JAMES R. ARNOLD
The lightly armed Viet Cong had to find alternatives to compensate for their lack of firepower. They relied heavily upon mines and booby traps. A VC document analysing American tactics stated: 'US troops clumsy and vulnerable to booby trapping and mining.' Mines inflicted about half the damage and destruction American armour suffered. Mines and booby traps caused 10 per cent of US fatalities and 15 percent of wounds between 1965 and 1970. Furthermore, their presence served as a substantial tactical brake on ground operations. When a trap exploded to kill or maim, the infuriating knowledge that local civilians knew the location of nearby booby traps sometimes drove the survivors to commit savage atrocities.
The mortar attack had been a staple of Viet Cong tactics since the war began. Relying upon careful reconnaissance, a mission made easier by the near total lack of concealment of important posts within an Allied installation, the mortar crews prepared concealed firing sites and calculated firing angles before the bombardment began.
Thus they were able accurately to 'walk' their rounds across a base's important installations in a short, intense bombardment. This bombardment both inflicted losses and forced the defenders to keep their heads down. While the defenders were hunkered down, elite sappers spearheaded the effort to breach the defences.
Two approaches to fortifications: an American-built firing bunker defends the vital Long Binh base area, an important target for the Tet Offensive. Such positions were easily plotted by VC recon detachments.
Far less accurate were the free-flight 107mm, 122min and 140mm rockets. Rockets had figured prominently in Russian Second World War tactics, so it is not surprising that the Russians supplied rockets to their allies. The rocket's great merit was that it efficiently delivered a large explosive charge to the target. A 90-pound rocket, transported in two sections, could be carried to its launching site and propel a 35-pound charge to a target 10 kilometres distant. It required a conventional howitzer weighing some 3,300 pounds to equal this firepower. Thus the rocket had a much superior warhead-to-weight ratio. On the down side, rockets were inaccurate. They were useless for hitting discrete targets. Accordingly, Communist gunners employed rockets as area bombardment weapons, particularly against airfields and ammunition dumps, and to deliver sudden, stunning saturation fire to cover an assault. Nationwide, the typical first warning that the Tet Offensive was underway came when mortar rounds and rockets exploded on defensive positions.
In contrast, a VC bunker built to withstand direct hits from artillery and bombs is extremely well camouflaged.
Only along the DMZ did the North Vietnamese Army employ tube artillery. In late 1967 it hauled Russian-designed 130mm field guns into fortified firing positions and began the long-range bombardment of Marine positions. To American generals, this was reminiscent of Dien Bien Phu, and was one more factor drawing their attention north as the Communists prepared for the real assault elsewhere.
In spite of this calculus, the Communist high command's plan called for its soldiers to switch their tactics completely. For the first time in the war, they were to capture and hold selected objectives throughout the country. To do this they had to mass - and this would provide unmistakable targets for US firepower.
When it was all over, it seemed that American intelligence officers had had the pieces of the puzzle in their hands but had been unable to assemble a clear picture of enemy intent. As early as 29 October 1967, the Viet Cong 273rd Regiment had attacked a small district capital and, contrary to normal practice, tried to hold it. They suffered terribly when the inevitable massive Allied air and artillery bombardment drove them out. Intelligence officers could not understand why the enemy risked certain heavy losses for a meaningless objective. With hindsight they understood that the Communists were practising urban assault tactics.
Similarly, in November four NVA regiments fought a bitter 22-day campaign around the obscure border town of Dak To. The Americans redeployed the equivalent of a division to defeat the assault. Captured documents revealed that the attack had been designed to 'force the enemy to deploy as many additional troops to the Western Highlands as possible'. The scheme worked, though again at heavy cost. The American troops had vacated positions around some of the urban objectives specified for the Tet Offensive.
There were other tell-tale signs: a flurry of attacks in Dinh Tuong Province where historically the Viet Cong tested new tactics; a sharp decline in Communist desertion rates (the troops were being told that victory was near); prisoner statements that the entire country would be 'liberated' by Tet. By December 1967, high-ranking American officers had begun to believe that the Communists would try a major offensive in the near future. America's top soldier, General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the US public on 18 December, twenty three years and two days after the surprise German assault in the Ardennes, to say that 'there may be a Communist thrust similar to the desperate effort of the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge'.
RVN National Police Field Force enlisted man, Saigon. Illustration by Mike Chappell.
Wheeler's warning came from the analysis performed by Westmoreland and his staff, who had been carefully studying captured documents. These clearly described a change in Communist strategy. Accordingly, the general informed Washington that the Communists intended 'to undertake an intensified countrywide effort, perhaps a maximum effort'. The administration responded by speeding up the schedule of troop movements to Vietnam, but that was all. Except for Wheeler's statement, which had little impact, the Johnson administration chose not to reveal Westmoreland's analysis to the public and did nothing to brace the
American people for the coming blow. Having spent the past months claiming great progress, policy makers - military and civilian alike - refused to reverse course. They persisted in painting a rosy picture and by this decision played right into Giap's hands.
On 5 January, the US Mission released documents captured on 19 November 1967, which included an order to the People's Army:
'Use very strong military attacks in co-ordination with the uprisings of the local population to take over towns and cities. Troops should flood the lowlands. They should move toward liberating the capital city [Saigon].'
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