore Nguyen Anh to the throne.

That did not happen because a bankrupt French government advised its military commander he need not continue if he thought an expedition impracticable. Not to be deterred, de Behaine gathered about 100 French volunteers to train the army and navy of Nguyen Anh. The volunteers then marched north and captured Hue. Following this victory, Nguyen Anh named himself 'Gia Long' — a combination of 'Gia Dinh' meaning 'Saigon' and 'Thanh Long' meaning 'Hanoi'. In 1801, he was emperor of a united land from Saigon to Hanoi. Gia Long immediately sent an envoy to China to request he be granted the title 'Vassal King'. This was approved and the capital was moved to Hue where the Citadel sits today. In 1802, Gia Long named his kingdom 'Viet Nam'. In an historical context, the Vietnamese takeover of the lands south of the 17th parallel was still underway when the first English colony of what was to become the United States of America was established in Virginia in 1607, when Lieutenant James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia in 1770 for the British, and in 1789 when the French Revolution began.

De Behaine failed in his efforts to have a Catholic invested as the leader of the Vietnamese and died in 1799. He would have been appalled when Minh Mang, Gia Long's son, decreed that 'the perverse religion of the Europeans corrupts the heart of man'. Minh Mang later demanded that all Catholic churches be destroyed, as Christianity was a crime that deserved the death penalty. This caused a few skirmishes between some Vietnamese Catholics in the south and the central government. The Catholics were defeated. The country, except the city of Danang (French Tourane), was closed to Europeans.

In 1858, the Treaty of Tientsin probably had an unintended effect upon Vietnam's fortunes. The end of the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars freed up French and Spanish troops, more accurately Filipinos, commanded by Spanish officers, to return to Vietnam with a mission of establishing a base there. After an unsuccessful occupation of Danang, the French commander moved his force to Saigon from where he could control the large rice harvest in the Mekong Delta. Although this move was successful, the Vietnamese put Saigon to the siege but they were overwhelmed by French reinforcements. Subsequently the military power of the French coerced the Vietnamese Court at Hue to cede administrative power to them in 1862. After that, Vietnam was broken into three regions: Cochin China, soon to be a French colony, in the south; Annam in the middle; and Tonkin to the north. Annam and Tonkin became protectorates of France.


Excerpted from Vietnam by Bruce Davies, Gary McKay. Copyright © 2012 Bruce Davies and Gary McKay. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of maps,
Chapter 1 In the beginning,
Chapter 2 Difficult decisions, 1960–1965,
Chapter 3 More than guerrilla warfare, 1965–1966,
Chapter 4 To Long Tan and its aftermath, 1966,
Chapter 5 A year of many questions, 1967,
Chapter 6 The deadliest year, 1968,
Chapter 7 The beginning of the end: Vietnamisation, 1969–1970,
Chapter 8 Inevitable withdrawal, 1970–1972,
Chapter 9 An inglorious end,
Glossary of terms and acronyms,

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