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1969

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A Tank Killing Rocket Propelled Grenade
- It's Story -

Milton C. W. Pearson, CSM of 106 Field Workshop, 1968-1969

One of the exhibits in the Corps Museum is a metal object that looks something like a twisted rat's tail. It is the spent force of a rocket propelled grenade that was extracted from the traverse gearbox of a Centurion Tank by the Artificer Gun of 106 Field Workshop, Warrant Officer Class1 Bob Thompson at Nui Dat, SVN, in 1969.

Bob gave me the metal fragment with a short scribbled note in December 1993.

During a visit I made to WA in 1994, I met up with Sgt Jock Browning, a "tankie". Jock had listened to the battle over the radio. His recollection, coupled with my own knowledge, reading books etc, enabled me to write the true account of the incident.

In 1995, I presented the item to the Corps Director, Col Grant, at one of the last WO's and Senior NCO' dinners at RAEME Training Center.

In the light of more recent research, I have amended the original submission to more fully explain the actual battle and citations.

It was only at the Year 2000 Cambrai dinner in the Officers' Mess at the Armoured Center, Puckapunyal that the meeting up with ex tankie, Dave Thompson, put me on the trail of another ex National Serviceman, John Howard. Over a lunch, here in Melbourne, I obtained, from John, an eye-witness account of the incident.

I have also located Sandy Tocock.

Other interesting information I discovered during my research was

  1. After the battle was over, Dave Thompson, a trooper at the time was given the task, by way of volunteering, to de-ammunition the tank which he succeeded in doing and before driving the vehicle back to Nui Dat.

  2. The Troop Commander, 2Lt Brian John Sullivan, was a school teacher prior to National Service and was awarded a Military Cross from an engagement at Xa Binh Ba rubber plantation on 6th June 1969.


The Operation

On the 16th February, No1 Troop, C Squadron, RAAC, commanded by 2Lt Brian John Sullivan, was in support of B Company 4RAR plus a second company of infantry carrying out a search for a suspected arms cache. An Armoured Recovery Vehicle, ARV, commanded by Sgt Kenneth A. "Sandy" Tocock (RAEME), was travelling in A Echelon

At approximately 1320hrs the leading tank, commanded by Sgt Len Swarbrick, was hit by RPG fire

The Incident

The tanks were in a Jungle Leaguer with 1000yards of open ground and half way across drove into soft ground. The tanks backed off to move around the Eastern edge. The infantry without their tank cover moved into the jungle but were immediately assailed with "Claymore Mines" (M18A1) and small arms.

The leading tank commanded by Sgt Swarbrick moved forward into the jungle very slowly, so as not to run over infantry, some of whom were wounded. After advancing approximately 150 yards, the tank stopped and the Gunner, Trooper John Howard, was ordered to fire a number of clearing canister rounds, whilst traversing from left to right.

After these rounds were fired, the crew could see that the tank was in the centre of a horse shoe bunker system, and was receiving small arms fire from the bunker slits. At that time, the crew ran out of ready canister rounds and it was thought that firing high explosive rounds was too dangerous, having regard to the thick jungle and the close proximity of the infantry on the ground. Wounded infantry on the ground imposed on any tank in movement.

Sergeant Swarbrick then ordered Trooper John Howard to fire both .30 cal and .50 cal machine guns rounds into the bunkers. After some time, both machine guns over heated, then jammed. In the short period whilst the Loader, Trooper Mark Jackson, tried to change barrels, the tank was hit three times by R.P.G. fire, from approximately 30 metres, two through the side of the turret and one through the mantlet cover.

All the turret electrics were shorted out; none of the gunnery, except the commanders .30 cal could be fired. The Tank filled with thick smoke

All the crew were wounded but managed to bail out and take cover under the back of the tank except for the Driver, Trooper Michael Ingram, who was unconscious in his compartment. Whilst huddled under the tank, the wounded crew saw 2Lt Sullivans' Centurion come in and stop on the right hand side of theirs and start firing.

2Lt Sullivan then dismounted from his tank and, under fire, ran forward, engaging the enemy with his pistol, mounted the burning tank, extricated the wounded driver, and then backed it out from under the enemy rocket fire. He then returned to his own tank and continued to engage the enemy until the contact was broken at 1500hours. His action enabled the dead and wounded to be evacuated, prevented the company from sustaining greater casualties and enabled the infantry to redeploy. 2Lt Sullivan was awarded a MID for his action

Sgt Kenneth A. "Sandy" Tocock (RAEME), crewing the ARV, was awarded a MID during this action as well. The battle created a brush fire in the contact area and without regard to his personal safety, Sergeant Tocock manoeuvred the ARV into the contact area, dismounted under observation of the enemy and assisted the movement of the wounded to a safer area. He administered first aid and directed efforts to extinguish the brush fire which was threatening the wounded. He then organised progressive ammunition resupply from the damaged tank to the other tanks engaging the enemy. Later, while the contact continued, he recovered the damaged tank out of the contact area to safety.

WOI Bob Thompson and his General Engineering Platoon had the tank repaired and back in service in 24 hours (an outstanding feat).

The Tank Crew

Gunner

Tpr John Howard, received extensive back, buttocks and leg shrapnel wounds from the R.P.Gs.

Loader

Tpr Mark Jackson, received shrapnel wounds to his legs from the R.P.Gs.

Driver

Tpr Michael Ingram, received severe head injuries from the blast of the R.P.G .over his head

ARV Crew

The Armoured Recovery Vehicle was crewed by Sgt K.A. "Sandy" Tocock with Cpl Dave Ovens the driver.

Troop Commander

Of 2Lt Brian Sullivan, his actions under fire warrants a review and an upgrade in decoration.


Bruce Cameron, C Sqn 1Armd Regt RAAC, 1971, is writing a history of 1st Armoured Regiment in SVN (1968 - 1971) and comments

Just a couple of corrections re the 1969 story "A Tank Killing Rocket"

  • The crewman concerned was John Haward, not Howard;
  • The loader/operator was Graeme Jackson, rather than Mark Jackson;
  • the ARV was actually travelling with the tank troop, rather than the Echelon to the rear
    • (In 1971, an ARV commanded by Sgt Jim Merrychurch, had to actually help assault a bunker system because we didn't have any infantry with us);
  • The circumstances surrounding 2Lt Brian Sullivan's actions (see end) were reviewed for the End of War List and he was awarded the Medal of Gallantry; and finally,
  • The 'plug' from the RPG that the author refers to is quite significant historically
    • the one that dissipated in the traverse gearbox in front of the gunner (Haward) was actually the second RPG to strike the vehicle (the first shattered the operator's periscope), but the first to ever penetrate a Centurion in combat (it's possible weapon evaluation trials may have been done in the UK etc).
    • Should it happen to be in the RAEME Museum now, the curator may care to place a note against it (should it ever be surplus to needs, I'm very confident that the Australian War Memorial would be interested in displaying it).
Hope this is of interest,
Bruce Cameron

Another Footnote. This one from Stan Swarbrick, brother of Len Swarbrick, who says "Len, together with other members of his crew, was severely wounded and spent over twelve months in Heidelberg Repat Hospital (Victoria). He owed his life not only to the gallant actions of his comrades but to the skill and dedication of the Australian surgical team in Vietnam."