February 12, 2018 by oriskany
Once again, fellow wargamers and history buffs, it’s time to continue our article series commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the “Tet Offensive” in the Vietnam War. As we’ve seen, this offensive was a massive series of surprise communist assaults launched across South Vietnam, timed for the Vietnamese “Tet” New Year holiday.
So far we’ve reviewed the overall communist plan for Tet in Part One, looked at the opening guerrilla-style assaults near Saigon in Part Two, and reviewed the more conventional attacks further north near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Part Three.
Now we’ll see the Americans and their allies start their inevitable counterassault, pushing back against everything the communists had seized in the surprise opening of their offensive. With the Americans on the attack against an often-hidden foe, this is where our Vietnam games become a little more typical of the “expected” Vietnam model.
The Battle For Hue
A Different Kind Of Jungle
As reviewed in previous articles, the Tet Offensive struck hundreds of targets across South Vietnam starting on January 30th, 1968. The idea was to create a crisis of confidence in the South Vietnamese government and ignite a popular uprising. The new communist government in Saigon would demand an immediate US withdrawal.
It was for this reason that the brunt of the first wave attacks at Tet didn’t actually hit big US forces out in the countryside (Khe Sanh and other DMZ combat bases being notable exceptions). Instead, the communists hit the civilian cities, exploiting the poor readiness of the South Vietnamese army with maximum surprise.
One of the biggest single attacks in the Tet Offensive was aimed at the old imperial capital of Vietnam: the city of Hue. Here, the People’s Army of Vietnam (usually known as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA) and the National Liberation Front (NLF or Viet Cong) combined forces to take almost the entire city in an overwhelming blitz.
In all, the NVA and Viet Cong committed a combined 12,000 troops, including two full NVA regiments (6th Regiment of the 325C Division, 4th Independent Regiment) and at least two local Viet Cong battalions (12th and 402nd). They took the city almost immediately, but to re-take it would involve the largest single engagement of the Tet Offensive.
Right from the outset, the Americans and South Vietnamese in Hue were on the back foot. The entire city was only garrisoned by two HQ units (ARVN 1st Division and the American MACV – Military Assistance Command, Vietnam). Surrounded and outnumbered dozens-to-one, these HQ units desperately needed help.
US Marine Corps units of the 2nd Battalion/5th Marine Regiment were among the first to get into the city, along with the elite South Vietnamese “Black Panther” battalion. The US Army also tried to get units of the elite 1st Air Cavalry Division engaged, but the Tet Offensive had caught the troops cut off from their supplies and artillery support.
Steadily, more and more ARVN, USMC, and US Army troops pried their way into the city and joined the battle. The fighting was positively savage, with firefights chewing through tight streets, courtyards, and apartment blocks. One could almost call it the “Stalingrad” of Vietnam.
By the end of the first week of February, the communists had realized that the Tet Offensive had largely failed and so started ordering their surviving units to fall back into the countryside. One of the few exceptions was Hue, its symbol as the cultural centre of historic Vietnam was too great. Hue would be held, or else.
At first, South Vietnamese authorities demanded that no air strikes or heavy artillery be used in clearing the dense districts of Hue City, collateral damage on cultural landmarks would be too great. As casualties mounted, however, American artillery, air strikes, and even naval gunfire from US Navy warships rained down on Hue.
Huge sections of the city were laid waste, and civilian casualties were steep (in addition to several thousand who’d already been executed when the communists took the city on January 31st). The NVA pulled back to the “Citadel,” the old Imperial Palace on the north side of the Perfume River, blowing up the bridges behind them.
This didn’t stop the Marines. Supply, reinforcement, and gunfire support were soon pouring off landing craft in the Perfume River, as fortified NVA positions in the Citadel were bombarded and assaulted.
The Tet Offensive had caught the 1st AirCav Division in midst of a redeployment, and when the NVA cut the Route 1 highway into Hue, the division’s assets were caught on opposite sides of the city. But as they regained their balance, the 1st AirCav (especially 12th Regiment) proved an invaluable asset in cutting off and grinding down the NVA in Hue.
In the end, fighting in Hue would not end until early March 1968. Technically the battle was an allied victory, but 142 Marines had been killed and 857 seriously wounded. Over 400 ARVN troops had been lost, along with at least 5,000 NVA and Viet Cong. Over 5,000 civilians had also been killed either in the fighting or communist executions.
ANZACs Move Into Action
1st Australian Task Force
Although northern battles like Hue City and Khe Sanh would see weeks of ferocious fighting (Operation Scotland being the defence of Khe Sanh, Operation Pegasus the counterattack and relief effort) massive counterassaults were in fact in progress all across South Vietnam, aimed at rolling back communist gains in the Tet Offensive.
As we’ve mentioned several times, the US and South Vietnamese were just the majority of the Free World forces engaged in the Vietnam War, including the Tet Offensive. Another contingent was the 1st Australian Task Force, originally made up of three Australian battalions before being reinforced with New Zealanders and tanks.
The 1st ATF was stationed in the Phuoc Tuy province, east of Saigon, part of ARVN’s III Corps tactical zone (nominally 1st ATF was under command of US II Field Force). The Tet Offensive caught them in the midst of Operation Coburg, a series of search-and-destroy missions, triggered by warning signs that a major communist attack was coming.
Although intelligence had warned that some kind of communist offensive was imminent, the scale, direction, and timing of Tet caught everyone off balance. The 1st ATF’s operations were too late to prevent the NLF/Viet Cong’s attacks into Saigon, but they were perfectly positioned to cut off communist retreat from Long Binh and Bien Hoa.
You may recall frompart two of this series where we saw the 274th and 275th Regiments of the 5th NLF Division hit the American bases at Long Binh and Bien Hoa. Well, that battle had now been won and the remnants of these Viet Cong forces were trying to withdraw. Too bad the ANZACs were already waiting for them at the back door.
These forces included 2nd and 7th Battalions / Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR and 7 RAR), backed up by Centurion tanks of the A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment. They were supported by two batteries of 4th Royal Australian Artillery and two companies (“Victor” and “Whiskey”) of the New Zealand Regiment (attached to 2 RAR).
Since Tet had started, these forces had been re-deployed by air to the Dong Nai province (closer to Long Binh and Bien Hoa), and had been pushing hard to occupy key ground at places like Trang Bom. From here, they could interdict elements of the 5th NLF Division as they tried to disengage from the Americans.
Charlie Company, 7 RAR was engaged in particularly heavy fighting, running into deeply dug-in positions north of Trang Bom on 5th February 1968. This is the battle we’ve tried to recreate somewhat in our “Vietnam Edition” of Barry Doyle’s Valor & Victory system.
Other units of the 1st ATF were engaged all across the Phouc Tuy and Dong Nai provinces. Fire support bases (FSBs) were deliberately set up along enemy routes of retreat from Saigon, Long Binh, and Bien Hoa, and came under desperately ferocious attack as the NLF fought to escape the trap.
Not many of them made it. Once the 1st ATF had established these blocking positions, the Viet Cong found it impossible to dislodge them and scraped past them only at a horrific cost. The fierce combat lasted until the end of February 1968, by which time the 1st ATF had made a major contribution to breaking the Tet Offensive.
For their involvement in this action, the Royal Australian Regiment and the 3rd Cavalry would be awarded the “Bien Hoa” unit citation for their regimental colours.
Rolling Back The Tet Offensive
While the battles of the Tet Offensive all started with explosive, near-simultaneous surprise, they ended in slow, struggling whimpers. Gradually, painfully, and bloodily, pockets of Viet Cong and NVA resistance were either driven out of their Tet Offensive objectives or annihilated where they stood.
In addition to the longer battles discussed at Hue City and Khe Sanh, other “fires” continued to smoulder as the Tet Offensive was steadily smothered out. Another of these lingering trouble spots was at Cholon, a predominantly Chinese suburb in the south part of Saigon.
The Battle of Saigon had turned very quickly. Although the first shock of the fighting was almost entirely absorbed by South Vietnamese forces (with the very small yet painfully visible exception of the attack on the US Embassy), US forces were quickly mobilized to stabilize the situation.
APCs and tanks spearheaded this counterattack, and by the end of the first day, five US battalions were engaged. But as urban battles often do, the fight then ground to a crawl. As we’ve seen at Hue, this was an intense street battle, fought via skirmishes, snipers, firefights in tight alleys and dense city blocks.
Determined to save their capital city, ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) pulled no punches in the fight through Saigon, especially once the Viet Cong was backed up into the Cholon District. Massive airstrikes were conducted by South Vietnamese and US fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships, even against urban targets.
American airstrikes were also hard at work across towns and villages surrounding Saigon, first as the Viet Cong tried reinforcing its initial sapper battalions, then as they tried to pull out. While the airstrikes at Khe Sanh were actually bigger, that was also in the comparative wilderness. The urban devastation of these Saigon airstrikes was appalling.
One nearby town, Ben Tre, was basically annihilated by concentrated US airstrikes, and an American officer was quoted: “We had to destroy it … to save it.” To an increasingly-impatient American public, freshly shocked by the violence of the Tet Offensive, such contradictions highlighted the absurdity of American involvement in the conflict.
Please come back next week as we wrap up this article series on the Tet Offensive, reviewing its impact not only on the Vietnam War but on modern war overall in the age of televised media. We’ll also hear from Dave Wheeler (@davebpg), looking at how Vietnam plays out specifically in the Flames of War system.
Meanwhile, post your comments, questions, and input below!
I know there are plenty of Vietnam players out there. So stop hiding in the bush, don’t make me send the AirCav out after you!
"The fighting was positively savage, with firefights chewing through tight streets, courtyards, and apartment blocks..."
"...an American officer was quoted: “We had to destroy it…to save it”"