Signals at the Battle of Coral Balmoral

Operation Toan Thang (Final Victory)

Signals at Coral
Painting:  Signals at Fire Support Patrol Base Coral
By Denis Hare OAM BEM

104 Signal Squadron

Operations by 1st Australian Task Force Forward (1ATF (Fwd)) increased in size and in distance from Nui Dat during 1967.  Then during the period 24th January - 2nd March 1968, Operation Coburg was conducted in Bien Hoa Province some 50 kilometres from Nui Dat.  It was the most extensive operation independently undertaken by 1ATF since its arrival in South Vietnam and it involved the main headquarters of 1ATF being away from its base longer than on any previous occasion. 

Photo: 104 Signal Squadron reconnaissance group for Operation COBURG (1-2). 
From left - Sig Robert Parkyns, ?, Maj Norman Munro, ?, Sig Geoffrey Molineaux
 and Cpl Harold True (March 1968) 

Photo: 104 and 110 Signal Squadron vehicles at start point Nui Dat for deployment on
Operation Toan Thang (59-17).   Note first truck (21/2 ton) AN/MTC-7 and AN/MGC-17 Shelters,
second truck  (5 ton) AN/MRC-69 Shelter (April 1968)

The lessons learned by 104 Signal Squadron (104 Sig Sqn) from this operation were put to good use in Operation Toan Thang 25th April - 6th June 1968.  This operation in turn exceeded Coburg in size and distance from Nui Dat (80 kilometres). 

Initially 1ATF (Fwd) operated with two battalions about 15 kilometres east of Long Binh on Highway One in Long Khan Province and one battalion in the Nui Dat area in Phuoc Tuy Province.  HQ 1ATF (Fwd) was established at the US Army Bearcat base and the communications were much the same as for Operation Coburg. 

On 12th May 1968 major elements of 1ATF (Fwd) were airlifted into an area north of Saigon eventually to be known as Fire Support Patrol Base (FSPB) Coral.  This was to intercept the movement of 7 NVA Division to Saigon and cut off its withdrawal. 

Major Norm Munro, OC 104 Sig Sqn and 5 other ranks from the Squadron arrived at FSPB Coral early on the morning 12th May by a US Army Chinook CH-47.  This signals group was stepping up the command net (Callsign 11) and preparing for the HQ arrival.  

The step up party equipped with tin helmets and flak jackets just before leaving Bearcat, was landed some 1500 metres from the proposed headquarters location.  Signals  had to manpack its equipment, which was to operate initially as a substation on the task force command net.  This was no mean task as the equipment included an RT-524 Radio Set (the VHF receiver/transmitter from the vehicular borne AN/VRC-12 series), 150 Ah Batteries, 300W Battery Charger and fuel, RC-292 Antenna, AN/GRA-39 Remote Control Unit, AN/PRC-25 Radio Set (VHF manpack), two K Phones (field telephones) and two rolls of D10 (field cable).   The Major carried all the weapons as the signalmen struggled with the equipment.   It was an effort to prove well worthwhile. 

Not long after the HQ 1ATF (Fwd) advance party arrived to establish the HQ area which included two additional 104 Sig Sqn radio operators.    104 Sig Sqn radio detachments also arrived with 1RAR and 3RAR on the 12th May.

FSPB Coral night 12-13 May 1968
FSPB Coral showing location of units that air deployed in on the 12 May 1968 (Not to scale)
Note:  1RAR and 102 Fd Bty heavy attacked in the early hours of the 13 May 1968

104 Sig Sqn at FSPB Coral 12/13 May 68
HQ 1ATF Advance Party which included the 104 Sig Sqn Step Up (Callsign 11) on the night 12/13 May 1968
(Red arrows show enemy movement in front of the concealed command net radio and advance party)
Note:  Also at FSPB Coral on the night 12/13 May 1968 was the 104 Sig Sqn Radio Detachments supporting 1RAR and 3RAR

Early on the morning of 13th May 1968 the base came under attack from enemy mortar, rocket and small arms fire, causing signals casualties to men and equipment (including the RC-292 antenna).  Temporary repairs enabled the radio station to remain operational and it was the means by which Spooky (DC3 aircraft equipped with illumination and six miniguns) and helicopter gunships (Light Fire Teams) were called in to support the units under attack.  The FSPB Coral being partly over-run by the enemy during this action.  Signalman Gamble was WIA during the fighting.  

The main body of 1ATF (Fwd) arrived later on 13th May 1968 bringing the strength of the signals group to 51 including two 3 man detachments from 110 Signal Squadron and the 7 man detachment of  53 Signal Battalion (US Army).  Also a three man detachment from 547 Signal Troop arrived by air in this period.

Signals began digging in, including bulldozing 2 metre deep holes for the signal centre (SIGCEN) and VHF radio bunker.  Next day an unexpected rain storm flooded the radio bunker swamping most of the radio equipment, but after draining the water out all operated satisfactorily.  The SIGCEN was also flooded but not so badly. 

FSPB Coral   FSPB Coral
Photo (left):  Looking over US Army artillery position at FSPB Coral.  Radio Radio Antenna in the distance.
Emeny used the Antenna to aim mortars and rockets at the HQ area. (60-5).
Photo (right):  104 Sig Sqn 1ATF (Fwd) NCS 'Callsign 19' before going under ground (65-17).

At 0240 hours on 16th May 1968 an NVA regimental attack was launched against FSPB Coral.  It started with 50 minutes of mortar and rocket barrage which included the signals area and was followed up by ground attacks, one enemy party coming within 50 metres of the signals perimeter which was directly protecting the task force command post.  The enemy finally broke contact at 0645 hours.  Signalman Alex Young was KIA during this action and two other Signalmen (John Koosache and Ian Crosthwaite) were WIA. 

FSPB Coral 15-16 May 1968
FSPB Coral on the night 15/16 May 1968

The Deputy Commander of 1ATF at the time wrote later. "For a period of approximately three weeks the task force was exposed to some of the heaviest fighting seen by Australians in Vietnam.  Throughout these engagements' and a number of subsequent attacks by fire, the signals squadron not only held their ground but continued to maintain communications"

FSPB Coogee  
Photo (left): Sig Dave Ellis (Radio Det 3RAR) at FSPB Coogee (64-13)
Photo (right): Weapons captured at FSPB Coral by 1 RAR - Sig Robert Parkyns (Radio Det 1RAR)
 M16 Rifle on the pile (9-11).  Note: All the other weapon owners are dead!

Subsequently FSPB Coral was developed and new bunkers constructed, radio relay vehicle lowered and bunkered and strong defences developed.  Three more mortar/rocket attacks were experienced but damage was limited to soft equipment and exposed cables. 

  FSPB Coral  FSPB Coral
Photo (left): Digging the SIGCEN in at FSPB Coral (65-15).
Photo (right):
 Signalman working in the underground SIGCEN at FSPB Coral (59-6)

104 Sig Sqn had radio detachments with 1RAR and 3RAR at FSPB's Coral, Coogee and Balmoral.  Also radio operators were with 1 Field Squadron at Coral and 161 (Indep) Recce Flt at Phu Loi.   Members of 104 Sig Sqn went forward to Balmoral with HQ 1 ATF.  Other members of 104 Sig Sqn provided a VHF retrans station from Bearcat and a radio operator provided communications to 1ATF (Fwd) while the Australian tanks traveled to  FSPB Coral from Nui Dat on the 22nd and 23rd May 1968.

  FSPB Balmoral   FSPB Balmoral
Photo (left):  3RAR CP at FSPB Balmoral.  104 Sig Sqn Radio Operators worked from this CP bunker (63-3).    Photo (right): 3RAR bring NVA prisoners in through the wire at FSPB Balmoral (62-2).

Operation Toan Thang tested the task force signal squadron under most contingencies likely to arise in the theatre.  Whilst maintaining all communications facilities at Nui Dat base, it undertook a deployment from Nui Dat to one field base (Bearcat) and from there to another base (Coral) in an enemy controlled area.  It required the provision of the full range of communications facilities available to the squadron, and it involved maintenance of communications whilst under enemy fire.  It is a credit to those concerned that at no time was there a loss of command communications.  This saved many Australian lives.

104 Sig Sqn was issued its own Armored Command Vehicle (Callsign 85C) as a result of the lessons from the battle and all future deployments had the SIGCEN and Switchboard (Ebony Forward) equipments mounted in the armored vehicle.

110 Signal Squadron

110 Sig Sqn had two detachments in support of the communication effort at FSPB Coral.  One Radio Relay (RR) and the other Secure Radio Teleprinter (RATT).  The RR bearer equipment was a AN/MRC-69 Radio Terminal Shelter System under the command of Cpl Mal Stevens. The Shelter took a number of hits and the enemy used the "pancake" antenna to direct rockets and mortar into the Signals and HQ area.

  110 Sig Sqn   110 Sig Sqn
Photo (left): 110 Sig Sqn RR Antenna that the NVA used to aim their mortars and rockets into the
HQ area at FSPB Coral (61-6).  Photo (right):  110 Sig Sqn RR Truck (61-9).
Note the sandbags over the shelter front vents to ensure blackout.

Map of RR Links to FSPB Coral
Map: 110 Sig Sqn Multi-channel Radio Relay Communications links used from FSPB Coral
during Operation Toan Thang (May 1968

The Secure RATT was commanded by Cpl Trevor Chell and used a Radio Set AN/GRC-106 as its HF bearer. 

It was at the time of the action at FSPB Coral that 110 Sig Sqn was also most extended.  It was operating in 9 locations, including several detachments in support of communications to Coral, in which 23 men were involved.  During this period the availability of the radio relay trunk bearer system to HQ 1ATF (Fwd) averaged 97.5%.  Again, a highly creditable performance, but this forward communications task of 110 Sig Sqn represented only a small part of all the facilities it had to continue to provide at the same time. 

547 Signal Troop

Operating from FSPB Coral was a detachment from 547 Sig Tp that did valuable Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).  Is worth noting that on the advice of 547 Sig Tp, Commander 1ATF changed his initial insertion point for the Coral base. The first planned insertion point was considered dangerously close to an NVA regiment, in fact probably on top of it! 

The Troop deployed a three man detachment under the command of Sgt Jim Brill (RA Sigs) by air into Coral on 13th May 1968.  Jim’s detachment members were Sgt Fred Hawkes (RASigs) and Cpl Tom Williams (Aust Int Corps). Jim and Fred were highly skilled Morse code radio operators and radio traffic analysts and Tom was a Vietnamese linguist and cryptographer. Their limited equipment consisted of two VHF and two HF receivers with power supplies. On arrival at the Fire Support Patrol Base they set up within 104 Sig Sqn defence position alongside HQ 1ATF (Fwd) and commenced radio intercept operations, initially above ground, but  everything was moved underground immediately after the first ground attack against them. Between being mortared, rocketed and defending the headquarters, the detachment intercepted many High Frequency enemy radio networks and recorded them, but the main prize sought, which was enemy VHF voice radio communications using low level codes or ciphers, eluded them for they were few and far between. The fruits of their labour were returned to Nui Dat for detailed analysis, being carried by the Troop OC, Maj Peter Murray, and 2IC, Capt Steve Zagon, who took it in turns to fly between Nui Dat and Coral. They also carried into Coral SIGINT obtained from other sources for the Task Force commander.

547 Sig Tp   547 Sig Tp
Photo (left):  547 Sig Tp work and sleep bunker at FSPB Coral (547-2).
Photo (right):  547 Sig Tp first detachment at FSPB Coral (547-1).
L-R Jim Brill, Tom Williams and Fred Hawkes.

After six days Jim’s detachment was exhausted and a fresh team replaced them under the command of Cpl Ken Trewartha (RASigs). Ken’s detachment members were Cpl John Hunter (Aust Int Corps) and L/Cpl Snowy Turner (RASigs). The new detachment continued to dig and intercept enemy radio communications around the clock, always hoping for the main prize, but to no avail on this occasion.

The battle showed that for future deployments the Troop had to be better equipped to carry out its task away from the specialist set room at Nui Dat.  Five months later the Troop was issued with its own Armored Command Vehicle (Callsign 85D).   

53rd Signal Battalion (US Army)

Detachment from the 53rd Signal Battalion was also at FSPB Coral to provide two telephone channels and secure telegraph circuit direct to HQ 2 Field Force Vietnam (HQ 2FFV) Tactical Operation Centre (TOC).  The US Army Signals were located within the 104 Sig Sqn defence sector and used the Radio Terminal Set AN/MRC-73 and the Teletypewriter, Central Office AN/MGC-17 to provide their communications. 

US Army Signals
Photo:  US Army Signals moving to the convoy start point to return to Long Binh when FSPB Coral was adandon on the 6 May 1968 (48-10)

US Army Signals communication link enabled the USA President, Lyndon Johnson’s staff to get a telephone update on the Battle from the 1ATF (Forward) Duty Officer for our Prime Minister, John Gorton when he visited the White House during the battle!    The President told our Prime Minister we were kicking ass!

1ATF Log 29 May 1968 
HQ 1ATF (Forward) Log serial 3438 - "The president is on the line" (AWM95-1-4-96)

Signals in Vietnam (Post FSPB Coral)
Painting: This remarkable painting "Signals in Vietnam" proudly hangs at the Defence Force Signal of
Schools (DFSS), Watsonia.   The painting is a representation of Signal Units deploying in support
 of HQ 1ATF after the Battle of Coral Balmoral, using the hard lessons learnt.  


Names of Signals Coral Balmoral Veterans

Names of Signals Veterans at the Battles of Coral and Balmoral (PDF)

List prepared by Denis Hare from discussions with each Signal Veteran
as no records from the battle period have survived

(Updated August 2021)

Signals Coral Balmoral Communication Report

Communication Report Op Toan Thang (Bearcat/Coral) (PDF)

Maj Norm Munro OC, 104 Sig Sqn Dated Jun 1968
(Not part of the AWM 104 Sig Sqn War Diaries)

Super 8 Film from FSPB Coral

Movie Clip taken from Super 8 of 104 Sig Sqn at FSPB Coral - WMV (4.6MB) (Film)

Film taken by Alan Ball shows the road party moving to the FSPB (Note the Shelters),
 some members of the unit, Tanks arriving and the mud.

The scene frames below are time stamped and have the names, details, etc.

 0.12 Seconds - Sig Alan "Bally" Ball (Driver)
00m 12s
Sig Alan "Bally" Ball (Driver)
0.15 Seconds - Sig Ken "Blue" McDonald (Radio Op) plus AN/MGC-17 and AN/MTC-7 Shelters
00m 15s
Sig Ken "Blue" McDonald (Radio Op) plus AN/MGC-17 and AN/MTC-7 Shelters
0.17 Seconds - Sig Stan "Monty" Montefiore (TG Mech) guarding during convoy stop
00m 17s
Sig Stan "Monty" Montefiore (TG Mech) guarding during convoy stop
0.27 Seconds - Sgt John Taylor (Radio Op)
00m 27s
Sgt John Taylor (Radio Op)

0.29 Seconds - Sgt Scott Laycock (Stores)
00m 29s

Sgt Scott Laycock (Stores)
0.35 Seconds - Sgt Sidney "Danny" Kaye (Comcen)
00m 35s
Sgt Sidney "Danny" Kaye (Comcen)
0.38 Seconds - WO2 Ron Still (SSM)
00m 38s
WO2 Ron Still (SSM)
0.41 Seconds - Right: LCpl Mal Fergusson (Radio Op/Comcen) - others ?
00m 41s
Right: LCpl Mal "Blue"  Fergusson (Radio Op/Comcen)

0.43 Seconds - Sig Ian Crosthwaite (Radio Op) WIA at FSPB Coral
00m 43s
Sig Ian Crosthwaite (Radio Op) WIA at FSPB Coral
0.46 Seconds - Left: Sig Bob Lowick - Right: member of US Army 53rd Sig Bn
00m 46s
Left: Sig Bob Lowick - Right: member of US Army 53rd Sig Bn     
1.02 Seconds - Australian Centurion Tanks arriving at FSPB Coral 01m 02s
Australian Centurion Tanks arriving at FSPB Coral
1.24 Seconds - Cpl Denis "Rabbit" Hare (Draughtman) - Also driver in the last scene
01m 24s
Cpl Denis "Rabbit" Hare (Draughtman) - Also driver in the last scene

Other Docments of Interest

1ATF OPS35, FRAG 0 No6 to OpO 19/68 (Op Toan Thang) 10 May 1968 (PDF)
Deployment to Coral includes Enemy Situation at 10 May 1968, etc

1ATF (FWD) Enemy Situation AO Surfers (PDF)
Updates at 22 and 29 May 1968

1ATF Road and Air Movement from Coral/Balmoral (PDF)
Details include Signals in Convoy 46/68 (3 Jun 1968) and Convoy 50C/68 (6/7 Jun 1968)

Signal Instruction 3/68 (Op Toan Thang - Deploying Bearcat) (PDF)

Signal Instruction 5/68 (Op Toan Thang - Deploying FSPB Coral) (PDF)

Signal Instruction 6/68 (Op Toan Thang - Abandoning FSPB Coral) (PDF)

Letter from Vietnam

 Signalman Ken Short wrote this three page letter to his sister during the period from Long Binh and FSPB Coral.  Ken was part of the 110 Sig Sqn RATT Detachment and replaced one of the original detachment members Medivac.

Letter Page 1 (PDF)    Letter Page 2 (PDF)   Letter Page 3 (PDF)

AO Surfers and Surfers II Map

 Map showing FSPB Coral and Balmoral
Click Map for Battle of Coral Balmoral areas, which is also marked up with AO Surfers and AO Surfers II.  Also the location of 161 (Indep) Recce Flt at Phu Loi plus Saigon also detailed on Map. 

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