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JAMES R. ARNOLD
TET OFFENSIVE 1968. TURNING POINT IN VIETNAM

The Soviet RPD machine-gun tired the same ammunition as the American M-60. However, at 10.5 pounds it was less than half as heavy as its counterpart. It was cap able of firing 900 metres, 200 metres less than the M-60, but this seldom mattered in situations where combat ranges typically were less than 20 metres.

The fundamental problems confronting the Communists are well-expressed by the commander of the 2nd Viet Cong Division: 'When the Americans entered the war, we spent all our time trying to figure out how to fight you. The incredible density of your firepower and your mobility were our biggest concerns.'

Communist Weapons and Tactics

Both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese lacked the heavy weapons of their opponents.

They essentially operated as light infantry. Since they could not compete with American firepower, they developed a variety of compensatory tactics. Analysis of the initial encounters with the Americans led to the following conclusion according to a Viet Cong general: 'The way to fight the American was to grab him by his belt, to get so close that his artillery and air power was useless.' The Communists had rediscovered the 'hugging' tactics used by the Germans during the Second World War.

Russian-manufactured rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) were the descendants of the very successful Second World War German hand-held antitank weapons. Nominally effective up to 500 yards, in combat the NVA and VC employed RPGs at much closer range. RPGs could penetrate up to 250mm-thick armour, easily an overmatch for the M-113's 35mm-thick plating. RPGs and rockets took a terrible toll of Marine Corps tank troops during the street lighting in Hue.

Secondly, the Communists had to counter American mobility. A North Vietnamese general explains how this was done:

'Our mobility was only our feet, so we had to lure your troops into areas where helicopters and artillery would be of little use. And we tried to turn those advantages against you, to make you so dependent on them that you would never develop the ability to meet us on our terms - on foot, lightly armed, in the jungle.'

Often such jungle combats featured the VC/NVA fighting from entrenched positions. If they chose to fight outside fortified areas, the Communists tried to strike hard and fast and then withdraw before American firepower intervened. Usually they sought to engage American units who were moving and were thus more vulnerable. Despite all these tactics, if it came down to a slugging match, the VC/NVA could not compete with American firepower. One NVA combat veteran estimated that 70 to 80 per cent of all NVA losses came from artillery and airstrikes.

Regular soldier of the NVA. Illustration by Mike Chappell.

The NVA/VC always prepared meticulously before launching an assault. Operations typically began with a careful reconnaissance of the objective. The recon unit, comprising the best soldiers, moved close to the Allied position and then dispatched two- or three-man teams to move in as close as possible to scout the objective. The recon unit paid particular attention to the positions of the defenders' heavy weapons. Upon its return to base, the recon unit diagrammed the objective for the sappers who were to spearhead the assault. The sappers were the second most elite soldiers in NVA units. Frequently, assault troops constructed a sand table of the hostile position. Each unit studied the table and then rehearsed its role. In preparation for infiltrating Allied positions, everyone received instruction in disarming mines and trip flares. In actual assaults, elite sapper units led the way. Even the most formidable-seeming positions proved porous against the Communists' skilled infiltration abilities.

Poor communications forced the Communist attackers to adhere to plans. Such inflexibility caused heavy losses when rapid American counter-measures placed reserves between the attackers and their objectives. In Saigon, in particular, initial Communist successes degenerated into uncoordinated small unit actions. Only at higher command levels did the Communists have field telephones (shown here) and radios.

For the Tet Offensive, most objectives were in urban areas. A prisoner explained the scouting procedures used here:

'In our reconnaissance of cities, we arc normally met by local force liaison people at a prearranged location within or close to the city. The liaison people escort us to the exact positions or locations to be attacked. If there are several ARVN soldiers in the area, we usually disguise ourselves as ARVNs. But in cities where there are only a few ARVN soldiers, we wear civilian clothes.'

The Communists took advantage of the Christmas truce for a final reconnaissance. The commander of the 9th Viet Cong Division, for example, personally inspected his unit's primary objective, Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon, while one of his regimental commanders visited 'the family grave site' at a military cemetery just outside the base.

A captured 82mm mortar on right stands next to a US 81mm version. The Communists could lire American ammunition even though the tube was slightly larger. Mortar and rocket bombardment heralded most of the initial Tet attacks.

Because the VC/NVA units lacked modern communications, officers could not adjust plans to changing circumstances. Thus assault units received rigid orders to follow the attack plan. A prisoner recounts:

'All units must go by this plan and a soldier must execute an order even if many get killed. They must launch the attack at all costs. The plan always shows how to get into the objective area, where key points to be destroyed are located and how best to exfiltrate.'

In another tactical departure, many attacking units at Tet had no prepared withdrawal routes.

It was a point of discipline and pride always to try to carry away the wounded and the dead. This practice led to the frustrating experience of an Allied unit fighting an intense combat, taking losses, and after the battle finding little to indicate if the enemy, in turn, had suffered.

In the absence of artillery, heavy fire support had to come from rockets, recoilless rifles and mortars. Mortars included 82mm and 120mm weapons. The latter type was a most formidable weapon. Based on Soviet design, the 120mm mortar had a range in excess of four miles. A five-man crew served the weapon and could break it down into three loads to carry it through even the most rugged terrain.

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