How Australian and New Zealand Special Operations Units participated in the Vietnam War


  • Australia and New Zealand were two of the few allies of the United States to send troops to fight during the Vietnam War.
  • They sent their best special operations units, the Special Air Service Regiment from Australia and the Special Air Service from New Zealand.
  • These special operators quickly gained a reputation for bravery and professionalism.

Unlike the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where American troops fought as part of multinational coalitions, the Vietnam War was almost exclusively an American affair.

Only a few steadfast allies of the United States contributed troops to the war. Australia and New Zealand were among them, sending their best troops.

Special air service from below

Soldier of the Royal Australian Regiment in Vietnam

A soldier from the Royal Australian Regiment in Vietnam.

The American army

The Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) are the main special operations units in these two countries.

Both units have their roots in the North African campaign of World War II, three years of fierce round-trip desert fighting between Allied and Axis troops.

During this campaign, Lt. David Stirling, an enterprising British officer, launched and then created the Special Air Service to tackle German and Italian supply lines and airfields. The unit recruited from all Commonwealth of Nations, including Australia and New Zealand.

After the war, Australians and New Zealanders who had served in the British SAS returned home and argued to create their own versions of the unit.

The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), another special operations unit that worked closely with the SAS, was made up mostly of New Zealanders and influenced the NZSAS.

SASR and NZSAS in Vietnam

Australian soldiers in Vietnam

US Army helicopters land near members of the Royal Australian Regiment north of the village of Phuoc Hai in southern Vietnam on August 26, 1967.

Michael Coleridge / Australian War Memorial

The SASR deployed to Vietnam in 1966 as part of Task Force Australia, a brigade-sized formation. Two years later, when New Zealand committed troops, the NZSAS joined the Australian unit and worked under the Australian SAS squadron.

Each of the three SASR Saber squadrons traveled to Vietnam for a one-year tour, each completing two deployments.

Prior to deploying to Vietnam, SASR and NZSAS underwent extensive training. Selection processes and operator follow-up training courses focused on small unit patrols and operations.

“All SAS operators must take a patrol course as part of their continuing education to become fully qualified to wear the sand beret,” Sam McDonald, a former Australian SAS soldier who served in Vietnam, told Insider.

The primary mission of the SASR and NZSAS was to conduct long-range reconnaissance patrols to gather intelligence for Task Force Australia. However, as the war progressed, their assignments expanded to include offensive missions, including destruction or capture and direct action operations, rather than simply gathering intelligence.

By 1971, when the last NZSAS soldier left, the Kiwis had participated in 169 patrols and their Australian counterparts had accumulated approximately 1,200 operations. Their operations represented more than 500 enemies killed or captured, while they only had two soldiers killed in action.

Jungle ghosts

Australian and New Zealand troops in Vietnam

Members of the ANZAC battalion, which included Australian and New Zealand troops, walk through a paddy field near Nui Dat in southern Vietnam.

Bryan Campbell / Australian War Memorial

Australian and New Zealand special operators quickly developed a reputation for bravery and professionalism in Vietnam. Some of their missions have been memorable.

“There have been reports from the US Air Force that as many as 700 NVA were marching four abreast on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and three SAS patrols were dispatched to try to locate them,” McDonald said of one of these operations.

“Our patrol found them when a platoon ambushed us as we were filling our water bottles. area from where we were picked up, ”McDonald added.

On another occasion, an NZSAS patrol on a reconnaissance mission was patrolling its base after eight days in the jungle when exhausted commandos ran into the enemy.

The Kiwi commandos stayed low, hoping the enemy would pass by without noticing them. But a few North Vietnamese smelled something and left the trail to examine the surrounding jungle. They did not come back alive.

Royal New Zealand Artillery troops in Vietnam

New Zealand artillery troops lead a firing mission with an M2A2 howitzer in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

The American army

In 1969, an NZSAS patrol had just intervened from a helicopter for a five-day patrol. The Kiwi commandos did not know that their landing zone was compromised and that North Vietnamese soldiers were waiting in ambush.

As the NZSAS soldiers left on their patrol, hell opened up on them, “and we entered this huge deserted rice field on the edge of a bush. It was going to be a five-day patrol, if I understand. Remember well. The patrol lasted 26 minutes and we covered 26 meters, “said a former NZSAS operator.

Those few hectic minutes seemed like an eternity for the NZSAS operators, who fired over 400 rifle shots and threw 25 grenades.

“It was a hive of activity regardless of the enemy. I couldn’t tell you if they were North Vietnamese or Vietnamese because it was the rainy season and the grass was very cool. had a great clearance, so there’s quite a bit of time you are exposed to the possibility of a shot on the ground, ”added the Kiwi commando.“ If everyone was screaming and singing and no one listening, then it is chaos. And we all stayed in a tight little package. We only settled the tree line with gunfire. “

It was only after combat helicopters reinforced the patrol that the NZSAS commandos were able to board the helicopter and escape.

Such encounters were common, but NZSAS and SASR soldiers took pride in their ability to remain undetectable in the jungle for long periods of time. They were so stealthy that their North Vietnamese enemies nicknamed them the Ma Rung, or “ghosts of the jungle”.

A solid reputation

New Zealand Army soldier in Vietnam

New Zealand Army Pvt. Garry Collins in Nui Dat, South Vietnam, April 1968.

Richard William Crothers / Australian War Memorial

Both units have acquired a reputation for robustness, adaptability and ingenuity, reflecting the history of their country. SASR and NZAS operators are held in high esteem by their foreign counterparts.

“I’ve only worked with Australians, and they are excellent soldiers. Really top notch. Hard as they come and ingenious. They reminded me of the Marines at times. [US Marine Corps] motto “do with it,” a retired Delta Force operator told Insider.

“I have also heard great things from the New Zealanders, although I have never worked with them. Both units have a solid reputation” in the special operations community, the retired operator added.

The relationship the United States has established with Australia and New Zealand remains strong. The two countries were the first to send troops to Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks. As in Vietnam, these troops were SAS commandos.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.


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