W3 Company - 3Pl Accident 10 October 1970
index of service stories
Part 3: Events Morning 10 October
3Pl W3 Coy. On 10 October 3Pl started patrolling around 8 AM; dog Milo leading off on a SE track, initially staying close to a stream before angling toward the South. Away from the stream the terrain was flat with mostly dry water courses and visibility was limited by the thick vegetation. The track appeared well worn. 1 and 3Sect alternated at point behind the tracker team. Probably to give Pte Kenyon an opportunity to adapt to his new appointment Sgt Yandall left 2Sect in reserve at the rear of the platoon column, close to Cpl Glendinning travelling as platoon sergeant between the 2nd and last sections.
3Pl had no previous experience of working with a tracker dog. It is likely the tracker team briefed Sgt Yandall on the following:
Veterans recollect that Sgt Yandall was happy to be generally guided by the Australian handlers. He allowed the tracker team and dog to be in the front of a lead section formation where the section scouts dropped back to be behind the MG group but the section commander stayed close to the rear of the dog team with his MG immediately behind him.
On signal from the dog team the lead section commander would give ‘thumbs down’ [meaning ‘enemy close by’] to the soldiers behind him and quietly move his section to extend their front across the axis of advance. Sgt Yandall would then direct the lead section to tactically advance past the dog team who would drop back behind Pl HQ. Pl HQ and the 2nd section would follow, not necessarily in single file, while 2Sect remained in the rear. Pte Ure and other soldiers at the rear of 2Sect were not aware that tactical advances had been attempted, an indicator that communications with the very rear of 3Pl was minimal. Cpl Preston recollects that given the limited visibility and lack of other indicators as to VC activity, the platoon at no time attempted a flank sweep, preferring to push forward along the axis until contact was initiated and then reacting to the circumstances. The first reaction was known as ‘Contact Front’; the element in contact with the enemy would start an immediate action [IA] drill to engage the area to their front with as much suppressive firepower as could be deployed while commanders quickly made tactical plans to either advance further, sweep from a flank or withdraw
The tactical advance would stop when the dog handler indicated that the dog was no longer pointing [typically having moved forward about 50 metres in about 20 minutes]. The platoon would then quietly harbour in a standard triangular formation before moving off again in patrol formation with the dog team in front but with a different section behind them. The triangular harbour was based on the lead section extending across the axis of advance with their gun to a flank, the 2nd section linking at the first section gun and taking a side of the harbour with their gun covering the track in, and the rear section taking the other side linking the other two sections with its gun covering the exposed flank of the first section. Done as a drill the harbour was a quick method of maintaining security while covering a 360 degree arc.
At 9.30 AM 3Pl reported to W3 Coy HQ that the dog had a heavy smell and that they were following up. The location was reported as YS3574. Gnr Brumm recollects members of 3Pl quietly pointing out fairly fresh signs of the enemy, including where bamboo shoots had been cut and wet footprints and had the impression that the VC group were not in a hurry and likely not to be far away. 3Pl reported a second sweep at 10.30 AM with negative results and that they would regroup and continue following the track SE. A third sweep with similar results occurred at 10.50 AM. Given that Milo was often ‘pointing’ 3Pl thought the VC party might be keeping just in front of the platoon as it advanced [while any VC had a 36-hour start on the platoon, they might have stopped or be slowly carrying wounded and these would have concentrated the scent]. It is possible that the dog handlers were worried about Milo becoming exhausted [as the 8Pl dog had been] and were simply being ultra cautious. After these advances to contact the 3Pl soldiers doing the sweeps were on edge waiting for a contact to happen. They believed that a dog ‘point’ was an accurate indicator of VC in the vicinity and were expecting a contact at any time during the advance. When these did not happen the ‘atmosphere’ started to unsettle them – things like not finding VC where the dog indicated, disliking having the dog lead, and being ‘short’ on days before leaving the country.
In appearance 3Pl and attached elements were moving like a rope with 32 knots along its length which stretched back over 200 metres [length of two rugby fields] from Milo at the point to Pte Ure at the rear of 2Sect. Each soldier carefully moved in a slow and deliberate manner that minimised noise and movement, pausing often to watch his arc and check on those near him. Messages were passed by hand gestures between the soldier in front to the soldier behind, longer conversations were quickly whispered. If vegetation had to be cleared it was done using secateurs [rose pruning shears] to quietly snip at branches. However it is likely that at the speed Milo was tracking movement was probably faster than the soldiers were comfortable with.
At around 11.40 AM, 3Pl had moved approximately 500 metres from its overnight harbour, being at YS360739 close to the northern edge of a large ‘clearing’ of tall grass and more sparse trees [the clearing is visible on the map in Part 4]. Here Milo gave his fourth point of the morning and the tracker team called Sgt Yandall by radio. Sgt Yandall halted the platoon in single file, told Pte Lee to establish communications with W3 Coy HQ and then moved forward to link up with and be briefed by the tracker team.
It is likely that to establish good communications with W3 Coy HQ Pte Lee replaced the 25-set 3-foot flexible patrol aerial with a 10-foot tubular antenna with flexible base, improving reception but relegating the radio to a static role because the radio could not be carried with the longer antenna attached.
3Pl HQ. Sgt Yandall heard from the dog handler that Milo had pointed at 10 o’clock to the 3Pl axis, an area on the east edge of the ‘clearing’ in thick bamboo about 50 metres east of the 3Pl position. Sgt Yandall decided to alter the way he had been operating so he could move quickly to close with the VC party, and he chose to divide 3Pl into two elements. Sgt Yandall directed 1Sect to reconnoitre forward to the edge of the clearing looking for a way across while he returned to Pl HQ [taking the dog team with him] to hold a ‘brief’ orders group. After the briefing he promptly departed with 3Sect in tow to rejoin 1Sect, and taking with him as his radio operator Sig Salt [c/s53A - probably because Pte Lee had already established good communications with W3 Coy HQ and could not move quickly – Sig Salt was also Sgt Yandall’s regular ‘Pl Sgt’ radio operator]. In the ‘brief’ orders group Sgt Yandall directed Pl HQ Rear [Cpl Glendinning and now Pte Lee c/s53], the dog team, artillery party and 2Sect to remain in their present location.
FOO(A). Gnr Brumm recollects that he had been conferring with Sgt Yandall about preparing a fire mission in anticipation of a contact and then noticed that Sgt Yandall was gone. He and Gnr Pavlovich remained in the area feeling ‘useless’ because he would normally have been with Pl HQ, not realising that Sgt Yandall had deliberately chosen to leave the FOO(A) party behind, perhaps to ensure they maintained good radio communications to the gunner net. Gnr Brumm used his radio to request a ‘lay-on’ mission from 107 Battery [a precaution when anticipating a contact], at midday Bn HQ queried W3 Coy HQ about the need for the ‘lay on’ mission and W3 Coy HQ advised that ‘the dog had given a ‘couple of points’ in the area but nothing has been found’, information that would have been provided by Cpl Glendinning via Pte Lee’s radio.
Pl HQ Rear. From something said during the brief orders group Cpl Glendinning understood Sgt Yandall was briefed that Milo had indicated VC in two positions across the axis. He believed that Sgt Yandall was doing a sweep to the right to check-out the right objective indicated by Milo, and 2Sect would check-out the left objective if the right objective was vacant. This statement by Cpl Glendinning to Capt Brown after the accident is the first reference that Pl HQ Rear thought there were VC in two locations, and this belief was to direct the actions of Pl HQ Rear and 2Sect during the next 30 minutes. Cpl Peter Glendinning
[Detail given by Sgt Yandall to the official investigation at this point conflicts with other research, the reason for the conflict is examined in more detail in Part 6.]
3Pl (-). On linking again with 1Sect it is probable that Sgt Yandall was advised that passage across the clearing was tactically unwise. Sgt Yandall is then likely to have directed 3Sect to lead off in an easterly direction around the edge of the clearing toward the objective, a move which stayed close to the track Milo had been following, and which may have occurred out-of-sight of Pl HQ Rear and before 2Sect had moved forward from the rear of the 3Pl column.
2Sect and Pl HQ Rear. 2Sect moved forward from the rear of the platoon formation into a small clearing where they dumped their packs into a pile before deploying into an extended line watching an arc to the left of the axis where there were large clumps of bamboo. Pte Ure on the right flank was located close to Pte Whatarangi, Pte Chris Kennedy the section machine gunner was in the centre of the line with the section scout Spr Mike Wihapi, and Pte Vic Hill and Tpr Henderson were on the left flank. Pte Kenyon was behind the gunner in a position where he could see all 2Sect people deployed both left and right of his position; he recollects they were not widely spaced. Pl HQ Rear was located out of sight behind the section line as were the tracker team and artillery party.
2Sect Briefing. Pte Kenyon recollects the hurried orders group where he thought he was briefed that 3Sect would sweep around the clearing from the right, that 2Sect was to remain as base line in the harbour facing forward, and that 1Sect was still in the harbour behind them. Some of 2Sect thought there was a half platoon sweep taking place, Pte Ure and Pte Whatarangi both thinking it was circling from the right flank. Pte Hill recollects thinking ‘that the sweep was going around to the right to get in behind the VC and that then [2Sect] would move forward’. Someone told Pte Ure that Milo had indicated VC in three different positions across the axis but had no other details. Tpr Henderson [on the left flank] thought the section was in a platoon triangular harbour with 2Sect deployed across the base line with both the other sections on the flanks behind them. Pte Hill recollects ‘they had made the assumption [the VC] were there, anything that moved was fair game’. He recollects being told that the others ‘had gone around the clearing, and if they made contact the enemy could go any way’. 2Sect patiently waited about 30 minutes for something to happen.
3Pl (-). Led by Pte Bob Newson, 3Sect, then Sgt Yandall and 1Sect quietly advanced in single file through bamboo clumps and other tall brush for about 30 metres to where the vegetation cleared slightly to reveal the edge of the large ‘clearing’ to the right, with a dry watercourse on the left edge running in an easterly direction through clumps of dense spiky bamboo. As he advanced Sig Salt checked communications and passed progress reports to Pte Lee without difficulty. C/s63A was also receiving clear traffic from c/s53A. The sweep followed the edge of the clearing into the area of the suspected VC location but found nothing and Sgt Yandall decided to stop the advance. He directed 3Sect to move into and face forward along the watercourse [looking east] as a baseline in the direction of the axis, Cpl Preston choosing to place the 3Sect machine gun team in the middle of the watercourse looking along the VC track. Sgt Yandall then placed 1Sect left of axis on the top of the northern watercourse bank and looking north, a likely VC approach. The 1Sect gun [Pte Ian Herd] was located on the left flank of 1Sect on the bank above the watercourse and closest to the position of 2Sect 50 metres away. Sgt Yandall located Pl HQ in slightly lower ground in the centre of the watercourse behind 3Sect. There was a delay in the position of perhaps 10 minutes, sufficient for some soldiers to eat rations. During this time Sig Salt realised he was having intermittent failure with receiving radio traffic from c/s53, Pte Lee reporting that Sig Salt started asking for ‘radio checks’ but was unable to hear the replies offered by his callsign, c/s52 [2Pl] and c/s63A. During these difficulties Sgt Yandall radioed Pl HQ Rear that they were to move in toward the Pl HQ location and when told of the radio difficulties by Sig Salt asked c/s53 for an acknowledgement by ‘breaking squelch’. Sig Salt reported that he had received an acknowledgement in this manner. Pte Lee acknowledged that he had received a ‘garbled’ message ‘that 2Sect were to move forward’ and passed this to Cpl Glendinning. A 2nd message that the war dog team was to accompany 2Sect was also acknowledged by breaking squelch. At this point Sig Salt’s radio started emitting ‘motor boat’ sounds [sign of a defective battery] and Sig Salt shut down and started to dismantle the radio so as to replace the battery with a spare. It was now after midday.
Break squelch explained: the radio carrier wave was often stronger than the actual voice message stream. Squelch was the sound heard when the radio hand switch was released. ‘Break squelch’ was where one operator would ask a question and the other operator would typically press the radio hand switch once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’.
3Sect. Seeing the issues his radio operator was having, Sgt Yandall gave up on using the radio and directed 3Sect to return and collect Cpl Glendinning and 2Sect. Cpl Preston assembled some of his section by the 3Sect machine gun for a brief orders group. With him were the machine gunners Ptes Colin Drylie and Tom Cooper, scouts Ptes Greg Taukiri and Bob Newson, Section 2ic Lcpl William ‘Sammy’ Samson and rifleman Pte Ross Dunlea. After briefing the group but telling the gun group to remain in their present location Cpl Preston directed Pte Taukiri with Pte Newson, himself and Pte Dunlea to move back along the track the platoon had previously followed into the harbour.
2Sect. In the context of what he was anticipating, Cpl Glendinning had understood Sgt Yandall’s radio message to mean that 2Sect were to ‘sweep forward’ [move in extended line] toward the ‘left’ VC location. Cpl Glendinning had earlier passed on to 2Sect that he was expecting to advance onto the left VC position and when he received the radio message to move, he directed Pte Kenyon that 2Sect was to ‘sweep forward in the same formation that they had on the ground’. Pte Kenyon recollects rationalising in the absence of a contact or other indicators that the 3Pl sweep from the right must be bogged down in the heavy vegetation or lost and assumed they would be stationary, so 2Sect was now required to finish the task. 2Sect left their packs behind, a standard procedure when expecting a contact. Tpr Henderson, Ptes Whatarangi, Hill and Ure each recollect the transition from a quiet period waiting with the packs to suddenly getting an order to move forward in extended line. All agree that there was no reason given for the sudden departure; each said they were not too surprised, ‘just following orders’. Tpr Henderson, thinking the remainder of the platoon was behind them in a tactical harbour, believed they were advancing to contact. Pte Kennedy the section machine gunner remained in the centre of the section line with riflemen to each side, he recollects it was his habit to load a double belt of ammunition into his machine gun, a total of 400 rounds. As normal for a commander Pte Kenyon waited for the line to move forward a short distance before starting to follow the section gunner. As he began to move Pte Kenyon realised that he was walking on the VC track and saw it entered the clearing briefly before disappearing as if into a tunnel into the bamboo on the far side. Thinking furiously of all the things he would need to do when the contact was initiated, Pte Kenyon still had the presence of mind to step off the track when he realised it might be a VC fire lane or sentry arc. Recollections were that 2Sect had to sometimes crawl on hands and knees to get through the bamboo. Cpl Glendinning, thinking that Sgt Yandall was on the ‘right’ objective, moved to the right flank of the sweep into more open ground so that he could attract Sgt Yandall’s attention. Cpl Glendinning took the tracker team commander and team radio operator [c/s63A] with him to maintain radio communications back to c/s53 [Pte Lee] whom he left static with the FOO(A) party so that radio contact could be maintained with W3 Coy HQ.
Pte Lee c/s 53. Pte Lee from his static position radioed a suggestion to c/s63A that given c/s53A’s transmission problems that c/s63A should attempt to link up with c/s53A and act as relay. C/s63A replied that they could neither hear nor see c/s53A.
3Pl Dispositions. The following sketch, based on the best recollections of those present, represents the positions and layout of 3Pl as the accident happened. The sketch is not to scale and shows approximate positions only.
Sketch - Approximate Layout of 3Pl at 12.15 PM 8 October 1970
Summation. At about 12.15 PM 3Pl and attached elements were deployed as follows while manoeuvring to engage 40 VC thought to be in front of them:
index of service stories