Armor Employment by VC/NVA Forces I

Prior to 1968 there were few, if any, in Vietnam that even imagined the VC/NVA forces in South Vietnam were equipped with tanks. A few in the intelligence system exercising hindsight, made “I knew it all the time” claims but these statements deserved and received little attention. Events of 24 January to 7 February 1968 provided these enlightened ones will their information.

On 24 January a Forward Air Controller (FAC) spotted five enemy tanks only a few kilometers from the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam. An air strike was called and one of the tanks was reported destroyed.

That same day the 330 Royal Laotians were reportedly attacked by NVA forces utilizing tanks. Survivors of this engagement, along with their families, retreated into South Vietnam and were allowed to occupy old Lang Vei Camp previously abandoned by the Special Forces. A new camp had been established further to the west.

Late in the evening of 6 February a force approximately 400 infantry and twelve Soviet built tanks attacked the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei. (Figures 32 and 11). Some of the tanks were identified as the PT-76 Amphibious Tank. Antitank weapons available to the camp defenders were M-72 LAW’s and two 106 mm Recoilless Rifles. Three enemy tanks were destroyed by the recoilless rifles before the guns were destroyed by tank fire. Performance of the M-72 LAW proved disappointing since many of them malfunctioned and would not fire or when they did fire did very little damage to the tanks with few exceptions. Armor thickness on the PT-76 is roughly comparable to the U.S. SM-551 Sheridan. Both are relatively thin-skinned and are easily penetrated by light antitank weapons.

Lang Vei was completely overrun and destroyed by the NVA tanks and infantry. Surviving American Special Forces were forced into hiding in an underground bunker and most of the South Vietnamese were killed, captured or forced to flee. American air force and artillery provided support throughout most of the battle, but could not prevent the NVA from talking the camp. American armor was not readily available to support the Special Forces. Only the Marines had tanks in the I Corps zone. It was this battle which caused Headquarters, U.S. Army, Vietnam, to move an armored cavalry squadron and a tank company from the III Corps zone to counter any further enemy armor threat.

Results of the battle of Lang Vei were ten of the twenty four Americans and 209 South Vietnamese were killed or missing. An additional 77, including 13 of 14 Americans, were wounded.

Estimated losses to the NVA were seven tanks destroyed and 250 infantry troops killed.[61] With nearly a two week warning of enemy tanks operating in the area, no attempt was made to reinforce the camp with U.S. tanks. This is unfortunate since the M48A3 completely outguns the PT-76 and could have prevented the camp’s destruction and the high casualty rate suffered by the defenders. A costly lesson had been relearned. This was the first, but by no means the last, was time the enemy to employ armor in Vietnam.

Ben Het Special Forces Camp was the location of the next NVA armor attack. (Figures 33 and 11). Ben Het overlooked the Ho Chi Minh trail in an area where the borders of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam met. A battery of U.S. 175 mm artillery was located in this camp and the NVA had made numerous attempts to destroy the guns and blind the camp occupants to their movement by almost incessant artillery, rocket and mortar barrages.

Having failed to destroy the camp by indirect fire, an NVA armored unit launched a ground attack against the base on 3 March 1968. This battle was not to be a one sided affair like Lang Vei because a U.S. tank platoon from Company B, 1/69 Armor, was part of the camp defenses. An estimated seven enemy tanks participated in the attack, two of which were destroyed by the U.S. tanks in addition to an armored personnel carrier. None of the U.S. tanks were destroyed. This attack was not supported by infantry and was not of the magnitude of the attack against Lang Vei. This battle marked the only time U.S. tanks engaged in a tank versus tank engagement in Vietnam.[62]

June 1969 signaled the beginning of the American withdrawal from South Vietnam. Only one U.S. tank battalion, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor, was operating in the I Corps area and these units were scheduled to leave the country in mid-1971. General Creighton W. Abrams, Commander, U.S. Forces in Vietnam, wisely authorized the formation of the 20th ARVN Tank Regiment to provide some armor capability to the I Corps zone.

With U.S. ground combat actions at an end, the NVA launched a major offensive operation against the South Vietnamese in April 1972. This major attack was supported by strong NVA tank forces equipped with Soviet T-54 and T-34 tanks.

On 2 April 1972, 20th Tank Regiment, equipped with U.S. M48A9 tanks, met the forward elements of the NVA tank column on the north side of Dong Ha along the Mieu Giang River. (Figures 34 and 11). Six NVA tanks were destroyed by the ARVN tankers in the first few minutes. Combined efforts of 20th Tank Regiment, South Vietnamese Air Force and ARVN Marines stopped the NVA advance at the Dong Ha Bridge. That night the ARVN tanks used their searchlights to illuminate the river and expose boat- loads of NVA troops attempting to infiltrate. All tank weapons were used in conjunction with infantry fire to destroy the boats and NVA troops.

During the period 2 April to 1 May, this newly formed tank regiment accounted for 37 NVA tanks destroyed, one captured and a significant number of enemy infantry killed. While 20th Tank Regiment paid a high price in personnel casualties and equipment losses they were a major factor in delaying the NVA onslaught for manly a month. This time was used by the ARVN high command to reinforce the I Corps area with sufficient forces to stop the NVA drive.[63]

Tanks were also used by the NVA in other part of South Vietnam during this major offensive, most notably in the vicinity of Au Loc and Loc Ninh.

Total victory was denied the VC/NVA farces in this offensive primarily because of the massive air support rendered by U.S. air power to the ARVN ground and air forces. When the next major offensive was launched by the D VC/NVA, South Vietnam forces were on their and were totally routed by the tank infantry drive from the north. Not only had the U.S. forces proven that tanks could be used effectively in Vietnam, but so did the NVA.

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