New Zealand Artillery of the Vietnam War
161 Battery Depot RNZA
July 1965 until May 1971
Original Commander: Major Red Potts
When 161 Battery RNZA deployed to South Vietnam on active service in July 1965, those members who, for various reasons, remained behind in Papakura became the nucleus of a new support unit, 161 Battery Depot RNZA. Although Regimental Depots are common in the British Army, the only example in New Zealand was the infantry Battalion Depot in Burnham. This was basically our second battalion preparing for its two year rotation in Malaysia. The manpower resources of the Royal New Zealand Artillery were stretched to the limit by the departure of the Battery, and continuously manning an overseas battery for an indefinite period was obviously going to be a challenge. It could be said that 161 Bty Depot came into existence in an almost ad hoc fashion.
In the Beginning
The new unit took on a number of responsibilities:
The creation of the Depot was relatively straight forward. The personnel remaining after the Battery departed simply took over as a sub-unit of 16 Field Regiment, with what was left of the Battery's equipment, its accommodation and barracks. It says much for the loyalty and dedication of these people that they immediately set to work to build an efficient and functional unit, with no evidence of low morale or recrimination caused by feelings of rejection at being "left behind" when the Battery deployed.
Although it was to be over 12 months before formal Equipment Scales and an Establishment were published, the initial staff luckily covered a reasonable range of ranks and trades, including the vital requirement, instructors. Further, the Depot was well placed to borrow the necessary training equipment from HQ Battery and the neighbouring 11 Battery. Initially most equipment, including the guns, had to be borrowed from the sister battery and periodically returned to allow the Territorial Force gunners to carry out their own training.
The Depot soon received its first trainees, newly graduated from their basic Recruits Course, followed by a trickle of junior RNZA NCOs and gunners from throughout the country. The Depot had less than nine months to prepare the first replacement group, the tour of duty for married members of 161 Battery having been set at seven to ten months. Moreover, a constant concern was the possibility of the need to replace casualties, because in the early months there was simply no way a complete coverage of ranks and trades of the necessary skill level could be provided. Indeed, when the first Reinforcement Demand was received following the deaths of Sgt Don and Bdr White in September 1965, the Depot was unable to match the ranks and trade skills required.
Early on, a close relationship with the School of Artillery was established, and it was arranged that the Depot would train the new recruits to one star level (basic gunnery skills) then send them to the School for two star courses. This arrangement ensured that all recruits were given the advantage of the dedicated training environment and the expert instructors available at the School. The Depot of course experienced the demands of Camp and unit duties, which from time to time tended to conflict with training activities. Basic gunnery for recruits, and collective training, all arms continuation and theatre orientation training for all ranks became the major Depot activities.
161 Battery had for some years been part of the "Ready Reaction" force, and as a result all members had become accustomed to have their personal and family affairs organised against the contingency of a rapid mobi1isation. However, once the Battery was overseas unforeseen minor family difficulties began to surface. A number of wives were unable to drive, for instance, and with the nearest supermarket a couple of miles away, and the family car sitting unused in the garage, they needed help. Similarly, heavy jobs around the house such as digging and lawnmowing, were beyond the capacity of some of the wives. In addition, the strain of separation with husbands exposed to danger meant that a support system was urgently required.
Some of the ladies quickly organised a Wives Club, which provided a forum for the wives to offer mutual support, and in conjunction with the Battery Depot and the Camp Padres, a means of arranging help to those needing assistance. Soldiers posted to the Depot found themselves spending a couple of hours a week mowing lawns, driving "Battery wives" to the shops, teaching them to drive, doing odd jobs around the home and chopping firewood. These activities had a marked effect on the morale of those overseas and of the married men waiting their own posting, as well as adding a new dimension to the training offered young gunners by the Royal Regiment.
The Depot was also the clearing house for the support of the Battery itself. Despite the growing opposition to the war, there was in fact widespread sympathy for the soldiers in South Vietnam. The highest profile was that of the Raglan community, but many RSA Clubs, business firms and individuals quietly sought advice on appropriate gifts and support, and the Depot was able to organise the packing and inclusion of consignments on the monthly C130 resupply flights. The New Zealand Post Office made a major contribution to the general morale and welfare by delivering mail from South Vietnam free of charge, while mail to the soldiers could be sent to a box in Auckland for priority dispatch overseas at the inland postage rate.
By early 1966, when the first drafts of replacements were required, the Depot strength had built up to adequate numbers for practical section and battery exercises to be regularly carried out. These included live shell practices at Waiouru under the auspices of the School of Artillery. Emphasis was placed on the training of officers and other key appointments, to ensure that the highest possible standards were achieved, as it was realised that any errors in action by this group would have unacceptable consequences. The School developed a range of technical courses for these people, following which the Depot's collective training exercises enabled them to practice their skills, both in gunnery and man management, in preparation for posting to the Battery. Qualification on these courses was a pre-requisite to a posting to the Battery. Emphasis was also placed on basic infantry training, and the Depot took pride in achieving a high standard of small arms shooting and patrolling.
Whenever forces are committed to a new theatre there will be specialised adaptations to drills and procedures developed to cope with the current conditions, and South Vietnam was no exception. It was perhaps regrettable that battle experienced officers in the RNZA were by now quite senior and in general no longer directly involved in the practise of gunnery. Korea had been the last major artillery battleground, and operations in Malaya and Borneo had given rise to the deployment of single guns. Neither of these circumstances bore the slightest resemblance to the latest operations. At this stage there was no direct knowledge available of the technical challenges facing the Battery, so specialised theatre procedures were imperfectly understood back home. The first Technical Report from the Battery was deliberately delayed by several months to ensure that it was absolutely accurate, and unfortunately no opportunity had yet been offered for either the School or Depot staff to visit the Battery to enable this difficulty to be overcome. As a result, the Depot desperately needed guidance on the training required by the Battery.
The answer was to adhere strictly to "the book" which was the natural philosophy of the School, leaving it to the Battery in South Vietnam to introduce new arrivals to any local drills which had been developed to meet Task Force requirements. However the Depot felt obliged to prepare their gunners to cope at least with known theatre procedural and equipment variations, plus the practicalities of operating 24 hours a day. This involved coping with lack of numbers caused by the demands for rest, and of sickness, leave, special duties, etc., not often dealt with in peacetime. Exercises were often designed to simulate such demands on officers and senior NCOs.
The differing approaches of School and Depot later led to criticism from the Chief Instructor at the School, anxious to maintain the highest possible technical standards. There were also complaints from some Battery Commanders that the training of some replacements was not up to standard, although others maintained that the "hands on" experience gained once employed by the Battery quickly compensated for any deficiencies in training at the Depot This in fact proved true, mainly because of the high standard of many of the Battery NCOs, and of the continuous nature of the gunners' employment in their allotted trades. Regrettably, only the provision of more and better qualified instructors could have overcome these complaints.
Throughout the existence of the Depot, however, there was a shortage of experienced instructors in the RNZA, the School having first call on the limited pool available. The return to Papakura of the first of the married men brought a welcome boost to the training capacity of the Depot, as a high proportion were NCOs who by now were fully experienced in their trades and the operations being conducted by the Battery. Unfortunately, because many junior NCOs employed as additional instructors in the Depot had been rapidly promoted on the strength of their combat service, many had not had the opportunity to attend the necessary long instructors and advanced gunnery courses. Without this formal training they had a tendency to rely on Battery experience rather than the "book". Despite the unresolved problems and occasional complaints though, it was generally agreed that the training provided by the Depot was at least adequate.
ManningWith the return of personnel from South Vietnam the manning situation improved markedly. By the time the replacement of the married men had been completed about June 1966 the policy of single men completing 18 month tours was modified, because of the improvement in manpower and in the interests of fairness. The monthly drafts of replacements were therefore continued, enabling the single soldiers to be changed over. This allowed a switch to the progressive replacement of the whole Battery over an average of about 12 months, as opposed to the Australian system of rotating batteries, which of course was not possible for the RNZA because we only had the one battery on a war footing.
By late 1966, therefore, the manpower difficulties were being mastered, and much more extensive and focussed training was being delivered by both the School and the Depot. Some innovative adaptations were necessary to simulate the combat conditions met in the Battery, even if it was not possible to replicate a tropical environment in Papakura, let alone Waiouru. Given the peacetime status of the New Zealand Army, certain active service gunnery procedures could not be followed either. For instance sound ranging, the technique of fire adjustment necessary in the South Vietnam jungle, was prohibited by New Zealand safety regulations. Nevertheless, from time to time School staff managed to surreptitiously exercise Forward Observers under training among bush covered areas of the training area.
Up until this time a lack of staff and equipment had continuously caused great difficulties for the Depot. In part, this can be attributed to the fact that the Government, in committing the Battery to South Vietnam, had stipulated that the Defence Department budget was not to be substantially increased to cover the new deployment. With the Battery's ammunition bill approaching $8m, the need to revert to a six gun organisation instead of the initial four guns, (the L5 guns later being upgraded to the American M2A2) and US radio equipment being purchased to replace the totally inappropriate British range, not only the Depot but the whole Defence Force began to feel the pressure.
However, following an incident in which the Battery dropped shells on an Australian patrol the continuing struggle to improve the resources of the Depot came very quickly to an end. A General Staff Directive formalised the responsibilities of the Depot in March 1967, and at the same time a permanent staff establishment was fixed at five officers, eight senior NCOs and seven bombardiers, all either instructors or administrators. Equipment scales were authorised, and an ammunition scale granted which finally allowed for course shooting and tactical exercises to the required active service level.
For the next four years the Depot, in conjunction with the School of Artillery, provided the manpower and home support necessary to keep 161 Field Battery in the field. It played a major, if unsung, part in the success of the active service unit and was responsible for introducing scores of young New Zealanders to the Royal Regiment. Gunners have always taken a pride in their tradition of service and support but in the case of 161 Battery Depot the task was made even more satisfying knowing that their efforts benefited their own Battery.
In May 1971 the Depot was absorbed back into the home establishment of 161 Battery RNZA on their return to New Zealand.
Text: Major Red Potts