David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.
Mes compagnons d’armes,
The first phase of the Viet Minh siege of Dien Bien Phu were assaults on strongpoints Beatrice and Gabrielle. These two northern outposts quickly fell, giving the Viet Minh even better line of sight to the airfield. Thus, the French supply crisis began. This article covers events leading up to these battles, and the CSVN scenarios about them.
In November 1953, French forces assembled at Dien Bien Phu, and began two tasks. First, they began building strongpoints as best they could with limited construction materials. The 17th Airborne Engineers set brush fires to remove vegetation, and dismantled village buildings in order to provide the meager protection for the strongpoints. These were given French girl names: Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine, Dominque, Eliane, Francois, Gabrielle, Huguette, and Isabelle.
The second task was to launch sorties, penetrating deep into the jungle to contact French-led guerrilla tribesmen of the GCMA. Paratroopers of Captain Pierre Tourret’s 8BPC hacked forward to Muong Pon toward Lai Chau.
Meanwhile, Major Jean Souquet led 1BPC troops northward along Route 41 toward Tuan Giao. When they got north of Bin Ham Lam, (later strongpoint Beatrice,) they suddenly encountered a Viet Minh ambush.
These French sorties continued throughout early winter 1954, but gradually grew shorter and smaller, as Viet Minh forces gathered to surround Dien Bien Phu.
Lai Chau was a French base 96 km north of Dien Bien Phu. It was endangered by Viet Minh, and in November 1953, the French command decided to evacuate the Partisan forces there, and bring them to Dien Bien Phu. This evacuation, known as Operation Pollux, relocated the 1st T’ai Partisan Mobile Group.
The VM 148th Regiment harassed them on the trek south, but II/1 RCP went north to link up with the Partisans. The commander at Lai Chau, Lt. Col. Trancart joined the complex at Dien Bien Phu, and became the Northern Sub-Sector commander.
Viet Minh Preparations
The Communist Central Committee decided the time was right to fight a major conventional battle, and General Giap began planningat the headquarters in Tuan Giao. Artillery was a major part of this. Having obtained large numbers of howitzers from the Chinese, the problem was how to get them to Dien Bien Phu. As discussed previously, the cannons were dragged into position by massive porter crews. They were placed in fortified casemates cut into mountainsides, and camouflaged.
The estimated artillery was 48 105mm howitzers, 48 75mm pack howitzers or mountain guns, a similar number of 120mm mortars, and 36 anti-aircraft guns of 37mm caliber. The 351st Heavy Division was created to command these assets. French intelligence was unaware of this, or at least of the numbers present at Dien Bien Phu.
Further, no French thought was given to the possibility that Viet Minh guns would be protected in reinforced enclosures. Indeed Colonel Charles Piroth, the Dien Bien Phu artillery commander said: “Mon general, no Viet Minh cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery.”
Supplies and troops were moved along the Routes 41 and 13, through Tuan Giao, simultaneously being built in the early winter months of 1954. French air forces of GATAC Nord attempted to interdict communist supply routes. But, the 367 air sorties during this period were inadequate to stop the flow of communist supplies. Years later, General Giap explained: “We did construct our supply roads; our soldiers knew well the art of camouflage, and we succeeded in getting supplies through.”
Only weeks after French paratroopers landed in Dien Bien Phu, General Giap began assembling forces to surround the fortress. Five divisions would eventually surround the French: 304, 308, 312, and 316 Infantry Divisions, along with the 351st Heavy Division. By the end of January 1954, French forces were completely surrounded, with no way to get supplies or troops in except by air.
By the opening of main assault on 13 March 1954, the Viet Minh had 49000 combatants with 31500 logistics personnel. The French had 10814 troops at that point. Of these, 2575 were tribal T’ai. During the course of the siege from 13 March to 6 May, 4291 airborne reinforcements parachuted in.
The French started with 24 105mm and four 155mm howitzers, along with 30 120mm mortars. This is less than half Viet Minh strength, considering VM 75mm guns.
Loss of Beatrice
In the weeks before 13 March 1953, the airfield had already been under Viet Minh fire by 75mm guns. In this period almost a dozen aircraft had been damaged or destroyed. Even one of the C-119 “Flying Boxcars” was shot to pieces. Each time, shells tore holes in the runway steel plates. Engineer welding crews had make repairs in full enemy view, potentially exposed to fire. This aspect of the battle is not simulated well, other than to provide no airstrikes during the attack on Beatrice.
Two news reporters flew in on the last C-47 to land safely. They visited the officers mess, and were briefed on the coming battle by a Foreign Legion officer. He informed them that: “The curtain raiser already has begun. Giap’s boys are giving their best cards: 81-mm mortars, 120-mm mortars, 105-mm howitzers, the whole works. Its going to be like Na San, only ten times bigger.”
After the small talk, the two reporters went back to the airfield to observe the shelling first hand. While photographing a burning Dakota, they were both hit with shells. One of them was killed, and the other lost his foot, but was evacuated by an ambulance aircraft under fire.
In the days leading to the assault, Beatrice was becoming more tightly surrounded. It required a battalion reinforced with two tank platoons to break through from the main camp to get drinking water to the Legionnaires at Beatrice. Major Jean Chanel’s 2BT opened the road in hand to hand combat, only after napalm had been dropped by French fighter planes.
After the road was reopened, Lt. Col Gaucher, commander of the Central Sub Sector drove his jeep to Beatrice. He met with Major Pegot, who informed him that his men were tired and nervous.
The Legionnaires on Beatrice were of the 3/13 DBLE or 3e Bataillon, 13e Demi-Brigade de Legion Etrangere. This legendary unit was considered one the best at Dien Bien Phu, and made a heroic last-ditch stand at Bir Hakeim in North Africa in WWII.
One survivor, Sgt. Kubiak related his thoughts before the battle: “I was flabbergasted, but nonetheless it seems that the nerves of the lieutenant hold up less well than mine. He simply announces the Viets attack tonight at 1700! Indeed we would have to consider as crazy the Viets who would have the idea to try and dislodge us from our Hill Beatrice, well fortified and defended by a whole Foreign Legion battalion. . .”
But Kubiak says further: “We are all surprised and ask ourselves how the Viets have been able to find so many guns capable of producing an artillery fire of such power. Shells rained down on us without stopping like a hailstorm on a fall evening. Bunker after bunker, trench after trench, collapsed, burying under them men and weapons.”
Indeed the Viet Minh had 105 and 75mm guns pointing directly at Beatrice and in daylight, could direct fire.This was planned by General Giap as his artillerymen were not as experienced at the methods of plotting and bracketing indirect fire. This is reflected in the CSVN scenario. Further, Viet Minh guns are placed in bunkers to withstand counterbattery fire, as was done in the real battle.
The real bunkers at Beatrice were not built to withstand 105mm shells, as was discussed previously. In the CSVN game, Beatrice has one bunker hex for the command post location, and other five are represented as trenches. This seems to simulate the results of 105mm artillery fire on troops as occurred during the real battle.
The the Beatrice battle opening salvos are dramatically described by Lt. Col. Pierre Langlais, commander of GAP2:
“At 1715, I was taking my shower behind a weaved rush mat held up by four bamboos, when distant thunder immediately followed by deafening explosions of 105 mm . . . As I was getting dressed, Lieutenants Legrand and Roy and Captain de Verdelhan came running in. While it rained earth on my shoulders, I listened to the continuous din of incomings”.
“I went towards my field phones. The two lines to the forward positions were dead. No doubt the unburied wires had been shredded to bits. My third field phone linked me to the group’s CP. I immediately got an HQ Officer. Major de Pazzis was temporarily at the disposal of Colonel de Castries and that the Beatrice outpost that was held by a battalion of the Foreign Legion, had already been whittled down by violent attacks of the enemy. Major Pegot had just gotten killed in his CP by a direct artillery hit and his radio had gone dead.”
Langlais continues: “The phone rings, I recognized the voice of Colonel de Castries.
‘Is that you Langlais? Gaucher just got killed with all his HQ staff in his shelter, except for Vadot. You take over his job as Commander of Sub-central sector.’ . . .”
Indeed the Vit Minh began heavy shelling around 1700, with perhaps some daylight left, and the the 141 and 209th Regiments of the 312st Infantry Division began attacks on the position they called “Him Lam” by 1815. It was at 1830 that artillery shells penetrated the command bunker and killed Major Pegot and his whole staff. Gaucher managed to contact individual companies. But, he was also killed by artillery sometime after 2030.
Requests for artillery fire were responded to by French and African gun crews of the II/4 and III/10 Colonial Artillery. They raced to their pieces, in open gun pits, under heavy bombardment. Enemy counterbattery fire took a heavy toll, and two 105-mm howitzers were knocked out, and crew members wounded.
By 2030, all barbed wire entanglements were breached. Although the attackers took heavy losses, wave after wave charged into the strongpoint. By 2100, the French 11th Company was fighting desperately to keep control of the command bunker. 9th Company managed to hang on under Sgt Kubiak, but at 0014 14 March, their radio went off the air. At 0200, Kubiak and remnants of the battalion abandoned Beatrice, and hid for the night in a nearby jungle.
Scenario Description DBP#2 Loss of Beatrice
[Dien Bien Phu][H2H][HIS][CSL][All:NO VV] The French established Dien Bien Phu as a “base aero-terrestre” to invite attack on an “impregnable” fortress to destroy a large Viet Minh force in a decisive battle. But, during the time between the parachute landing 20 November 1953 and early March 1954, the Viet Minh brought in four divisions to surrounded French forces, and massed the artillery of Heavy Division 351. Viet Minh 105mm and 75mm howtizers were placed in solid casemates positioned on slopes, overlooking the valley, with direct line of sight to French defensive targets. The first Viet Minh objective of the siege was to overrun strongpoint Beatrice. (Vietnamese called it “Him Lam.”) The best French troops available, Foreign Legion 3rd Battalion, 13th Demi-brigade defended Beatrice. Two Viet Minh infantry regiments, the 141st and 209th assembled for the attack in the afternoon of 13 March 1954. At 1700, artillery opened fire on Beatrice. Shelling killed the French battalion commander and the Colonel commanding Groupe Mobile 9. At dark, Viet Minh infantry began assaults. Their losses were high as French infantry poured fire into the attackers. But, the Viet Minh cut through barbed wire entanglements, and continued firing and attacking. As Vietnamese soldiers fell, more kept coming. They completely surrounded the strongpoint and entered the northeast defenses. Attacks continued, and at 2230 they had completely annihilated the center. By midnight, the last French radio message requested artillery fire directly on the command post. Only 100-odd French survivors managed to escape into a nearby jungle for the remainder of the night.
Screenshot of DBP#2 Loss of Beatrice
DBP#3 Gabrielle Overrun
After Beatrice fell, everyone believed Gabrielle would be next. This thought influenced de Castries’ decision not to counterattack at Beatrice. And, with the expenditure of 6000 artillery rounds the night before, French ammunition stocks were lowered by one fourth. Since the airfield came under constant fire, and heavy clouds loomed over the valley, aircraft landings were at a standstill.
Instead, de Castries requested another paratrooper battalion, and at 1445 on 14 March waves of the 5BPVN parachuted in at the three dropzones, Natasha, Simone, and Octavie. This dispersion helped confuse Viet Minh flak, but artillery was effective at covering the landing areas, particularly Natasha, where the 1st and HQ Companies landed.
By 1800, the exhausted Vietnamese paratroopers assembled on Eliane strongpoints. Some of them had marched 16 km while under artillery fire.
Gabrielle was defended by the 5/7 RTA or 5e Bataillon du 7e Regiment de Tirailleurs Algeriens. Major Roland de Mecquenem briefed his replacement, Major Kah, and they methodically inspected all the troops and positions.
Gabrielle was the most well constructed strongpoint at Dien Bien Phu. In fact, it had won an inter-strongpoint competition initiated by de Castries, and judged by a team of outside officers. It was the only strongpoint with two lines of defenses.
The Viet Minh had to move some of their artillery from positions around Beatrice to Gabrielle. Rainfall slowed this process down. As a result, the artillery barrage began at dark on 14 March, but there was a pause at 0230 15 March. But at 0330, it resumed when two additional batteries began firing from the northeast.
General Giap was concerned about losses. He did not want to suffer losses as had happened at Beatrice. Regiments 88 and 102 of the 308 Division made the initial attack, but were reinforced at dawn by two more regiments.
Scenario Description DBP#3 Gabrielle Overrun
[Dien Bien Phu][H2H[HIS][CSL][ALL:NO VV]
The Gabrielle strongpoint was the second Viet Minh objective, after capturing Beatrice, in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. On 14 March 1954, the Algerian defenders nervously went about their routines, knowing an attack was coming. They had high espirit de corps, however. The 5/7 RTA Battalion was awarded “best strongpoint,” for their construction of Gabrielle, with two defensive lines, and mortars well dug in, and registered on likely targets. Major Rd’M set aside a special bottles of champagne to drink after “. . . the Viets are clobbered.” But, the Viet Minh was busy moving artillery from previous positions around Beatrice, to focus direct fire on the northernmost strongpoint, they called “Doc Lap.” Heavy rain caused delays, however, and the bombardment did not start before dark. The 88th and 102nd Infantry Regiments of the “Quan Tien Phong” (Vanguard) Division moved into position. At 1800, just after dark on 14 March, Viet Minh artillery opened fire. As 75mm and 105mm howitzers and 120mm mortars got into position, the bombardment gradually increased. By 2000, the 4th Company heavy weapons bunkers collapsed, and by 2200, the company command post was destroyed. Gabrielle’s bunkers were stoutly built, but few fortifications could withstand the amount fire deployed. Slowly, Viet Minh infiltrated the Algerian 4th Company position on Gabrielle’s northeast corner. At midnight, Major Rd’M and his successor, Major K decided to counterattack to recover the 4th Company redoubt. A Thai mountain platoon of the 416th CSM fought its way forward, and closed the breach. Meanwhile, the French 105mm and 155mm artillery fire devastated Viet Minh attackers all around the strongpoint. At 0230 15 March, Viet Minh shelling paused. The infantry attack stopped as well. Gabrielle had already lasted longer than Beatrice, and it seemed to the French they might prevail. But at 0330, the barrage resumed, with additional batteries firing from the northeast. All out Viet Minh assaults restarted as well. At 0430 the 5/7 RTA battalion command post was hit and both Major Rd’M and Major K were wounded, leaving Gabrielle leaderless. Heavy mortars of the 2nd Foreign Legion Mixed Company were now disabled. Colonel CdC and LtCol PL organized a “Force d’Intervention” composed 5th Vietnamese Parachute battalion, the 3rd and 4th Foreign Legion companies of 1BEP, and two Chaffee tank platoons of the 3/1 RCC squadron. These would finally depart the airstrip and head north at 0600. They encountered a block on the Pavie track at Ban Ke Pha, and when daylight broke, they faced intense artillery fire and a Viet Minh battalion. At 0730, the French situation was hopeless. Remnants of the 2nd and 3rd companies were able to escape, and join the relief forces as they retreated south to the main French defense complex.
2D Screenshot of Gabrielle Overrun, with futile relief force attempt
The Gabrielle relief force was unsuccessful, but did help some of the 5/7 RTA battalion escape. The Vietnamese paratroopers were probably not in top form, because they had parachuted into hot drop zones the day before, and had to hike many kilometers to get into the fortress perimeter.
Early morning of 15 March, the otherwise jovial Colonel Piroth had become despondent over the failure of his artillery to silence Viet Minh guns. With tears in his eyes, he lamented to Col. Trancart: “I am completely dishonored. I have guaranteed de Castries that the enemy artillery couldn’t touch us – but now we are going to lose the battle.” He committed suicide shortly after.
On 16 March, Major Marcel Bigeard – BRUNO, and his 6BPC parachuted in at DZ Octavie. This was 613 men, of which 332 were Vietnamese. Additionally, ammunition and supplies were now being parachute dropped rather than landed and offloaded at the airfield.
The last northern strongpoint, Anne-Marie was defended by T’ai mountaineers of the 3BT. (3e Bataillon T’ai) But 17 March, the artillery officer at Anne-Marie 2 reported: “The T’ai are getting the hell out of here.” Indeed they had began slipping through the barbed wire and headed for the mountains to the west. French officers, NCOs, and few faithful T’ai could not persuade them otherwise. Anne-Marie was abandoned.
Leaflets found in trenches revealed that the Communists had propagandized them with the help of civilian channels. The villages surrounding these positions had not been fully evacuated. Daily, women from partisan units, mobile field bordellos, and Meo tribesmen mingled at the markets of Ban Co My or Ban Loi. They met other tribesmen from Communist areas, that brought propaganda with them.
T’ai troops had been recruited from faraway Son-La and Nhia Lo, and already their families were in Communist hands. The area they were fighting in was not in their tribal jurisdiction. They considered it no longer their fight.
David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.
Mes compagnons d’armes,
This series covers the ten CSVN scenarios about Dien Bien Phu. The articles will cover additional information, that is not simulated in the scenarios, such as parachuting supplies from high altitudes, or desertion and where to house deserters, or the unending Viet Minh trench digging. I hope this provides CS Legion readers with a preview of CSVN scenarios dealing Dien Bien Phu, coupled with a greater understanding of that campaign.
In 1954, French forces in Indochina attempted to follow the “Navarre Plan.” They found themselves facing two options, either attack Viet Minh bases in the Tuyen Quang and Thai Nguyen “redoubt,” or place troops astride the Laos invasion route. Staying true to his credo: “Always keep the initiative,” and “always on the offensive,” Navarre chose to defend Laos. In addition, Navarre sought a major decisive battle in which he could defeat the Viet Minh.
The initial parachute landings on Dien Bien Phu were called “Operation Castor.” Colonel Christian de Castries was the commander of GONO, (Groupe d’Operation Nord-Ouest) and at Dien Bien Phu. Likely, it was de Castries who chose the name, “Castor.”
Castor was a Greek mythological warrior hero, and twin brother of Pollux. They were sons of Jupiter and Leda. Through Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, Castor became known for skill in horsemanship, and Pollux, for pugilism. (Operation Pollux was the evacuation of Lai Chau.)
You might wonder what branch was Colonel de Castries was from. He was a cavalryman. Castor – De Castries – cavalryman . . . Coincidence?
Although raised in an aristocratic family, de Castries enlisted with the French Army as a cavalryman in 1922. After rising through the ranks to sergeant, he attended the Saumur Cavalry school as an officer candidate. He later excelled on the French International Riding Team.
In 1940, his commando troop operated behind German lines, and he was captured. Ultimately, he escaped from camp Oflag IV-D, and made his way through southern France into Spain, and finally Africa, where he linked up with Free French Forces. In 1944-45, de Castries commanded an armored squadron in Southern France.
After WWII, de Castries served at the War College in Paris, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. General de Lattre was impressed, and requested de Castries for command in Indochina in 1951.
Later, Navarre promoted de Castries to colonel and assigned him the command of GONO, and the the Dien Bien Phu “base aero-terestre.” He put his faith in de Castries for success in the coming “major decisive battle.”
Base Aero-terrestre Concept
The base aero-terrestre is a remote base, with heavy fortifications. It has an airfield for resupply and reinforcements. The central core is heavily fortified, has abundant artillery, and is connected to the airfield, or even surrounding it. Strongpoints are placed around the core. They are heavily fortified with bunkers, and surrounded by barbed wire and mines. Finally, they are manned with infantry, heavy machine guns, mortars, and recoilless rifles. Between the strongpoints, there are open spaces, or rather “kill zones.” Here fighter-bombers and artillery barrages slaughter enemy attackers.
The idea is that attacking enemy would be “mown down” in the “kill zones” and would not even be able to close-assault the strongpoints. As long as the airfield were intact, the base aero-terrestre can replenish its supplies and ammo. And, it could fly out wounded, and bring in reinforcements.
This idea evolved from French success at Na San. This November 1952 battle first tested the fortified airbase, also known as a “hedgehog.” General Raoul Salan fortified the outpost and airstrip. It was supplied via C-47 Dakotas flying from Hanoi, and a garrison placed there. He thought that well-defended outposts, resupplied by air would invite Viet Minh attack, forcing them into conventional attacks.
General Giap reversed his previous avoidance of Na San, and planned an attack using the 308th Division and the independent 88th Regiment. The attack began on 23 November. With ten dug-in French infantry battalions, plus artillery and close air support, Colonel Gilles’ forces shattered two regiments of the 308th Division. After 7000 casualties, General Giap withdrew on 2 December.
General Navarre adopted the base-aero terrestre concept, and decided to use it at Dien Bien Phu, to defend Laos, and make the upland stronghold an attractive bait for Giap to commit his elite divisions. Navarre asserted that with such powerful forces, and so strong a defence system, Dien Bien Phu was “an impregnable fortress…”
At 0500, a C-47 transport plane, crammed with radio communication equipment and meteorological instruments, took off from Hanoi’s military airfield at Bach-Mai, and flew 300 km to observe conditions over the Dien Bien Phu valley. Visibility was poor with dry fog, but Brig. Gen Dechaux looked out the window, and then conferred with his weather officer. He remembered General Bodet’s words: ” . . . if the weather is too unfavorable, Dien Bien Phu will never take place.” But, Dechaux got up and went to the radio operator, who then transmitted a direct message to Hanoi Headquarters.
The message reached General Rene Cogny, commander of French forces in North Vietnam. It was immediately relayed to the Transport Air Commander waiting at Bach-Mai with a fleet of transport aircraft waiting to take off. At 0720, 20 November 1953, Operation Castor had begun.
The three transport groups, 1/64 “Bearn,” 2/64 “Anjou,” and 2/63 “Senegal” managed to scrap together 55 crews for the C-47 transports, and ten for the C-119 “Flying Boxcars.” And, this may have been the first airborne mission in history with three generals and pathfinders flying together in the leading aircraft. Lt. Gen. Pierre Bodet, French Air Force; Deputy C-in-C Brig. Gen. Jean Dechaux, and Airborne Commander Brig. Gen. Jean Gilles dropped in with two parachute battalions: 6th BPC (Colonial Parachute Battalion,) and II/1 RCP (2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment Parachute Light Infantry.)
These battalions, 6BPC under Major Marcel Bigeard (Bruno,) and II/1 RCP led by Major Jean Brechignac, were the first airdrop phase of the operation. The 1st BPC would drop later that day. These three parachute battalions formed GAP 1 (Groupement Aeroporte 1,) which was commanded by Lt. Col. Fourcade. In subsequent days, GAP 2 landed. Lt. Col. Pierre Langlais commanded this group which consisted of 1st BEP (Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion,) 8th BPC, and 5th BPVN (Vietnamese Parachute Battalion.)
The initial drop is the basis for the CSVN scenario DBP#1 Bruno Arrives. 6BPC landed in drop zone “Natasha,” which is just west of an old Japanese airfield north of the village of Muong Thanh. The II/1 RCP dropped on DZ “Simone” to the south, and subsequent heavy equipment dropped on DZ “Octavie,” to the southwest.
The name Dien Bien Phu means “Seat of the Border County Prefecture.” It actually designates the Tai village by the name of Muong Thanh. The Nam Yum river runs through the low valley, which is flanked by high mountains to the west and east. Route 41 runs from the south, and then northeast, and ultimately leads to Tuan Giao, a Viet Minh stronghold. Another road, Pavie Track, leads north to Lai Chau. It was at best a narrow dirt path, where even jeeps could not go in many places.
CSVN Scenario DBP#1 Bruno Arrives
This scenario covers the initial parachute drop of 6BPC and II/1 RCP on 20 November 1953. The Viet Minh 148th Independent Regiment was headquartered there, and operated a training camp. At the time, its 910th Battalion was in the valley, and French intelligence knew this. But, they did not know that the Heavy Weapons Company 226 of Battalion 920 remained there with mortars and heavy machine guns. It was joined by a combat support company of the 675th Artillery Regiment. This outfit had 120mm mortars and recoillless rifles.
The French managed to land, capture the airfield, and with the help of the II/1 RCP battalion, finally flushed the Viet Minh out of Muong Thanh, and assumed control of the valley.
CSVN Scenario Description
[Dien Bien Phu][H2H[HIS][CSL][ALL: NO VV] General Henri Navarre, commander of CEFEO decided to occupy Dien Bien Phu. He wanted to place troops astride the Laos invasion route, and seek a major battle, using the “base aero-terrestre” as bait. On the morning of 20 November, 1953 French paratroopers of the 6e Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux (6e BPC) and the 2nd Battalion of the 1er Regiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes (II/1er RCP) landed on dropzones Natasha and Simone. Operation Castor’s initial objective was to secure the old Japanese airfield. With 65 C-47 Dakota transports, and twelve C-119 “Flying Boxcars,” it still required two trips to get the lead elements into the valley, in the largest paradrop since WWII. The 6e BPC battalion, led by the daring Maj. MB, (callsign “Bruno,”) quickly assembled, and then secured DZ Natasha, while the II/ 1 RCP battalion ran into a difficulties as they were largely misdropped, and spread over a wide area. In addition, its mission to protect the Headquarters of Groupement Aeroporte 1 (GAP 1) slowed down efforts to join the attack. Poor radio communications with the other units, and aircraft added to overall ineffectiveness. 6 BPC collided with the Viet Minh 910th Battalion, 148th Regiment, which had been conducting field exercises with batteries of the 675th Heavy Regiment and 226th Combat Support company. Fighting persisted until afternoon, when the Viet Minh eventually withdrew southward, hiding in heavily overgrown terrain along the Nam Youn River.
Overview Screenshot of DBP#1 Bruno Arrives
Zoom In Screenshot of Battlefield
With the landing of 4650 French troops, and the Viet Minh vacated, the work of transforming the sleepy river village into an “impregnable fortress” had just begun. Col. de Castries arrived by transport aircraft a couple of weeks later, (He was not parachute qualified,) as the engineers had finally refurished the 2000 meter airstrip with PSP, pierced steel plates.
The 31st Engineers played a major role in construction. One task was to build bridges capable of supporting the tanks of the 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment. However, Major Sudrat warned of a virtually insolvable problem.
Col. de Castries ordered all strongpoints to be capable of withstanding 105mm shells. This meant two layers of wooden beams or logs covered by a meter of closely packed earth, and topped by sandbags. To protect one infantry squad, 30 tons of material were needed. A combat bunker for one machine gun required twelve tons. Sudrat estimated that to protect all Dien Bien Phu strongpoints, and two artillery battalions, they needed 36000 tons of materials.
This would require 12000 flights of C-47 transports. With 80 transports daily, devoted only to construction materials, they would need five months. Sudrat warned that this would be insufficient, but his calculations were ridiculed by de Castries’ staff. Local materials would have to suffice, and many village huts were torn down, and the lumber hauled to strongpoints.
The tanks were disassembled in Hanoi and transported to Dien Bien Phu in pieces. The company reassembled them on site.
Viet Minh Preparations
General Giap began planning an attack on Dien Bien Phu. His main effort was building two roads for supply, one from Phu Tho, 225 km away, and the other to Thanh Hoa, 340 km away. Thousands of workers, called Dan Cong, were conscripted to build these roads.
The Viet Minh also formed supply battalions with tens of thousands of pack-bicycles and wheelbarrows, thousands of craft, and convoys of donkeys and horses. An estimated 15000 personnel were involved.
Finally, they moved artillery pieces up steep jungle roads, and set them into concealed bunkers, cut into the sides of the hills. These crews sometimes disassembled the cannons, hauled them in place in pieces, and then reassembled them in the final positions.
“Hell in a Small Place,” Bernard Fall
“Dien Bien Phu,” Vo Nguyen Giap
“Dien Bien Phu,” Pierre Langlais
“Ordre de Bataille de Diên Biên Phu,” WikiMonde
“Dien Bien Phu Order of Battle,” Wikipedia
“Bruno’s Bunker #6 – Dien Bien Phu,” David Galster
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.
Given that intensive planning for the Tet Offensive was in progress in late 1967, where would you expect General Vo Nguyen Giap to have been? Well in fact, he was in Hungary. He went there in September 1967, and was not seen in Hanoi until 5 February 1968, two weeks after the offensive began. This article explains why, and is the first part of a new series about the 1968 Tet Offensive. This major NVA offensive attacked Saigon, Hue, Khe Sanh, and over 100 other cities. This game-changing event shook American confidence, shifted the conflict toward diplomacy, and awoke American opposition to the war.
People’s War Paradigm
The North Vietnamese Communists found themselves in a similar military situation against the Americans as against the French. They faced a superior army, with massive air power, and high technology. General Giap had correctly formulated his strategy against the French, and it worked very well at Dien Bien Phu. To him, a similar strategy must be employed against the Americans.
The “People’s War,” as was originally defined by Mao Tse Tung, was the guiding principle. Against a superior enemy, the war was to be fought in stages. First, guerilla warfare weakens the enemy and disperses his forces, while allowing time to build political and military strength. Secondly, at some equilibrium point, the “People’s Army” fights fight larger battles, mainly ambush scenarios, where they entice the enemy to attack fortified positions, thus inflicting high losses. And finally, when the time was right, with friendly forces strong enough, they mount a major counter-offensive.
General Giap adopted a doctrine of “advance cautiously, and strike surely.” This meant careful planning, patient logistical development, and deliberate, but concealed positioning of troops. They would not strike until everything was ready, and knew for “certain” that an attack would succeed.
Over and over, Giap stated: “The principle which we adhered, contenting ourselves with attacking when success was certain, refusing to give battle likely to incur losses or engage in hazardous actions.” This was his approach at Dien Bien Phu, where Giap rejected Chinese advice for a single massive human wave assault. Instead, he planned and executed a two-month siege.
In 1967, the North Vietnamese were transitioning from a pure guerilla war into the phase two “equilibrium” state of limited major battles, to create ambush opportunities. At this point in time, Giap believed the NVA should continue with the doctrine of “attacking only when success was certain.”
American War Outlook December 1967
At the end of 1967, the American military was pursuing its objectives, and believed that they were being met. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, JCS thought that the NVA was paying a high price for its aggression, and that the trend was favorable to free world forces. Progress was being made, although slow, on military, political, and economic fronts.
MACV was committed to a policy of avoiding a wider war with China, with no invasion plans of North Vietnam or attempts to overthrow its government. However, the JCS felt that US military power was restrained, reducing its effectiveness. The prolonged, graduated basis of operations allowed the NVA to adjust psychologically, economically, and militarily. The enemy still took advantage of sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, and infiltration via the Ho Chi Minh trail was a problem.
General Westmoreland was more optimistic. He thought increased troop levels and logistics would provide a basis for offensive operations. Authorized troop levels increased from 470000 to 525000 at the end of 1967. Westmoreland stated: ” . . . our  operations were primarily holding actions characterized by border surveillance, reconnaissance to locate enemy forces, and spoiling attacks to disrupt the enemy offensive. As a result of our buildup and successes, we were able to plan and initiate a general offensive. We now have gained the ‘tactical’ initiative, and are conducting continuous small and occasional large scale offensive operations to decimate the enemy forces; to destroy enemy base areas and disrupt his infrastructure; to interdict his land and water LOC’s and to convince him, through the vigor of our offensive and accompanying psychological operations, that he faces inevitable defeat.”
Indeed, MACV had reacted to the NVA border battles through most of 1967. The Americans thought this would continue in 1968. Khe Sanh, Dak To, and Tay Ninh Province were the main attack areas of the NVA and VC in 1967.
General Westmoreland made this assessment of NVA/VC capabilities. (Paraphrased)
-The NVA can attack at any time selected targets in I, II, and III CTZ in up to division strength, and in IV CTZ in up to regimental strength, supported by local force and guerrillas.
(1) In I CTZ, the 324B and 341st NVA divisions can attack objectives in the DMZ area (Quang Tri Province) with elements of the supported by one separate regiment. Additionally, the 2d NVA division and two regiments of the 3d NVA division can attack objectives in Quang Tin, Quang Ngai, Thua Tien, and Quang Nam Provinces.
(2) In II CTZ, the the 1st and 10th NVA divisions can attack Western Pleiku, Southern Kontum, or Northern Darlac Provinces. One regiment of the 3d NVA Division can attack in Northern Binh Dinh Province, and in Phu Yen and Northern Khanh Hoa Provinces with elements of the two regiments of the 5th NVA Division.
(3) In III CTZ, the 9th VC and 7th NVA Divisions can attack in Tay Ninh, Binh Long, Binh Duong, or Phuoc Long Provinces, and in Phuoc Tuy and Southern Long Khanh Provinces with elements of the 5th VC Division. He also can sabotage GVN and FW shipping transiting the Rung Sat Special Zone with a Sapper Battalion; harass installations and LOC’s in Gia Ding Province with elements of the 165A VC Regiment. He has the capability of continuing his terror campaign in Saigon/Cholon.
(4) In IV CTZ, he can attack in up to regimental strength in Chuong Thien and Dinh Tuong Provinces, and in up to reinforced battalion strength throughout the rest of the CTZ. Militia and guerrilla forces predominate, and emphasis is on harassing attacks and local actions to consolidate and extend his control.-
This lists nine identified NVA/VC divisions. However, it does not mention any major attacks in cities. In reference to Saigon, it only mentions terror attacks. (Suicide bombings)
MACV also predicted that the NVA would continue to follow Giap’s strategic doctrine. The command believed that in the coming 1968 year, the NVA “would pursue objectives, strategy, and major tactics, as derived from the principles of insurgency warfare. (or ‘Wars of National Liberation’) These are essentially political in nature, and have been described by Mao Tse Tung and Vo Nguyen Giap.”
The enemy preferred strategy, according to MACV was as follows: “Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, whose view has prevailed as seen by our experience, favors a “defensive/offensive” version of strategic mobility consisting of these factors: (1) Developing strong, multi-division forces in dispersed regions accessible to supplies and security. (2) Enticing [enemy] forces into prepared positions where dug-in communist forces may inflict heavy casualties upon them. (3) Conducting concurrent, intensified guerrilla and harassment pressure counter-wide to tie down our forces, destroy small units, attack morale, and extend his control.”
Operation Rolling Thunder had been going on since 1965. This bombing campaign of North Vietnam had many international political ramifications, and its management had evolved into a weekly review of targets by President Johnson. This was referred to as “Target Tuesday.”
On Tuesday afternoons, Secretary of Defense McNamara, Secretary of State Rusk, and Presidential Assistant Walter Rostow gather in the White House second-floor sitting room. They compare notes briefly over drinks. President Johnson walks in with Press Secretary George Christian. These are the “regulars,” the principal cast for “Target Tuesday.” Occasionally, JCS Chief Earle Wheeler joins.
After a bit of chatter over drinks, Johnson signals the move to the dining room. Around the table, the President solicits advice, sampling recommendations, arguments, and thoughts. He asks questions like: Is it time for a bombing pause? What about just a reduction? Laos? Haiphong? Hanoi? Population centers? Restrict bombing to a small area north of the DMZ? (McNamara had long favored this, and was willing to give it a try.)
McNamara has the target list. He gives recommendations based on those of the military Joint Chiefs. But, by no means does he completely agree with their selections. The Joint Chiefs received input from the field commanders, who are under instructions not to recommend targets in certain areas, like Haiphong docks, or the Hanoi air defense command center.
The luncheon meeting goes on until 3:30 pm, and President Johnson has final say on all targets. He adjourns the meeting, and goes for a nap. Bombing targets are set for another week.
The whole bombing issue became very controversial and political, with Congressional oversight. Sometime after his return from Vietnam in late July 1967, Secretary McNamara was informed by Senator Stennis that the Preparedness Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee intended to conduct extensive hearings in August 1967 on the air war against North Vietnam.
At the hearing, McNamara outlined the bombing objectives:
1) The primary objective was to reduce the flow and/or to increase enemy cost of infiltration of men and supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail. 2) Raise morale of the South Vietnamese people, who were under severe military pressure. 3) Send a message to North Vietnam leaders that they will pay a price for continued aggression. 4) Further, this program was always considered a supplement to an effective counter-insurgency campaign in South Vietnam, not a substitute.
McNamara further assured the subcommittee that the objectives were successfully being met. He further rejected their criticism: “Those who criticize our present bombing policy do so, in my opinion, because they believe that air attack against the North can be utilized to achieve quite different objectives. These critics appear to argue that our airpower can win the war in the South either by breaking the will of the North or by cutting off the war-supporting supplies needed in the south. In essence, this approach would seek to use the air attack against the North not as a supplement to, but as a substitute for the arduous ground war that we and our allies are waging in the South.”
The reason that McNamara believed the “will of the North” could not be broken by bombing was that most Vietnamese were agrarian. They were not accustomed to modern conveniences, and did not depend on functioning cities for their welfare. They were disciplined, and no strangers to deprivation and death. Despite war weariness, they would continue to support the Hanoi regime.
Stennis’ subcommittee disagreed with McNamara’s objectives and assurances: “That the air campaign has not achieved its objectives to a greater extent cannot be attributed to inability or impotence of airpower. It attests, rather, to the fragmentation of our air might by overly restrictive controls, limitations, and the doctrine of “gradualism” placed on our aviation forces which prevented them from waging the air campaign in the manner and according to the timetable which was best calculated to achieve maximum results.”
President Johnson had considered a bombing halt, as many world leaders, including the Pope, had requested. Johnson made this public at a speech in San Antonio: “As we have told Hanoi time and time and time again, the heart of the matter is this: The United States is willing to stop all aerial and naval bombardment of North Vietnam when this will lead promptly to productive discussions. We, of course, assume that while discussions proceed, North Vietnam would not take advantage of this bombing cessation or limitation.”
Despite the President’s overture for a halt, McNamara still had many differences with him. He had cautioned against escalation, but on 10 September, North Vietnam’s third port at Cam Pha, a target his testimony had specifically counseled against, was struck for the first time.
The issue came to a head when the Stennis report exposed the bombing policy rift, and forced Johnson to deny any Administration differences at a news conference. McNamara’s year-end resignation was his only recourse, as he found himself far out of line with Administration policy. He resigned at the end of 1967, effective 1 March 1968, and was succeeded by Clark Clifford.
“Target Tuesday” Luncheon
“Crack the Sky, Shake the Earth”
Such was the slogan for the intense, well-coordinated offensive that ultimately shook the resolve of Washington and the Pentagon generals. The North Vietnamese began detailed planning for the Tet Offensive in mid 1967. But, the conception started in April 1967, when the Politburo and Central Military Party Committee met and discussed new policies. They perceived that the military balance was shifting in the Americans’ favor.
They were alarmed because provincial level Viet Cong cadres were being neutralized by the Phoenix Program, or forced to relocate to Cambodia. Fortunately, they obtained a copy of the Phoenix pacification plan in early 1967, and were fully aware of its dangers.
North Vietnamese leadership had changed dramatically since the First Indochina War ended in 1954. Ho Chi Minh was still President, but he was in his late seventies, and became less active. “Uncle” Ho had long assumed the role as “father figure” for the people. General Giap was the Minister of Defense, but he no longer had final authority for military operations. A newer group of leaders had emerged, and were essentially “calling the shots.”
Le Duan had been recalled to the north in April 1957, while serving as the leader of the underground “apparatchik.” He became the Communist Party General Secretary after winning a political struggle with General Giap. They disagreed over the contents of the Fifteenth Conference Resolution. Le Duan advocated a more violent revolution in South Vietnam.
Giap and Le Duan continued to be adversaries, and by the mid-1960s, General Giap’s position in the political and military hierarchy had changed dramatically, and his role in leading the war was weakened. Strategic war decisions were no longer solely his. Instead, they were made by a special Politburo “War Sub-committee” of five members: Le Duan, Vo Nguyen Giap, Le Duc Tho, Nguyen Chi Thanh, and Pham Hung.
General Nguyen Chi Thanh commanded PAVN forces in South Vietnam, (COSVN,) and had supported seeking a “decisive victory” in 1967. But, he was cautious of the coming dry season, and having to defend against possible counterattacks. In the early morning of 6 July 1967, following a farewell party before returning south, he suffered a blood infarction (heart attack,) and died.
Thanh was replaced by General Van Tien Dung on the War Sub-committee. He was Chief of General Staff. General Dung was more receptive to Le Duan’s ideas. He said: “We need to review the entire winter-spring plan from 1967 to 1968. I would like to meet Comrade Le Duan to discuss this issue.”
Pham Hung replaced Thanh as commander of COSVN, but just prior to the offensive General Tran Van Tra was put in command.
General Offensive, General Uprising
In late 1964, “Plan X” was conceived to conduct a general offensive, and uprising with the aim of achieving a decisive victory. It was to be an attack in Saigon with enough power to attack and capture important objectives. Simultaneously, armed combat units and self-defense units would provide support for the general uprising. The plan included using five battalions that would be positioned in areas surrounding the city’s outskirts, and capable of advancing into the city from five directions.
Le Duan was a supporter of this plan. The idea was that with such an assault in Saigon, they could trigger a “general uprising,” which would lead to overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. He recommended preparations for the situation “by attacking and destroying three or four regular puppet divisions on the battlefield during successive waves of forces.”
In January 1967, the Central Committee approved Resolution 13, which called for “high effort … to win a decisive victory in a relatively short time”. A “decisive victory” was considered one that causes heavy losses to US forces, and destroying a large force of ARVN to cause paralysis, and create a “general offensive-general uprising” in cities and rural areas.
The ultimate goal was to make the Republic of Vietnam government collapse, and replace it with a coalition government, which would resolutely negotiate an agreement allowing the US to leave Vietnam without losing face. The timing to force the US into negotiations was considered urgent, given upcoming US elections in 1968.
Le Duan and Van Tien Dung became the predominant advocates of Resolution 13 and in late 1967 began detailed planning for the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Their plan called for major attacks on Saigon and Hue, and 100 other cities. Khe Sanh was added because Giap pointed out that they needed forces in that area to protect the Ho Chi Minh trail.
(Khe Sanh was across the Laotian border from Tchepone, a main transportation center.) The NVA/VC forces would include 323000 troops, organized into nine divisions composed of 35 infantry regiments, which were, in turn, had 230 infantry and sapper battalions. 20 artillery and anti-aircraft regiments would support the initiative.
Giap and many leaders, including Ho Chi Minh, had great reservations about the idea of the offensive, as they believed the conditions were not ready for popular uprisings in the cities. Giap only wanted to attack cities when “success was certain.”
Le Duan countered that argument, and explained that if the attacks in cities failed, communist forces could simply withdraw, regroup, and then try again. Le Duan wrote: “However, if for some reason the revolts in cities are difficult, and we are forced to withdraw our forces, then there is no problem. It will only be an occasion for us to rehearse, and draw lessons to prepare for the future. The forces of comrade Fidel Castro attacked the cities three times to succeed. If we get into cities but then have to withdraw, there is no need to worry, because all the countryside and forests belong to us. Our position and our forces are very strong in those regions.”
The offensive timing was during the Tet sacred holiday season of the Lunar New Year. (Tet is short for “Tet Nguyen Dan,” or “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.”) This was a time when previous truces had been called, and soldiers allowed to go on leave. Generally, during the holiday, the South Vietnamese Army let its “guard” down.
At the end of October, the Politburo met to review and approve the new plan. Surprisingly, neither Le Duan nor Vo Nguyen Giap nor Ho Chi Minh attended this meeting, and Truong Chinh hosted. All three were “abroad” for “health treatment” during the conference. These were probably excuses, as the argument between Le Duan and Giap was harsh enough to disrupt the meetings. Giap did not publicly oppose the plan, but his absence implied disagreement with it.
1968 Tet Offensive Plan
The US did not expect a major attack in the cities. The bombing program was not perceived by Americans to be enough to “break the will” of the North Vietnamese. President Johnson micromanaged the war. (Target Tuesday) He also did not seek support of the American people, and explain why they should fight Communism in Vietnam. On the Communist side, Le Duan believed a major attack could cause a general uprising of the South Vietnamese people against their government. He was willing to take this gamble. But, he was opposed by Giap, who did not think success was certain enough. Giap and Uncle Ho were no longer politically strong enough, and Le Duan’s plan was approved by the Politburo.
Process of the 1968 Tet Offensive Plan, Merle L. Pribbenow II, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Volume 3, Number 2, Summer 2008
The Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, Senator Gravel Edition
North Vietnam’s 1967 Planning for the 1968 TET Offensive, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson
The Tet Offensive 1968 Vietnam, CIA – Department of Defense – State Dept Files
In Hack’s Hardcore Hints series, David Galster shares some of his scenario design toolkits for Campaign Series: Vietnam, a work-in-progress tactical platoon-scale wargame.
It’s a pleasure, Campaign Series Wargamers,
The year 1967 saw some very intense battles as the NVA increased its operations, particularly in border areas. Unknown to MACV at the time, it was intended to draw US and ARVN forces away from populated areas, which would then be attacked during the Tet Offensive the following year. Khe Sanh and Dak To are examples. While there were many other campaigns during 1967, this article focuses on the border areas, including Tay Ninh Province in more detail.
Operation Junction City
This was an 82-day operation conducted by II Field Force and ARVN starting 22 February 1967. It was the largest US airborne operation since Operation Varsity in March 1945, and the largest airborne operation of the war. It was named after Junction City, Kansas, near Ft. Riley, where General Palmer attended Cavalry School. Palmer commanded II Field Force.
The operation’s aim was to locate the elusive Communist “headquarters,” the Central Office of South Vietnam, (COSVN) in Tay Ninh Province. It was believed to be a large and sophisticated installation, almost a “mini-Pentagon,” complete with typists, file cabinets, and staff comprising layers of bureaucracy. However, Viet Cong archives later revealed it was a small, mobile group of people, often sheltering in ad hoc facilities.
Junction City’s plan was a “hammer and anvil” tactic. Airborne forces would “flush out” the VC headquarters, sending them to retreat against a prepared “anvil” of other forces. US forces included 1st Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Division, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (11th ACR).
The initial operation positioned 1st and 25th Infantry divisions north of the operational area to build the “anvil.” The 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173d Airborne Brigade, parachuted into action west of 1st and 25th Divisions.
At first, operations appeared successful, as objectives were reached without encountering great resistance. On 23 February, the 11th ACR mechanized forces made contact with the infantry “anvil.” But, the VC were highly mobile and elusive, and already moved their headquarters to Cambodia.
The VC launched several attacks to inflict losses and wear down the Americans. On 28 February and 10 March engagements with US forces occurred at the Battles of Prek Klok I and II. US forces, supported by air strikes and artillery repulsed VC attacks. However, the strategic result was disappointing.
Prek Klok I involved the US 1-16 Infantry Battalion being attacked by the NVA 2nd Battalion, 101st Regiment. A few days before the battle, the 1-16 Battalion was brought into the area near Suoi Da and Prek Klok to defend a highway, airfield, and artillery base. They also were assigned search and destroy missions there. On 28 February, elements of 1-16 battalion headed east, and were attacked from the front by NVA infantry with gunfire, rockets and mortars. Soon after, they were attacked from all fronts. However, with air strikes and artillery available, the Americans repelled the attacks.
The Battle of Prek Klok II occurred on 10 March. It involved a VC attack on Artillery Fire Support Patrol Base II, at Prek Klok on Route 4, 20 km north of Nui Ba Den. 2nd Battalion, 33rd Artillery Regiment was stationed there along with the 168th Engineer Battalion. 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment (Mechanized) was assigned to defend the firebase.
VC mortar fire began at 2200. Recoilless rifles and RPG-2 anti tank weapons fired at the base perimeter, hitting several M113s. Americans responded with heavy mortar fire, and 2-2 INF (Mech) conducted a reconnaissance a few hundred meters beyond the perimeter.
And then, the VC attacked with two battalions of the 272 Regiment. Several M113 APCs were hit. Moving parallel to the highway along the western side of the road, the VC ran across 500 meters of open ground towards C Company from the southwest. Continuous fire from the Americans quickly overwhelmed the VC. With airstrikes and artillery support, the VC withdrew before dawn.
On 18 March II Field Force launched the second phase of Junction City, this time directly to the east by the mechanized divisions, the 1st Infantry Division and 11th ACR, reinforced this time from the 1st Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division.
The toughest battle was the March 19 Battle of Ap Bau Bang II, where the VC 273rd Regiment vigorously engaged the American armored cavalry, before being forced to retire by massive firepower.
The VC launched two more attacks, on 21 March at Ap Bau Bang, and in Ap Gu on 1 April, against the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions. Both assaults were bloodily repulsed, and the VC 9th Division came out seriously weakened. They retreated to safety in areas adjacent to the Cambodian border.
On 16 April, II Field Force continued operations with a third phase of Operation Junction City. Until 14 May, units of the 25th Infantry Division undertook long and exhausting searches, advancing in the bush, raking villages and retrieving large amounts of materiel. However, there was little contact with Communist units.
CSVN plans scenarios for “Battle of Prek Klok I,” “Battle of Prek Klok II,” and “Second battle of Ap Bau Bang.”
Operation Junction City
Also known as “The Hill Fights,” the First Battle of Khe Sanh was between the NVA 325C Division and US Marines on several hills north of the Khe Sanh Combat Base in I CTZ. On 20 April 1967 operational control of the Khe Sanh area passed to the 3rd Marine Regiment. The 2/3 Battalion was involved in Operation Beacon Star, while the 3/3 Battalion was operated in the hill area northwest of Khe Sanh base.
On 24 April 2nd Platoon, Company B, 3/3 Battalion moved to Hill 700 to establish a mortar position to support another Company. A fireteam of 5 Marines then moved to Hill 861 to establish an observation post, but as they entered a bamboo grove near the summit they were ambushed by NVA killing 4 Marines.
A squad was sent to investigate. They rescued the lone survivor, and attempted to recover the bodies. They were met with fire and withdrew into the mortar position. Another squad moved to the ambush site and recovered two bodies, but as an evacuation helicopter approached the hilltop it was hit by heavy fire.
Company B moved southeast across Hill 861 to cut off the enemy, but were hit by mortar fire. 1st and 3rd Platoons dug in for the night, while 2nd Platoon withdrew to Khe Sanh Combat Base.
The next morning Company B continued its slow advance on Hill 861, hampered by fog, difficult terrain and enemy fire. On the afternoon of 25 April, Company K, 3rd Marines moved towards Hill 861 to support Company B. 1st and 3rd Platoons Company K moved up Hill 861 on different approaches and 1st Platoon was hit by fire from well-entrenched NVA 300m from the summit. 2nd Platoon was sent to reinforce 1st Platoon and fighting continued until nightfall, when the Marines dug in.
At 1800 Company K, 9th Marines was flown into Khe Sanh to support the attack. At 05:00 on 26 April the command post and Khe Sanh Base were hit by mortar and recoilless rifle fire. Company K continued their assault on Hill 861 and were joined by Company K, 9th Marines around midday.
The assault made little progress and the Marines withdrew protected by fire from helicopter gunships.Company B was also heavily engaged throughout the morning, but broke contact at 1200, and established a defensive perimeter. Medevac helicopters were called in, but encountered mortar fire.
By 1445, the Company commander reported that he was unable to move. Artillery was then plotted around the Company’s position forcing the NVA to fall back. Also on 26 April urgent orders to reinforce the 3/3 Marines came, and 2/3 Marines was flown to Phu Bai Combat Base and from there to Khe Sanh linking up with 3/3 Marines by 1600 on 26 April.
On 27 April, 3/3 Marines returned to Khe Sanh for replacements, and Battery B, 12th Marine Regiment arrived at Khe Sanh to support Battery F. Marine artillery and aircraft were used to pound Hill 861 throughout the 27th and 28th, dropping 518700 pounds of bombs and 1800 artillery rounds on the hill.
On the afternoon of 28 April, 2/3 Marines moved up Hill 861 with minimal opposition as the NVA had withdrawn. Marines found 25 bunkers and numerous fortifications.
The next objective was Hill 881S. 3/3 Marines advanced to a hill 750m northeast of Hill 881S. It was to be used as an intermediate position for the attack on Hill 881S. Company M, 9th Marines engaged a NVA platoon, while Company M, 3rd Marines secured the intermediate position and dug in.
On 30 April 2/3 Marines moved from Hill 861 to support 3/3 Marines, and walked into a PAVN bunker complex suffering 9 killed and 43 wounded. They backed off to let artillery and air support hit the bunkers. And then, they overran them.
Company M, 3rd Marines and Company K, 9th Marines began their assault on Hill 881S. They had minimal resistance until 1025 when they were hit by mortar fire and heavy fire from numerous bunkers. The Marines were pinned down, and disengaged after several hours with gunship and air support. The Marines suffered 43 killed and 109 wounded.
Company M, 3rd Marines was replaced by Company F 2/3 Marines, and Company E, 9th Marines was deployed to Khe Sanh on the afternoon of 1 May.
The Marines withdrew from Hill 881S to allow for intense air bombardment. On 2 May Companies K and M, 9th Marines assaulted Hill 881S capturing it with minimal resistance. They discovered over 250 bunkers protected by several layers of logs, covered with 4-5 feet of dirt.
Hill 881N was the last. At 1015, 2 May, Companies E and G, 2/3 Marines assaulted Hill 881N from the southeast. Company G encountered enemy positions, and pulled back to allow for artillery support. Company E almost reached the summit of the hill, but an intense rainstorm forced the Battalion into night defensive positions.
At 0415, 3 May, a NVA force attacked Company E’s night defensive position, penetrating the east of the position and reoccupying some bunkers. A Marine squad sent to drive them out was hit by machine gun fire. Engineers wereMACV sent to support them while air and artillery strikes were called in.
A flareship arrived overhead, and the Marines on Hill 881S saw 200 NVA forming up to attack. Company E fired recoilless rifles to break up this new assault. At dawn, reinforcements were flown in to support Company E while Company H, 2/3 Marines attacked from the rear. The last bunker was cleared at 1500.
At 0850, 5 May Companies E and F, 2/3 Marines began their assault on Hill 881N. Enemy fire increased as they neared the summit, and both companies pulled back to allow air and artillery strikes. The assault resumed at 1300, and by 1445, the hilltop had been captured.
CSVN plans the following scenarios: “Khe Sanh – Fighting for Hills 881N, 881S and 861.” Also a large scenario is planned: “WEEK IN I CORPS” – April 1967 – 7 day long full scenario focusing on US Marines on the DMZ at Khe Sanh.
Prelude to 1968 Tet Offensive
As with the later Battle of Khe Sanh, the NVA strategy remains unclear. Tran Van Tra, commander of the B-2 Front in III Corps stated in a 1990 interview that the intention of the border battles, particularly at Khe Sanh, was to draw US forces into remote border regions away from population centers that would be attacked during the Tet Offensive.
This engagement in summer 1967 preceded a larger battle in November, which had implications for the Tet Offensive the following year. The November battles were known as the Battle of Dak To, and took place in Kon Tum Province, in the Central Highlands. Dak To was one of a series of PAVN offensives beginning late in 1967. Attacks at Loc Ninh (in Bình Long Province), Song Be (in Phuoc Long Province), and at Con Thien and Khe Sanh, (in Quang Tri Province), were other actions which, combined with Dak To, became known as “the border battles.” The post hoc purported objective of the North Vietnamese forces was to distract American and South Vietnamese forces away from cities towards the borders in preparation for the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Throughout the middle of 1967, western Kon Tum Province became a magnet for several PAVN spoiling attacks. It appeared PAVN was paying an increasing amount of attention to the area.
These heavy enemy contacts prompted General Peers to request reinforcements for his 4th Infantry Division, assigned to Kon Tum Province. On 17 June, two battalions 173rd Airborne Brigade moved into the Dak To area, and began sweeping the jungle-covered mountains in Operation Greeley.
On 20 June, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment found bodies of a Special Forces CIDG unit that had been missing for four days on Hill 1338, a dominant hill south of Dak To.
Supported by Company A, the Americans moved up the hill and set up for the night. At 0658 the following morning, Company A began moving alone on a ridge, and triggered an ambush by the NVA 6th Battalion, 24th Regiment.
Company C was went to support, but heavy jungle and difficult terrain made movement extremely difficult. Artillery support was ineffective due to poor visibility and the “belt-grabbing” – or “hugging” tactics of NVA troops. Company A managed to survive repeated attacks throughout the day and night, but the cost was heavy. Of the original 137 men, 76 were killed and 23 wounded. Company A was virtually wiped out.
US headquarters press releases claimed 475 PAVN had been killed, but Company A estimated only 50–75 enemy KIAs. Such losses among American troops could not go unpunished. The 4th Infantry operations officer went to the extreme of recommending relief of General Deane, 173rd Airborne commander. Such a drastic measure would only provide more grist for what was becoming a public relations fiasco. Ultimately, the commander and junior officers of Company C were transferred to other units.
In response, MACV ordered additional forces into the area. On 23 June, 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division arrived to bolster the 173rd. The following day, the elite ARVN 1st Airborne Task Force, and 3rd Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division arrived to conduct search and destroy operations north and northeast of Kon Tum. General Deane sent his forces 20 kilometers west and southwest of Dak To in search of the NVA 24th Regiment. This action became what is known as “The Battle of the Slopes.”
After establishing Fire Support Base 4 on Hill 664, the 4/503rd Airborne Infantry found the NVA K-101D Battalion of the Doc Lap Regiment on 10 July. As the four companies of the battalion neared the crest of Hill 830 they were struck by small arms and machine gun fire. Any advance was impossible, so the paratroopers remained in place for the night. The following morning, the NVA were gone.
NVA pressure against CIDG outposts at Dak Seang and Dak Sek, caused the ARVN 42nd Infantry Regiment to go into the area. The ARVN Airborne battalion moved to Dak Seang. On 4 August, the 1/42nd encountered PAVN on a hilltop west of Dak Seang, setting off a three-day battle that drew in the ARVN Airborne.
The 8th Airborne, along with U.S. Army advisers, was airlifted into a small unimproved air field next to the Special Forces camp at Dak Seang. The camp was under sporadic fire and probing ground attacks. This occurred when the Special Forces commander and a patrol failed to return. The camp received incoming preparatory fire for a full scale ground attack.
Army advisers and the 8th Airborne found the lost Special Forces patrol, all dead, including the camp commander. As 8th Airborne moved up the mountain, lead elements received small arms fire. By noon of 4 August, 8th Airborne and advisers were in a fight that lasted several days.
The unit, aided by air and artillery finally overwhelmed NVA forces. The top of the mountain had a fully operational PAVN Headquarters, complete with hospital facilities and anti-aircraft emplacements. During the three-day battle, the 8th Airborne Battalion alone withstood six separate ground attacks and casualties among all the South Vietnamese units were heavy. By mid-August, contact with NVA forces decreased, leading the Americans to conclude that they had withdrawn across the border.
On 23 August, General Deane turned over command of the 173rd to Brigadier General Leo H. Schweiter. On 17 September, two battalions of the 173rd departed the area to protect the rice harvest in Phu Yen Province. The 2/503rd remained at Dak To along with the 3rd ARVN Airborne Battalion to carry out a sweep of the Toumarong Valley north of Dak To and the suspected location of a NVA regimental headquarters. After three weeks of fruitless searching, the effort was halted on 11 October. Operation Greeley was over.
This battle is planned to be represented by CSVN with two scenarios: “Operation Greely” 22 June, and 10 July. In addition, there is to be a large scenario: “WEEK IN II CORPS” – November 1967 – 7 day long full scenario focusing on 173rd Airborne, 4th infantry and 1st Cavalry in the Central Highlands at Dak To.
In Hack’s Hardcore Hints series, David Galster shares some of his scenario design toolkits for Campaign Series: Vietnam, a work-in-progress tactical platoon-scale wargame.
It’s a pleasure, Campaign Series Wargamers,
The war intensified in 1966, and the Australians, New Zealanders, and North Koreans joined the fray. This article discusses political developments, and several battles including Ho Bo Woods, Suoi Bong Trang, Operation Utah, and Operation Smithfield.
Nguyen Van Thieu gradually moved up within the ranks of the military junta by adopting a cautious approach, while other officers defeated and sidelined one another. In 1965, stability came to South Vietnam when Thieu became the figurehead President, or head of state, while Air Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky became prime minister. This ended the cycle of coups, and brought continuity, although the two men were rivals.
Ky and Thieu, while challenged, proved strong enough to keep their power and position. In putting down the Struggle Movement in the first half of 1966, and then delivering on the September, 1966 election, the South Vietnamese government, (GVN) effectively discredited the militant Buddhist leadership, and for the time being, ended its threat to political stablility.
In August 1966 the Koreans established a corps command after the arrival of the 9th Division. It was called the “Republic of Korea Forces Vietnam Field Command,” near I Field Force, Vietnam at Nha Trang.
Ho Bo Woods
Operation Crimp (8–14 January 1966), also known as the Battle of the Ho Bo Woods, was a joint US-Australian military operation, which took place 20 km north of Cu Chi, in Binh Duong Province. The operation targeted a key Viet Cong headquarters, believed to be concealed underground. The forces included two brigades under the command of the US 1st Infantry Division, including the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) which was attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade. Heavy fighting resulted in significant casualties on both sides, but the combined American and Australian force was able to uncover an extensive tunnel network covering more than 200 km.
1 RAR made the initial assault, landing on LZ March at 0930 hours after an intense artillery and air preparation which had followed B-52 strikes. Resistance was light at first, but ran into a VC company. A fierce fight ensued which continued till after dark with the Australians overrunning successive positions, extensive bunker systems and trenches constructed in depth. The fortifications were highly defensible, and the VC defended tenaciously.
The operation was the largest allied military action mounted to that time, and the first fought at division level. Despite some success, the allied force was only able to partially clear the area. It remained a key Communist transit and supply base throughout the war. The tunnels were later used as a staging area for the attack on Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive.
CSVN plans to include scenario “Operation Crimp – Ho Bo Woods.” The new game features tunnels, unlike any previous Campaign Series games.
A US 1st Infantry Division soldier enters a tunnel during Operation Crimp.
Suoi Bong Trang
The Battle of Suoi Bong Trang (23–24 February 1966) was an engagement fought between US, Australian, and New Zealand forces, and the Viet Cong and NVA. The battle occurred during Operation Rolling Stone, an American security operation to protect engineers building a tactically important road in the vicinity of Tan Binh, in central Binh Duong Province, 30 km northwest of Bien Hoa airbase. Soldiers from the US 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division and the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR), fought off a regimental-sized Viet Cong night assault.
Repulsed by massed firepower from artillery and tanks, the Viet Cong suffered heavy casualties and were forced to withdraw by morning. After the attack, Americans and Australians made no attempt to pursue the Viet Cong, focusing on securing the battlefield, and evacuating their own casualties. The Viet Cong continued to harass the American sappers with occasional sniper and mortar fire, but these tactics proved ineffective, and the road was completed by 2 March.
CSVN plans to include scenario ” Battle of Suoi Bong Trang.”
Australian soldiers returning to Bien Hoa airbase following Operation Rolling Stone, late-February 1966.
Operation Utah was a US Marine Corps and ARVN operation northwest of Quang Ngai, lasting from 4–7 March 1966. ARVN 2nd Division received intelligence that the NVA 21st Regiment moved into the area northwest of Quang Ngai.
Marine A-4s, F-4s, and U.S. Air Force B-57s carried out airstrikes on the landing zone before the landings commenced at 09:00, however the incoming helicopters of Marine Aircraft Group 36 were met with intense anti-aircraft fire and one UH-1E gunship and an F-4 were shot down.
Despite persistent anti-aircraft fire, the ARVN 1st Airborne Battalion secured the landing zone, and encountered little resistance. 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines landed shortly after.
ARVN moved out and encountered strong opposition at Chau Nhai and Hill 50. By 13:30 they had called for support from the Marines, who moved to support them. As the Marines advanced on Hill 50, they came under intense fire from an estimated force of 2 NVA Battalions. The lines were so close that Marines could not call in air and artillery support. A gap developed between the Marines left flank and the ARVN, who refused to moved forward. The NVA exploited this gap cutting off two platoons of Company F for several hours until supported by Company H.
Darkness approached and the Marines withdrew under the cover of air and artillery strikes to defensive positions. The NVA probed Marine positions and harrassed resupply helicopters with anti-aircraft fire. The Marines launched a night assault on an anti-aircraft position killing at least 20.
General Jonas Platt ordered deployment of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines north of 2/7 Marines and their deployment was completed by 1800. The next morning, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines inserted 2.5 km south of 2/7 Marines, while the ARVN 37th Ranger Battalion established blocking positions to the east. Also the 5th Airborne Battalion landed.
At 0500 the next morning, PAVN launched an attack on the ARVN 1st Airborne position near Hill 50. Marine artillery responded with more than 1900 rounds on the perimeter over two hours. At 0730 3/1 Marines moved south to support ARVN. As the 3/1 Marines approached, they came under heavy fire from entrenched forces at Hill 50.
After more than 3 hours fighting, Company L 3/1 Marines and ARVN 1st Airborne captured Hill 50. Company M 3/1 Marines and ARVN 5th Airborne attempted to outflank PAVN positions east of Hill 50, but were unable. By nightfall, they withdrew.
At 2300 Company B from the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines which were in a blocking position were hit by intense mortar and small arms fire. Running short of ammunition, they called for emergency resupply. Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, two helicopters succeeded in dropping them munitions. At 0130, the NVA attacked the Marine perimeter, but were forced back by small arms and artillery fire.
On the morning of 6 March, Marines and ARVN withdrew to allow air and artillery bombardments. When the bombardment concluded, the Marines and ARVN advanced, but found that the enemy had slipped away the previous night.
CSVN plans to simulate this battle in scenario: “Operation Utah.”
The Battle of Long Tan (18 August 1966) took place in a rubber plantation near Long Tan, in Phuoc Tuy Province. The NVA 275th Regiment and VC D445 Provincial Mobile Battalion attacked the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) shortly after its lodgement in Phouc Tuy.
1 ATF began arriving between April and June 1966, constructing a base at Nui Dat, which was located astride a major Communist resupply route, close to a VC base area. After two months of preparation, the task force began operations to open the province.
VC mortars, recoilless rifles, and artillery bombarded Nui Dat from a position 2 km to the east, damaging the base, and wounding 24 men, one of whom later died. The following morning, B Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6 RAR), departed Nui Dat to locate the firing points, and the direction of the VC withdrawal. A number of weapon pits were subsequently found, as were the positions of the mortars and RCLs.
D Company took over the pursuit around midday on 18 August. After clashing with a VC squad in the afternoon and forcing them to withdraw, the Australians were engaged by small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire from a flank. Numbering only 108 men, D Company was facing a much larger force. Pinned down, they called for artillery as a monsoon rain began, reducing visibility. Heavy fighting ensued as advancing battalions of the 275th Regiment and D445 Battalion attempted to encircle and destroy the Australians. After several hours, D Company was nearly out of ammunition, when two UH-1B Iroquois from No. 9 Squadron RAAF arrived overhead to resupply them. Heavily outnumbered, but supported by strong artillery fire, D Company held off a regimental assault before a relief force of cavalry and infantry from Nui Dat fought their way through as darkness fell and forced the VC to withdraw just as they appeared to be preparing for a final assault.
Withdrawing to establish a landing zone to evacuate their casualties, the Australians formed a defensive position overnight. Returning in strength the next day, the Australians swept the area and located a number of NVA and VC dead.
CSVN plans to feature this battle in scenario: “Operation Smithfield.”
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