Grose River Valley, eastern Blue Mountains, New South Wales.
With the failure to capture Canberra in the days immediately following the amphibious landings, other lines of advance had been attempted which would outflank the defenders at the Macquarie Pass and those astride the Kings Highway west of Bateman’s Bay.
The Chinese attempted to force the Hawkesbury Road and Great Western Highway, which entered the mountains at different points but met part way across the range. If successful, it would have allowed the enemy to attack the capital from both the north and south, overstretching the allies’ limited forces. It had met with defeat at the hands of mainly small groups of Australians using the home ground advantage. This was infantry country and the ANZACs knew every inch of it as well as the trick of living in that unique environment.
Burnt out tanks and AFVs marked the sites of dozens of ambushes along the two roads, and out in the bush the bleaching bones of corpses, as climate and small animals speed decomposition, showed where the visiting team’s infantry had almost always come second.
Small units from the ANZAC’s allies had assisted in the contest for the Blue Mountains, troops from the US 10th Mountain Division as well as one small band of veteran mountain warfare specialists from 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines.
With the attrition at sea biting and the delay in the arrival of their 2 Corps, the Chinese had not mounted any further operations in the Blue Mountains for over a fortnight. The allied command were seeing this as an opportunity to strike at the enemy with raids designed to hamper their use of the few roads still bypassing Sydney.
A direct consequence of the nuclear attack upon Sydney had been to put a crimp in the highway network surrounding the city for all road travel between the northeast and southwest of New South Wales. The city is hemmed in by hills and forests at either side of it on the coast, and by the Blue Mountains at its back.
The main highways and motorways, which skirted around the city, were now within the fallout area, so to travel from the most northerly boundary of Chinese occupied Australia, to its southern extreme, the Chinese were forced to use small outlying roads that gave the city, and its larger fallout zone, a wider berth. However, aside from occasional air attacks the enemy road traffic on those roads had gone unhindered.
The two reasons given for the choice of a ground attack, rather than air strikes, were that allies were husbanding their air assets and building up ordnance stockpiles for the eventual drive to expel the invaders, and by using ground forces it would force the Chinese to expend more of its own ground forces in guarding other targets from similar attacks. So the M&AWC and SASR had been tasked with leaving the mountains and venturing on to enemy held turf to destroy the Yarramundi and North Richmond bridges that crossed the Nepean River.
The bridges themselves were not complex arrays of spans and arches, they were not particularly high either as weekend anglers constituted the rivers principle traffic at those points, so the men could carry in sufficient explosives to destroy two supports on each bridge and put them out of action.
The small roads that the bridges carried were two of the remaining three safe roads available to the Chinese for bypassing the fallout zone and with them out of action even temporarily, the Chinese would either have to cross through the radioactive zone surrounding the dead city or put everything on just the one remaining road. The planners of the forthcoming offensive calculated that this would cause severe delays in moving supplies and ground forces and present the allied air forces with a potential bottleneck and target rich environment at the small town of Windsor, where the only other bridge on that side of Sydney was situated.
For Richard Dewar’s part, he would have been perfectly happy for the air force to fly over and drop three laser guided bombs, all of which could be replaced by the time he had walked to the Yarramundi Bridge and back, he was tired and feeling the strain.
The Grose River valley, a narrow, forested and steep sided gorge offered cover and a relatively safe approach route down out of the mountains, principally due to the covert OPs manned by SASR and New Zealand SAS troopers, which were the tripwire that alerted the allies to enemy patrols entering the range.
Working on the assumption that their own troops were being compromised and ambushed due to electronic surveillance, no matter which route they chose, the Peoples Liberation Army had concentrated on high technology countermeasures. In actual fact, the Chinese had failed to realise that it was nothing more sophisticated at work than pairs of eyes in well-concealed hides, and these were the source of their constant undoing.
SASR’s six wheeler long-range patrol vehicles had carried the SASR and M&AWC fighting patrols part of the way from their current base of operations, situated next to Bowens Creek, at the foot of Mount Irvine. Now on foot they moved tactically, despite the overview provided by the network of hides and OPs, but even with the 15lb demolition charge each carried in addition to their equipment they had made good time.
There was little in the way of an air threat, although all were alert for the sound of beating rotors or jet engines, and the greatest hazard on the ground was from snakes, Eastern Browns, Red-Bellied Blacks, Copper Heads, Death Adders and Tiger Snakes had all enjoyed the reduction in human activity that war had brought to the mountains and were thriving. Accordingly, the non-snake lovers were quite happy that they were able to move by day and everyone was doubly cautious about where they bivvied up for the night.
The M&AWC presence in Australia had tripled in recent weeks, being brought up to Troop strength, although the lieutenant sent out with them had been an early casualty , which had left Richard in effect a major commanding a troop until a replacement arrived. Only two of the original ‘Gansu’ marines remained with him as the third had broken his collarbone in a fall during the night combat ascent of a rock face. The replacement and sixteen reinforcements had all served with Richard at other times, and all had seen action in Germany, fighting as infantry on The Vormundberg, so he had no doubts about their quality.
The SASR troopers with whom they worked were experienced soldiers, they had all ‘Seen the Elephant’ as some Americans say, and they had all see combat. On that score, the older troopers had lost their cherries in Iraq, and the younger members had seen a great deal of action against the Chinese 3rd Army since the invasion.
The chain of command could have been problematic as he obviously outranked the lieutenant commanding the SASR troop, but ability counted for more than mere pay grades in his opinion and the SASR troop commander was very capable. As agreed between the two officers, Lieutenant Waring paid lip service Major Dewar as the senior officer but the M&AWC were attached to SASR, not the other way around. Lieutenant Waring gave no orders to Richard but the Royal Marine responded well to his ‘suggestions’.
The two troops would divide into their individual fighting patrols three miles west of where the Grose joined the Nepean, with the SASR going across country but the M&AWC enjoying the relative cover that the banks of the Grose afforded them until within a quarter mile of the bridge at Yarramundi.
Before dawn on the third day, they made contact with the OP at the easterly extreme of the valley. The OP had eyeball on the Yarramundi Bridge through a telescope in the hide but it was too far away to make out much detail. They had aerial photographs of both bridges but these were ten days old and therefore not to be depended upon. CTR, close target reconnaissance, would need to be carried out before the plans for the assault were formulated and recce patrols would be required for this purpose.
Richard and Lieutenant Waring found their own OP site on high ground on the north side of the narrow river valley where the two bridges could be seen. The four members of each recce patrol spent an hour quartering the ground that they would cross that night. They were looking for the best route, although this did not in any way imply the ‘easiest’. Natural and man-made obstacles were noted, and aside from the physical obstacles such as wire fences and walls, there were animals to consider too, calling-out in alarm and noisily moving away from interlopers. However, the grass in fields meant for dairy cows, beef and sheep was visible blowing in the breeze, not close cropped by grazing stock. The submarines toll on enemy shipping had now led to farm animals being seized in order to feed the forces of occupation.
Animal wise, the principal bane of the soldier trying to move silently at night has always been that of dogs, so wind direction is also a factor in route planning, avoiding being upwind of a farmhouse if possible. The countryside they were due to cross though had numerous small farms dotted about it so somewhat callously the raiders were hoping that hunger had driven the occupants to kill and eat the dogs.
A sergeant led each of the patrols, departing immediately after they had carried out night rehearsals to ensure everyone knew their place in the scheme of things and final adjustments to equipment could be made.
Major Dewar and Lieutenant Waring took turns on radio watch with an ear open for the sounds of gunfire that would announce their missions failure, but the patrols avoided discovery and returned before dawn.
Luck was with them, if not with the farm dogs, they had enjoyed a barking and howl free transit of the intervening ground. The patrols were able to pinpoint sentry positions, changeover times, and the air defence trenches for each bridge along with the AFV for the infantry section guarding each one. The Chinese were more concerned with air raids upon the bridges than they were by ground attack. The nearest they had come to discovery at the Yarramundi bridge had been due to the sudden appearance of a soldier with a fishing rod seeking to augment his rations. The marine’s sergeant and the lance corporal who had accompanied him on the CTR had huddled out of sight mere feet away beneath an over-hanging section of the Grose rivers bank. One of the frequent rain showers had driven the nighttime angler away, allowing the marines to resume their task.
It took the two officers an hour to write up their sets of orders for ‘O’ Groups during the afternoon. It was not going to be a ‘noisy’ if they could help it and therefore synchronising their actions was a necessary measure to ensure surprise at both bridges. They would be prepared for a fight but each patrol would neutralise the sentries, wire the bridge supports, light the figurative blue touch paper and make for the hills.
As SASR had the greater distance to cover they would depart ninety minutes ahead of the M&AWC but whichever group reached its FRV, final rendezvous point, first would wait for the other before closing with the target.
The sergeants were tasked with creating models representative of both the route their patrols would take and the targets themselves, in greater detail, but first they ate and slept.
With nothing further to be achieved until the ‘O’ Groups the OP was carefully deconstructed and everyone slept when not ‘stagging on’ of course at one of the two low sangars built from boulders on the river’s edge.
Down at the Yarramundi Bridge, Private Chien Thu took up his fishing rod and headed back over to his favourite stretch of river a few hundred yards away at the nearby Grose. His comrades on the guard detail had pretty much ruined any chance of catching anything in the Nepean by grenade fishing, collecting the dead and stunned fish that floated to the surface after the grenade’s detonation. The addition to their rations was short term as even the tiddlers were victims of the concussion. No more fish lived on that stretch near the bridge.
He arrived at the spot he had occupied the night before but the sun was at his back, casting his shadow on the waters and frightening away his prey so he decided to cross over using boulders and rocks as stepping-stones. Climbing down the bank he lost his footing and dropped his tackle box that landed in the shallows by an overhang. Cursing softly he clambered down, but despite all the muttering he was thankful it had not burst open. He bent to retrieve it but paused on seeing something beneath the overhang that the rain had not washed away.
Following the afternoon O Groups the marines and troopers carried out their daylight rehearsals during which the men who had been delegated the task of demolishing the supports practiced against the clock, a stopwatch to be precise. As they became confident, and fast, in their actions of affixing twelve, 15lb charges to each of the midstream supports they were then blindfolded and repeated the exercise until they had matched the previous fastest time.
Weapons were cleaned and equipment checked, and fresh batteries placed in night viewing aids. Passive night goggles were in short supply, so too were the batteries that powered them, and each patrol had just four pairs each. They were handled with extreme care and distributed according to need, the scout, the sentry neutralisers and the patrol commander had the PNGs but the fire support teams could use the thermal imaging facility of their Javelin anti-tank system. The GPMG and M203 grenade launchers with the fire support teams would have to be aimed the old-fashioned way with the Mk 1 eyeball.
Finally, everyone stocked up on carbs with their late afternoon meal before all items were packed away in readiness, with the explosives at the top of Bergens where they were easily at hand.
They would not be returning this way and the two groups would RV at Burralow Creek in the valley north this one.
Night rehearsals followed last light, after which the marines and troopers shook hands and wished one another good luck.
The SASR troops moved in single file with their various groups indistinguishable from the others, scout/point, navigator, pacer, 1st fire support team, sentry neutralisers, demolitions men, 2nd fire support team, check navigator, check pacer and the FRV protection party at the rear.
Only when encountering roads did they move into line abreast, crossing all at once as a single fleeting shape instead twenty-four targets of opportunity.
The check pacer and check navigator existed both as insurance against going astray and as a form of multiple redundancy should someone lose count, lose track or simply are killed.
At each RV they moved into all-round defence and listened whilst scanning al about with night viewing devices. If there was any question of their being in the wrong location the check pacer and check navigator would have made their doubts known.
There was no light pollution anymore, no illuminated highways to drive on, no city lights to reflect off the cloud base and the moon would not rise until 0220hrs, so the darkness was almost total. The only sound was that of the breeze rusting the treetops and long grass as they moved quietly and carefully towards their objective.
The M&AWC had no roads or tracks to negotiate, no barbed fences to give off a potentially give-away audible twang when released or to snare the unlucky climber, but they were organised in the same way as the Australian troopers and moved in single file.
They followed the riverbed the recce patrol had used the previous night with that patrols members leading the way, the pre-designated RVs at the end of each navigation leg were an opportunity to listen for any sound of enemy activity.
At the fourth RV they heard traffic ahead, a small convoy crossing the bridge, but it did not stop and once the sound of engines had faded to nothing they listened a few minutes longer before proceeding on towards their FRV.
The small town of North Richmond was no more than a burnt out ruin, the scene of a battle between US 5th Mechanised Division troops and the Chinese during the invasion. Lt Waring had been informed by the recce patrol that the air around the badly damaged sewerage treatment works was pretty unpleasant, he had therefore chosen the copse of trees on the plants riverside as the site of the FRV. It was a little far from the objective, as FRV positions go, but they moved in unmolested and settled down to wait for Richards radio code word, ‘Cream Cracker’, which would announce they were in their FRV and the main business of the night could commence.
Scrub bush and mimosa, a hundred yards short of where the M&AWC recce had encountered the fisherman, was where Richard had chosen for their final RV. This was where the patrol would re-unite even if, or especially if, everything went to hell in a hand basket and the operation was a bust.
They moved in without incident as if this were just another RV at the end of a ‘leg’, listened for signs of trouble and only when satisfied did Richard send the code word.
Four men, the FRV protection party, would remain and they handed over their demolition charges before moving into all-around defence with their ankles overlapping while the quietly removed their Bergens, extracted the demolitions charges and moved out.
Fire Support Team 1 and the marine who would take out the sentry on the eastern side of the bridge returned to the river and followed it to the junction with the Nepean, which was fordable above where the waters met.
Fire Support Team 2, the second sentry silencer, the demolitions team and Richard all followed the trees by the road.
At the end of the treeline they should be able to see and engage if necessary the infantry section in their AFV, a Type 89 and two of the three AAA trenches.
The first hint that all was not as it should be was the obvious absence of the AFV, the sentry and the Strela crews in the trenches, the second clue was the parachute flare that arose to illuminate the seven Royal Marines wading across the Nepean.
The SASR fighting patrol had further to go to reach their bridge and as light travels faster than sound the parachute flare several miles upriver was their first warning that carefully laid plans had proved for nought. The thunder of automatic cannons, automatic weapons confirmed it. The enemy had been set up and waiting for the M&AWC at the Yarramundi Bridge.
Lt Waring immediately halted his men and they turned about, returning to their FRV and immediately bugged out, the mission scrubbed.
Even if the defenders at the North Richmond Bridge were not also laying in ambush they could not fail to be on the alert now.
Under the flares white light Richard could see the river stained red with the blood of his marines, caught in a withering hail of fire they had absolutely no chance at all.
Two more his men were down following a brief attempt to subdue the enemy fire but as it seemed to be coming from armoured vehicles, it was effective only in drawing attention to them. Heavy calibre machine guns and 20mm cannon had simply blown the two men apart. Richard watched for signs of movement from them that would indicate they were still breathing but they lay like broken, blooded and discarded dolls.
The patrol had brought two Javelin command launch units and four missiles with them, of which one CLU and two of those missiles were lost in the river and probably damaged anyway.
The second fire support team fired a Javelin and were rewarded by the sight of their target blowing up on being hit, the Type 80 MBT’s stored ammunition exploding and sending the turret spinning.
One of the marines was recovering fallen demolition charges and Richard shouted at him to leave them. The mission was a complete failure and if anyone destroyed that bridge it was not going to be them unless they withdrew and lived to fight another day.
The second Javelin missile, their last, was fired and the operators detached the CLU from the empty launch tube and began crawling away.
For the moment, there was only the light of the burning tank and the second javelins victim, but Richard was not inclined to stick his head up to see what had been hit. A second parachute flare had malfunctioned, failing to ignite, so they had only the enemy’s thermal sights to worry about, he thought with no little irony.
In two groups of five, they worked their way back towards the FRV. Once there they would collect the remaining four men and abandon the Bergens, beating feet to get clear.
At some point, the enemy were going to re-cross the bridge in pursuit so time was of the essence and as soon as he judged they were no longer receiving effective enemy fire they ran.
Only a few dozen yards from the FRV on the bank of the Grose River, they were again illuminated by a parachute flare and by its light, they saw movement on the far bank. For a moment, Richard thought it was friendly troops because there was a US M163 visible in the fore, its rotary-barrelled Vulcan anti-aircraft cannon in the lowered, anti-infantry, position.The four men lying amid the scrub and mimosa across the river were visible as glowing heat sources in the Vulcan’s thermal sight and the vehicle, which had been captured during the invasion, opened fire with a tearing sound.
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