Section 6: Anniversaries

This year, 2015, is the 100th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli and this as well as the subsequent campaign will overwhelmingly be the focus of anniversary commemorations this year.

Balikpapan, 1 July 1945

While the anniversary of Gallipoli occupies the focus of Australians on Anzac Day, 2015 also marks the anniversary of another, lesser-known Australian amphibious operation.  On 1 July 1945, over 21,000 men of the 7th Australian Division and 2,000 Royal Australian Air Force personnel, supported by US and Dutch contingents, launched what remains the largest amphibious assault in Australian military history when they put ashore at Balikpapan, Borneo.

By this stage of the war, the Japanese were incapable of mounting serious naval or airborne resistance, though any attempt to land at Balikpapan was expected to provoke a fierce counter-attack by Japanese land forces. In order to mitigate such opposition, the landings were preceded by a large air and naval bombardment which lasted for two weeks. As a result, troops of the 18th and 21st brigades went ashore without encountering any resistance.

As allied forces moved inland they encountered pockets of heavy Japanese resistance, but given the allies’ advantages in air and naval support and numbers, the final result was never in doubt.  Nevertheless, 229 Australians died in the campaign to take Balikpapan and another 634 were wounded.  The Japanese suffered even more heavily, losing at least 1,783 men.

Like Gallipoli, the campaign to take Balikpapan was controversial. Although today the Royal Australian Navy cites it as an example of ‘professionally planned and executed operations that achieved their strategic objectives’, critics have argued that there was no pressing military need to attack Balikpapan. 

Further reading:

N Wheate and G Gilbert, Borneo 1945—an amphibious success story, Royal Australian Navy, website, undated.

Australia’s War 1939–1945: The Landings Borneo,

J Coates, The Borneo campaign, in The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, 2nd edn., Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 2008..

Balikpapan, Digger History, website.

C Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians fought: the encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1998, pp. 254–255.

Gang Toi, 8 November 1965

The first set-piece contact between troops of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) and Viet Cong forces took place on 8 November 1965.  Working alongside the US 173rd Airborne Brigade, 1 RAR launched a routine search-and-destroy operation close to the Dong Nai River. Unknown to 1 RAR, this area was defended by the Viet Cong 271st Main Force Regiment and was the location of an enemy headquarters set up to coordinate the defence of the region. This base was located on top of the Gang Toi hills which formed part of 1 RAR’s objective.

1 RAR set out on 5 November and engaged in some minor skirmishes with Viet Cong troops. On 8 November, the unit was ordered to head to a rendezvous point from which it would be withdrawn the following day.  Unfortunately 1 RAR followed a route that cut across the northern edge of the hills. They encountered minor enemy opposition as they ascended, until at 4.30pm they took fire from concealed bunkers. Under fire from machine guns, rifles and grenades, the Australians sustained one casualty and four wounded in the opening minutes of the encounter. 

Finding themselves pinned down, the Australians attempted to push forward, losing one machine-gunner.  Deciding to withdraw under covering artillery fire directed by a New Zealand observer accompanying the unit, the Australians suffered no further losses. The battle lasted for two hours and resulted in the deaths of two Australians. The bodies of these soldiers were finally repatriated in 2007.


Further reading:

The Australian War Memorial: Australian MIAs of the Vietnam War – "missing in action" or "no known grave”?

Australian Army: Remains of two Australian soldiers discovered, 2007

C Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians fought: the encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1998, pp. 277–279.

 

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