Story 84 - Telegram from Vietnam

By John Bertini

110 Sig Sqn SIGCEN (Fwd) in ACV 85C
John Bertini (Left) and Dave Morgan at FSPB Kerry manning the HQ 1ATF (Forward)
ACV COMCEN (Callsign 85C).  Photo supplied by John Bertini


As a Communication Centre (COMCEN) 1 operator I was familiar with the weekly posting orders coming in from Australia. It was always interesting to see who was coming and going, especially from 104 Sig Sqn and from the other units around the place and invariably I would see a familiar name.  Now that I was getting short I took a keener interest in them, especially the 104 Sig Sqn ones.

104 Sig Sqn COMCEN at Nui Dat
1ATF COMCEN at Nui Dat (Owned and manned by 104 Sig Sqn)
Photo supplied by Leigh Bennett

As well as the military traffic and the fields for the weekend races that came in for WO2 William ‘Jock’ Bannigan 2, who ran race betting around the Task Force from the COMCEN cipher office, the COMCEN handled private telegrams back to Australia on behalf of the then Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG).

Telegram paper 1960s and definition
Telegram Paper used in the 1960s with Definition

The private concession telegrams were pretty basic and based on the Expeditionary Forces Messages (EFM) 3 originally used in WW1, then WW2 and Korea.  The procedure was that they could consist only of three code phrases from a code phrase list  which corresponded as nearly as possible to what you wanted to tell the recipient.

Sample of EFM code phrases
Sample of the original 240 x  EFM code phrases available in WW1.
An addition 56 x EFM code phrases were added in 1944.

So to send a telegram, you went to the post office to complete the form and pay whatever the fee was and in due course the appropriately coded telegrams would be collected by the Special Delivery Service (SDS) driver and brought back to the COMCEN where they would be processed and sent back to Australia.  Sounds pretty simple, what could go wrong?

I had advised my parents in Brisbane in a letter that I expected to be coming home shortly and I would let them know before hand by telegram of the particulars of my arrival. 

Posting Order

When a posting order with my name and replacement came in, I waited until it was confirmed through the Orderly Room that I was to be on the 707 Qantas Flight “freedom bird” to Australia on the 10th December 1969.

So, a couple of days before the flight, the SDS driver and I went to the 1ATF Post Office (AFPO) 4.  I completed my telegram and we collected any others for sending and came back to the COMCEN.

To ensure there were no stuff ups, I got my telegram, walked it through registering in at the COMCEN front desk, keyed it myself and sent it on its way 5.

Sydney Airport

In due course, I and all the other returning diggers for that date including three 104 Sig Sqn mates who were returning to Brisbane with me arrived in Sydney Airport in the middle of the night. We were paid. I can’t remember why, but there was no accommodation arranged for us.   A cab driver drove us around aimlessly looking for a hotel or motel and finally gave up and took us back to the airport where we were going to wait for our morning flight to Brisbane.   The place was empty but the cleaners said there were couches in the ladies rest rooms that we could use.

A couple of air hostesses arrived for an early flight to Brisbane that was going empty. The hostess thought they might be able to get us on but the captain would not take us so we had to wait for our scheduled flight which arrived in Brisbane about 9:30 am.

At around 6:30 am I rang home to tell them I had arrived.   My father answered the phone.   He was astounded to hear that I was in Sydney airport. Obviously my telegram had not arrived.

Brisbane Airport

Despite my comparatively unannounced arrival, my parents had managed to get together a large contingent of family and friends to meet me at Brisbane airport. It was great to be back home.

Home from the War

At home later in the morning we were all sitting around having morning tea. I was closest to the open front door and had heard footsteps coming up the stairs and went to the door.   It was a telegram delivery boy. Off course I knew straight away what it was.   It was my delayed telegram, announcing my return home, heavily stamped with Post Office apologies blaming the Army for the delay.

Despite my best efforts I had managed to beat my own telegram home and had the dubious distinction of both sending and receiving my own telegram.   What could go wrong?

PMG Poster


1.  Communication Centre (COMCEN) was manned and operated by the Task Force Signals (RASigs) and consisted of telegraph messaging, encryption equipment, telephone switching plus telephone line that interconnection all the Task Force units and mulichannel radio links to 1ALSG, HQAFV and HQ11FFV.  The COMCEN also operated Special Delivery Service (SDS) as well as an Air Delivery Service (ADS) for messages and documents.   104 Sig Sqn operated the COMCEN at Nui Dat from early 1967 until the Task Force withdraw from Vietnam in late 1971.  As a result of the lessons learnt from the Battle of FSPB Coral Balmoral in May/June 1968, 104 Sig Sqn obtained an Armoured Command Vehicle (ACV) Type M577 (Callsign 85C).  This vehicle was fitted out as a mobile, protected, COMCEN and accompanied 1ATF whenever the HQ deployed away from Nui Dat on operations.  Signal Centre (SIGCEN) is an interchageable name for COMCEN and generally used in British Doctrine.  The term was also used during the Vietnam War by many RASigs members.

2. WO2 William ‘Jock’ Bannigan was the Supervisor COMCEN (SC) and did a number of tours to South Vietnam serving with both 104 Sig Sqn, 110 Sig Sqn and finally with the Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam (Signal Detachment).  Jock was also known as 'Big Bill'.

3.  Expeditionary Forces Messages (EFM) concession telegrams for Vietnam commence from 1st  August 1965.  See statement by the Minister for the Army here and 1ATF RO details here

4. The Royal Australian Army Service Corps (RAASC) provided Postal Services in South Vietnam and had a number of Australian Forces Post Offices (AFPO) Detachments including AFPO No 1 in Saigon, AFPO No 3 in Vung Tau, AFPO No  4 at Nui Dat and AFPO No 5 at Phan Rang.  

5. Personal Telegrams Instructions for the 1ATF COMCEN is details in Chapter 2, Paragraphs 233-234 of  the Standing Operating Procedures for the 1ATF Signal Centre (1969).  See SOP here

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