Infiltration and Insurgency
1. The Korean War - Infiltration and Use of Manpower
There have been 60 to 65 wars in the fifty years period after the end of the Second World War; about one quarter of these were conventional wars fought with weapons similar to those used in the Second World War but more advanced, these weapons were supplied by the United States, Russia and some European countries. In these conventional wars, the three Arab-Israeli wars are characterised by ‘pre-emptive strikes’, where the side initiating hostilities suddenly attacked without warning to destroy the other sides air force, air and ground defences and won the war.
In the wars after the end of the Second World War, the Chinese intervention in Korea with their tactics of infiltration, night operations to avoid detection by air and the use of manpower instead of machines, has been unique; the Chinese armed with rifles and mortars forced the American, Korean and the “United Nations” forces, equipped with the most modern weapons and with absolute air superiority, to retreat hundreds of miles and then they held a defensive front for nearly two years to bring the war to an end.
At the closing stage of the Second World War in Europe, in early 1945, the Allies decided that after the surrender of Germany, the Soviet Union would declare war on Japan and accept the surrender of Japanese forces north of the 38th parallel in Korea and while the Americans did the same south of the parallel. The Soviet Union occupied Korea north of 38th parallel and withdrew its forces in December 1948 after holding elections and constituting a communist government; in July 1949 the United States withdrew after holding elections and installing a non-communist government; both Korean governments claimed suzerainty over the whole of Korea, they engaged in propaganda against each other and carried out acts of sabotage and terrorism.
While in occupation, the Soviet Union and the United States trained and equipped eight divisions each in their areas of occupation. On 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States responded with supplies of ammunition, equipment, naval and air support but on finding that the South Koreans were not able to stop the North Koreans, on 30 June they decided to intervene with troops and by mid July six American divisions were fighting in Korea. The South Korean and American forces were driven into a small area which became known as the Pusan Perimeter, forces from the western world joined the Americans and the South Koreans.
The Chinese political and military command observing the delay and the difficulty of the North Koreans in clearing up the Pusan perimeter, started preparing for the contingency of having to come to the aid of the North Koreans.
In July 1950, the Chinese ‘Peoples Liberation Army (PLA)’ had over 5,000,000 men, half of them combat effective; the main forces were: the First Army in north western China with 34 field armies (Chinese ‘field armies’ were about 10,000 to 11,000 strong, about a weak division strength); the Second Army of 49 field armies faced Tibet; the Third Army of 72 field armies faced Taiwan; the Fourth Army of 59 field armies was in southern China and Manchuria; the North China Army was of 39 field armies; local defence forces and construction corps had another 2.6 million men.
The Chinese ‘field armies’ had three regiments, a pack artillery battalion, engineers, communications and medical companies and animal transport; there were no vehicles or tanks; platoons carried five pound ‘satchel charges’ of explosives for use against tanks. They had radio communications up to regiments and some telephones; at the battalion and below level runners, flares and sound signals with bugles, horns and whistles were used. The Chinese initially did not use artillery but when the front became static they used it effectively.
The PLA had two million rifles, 250,000 machine guns, 55,000 artillery pieces, 622 tanks, 134 armoured cars, 134 aircraft and 122 naval vessels taken from the Japanese and the Nationalists. The PLA units were armed with captured Japanese and American weapons and Russian sub-machine guns; from the division to regiments there was telephone communications at the lower levels contact was maintained by runners. A considerable amount of the captured equipment was unserviceable because of lack of parts, ammunition stocks had deteriorated due to age and could not be replenished, transportation did not exist, logistics, communications, and medical services were extremely primitive; the PLA resembled armies of the First World War without artillery.
The PLA while planning the intervention in Korea considered the limitations and advantages of the peculiar Korean terrain; it was noted that the terrain would create logistic difficulties which would be compounded by the American supremacy in the air, however, the mountainous nature of the terrain would give the PLA’s foot-soldiers a degree of cross country mobility which would neutralise the mechanised forces of the Americans and their allies, but because of their technological superiority the Americans and their allies would enjoy a distinct advantage on the western plains where the decisive battles would be fought. The Chinese troops would be fighting in a foreign country with some support from the local population.
After considering all the factors, the Chinese decided that if the Americans crossed the 38th Parallel they would respond on a limited scale and if that failed to deter the Americans and their allies, then the full strength of the PLA would be employed. It was also decided that the intervention would be by the Chinese Peoples Volunteers (CPV).
Three field armies of the Fourth Army, veterans of the Chinese Civil War, had moved to Manchuria in July in the redeployment for demobilisation, six other field armies were ordered to concentrate in Manchuria for the likely confrontation in Korea.
On 15 September 1950, the Americans landed at Inchon, 18 miles west of Seoul, on 1 October they crossed the 38th Parallel and advanced rapidly, the North Korean government fled from Pyongyang to Kanggye. The Chinese Thirteenth Army Group, of five field armies, started entering North Korea on 14 October, by crossing the Yalu river at Andong.The mission of the Chinese army was to block the advancing U.S. Eight Army which was threatening the North Korean capital Pyongyang, at the Chungchon River, 100 miles south of the Yalu river. The 42nd Field Army was to advance to Kanggye, the interim North Korean capital and then to the small town of Mupyong-ni as the flank guard against an advance on the east coast of Korea where another landing was expected. Two field armies were to cross into Korea at Sakhchu; in the first week of November three field armies were to enter Korea from Manpojin and Singalpajin.
The situation, as the Chinese saw it, was that the Americans and their allies were racing along the west coast towards Sinuiji, the Suiho Reservoir and Chosan; one Chinese field army was to drive the ROKs out of Chosan; another Chinese field army was to capture the key town of Unsan and to drive the Americans and their allies back to the Chungchon river; an enveloping movement was to be launched with two field armies advancing south-west towards the mouth of the Chungchon river and the sea; CPV role was defensive, exploratory and aimed at halting of the drive to the Yalu river.
The Chinese crossed into Korea with each soldier carrying four grenades, 100 rounds of rifle ammunition, the light machine guns had 1,000 rounds, the medium machine guns 1,500 to 2,000 rounds, light mortars 30 rounds while heavy mortars had sixty rounds; each soldier went into battle with spare clips or magazines for automatic weapons, two mortar bombs or an anti-tank satchel charge, and ten days pack rations, partly canned; the men cooked and ate in groups.
For protection against the severe Korean winter, the Chinese wore heavily quilted, mustard brown cotton blouses and wore rubber soled cloth shoes; the officers were distinguished by red piping on their trousers, on the left side of their jackets, around their collars and a diagonal cross on the cuff of their sleeves.
Because of the American air superiority and to achieve surprise the Chinese moved at night; the Chinese soldier’s day began after sunset and lasted till about two hours before sunrise when he dug a shelter, camouflaged all equipment and ate his food and rested; during daylight only scouting parties moved to seek bivouac areas for the next day; if a soldier left cover in the day and an aircraft appeared, he had to freeze in his tracks and remain motionless till the aircraft left, officers had authority to shoot violators. In the evening, the commissars addressed the men, the evening meal was eaten and then the night march started, guides took them from point to point, each point and the route marked by men and women stationed with masked lanterns and difficult parts were marked with tapes; a night march from one bivouac area to another was about 25 kilometres.
The U.S. Eighth Army, after its successful advance from Inchon, was preparing for the final advance to the Yalu River: I Corps, consisting of the U. S. 24 Division, the ROK 1st Division and the British Commonwealth Brigade, was to advance on the left on the west coast plain; IX Corps, consisting of the U. S. 2 and 25 Division and the Turkish Brigade, was to advance in the centre and capture the Suiho Reservoir; ROK II Corps, consisting of the ROK 6, 7 and 8 Division, was on the right, it was to capture the interim capital of North Korea at Kanggye; the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division was in reserve at Sunchon.
On the right flank of the Eighth Army there was a gap of about 25 to 35 miles due to the mountainous watershed between the Chungchon and the Taedong rivers in which there was no troop deployment, beyond this large gap, directly under General MacArthur, was the U.S. X Corps consisting of a marine and two infantry divisions which, at the end of October, had made an assault landing on the east coast of North Korea at Wonsan, east of Pyongyang, and Hungnam. This second landing was 100 miles south of the Chinese border, the Marines were advancing towards the Changjin Reservoir about half way to the Chinese border; an infantry division which had landed to the east of the marines had advanced and reached the Yalu River.
The Eighth Army and X Corps were to form a pincer and destroy all North Korean forces south of the Yalu River; the American offensive was to start on 15 November but was postponed to 24 November. Before the advance began a link up of the Eighth Army with X Corps with patrols was attempted but failed. On 24 October, a regiment of 6 ROK Division descended into the Yalu river gorge near Changju while the U. S. 24 Division approaching the mouth of the river at Namsi-dong, it seemed that the Eighth Army and X Corps were about to close on their objective.
In the first phase of their intervention the Chinese, collaborating with the North Koreans, made contact with the advance positions of the ROKs and the Americans. On 25 October, the ROK 6 Division started its final 20 mile push from Onjong to Pyoktong on the Yalu river, after eight miles it encountered opposition and a battalion was decimated with 350 killed, wounded and captured; 40 miles south of the Yalu River the American-ROK offensive was halted. Two Chinese were taken prisoners and interrogated, they said they had been waiting in the ambush for seven days. At Unsan, north of the Chungchon river, the ROK 1 Division encountered the Chinese, a prisoner said that 500,000 Chinese were coming to defeat the Americans. On 26 October the Chinese took Objong, a ROK regiment was ambushed at Kojang and destroyed, by 29 October the ROK II Corps was driven back 40 miles to the Chungchon River.
Intelligence warnings of a North Korean offensive started on 26 October, the four ROK divisions on the Eighth Army’s right flank started meeting unexpected opposition in the mountainous area, the ROK advance stopped, some divisions started withdrawing and in some sectors they were routed. On 28 October, a regiment of the First Cavalry Division, which was in reserve at Pyongyang, was rushed to take up the defences of Unsan, 45 miles south of the Yalu river.
The Chinese Thirteenth Army Group massed the 38th and 40th Field Armies against the ROK Corps on the right flank of the U. S. Eighth Army, from the 39th Field Army, one division was earmarked to mop up the ROK forces, one to cut off their retreat; the third division was instructed to infiltrate and envelop the U. S. Cavalry Regiment defences at Unsan.
On 26 October, at Unsan, a squadron of the 1st Cavalry Division was ambushed, on 28 October a ROK regiment was destroyed at Kajang and the ROK II Corps, withdrawing to the Chonchong River, was routed.
By the evening of 31 October reconnaissance patrols of the Chinese 347th Regiment, had the complete details of the First Cavalry Regiment semicircular defences of Unsan. The Chinese then planned an attack down the Yalu road at nightfall, a second regiment taking advantage of the confusion caused by the attack was to surround the western side of the American perimeter and dig in; the third regiment was to move through the second and overrun Unsan.
The Chinese started the attack on Unsan by starting a number of fires in the mountains and using the smoke to avoid air observation of their movement; on 1 November refugees and air reconnaissance reported columns moving towards Unsan. A regiment of the U. S. Cavalry Division was defending Unsan on three sides, the fourth side was held by a ROK regiment; in the afternoon of 1 November the Chinese attacked with the support of 82 mm rockets; bugles and shrill whistles were sounded; by nightfall, the Chinese had surrounded Unsan, by midnight the ROK regiment was overrun.
At about 1930 hours, on 1 November, a surprise attack was launched on the battalion of the U. S. First Cavalry Division defending Unsan, Chinese commandos pretending to be ROK penetrated the American defences and overran it, the second battalion of the Cavalry Division buckled next, both American battalions hurriedly abandoned their positions and withdrew southwards; also on this day, the ROK 6 Division on the right flank was decimated. Fleeing survivors of the U.S. First Cavalry Division battalions and the ROKs mingled and were ambushed; a bugle call signalled the opening of fire with rifles and mortars, tanks and half tracks were knocked out with satchel charges of explosives.
The third battalion of U. S. First Cavalry, on the western perimeter of Unsan, was ordered to prepare for withdrawal, they had not been disturbed by the attack on the other battalions, the Chinese penetrated to their vehicle park and opened fire but after a short engagement pulled back and the Americans withdrew into Unsan where they were surrounded and held out for two days before attempting a break out.
The attack at Unsan was ferocious, the Chinese moved catlike in the dark, infiltrators making good use of cover unerringly found the weak points in the defences and exploited each advantage with speed as if it had been rehearsed; the attackers pressed on regardless of casualties; bugles, whistles and gongs were used for communications. While the main attacking force engaged the American defences, an infiltrating platoon, marching in threes, infiltrated to the vehicle park and attacked with demolition charges. In this action the Americans lost about 600 men, 9 tanks, 12 guns and 150 vehicles.
Between 25 October and 1 November, the Chinese 40th Field Army destroyed the ROK 6 Division and pushed back the ROK 8 Division endangering the flank of the Eighth Army; after the Unsan battle the Chinese attention shifted to the Chungchon River where the Americans, on the coastal road, were about 60 kilometres from the border; the Chinese approached the U. S. 1 Corps from the east, marching 30 kilometres across country, crow fly. On 4 November one Chinese division attacked the U.S. 19 Infantry Regiment which fled without putting up much resistance; a second Chinese division passed through a 12 kilometre gap between the Americans and the British Commonwealth Brigade, making a night march across country, it established itself on a ridge overlooking the Chungchon River, an attack was launched on the British Commonwealth Brigade and its supporting guns were nearly overrun. On 6 November a Chinese division attacked the Australian battalion of the British Commonwealth Brigade, but after two days of battle the Chinese mysteriously broke contact and disappeared. On the X Corps front the Chinese engaged in a six day battle with the advancing Americans and then broke off the contact.
The Chinese had learnt from the Japanese to rely on fast, hard hitting and untiring infantry; their tactics were first to destabilise the enemy by surprise attacks by commando platoons which helped to spread confusion; the follow up attacks probed for weaknesses in the defence; no hold-ups were tolerated; officers kept their men on the move; a breakthrough was exploited swiftly and in strength until a wedge had been driven deep into the enemy rear; then roadblocks were established to interdict supplies, prevent reinforcements, and headquarters were harassed till the enemy started a disorderly retreat; stoutly defended areas were bypassed for mopping up later.
The Chinese tactic, repeated over and over again, was to appear suddenly at night from seemingly impossible mountains which were not defended or lightly defended, the Chinese soldier showed a propensity for night fighting, fierce individual bravery in fire fights and close combat. The Chinese patrols sought out the enemy positions with great success on which plans were based; infantry, with only mortars to support them, attacked at night and in day time, with excellent fire discipline; attacks were planned to strike from the rear, cutting escape and supply routes and then sending frontal waves; the basic battle tactic was the formation of a V to enclose the opposing forces while a third force closed the mouth of the V to block escape and relief, the tactics were called ‘Haichi Shiki’. To overcome opposition the Chinese attacked in waves, some running, some walked with marching fire, firing rifles and submachine guns, throwing grenades, overrunning positions and bayoneting men in foxholes.
In the first phase of their offensive the Chinese drove the Americans and the ROKs to the line of the Chungchon River without the extent of the intervention being realised by the Americans, Chinese prisoners interrogation revealed that six Chinese field armies were operating in Korea but it was disregarded.
After the first weeks fighting, the Chinese distributed a “battle experience” pamphlet which appreciated the American capability of co-ordinating mortars, artillery, tanks and air power and the high rate of fire power generated by infantry. It said that “the Americans were sensitive to being cut off” and recommended rapid movement to cut off their rear; roads and flat terrain where tanks and artillery could be employed was to be avoided; night fighting with definite liaison between platoons, companies and battalions was to be resorted to; patrols were to locate enemy positions and gaps and sound signals for larger formations to follow in columns.
After the Chinese broke contact in the first week of November the Americans did not alter their plans, they planned to resume their offensive with the intention of trapping the enemy in a giant pincer between the Eighth Army on the west coast and the U. S. X Corps on the east coast.
For the second phase of the intervention, the Chinese reinforced their Thirteenth Army Group, with three field armies bringing the total to 180,000; in the north eastern corner of North Korea, the Chinese Ninth Army Group of 120,000 men was assembled to advance down the east coast; the final objective given was the 39th Parallel, the narrow neck of the Korean peninsula. For logistic support each Army Group was allotted a ‘Truck Regiment’ of four hundred trucks apart from their normal human load carriers. The CPV was to engage a modern well equipped army without aircraft, artillery, tanks, means of communications and with very little logistic support; all shortcomings were compensated by manpower.
Three field armies of the Chinese Thirteenth Army Group prepared to block the paths of the three American divisions advancing towards the Chinese border from the Chungchon River; further inland, moving across country, along the watershed, three field armies attacked the ROK II Corps on the night 24/25 November, the ROK corps collapsed allowing the Chinese to pour through the gap in an envelopment which threatened to cut off the Eighth Army route of withdrawal. The CPV moved down the Tokchon road boldly in broad daylight, air alerts were ignored, a battalion moved across country, over the hills for 40 kilometres to establish an ambush on the Kunu-ri - Suchon road and to protect the flank by occupying three lines of trenches on the Taedong River.
On 25 November, the Eighth Army started its advance which was planned to take it to the Yalu river; for the first two days the Eighth Army met very little resistance, 24 Division advanced ten miles towards Chonju; 2 Division advanced ten miles from Kunu-ri to Kujang-dong, but on the right the three ROK divisions were held up at Tokchon. The Chinese then probed along the IX Corps and ROK Corps boundary, searching out vulnerable points, they found their opening on 25 November and attacked the ROK 1st Division, their first units infiltrated through the ROK defences and set up barriers blocking withdrawal routes, then came the mass of Chinese troops, which ran through the ROK defences routing them; three ROK divisions disappeared which exposed the U.S. 2 Division, U.S. IX Corps and the Eighth Army. During the night 25/26 November the Chinese breached the U. S. 2 Division and the Eighth Army front.
The leading company of the U.S. 2 Division was given
the task of securing a hill that overlooked the road along which the
division was to advance, the hill did not seem to be defended but when the
company reached the crest, grenades rolled down, at the end of the day the
hill had not been captured. After dark the Chinese, hidden in the valleys
during the day, started advancing southwards towards the Chungchon River,
some at the double. One battalion of the U.S. 9 Infantry Regiment, west of
the river was overrun, another battalion of the regiment was bypassed; on
the right of 9 Infantry regiment, 38 Infantry Regiment was heavily
On the night 25/26 November, a Chinese infantry division waded across the Chungchon River in seven columns, unseen by the defenders; some columns attacked a company of infantry and overran artillery guns on the far bank, when tanks reinforced the infantry the Chinese attacked them with rocket launchers and satchel charges then withdrew. That night at about 1900 hours, an American company outpost of an infantry regiment heard men marching and saw men in groups of six at ten yards interval, moving at the double, the outpost did not open fire, behind the scouts, came a column, four abreast, at the double, they went right past the post and took about seventeen minutes, the outpost estimated that a Chinese regiment had gone past.
The main military asset of the Chinese was infantry. Devoid of artillery, armour, air force and other heavy weapons, their infantry excelled in night movement and reconnaissance; while reconnoitring they located junction points of sub-units and units to attack or to infiltrate from as these were usually the weakest points of enemy defences.
Infiltration was conducted according to a well set plan, the infiltrators advanced along the natural corridors leading into and out from the river valleys, patrols located gaps in the enemy’s defences, usually junction points of sub-units, units and formations and from these points infiltrating columns would pass through, marching in columns; if no gap was found an outpost or a standing patrol position would be overrun to create a gap, thereafter mobility, deception and surprise would ensure success; enemy strong points encountered while infiltrating were either bypassed or left to be taken care of by the troops following up or surrounded and destroyed. The infiltrating forces did not ‘concentrate’ or establish a ‘front’, they advanced along drainage lines and attacked from marching columns, seeking entry into the rear areas; fighting, where ever it occurred, was an encounter with units in their path or attacks on units located by their reconnaissance screens. The objectives of infiltrating units were key communication points or to form a base from which attacks could be launched on the rear of the enemy units.
Attacks were in the form of ‘human waves’, first patrols, of 10 or 15 men would contact the enemy positions, then the assaulting infantry companies would advance in rows marching shoulder to shoulder, when a row came under fire the men would move from cover to cover, always moving towards the enemy. A wave was followed by another, when one was wiped out another took its place and as many more that were required till resistance was overcome.
The Chinese tactics had evolved from guerrilla warfare, their battle drill was of machine like precision, they had the ability to concentrate quickly, deliver an unnerving, noisy, rapid attack and when necessary disengage and quietly disappear. They usually attacked an objective from two directions while keeping it under fire from a third direction, bypassing a position and bringing it under fire from its rear was favourite method of attack. At all levels the Chinese discipline was exceptional, a feature of the PLA was that it had commissars at all levels, they had the job of binding the men together and enforcing a form of group discipline; groups of three men formed cells whose members kept an eye on each other, disciplinary cases were tried before peers, commissars used shame to enforce discipline.
After overrunning American and ROK troops, the Chinese re-equipped with captured weapons, exchanged their hand drawn maps for the printed maps from the Americans and the Koreans and collected food and other stores.
By the evening of 25 November, it became apparent to the Eighth Army and X Corps that they were being engaged by large forces which the North Koreans could not have mustered, for three more days General MacArthur refused to recognise that the Chinese had intervened and refused to permit a withdrawal. On the afternoon of 26 November, the Eighth Army accepted that
large bodies of Chinese were advancing through the gap caused by the disintegration of the ROK II Corps. The U. S. First Cavalry Division was moved into a blocking position south of the Taedong River, the Turkish Brigade was moved to reinforce the ROKs and the British Commonwealth Brigade was put on alert.
Early on 26 November, the Turkish Brigade was ordered by IX Corps to proceed to the right of 2 Division, via the Kunu-ri road to Tokchon to protect the right flank of 2 Division which was threatened by the collapse of the II ROK Corps. Air reconnaissance had reported troops on the Huichon-Tokchon road which was interpreted that the ROK II Corps and the U. S. 2 Division would be attacked. The Turks were warned that Tokchon may be the place where the enemy main attack was to be expected but no communications was established between the Turks and 2 Division, under whose command they had been placed. The Turkish brigade got to Wowon where they ran into retreating ROK troops whom they engaged and destroyed. On receipt of this information it was assumed that the Chinese were already in a vital area and the orders for the Turkish brigade were changed to move to Yamgi on the right flank of 2 Division; on 27 November, while moving on the Wawon road, the brigade was ambushed by the Chinese and ceased to be battle worthy.
The U. S. Eighth Army, realising the threat, withdrew its exposed spearhead from north of the Chungchon River. The U. S. I Corps, consisting of the U.S. 24 and ROK 1st Divisions, which was advancing along the coastal road, pulled back its advance columns from Chongju under pressure from a field army of the Chinese Thirteenth Army Group, traffic jams 50 miles long, were generated by the withdrawal while the Corps withdrew to the line of the Chungchon River.
The U. S. IX Corps, consisting of 2 and 25 Division, between I Corps and the ROK II Corps, was deployed 15 miles up the Chungchon valley; 2 Division held the pivotal town of Kunu-ri from where a road ran westward along the southern bank of the Chungchon River to Anju then south, the other road ran directly south, the capture of Kunu-ri would enable the Chinese to destroy the whole of the Eighth Army.
Under attack the IX Corps began withdrawing, the U. S. 25 Division withdrew, through Kunu-ri to Anju on the night 27 November; the U.S. 2 Division decided to withdraw on the Kunu-ri-Sunchon road. To assess the conditions on the Kunu-ri-Suchon road the division sent some tanks which passed through the site where the Turks had been ambushed, the debris of the ambush was on the road but no report of the ambush was made, contact with the British brigade was made 12 miles from Kunu-ri.
The U. S. 2 Division , leaving a rear guard at Kunu-ri, started withdrawing on November on the Kunu-ri-Suchon road, the infantry was mounted on tanks, artillery and supply trucks. Tanks led the column firing at the peaks of hills, for several miles tanks, guns and trucks followed expecting to make contact with the British brigade at any moment, the column stopped when it ran into a road block and came under heavy fire, the road was blocked by destroyed vehicles of the Turkish Brigade.
The Chinese main force crossed the Chungchon River and attacked the 23rd Infantry Regiment of 2 Division while a Chinese regiment had laid an ambush on the Kunu-ri-Sunchon road cutting off the retreat route of the 2 Division. Led by Korean guides along footpaths the Chinese regiment moved across country to ground overlooking the Kunu-ri-Sunchon road where they prepared the ambush, establishing a system of signals with lights for communications; the regiment waited for the reinforcing and withdrawing forces ignoring small columns. The escort of a supply column, made of half-tracks and tanks, was allowed to pass while a convoy was ambushed; some military police sent to investigate were annihilated. The Chinese had been in the ambush position for about one and a half days before the US 2 Division had driven into the trap.
When US2 Division was ambushed the infantry which was to defend the column was distibuted in penny packets and did not respond to command, the division commander, made a reconnaissance then with American, ROK and Turkish troops and with air support secured the high ground on both sides of the road, had the wrecked vehicles dozed off the road and after dark the column broke out and linked up with British brigade deployed on the Taedong River. This ambush known as the ‘Gauntlet’ became famous; it was six miles long, 30 to 40 machine guns and ten mortars covered the road.
The British, intent on linking up with the U.S. 2 Division, spent the day fighting the heavy concentration of Chinese, when they arrived at the Taedong River they found the heights dominating the river occupied; several attacks to dislodge the Chinese failed and they were being encircled although the Australians were patrolling both banks of the river. The 24th Infantry Regiment, which formed the rearguard of the U.S. 2 Division at Kunu-ri, after firing all their 3,206 rounds of artillery ammunition, blew up their guns and withdrew on the Anju road without any opposition.
The collapse of the right flank of the Eighth Army did not become as dangerous as it should have because the Chinese were not mobile and fast enough. Pyongyang was abandoned on 5 December, columns of vehicles were still withdrawing from Pyongyang across the Taedong River two days after the ambush, the British brigade, marching on foot, brought up the rear.
Eighth Army withdrew south of the Chungchon River, the Chinese moved down the Tokchon road with their columns moving boldly in broad daylight; some columns left the road and moved westwards with men carrying packs and supplies ignoring air alerts.
On the east coast of North Korea, the First Marine division landed at Hungnam and advanced to Yudam-ni near the Changijn Reservoir, on its way to the Yalu River; while advancing from Hungnam they had established fortified bases at Chinhung-ni near Hungnam, Koto-ri overlooking the Changjin River and the town of Hagaru; each base had perimeter defences and an airstrip. To draw away the Chinese attacking the Eight Army, the marines were ordered to strike inland towards Kanggye, the interim North Korean capital, on 27 November, as the marines started the drive, they were surrounded by the Chinese Ninth Army Group. The U.S. 7 Infantry Division was also contacted by the Chinese on the Yalu river, pushed back to the sea and was evacuated by a naval force.
The marines staged a fighting withdrawal to Hagaru where they were besieged and were relieved by a composite force of British marine commandos, U.S. Marines and American army. Air power was used to attack the besieging Chinese and the surrounded base was supplied by air. On 6 December the marines broke out withdrawing to Hungnam and were evacuated by sea at the end of December.
On 19 December orders were issued to the Chinese Thirteenth Army Group to advance south from Pyongyang on to Seoul, although not expecting to achieve the surprise previously attained, but to keep the enemy guessing, movement was mainly at night, concealment discipline was strictly maintained in the daytime.
The Chinese advanced in three columns from Pyongyang; the right column of one field army advanced from Chinnampo, through Onigin peninsula to Kaesong; in the centre, on the direct route two field armies were employed, one field army moved across country to cross the Imjin River and take the town of Tongduchon; the left column was the North Korean II Corps, along the eastern coast.
The primary aim of the Chinese offensive was to take Seoul, thrusting down the coastal highway to Suwon-Osan airfields; the second aim was to advance down the Pukhan River to Wonju, this was also to serve as an enveloping movement to cut off the withdrawing Americans; the final effort was to capture Chongju, leaving the Americans no alternative but to withdraw from Korea.
The Chinese Thirteenth Army Group was now in pursuit of the U.S. Eighth Army on the west coast of Korea but was hampered by its lack of mobility; 6,000 trucks, cars, buses were commandeered from all over northeast China and were used in the pursuit, mostly at night because of American air superiority.
A Chinese division required about forty tons of supplies daily compared to nearly 400 tons per division of a similar strength by the American and other forces opposing them. The Chinese supplies were carried by rail which was constantly attacked by the US Air Force but kept under repair by gangs of workmen and stores along the railway lines. From the rail heads the supplies were carried by men with loads of 35 to 45 kg in baskets hung on poles which were slung across their shoulders, the load carriers moved at the pace of slow run.
Although temporarily sustained by captured stores, the main Chinese problem was supplying their 300,000 troops in Korea, each soldier required 4.5 kilos a day, about 50 tons for a field army, the Thirteenth Army Group required 1,000 tons of food, ammunition etc, per day. The Rear Services Department of the Chinese army had geared up the Manchurian railways and organised 180,000 men, women and children to carry the supplies.
The Chinese advance ended at the town of Pyongtaek, 45 miles south of Seoul, the Americans were at the 17th Parallel and had retreated 275 miles. The defeat of the Eight Army made General MacArthur, President Truman and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff seriously consider the use of nuclear weapons to stem the rout but a strong objection from Britain and European “front line countries” started eroding the unified front at the United Nations and prevented the Americans from the use of nuclear weapons.
The American counter offensive recaptured Seoul on 14 March 1951, the Chinese tried to retake Seoul in April and May without success, in June peace negotiations started.
The ill equipped Chinese with their North Korean allies attacked the well equipped forces of fifteen countries and drove them out of North Korea to a line well south of Seoul but then they were pushed back to a line very close to the 38th parallel where the front became static and remained static till July 1953 when the armistice was signed and the Korean war ended.
The Chinese intervention created serious doubts in
the minds of western military thinkers on the relationship of men and
machines on the battlefield; the question asked was that “will an army,
well disciplined, well trained, poorly equipped but with superior
numerical odds defeat an army with sophisticated technology?”
2. Insurgency and Counterinsurgency
An insurgency is a revolt against alien rule or a ruling system against which a cause can be created and popular support rallied for the cause. It is a protracted struggle, conducted systematically, step by step, to obtain objectives which lead to the overthrow of the existing order. Insurgencies in the former colonies have followed the concept developed by Mao Tse-tung and General Vo-Nguyen Giap that a successful insurgency goes through three phases.
In the first phase agitation and propaganda is carried out to inform the public about the reforms required and changes required in the form of governance which forms the foundation of the insurgency. The second phase is open violence, guerrilla operations and the establishment of bases from where control is extended over the population; the final phase is open warfare with government forces to topple the existing regime.
Mao Tse-tung’s theory of a protracted war is that the first stage is of passive resistance to organise support from the population and harassment of the enemy by guerrilla action, because of the inferiority of the revolutionaries, the enemy will hold the strategic initiative, the revolutionaries must be willing to trade territory and population, be prepared for long retreats and to grow weaker; the enemy will also be growing weaker because of harassment by guerrillas, weakening of morale, logistic difficulties and increasing unfriendliness of the population; in this phase a close knit cadre is created and the recruitment of the future guerrilas takes place.
The people are the foundation on which an insurgency is built and the primary support system is anchored in the people. Control over the population is gained through a mixture of popular appeal and fear; the support may be willing or unwilling, through subversion, persuasion or terror, it will provide the manpower for the guerrilla units, food, medicine and shelter. The inability of the government to control the population will sap away the strength of the government forces, make tax collection difficult and dry up its sources of information regarding the insurgents. Insurgent control of the population enables it expand even while heavy casualties are inflicted on its guerrilla units. Operations are planned and conducted not so much to destroy the government forces but to extend and maintain control over the population.
The second stage of an insurgency is of active resistance, it begins when the enemy concentrates on holding territory and consolidating gains; guerrilla action will be the chief form of warfare, the revolutionary forces, even if weaker, must aim at tactical numerical superiority to win battles while regular revolutionary forces are being raised, trained and equipped for the final stage. In this stage the insurgents expand their support base by attacks on local government officials and gain control over remote areas where government control is less effective with attacks on the government structure at the lower levels; guerrillas extend their access to the population and guerrilla units are formed using the crucial local population support (according to Mao guerrilla warfare without local population support is “roving banditry”); and hit-and-run raids on vulnerable government forces are made ; insurgents refuse to battle government forces if their losses are expected to be unacceptably high. In this stage independent teams, up to company size, acting independently, infiltrate different regions depending on friendly relations, created by propaganda teams, with the local population.
The final stage of the war is the counteroffensive to annihilate the enemy, the timing of this is dependent on the internal situation and the international situation. In this stage, the insurgents adopt the organisation of conventional forces and initiate open warfare with government troops; lines of communications and regional command structure is set up to create an irresistible momentum for an insurgent victory inevitable; the first two stages are continued in this stage; finally in this stage a general offensive is conducted, the offensive is co-ordinated with a massive popular uprising, battles are fought (if necessary with external aid) till the insurgents are victorious.
Time is an ally of the insurgents, the longer the insurgency continues the greater is the sense of futility and frustration of the government which leads to ill advised acts to defeat the insurgents. Since an insurgency is a protracted conflict in time, time is of no consequence, if a stage is unsuccessful, the previous one is reverted to till it is considered appropriate to move to the next stage again.
Counter insurgency operations are conducted by an army when an insurgency occurs these operations differ from conventional war oprerations for which armies are trained; conventional wars are fought by manoeuvring and the use of fire power to seize or to defend ground, they are fought in time and space. An insurgency aims at the control of the population, time has no consideration, terrain is important to the insurgents only if it provides sanctuary; for an army trained for conventional war, counterinsurgency requires a change of its thought process, a change of its doctrine and the restructuring of its organisation to orient it to a different conflict environment. For most armies this presents a major challenge which is compounded by the urgency which an insurgency creates.
Counter insurgency operations cannot be carried out through attempts to destroy the guerrilla forces with conventional army methods, guerrillas can avoid engagements because they do not have to hold territory; as long as government forces are out seeking battle the initiative remains with the insurgents, they can set the levels of losses that are acceptable and engage and disengage according to their requirements, they try to keep the government forces seeking battles where the government forces can use their superior fire power, guerrillas avoid giving an opportunity for a conventional battle where superiority in fire power is decisive.
While it is relatively easy to drive the active guerrillas away from an area it is difficult for the army to work in co-operation with the local police and paramilitary forces over a prolonged period to destroy the guerrillas who have mixed with the population.
In counterinsurgency operations when a military decision is denied, government forces are oriented away from the destruction of guerrilla forces and employed in asserting control over the local population which requires providing a sense of security and winning the support of the population, without imposing irksome restrictions and difficulties. Gaining popular support requires political and social concessions to pre-empt the insurgents cause, conventional military units and formations are not trained for this and usually end up increasing resentment rather than gaining favour in support of the government.
The support of the population to the government forces is conditional to the government’s proof that it can defeat the insurgency and will do so. The people who have watched the insurgents painstakingly build their organisation and punish those who oppose them will not expose themselves to support the government because government forces have temporarily occupied a place, the insurgent organisation in the area must be destroyed and there must be long term government presence to gain open support. The people can weather an occasional attack but not a string of assassinations, without security, programmes to win the support of the people are irrelevant. The pacification programmes must be executed with a well planned strategy by forces trained and organised for counterinsurgency.
The elements of a successful strategy for counterinsurgency involve securing of government base areas, separating the guerrilla forces from the population and destroying the insurgents infrastructure. The army must clear the insurgents from an area by ‘clearing and holding’ operations for pacification and retain control till paramilitary forces are created and the police is re-established. The police with a good intelligence system is necessary for weeding out the infrastructure of the insurgency and preventing the re-emergence of the insurgents.
The paramilitary forces which take over control from the army must be recruited from the people of the area and trained in counterinsurgency small unit actions like patrolling and ambushing at night to control the countryside and the forces must be mobile; as the local paramilitary force and the police acquire control, the army should be phased out.
In the training of armies counter insurgency and its intricacies are not included. Troops are called upon to control a political situation without clearcut instructions on how to act against the sullen and often violent local population,troops are dispersed and have to act on their own iniative, they are attacked by hostile elements which cannot be distinguished from the rest of the population. Every action by troops in a counter insurgency is at once publicised as a ruthless action that was uncalled for.
For the military, counter insurgency is a thankless
and painful job.
3. Insurgency and Protracted War in Vietnam
The vast majority of the wars after the Second World War have been ‘insurgencies’, revolts against colonial rule, these have been ‘protracted wars’ in which time and space as in conventional wars and sophisticated equipment has not mattered.
Amongst the insurgencies, the Vietnamese war for independence and a united Vietnam lasted nearly thirty years; it was an insurgency and a protracted war; it was also a war in which technological advances were tested by Americans on a technically backward country entirely dependent on outside sources for weapons and equipment.
In the rush of European colonisation of Africa and South Asia, between 1862 and 1893 France annexed Cochin China, Annam and Tonking and made protectorates of Cambodia and Laos; from 1893 to 1954 these territories were known as the French Indo-china.
The First World War destroyed the Austro-Hungarian and the Turkish empires, Germany lost territory in Europe and her colonies abroad; the victors, for the most part, the British and the French, divided the overseas territories of the Germans and the former possession of the Turks; Africa, South East Asia and parts of South America remained under colonial rule.
The period after the end of the Second World War saw the end of colonial rule. The Japanese in the Second World War overran the countries under colonial rule in South East Asia except India; in the territories that they overran they instituted a degree of self rule which the colonial rulers had denied the colonies and when the Japanese surrendered, they handed over power and some weapons to the locals; when the colonial rulers returned with the intention of continuing with their previous rule they were met with strong resistance. The Japanese lost their colonies because they lost the war, the Americans granted independence to the Philippines, and Hawaii became an American state, the British granted independence to India and Pakistan; but for the most part, European colonial powers, including Britain, resisted independence and their colonies had to fight for their independence.
In the French Indo-china, a number of nationalist groups were formed to fight for independence, amongst them Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochina Communist Party in 1930. In 1940, when Germany defeated the French the Japanese assumed the control of Indochina but allowed the French administration continue to function.
In May 1941, Ho Chi Minh formed the ‘League for Independence of Vietnam’, in China, to draw the nationalists together, the party soon became known under the shortened name ‘Viet Minh’; Vo Nguyen Giap was appointed to form guerrilla bands; this started a long war for independence which was fought by the Vietnamese, first against the Japanese, then against the French and finally against the Americans and their allies.
On March 9, 1945, the Emperor Bao Dai, with the instigation of the Japanese, proclaimed independence, disarmed and interned the French and fighting followed. When the Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945, Ho Chi Minh and his military adviser Vo Nguyen Giap were sufficiently organised to declare the formation of the ‘Democratic Republic of Vietnam’ on 2 September 1945, with its capital at Hanoi.
Before the end of the Second World War, the Allied powers had decided that all former colonies of the victors, would be handed back to their former rulers; for Indo-china it was decided that Nationalist Chinese troops would accept the surrender of the Japanese north of the 16th parallel and the British in the south. In the north the Chinese disarmed the Japanese and transferred the weapons to the Viet Minh; south of the 16th parallel Indian and French troops arrived in Saigon on 11/12 September 1945, the British Indian troops were used to disarm the Japanese while the French dealt with Viet Minh. Rioting broke out with the Viet Minh targeting the French troops and settlers, Japanese troops had to be used to quell the rioters.
In the summer of 1946 agreement was reached on autonomy within the French Union, Ho Chi Minh accepted the agreement but could not enforce it, fighting occurred in Laos in September, French paratroops were dropped at Luang Prabang and Haiphong to recapture the airfield at Cat Bi and contain the Viet Minh. A French amphibious force landed at Haiphong on 6 March 1946 and entered Hanoi ten days later. Giap withdrew his regular troops from Hanoi and Haiphong and concentrated them in ‘safe areas’ in the mountains in the north east and in the swamps of the Red River Delta; there they were free from French interference.
Ho Chi Minh formed a government in exile in the mountains of Viet Bac, in 1946-1947 Indochina was divided into 14 Viet Minh regions each controlled by a regional committee which reported directly to Ho Chi Minh but as the war progressed it was confined to the area which became known as Vietnam. In March 1948 the regions were reduced to six, north west and north east Tongking with the Red River as the dividing boundary, the Red River Delta, north and south Annam and Cochin China. Each region had a political hierarchy, chosen and controlled from Viet Bac, each region was responsible for raising and training guerrilla forces.
In February 1950, the Viet Minh opened their campaign by capturing Lao Kai and the Cao Bang-Lang Son ridge near the Chinese border, Dong Khe was taken, it was recaptured by French para-troops and retaken by the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh tactics were to isolate the French garrisons in cities, when relieving forces were sent they were ambushed and dispersed and when para-troops were dropped to reinforce they were annihilated. By December 1950, the Viet Minh controlled the northern Tongking and had established supply lines from China.
The French towards the close of 1950 reorganised the defence of the Red River delta area with a series of fortified posts, called the ‘de Lattre Line’, protecting the approaches to Hanoi and formed a mobile reserve of para-troops, armour and infantry mobile groups were available to reinforce any threatened area. Convinced that the French were near defeat the Viet Minh launched attacks in the Red River delta area, three attacks were made, at Vinh Yen in January 1951, Mao Khe in March 1951 and at Phat Diem in June 1951, the attacks failed badly against prepared defences employing superior firepower.
The French leaders, military and civil, considered the situation in Indochina a colonial revolt which could be put down with superior discipline and firepower, the army deployed an average of about 150,000 men in the nine years of the conflict.
The Viet Minh, followed the communist pattern of combining political ideology with military force, it had a military organisation of divisions, regiments and battalions with political officers at all levels which ensured political loyalty. The village militia was the foundation of the Viet Minh, in November 1949, Ho Chi Minh decreed general mobilisation of all males and females between the ages of 18 and 45, they were given basic military training and politically indoctrinated. The militia was unarmed, it could be used to prepare defensive positions, gather intelligence, act as labourers or a source of partly trained troops; by 1954 they numbered about 350,000.
After basic training in Viet Minh methods of war and tactics the recruits were transferred to units as regional troops as ‘home guards’ which were armed with rifles and home made grenades, they were used in guerrilla attacks on French troops in their area. These troops merged with the population of the areas that they were from and knew the area well; operating part time and without uniforms, made them perfect guerrilla fighters and their discovery almost impossible. By 1954 these guerrillas numbered about 75,000 in all six regions, they operated alone or in co-operation with the Viet Minh regulars to force the French to disperse their forces in Indochina in response to their attacks.
The Viet Minh regular forces, known as Chuc Luc, were organised to fight the weakened French forces in open warfare, they were well armed with Japanese, Chinese and captured French weapons, they wore a uniform of black pyjamas and cork helmets. In 1950, 60 battalions were organised into 5 divisions with three regiments equipped with heavy mortars, machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons; at the end of 1950 a heavy division was raised with two regiments of artillery; in 1954, anti-aircraft artillery units, manned by Chinese, were added.
From the beginning of the conflict the military initiative was held by the Viet Minh, they allowed the French with their superiority in weapons and firepower to establish control over towns and areas and then attacked and harassed the troops making them feel that they were fighting a shadow. Ho Chi Minh and Giap based their strategy on Mao Tse-tung’s theory of revolutionary war which emphasises factors of time, space and will; to trade space to gain time and to use time to mobilise the political will of the people. Mao’s idea of a protracted struggle for political power in three stages, the preparation and establishment of ‘safe base areas’ by the revolutionaries; a guerrilla warfare phase in which selected pin prick attacks were carried out to demoralise and weaken the enemy by forcing him to the defensive and spreading his forces and finally conventional battles in open warfare to defeat the enemy.
When the French considered an area quiet and free of Viet Minh activity, the Viet Minh would be busy indoctrinating the population, cadre men would be infiltrated to convince the people of the justness of the Viet Minh cause and the need of the peoples co-operation, they would create support bases, safe areas and guerrilla groups which would carry out pin-prick attacks.
The French, like all the colonial rulers of this era, were convinced that their superior discipline and firepower would defeat the Viet Minh, they launched an offensive in November 1951 to destroy the Viet Minh bases, a parachute landing was made at Hoa Binh, it was joined by mobile groups and garrisoned, then the Viet Minh cut the supply route, isolated the garrison and forced the French to withdraw in February 1952.
The Viet Minh forced the French to the defensive in a restricted area in the Red River delta area but at the end of October 1952 the French again launched an offensive against the Viet Minh supply bases at Phu Tao and Phu Doan, north of the Red River, they met very little opposition but withdrew when their supply and communications became over extended.
With the undisputed command of the air the French created ‘centres of resistance’, outside the delta area, in December 1952; one was at Na San, with prepared entrenched positions and supported by the air force, it beat off Viet Minh attacks. The same tactics were used when the Viet Minh invaded Laos to link up with the Pathet Lao guerrillas, resistance centres were formed at Luang Prabang, Moung Khoua and on the Plaine des Jarres.
Dien Bien Phu was occupied in November 1952 and made a central point for anti-guerrilla patrolling and interdicting the Viet Minh supply lines into Laos, when the Viet Minh surrounded it the French decided to fight a battle where the advantage of artillery and air power could prove decisive; by December 1953 Dien Bien Phu was organised into a fortified area located 275 kilometres from Hanoi, in hilly country.
When the Korean war started in June 1950; the Americans decided that Vietnam was a key area in the confrontation with communism and a “Military Advisory and Assistance Group” of four advisers was sent to Indochina to oversee the American aid to the French, by 1954 these had increased to 352. The advisors forecast a French victory by 1955 but the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) disagreed and stated that even if the French defeated the Viet Minh the guerrilla war would continue indefinitely.
In 1954 the Viet Minh surrounded the French base at Dien Bien Phu, deployed artillery, cut off all land routes and prevented air supply and reinforcements with anti-aircraft guns; when the French failed to break the siege they asked for American assistance. The American armed forces considered a massive retaliation; the seizure of Hainan island, an invasion of the mainland of China by Nationalist forces from Formosa, the use of atomic bombs against China for the destruction of the supply bases and to support a ground offensive by French-American forces; President Eisenhower decided against these measures.
Unable to lift the siege, the French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu, peace negotiations at Geneva which followed the surrender, divided the French Indochina into Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Vietnam was divided into communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam with the 17th parallel as the boundary; between the two Vietnams, a population exchange took place in which Viet Minh soldiers and organisers moved to North Vietnam and Christians and those opposed to the communists moved to South Vietnam; elections were to be held to decide the future form of government in Vietnam.
With the division of Vietnam, South Vietnam inherited the Vietnam Army which was created by the French in 1949. At the time of the Geneva accord the army consisted of 82 infantry battalions, 81 light infantry battalions, 5 airborne battalions, 6 imperial guards battalions and 9 artillery battalions, a force of 167,000 regulars; there were no Vietnamese officers and NCOs and the army was not trained for counterinsurgency.
When the French pulled out of Vietnam the Americans assumed the responsibility of controlling the spread of communism in Indochina, particularly in South Vietnam. In June 1954 the Americans, with French permission, had started organising and training the South Vietnam army on the American pattern for conventional warfare.
In 1956 South Vietnam announced that it would not hold election because the elections in North Vietnam would not be free elections. South Vietnam became a police state and liquidated all opposition, a large number of the Viet Minh who had stayed behind were apprehended, imprisoned, guillotined or poisoned.
The North Vietnamese considered that they had been cheated from the unification of Vietnam by the South Vietnamese decision not to hold elections and an insurgency in South Vietnam was initiated with about seven thousand Vietminh who had remained behind when the country was divided. The Vietminh were not able to make much headway because only a handful of those who had remained behind were effective; undeterred, Ho Chi Minh sent cadre men, natives of South Vietnam, who replaced the defectors, assisted those who had remained loyal and invigorated the revolution; out of about 100,000 people who had gone to North Vietnam, about 65,000 cadre men, were trained and returned clandestinely to liberate their homeland.
The cadre men had full faith in their cause, they were trained in insurgency strategy, their base was their families and friends in the countryside. By mid 1957 they were in their assigned places and functioning, they spoke to the people to win their hearts and minds since in an insurgency the people are the objective and the battle is for their hearts and minds; they emphasised the miserable conditions, poverty, harsh taxation etc., by these methods aggressive recruiting was started. The term Viet Cong, was created by the South Vietnam government to denote South Vietnamese communists.
Gaining momentum the Viet Cong increasingly resorted to terror as a means of persuasion, murdering government officials and non co-operative local leaders, they reduced the influence of the government and induced fear in the hearts of the undecided. Roads, bridges, power lines and similar vulnerable targets suffered repeated attacks; security outside major cities disappeared and the South Vietnam forces were increasingly committed to counter insurgency. In 1957, the U.S. Special Forces started training the South Vietnamese in ‘partisan warfare’ to counter the insurgency.
The National Liberation Front (NLF), the political arm of the Viet Cong was formed in 1958, it was a communist dominated coalition of anti South Vietnamese government groups which challenged the South Vietnam government, its formation was not made public.
The Viet Cong depended for their survival on the collaboration and protection by the population which the NLF organised both in the urban and rural areas. Where necessary, collaboration was obtained by intimidation; murder or other means of intimidation was ordered for specific acts of collaboration with the government and was carried out by special squads; sometimes bodies and heads were displayed as a deterrent and warning. In the rural areas the guerrillas were involved in food cultivation to feed themselves and in assisting peasants.
By the end of 1958, the control of the insurgents had spread to the extent that measures to start the next phase of the insurgency were taken by creating the 559 Transportation Group to establish a supply route to South Vietnam, this became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In 1959 more cadre men entered South Vietnam and increased the activities of the Viet Cong; about 250 government officials were killed, guerrillas started attacking the South Vietnam army posts, overran district and provincial capitals, ambushed convoys, engaged whole battalions of regular troops and always faded away before counterattacks could be launched; in 1960, 1,400 officials were assassinated.
The South Vietnam government organised political indoctrination, internal security and announced reforms; paramilitary forces were created for internal security; for a population of 14,000,000, a paramilitary force of 53,000 and a village militia of 43,000 was created, a municipal police of 9,000 was stationed in cities with over 15,000 population and a secret service of about 8,000 was organised, this left the villages without police and protection. ‘Clear-and-hold’ operations were carried out but were unsuccessful because of poor execution and corruption.
The American observers were replaced with advisers in 1959, they planned to respond to the three phases of the insurgency by advising and assisting in the first phase; with ‘operational assistance’ in the second phase, with the introduction of US ground forces to combat insurgents in the third phase.
With a dramatic increase in guerrilla operations in 1960, the establishment of the NLF was announced which indicated that the insurgency had progressed to the second phase and the American advisors started planning military measures for combating the insurgents.
In 1961, the Viet Cong changed their tactics from hit and run to assaults on regular South Vietnamese units, in one month the Vietcong attacked at three places with over 1,000 men and over ran a provincial capital.
Much of the countryside was controlled by the NLF, they levied taxes, drafted men, punished criminals and rudimentary arms factories were set up. The NLF made vigorous efforts to undermine the loyalty of the South Vietnamese forces and government officials, from them it obtained advance information of operations planned by government troops.
A unique feature of the Vietnam war was the tunnel system dug by the insurgents. Initially dug by the Viet Minh in their fight against the French for protection against French aircraft, in areas under French occupation the system was used for providing hidden routes between houses, hamlets and villages and for hiding small Viet Minh forces so that they could collect near their target and choose their time of attack.
When the South Vietnamese used American aircraft and helicopters against the guerrillas, the tunnel organisation was reactivated, networks were repaired and new programmes of tunnelling were begun, the original 48 kilometres of tunnels dug during the war with the French was extended to 200 kilometres of integrated network by the time the US Army actively intervened.
The tunnels were 800 centimetres to 1.2 metres wide, 1.8 metres high, the roof was over 1.5 metres below ground level to withstand the effects of bombs; a trapdoor system hid entrances to secret passages, they were in several levels, at some places as many as four.The system was a tribute to the stamina of the diggers, the extraordinary practical application of physical principles, air and ventilation, sanitation, water supply, cooking arrangements and a trapdoor system which provided security by preventing the discovery of the next level when one level was discovered, which permitted people to live underground for years. The tunnels, had living areas, storage depots, ordnance factories, hospitals, headquarters and almost every facility necessary for the pursuit of the war by the South Vietnam Communists that could be accommodated underground. At the height of the Vietnam war, in the mid 1960s, the tunnels of Cu Chi extended from the gates of Saigon to the border with Cambodia, hundreds of kilometres of tunnels connecting villages, districts and provinces.
The Viet Cong, who lived in the tunnels, made their own booby traps modelled on the American Claymore mine, a bouncing mine which was detonated by pressure or by command and a helicopter booby trap of claymore mines set in tree tops and wired to explode when the tree was bent with the draught caused by a helicopter. The Viet Cong booby traps included a cross bow with a trip wire, a coconut shell filled with explosive and covered with rocks, a grenade in a beer can tied to a trip wire, a cartridge held up with two pins resting on a wooden base and ‘punji’ stick traps made of bamboos were also extensively used.
Various methods were used to locate and destroy the Viet Cong in the tunnels; areas were defoliated with ‘Agent Orange’ which killed vegetation; areas were doused with petrol from the air and set on fire with napalm and incendiary bombs; a human detection device ‘People Sniffer’ carried by a helicopter was tried but the Viet Cong defeated it with buffalo urine in bags.
Recognising that there was an insurgency the South Vietnam government hired Sir Robert Thompson for advice on pacification since he had successfully carried out the pacification programme in Malaya. Sir Thompson recommended that the emphasis should be on the security and political stability of the rural population rather than on the destruction of the guerrillas. On his advice, in January 1962, a programme was started to concentrate the rural population in “strategic hamlets”, special encampments, with barbed wire and spiked bamboo fences and with troops guarding the hamlets; under the plan, areas were cleared of the Viet Cong, citizens were armed and trained to protect themselves with army assistance, civic action plans were initiated, police was used to root out the Viet Cong and to stabilise the area.
The ‘strategic hamlet’ plan ran into trouble because instead of conducting it where there was minimal Viet Cong infiltration it was conducted in a heavily infiltrated area with the aim of building a series of strong points on the route to Saigon. When the population was moved to the hamlets, the Viet Cong guerrillas hid in tunnels when their families were moved; this created a food supply problem for the guerrillas but they created an elaborate smuggling and concealment organisation. The ‘strategic hamlet’ scheme failed because of forced resettlement, the vulnerability of the hamlets to insurgent infiltration, false data, corruption, exploitation of the peasantry; by the end of 1963 it had decayed and collapsed.
The South Vietnamese, under US directions gave priority to the destruction of the guerrilla forces through large scale conventional attacks preceded by softening up with air attacks and artillery bombardment, the preparations for these operations usually warned the guerrillas and they evaded battle unless it was of advantage to them to fight. As time passed reliance on technological solutions, use of air power, electronic barriers, defoliants etc increased.
The use of defoliant herbicides in Vietnam began in 1961, cultivated land was defoliated to destroy food crops, inland forests to detect movement and Viet Cong camps; perimeters of base camps and fire bases for observation and fields of fire. Post war research has shown that the people exposed to defoliants suffered from cancer, adverse reproduction, and immune deficiency amongst other health effects.
In 1961, the South Vietnamese, under American direction, established an intelligence organisation and a chain of command for counter insurgency operations; the South Vietnamese forces increased to 270,000, a proposal was made to induct 25,000 South East Asia Treaty Organisation forces and to capture of Haiphong with US forces.
The Americans advised that counter insurgency operations required military operations designed to bring the insurgents to battle to destroy them, broad sweeps conducted by South Vietnamese forces produced no results; these mobile offensive operations supported by artillery, aircraft and gunships alienated the population as the brunt of the softening up and the search operations was borne by them.
The South Vietnam army was trained to operate from helicopters and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) with gunships providing support; the Viet Cong initially broke and ran in panic but the shock and surprise soon wore off and they devised counter measures for helicopters and APC borne troops.
The Battle of Ap Bac, in January 1963, is an example of Viet Cong tactics against helicopters and APC borne troops. South Vietnamese intelligence sources had located a major Viet Cong headquarter at Ap Tan Thoi, the American advisor planned to fly a South Vietnamese infantry regiment by helicopters to surround three sides of the headquarter and complete the encirclement with civil guard infantry regiment mounted in APCs.
The intelligence on which the operation was planned was wrong, the insurgents got information of the operation but not the details, they prepared plans for the various likely alternatives, command, security, communications and logistic arrangements were made with the intention to stand and fight. The terrain where the operation was to take place was of villages in islands of trees in vast expanses of paddy land, movement was only possible on the banks of tree lined canals which formed natural defensive positions with concealment and excellent fields of fire.
The operation was launched at dawn, the ‘civil guard’ moved out organised in two forces, helicopters landed the first wave of an infantry regiment at Ap Tan Thoi, it met no opposition because the Viet Cong commander had located his anti-aircraft defence of two .50 calibre machine guns and other automatic weapons at Ap Bac, these weapons were manned by personnel trained in anti-aircraft engagement. The second wave of the helicopter borne troops were delayed for two hours due to fog; the civil guard in APCs were engaged by the Viet Cong at Ap Bac and their company commander was killed. The South Vietnamese colonel commanding the infantry regiment and the American advisor disagreed about where the reserve should be employed, for some time the American advisor, the helicopter borne South Vietnamese infantry regiment’s control helicopter and a South Vietnamese observation plane circled low over the area while their occupants discussed, over radio in clear, where to land the troops, finally a spot near Ap Bac and the Viet Cong held canal was agreed as the landing zone. Ten CH-21, “flying bananas” landed and were met with withering fire, one was shot down while others were damaged, troops frantically dismounted while five gunships engaged the Viet Cong with negligible effect, in all five helicopters were shot down and all others, except one, were damaged. In the evening a parachute battalion parachuted to complete the encirclement, it dropped in the wrong place and did not assemble till late on next morning; during the night the Viet Cong broke contact and disappeared.
By 1963 the insurgency had seriously limited the authority of the South Vietnamese government, the American strength increased to about 16,000, mostly manning supply bases and flying aircraft. In spite of considerable aid, the prospects of defeating the insurgency did not improve due to the poor performance of the South Vietnamese troops, government corruption, infiltration of the forces by the NLF and external support to the insurgents by China and Russia.
In 1964 the Viet Cong guerrillas based in South Vietnam were reinforced with by the Viet Minh soldiers who had gone to North Vietnam, there they were trained and motivated for guerrilla warfare. Along with the returning Viet Minh, North Vietnamese soldiers also came to fight alongside the Viet Cong under the command of the communist’ southern command, the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSN).
All Communist troops in South Vietnam were known as ‘Peoples Liberation Army’ and were under the command of COSN. The troops were divided into local guerrillas, regional forces and regular units. All structures were in threes, starting with a three man cell, three cells to a section, three sections to a platoon and so on. The three man cell was originated by the Chinese, for mutual support, to prevent privacy, to prevent deviation from the standards laid down and to prevent desertion.
The year 1965 was planned as the year in which South Vietnam was to be defeated, before 1965 the infiltration from North Vietnam was about 13,000 men annual, it was increased to 35,000 in 1965; with the arrival of a large number of American troops it was increased to 89,000 in 1966, between 59,000 and 90,000 in 1967 and to about 150,000 in 1968; the infiltration continued to increase in spite of the of the bombing of North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The guerrillas, male and female, were recruited in their early teens, the communist party educated them to ensure that not a single soldier had a single doubt as to why, for whom and for what they were fighting. The training was based on Mao Tse-tung precept “The basis for guerrilla discipline must be the individual conscience, with guerrillas the discipline of coercion is ineffective.” The North Vietnamese fought not because of communist ideological reasons but because they believed that they were fighting to liberate South Vietnam.
The infiltrators endured great hardship in reaching the battlefield although the infiltration from North Vietnam was well organised. Before starting the infiltration soldiers were given leave to visit their families then put on a special diet from two weeks to two months. The move, to the south, started from a training camp at Dong Hoi, the southern most city of North Vietnam, from there the men walked at night, because of the danger of air attacks, to a dispatching village where they rested for a few days, received new clothing, equipment and identification documents to hide their North Vietnamese identity; they then crossed into Laos and were guided along paths which were known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The men moved in 3 or 5 men cells which were numbered and were called “doan”; the three man cell formed the basis of self discipline, mutual support, defence against demoralisation and home sickness. The men walked or rode bicycles, they travelled in day time because of the thick jungle, every 10 to 15 miles there was a camp site with two or three huts and a supply of rice guarded by a detachment of soldiers.
The daily schedule on the march was to rise at 0330 hours in the night, march from 4 to 11 AM, a lunch break, then march till 6 PM, then put up a hammock, dig a foxhole, cook dinner and prepare rice balls for the next days lunch; after every 5 or 10 days there was a day of rest. The infiltrators carried their personal belongings, three shirts, three pairs of trousers, a hammock, a pair of tyre soled sandals, a nylon tent, a raincoat, first aid kit, a weapon and part of a heavy weapon; the ration was two pounds of rice per day, some vegetables, salt and meat; the sick were helped by the members of their cell; the passage took 30 to 75 days.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA)trained their soldiers and the infiltrators to overcome the difficulties of the war. Rigorous physical training was given with three route marches a week with heavy loads, the weapon training was combined with a very effective fire discipline; no soldier fired at random, fire was en masse. Political indoctrination emphasised heroic themes, on striving for success despite obstacles; the cell of three was the basic tool for providing cohesion at the small unit level and gave each soldier a set of companions who were responsible for each other.
The uniform of the NVA was a black pyjama, sandals with tyre soles, pair of socks, underpants, a light nylon tent, a mosquito net, an oil lamp, a water bottle, a digging tool, a canvas tube for carrying rice, pay was $ 2 per month. Daily meals were of a ball of cold rice with spice and chillies, at nine in the morning and four in the afternoon, there was never enough food; malnutrition was common.
The Viet Cong lived with fear, bombs could come at any moment, wounds were feared the most because of the lack of proper medical facilities. Homesick, frightened and hungry the Viet Cong fought on, there were desertions but the vast majority, well led by their officers, endured the difficulties, bounced back after every set back and usually fought to death.
Supplies to support the infiltrators were moved by trucks and inland waterways. The trucks entered Laos through the Mu Gia Pass, travelled along un-metalled roads, some parts of the road was surfaced with stones and logs and maintained by 25,000 soldiers and 50,000 labourers; truck parks were located about 20 miles apart, every third or fifth park stored fuel, each park was run by an officer with 30 to 60 men; supplies were also moved on oxcarts, pack bicycles, elephants and coolies. The Americans estimated that only 15 tons of non food supplies were required to maintain 300,000 men in South Vietnam.
The average Viet Cong soldier was operationally employed for two days in a month, he used rifles which used ammunition slightly larger than American ammunition and other American weapons, they received medicines and some ammunition through Cambodia and food from the South Vietnam farmers. With the rapid build up of forces in 1968 supplies had to be brought from North Vietnam, vast new road complexes were built and at any given time 10,000 trucks were carrying supplies through Laos and South Vietnam.
The Americans continuously bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, 400 to 500 sorties were flown daily; electronic sensors were placed along the infiltration routes to detect infiltrators as they passed and to send messages to the aircraft bases; the North Vietnamese after they became aware of these devices, removed their batteries or if they saw one hanging from a tree they shot them. Mines which could be set off by radio signals from aircraft were also dropped on the trail; trail watchers and counter guerrilla forces were also employed to harass the infiltrators.
Viet Cong troops were organised as battalions, companies and platoons, some of these soldiers were of teen age, all were Spartan and resilient guerrillas, dressed as peasants in black silk pyjamas, sandals, they slept in hammocks, their day’s ration was a ball of boiled rice, they moved around on foot or on bicycles. Up to 1966 the Viet Cong used captured or locally produced weapons, after 1966 Chinese and Russian weapons became available.
The Viet Cong always held the military initiative which allowed them to decide the place and the time of battle, their tactics were dictated by their technical inferiority; while the South Vietnamese and the Americans relied on their technical superiority and fire power. As a defence against fighter bombers, bombers, gunships, artillery, tanks and massed infantry; the Viet Cong depended on getting close to the enemy to prevent the use of these weapons; fighting with small units, making hit and run attacks and ambushes they involved a large number of South Vietnamese and American troops in defending bases, protecting convoys and making the periodic necessity of search and destroy missions with a large number of troops.
The Viet Cong operations were based on excellent last minute intelligence, they were planned in detail and, if possible, rehearsed; arms and ammunition were placed suitably and picked up by the guerrillas on the day of the operation. Targets were approached through tunnels or other safe secured routes, sappers blasted routes through wire and other defences, communication was by whistles and bugles; most operations were conducted at night and the Viet Cong strategy and tactics were successful.
In February 1965 the United States started bombing North Vietnam, which escalated from the bombing of roads, railways and bridges, supply dumps; steadily the areas enlarged to destroying cities. American losses in aircraft and men also gradually mounted; during the war 350,000 bomber sorties were flown on 100,000 missions, a million tons of bombs were dropped but did not achieve any tangible results.
In early 1965 there was evidence that the insurgency was moving into the third phase; the Viet Cong attacked and occupied the village of Binh Gia about 40 miles from Saigon, killing 201 government troops. In June it was decided to employ 44 battalions of American troops to guard the American support bases.
The South Vietnam forces in 1965 totalled 567,000, including 245,000 regulars, the Viet Cong was estimated between 50,000 and 60,000, regulars, 100,000 irregulars; the traditional ratio for counter insurgency forces to succeed is 10 to 20 government troops for 1 insurgent, this required a force of 1 million approximately in the counter insurgency role and a separate army to prevent an intervention by North Vietnam. The US Army, to avoid meeting this decided to measure force ratio in terms of battalions, omitting the 100,000 Viet Cong irregulars and the large number in the American logistical tail, South Vietnamese battalions were rated equal to Viet Cong battalions, American and other Allied army battalions were rated equal to two Viet Cong battalions, while Marine battalions were considered equal to three Viet Cong battalions.
With the deployment of American troops a strategy of attrition using firepower was adopted, the troops were not ‘counter insurgency’ task forces trained for counter insurgency but normal army units trained for conventional warfare. The Americans planned to destroy the insurgents by 1967; in Phase I the stabilisation of the situation by the end of 1965 using 44 battalions; in Phase 2 an offensive with an additional 24 battalions; in Phase 3 the mopping up.
The flaw in the American strategy was that the big Viet Cong units avoided battle and drew the Americans away from the populated areas to remote areas thus retaining control of the population; Sir Thompson, the British expert on guerrilla warfare, advocated concentrating on the control of the local population that provided support to the Viet Cong main force units, the Americans were of the view that the main Viet Cong force should be engaged and destroyed.
The US Army operated from protected bases; around these bases or positions occupied by American troops, electronic sensors, similar to those used on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, were sown, the broadcasts from these sensors was received and interpreted to warn of attacks by a hundred or more troops. The system was activated by the explosion of ‘Gravel’ mines or it had to hear four steps by some one walking. For a base the number of sensors was calculated according to the perimeter and they were placed by helicopters. The sensors were sensitive to sound within ten metres and provided its location information. Radar capable of detecting men at 1,000 metres were also used.
By November 1965, 184,314 American and Allied troops were deployed. The air mobile 1st Cavalry Division was deployed in the Central Highlands where the insurgents were most formidable, in November 1965 in a battle 1,200 Viet Cong were killed with about 200 American casualties. Tanks were used against the insurgents to allow infantry in APCs to close with the Viet Cong and destroy them; the Viet Cong very easily avoided tanks and APCs.
The Americans considered the war in Vietnam a ‘police action’ and not a war, therefore, it was not considered necessary for troops to endure the usual hardships of a war, for every American soldier engaged in an operation, four remained in barracks, some air-conditioned.
As more and more American troops arrived their first concern was to protect Saigon and then pacification of the country side. Saigon was protected by a number of huge base camps, the sites were close to areas of Viet Cong domination and intense activity. The establishment of bases by the Americans were preceded by a ‘sweep operation’; for example, in January 1966 to establish a base in the Cu Chi, tunnel infested district, a sweep operation was conducted with a preliminary artillery bombardment, softening up bombing by B-52 bombers based in Thailand and Guam then followed up by an attack by a U.S. air lifted infantry division, an airborne brigade and an Australian regiment.
To collect, collate and disseminate intelligence the US Army bases had UNIVAC 1005 and NCR 500 computers mounted in vans parked near the divisional tactical operations centre; the computers were linked with computers in other headquarters and the US Army headquarters in Saigon and could be used for logistic planning etc. Every contact with the Viet Cong was fed into the computers to create a huge intelligence bank from which it was hoped that forecasts of enemy actions could be made; the information in the computers included known or suspected Viet Cong sympathisers.
Supplying the big American bases with the wherewithal to fight and the expected comforts was an operation in itself, the biggest supply base was at Long Binh another one was at Saigon. Convoys of vehicles would make trips to a base with a constant attrition of men and vehicles from mines, obstacles, ambushes, mortar, rocket and small arms fire; there was no vehicular movement at night.
Tactically the infantry went into battle in helicopters or rode in APCs instead of patrolling on foot to find the guerrillas; Sir Thompson criticised the Americans for not being foot mobile, when troops landed from helicopters, the Viet Cong could decide whether or not to engage in battle, and when the troops departed in their helicopters they left the area under Viet Cong control. Senior commanders hovered in helicopters and directed operations on radios which restricted the initiative of the junior commanders. Tanks when used against the insurgents were found indiscriminate in their fire, tank units rarely operated at night when the guerrillas were most active and when used the Viet Cong very easily avoided them, they were maintenance intensive and required support troops which did not actively take part in operations. The air support provided by fighter aircraft and helicopters added to the firepower which was supposed to make the traditional ratio of opposing forces irrelevant.
The Marines followed a different concept of counter insurgency called “Combined Action Platoons (CAPs)”, vigorous patrolling and ambushes from sundown to sunup when insurgent activity was greatest. They deployed inside hamlets and announced that the people would be protected from the Viet Cong and made a village self defence force which forced the Viet Cong to abandon the village. CAPs suffered from a language barrier and the failure to arrange interlocking CAPs.
The Marines also saturated the coastal areas with guards and patrols in the harvest season to enable the farmers to harvest, store and sell their crop before the Viet Cong could tax them, this made the Viet Cong lose the co-operation of the farmers and forced them to attack, building up to battalion size attacks. The Army conceded that the Marine achievement was noteworthy but claimed that it was not possible to place troops in every village or hamlet.
The U. S. Army went into Vietnam with the concept of reliance on fire power to prevent casualties, the chosen strategy was the destruction of the insurgents faster than the infiltration from North Vietnam or local recruitment. The key to the success of this strategy was forcing the Viet Cong and the North Vietnam Army to fight. The US Army relied on its technology to bring the Viet Cong to battle, it used sensors, infrared photography, night vision devices, helicopters to find the Viet Cong, to engage them with air power and air mobility and destroy them with firepower. The Viet Cong always dictated the tempo, controlled the level of their casualties and adhered to their strategy of protracted conflict; they drew the American units from the populated areas to keep their logistical base, the ‘population’ secure; they kept the US forces static in remote positions to inhibit their operational effectiveness by deploying enough NVA forces to keep the Americans occupied; they reappeared in areas which had been cleared of insurgents, in the Iron Triangle, a Viet Cong controlled area north east of Saigon, an airborne brigade carried out search and destroy operations twice in three months; they generated American casualties to destroy the will of the United States to continue the war.
By the end of 1965 it was realised by the Americans that the bombing of North Vietnam was having little effect on the war, the pacification schemes were not successful, the only success seemed to be in the killing of the Viet Cong by the use of large formations in a war of attrition, and success was counted by counting the Viet Cong dead.
By November 1965, 184,314 American and Allied troops were deployed, by the end of 1966 it was 429,000, including 75 battalions; in the latter half of 1966 almost all the combat battalions were employed in search and destroy operations, patrolling the jungles, moving from one hilltop fire support base to another but over half the contact with the Viet Cong took place in the populated areas.
Large search and destroy operations to bring the Viet Cong to battle and to destroy them with firepower commenced in September 1966. In an operation from September to November 1966, 22,000 troops, B-52 bombers, massive artillery concentrations were employed, the Viet Cong suffered 1,100 dead and lost supplies, yet in a short time the Viet Cong were back; another operation lasting nearly two months was launched in which US forces killed 1,776 Viet Cong and captured ammunition and food, but almost all engagements were initiated by the Viet Cong and the Viet Cong division operating in the area was not made ineffective in spite of the Americans dropping 3,235 tons of bombs and firing 366,000 rounds of artillery ammunition in this operation. The number of engagements in the border areas and hit and run mortar attacks which inflicted most US casualties, increased; by 1967 almost all engagements were of company strength or less. Counter insurgency required troops that could stay in the populated area and control it, not troops which arrived, killed at random, counted the dead and left the area in the control of the guerrillas.
The firepower support given to US forces in Vietnam was three times that used in Korea, the use of massed firepower alienated the population and provided the Viet Cong with excellent propaganda, officially the US Army followed ‘restrictive rules of engagement’ to minimise civilian casualties but body count provided an incentive to shoot first regardless.
The most important means of fire support to the ground forces was the B-52 bomber, about 6,500 sorties were flown in 1967, mostly as a ‘terror’ weapon, often bombing indicated a sweep or search and destroy mission; the bombers required 24 hours warning but could be diverted immediately if airborne.
The B-52 strategic bomber was converted to carry 100 conventional bombs, flying from bases in Guam and Thailand, these huge, high flying aircraft never saw their targets, they were guided to the target and their bombing was directed by ground radar located 200 miles away; they attacked targets located three kilometres from friendly forces. Ground forces employed these strategic bombers to saturate areas with 750 and 500 pound bombs, dropped in sticks that left a mile long areas of devastation in which the earth, trees, building and humans were thrown in the air; a B-52 bombing could be seen, heard and felt for twenty miles, craters were up to 12 metres deep. The bombs included: the ‘parcel bomb’ of 1000 pounds which opened in the air scattering hundreds of anti-personnel mines, some disguised as oranges which exploded when picked up; a 15,000 pound bomb which caused a crater 300 feet in diameter; the CBU-55 ‘earth quake bomb’, which sucked in all the air from area in which it exploded; and ‘smart’ bombs which could be accurately guided to their targets.
To detect the presence of the Viet Cong the Americans used sensors, initially a modification of the “Acubuoy’ a naval submarine detecting device in which the hydrophones were removed and replaced by sensitive microphones which detected the sound around the sensor; the sensors were dropped by parachutes, the device hung on a tree, sprouted a number of aerials which detected sound; when the sound of vehicles or men marching was detected, the device transmitted its location which was re-broadcast by an aircraft and was received by an air force base or army units and the broadcast location was attacked by air or artillery. Later a “Air Delivered Seismic Intruder Device”, three feet long and six inches in diameter, shaped like a bomb, was used, when dropped from an aircraft, it dug in to the ground and threw up an aerial camouflaged like a tropical tree, it could detect foot steps and truck rumblings, it transmitted signals which were picked up by an aircraft, it had a battery life of one month.
To illuminate an area at night the ‘spooky’ a C-47, a World War Two vintage aircraft, was used to carry flares that flood lighted an area of a mile in radius, this aircraft also had machine guns that fired 6,000 rounds per minute.
In Vietnam, for the first time in history, helicopter borne troops could be landed in enemy territory as a combat ready unit with close fire support provided by rocket and machine gun firing helicopters. The helicopters flew high to the objective to avoid ground fire; the landing zone was engaged by helicopters with machine guns and rockets, and marked with smoke bombs, then the helicopter formations landed to disembark troops, if the Viet Cong engaged the helicopters, machine gunners riding “shotgun” in the doorway of the troop carrying helicopters fired back; in minutes the troops would disembark, the helicopters would fly away while armed helicopters ‘gunships’ would orbit the landing zone to provide fire support.
Garrisons daily received detachments of helicopters consisting of C-46, C-47, UH-1D, UH-1E, UH-34, UH-34D and CH-54 ‘Sky-Crane’, escorted by A-4 attack jets. The helicopter detachments supporting bases came to be known as ‘gaggles’ and large detachments as ‘super-gaggles’. In six months a helicopter support team supporting six troop detachments carried out 11,591 troop lifts carrying 24147 passengers and 41 million pounds of cargo.
One year after the commitment of US ground forces they had made little headway, Viet Cong forces had increased from 160,000 to 220,000, they could locally recruit or infiltrate up to 15 battalions every month. In 1965, the year when North Vietnam had planned to defeat South Vietnam, North Vietnam had half a million men associated with the armed forces, 250,000 on active duty, the rest in militias and reserve; by 1967 the active duty force had increased to 400,000.
In 1966, after the bombing failed to stop the infiltration, a concept of a barrier to block the narrow neck of Vietnam originated, this had been considered by the French when they were fighting the Viet Minh. The barrier was to be a barbed wire fence from the South China Sea, along the “De-militarised Zone (DMZ)” then across Laos to the Thai border. A field of fire of 600 to 1,000 metres was to be cleared, the fence was to be backed up with minefields and with reaction troops, armoured troops and air cavalry was to be stationed at intervals. McNamara, the American defence secretary, fond of figures and costs, calculating that it would considerably increase the NVA cost of infiltration and ordered the construction of the barrier.
A study, by a scientific panel, recommended two barriers; a manned barrier on the DMZ to block foot traffic, the other an air operation to block movement on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The air operation barrier was to use remote sensors, acoustic sensors, chemicals, special small mines (button bomblets) to cause wounds on the foot and legs, Gravel mines, (three inch square cloth bag containing powder and two plastic pellets which were not detectable by X-ray and made surgery difficult, a large number could be dropped in a bomb or in an artillery shell). Target sensors were to be monitored by aircraft and data relayed to a computerised control centre in Thailand; the sensors could also vector attack aircraft to targets. The research and development cost was $ 1.6 billion and $ 600 million were to be spent on a command centre, munitions, aircraft etc.
Opinion was divided on the barrier itself, on how it should be made and how it should be used; some officers thought that it would cause needless casualties, waste time and money; McNamara ordered the construction using emergency sanctions and it became known as the “McNamara Line”.
In October 1967, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnam Army (NVA} engaged the American and the South Vietnamese Army in a series of battles in the remote border areas and gradually extended them to the Mekong Delta; the Americans apparently won every battle with mounting casualties which numbered hundreds in a week; costs had reached $ 30 billion a year, an unacceptable figure; under these conditions, with the 1968 elections in mind President Johnson started pressing for a military victory.
In the last quarter of 1967, intelligence indicated that a general offensive was about to be launched by the Viet Cong in the populated areas but the Americans continued to plan and launch ‘search and destroy’ missions and their troops remained deployed in the border regions till January 1968.
At the time when the Americans were announcing victories, in January 1968 the NVA positioned two divisions to threaten the American Marine base at Khe Sanh which was located to prevent infiltration and to provide a jumping off place for operations in Laos; the base was garrisoned by four Marine battalions and one South Vietnamese battalion. Responding to this threat the American reinforced the garrison with the 1st Air Cavalry Division and an airborne brigade, the NVA probably wanted this diversion because in spite of heavy casualties they persisted in their attacks. The defence of Khe Sanh and the remote areas was of no value while it diverted troops from the populated areas where they were required for pacification.
On the night of January 30-31, the Viet Cong and the NVA, employing 100,000 troops launched attacks on Saigon and on 36 out of 43 district capitals penetrating 13 of them, in Saigon eight battalions were committed; these attacks became known as “the Tet offensive”. The offensive coincided with the siege of Khe Sanh base, it was thought that the offensive was conducted to divert attention from the Khe Sanh siege which was considered as a battle similar to Dien Bien Phu, an American defeat there was expected to lead to the eventual withdrawal of the Americans from Vietnam.
The Tet offensive was a mass uprising against the South Vietnam government to bring about a collapse of the South Vietnamese army which would leave the Americans nothing to fight for and would result in a cease fire; the secondary objective was the derailment of the pacification programme, the third was the inflicting of casualties on the Americans to whittle away their will to fight, the fourth to demonstrate to the population that they were not safe from retribution if they co-operated with the Americans or the South Vietnamese government and the fifth was to enlarge the refugee problem and thereby increase the economic burden on the South Vietnam government.
The offensive lasted two weeks, the Viet Cong came out into the open in a mass uprising, their cadres, the heart of the insurgency, suffered 37,000 killed and 6,000 were taken prisoners. The Americans considered it a victory since it gave them an opportunity to destroy large numbers of the enemy but were puzzled by the apparent irrationality of challenging the formidable American forces in South Vietnam.
After the Tet offensive started, President Johnson, through the Chairman Joint Chief of Staff, inquired from General Westmoreland whether nuclear weapons could be used against the Viet Cong and received a negative reply.
While the American forces in Vietnam claimed a victory the Tet offensive was a shattering blow to the American people and government; the people were taken aback because they had been told that in 1968 the war would turn around, that the search and destroy operations would provide the shield behind which the people would be secure, but instead the Viet Cong had penetrated the populated areas.
After the Tet offensive, when the US command in Vietnam asked for reinforcements, the American government recoiled and questioned the strategy the Army had adopted. The reinforcements required for Vietnam could not be provided without calling up additional conscripts which was a political problem. An assessment of the strategy revealed that the Viet Cong and the NVA had the will and the capability to continue the war indefinitely, they were operating with freedom in the countryside and decided when and where to fight.
Faced with the political problem of calling up more conscripts, the Americans considered alternatives, the military view was for the increase of forces while another view was that continued escalation of the war by intensified bombing of North Vietnam and by sending more troops to South Vietnam, would not succeed, it would be better to concentrate on improving the South Vietnam army, phasing out the US forces while seeking a negotiated settlement.
In April 1968 the American government refused the further 200,000 reinforcement requested and froze the troop ceiling at 549,500; it asked the army for a quick victory or a low cost strategy that could be maintained indefinitely, the quick victory was impossible in a conflict that was by nature protracted and the military could not provide a low cost strategy that could be maintained indefinitely therefore the withdrawal of US forces became both a military and political necessity. The Tet offensive switched the emphasis from an American war seeking a military victory to turning the war over to the South Vietnam with a gradual withdrawal of American forces. The bombing of North Vietnam was stopped and ways of opening negotiations were sought.
After the Tet offensive the Viet Cong reverted to ‘Phase Two’ operations against the Americans and the South Vietnam government; the US Army changed its strategy to providing security to the population and to expand the authority of the government. New tactics were evolved to “bring the enemy to battle on our terms rather than his terms”; operations by small units backed up by prompt and massive fire support to seek and destroy with ‘night-hunter’ and ‘night-search’ operations but these could not distinguish between the Viet Cong and non-combatants, “kill the VC” syndrome persisted.
The Vietnam war went on for five years after the Tet offensive, the US withdrew its forces from Vietnam over five years and a ceasefire was signed in January 1973. In the two years after the American withdrawal, North Vietnam built up the NVA to 20 divisions and at the beginning of 1975 invaded South Vietnam, on 30 April 1975, Saigon surrendered unconditionally; the American advisors were evacuated by the U.S. Seventh Fleet, ending the conflict which had lasted 29 years.
The Vietnam war, was a war in which the will power of a people fighting for independence from direct and indirect foreign rule, was pitched against technology at a time when technology was heralding a new era in the means and methods of warfare. In Vietnam an ‘automated electronic battlefield’ emerged; the enemy was located by surveillance or sensors, it was no longer necessary to see the enemy, and could be destroyed through instant communications and application of highly lethal fire power.
The will of the people of Vietnam to continue their struggle indefinitely, prevailed.