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Spirit of the Tunnel Rats lived on in Afghanistan

(Then) Captain Sandy MacGregor on a field telephone to a sapper in the tunnels at Cu Chi, Vietnam

(Then) Captain Sandy MacGregor on a field telephone to a sapper in the tunnels at Cu Chi, Vietnam

I’m going to take a wild guess and say that there are former Tunnel Rats out there who are spitting chips that we used their name on our book.  The logic would be that the only people entitled to call themselves Tunnel Rats were the men who entered the tunnels dug by the Vietcong during the Vietnam war – and you could be forgiven for thinking that too.

However, there’s a lot more to it than that.  First of all, while the vast majority of Tunnel Rats were American troops, the first and originals were Australians.  My co-author Sandy MacGregor, as a young captain in 1965, ordered his men to investigate a tunnel system they had discovered in the Cu Chi area north-west of Saigon.

Sandy says he was oblivious to American standing orders that the tunnels were to be destroyed but not to be entered (although it’s doubtful if he would have followed the instructions had he known, given that he had a habit of choosing the orders of whichever of his masters – the Americans or the Australians – suited him better).

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So let’s be clear, the very first Tunnel Rats were the soldiers of 3 Field Troop of 1RAR (Royal Australian Regiment).  Their traditions were carried on by 3 Troop of the Royal Australian Engineers and that’s where the whole Tunnel Rats things get a bit murky.

Without putting too fine a point on it, the people who have done a great job of keeping the flame of the Tunnel Rats burning decided they needed to set some parameters, not least because there were people who had no claim whatsoever to the name who were parading themselves as ex Tunnel Rats.

The result is that there are sappers in 3 Troop who never set foot in a tunnel who got to wear their unique badge while other non-sappers, who did explore the tunnels, were not entitled to do so.  Such is life – there’s a lot more to military service than a name and a badge.

Somewhere between Vietnam and Afghanistan, 3 Troop was disbanded, taking with it the historic connection to the original Tunnel Rats and, significantly, a US Presidential citation for the whole of 1RAR but for which 3 Field Troop was the only engineer recipient.

Oops! After considerable pressure (not least from Sandy) 3 Troop was reinstated, the citation restored and the broken thread to the Tunnel Rats was rejoined.  And current members of the 3 Troop get to wear the Tunnel Rats badge with honour.

However, that’s really just about bragging rights.  There are two much more significant connections back to the Tunnel Rats from our sappers who served in Afghanistan.  Firstly, the sappers of 3 Field Troop and their successors had to learn to fight a war in a very different way.

The use of booby traps meant that, rather than being kept in reserve for special tasks, sappers were pretty soon right up front, often ahead of the forward scouts, looking for and dealing with the devices cunningly concealed by the Vietcong.

This was forgotten in the 40 years between the wars but it was very quickly revived when the nature of the greatest threat to Australian soldiers in Afghanistan was revealed.  Bullets weren’t the problem – bombs and IEDs were.

And finally, in the dozens of interviews we conducted with sappers for this book, we realized many of these young men held the Tunnel Rats in such high regard that they tended to dismiss their own heroic efforts.

So you can quibble about the title of the book as much as you like, but Sandy and I have collaborated on three other books that feature the exploits of the original Tunnel Rats and we have no hesitation is saying that their siprit lives on in the young sappers who saved the lives of so many by their exploits in Afghanistan.

Jimmy Thomson, July 26, 2015

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