Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad #2: French Secret Service in Indochina

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of espionage in Vietnam. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

My Dear Friends,

The new CS Vietnam game features units and scenarios of the First Indochina War. French espionage was important to the CEFEO, (Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient,) and helped them fight the Viet Minh. This article gives a picture of that espionage, and is an overview of the French Secret Services in Indochina.

Strategic Level Intelligence

The French High Commissioner was the one who “directed the war.” Emile Bollaert held this position during the late 1940s, and brought the former emperor Bao Dai in as Vietnam’s political leader.  The High Commissioner was the political link to the associated states like the US, but also closely coordinated his actions with the C-in-C. (Commander in Chief of CEFEO) The staff that supported him was known as the DGD. (Direction Generate de la Documentation) When General Jean de Lattre became C-in-C in 1951, he was also assigned as High Commissioner.

The SDECE (Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage) and the Surete Nationale provided intelligence to DGD, but also worked closely with the military intelligence organization, 2e Bureau.

The SPDN (Secretariat Permanent de la Defense Nationale) fed information to the DGD, and was made up of the various military attaches in south-east Asia, as far away as Tokyo and Hong Kong. The attaches were not well directed, and their HUMINT efforts were mostly wasted.

The GCR (Groupe de Controles Radio-Electriques) performed interception of radio communications, and radiogoniometry (direction finding.) They played a prominent ELINT and SIGINT role in providing information on Viet Minh VM troop movements. They also provided information to other intelligence services.

The Autonomous Listening and Direction Finding Company CAER, (compagnie autonome d’écoute et de radiogoniométrie) moved to Saigon and Hanoi with its listening centers, and a semi-fixed chain of eight direction finders was deployed on the peninsula. This chain is reinforced with two sections of mobile direction finders with six positions each.

In 1950, the CAER contributed to the location and assessment of Viet Minh forces during the evacuation of Cao Bang and, in particular, from Lang Son by Colonial Road No. 4 (RC 4). The picture below is one of the fixed direction finders. (Radiogoniometrie Fixe – CAER)

Fixed Radiogoniometry Station

Fixed Radiogoniometry Station


The “exterior” intelligence agency, SDECE was analogous to the US CIA, although was not purely civilian and had many military officers. Its responsibilities went beyond military, and was under control of the French Prime Minister in Paris. The director of SDECE during the late Indochina war was Pierre Boursicot, and the Saigon chief was Colonel Maurice Belleux. The SDECE was the largest and best funded French intelligence agency. There were four branches, SR, Counter-espionage, STR, and GCMA.

The SR (Service de Renseignement) worked exclusively outside of Indochina. China, Taiwan, and Thailand were a priority. The SR employed array of correspondents and spies, mostly performing HUMINT, and some COMINT. The agents were mostly westerners, and had trouble penetrating oriental societies, and the task was more difficult after China went Communist in 1949.  As the new Chinese regime consolidated its power, old spy networks disappeared.

The counter-espionage organizaton in SDECE was “Brigades de Contre-espionnage Opérationnelles,”called “Brigades” for short. This group had many challenges due to inability of French and Vietnamese military personnel to maintain basic rules of security. The Viet Minh were always actively trying to exploit this.

The STR (Service Technique des Recherches) was an analytical service, and was successful with decoding and exploiting Viet Minh radio signals. Starting in 1951, the VM used radios down to the battalion level. Increased reliance on radio communication, and lack of security provided STR with a very large wealth of information. Before the campaign against Nghia Lo in October 1951, STR learned that the VM 312th Division had supplies for only a month. When the offensive started going seriously wrong, STR decrypts provided a vivid and interesting picture of 312th  Division commander failing to answer questions from Vo Nguyen Giap.

In September 1952, the Viet Minh changed their codes as main force units moved into Thai country. For a few days, the French High Command was in the dark. STR soon mastered the new codes, but the French did not know the configuration of Viet Minh units in the Northwest Zone. This contributed to the loss of Nghia Lo.  A later report criticized the intellectual laziness of certain echelons by over-reliance on STR decrypts, and not employing other methods.

The covert “action branch” of the SDECE was the GCMA. (Groupement des Commandos Mixtes Aéroportés) Major Roger Trinquier was in charge of this rather large group of “Maquis,” (guerillas,) numbering about 20,000. Organized in 1951, the GCMA mission was to organize guerrilla and sabotage operations, and escape and evasion networks in areas occupied by the Viet Minh.

The French knew most of the ethnic minorities were willing to fight the Vietnamese Communists in exchange of protection and civic aid. So, the GCMA heavily recruited from the following tribes of Indochina: Bahnar, Bru, Cham, Halang, Hre, Jarai, Jehs, Katus, Koho, Hmong, Raglai, Rengao, Rhade, Sedang, Steng, Meo, and Nungs.

Although Trinquier later became a known counterinsurgency expert, the GCMA lacked intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities needed to run such an operation. Rather, the GCMA was an operations outfit. Maquis commando units had about 1000 trained personnel. Their operating approach was adapted to politico-military missions, from psych ops or civic action to direct action.

Trinquier visited his men often, and emphasized the necessity of selecting the best possible indigenous personnel to co-command these units, as they would help to ensure cohesion and effectiveness, and to take equal care in choosing a 2nd-in-command. In most cases, leaders were sent to Vung Tau Junior Officers School. As for the GCMA cadres acting as military advisors to Maquis units, their mission from province to village level was threefold: establish a self-defence system; train Maquis recruits, and establish a base of operations.

The GCMA often lacked funding and material resources. Despite high success, it suffered from a lack of support, and hostile incomprehension by the  French High command. Further, lack of funding was a problem for the CEFEO, generally. The solution was “Operation X,” a clandestine narcotics traffic operation. It was so secret that only high-ranking French and Vietnamese officials knew of its existence. During its peak years from 1951 to 1954, Operation X was sanctioned at the highest levels by Colonel Belleux of SDECE and General Raoul Salan.

Major Trinquier assured Operation X a supply of opium by ordering his liaison oflicers serving with Meo commander Touby Lyfoung and Tai Federation leader Deo Van Long to buy opium at a competitive price. Not only did this supplement financing, but it maintained indigenous tribe allegiance. Unless they provided an outlet for local opium production, the prosperity and loyalty of their hill tribe allies would be lost.

As an example of a GCMA operation, Lt Nung organized a Maquis in the upper Red River region near the Chinese border in May 1952. After choosing an able Montanyard, Lt. Long, as his deputy, Nung selected 40 commandos. All training and preparation completed, the “Maquis Cardamone” was ready to go by early 1953, and by the end of June, had rallied 600 volunteers. Some came from a Tonkin village, Phong Tho, that Nung liberated from VM control.

Nung’s scout network informed him in September 1953 that the enemy planned an operation to recapture Phong Tho. The VM battalion staging area was at the Red River town of Lao Kay, west of Phong Tho. Nung decided to hit the VM at Lao Kay with a combined ground-airborne assault before their offensive could mature.

Lao Kay is situated on the east bank of the river. The Viet Minh established a temporary headquarters there, basing their troops across the river near the adjoining village of Coc Leu. During the night of the 5 October 1953, 500 Maquis commandos led by Lt. Long infiltrated to within 100 metres of Coc Leu, a jump-off point that also served as a block position for VM retreat. At daybreak, Lt Nung and 40 of his commandos jumped from three Dakotas, landing in their designated DZ south of Coc Leu and Long’s position. After assembling and linking with Long’s commandos, Nung’s paras spearheaded the surprise attack.

Though caught off guard, the Viet Minh mounted a hasty counterattack that was beaten back. Nung’s men drove them across the river towards Lao Kay. By day’s end, the Viet Minh had been completely routed, their arms and supply caches destroyed. The VM offensive was thwarted. As a bonus, Nung’s men blew the only bridge connecting Lao Kay to China, thus temporarily severing a primary Viet Minh supply line.

Surete Nationale

The Surete, or Security Service, was a police force that provided political intelligence. Before 1945, it was very powerful and well-informed. Not only was it an intelligence gathering agency, but also had policing powers of arrest and repression. The Japanese coup of 1945 and the short period afterward dislocated and destroyed Surete’s networks.It was slowly reconstituted but never regained its previous power, especially after many of its powers were progressively passed to the new Vietnamese Surete.

Pierre Perrier became the new director of Surete. He was in direct liaison with other civil and military intelligence services.  Andre Moret, who previously directed French police in Shanghai, took charge of reorganizing the Surete’s activities in Tonkin, while M. Thierry did the same in Cambodia.

2e Bureau EMIFT

The French military organization has different bureaus corresponding to function. The 2nd or (Deuxième) 2e Bureau is intelligence, while the 3e is operations, and so forth. This is similar to US military with G2 or S2 being intelligence and G3 or S3 as operations.

Every French military organization down to the battalion and groupement level also had their own intelligence staff, or 2e Bureaus. These lower level ones worked closely with reconnaissance, but supplemented with analysis. HUMINT was typically available through prisoner interrogation. These staffs might also have access to COMINT from STR decrypts, or aerial photography from the Air Force 2e Bureau.

The top staff was the French 2e Bureau EMIFT. (2e Bureau des Etat-Major Interarmées et Forces Terrestres.) The 2e Bureau Chief was Colonel Boussarie, and his Deputy Chief, Colonel Gracieux. He had 15 analytical staff members.

The 2e Bureau EMIFT Motto was “Nihil mirare, nihil contemptare, omnia intelligere.”  Be surprised at nothing, disregard nothing, and understand everything.

The C-in-C also had a staff, called SRO, (Service de Renseignement Opérationnel.) The Saigon chief was General Meyer. Its mission was to provide information from the Viet Minh controlled areas, and information from VM regular units that infiltrated in Franco-Vietnamese controlled areas. Most of the information SRO provided was through agents. (HUMINT) It was similar to that produced by the sector, or territory, 2e Bureau where the intelligence officer a network of informers and spies. However, the SRO lacked Vietnamese speaking officers who could deal with the Vietnamese spies or who could themselves venture into Viet Minh-controlled areas.

The French Air Force and Navy also had their 2e Bureaus. An important part of the Air Force 2e Bureau, which fed the 2e Bureau EMIFT, was air-related intelligence, such as Chinese Air Force capabilities in the Yunnan and Kwang Si provinces. Photographic interpretation was based on two reconnaissance squadrons: EROM 80 (Escadrille de reconnaissance d’Outre-mer 80, Grumman RF 8F Bearcat,) and ERP2/19 (Escadrille de Reconnaissance Photo 2/19 “Armagnac,” B-26.)

Under the CEFEO, subordinate administrative commands directed operations, logistics, and training. These administrative commands also had their own 2e Bureaus. A key intelligence organization was the 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT, (Forces Terrestres du Nord Vietnam and Zone Opérationnelle du Tonkin.) This covered the Tonkin area where the biggest struggle with the Viet Minh was. Lt. Col. Levain was the Chief. In the south,  Col. Antoine Savani ran the 2e Bureau of South Vietnam. (2e Bureau au Forces Terrestres du Sud Vietnam)

Another exclusive source for the 2e Bureau EMIFT was the 2e Bureau of the Territories, Tonkin, Cochin-China, Central Annam etc. They often had their own networks of informants, which had to be cleared and approved from 2e Bureau EMIFT. The information received from these depended on ability and initiative of the intelligence officer. If the officer researched the enemy, and acquainted himself with his jurisdiction, then the information could be very good. Zone or sector intelligence officers were dealing with the local population, which they had to pacify, so as to be able to receive information. The language barrier was always there, and interpreters had to be carefully chosen to avoid infiltration by Viet Minh agents.

Collaboration with Other Agencies

The SDECE worked with an MI6 (British Intelligence) liaison officer in Saigon. And, two US CIA officers were liaisons to the SDECE. A CIA liaison was attached to the CGMA. (Action branch.)

In 1954, Colonel Belleux and US Edward Lansdale’s Saigon Military Mission (SMM) collaborated on future US-France relations.

The French were wary of US intelligence. The French invited the Americans to assist with military intelligence, but thought the diplomatic side was out of bounds, where as the Americans wanted to be involved with both. They were accused of meddling. Example were Trinh Minh The, a Cao Dai defector in South Vietnam  or Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s brother. The French Surete  reported that a cell composed of a dozen Chinese and Vietnamese were in contact with the the US consul in Hanoi, and that the Chinese were given a radio transmitter.

Some French were suspicious of American involvement because of the incident with OSS Major Archimedes Patti’s mission in Hanoi. He had given weapons to the fledgling Viet Minh, proof to the French  that the US played both sides. General Salan in particular resented this, which hurt cooperation.

French Intelligence Org Chart

French Intelligence Org Chart CinC Level

Operational Examples

Credibility is the ultimate issue for intelligence organizations, and was also the case for the French in the First Indochina War. A recurring theme was for military operations to not trust military intelligence. Operations 3e Bureau sometimes blamed the 2e Bureau for its failures.

Such was the case in the RC4 (Route 4) disaster in 1950 along the Chinese border. This was when the French lost many of their border outposts. Some authors blamed the 2e Bureau for this, claiming that intelligence did not predict increases in Viet Minh forces. However, 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT began seeing changes in the quality of the Viet Minh army from the end of 1949.

In fact, The 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT had good information about the forces, including artillery. Particularly in the case of Pho Lu, it reported 5000 newly-armed main force units in the area. Yet, the  HQ of the ZOT decided to drop a parachute company of 3rd Battalion of Colonial Chasseurs-Paratroops (3rd BCCP) 20 kilometres from Pho Lu. They hoped the paras would be sufficient to safeguard the post and disperse the Viet Minh. After hours of marching in difficult mountainous terrain, the company was attacked by two Viet Minh battalions in full view of Pho Lu. In the unequal battle that followed, the French lost three men, including the commanding officer. They had to make a fighting withdrawal, under constant harassment. This failure cannot be blamed on intelligence.

The 2e Bureau EMIFT had some good HUMINT and COMINT in the early 1950s, and in fact intercepted several Viet Minh documents and speeches. In Intelligence Bulletin No. 3125 in 1950, the 2e Bureau provided a full translation of Truong Chinh’s speech to the Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, of 21 January 1950. Truong Chinh’s speech was entitled ‘Execute the preparatory missions for passing in force at the general counter-offensive’. It was a guide to the Viet Minh’s actions over the next few months, and provided insight into their mentality. Other captured documents  included ‘Strategic Movements’, by Dang Tri Dung of April 1950, and even the military report by Giap after the Congress for Commanders. It dealt with Viet Minh reorganization of forces, and gave 2e Bureau analysts much better insight.

Sometimes different agencies provided varying intelligence assessments. During the Hoang Hoa Tham offensive in the eastern Tonkin delta in March and April 1951, the Viet Minh launched a disinformation campaign. It leaked documents indicating a Viet Minh offensive in the north-west Delta. These were full of details about dispositions of units and their objectives. They seemed convincing to 2e Bureau EMIFT. The fake documents gave the impression the Viet Minh attack would be between Phuc Yen and Son Tay, on the west side of the Tonkin Delta.

Simultaneous to the disinformation campaign, the Viet Minh suppressed radio communication, and switched to telephone lines. This increased uncertainty of where the attack was coming from. But despite this, there were indications that the attack would be at Dong Trieu, which is considerably east of Phuc Yen. One was that roads linking Lang Son and Dong Trieu were being repaired.

But, three deserters from VM 174th Regiment claimed that the next offensive would be between Luc Nam and Uong Bi, on the eastern side of the Tonkin Delta, and east of Dong Trieu. The leaked documents and deserter’s stories pointed to two different attack objectives. Between the deserters and the documents, General de Lattre and 2e Bureau EMIFT, heavily influenced by its SRO, were inclined to believe the documents. They believed in an attack between Phuc Yen and Son Tay.

However a different agency, 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT always maintained that the Viet Minh were targeting Dong Trieu, and not, as the documents indicated, Phuc Yen/Son Tay. But the SRO was convinced of the veracity of its single source, and that the 308th Division was moving west, not east.

Meanwhile, 2e Bureau  FTNV/ZOT continued to present a complete picture of what was about to happen. From the first week of March, it was quite clear where the new attack was at Dong Trieu. The Vietminh logistics build-up was closely and correctly identified. The roads from Kep to Cao Bang also became fully useable again in the first fortnight of March. Aerial reconnaissance provided much of that information. Intelligence reports of 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT on were based mainly on aerial intelligence and probably some SIGINT, and had many indications the Viet Minh were moving men and materials to Dong Trieu for its next offensive.

When the attack came a few days later, it was exactly where 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT predicted, at Dong Trieu. The 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT showed that as a multi-source intelligence analysis center, it could achieve accurate estimations of enemy intended actions, unlike the SRO, which made predictions based on a single source.

Dien Bien Phu is a ripe discussion topic for intelligence. Although there were many issues, both involving intelligence and some oblivious moves made by diplomats, the most obvious errors deal with estimates of Viet Minh artillery capability.

Unfortunately, the command at Dien Bien Phu did not trust their intelligence services. The experience of General Meyer reveals this state of mind. Indeed, as chief of SRO, he visited the Dien Bien Phu bowl in December 1953. After his tour of the entrenched camp, he proposed to Colonel de Castries to put himself at his service. At that, Castries replied: “The SRO is a useless and parasitic service.”

And de Castries lack of confidence was justified. Although French intelligence estimates of Viet Minh artillery were in the ballpark, (48 105mm howitzers, a similar number of 75mm howitzers and 120mm mortars,) they were thought to be for the entire Indochina theatre. The artillery numbers for Dien Bien Phu were thought to be much lower. The 2e Bureau EMIFT also greatly underestimated the number of  37mm anti-aircraft guns at Dien Bien Phu. The VM had 36 of these which shut down the airfield, and greatly hampered French air capabilities. Ammunition estimates were also significantly low.

The real miscalculation was thinking the Viet Minh could not move all those guns over the long distance from the Chinese border on Route 13B to the Red River, and then along Route 41 to Dien Bien Phu. This distance was over 800 km. Also, the French artillery commander at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Charles Piroth, did not consider that the Viet Minh would place these guns in camouflaged bunkers on the hillside facing the entrenched camp. With this plan, the Viet Minh could use direct fire at their targets, greatly increasing accuracy, and eliminating target “bracketing” steps before “firing for effect.”


All advantages of French weapons capability were of little use unless the C-in-C and his commanders had accurate knowledge of Viet Minh intentions, capabilities and dispositions. Despite severe difficulties, the French and Vietnamese intelligence organizations were able to provide most of this knowledge. Just as intelligence bureaus of other countries in other conflicts, the French faced their own internal crises, conflicts of interest, and turf fights over collection assets and information. Some experts criticize the lack of HUMINT on the Viet Minh and China. But one must ask, which country had good intelligence on China in 1950? The French had multi-source capability, and their reports were often correct, showing excellent capabilities at the strategic and operational levels.


Nihil mirare, nihil contemptare, Omnia intelligere: Franco‐Vietnamese intelligence in Indochina, 1950–1954″ Alexander Zervoudakis

“Hell in a Small Place,” Bernard Fall

“French and American Intelligence Relations During the First Indochina War, 1950–54,”  Jean-Marc LePage, PhD, and Elie Tenenbaum

Pham Xuan An was born on Sept. 12, 1927, outside Saigon. In 1944, when he was 16, he became a courier for the Viet Minh, which was then fighting the Japanese. After 1954 he became an agent for the North Vietnamese Communist government, and infiltrated the South Vietnamese Army.

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad


Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad #1: US Intelligence Vietnam

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of espionage in Vietnam. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

My Dear Friends,

This new series of articles provides an overview of espionage in Vietnam. It includes the First Indochina War, and each article covers a different nation’s espionage services. First, the US intelligence structure will provide a framework and terminology used in the others.

Ends and Means of Espionage

Espionage is a complex subject and there are structural concepts helpful in understanding later articles. This section covers some of the “what” and “how” that spy organizations use. There are two major categories of “end” products: Intelligence and covert actions.


Information is an “end” and it seeks to know enemy military plans, troop/weapon strength, movement, and leader identification.

Some of the means to obtain information are: informants (plants, HUMINT,) interrogation (HUMINT,) message intercepts (decoding, SIGINT, COMINT,) and aerial reconnaissance.

Counterintelligence is an end for protecting the spy network, and includes identification of informants, press leakers, and maintain of secrecy.

Some of the means for counterintelligence are: Communication surveillance, give mark an altered document to confirm if it later appears, and encryption.

Covert Operations

Disinformation is an “end” and some objectives are: Scandal damage control, political advantage, and diversionary actions to put the enemy on the wrong track.

Some means of disinformation are: Cover story, propaganda, false flag operation, press leaks, and fake documents.

Illicit funding may be an end to fund covert operations beyond government authorization.

Some funding means are: Money laundering, drug trade, arms sales, and prostitution.

Disabling enemy leadership might be an “end” or objective.

The means for this include: Assassination, discrediting with Kompromat or disinformation.

Destruction of critical equipment or communications might be an end.

The means: Sabotage, and radio jamming.

Kompromat may be an “end” to control a “mark,” or blackmail, or obtaining confessions.

The means: Honeypot, bribe offers, disinformation plant and recover, and drugs.

Intelligence Gathering Disciplines

This section explains some commonly used acronyms, like HUMINT and SIGINT in espionage.

COMINT  – Communications intelligence both technical and intelligence information derived from communications by other than the intended recipients. COMINT includes HUMINT and SIGINT.

HUMINT – Human intelligence gathered from a person in the location in question such as friendly accredited diplomats, military attaches, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), patrolling (military police, patrols, etc.), prisoners of war (POWs) or detainees, refugees, strategic reconnaissance, as by special forces, or traveler debriefing.

SIGINT – Signals Intelligence: from emissions of a source, assumed to be electronic, like radio.

ELINT – Electronic intelligence from signals that are not directly used in communication.

GEOINT – Geospatial intelligence gathered from satellites, aerial photography, or cartography data.

IMINT – Imagery intelligence: gathered from satellite and aerial photography

MASINT – Measurement and signature intelligence such as electro-optical including infrared, countermortar sensors, or radiation surveys.

OSINT – Open-source intelligence like scientific or technical papers, books, or literature.

TECHINT – Technical intelligence gathered from analysis of weapons and equipment used by the armed forces of foreign nations, or environmental conditions.

CYBINT/DNINT – Cyber Intelligence/Digital Network Intelligence gathered from cyberspace.

FININT – Financial intelligence gathered from analysis of monetary transactions.

RECON – Direct observation and reporting.

US Military Intelligence

The military has many intelligence functions within its overall organization. From the battalion level upward, there were MI staffs. At battalion level, the designator “S” is used, and followed by a “2” for intelligence. So the acronym “S2” refers to an intelligence staff or officer, at the levels of battalion, regiment, and brigade. At the level of Division and above, this designation is “G2.” ( 1 = administration and personnel, 3 = operations, and 4 = logistics) A “G” staff was headed by a  chief-of-staff.

The MI or military intelligence company (or detachment) was part of every division’s staff during the Vietnam War. This consisted of these sections: HQ, CI (counterintelligence,) OB (order of battle,) II (imagery interpretation, and Intg (interrogation.) And the disciplines of COMINT, HUMINT, and IMINT were the most common. The Army Field Manual FM 30-9 from 1968 provides this typical structure, which the TO&E  30-17 corresponds to. Of course there were variations for different divisions, but this is the generic concept.

US Military Intelligence Detachment

At the corps or army level, MI battalions (TO&E 30-25,) provided specialized intelligence to a field army headquarters. The generic organization chart is shown below.

US Military Intelligence Bn


Intg  = Interrogation HUMINT

Coll  = Collection

TI  = Technical intelligence TECHINT

The dashed lines indicate liaison with other reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering units.

Vietnam Division tactical intelligence methods


  • Aerial visual observation by the aviation battalion, air cavalry troop, brigade HHC, and DIVARTY HHB helicopters.
  • Air Force forward air controllers (FAC).
  • Engineer terrain and route reconnaissance.
  • Mounted reconnaissance by the armored cavalry troops.
  • Deep ground reconnaissance by the LRP/Ranger Company.
  • Foot reconnaissance by maneuver battalion scout platoons and rifle company patrols.
  • Detection assistance from scout dog, combat tracker teams, and Kit Carson scouts.


  • Aerial radar and infrared surveillance by the aviation battalion (OV-l Mohawks).
  • Radio intercept and locating by the ASA Company.
  • Artillery, rocket, and mortar locating by DIVARTY counter mortar radar.
  • Surveillance by infantry, armored cavalry, and artillery unit ground surveillance radar.
  • Limited use of night vision observation devices and infrared searchlights.


  • Prisoner interrogation
  • Interpreter personnel


  • Aerial photography coupled with image interpreters or investigative photography personnel.

441st Military Intelligence Detachment (MID) Airborne

This was a high-level detachment originally stationed in Okinawa. In 1965, it went to Vietnam and was attached to the 5th Special Forces Group.

The 441st MID (Abn) supported Special Forces missions by compiling timely information in the areas of strategic and tactical intelligence. The 441st was divided into four basic sections: (1) Administration Section to provide administrative and supply support to the unit; (2) Counterintelligence Section to provide the commander with information in the areas of passive intelligence and counterintelligence, personnel security, document security and physical security; (3) Military Intelligence Section to provide the commander with tactical intelligence evaluation of various areas; (4) Area Intelligence Section to provide Strategic Intelligence Evaluation. Personnel were trained in such specialities as imagery interpretation, order of battle, and interrogation of prisoners of war.

In Vietnam, much emphasis was placed on knowing the Viet Cong and NVA order of battle.

Order of battle specialists collate, evaluate, and interpret information to make order of battle charts. These specialists augment organic intelligence staff sections of commands at all echelons, from separate brigades and armored cavalry regiments, up to the MACV.

Central Intelligence Agency, CIA

The CIA played a significant role in Vietnam, and managed the Laos “Secret War.” The station CIA office in Saigon was headed by a Station Chief, with upwards to 200 staff. Although the CIA had some liaison officers in Vietnam during the First Indochina War, the first major involvement was when Colonel Ed Lansdale went to Saigon to head the Saigon Military Mission, SMM, in June 1954. (Lansdale had been an OSS officer, and was not actually a CIA employee.)

William Colby became the Saigon station chief in 1959. He later went back to Vietnam in 1968 to run the rural pacification effort named CORDS. Part of this effort was the Phoenix Program. Colby later became the CIA Director in Washington DC. The table below lists Saigon station chiefs until the end of the war.

CIA Station Chiefs Saigon

An overview of the CIA’s creation follows. In October 1945, the OSS was abolished. But, the need for a postwar centralized intelligence system was clearly recognized. Bill Donovan had submitted a proposal calling for the separation of OSS from the Joint Chiefs of Staff with the new organization having direct Presidential supervision.

Donovan’s plan was controversial. The military opposed a complete merger. The State Department wanted to supervise all peacetime foreign relations. The FBI wanted all civilian spy activities under its jurisdiction. So in January 1946, President Harry S. Truman established the Central Intelligence Group to coordinate current intelligence. The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Allen Dulles was the CIA director when the first US involvement in Vietnam began in 1954. He was followed by John McCone in 1961, and Richard Helms was director beginning in 1966. The organization evolved over the years. It had two or more “Directorates,” which were further divided into various “Offices,” or “Divisions.”

The important offices as of 1961 were: Central Reference, National Estimates, Scientific Intelligence, Basic Intelligence, Research and Reports, Current Intelligence, Operations, National Photographic Interpretation Center, and Security. For example, the Office of National Estimates was responsible for preparing reports requested by executive policymakers and congressional leaders.

The function of counterintelligence was handled by the Office of Security, but in 1954, James

Angleton was named Chief of Counterintelligence Staff, an independent outfit. A struggle for resources between counterintelligence vs espionage and covert action continued over the years. The overall CIA organization chart for 1961 is below. The various “Stations” in each country also had a similar structure, along “office” lines, but sized and adapted to need.

CIA Organisation 1961


In Vietnam, the CIA had the Saigon station. Covert action was made through the 5th Special Forces Group commanded by Colonel Robert Rheault. They ran the counterinsurgency Phoenix Program, and also Operation Shining Brass for ground surveillance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In Udorn Thailand, Bill Lair was the Operations Chief who directed CIA support of the Hmong forces in Laos.   For overview information on these, see CS Legion articles: HHH#12 Vietnam Counterinsurgency, UHH#11 Truong Son Ground Combat, and TPO#5 CIA in Laos.

As an example of spy intrigue, the “French doctor case,” was a successful CIA counterintelligence operation that uncovered a Soviet spy in Saigon. It also illustrates the “feud” between William Colby and James Angleton over counterintelligence vs regular espionage.

In 1972, the CIA learned about a Soviet spy in Saigon when it intercepted coded radio broadcasts. A signal direction-finding analysis showed they were coming from a Soviet-style transmitter, and beamed straight to Moscow. A long and arduous counterintelligence investigation zeroed in on the transmission point: The home of Dr. Pierre Hautier, a Saigon resident the early 1960s.

Hautier ran a tuberculosis clinic, and was a medical university lecturer. His Vietnamese wife was related to Lt. Gen. Dang Van Quang, special assistant for military and national security affairs for President Nguyen Van Thieu. So, he had some access to Vietnam military information.

Apparently, the French embassy assisted in the investigation and the DST (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire,) arrested Hautier as he handed a package to Soviet Embassy Vladimir Nesterov. The package, contained intelligence reports the doctor had written on “The political and military situation in South Vietnam.” Caught “red-handed,” Hautier confessed. The French government then expelled Nesterov and two other Soviet officials involved in the case, Georgy Sliuchenko and Viktor Aleksandrovich Sokolov, declaring them persona non grata.

However, when James Angleton learned of this, his staff investigated and questioned William Colby. Colby had been a social acquaintance of the doctor back in the early 1960s. Colby told Angleton’s men that he barely remembered the doctor, and had not bothered to file a report on their innocuous dealings. But, Angleton started a file on Colby, which must have rankled him greatly.


The US had a massive and sophisticated intelligence program, both military and CIA. They ran a fairly successful counterinsurgency program, Phoenix, and had extensive intelligence on the Communist orders of battle and so forth. Ho Chi Minh Trail surveillance was a massive effort.


“Moles, Defectors, and Deceptions: James Angleton and CIA Counterintelligence,” Journal of Intelligence History, Vol.3, David Robarge

CIA Org Charts from

Army Field Manual FM 30-9 Military Intelligence Battalion, Field Army,” from 1968

“A Soviet Spy in Saigon: The Case of the French Doctor,” Merle Pribbenow

“Intelligence Gathering Disciplines,” Wikipedia

There was a spy for the North Vietnamese that was never caught. He was Pham Xuan An, a Vietnamese that lived in Saigon. He was well educated, and had traveled to the United States, studying journalism at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California. When he returned  to Saigon, he got a job with Time Magazine as a journalist. He became friends with many Americans, including acquaintances with such notables as CIA’s Lou Conein, Col. Edward Lansdale, and William Colby.

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad


Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets #6: Political Indoctrination

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.


Were you aware of the full extent of political indoctrination that NVA and Viet Cong soldiers endured? Remember that NVA soldiers carried the “Little Red Book,” of Mao Tse-Tung. This article discusses the political component of the North Vietnamese military and how it affected the commands.


The political leadership in North Vietnam was anchored in Ho Chi Minh, and his philosophy. American journalist David Halberstam described Ho as “part Gandhi, part Lenin, all Vietnamese.” Obviously Uncle Ho was very committed to Vietnam. He wanted independence for his country, and reunification of the south and north. Communism, as conceived by Marx and Lenin, was the ideology used to achieve revolutionary goals. Ho the “Enlightened One” spent many years of his youth in France and the Soviet Union, where he studied the writings of Marx and Lenin. However, a softer “populist” appeal was needed to gain support from the common peasants and countrymen. He borrowed ideas from Mahatma Gandhi, particularly the non-violent protest, as a way of advancing these objectives. “Uncle Ho’s” friendly, peaceful persona reflected this influence.

The “softer” appeal was only a facade, to conceal the dark side of Communism, and its primacy-of-state emphasis. The individual, private property, and the marketplace are secondary, even expendable. Communism intends to control all actions, speech, behavior, and thought. Individual rights of beliefs, free speech, property ownership, and privacy are denied. (Civilian and military) For the military, this control is enforced by a vast network and party structure, from the political commissars down to every three-man cell.

At Communism’s very crux, the end justifies the means. Vietnamese Communists tried to “mask” the ugly face of this ideology using front organizations, propaganda, and proclamations, such as the “Viet Cong Discipline Code,” or the “Viet Cong Oath of Honor.” But ultimately, no lie is false enough, neither is any sabotage horrendous enough, nor any murder heinous enough to warrant  condemnation, if it serves the Communist agenda.

Political Organization

The basic political unit was the three-man cell. In each military unit, at the platoon level, these cells were organized. Cell membership did not apply to military assignments or combat orders, but were for the purpose of political indoctrination and control. With three to a cell, there is a psychological dynamic at work. If a member decided to disagree with a doctrinal idea, the other two could have persuaded him to get back “in line.”  If two members disagreed with the party, the third member could report them. It would be even more difficult for all three members to go “rogue.” Thus, the fear of being reported helps keep everyone in line. Every man was watched by two others.

The cell structure extended to higher levels with the “rule of three.” Thus the basic structure was three men to a cell, three cells to  squad, three squads to a platoon, three platoons to a company, and so forth. Compartmentalization and plausible deniability were accomplished this way, as one cell did not usually know what others were doing. This was especially important for the Viet Cong, where they faced counterinsurgency initiatives of the Phoenix Program. If captured, they had less information that could be divulged to interrogators.

A dual command system was in place down to the company level. Political advisors or commissars were assigned down to the company level to supervise the cell structure, and participate in decision making. At higher levels, such as divisions and fronts, a party committee might be designated to influence the operation. Ultimately, the top party committee was known as the “Workers Party of Vietnam.” (Dang lao dong Viet Nam.) It was authorized at the 2nd Congress in Tuyen Quang in 1951. In 1960, The Third National Congress, formalized the tasks of constructing socialism, and committed the party to liberation in the south.

As an example, the  battalion commander might be preparing for a battle. He must have a thorough knowledge of party organization. Militarily, he must get intelligence on the situation, population, and know the status of his unit’s equipment, food supplies, arms, and ammunition. And then, he must devise a battle plan. But, at this point, the battalion commissar would become involved to consider the objectives. He would examine difficulties, and propose counter measures. After the plan is agreed to by the commander and commissar, it would be communicated to the staff, who would discuss it, and present their own ideas. Then, this revised plan information would be passed to the companies and platoons. The commissars at each level attend the meetings, and present additional comments and suggestions. After the battle, commissars would set up critique meetings. Self criticism was an important part of the political process.


The means of influencing and motivating the soldiers, (as well as civilian population,) came from propaganda. These are half-truths, designed to influence soldier’s thinking, and to motivate them for greater sacrifices. Most propaganda is aimed at demonizing the enemy, and to a lesser extent promoting party virtues.

Some discussion topics commissars had with their troops included the following:

Objectives and tasks of the revolution.

The land of Vietnam is beautiful and rich, the population is industrious, why do people suffer?

Who is the enemy of the Vietnamese people?

Who is bombing our homeland, and killing our people?

The tasks and nature of the Liberation Army.

Colonialism and imperialism were constant propaganda targets. But, the commissars also put fear in the NVA and VC soldiers by telling them about the misdeeds of American soldiers. Commissars said that their soldiers would be tortured and murdered by Americans, who were even cannibals. However, they were also told the American people opposed the war and supported the communist revolution.

Propaganda Poster

Propaganda Poster

Viet Cong Discipline

Not matter what their background, soldiers were subject to relentless indoctrination, playing on every human emotion, and constantly applied. Soldier memorized basic codes of conduct (ten-point oath of honor and twelve-point code of discipline,) which put him in the position of a hero, a patriot, a friend, and protector of the people. They were never allowed to forget this role. Perhaps the most effective reminder is his unit’s daily indoctrination, and self criticism session.

Some of the code statements are designed to soften harsher tenets of Communism, as the public “face” of the party.


  1. I will obey the orders from my superiors under all circumstances.
  2. I will never take anything from the people, not even a needle or thread.
  3. I will follow the slogan: All things of the people and for the people.
  4. I will keep unit secrets absolutely and will never disclose information even to closest friends or relatives.
  5. I will not put group property to my own use.
  6. I will return that which is borrowed, make restitution for things damaged.
  7. I will be polite to people, respect and love them.
  8. I will be fair and just in buying and selling.
  9. I will encourage the people to struggle and support the Revolution.
  10. I will be alert to spies and will report all suspicious persons to my superiors.
  11. When staying in people’s houses I will treat them as I would want to be treated.
  12. I will remain close to the people and maintain theirs as I would my own house, with affection and love.


“North Vietnamese Army Soldier 1958 – 75,” Gordon L. Rottman

“History of the Communist Party in Vietnam,” Wikipedia

“Know Your Enemy: The Viet Cong,” RWP-04-533603 1954-1975, Vietnam War/ Department of Defense

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets #5: Viet Cong

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.


You are already familiar with the term, “Viet Cong.” The term has been around for a long time, first appearing in Saigon newspapers beginning in 1956. But, did you know it was a contraction of “Viet Nam Cong-san”? This is translated as “Vietnamese Communist.” This article provides more information about the Viet Cong, and the role they played in the war.

Viet Cong Soldiers

The Viet Cong, VC were in an organization officially named the People’s Liberation Army, PLA. They had many similarities to the NVA, both in weapons and organization. The Viet Cong were more poorly equipped, but used some of the same weapons as the NVA, and followed a comparable military organization structure.

A key difference was rank and uniforms. Viet Cong did not have ranks, and were not issued regular uniforms. Instead, they wore clothing typical of Vietnamese farmers and villagers, remaining as inconspicuous as possible. The typical “black pajamas” were commonly worn, but variations of color and style were common. Black or darker-colored clothing was worn by rice farmers, because it did not show dirt as much, and was a common dress style of peasants.

Viet Cong were not issued the “Sun” or “Pith” helmets, but in later years some Viet Cong acquired these. Most pictures of Viet Cong show them without headgear. Their footwear was mostly sandals, often the “Ho Chi Minh” version.

As for weapons, the Viet Cong tended to have the same weapons as the NVA. However, in the early war years, before the Ho Chi Minh trail became well developed, they were more or less cut off from sources in North Vietnam. They made do with what was available on the black market (often financed via opium trade,) or smuggled through the unreliable Ho Chi Minh Trail, or “home made.”

Weapons standardization was nonexistent. Usually, lower level unit in the VC organization, had more primitive weapons. Main force, HQ and regional units were better furnished. In the early years, French weapons like the MAS-49 or M1 Garands, ex-German K98s, MP40s and MG34s might be used. In later years, they gradually obtained Chinese Type 53 carbines, SKSs and eventually AK-47 assault rifles.

Viet Cong Soldiers of the D-445 Battalion

Viet Cong Soldiers of the D-445 Battalion

Homemade Sten SMG

Homemade Sten SMG

Role and Relation to NVA

As discussed in a previous article, PAVN Armed Forces, the VC provided local intelligence on terrain, the civilian population, local government security units, enemy movements, trails, water points, and other information. The VC also provided guides, prepared base camps, dug tunnels, and led NVA reconnaissance teams. The VC provided food and basic supplies. They also arranged porters and laborers.

The VC generally did not make any largescale attacks against American and ARVN forces. Especially in the early war years, it was mostly a guerilla war. Sabotage, ambushes, or terror attacks were initiated, but VC units did not attempt to hold ground or fight lengthy offensive or defensive engagements.

Viet Cong Base Camps

Base camps were scattered all over remote areas, and along trail networks. They were rest areas for troops coming from the north, or while deploying in South Vietnam. They served  as long-term bivouacs, training sites, and operational staging areas. Camps usually held a company or battalion. They were placed far from roads, canals, and navigable rivers. Nearby streams were necessary for water and washing, and camps were often within 150m of streams. The Viet Cong would defend these from initial attacks, but were willing to abandon them rather than taking high losses.

The camps were very well hidden, far from trails frequented by civilians, who were warned to avoid them. They were protected by lookouts and booby traps. The contained all the essentials, fortified fighting and living quarters, command posts, signal posts, aid stations, kitchens, and storage shelters.

Partially underground bunkers provided protection in fighting posts and sleeping quarters. Some of these were quite rugged, dug about 3 meters underground, and then covered with two layers of logs and about 0.6 m of earth on top. Naturally, they were well camouflaged.

Bunker with above-ground cover for firing ports

Bunker with above-ground cover for firing ports

Bunker Complex - connected by trenches

Bunker Complex – connected by trenches

Camps or fortified villages were integrated with one or more hamlets, usually elongated, and having a restricted approach. Bunkers were built into corners of huts, and connected with trenches. At suitable intervals, perpendicular trenches fitted with fighting bunkers were placed along the length of the defended area or flank. At least one exit or escape route rearward was provided, though the position might have a natural “cul de sac.”

Tunnels connect bunkers and earthworks, enabling the defenders to pop up, disappear, then fire again from another spot, a jack-in-the-box maneuver that doubles the effect of their numbers. An unfordable river may run along one flank, while wide open paddy land bounds the other. The apparent lack of escape routes makes the position appear as an ideal target to US or ARVN attackers, with large advantages in air power and artillery. But, until bombardment destroys most of the foliage, any infantry assault into the complex can be disastrous.

Booby traps were placed around perimeters. These could be explosives triggered by a tripwire, or manually detonated by VC observers.

Punji sticks were sharpened bamboo branches dipped in feces to infect the wound. Punji traps were dug about a meter below the ground, and then dozens of Punji sticks placed at the bottom, sticking straight up. The surface was covered in light foliage. When a GI stepped on it, he would fall into the hole and be wounded by the Punji sticks. (Yes, they could pierce the soles of early jungle boots, but later versions had sole spike protection plates.) If he did not get medical attention soon, these cuts would get infected. This was a common VC defensive technique.

Viet Cong were persistent scavengers. Wherever US troops left an area, VC soldiers combed it for any trash left. Dud grenades or unexploded artillery shells left behind were a gift to the Viet Cong. Discarded C- ration tins were transformed into  booby traps. The VC were good at such trickeries, and most often returned to the field in search of free items.


Fortified camps had complex tunnel networks connecting the various bunkers and posts.  These had features such as air vents, vertical shaft entrances, angled entrances, underwater entrances, bomb shelters. air locks, water locks, water sumps, Punji stake traps, blast tunnels, false dead-end tunnels, concealed trapdoors, storerooms, command posts, living quarters, latrines, kitchens, water wells, observation and  fighting bunkers. These tunnels were often dug on two levels, and sometimes three.

Tunnel Complex

Tunnel Complex

Tunnels were dug by hand in “Old Alluvium” terraces, and only a short distance at a time. This type of soil had hardening properties that were useful in protecting Viet Cong. And, much of Vietnam had “Old Alluvium” soil. It included two types known to geologists as “Ultisols” and “Oxisols.”

The nature and properties of the Old Alluvium soils were key for tunnel resilience. Old Alluvium terraces had high levels of clay and iron, which are a cement-like binding agent. When dried, the soil layers have properties approaching concrete. They resist softening, especially around aerated tunnel walls.

Tunnels were dug in the monsoon season when the upper layers of dirt were soft and moist. The soils were highly stable without any lining or support. After drying out, soil surrounding the tunnel turned into concrete-like material that could withstand explosive blasts. The Iron Triangle and Cu Chi areas were noted for tunnels in Old Alluvium terraces.

Iron Triangle Tunnel Network

Iron Triangle Tunnel Network


The Viet Cong were very resourceful, and offered the NVA many advantages at the local levels. They were not lavishly equipped, and improvised most of their weapons and fortifications. Political indoctrination was effective in motivating them to great efforts.


“North Vietnamese Army Soldier 1958- 75,” Gordon Rottmann

“Viet Nam Primer,” Colonel David Hackworth

“Viet Cong and NVA Tunnels and Fortifications of the Vietnam War,” Gordon Rottmann

“Why Were the Soil Tunnels of Cu Chi and Iron Triangle in Vietnam So Resilient?” Kenneth R. Olson, Lois Wright Morton

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets #4: NVA Armor

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.


As you probably knew, the NVA had armored units. They were  mostly developmental for several years, but in the late war, became an effective force. This article provides an overview of NVA armored forces.


The NVA army gradually developed its tank and anti-tank capabilities. Starting in 1950, the Viet Minh began a close relationship with Communist China, and some officers studied armored warfare at Wu Ming. They later served as specialists to develop anti-tank tactics, and to create special units. The only counter to French M24 Chaffee tanks were some US bazookas, and 75mm recoilless rifles. Two functioning Chaffees were obtained at the surrender at Dien Bien Phu, providing propaganda value.

After the French left, North Vietnam developed greater anti-tank capability. China provided some WWII-era German 75mm PAK 40 guns, and the NVA organized several anti-tank (AT) battalions.  Soviet 57mm guns were also obtained. An company of M8 armored cars and M3 halftracks was also organized. These were intended to meet a perceived threat from South Vietnam.

The first significant tanks were T-34/85s obtained from  the Soviet Union between 1955 and 1960. In 1959, 202 tankers were trained in China and the Soviet Union. They returned, and formed  the first armored Regment, designated 202. Initially, the regiment had a battalion of T-34/85s, and a battalion of SU-76 assault vehicles.

NVA armored battalions, or “tieu doan thiet giap,” usually had the same type of tank throughout. Regiments or brigades might have battalions of different types. Battalions could consist of 24 to 36 vehicles. The NVA did not use rigid tables of organization and equipment, (TO&E,) and exceptions were made depending on the situation and available forces.

In 1964, the NVA obtained some PT-76 light amphibious tanks from the Soviet Union. With these, a new battalion was added to the 202nd Tank Regiment.  These were used for reconnaissance and infantry support roles. The amphibious capability was useful in many areas and gave flexibility.

Further, a T-54 tank battalion was added to Regiment 202. It then had T-54, T-34/85,  PT-76 tanks, and SU-76 self-propelled guns.

In 1965, the NVA established the Armored Forces Directorate to coordinate armored units, and define doctrine. Use of mass armor was not intended at this time. The main purpose was for infantry support and reconnaissance. Without air superiority, camouflage was very important.

Not until 1967 did these units see combat. A company of PT-76 tanks was sent to Laos. The 198th Battalion had 22 PT-76 tanks, and it was deployed with a BTR-50PK armored personnel carrier (APC) company at Khe Sanh with the Road 9 Front.

Starting in 1961, the NVA began acquiring armored personnel carriers. The BTR-50 and BTR-52 were obtained from China and the Soviet Union. This was kept as secret as possible, and the units were called “bo binh co gioi” or BBCG, for motorized infantry. At first, they were small company sized units, but in 1971, Regiment BBCG 202 was created as a counterpart to the 202 Tank Regiment. Later, China furnished most of the APCs in service with the rugged K-63.

Eventually, there were several independent tank battalions. Some of these units were 297th with 33 T-54/55s, 198th with 22 PT-76s, 397th with 33 T-34s, and the K-2 Tank “Ironclad” Battalion with T-54 tanks. In the early 1970s, the armor forces reorganized with tank brigades instead of regiments, assigning battalions as needed for operational situations. Brigades 201, 202, and 203 were formed.

A brigade typically had three tank battalions and an APC battalion with motorized infantry.

Air strikes were the greatest danger to PAVN armor. A number of 37mm and 57mm AA guns, and SA-7 (A-12) missiles were deployed in mobile AA companies to accompany tank formations. In 1972, the 237th AA Artillery Regiment was re-equipped with ZSU-23-4 Shilkas.

The Tanks


The PT-76 light amphibious tank was a Soviet design. The designers were N. Shashmurin and Zh.Y.

Kotin, completing their work in 1951. The VTZ Kirov Factory produced these from 1951 to 1969. The full name is Floating Tank-76, the main gun caliber being 76.2 mm. The barrel is D-56T series, rifled tank gun. The turret also had a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun.

The high velocity armor piercing (HVAP) round had a 650m effective range. It can penetrate 50 mm at 1000 m. The armor piercing round can penetrate 60 mm plate inclined at 1000 m. The The BK-350M High Explosive Anti-Tank or HEAT round can penetrate 280 mm of armor at 1000 m. A Frag-HE round was also available. The PT-76 could fire while afloat in water.

The engine was a 240 hp V-6 diesel, and could travel 44 km/h on the road. A three-man crew operated the tank, which was primarily used for reconnaissance and fire support.


When the Germans introduced the Panther in 1943, the Soviets wanted to upgrade the T-34 design to meet the threat. Four design teams competed for Red Army approval. The final design was a hybrid between the best turret and gun designs. Vasiliy Gavrilovich Grabin, an artillery designer, led a design bureau (TsAKB) at Joseph Stalin Factory No. 92 in Gorky, and won the competition for the gun, an 85mm design designated ZiS-S-53. A 23-year old designer, A. Savin, engineered modifications for the gun to fit the new turret design by V. Kerichev. This new tank was the T-34/85, and went into production in spring 1944 at Factory Zavod Nr. 112, Krasnoye Sormovo.

When production ended in 1945, a total of 29430 units had been manufactured. The North Vietnamese obtained second-hand units beginning in 1955, and ultimately 300 were delivered.

The secondary armament was two 7.62mm Degtyaryov machine guns. The armor piercing shells could penetrate 94mm at 1000m. High-explosive fragmentation shells were also available.

The total crew was five, with three in the turret. The tanks were powered by model V-2-34, 38.8L engines. These were  V-12 diesel, 500 hp. Maximum speed was 55 km/h.

The T-34/85 was a considered a medium tank, but could be used in armored combat against relatively tough enemy tanks. It was a good tank, but inferior to the US Patton tank used in Vietnam.


The T-54 was introduced in the years following WWII, and is considered by some as a legend. It has been used more extensively than any other Cold War or modern main battle tank. But, it had quite a tumultuous design history. The first prototype was made at Nizhny Tagil by the end of 1945. However production was paused in 1948, as many quality problems arose. An improved T-54-2 (Ob’yekt 137R) version was designed, with a dome-shaped turret with flat sides. It was inspired by the IS-3 heavy tank. Production resumed in 1949, and in 1951, a second modernization made, designated T-54-3. It featured improved telescopic gunner sights and a smoke generating system.

However even further changes occurred due to design personnel changes at the Stalin Ural Tank Factory No. 183. In October 1954, a T-54A tank, designated as T-54M (Ob’yekt 139) served as a test case for D-54T and D-54TS 100 mm smoothbore guns. Finally, the T-54B (Ob’yekt 137G2), was released in 1955. It was fitted with a new 100 mm D-10T2S tank gun with STP-2 “Tsyklon” 2-plane stabilizer. It entered production in 1957.

The turret top has a 12.7mm DShK machine gun, and three SG-43 7.62mm machine guns. Armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot ammunition (APFSDS) was developed, dramatically enhancing penetration capability.

The T-54B has a crew of four, and is driven by 520 hp, 8-cylinder diesel engine. Top speed was 55 km/h.  The North Vietnamese used T-54s, along with its Chinese-built copy, the Type 59 extensively against ARVN forces.

K-63 APC

The Chinese Type 63 (Designation YW531,) was an armoured personnel carrier, entering service in the late 1960s. The  Yong Ding Machinery Factory (Norinco Co.) designed and built these. The welded steel hull protected up to 15 troops against small arms fire. A Type 54 12.7 mm machine gun was mounted on top. The driver sat in the front left, and used two periscopes to steer. The carrier was powered by an 8-cylinder, air-cooled, turbocharged, diesel engine KHD BF8L 413F, developing 320 hp. Top road speed was 65 km/h.

NVA Armored Vehicles

Combat Highlights

In  January 1968, 3rd Company PT-76s of the 198th Armored Battalion supported the 24th Infantry Regiment in an attack on the Ta May outpost. The ARVN garrison was overwhelmed in this first combat with NVA armored forces.

In February 1968, 16 PT-76s attacked Lang Vei, held by over 500 US troops, in the first US vs NVA armor engagement. Despite stubborn resistance, the PT-76s advanced, destroying bunkers at close range. The defenders held on, as their artillery fire and air strikes struck back. Finally, the few survivors broke out, fleeing to Khe Sanh. The North Vietnamese lost six PT-76s.

After Khe Sanh, the 198th Armored Battalion was re-deployed near the DMZ. A PT-76 was surprised while crossing the Ben Hai river when US Marine M-48s destroyed it at long range.

Then in March 1969, the 4th Armored Battalion, 202nd Regiment attacked the Ben Het US Special Forces camp. A dozen PT-76s and equal number of BTR-50PK APCs intended to destroy the camp’s M-107 SP gun battery. The lead PT-76s hit a mine and stopped, but continued to fire. Other armored vehicles engaged a platoon of M-48 Pattons from the US 1st Battalion, 69th Armor. The North Vietnamese decided to retreat after losing two PT-76s and one BTR-50PK. These were the only occasions that American tanks clashed with NVA armor.

During the ARVN Operation Lam Son 719, The 202nd Armored Regiment reinforced the PAVN 70B Army Corps with two additional tank battalions equipped with T-54 tanks. On 19 February 1971, the NVA assault against the LZ 31 was repulsed with heavy losses. The ARVN M-41s proved to be superior in tank-versus-tank fighting. A week later, after several assaults, three T-54s finally gained the summit of the position, forcing the defenders to withdraw.

In May 1972, PAVN tried once more to take An Loc. They launched an assault supported by 40 tanks. B52 strikes, fighter bombers and Cobra helicopters hit the attackers. On 12 May, T-54s reached the northern and eastern parts of the city, and direct fired from entrenched positions. But, on 12 June, the last NVA tanks were driven from An Loc. Nearly 40 tanks were lost.

After US withdrawal, the PAVN armor became more powerful against ARVN. By April 1975, the 202nd Armored Brigade pressed hard on Saigon. The day Saigon was taken, 400 tanks and APCs moved against the last ARVN defensive positions.


All armored vehicles discussed have Wikipedia articles for more information. In addition, the internet Tank Encyclopedia is a good resource.

“North Vietnamese Armored Forces,” Grunt On-line Vietnam Resource Site

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets