The Australian Tunnel Rats: Courage in the Depths of Vietnam’s Tunnels

The Australian Tunnel Rats, a group of fearless men serving in the Engineer Field Troops during the Vietnam War, played a crucial but often overlooked role in the conflict. Tasked with exploring and clearing enemy bunker systems, these individuals faced the daunting challenge of navigating through narrow, lightless, and almost airless tunnels armed with only a flashlight, a bayonet, and unwavering courage.

The inception of the Tunnel Rats was unplanned, with 3 Field Troop being thrust into this unexpected role during Operation Crimp in the Ho Bo Woods in January 1965. Despite lacking formal training and preparation, volunteers courageously entered the tunnels, discovering valuable intelligence that marked the beginning of their unintentional career as Tunnel Rats. Astonishingly, the troopers received no prior knowledge or operational techniques from past tunnel clearance experiences, leading to unanticipated challenges.

In Ho Bo Woods as the Troop delved deeper into tunnel exploration, tragedy struck on the fourth day when Corporal Bob Bowtell, attempting to navigate the claustrophobic passages, succumbed to suffocation. The deadly realities of war became painfully apparent, but the troopers, undeterred, continued their perilous mission. Over six days on Operation Crimp, six casualties, including one fatality and five injuries, were attributed to ‘bad air’ in the tunnels. However, a closer examination suggests that tear gas remnants and insufficient ventilation were likely culprits.

Following their withdrawal from Operation Crimp, 3 Field Troop relocated to Vung Tau and then to Nui Dat, where they actively engaged in infantry support roles and various engineering tasks. Despite the troopers’ exceptional versatility and courage, the limitations of their experience and the absence of training became evident. The Troop’s exploration of tunnels continued, but as their tour of duty neared its end, a shift in focus occurred: documenting their techniques and establishing training for future Tunnel Rats.

The Australian Tunnel Rats’ legacy is one of courage and resilience in the face of unforeseen challenges. Their contributions, though marked by tragedy, laid the groundwork for subsequent tunnel exploration efforts. The importance of experience, effective processes, and prior training became apparent, prompting the troopers to document their knowledge for the benefit of those who would follow in their footsteps. The Troop’s varied and busy life reflected not only their role in tunnel exploration but also their broader contributions to the war effort.

The Australian Tunnel Rats exemplified bravery and adaptability in an unexpected and perilous role during the Vietnam War. Their experiences underscore the importance of preparedness, training, and documentation in the face of unforeseen challenges. As we reflect on their contributions, we recognize the unsung heroes who ventured into the darkness, on hands and knees, to confront the hidden dangers that lay beneath the surface of the Vietnam War.


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  • Clive Williams December 7, 2023   Reply →

    The comment about searching tunnels “on hands and knees” in the last paragraph is misleading. Many of the tunnels searched on Operation Crimp by 1 RAR soldiers, and subsequently 3 Field Troop, just had the dimensions of a large microwave oven. That meant you lay on your stomach with your arms in front of you, one hand with a torch and the other with a pistol, and pushed yourself along with your toes and by wriggling your body. A tunnel that allowed one to be on hands and knees would have been regarded as luxuriously large! And by the way, none of us – infantry or engineers – was fearless. It scared the life out of us.

  • Ray Forster December 9, 2023   Reply →

    I was one of those who went down that tunnel to try and help Bob. Even though I was ordered not to go back down but disobeyed and I went down several more times. Life is funny, I thought I was going to be charged on returning back to base, I was worried. I found out later that Sandy McGregor had put me in for a MM. My reaction was it won’t bring Bob back. I now have lung problems from this. I also have recollections regarding this time. I am just one of many who have problems regarding these tunnels.

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