Paratroopers, check your static lines!
Did you know that on paper, the South Vietnamese Forces vastly outnumbered the North. Yet, in 1973, the NVA began to gain advantages. This article explains how.
1973 Cease Fire
Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho signed the Paris Accords on 27 January 1973. Once this took place, the following military requirements were in force: All US forces withdraw, cease-fire in place with delineations of communist and government zones, withdrawal of foreign troops from Laos and Cambodia, ban on introduction of war materials in South Vietnam except for replacement, and a ban on further military personnel introduction into South Vietnam.
In addition, a Joint Military Commission composed of the four parties, (US, SVN, DRV, PRG), and an “International Commission of Control and Supervision,” ICCS were established to police agreement terms. The ICCS was composed of Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland.
Prior to the cease-fire, both sides sought to bring in additional equipment. The US had “Project Enhance,” which supplied equipment to the South Vietnamese armed forces, RVNAF. Table 1 lists equipment supplied in late 1972
Project Enhance was designed to raise RVNAF force structure to planned levels before the cease-fire.
Another effort, Project “Enhance Plus” augmented the South Vietnamese Air Force. (VNAF) Table 2 outlines aircraft provided.
The RVNAF planned for 1100000 personnel in fiscal year 1973.
Communists were also shoving great quantities of materiel, including field guns, tanks, and anti-aircraft weapons down the roads into South Vietnam, including SA-2 air defense missiles on their way to Khe Sanh in Quang Tri Province.
The Communists were not concerned about any imposed cease-fire restrictions on shipments to South Vietnam; the surge of shipments was instead in response to the heavy losses the NVA suffered during the 1072 Easter Offensive.
North Vietnam sent nearly 148000 replacements into South Vietnam during late 1972.
DAO (Defense Attache Office) Saigon was organized according to requirements established by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, CINCPAC, and MACV, and was activated on 28 January 1973 by Maj. Gen. John E. Murray. This became the US coordination function, and replaced MACV. The cease-fire agreement ended American advisory efforts. Senior DAO officials avoided any offer of operational advice to the Vietnamese, with whom they worked closely.
Balance of Power January 1973
The NVA had 15 Divisions in South Vietnam in January 1973, with approximately 148000 troops.
Supporting this force in COSVN and the Ho Chi Minh trail were about 71000. This totals 219000.
ARVN had an assigned strength of 450000. About 152000 were in 13 infantry divisions and another 10000 were in Ranger groups. The South Vietnamese Navy and Air Force had about 96000. The Regional Forces (RF) had 325000, Popular Forces 200000, and Women’s Armed Forces had 4000. The total is about 1.1 million.
The gross figures, 1.1 million for RVNAF vs 219000 NVA forces seem to favor South Vietnam, but a comparison of force structures and missions provide a somewhat better understanding. The 15 NVA divisions vs 13 ARVN does not take into account that the NVA had 27 separate infantry and sapper regiments, whereas the comparable ARVN units were only seven Ranger groups.
The missions were different. Communist forces were solely offensive, acting against fixed bases, villages, and communication lines. ARVN forces were mostly on the defensive. Thus, comparing 140 separate NVA battalions of infantry, sapper, reconnaissance, tank, and artillery to the 54 ARVN Ranger battalions and 300 or more regional force battalions is rather meaningless.
Considerations of NVA strength should also acknowledge the large administrative and logistical support force within North Vietnam similar to South Vietnamese backup forces. North Vietnam also did not have to defend lines of communication or base areas in North Vietnam from ground attack. It did have significant numbers to defend against air attack in North Vietnam, and to protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia.
Land Grab 1973
The NVA planned general attacks throughout most of South Vietnam immediately before the expected date of the cease-fire. These were known as “Landgrab 1973,” and occurred between 23 January and 3 February 1973.
In the northern areas, the NVA B5 Front did not launch anything but local attacks, because those forces were still rebuilding from the previous year. However, they did not give up any ground, and used heavy artillery to thwart ARVN attempts to advance along the coast toward Cua Viet.
Likewise, south and west of Quang Tri City, B5 Front forces prevented expansion of Airborne Division’s positions into the hills south of the Thach Han River.
The area around Hue was different. The Tri-Thien-Hue Front wanted to gain a political presence and get VC legitimacy. Elements of the 803d Regiment, 324B Division, moved into the lowlands south of Camp Evans, and regulars moved toward the lowlands north or Hue on 24 January. The next day, artillery and ground attacks began against RVNAF positions around Hue. Between 27 January and 3 February elements of the 803d attempted to interdict Highway QL-1 in the vicinity of the An Lo bridge.
Front-4 operations were conducted in Quang Nam, where 711th Division operated to contain the ARVN in the Que Son Valley, and prevented their advance to a logistical base in the Hiep Due region. Front-4 completed attack preparations by 22 January 1973, including the 575th Rocket Artillery Battalion firing on Da Nang.
In Military Region 2 The NVA’s B3 Front included Kontum, Pleiku, Phu Bon, and Darlac Provinces, part of Quang Duc, and western districts of Binh Dinh. Objectives assigned to enemy forces in B3 Front were similar to those in southern MR 5: to hold the ARVN 23d Division in place, isolate the cities of Kontum, Pleiku, and Ban Me Thuot, and interdict the main highways. Attaining these objectives would effectively extend control over the population of the highlands.
In MR-3 north of Saigon, RVNAF intelligence indicated that Tay Ninh City might be attacked. But for reasons not fully clear, the Communists failed to allocate sufficient forces to capture the city. ARVN preemptive operations in January 1973 most likely eliminated the enemy’s capability to assign main forces to a Tay Ninh campaign.
The number and intensity of NVA attacks increased from 23 through 27 January against ARVN outposts, mostly on those defending major communication lines. Trang Bang, Trang Born, Highway 13 south of Chon Thanh, and Highway 15 south of Long Thanh were struck. NVA casualties were very heavy, however.
As ARVN preempted enemy operations in Military Region 3, it also did in the Mekong Delta. In an operation known as “Dong Khoi.” the ARVN and territorials planned to attack for six days beginning on 15 January, but early successes were very good and the operation was extended six more days.
The Communists planned to capture areas with the greatest potential for subsequent exploitation and expansion. In the northern delta, they considered the border area with Cambodia from Ha Tien in the west to the Parrot’s Beak in the east to be most important. But, ARVN operation Dong Khoi thwarted these initiatives.
Consolidating and Rebuilding
The North Vietnamese developed a strategy consisting of two parallel elements: political and military. The political was the public element of the strategy. The North Vietnamese propagandized worldwide, and emphasized to the troops the following Landgrab related plan: Capture as much populated area as possible just before the cease-fire. Show the flag, and rely on the NVA main forces to contain the RVNAF while local forces entered villages. Wait for the arrival of ICCS teams declare and guarantee legitimacy of newly-won areas.
Directive No. 2/73, issued by COSVN coincided with the Paris Accord signing. This document announced the beginning of a new political struggle, in which military units were to play a secondary role in support of political efforts. The NVA was to help the VC to harrass the RVNAF, defend “liberated” areas, conduct terrorist campaigns, protect “mass movements,” and secure the resettlement areas.
One of the major components of the political offensive was propaganda. Their worldwide message was that Communists were scrupulously observing the cease-fire terms in the face of constant, aggressive violations by the other side. The only offensive operations undertaken by the Communist forces were to punish the “Thieu puppets” and promote peace.
While political efforts continued, unprecedented military preparations were underway in North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh trail into South Vietnam. In order to deny observation of these preparations, the NVA deployed new anti-aircraft systems. The North Vietnamese were largely successful in denying VNAF visual or photo reconnaissance over sensitive areas, but were not so effective against US aerial photography.
In mid-March 1973 the NVA began a transportation effort that was to last almost to the end of the dry season. Convoys of unprecedented size, up to 300 trucks in each, headed south through Laos. Large quantities of food and ammunition were being received in storage areas in Quang Tri Province.
Heavy traffic was seen on Roule 534 from Laos to Hiep Duc in Quang Tin Province, and on roads into the B-3 Front area. Road improvements linked NVA units operating on coastal lowlands with Base Areas 609 and 702 in the Central Highlands. Similar route improvement activities were ongoing in Tay Ninh Province.
By September 1973, new pipeline construction was completed south of Da Long to a new storage site at A Luoi in the A Shau Valley.
The NVA took advantage of the American air interdiction halt of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to reinforce its tank and artillery strength in South Vietnam. Attrition during the 1972 Easter offensive had reduced the tank force to an estimated 100 vehicles. But, by the end of April 1973, estimated tank strength was close to 500.
NVA increased their artillery strength in South Vietnam by the introduction of 170 more 122- and 130-mm. guns, bringing the total to over 250. As was the case with replacement soldiers, no accounting was made to the ICCS, but ICCS teams nevertheless kept close track of US shipments into Bien Hoa, Da Nang, and other ports of entry.
First Half Year 1973
As the post-cease-fire flurry subsided, activities in the four military regions began to develop patterns that persisted through the summer of 1973. Each region was different.
In Military Region I, both sides avoided serious contact. The NVA continued consolidation and construction of major logistical bases in northern Quang Tri and western Thua Thien Province. The South Vietnamese used artillery sparingly, and little air power in defending outposts and coastal communication lines.
In Region 2, both sides developed strong positions around Kontum City. While the ARVN sought to keep NVA forces out or rocket range. While ARVN tried to keep Route 14 open south to Pleiku, the NVA’s 10th Division pressed against the city’s defenses to the north and west.
Another area of contention developed around the westernmost ARVN outposts of Plei Mrong and Plei Djereng. The latter was destined to fall because it was too close to Duc Co, the major NVA logistics base. The Communists also worked to improve their norlh-south logistical route from Dak To southward through the Plei Trap Valley.
The NVA 10th Division launched operations to control for the area north and west or Kontum City. The Montagnard hamlet of Polei Krong was attacked and taken by the NVA 95B Regiment. This was near ARVN defenses at Trung Nhia along the Poko River. With help from the 85th Ranger Border Derense Battalion at Paid Krong, ARVN held on to Trung Nghia with Regional Forces.
In Military Region 3 the NVA concentrated against Tong Le Chon, an isolated ARVN post deep in Communist-controlled northern Tay Ninh Province. In March 1973, the NVA began a siege that lasted for a year. Although action elsewhere in the region was relatively light, harassment of outlying hamlets and resettlement areas continued.
In Military Region 4 the heaviest action centered in the Seven Mountains area of Chau Doc Province, where ARVN Rangers undertook a slow and costly campaign to destroy the remaining elements of the NVA’s 1st Division. Other intense combat occurred in the Hong Ngu region along the border where the Mekong River enters South Vietnam.
General Ngo Quang Truong
Truong was an officer in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, gaining his commission in 1954 and moving up the ranks in the Airborne Brigade. In 1966, he commanded 1st Division after helping to quell the Buddhist Uprising. He rebuilt the unit after this divisive period, and used it to repel the NVA, and reclaimed the imperial citadel of Hue after weeks of bitter street fighting during the Tet Offensive.
In 1970, Truong was given command of IV Corps in the Mekong Delta and improved the situation there such that some of his forces were redeployed elsewhere to resist Communist pressure. And, in 1972, he became commander of I Corps. He stabilized ARVN forces before turning back the Communists. In 1975, the NVA attacked again. This time, President Nguyen Van Thieu gave contradictory orders as to whether he should stand and fight or retreat and consolidate. This demoralized I Corps, causing its collapse, and allowing the NVA to gather momentum, and overrun South Vietnam within two months. Truong fled South Vietnam during the fall of Saigon, and settled in Virginia in the United States.
Likewise, the numbers of anti-aircraft guns were greatly increased. Furthermore, they had SA·7 “Strella” Soviet hand-held, heat-seeking missiles. Also early in 1973, the 263rd SAM Regiment moved into Quang Tri Province, and set up near Khe Sanh. By the end of April, this regiment had constructed eight SA-2 sites around Khe Sanh and had placed weapons in four of them.
Truong’s Tragic Trail is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of the events in Vietnam from 1973 until the end in 1975. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.