Military history is saturated with underdog stories; a few men staring down certain death at the hands of vastly superior forces yet somehow coming out on top. The Spartans, under Leonidas, earned eternal fame at Thermopylae; Hannibal’s Carthaginians ran rings around the Romans at Cannae; and the English, harnessing the potent power of the longbow, redefined the rules of medieval warfare at Crécy and, later, Agincourt. But there’s another, much more recent story, that ranks in the same league but that remarkably few know about: the Battle of Long Tan.
On August 18, 1966—right in the middle of the Vietnam War—Delta Company of the 6th Royal Australian Regiment faced off against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops in the South Vietnamese rubber plantations of Long Tan. The fighting was intense, made even more so by the appalling rainfall that soaked the bloodied ground throughout the entire afternoon. But in the aftermath of the battle, once the Vietnamese forces had retreated and the fog of battle started to clear, the extent of their achievement became apparent: 18 Australians had lost their lives and 24 had been wounded as opposed to at least 245 Viet Cong dead (some put the figure in excess of 500) and an estimated 350 wounded.
The build up to the battle was retaliatory rather than long and drawn out. Australian forces had only been in Vietnam since June the same year. And the hilltop base they’d recently established at Nui Dat in the province of Phuoc Tuy—a Viet Cong stronghold—was always going to present an inviting opportunity for Viet Cong insurgents. In the two nights leading up to the battle, a Viet Cong detachment launched 82 mm mortar and 72 mm recoilless rifle attacks against the Australian base, wounding 24 men (one of whom later died). And as they fell away into the forest, the three platoons of D Company, under the leadership of Major Harry Smith, were sent in pursuit of them.
The first shots were fired in the afternoon of at around 15:00, two hours after the 105 Australians entered the rubber plantations of Long Tan. Between six to eight Vietnamese soldiers—dressed unusually in khaki and carrying Russian Kalashnikovs—wandered into the middle of the Australian patrol. Sergeant Bob Buick shot and wounded one, who was rescued by his comrades and dragged off into the nearby vegetation. With its three platoons stretched across a thin line, D Company then continued its advance. But within twenty minutes of the first encounter, at exactly 16:08, machine gunfire erupted across the plantation, killing three Australians and forcing the rest to ground.