On their own, a minefield and barbed wire entanglements would not keep a VC or NVA sapper out of the fire-base lines, it would just slow them down. It took alert men with guns, booby traps and trip flares to achieve that.
Night did not bring any relief from the mortars; it joined forces with them to provide cover to the sappers who may soon attempt to infiltrate the perimeter.
Schermuly, mortar and artillery illumination rounds, plus flares dropped by ‘Spooky’ helped to aid the defenders but the light from the flares was, of course, also of assistance to the enemy, in particular to his snipers.
Earlier in the day, the enemy had mortared the flanks of the fire-base, dropping HE rounds upon the slopes until they noted the lack of secondary explosions. The impossibility of having a mined, cover-free, kill zone in a fertile jungle setting was presenting itself as a problem for security once more.
For the previous four hours, the enemy had largely concentrated his fire between the western and northern sides of the perimeter. The occasional round would land somewhere else but generally the pressed men of the ARVN company elsewhere on the perimeter counted their blessings. The same could not be said of the veterans, those advisors, Montagnards and visiting troops with a previous war, or a fire-fight or ten, under their belts, these men did not get to call themselves veterans by accepting given situations at face value. The enemy was up to something.
The Empire Quartet was waiting at a small gap in the sandbags on the south-east side of the perimeter. It was, in effect, a modern day sally port, a secure entryway through the fortifications. Only wide enough for one man to squeeze through at a time it was near invisible from the outside. A weighted frame, wrapped in barbed wire and bedecked with nails acted as the ‘door’, one that could only be opened from the inside. None of the men wore webbing equipment or carried firearms; they were armed with various edged weapons. WW1 era trench knives served the two sons of ANZAC, these knives incorporated a knuckleduster and a sharp, bone penetrating, stud on the hilt for cracking skulls. The trench knives made Peter’s Fairbairn/Sykes fighting knife and Dip’s Kukri seem positively civilised in comparison.
With all visible skin blacked out with camouflage cream they waited in the darkness next to a fighting position manned by a trio of the largely untrained ARVN troops who had been foisted upon 'Ben' Gunn.
The moon was about to slip below the horizon but by its light Dip could see the nearest ARVN soldier’s eyes, which were wide and fearful. In a way, Dip Rai sympathised with the men who had been dumped here because they expendable and their high command apparently expected the fire-base to fall. It was the unspoken policy of the general staff to follow President Diem’s wish to preserve the best troops and equipment for use against internal coup attempts, not military incursions by hostile external forces.
Most of the ARVN at Fire-base Zara were getting it into their heads that it was sink or swim, time to fight or die, not hide amongst the villagers as a few had attempted before the civilians were evacuated.
Beyond them, over the sandbag wall and wire, lay the dark hillside that sloped away until it met the jungle. The intervening ground was their kill zone, which the manuals stated should be prepared by the clearance of undergrowth and the removal of any natural undulations or folds in the ground that may offer cover to an enemy. Even before mortaring had left shell holes to hide in there had been a foot high growth of grass and plant life taking hold. It was not a lot of cover for attacking infantry but it was ample for a stealthy man to approach the perimeter.
The defenders remained alert and expended schermuly para-illuminators at infrequent intervals but unfortunately the distinctively loud crack of the percussion cap igniting the propellant is then followed by a sky rocket ‘whoosh’, accompanied by a trail of sparks, giving three seconds warning that it is going to get bright for at least forty seconds. By the time the flare is alight beneath its tiny parachute the enemy is already hugging the ground.
Replacing the trip flares and booby-traps that the mortaring had destroyed was the fire-bases best insurance against surprise intrusions.