Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam

Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam
with Sean Ireland; Images courtesy of Col Filtness (used with permission) & Stan Middleton.

In this article will give a quick summary of the types and dates of operations undertaken by the Centurion tanks of the 1st Armoured Regiment, and some suggested Orders of Battle (or Orbats) to help your games of Tour Of Duty have a stronger historical flavour.

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The Australian Army deployed to Vietnam in 1965, but had the view that Vietnam was not suitable tank country. Three operations (Operation Bribie, Operation Renmark, and Operation Ballarat) where the Australian Battalions had suffered high casualties showed that APCs alone were too light and too vulnerable to support an infantry assault against a well-equipped and determined enemy. After much soul searching, the decision was made to deploy a reinforced Squadron (company-sized unit) or Squadron Group of Centurion tanks to Vietnam in 1968.
The Centurions deployed to Vietnam were operated by the 1st Armoured Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps (or RAAC). All three Sabre Squadrons of the Regiment were deployed, in sequence, as follows:

■ ‘C’ Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment : Major P.R. Badman, January – November 1968; Major A.L. Vickers, November 1968 – January 1969; Major P.W. Bourke, December 1970 – November 1971.

■ ‘B’ Squadron: Major A.H. Smith, February – December 1969.

■ ‘A’ Squadron: Major J.A.N. Chipman, December 1969 – December 1970.


Right: ‘Birth Controller’ on patrol. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam
The standard Order of Battle for the Squadron when deployed to Vietnam was an HQ with two tanks, an SEQ Troop with two bridge-layers and two tanks fitted with dozer blades, and four Troops each containing four tanks, for a total of twenty tanks. In addition, a Forward Delivery Troop was deployed and based at the main Australian Base at Nui Dat, with an additional six Centurion tanks. This allowed immediate replacement of trained and acclimatised tanks and crews at very short notice. Forward Delivery Troop was also used at times on operations due to high demand for tank support and to cover for losses, breakdowns and shortages of crew.
Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam  Tough Tank
The Centurion design was very robust, and common combat damage, including major repairs, could be performed in the field. This practice astounded a number of American Units, which were content to recover vehicles to rear maintenance areas or to simply write off battle-damaged vehicles. One major advantage of the Centurion's design was the suspension, which enabled wheel mounting and suspension units to be quickly replaced if damaged by mines. The US tanks with torsion bars had to be removed completely and replaced after being hit by a mine: a major repair that could not be completed in the field.
Mine damage was common when moving on roads and tracks, and the North Vietnamese forces continually increased the size and complexity of anti-tank mines as the war progressed.
Despite considerable scepticism by many observers and senior Army personnel, the Centurion proved particularly effective at fighting in the paddy fields and jungle areas of Vietnam. The initial operations envisaged for tanks were to provide additional security for the base at Nui Dat. But, whilst the tanks did perform this role, they were more often used away from Nui Dat. Combat operations were many and varied, but could be summarised as two main types of operation: Infantry support and Cavalry operations.

Left: Jungle clearing in 31A.
Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam 
Infantry Support Operations
When used on infantry support operations, the Centurion was valued for its firepower, protection, and the high crew position, which allowed the tank crew to see things the infantry could not. Infantry support operations were both offensive and defensive, and involved patrolling for the enemy and planned attacks to destroy known positions. Crews quickly developed a standard method for bunker clearing; firing three to four canister rounds to clear foliage and then firing one or two APCBC (or armour-piercing capped ballistic cap) rounds to destroy bunkers. Machine-gun fire from the crew commander's and coaxial .30 cal machine-guns and the coaxial .50 cal also proved very effective, as did doing a Neutral Turn on the bunker, which essentially rotated the tank on its own axis (sometimes, however, the bunkers were too strong to be collapsed!). Other methods used by crews included using their personal weapons, or dropping hand grenades from the turret into trenches and bunkers.

Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam  The first active patrol for the Centurions was Operation Pinnaroo in March 1968 to clear Vietcong (or VC) from their stronghold in the Long Hai hills. During this operation the Centurions supported 3 RAR and 2 RAR/NZ, marking the first time the infantry and tanks had operated together since World War Two. From the outset the Centurion proved impressive, demonstrating a high degree of accuracy and firepower, firing High Explosive (or HE) rounds into the doors of huts and bunkers at ranges of up to 3000 yards. By the end of the operation both infantry and tank crews had gained valuable experience.

Right: “Cromwell” showing why the track guards were removed.  
Centurions also participated in the largest battle fought by the Australians during the Vietnam War, at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral. During these actions the Centurions supported infantry operations in both attacking the enemy and clearing bunker complexes, and provided fixed points of defence.

In Tour Of Duty, using Centurions to support infantry operations can be done by fielding an Australia Rifle Company as seen of page 64 of Tour Of Duty.
Rifle Company (Australia) (Fearless Veteran)
Rifle Company HQ
 
with one Company Command M16 Rifle team & one 2iC Command M16 Rifle team.
60 points
Combat Platoons  
Rifle Platoon  
with HQ Section & three Rifle Squads.
260 points
Rifle Platoon  
with HQ Section & three Rifle Squads. 260 points
Weapons Platoons
 
Mortar Platoon
 
with HQ Section & three Mortar Sections.
185 points
Support Platoons
 
Tank Platoon
 
with four Centurion Mk 5
700 points
Cavalry Troop
 
with one APC Section (one M113 and two M113 with M74C turrets).
125 points
Total Points: 1590 points

For larger battles, the force created for Operation Goodwood could be used. This operation was undertaken by B Company, 4 RAR/NZ to destroy a North Vietnamese stronghold which contained an extensive bunker complex. During the operation, the first known penetration of a Centurion by a rocket-propelled grenade (or RPG) round occurred. The tank was unable to continue as the crew were wounded and the turret control box was disabled. However, the tank recovered and later repaired.

Left: Creek crossing in Vietnam. Note the expended 20lb main gun rounds on the engine deck. These were kept to prevent the North Vietnamese using them to make mines. Image courtesy of Stan Middleton.

Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam
This force was also supported by the Anti-tank Platoon, a Pioneer Platoon, an Artillery battery and Air Support.
Rifle Company (Australia) (Fearless Veteran)
Rifle Company HQ
 
with one Company Command M16 Rifle team & one 2iC Command M16 Rifle team.
60 points
Combat Platoons  
Rifle Platoon  
with HQ Section & three Rifle Squads.
260 points
Rifle Platoon  
with HQ Section & three Rifle Squads. 260 points
Weapons Platoons
 
Pioneer Platoon  
with HQ Section & two Pioneer Squads. 210 points
Anti-tank Platoon  
with HQ Section & two Anti-tank Squads.
205 points
Support Platoons
 
Tank Platoon
 
with three Centurion Mk 5
525 points
Field Battery
 
with HQ Section & two Gun Sections.
195 points
Light Fire Team
 
with two UH-1B Hog
200 points
Total Points: 1915 points

Cavalry Operations
Cavalry operations conducted by Centurion tanks included patrolling, convoy escorts, ambushes, fixed-point defences and attacks on enemy forces in the open and in defended positions. These were usually led by Tank Troops with combined arms in support and often directed by the Squadron Commander in a Command and Control helicopter.

An example of various types of Cavalry operations would be the deployment of C Squadron to Fire Support Base (or FSB) Julia in the Hat Dich area for an extended period between November 1968 and February 1969.

Right: Centurions and an M577 in Phuoc Tuy province.

Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam
For the initial deployment they escorted a US Armoured Artillery battery from 2/32 Artillery in a convoy to the FSB. For this mission the troop could be represented as follows:
Tank Squadron (Fearless Veteran)
Tank Squadron HQ
 
with one Company Command Centurion Mk 5 & one 2iC Command Centurion Mk 5.
350 points
Combat Platoons  
Tank Platoon
 
with Centurion Mk 5. 350 points
Support Platoons
 
Cavalry Troop  
with one APC Section (one M113 and two M113 with M74C turrets). 125 points
Field Artillery Battery (SP)
 
with HQ Section & two Gun Sections (155mm).
435 points
Total Points: 1260 points
Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam

Additional support could be provided by a Light Fire Team or a Aeroweapons Platoon to increase points. This force would be a very challenging opportunity for scenario-based play, being ambushed as it moves along the road by a North Vietnamese force. 

The Booby Trap option would accurately show the very effective use of mines by the North Vietnamese to disable tanks and APCs.

Left: A M109 dug in at Fire Support Base Julia.

Movie Stars
After being retired from service in the Australian Army, most of the Centurions were sold off into private ownership. When the producers of the movie ‘Courage Under Fire’ were sourcing props, they found that they could not beg, borrow, steal, hire or buy an M1 Abrams for use in the movie. To solve this problem they purchased twelve Centurions, fitted them with fibreglass costumes, and they became M1 Abrams. Not quite the Hollywood Tiger, but close.

Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam
After arriving at FSB Julia the tanks were used in infantry support operations and also spent some time providing tank support to units of the US 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment (11th ACR) in operations to provide route clearance, security and patrols seeking out the enemy. Using Centurions to support US troops could be represented from the Armoured Cavalry Troop Section (page 38) of Tour Of Duty as follows:
Armored Cavalry Troop (Confident Veteran)
Armored Cavalry Troop HQ
 
with one Company Command M113 ACAV & one 2iC M113 ACAV.
90 points
Combat Platoons  
Blackhorse Cavalry Platoon
 
with one Command M113 ACAV (HQ Section), two M113 ACAV (tank Section) & four M113 ACAV (Scout Section).
310 points
Armored Heavy Mortar Platoon
 
with HQ Section & two Mortar Sections.
250 points
Support Platoons
 
Tank Platoon  
with four Centurion Mk 5 700 points
Field Artillery Battery (SP)
 
with HQ Section & one Gun Section (105mm).
185 points
Total Points: 1535 points
Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam 

A key element in the pacification of Phuoc Tuy province, specifically around the towns and villages threatened by the North Vietnamese, was the presence of an effective deterrent or quick-response force to deter or defeat enemy attacks. To perform this role, a composite group known as Tango Force was formed. Tango Force was based around a tank troop supported by an infantry platoon mounted in an APC section.

Right: Centurions with APC support on operations.

Designed to provide rapid response and overwhelming firepower, the initial Tango Force also received support from the Regional Force and Provincial Force units under the command of local and district chiefs. The first was 2 Troop 2nd Lt. Mick Butler in November 1968 in the village of Duc Thanh. This force can be represented as follows:
Tango Force, 2nd Lt. Mick Butler Tank Squadron (Fearless Veteran)
Tank Squadron HQ
 
with one Company Command Centurion Mk 5.
175 points
Combat Platoons  
Tank Platoon
 
with three Centurion Mk 5 525 points
Support Platoons
 
Rifle Platoon  
with HQ Section & three Rifle Squads. 260 points
Cavalry Troop
 
with one APC Section (one M113 and two M113 with M74C turrets). 125 points
Bộ Binh (Infantry) Platoon (Reluctant Trained)
 
with HQ Section & three Infantry Squads.
100 points
Total Points: 1185 points

Feel free to add an additional Bộ Binh (Infantry) Platoon to increase size of your games, or add Air Support.

Later Tango Forces followed similar lines and used similar orders of battle. Tango Force II deployed for Operation Mailed Fist and was based on 2 Troop B Squadron, D&E Platoon, a mortar section and APC Troop supported by engineers and an FO party. In order to get the correct composition of this force, it is recommended to use the Cavalry Troop organisation on page 60 of Tour Of Duty.

Left: This improvised mine roller was created by the squadron workshop to be used like a World War Two era mine roller. However, the experiment proved a failure.

Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam
Australian Centurion Tank Operations in Vietnam It’s All Just Mathematactics!
An analysis conducted by the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) found that the use of tanks in attacks on bunkers significantly increased enemy casualties (from 1.6 up to 15.6) at the same time as decreasing friendly infantry casualties (from 4.25 down to 3.3) compared with attacks by infantry alone. Tanks are definitely a force multiplier.
Tango Force II, Captain Jim Hull Cavalry Troop (Fearless Veteran)
Cavalry Troop HQ
 
with one Company Command M113 & one 2iC Command M113. 85 points
Combat Platoons  
Cavalry Troop
 
with one APC Section (one M113 and two M113 with M74C turrets). 125 points
Weapons Platoons
 
Support Platoon
 
with HQ Section & two Mortar Sections.

 140 points

Support Platoons
 
Tank Platoon  
with four Centurion Mk 5. 700 points
Rifle Platoon
 
with HQ Section & three Rifle Squads. 260 points
Field Battery
 
with HQ Section & two Gun Sections.
195 points
Total Points: 1505 points
This force also operated in support of South Vietnamese Regional Force troops by day and conducted ambushes and route clearances by night. Later Tango Forces were formed along similar lines and had roles including supporting infantry attacks, or cutting off routed enemy units.

Centurion tanks were in constant operation in support of Australian forces in South Vietnam. After initial scepticism about their employment, the tanks were always at the top of the list when requesting support for infantry operations.

I hope this article has provided you with some additional ideas for using the Centurion in Tour Of Duty.

~ Sean.

Sources & Additional Reading
Col Filtness’s excellent website about all things Australian Centurion MBT:

http://www.centurion-mbt.com

The Australian War Memorial has the war diaries and photos from all units and Headquarters in Vietnam:

https://www.awm.gov.au

Books and Articles
Canister! On! Fire! Australian Tank Operations in Vietnam by Bruce Cameron
(ISBN 9781921941993)
A definitive history and excellent source of information.

Vietnam: The Australian War by Paul Ham. Available as a download from the Apple Store.

The Australian Army and the Vietnam War 1962-1972, the 2002 Chief of Army’s Military History Conference, Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey. Army History Unit. 

http://www.army.gov.au/Our-history/Army-History-Unit/Chief-of-Army-History-Conference/2002-Chief-of-Army-Conference


Last Updated On Friday, June 27, 2014 by Blake at Battlefront