As you were, Grunts,
What forces wreaked the greatest havoc on the Communist offensive? Well, the implied premise that the offensive was a failure is mistaken, but the NVA sustained heavy losses, largely due to B-52 bombing missions. Despite this, they met some of their political goals, which this article explains.
The Easter Offensive, was a major military campaign conducted by PAVN in the spring of 1972. The three major attack areas were: CTZ I – Quang Tri, CTZ II – Kontum, and CTZ III – An Loc. Overall, the NVA attacked with 14 divisions and 26 independent regiments. This was about 200000 troops and 300 tanks and armored vehicles. PAVN used largescale conventional infantry and armor assaults, backed by heavy artillery. Both sides fielded weapons systems with the latest technology.
The operation began 30 March, and related combat continued into October. The COSVN goal was to gain territory, and inflict as much damage to ARVN forces as possible, with the hope that it would improve North Vietnam’s negotiating position at the Paris Peace talks.
Initially, the NVA overran several firebases near the DMZ, and captured the city of Quang Tri, before another attempt to seize Hue. NVA forces eliminated frontier defense forces in CTZ II, and advanced on Kontum. In the south, Communist troops overwhelmed Loc Ninh and assaulted An Loc, the capital of Binh Long Province.
The ARVN forces counterattacked in July, culminating in recapture of Quang Tri city in September. On all three fronts, initial PAVN successes were hampered by high casualties, inept tactics, and US and South Vietnamese air power. An unintended consequence for the North was launching of Operation Linebacker, the first sustained bombing of North Vietnam by the US since November 1968.
However, for all the heavy losses, the Paris Peace talks gained a renewed importance for both sides, and negotiators began making proposals and counters in earnest.
North Vietnam was committed to eventual takeover of the South and reunitication. This was clearly agreed to in the 19th Plenary Session of the Vietnam Workers Party. The communique discussed the overall conditions of the war, described their view of US aggression, and extolled the virtues of the Communist Party, its followers, and the “people.”
This communique excerpt illustrates the commitment: “In the interest of the nation and for the sake of their international duty, our people will do their utmost to fight shoulder to shoulder with the fraternal Lao and Cambodian peoples to drive the U.S. aggressors out of the Indochinese peninsula. Our people will constantly strive to contribute to the consolidation of the solidarity in the socialist camp and the international communist movement. . . “
“Let our entire Party, people, and Army unite around the Party Central Committee, strive their hardest to implement by all means the sacred testament of President Ho Chi Minh for the sake of independence and freedom of the fatherland and for the welfare and happiness of the nation.”
The North Vietnamese understood that conditions had changed, and perceived that the time was favorable for a major offensive. In particular, Secretary Le Duan believed that such a bold campaign could be successful. The changed conditions included US troop withdrawals, and the related Vietnamization program, loss of American public support, and weaknesses in the South Vietnamese Army, particularly its leadership.
COSVN (Central Office of South Vietnam) was the direct control authority conducting the liberation of South Vietnam. In April 1971, a COSVN conference discussed the war situation, and a Resolution 10 was made.
Resolution 10 acknowledged that the US pacification program (CORDS and Phoenix) achieved some temporary results, but that the guerrilla forces in the South, had “fought courageously and persistently, surmounted all difficulties, and are forging ahead . . .” Also the 1970 US and ARVN Cambodian incursion had failed to destroy NVA forces and base camps in Cambodia. COSVN believed their forces in Laos and Cambodia were still very active and effective, particularly at operating the Ho Chi Minh trail. The other goal was to oppose the Nixon Vietnamization program, given that US troop withdrawals would continue, and would rely on “puppet forces.” (ARVN).
However, greater involvement of ARVN against the VC would “aggravate contradictions between itself and the people of various classes. . . and deepen the internal dissensions in the puppet government.”
Resolution 10 concluded that “For this reason, in addition to the requirements of dealing heavy blows to U.S.troops and expediting the anti-war movement demanding repatriation of the U.S. and satellite troops, the destruction of puppet forces, especially the mobile forces and tyrannical puppet units in local areas will be of particular significance in turning the tide of the war in South Viet-Nam and the Indochinese theater of operations in our favor.”
General Giap, the Minister of Defence worked with COSVN to plan the 1972 Easter Offensive. The operation was given the name Operation “Nguyen Hue,” after the hero who defeated an invading Chinese army in 1788. General Van Tien Dung would lead the overall offensive.
The plan called for an initial attack across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) toward Hue and Da Nang, with other forces pressing in from the A Shau Valley. Giap wanted to force President Thieu to commit reserves to protect the northern provinces, after which the NVA would launch a second assault from Cambodia to threaten Saigon. A third attack in the Central Highlands would take Kontum, and aim for the coast in Binh Dinh Province, thus possibly splitting South Vietnam in two. This might lead to its collapse or, at the very least, a more favorable peace agreement.
North Vietnam succeeded in masking the considerable military invasion from American and South Vietnamese detection. Some US field officers said that the invasion came as a surprise, especially in Military Region 1. Although there were signs of increased enemy activity, particularly by unattended ground sensors, no one suspected an attack of the intensity of the Easter Offensive.
The U.S. Army’s 525th Intelligence Group was an independent unit under control of MACV. There were other military intelligence units organic to different American divisions, as well as CIA and NSA operations. In late 1971, the last organic intelligence unit conducting air reconnaissance missions, an unit of the 101st Airborne Division, was shipped back to the United states. The CIA had also moved many people during the last months of 1971, although it continued to operate its network.
For the 181-day period ending 30 April 1971, the 525th produced 11630 reports, evaluated 124000 captured documents, and 1250 tons of enemy material. Among enemy documents exploited were detailed orders of battle and COSVN plans for the spring offensive.
Lt. Col. John Oseth, who was the G-2 adviser to 3rd ARVN Division, acknowledged that there might have been isolated agent reports of an impending invasion, but the general consensus, at least at the division level, was that the threat of enemy attack though present, was not great. Oseth recalls
that the most frequent complaint about military intelligence operations in 1972 was absence of American air units to provide aerial reconnaissance.
A top Vietnamese general, Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, IV Corps, asserts that intelligence had predicted much of what the enemy did. They knew where the main foci of the offensive would be. The exception is the DMZ, where the untested and newly-formed 3rd Division was stationed.
US Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland, and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, were the individuals most responsible for the perception that intelligence failed to perform before the Easter Offensive. In late 1971 and early 1972, they proclaimed the enemy would launch a large offensive during the Tet holidays in mid-February of 1972. During a press conference in Saigon on 31 January 1972, Westmoreland stated that ” . . . communist forces were mounting a multi-phase offensive timed to coincide with the Tet holidays, and with President Nixon’s trip to the People’s Republic of China in mid-February.” They predicted an offensive, but got the timing incorrect.
Quang Tri and Hue
The NVA B-5 Front in CTZ I – Quang Tri consisted of the 304th and 308th Divisions. General Le Trong Tan led these forces. The attack began on 30 March 1972, with an intense artillery barrage on the northernmost ARVN outposts. The 309th division moved across the DMZ and attacked.
From the west, the 304th, including an armoured regiment, moved out of Laos along Route 9, past Khe Sanh, and into the Quang Trị River Valley. This thrust put pressure on FSB Sarge, southwest of Quang Tri City and, FSB Anne was also attacked.
The ARVN 3rd Division defended the group of ARVN firebases near the DMZ. These firebases were known as the “ring of steel.” The 56th Regiment was headquartered at FSB Carroll, while the 57th Regiment was located at FSB C-1. The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, organic to the division,was located near Landing Zone Sharon. In addition, the 147th VNMC Brigade at Mai Loc was under control of 3rd Division.
On 1 April, General Giai ordered withdrawal of 3rd Division south of the Cua Viet River for reorganization. The following morning, ARVN armoured elements held off a PAVN attack while the crucial Highway QL-1 bridge at Dong Ha was blown.
By 2 April, Camp Carroll was surrounded, and it surrendered. The entire 56th Regiment was lost at this point. The 56th and 57th Regiments had only received their last battalions in late January 1972. These troops were substandard performers in previous units, and there was too little time for training, and insufficient experience to develop dependable combat organizations.
The PAVN advance was slowed by delaying actions and ARVN counterattacks for three weeks, but on 27 April, the North Vietnamese came on again, launching multi-pronged attacks against Dong Ha and advancing to within 1.5 kilometers of Quang Tri City.
As a side note, a Campaign Series Vietnam scenario is planned for the action at Dong Ha: Dong Ha – April 1972, filename: VN_720402_Dong_Ha.scn.
General Giai planned a staged withdrawal to regroup south of the Thach Han River, but confusion and conflicting orders from Lam and Giai caused most formations to splinter and collapse. The area north of Quang Tri city was lost at this point. On 29 April, Giai ordered a general retreat to the My Chanh River, thirteen kilometers to the south. U.S. military advisors in Quang Trị called for emergency helicopter extraction, and on 1 May, 132 survivors were evacuated, including 80 US.
Hoping to break the stalemate developing on the northern front, Lt. Gen. Tran Van Quang, commander of the B-4 Front, attacked on 1 April west from the A Shau Valley toward Hue with the 324B Division. Spoiling attacks by the ARVN 1st Division, however, threw off the timetable.
On 28 April, the 29th and 803rd NVA Regiments seized FSB Bastogne, the strongest anchor on Hue’s western flank. This made FSB Checkmate untenable, and it was evacuated that night.
This exposed Hue to a direct thrust along Route 547. On 2 May, NVA forces south of Hue tried to surround the city. They also attempted to press their attack southward down Highway 1, and across the My Chanh River to Hue, but were halted by increasingly reinforced ARVN troops. After General Truong took command of I Corps, the 1st and Marine Divisions were reinforced by 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the Airborne Division, and the reorganized 1st Ranger Group, raising ARVN to 35000 troops.
The weather cleared for a week, which was fortunate because it permitted massive US bombing. The PAVN advance was finally halted on 5 May.
The PAVN objective in the third phase was to overrun the Central Highlands and seize Kontum and Pleiku. This would enable a thrust eastward to the coastal plains, splitting South Vietnam in two.
North Vietnamese forces, under the command of Lt. Gen. Hoang Minh Thao, commander of the B-3 Front, included the 320th and 2nd NVA Divisions in the highlands and the 3rd Division in the lowlands, approximately 50,000 men.
The defenders were ARVN II Corps, with the 22nd and 23rd Divisions, two armored cavalry squadrons, and the 2nd Airborne Brigade, all under the command of Lt. Gen. Ngo Du.
Intelligence showed a buildup of NVA forces in the tri-broder region in January, and ARVN units were deployed near the border at Tan Canh and Dak To. This was to slow any advances and allow air power application. Gen Du ordered Col. Le Due Dat, commander of the 22nd Division to move the forward CP, 47th Regiment, and logistical support to the Tan Canhand Dak To II areas. The 19th Cavalry Regiment was ordered to the Tan Canh area to reinforce the division’s organic 14th Cavalry Regiment. Col. Dat placed this unit at Ben Het, thinking that any NVA armor assault must come from that direction.
The ARVN II Corps staff began to doubt whether the enemy possessed the capability to attack, and in early April this estimate appeared to be accurate as the 320th NVA Division’s 48th.and 52nd Regiments sustained heavy losses in assaults on the fire bases on Rocket Ridge. B-52s and tactical aircraft continued to pound at the massed enemy forces in this area. Four to five NVA battalions were rendered combat ineffective.
A prisoner confirmed this, and said reinforcements were infiltrating daily, however, and units were regaining original strength. At the same time the 42d and 47th ARVN Regiments were in heavy contact north and east of Dak To with elements of the 2nd NVA Division and the 66th Regiment. Prisoners said the mission of 2nd Division was to seize Dak To II airfield. Gen. Du felt the forces in the Dak To area were insufficient to counter a multi-divisional attack.
Gen. Du wanted to bolster the Dak To forces with nine ARVN battalions from Binh Dinh. But, this would leave that province stripped of ARVN regular forces, and defended only by territorial forces. US advisor Vann convinced him that such a move might prove disastrous. The area of operations of the 23rd Division was adjusted to give it responsibility in Kontum, eliminating the need to move battalions from Binh Dinh.
On 14 April FSB Charlie on the northern end of Rocket Ridge received heavy artillery fire followed by an attack by the 48th NVA Regiment. The 42nd and 47th ARVN Regiments continued their attempts to hold the ridge lines around Tan Canh and Dak To II, but slowly fell back to the main compound. On 19 April, 1/42 Battalion was isolated. And after several days of heavy artillery bombardment, the ARVN forces at FSB Delta were overrun.
On 22 April, Gen. Du ordered some artillery to the Dak To District. The defenses in the Tan Canh area appeared adequate for a short while. But, NVA forces had increased significantly, and by 24 April, the Tan Canh/Dak To II area was encircled. On 25 April, Gen. Du decided to abandon FSBs 5 and 6, affording the NVA movement down Route 14 to Kontum.
The NVA was surprised at the ease with which they took Tan Canh. They decided to attack Kontum without artillery preparation, to save time. The 14 May attack had three major axes of advance: The 48th NVA Regiment and one company of the 203rd Tank Regiment attacked from the northwest along Route 14. The 64th NVA Regiment attacked south, with one company of armor. The 1st and 28th NVA Regiments advanced south against the 53d ARVN Regiment. The 141st Regiment probed the sector forces who defended the southern positions along the river.
By nightfall on 14 May, the front lines had been restored by the 23d Division through fierce, hand-to- hand fighting. When the B-52s arrived, they caught NVA troops in the open with little cover. An airlift was begun on 15 May to evacuate the families of Montagnard refugees.
Between 18 and 21 May there were five assaults. These were generally broken up by claymore mines, artillery, tenacious ARVN soldiers, Spooky and Spectre gunships, and B-52 airstrikes. The PAVN offensive was thwarted, and although fighting continued, ARVN gradually regained control of the area. The Campaign Series Vietnam game will feature a scenario at Kontum. The scenario title is Battle of Kontum – May 26–27, 1972.
An invasion force of 35470 troops was launched from Cambodian Base Area 708 by the B-2 Front’s 5th VC Division and 203rd Armoured Regiment. They advanced down Highway 9 toward the border outpost of Loc Ninh. There, 2000 men of the ARVN 9th Regiment and a battalion of Rangers beat back five separate infantry/armor assaults before collapsing under the attack on 7 April.
The North Vietnamese then isolated the 25th Division in neighboring Tay Ninh Province by sending the 24th and 271st Independent NVA Regiments to conduct diversionary attacks against the 25th ARVN Division in northern Tay Ninh Province.
This diversion masked movement of the 7th NVA and 9th VC Divisions. The 7th Division bypassed An Loc, and moved south on Highway 13 to block relief efforts. 9th VC Division was assigned to attack and capture An Loc.
Sensing that of An Loc would be the next target, ARVN III Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Minh dispatched the 5th Division to hold the town. They were reinforced by two Ranger battalions and two infantry battalions by 11 April. The 21st Division, was rushed from the Mekong Delta to Chon Thanh Camp to join a regiment of the 9th Division as a relief force. All forces were placed under Brig. Gen. Le Van Hung, 5th Division commander.
By 13 April, An Loc was surrounded and under attack by the 9th VC Division. Attacks persisted and PAVN forces eventually battered their way into the town, seizing the airfield and reducing the ARVN perimeter to a square kilometer. During another assault on 21 April, NVA tanks actually forced their way through the defense perimeter, but were destroyed by anti-tank weapons and helicopter gunships. PAVN infantry managed to seize most of the northern sector, and began digging in. Supporting infantry failed to advance with the NVA tanks, and were easy prey for anti-tank weapons. This failure of tactical coordination was one of PAVN main weaknesses.
After the attack failure 21 April, the battle devolved into a siege, with North Vietnamese pounding An Loc with mortar, rocket, and artillery fire. Completely surrounded, An Loc could only be resupplied by airdrops due to loss of the airfield. Resupply was accomplished by 448 aerial missions parachuting 2693 tons of food, medical supplies, and ammunition.
A relief effort by 21st ARVN Division never reached An Loc. For three weeks, the division crept northward along Highway 13, but it was held up by constant delaying actions of smaller PAVN forces. Although never reaching its goal, it inadvertently supported the beleaguered city by diverting elements of the 7th NVA Division.
By 12 June, the last PAVN forces were driven from An Loc, and and over 1000 ARVN wounded were evacuated. Slowly, the decimated North Vietnamese units faded away into the north and west.
Two scenarios from this front will be featured in the Campaign Series Vietnam game: Battle of Loc Ninh – April 4 – 7, 1972, and Battle of An Loc – April 13, 1972 – July 20, 1972. Filenames: VN_720404_Loc_Ninh.scn and VN_720413_An_Loc.scn
By the end of June, ARVN forces were counterattacking, which culminated in recapture of Quang Tri City in September. On all three fronts, initial North Vietnamese successes were hampered by high casualties, inept tactics, and the increasing application of US and South Vietnamese air power.
Communist casualties were estimated to be up to 100000 troops. Airpower, particularly B-52 bombing was a major contributor to these losses. However, ARVN troop losses are estimated to be as high as 200,000. These were serious losses to both sides.
President Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker, to resume bombing North Vietnam. The Communist forces gained valuable territory within South Vietnam from which to launch future offensives, and they obtained a better bargaining position at the peace negotiations. A new urgency arose in the Paris talks, to end the war
“Military Intelligence Operations and the Easter Offensive”, Thomas H. Lee
“Document 91”, The 19th Plenary Session, Central Committee of the Vietnam Workers Party
“Resolution 10 – Document 99”, COSVN
“Annex J An Loc”, USMACV Command History Vol. I
“Annex K Kontum”, USMACV Command History Vol. I
“Annex L Quang Tri and Hue”, USMACV Command History Vol. I
“Easter Offensive”, Wikipedia
Maj Gen Ernest Cheatham, USMC
Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of the events in Vietnam from 1969 onward. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.