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THE WAR IN CAMBODIA 1970-75

1974

Although the FANK had to commit over four brigades to the operation, the victory at Kompong Cham was savoured by the government. It gave them new confidence, and generally boosted morale in an army which had not seen a major victory in years. Their high spirits lasted until January 1974, when the Communists opened their latest dry season offensive with an attack on Phnom Penh. An estimated two enemy regiments moved within five kilometres north-west of the capital, only to lose 300 men when elements of the FANK 1st Division responded effectively.

After the north-western threat was pushed back, Communist pressure moved to the south-west as an insurgent thrust broke through the lines of the FANK 3rd Division. Inexperienced units withdrew in disorder, allowing the Communists to advance unopposed. Reinforcements from neighbouring units were rushed in on 20 January, stabilising the situation by the end of the month.

In an attempt to break Communist momentum, the FANK moved on to the offensive in February. Striking north-west and south of the capital, the Republican forces succeeded in driving the insurgents back. The Communists reacted by bringing in captured 105mm artillery pieces and shelling Phnom Penh from a distance, killing over 200 civilians on 11 February alone. As the FANK moved against the artillery positions the Communists shifted their attack yet again, this time by increasing the number of strikes against Mekong supply convoys.

By the following month the insurgents had left the Phnom Penh region and were concentrating their forces against two provincial capitals, Oudong and Kampot. In Kampot the government's position had deteriorated rapidly when 300 troops from the isolated garrison deserted. Before the insurgents could capitalise on the opportunity, however, two FANK brigades were rushed in, bolstering the town's defences and inflicting close to 300 enemy casualties. In April Kampot once again came under attack, requiring an airmobile rein-forcement of two battalions. By 9 April over 4,000 FANK defenders occupied the besieged garrison, sustaining over 400 killed while inflicting an estimated 2,300 enemy casualties during the period March-May 1974.

The situation at Oudong was more serious. On 2 March a Communist assault pushed 700 government troops and 1,500 civilians into a small enclave south-east of Oudong. A FANK task force was ferried up the Tonic Sap to link up with the defenders, but insurgent forces were waiting for them with 75mm recoilless rifles and B-40 rockets. Twenty-five troops were killed at debarkation and one UH-1H helicopter was shot down. While the remainder of the task force was linking up with the surviving members of the garrison, the civilian population swelled to an unmanageable 4,000 refugees inside the tiny perimeter. The Communists hit with several ground assaults and overran the camp. Only 650 people broke through to friendly lines; the remainder were presumed dead. A susequent FANK drive succeeded in recapturing the burned-out town.

The 1974 wet season began in June with a period of lessened military activity. As the FANK attempted to regain lost ground around the capital, it made the belated discovery that its superior tactical manoeuvrability made the slower and increasingly conventional insurgent forces vulnerable to being 'whip-sawed'. Several government operations were launched, each handing the Communists a tactical setback. One notable operation conducted during this time was the relief of the surrounded garrison at Kompong Seila, suffering under a record eight-month siege. Radio reports from the garrison indicated that the civilian population were starving and, in some cases, resorting to cannibalism. Complicating matters, the garrison had deviated from standard FANK communications procedures, raising fears that Kompong Seila might be a Communist trap. After two unsuccessful attempts, a heliborne Special Forces team was flown in at first light. After verification of the loyalty of the garrison, resupply operations were sanctioned, alleviating the starvation and allowing Kompong Seila to hold out successfully against further Communist pressure.

Cannibalised T-37 light ground-attack aircraft edge the runway at Pochentong Airbase, still bearing ARK markings.

Government successes continued throughout the rest of the year. South of Phnom Penh, a concerted effort was made during September to clear the banks of the Bassac River using two infantry task forces with M113 APC support. Heavy fighting flared along the river until December, with heavy casualties on both sides. In a final drive, the M113 APC squadrons from four FANK divisions were combined for a sweep of the west bank of the Bassac, killing 63 enemy soldiers before the operation closed on 31 December.

1975

The year 1975 opened with a new, determined Communist offensive. Fighting was concentrated along the Mekong corridor and within 15 kilometres of Phnom Penh. The four FANK infantry divisions gathered around the captial, while the ist Parachute Brigade was sent to hold the territory across the Mekong to the east. Air force and naval assets were also pulled back around the capital. Despite their best efforts, the Republican forces were unable to slop the Communist advance. The situation worsened on 1 April when the commander of the Neak Luong garrison, the last major government post on the Upper Mekong, called for air strikes on his own crumbling position. With the loss of Neak Luong the government's Mekong lifeline was cut. An air bridge to Phnom Penh was created, only to be halted on 14 April when Pochentong Airbase came under heavy rocket attack. With no further avenues for resupply - and a request for additional aid dropped by President Ford on 15 April - the Cambodian armed forces dug into their final ammunition reserves.

On 17 April, the refugee-swollen city of Phnom Penh grew silent: the Republican government had surrendered, and the Communist insurgents were pouring into the capital. The war was over; but for the people of Cambodia, the nightmare had just begun.

A 'Cedar Walk' team assembles at Long Thanh, South Vietnam, before an operation into Cambodia.

US Military Assistance

When the Khmer Republic entered the war in South-East Asia, anti-war sentiment in the United States was reaching a peak. As a result, the Cooper- Church Amendment, proposed in April 1970 and set to go into effect by 1971, prevented US military personnel from advising Khmer units in Cambodia. Instead, a number of peripheral organisations were quickly assembled to handle assistance to Cambodia without violating the rules laid down by the US Congress. In South Vietnam, the US Army - Vietnam Individual Training Group, jointly established by USARV and MACV on 24 February 1971, was tasked with training battalion-sized FANK units. UITG Headquarters was established at Bien Hoa, utilising the former Co. A Headquarters of the US Army 5th Special Forces Group. Training camps were set up at Long Hai, Chi Lang, Phuc Tuy, and Dong Ba Thin, with a US Army Special Forces A Detachment at each location. The majority of US personnel in UITG were Special Forces-qualified, though not assigned to a Special Forces Group. Other UITG personnel included members of the US Marine Corps, Australian Advisory Training Team, and New Zealand Special Air Service. Additional US Army Special Forces teams from the 1st Special Forces Group in Okinawa supplemented the UITG programme on a temporary duty basis.

UITG instruction cycles for FANK battalions lasted 13 weeks and included individual weapons training, squad-, platoon-, company-, and battalion-level training. The programme was very rigid, and concluded with company and battalion field operations against NVA/VC in areas close to the training camp. Enemy contact became more frequent and resulted in some large clashes, to include two FANK battalions against the 333rd NVA Main Force Regiment in April 1972.

Following the completion of a training cycle, the FANK battalions were issued ammunition and returned to Phnom Penh aboard G-130 aircraft. On 15 May 1972 UITG was redesignated the FANK Training Command, Army Advisory Group, Vietnam. FTC remained active until 30 November 1972. A total of 85 Cambodian battalions were trained, including basic light infantry, airborne, marine, and Khmer Special Forces cadres.

To co-ordinate material deliveries to the FANK, a Special Support Group was established in MACV J-4 during May 1970. Various staff sections of MACV provided individuals and groups to study the Cambodian situation, survey requirements, and participate in plans to assist the Khmer Republic in mobilising and equipping its armed forces. One of their first acts was to ship large quantities of captured Communist and outdated US weapons to Phnom Penh. In addition, ethnic Khmer units previously under the control of the US Army Special Forces in South Vietnam, as well as a re-equipped Khmer Brigade previously evacuated to South Vietnam, were rushed to Cambodia. Other forms of support, ranging from aerial resupply shipments to close air support, were provided throughout 1970. By the end of the year, however, it became apparent that a single group was needed to administer support for Cambodia. In December 1970 an MACV study group advocated the establishment of a Military Equipment Delivery Team, Cambodia.

A FANK armoured crew stand behind an M113 equipped with a 106mm recoilless rifle and a .50 cal. MG turret. The man at left wears a cloth Armoured Brigade patch over his right breast pocket; second left has a silver metal version.

The MEDTC was activated in Phnom Penh on 31 January 1971. It was originally authorised at 16 personnel in Cambodia and 44 in Saigon. As the tempo of military shipments increased, however, the MEDTC contingent in Cambodia could not keep abreast of determining requests to support the FANK's mobilisation, much less execute even minimally the statutory requirements for monitoring and executing a Military Assistance Programme. Eventually, 50 MEDTC members were allowed to enter Cambodia provided the majority were fluent in French. By December 1971 the number had again been raised to 62.

A FANK lieutenant-colonel - wearing US jungle fatigues, khaki beret, and ranking on a black chest tab - talks with the commander of the MEDTC.

The three fold purpose of the MEDTC was to determine the needs of the FANK; arrange for the delivery of equipment; and observe the utilisation of US material and Cambodian personnel trained by the US and third countries. In this last capacity MEDTC personnel often followed Cambodian units into combat, stretching - at times - the restraints of the Cooper-Church Amendment. No members of the MEDTC were killed in Cambodia, however.

In April 1975 MEDTC continued to arrange and control aerial resupply missions into Phnom Penh from its rear base in Thailand. On 12 April its remaining members inside Cambodia were evacuated with the rest of the US Mission. Five days later, the Khmer Republic fell and the MEDTC mission was terminated.

A third US military group which actively assisted the Cambodian Armed Forces was the US Army 46th Special Forces Company headquartered at Lopburi, Thailand. Detachment A-42 from the 46th Co. was used during 1971-72 in Operation 'Freedom Runner', the training programme for the Khmer Special Forces. Detachment A-41 (Ranger was used later to conduct advanced ranger courses for selected members of the Khmer Special Forces, sometimes following the Cambodian students on training forays into north-western Cambodia.

The Cambodian Armed Forces

The Cambodian Army

On 20 November 1946 a French-Khmer military agreement was signed, signalling official French recognition of the Forces Armées Royales Khmere. Three days later the first FARK battalion was formed from elements of the Khmer National Guard and the Cambodian Rifle Regiment of the French Union Army. Still under French command, the FARK saw its first combat against the Viet Minh in 1947. Small operations continued over the next three years, with the FARK gradually assuming responsibility for the defence of Battambang and Kompong Thorn Province.

In 1953 the FARK began to participate in demonstrations for complete Cambodian independence. By October, with hundreds of Khmer soldiers having deserted French-led units, the French High Command agreed to transfer responsibility for Cambodian national security to the FARK. France, however, maintained the right to station units in north-eastern Cambodia to guard its communications links.

In late March 1954, with most French resources focused on the siege of Dien Bien Phu in Tonkin, the fully independent FARK was forced to conduct its first solo operation when the Viet Minh 436/101 Battalion crossed from southern Laos into northeastern Cambodia and overran a company of the French-led 9 Bataillon d'Infanterie. The insurgents pushed south until May, seizing Prek Te and securing control over the middle section of the Mekong. The FARK sent the 1 Bataillon de Parachutistes Khmere to lead the counter-attack, recapturing the lost positions by July and successfully completing the first Khmer-led operation.

After the Geneva Convention was signed in 1954 the final transfer of remaining Khmer units in the French Union Army was completed, raising FARK strength to 45,000 men. By the end of the following year, however, FARK manpower had been cut back to 36,000. As Cambodia maintained the facade of a neutral foreign policy, the FARK shifted its focus to civic action programmes. When US military aid was cut in 1954 the FARK regressed into a poorly equipped, under-strength force of 18,000 men.

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