NOEL TURNBULL. Tim Fischer and the Battle of Coral-Balmoral

Tim Fischer’s death reminds us that the Australians fought an even bigger, longer and more deadly battle in Vietnam than Long Tan – the Battle of Coral- Balmoral – at which he was wounded.

The battle took place over many days in May 1968, after 1RAR and 3RAR, established Fire Support Base Coral. Shortly after the North Vietnamese attacked the base and overran several positions. In close quarters hand to hand battle the Australians, with assistance from mortar and artillery fire, drove the NVA back. The Australian Army History website gives the battle details. In the subsequent days there were more attacks – a substantial one on May 15-16 followed by less intense assaults and skirmishes in the following weeks. Then on May 24-25 the NVA targeted Fire Support Base Balmoral –a few kilometres from Coral – but the attackers were repelled with heavy losses with the Australians employing tanks as well as artillery and mortars. The NVA attacked again on May 28 but again suffered heavy losses.

Skirmishes and assaults ended by June 6 but Australian casualties were 25 men killed and 99 wounded and it is estimated that more than 250 NVA and Viet Cong were killed.

Meanwhile, while Long Tan now has a film about it, an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial has from September 19 a display of the Highly Commended entries in the 2019 AWM Napier-Waller Art Prize which includes a painting and accompanying video animation by Rodney Usback who was a troop commander at the Coral-Balmoral battle. Writing about his art Usback says that on his return from Vietnam he “turned to art immediately, perhaps as an escape from…..Vietnam. Last year’s 50-year commemoration of Coral–Balmoral inspired me to portray this battle in art; why, I don’t know. Perhaps it was fate, and seemingly in response to a sense of duty. It would help Australians not to forget those who served and died there.”

“As a troop commander with the sappers I served at Coral and Balmoral (although not on 13 May). Fifty years later, as an artist, I have painted enemy attacks there! Any normal person fears death when enemy rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs ‘rain’ down on them, especially if it is their ‘baptism by fire’. This didn’t just happen on 13 May, but during a number of other similarly savage attacks at Coral–Balmoral,” he said.

“My digital paintings of these attacks seemed to have greater impact on screen than as prints, and this stirred me into crafting this Coral–Balmoral video animation to accompany the print. I hope this art helps veterans to confront their demons, and families to understand.”

The Australian Army History website said: “The fighting during the Battle of Coral-Balmoral was atypical of the Australian experience of the Vietnam War, which generally focussed on counter-insurgency. Whereas the enemy generally avoided open conflict, on this occasion they brought the battle directly to the Australians after actively seeking them out. Coral and Balmoral heralded a marked increase in the number of troops the enemy was prepared to commit to battle, and an increase in the weight of firepower they used.”

“The Royal Australian Regiment, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, and the 1st Armoured Regiment were subsequently awarded the Battle Honour ‘Coral-Balmoral’ for their role in the battle. “Most notably, the Honour Title ‘Coral’ was awarded to 102nd Field Battery, forty years after the battle, in recognition of the professionalism, dedication and courage the battery displayed under extremely dangerous and confusing conditions. This Honour Title is the only one of its kind awarded by the Australian Army.”

Everyone who knew Tim Fischer has a story about him – overwhelmingly positive – from his refusal after Vietnam to own a gun and his statements that people wanting to use guns should join the Army. Another Vietnam veteran, VC winner Keith Payne, said something similar but with the best line of the whole Australian gun control campaign. Asked what he thought of the belief of some fellow Queenslanders that they needed guns to defend the country if anyone invaded, Keith said: “If they want to defend the country they should join the Army…. (longish pause)… if they can pass the psych test.”

Tim could also be quixotic as with his campaign to suggest the conscription ballot was rigged – not in the way rich parents and politicians gamed the US draft system – but by conscious efforts to choose some ballot birth dates over others. Some detailed statistical analysis by Tim produced evidence that this appeared to be the case. But it appears that it was really a statistical anomaly caused by the deferment rate for people enrolled in universities. After they graduated their number came up again as their deferment expired and they got called up.

The Army simply adjusted the total numbers of those called up for those who had been deferred – although Tim may have been half right because the Army was happy to forgo some of the newly balloted over previously deferred and newly graduated professionals who could work in areas as diverse as engineering, location science and wireless technology.

Incidentally, in contrast with George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton et al, Tim voluntarily extended his service to go overseas as did, incidentally, Jeff Kennett, although Jeff was posted to Singapore rather than Vietnam as he had hoped.

Vietnam is prospering today but one can’t help but think just how much more they could have achieved in the past 70 odd years if they hadn’t had to take time off to defeat the Japanese, the French, the Americans (with troops from Australia, New Zealand and South Korea) and then the Chinese

Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/

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