January 29, 2018 by oriskany
We’re back, Beasts of War, for another instalment in our series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. In our previous article, we took a quick look at the Vietnam War’s background, as well as the origins for this massive, game-changing communist offensive in early 1968.
Now it’s time for us to actually begin our “tour of duty,” so to speak. In this article, we’ll be looking at the opening moves of the Tet Offensive, and examining how some of these engagements can be brought to the tabletop. So lace up those jungle boots and lock n’ load!
Build-up & Planning
The Communist Perspective
As we discussed in the previous article, the Tet Offensive was a massive series of attacks unleashed on the “Tet” Vietnamese New Year holiday in 1968. Mounted by the communist forces of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, the objective was to topple the pro-American South Vietnamese government in Saigon and end the war.
The Tet Offensive would be spearheaded by the Viet Cong (formally known as the National Liberation Front or NLF), made up of guerrilla units of South Vietnamese communist sympathizers. They’d be supported and supplied by the formal field army of the PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam, also known as the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA).
From the communist perspective, the notion of an all-out attack against American forces with vastly superior firepower was hardly ideal. Since American forces had become fully embroiled in Vietnam in 1965, they’d launched a massive build-up through 1966 and been on the offensive all through 1967. Communist losses had been severe.
This general American offensive also included a withering bombing campaign through most of North Vietnam. This would soon be expanded into NVA and VC base areas in Cambodia and Laos, the infamous “Ho Chi Minh” trail by which the communist war effort in South Vietnam was supplied and maintained.
By mid-1967, communist leaders had begun to worry they’d have to negotiate some kind of peace with the Saigon government. But under leaders like the Party Secretary Le Duan and the communist leader in the south Nguyen Chi Thanh, they vowed to make one more massive effort to force a favourable decision in combat.
Commander of the North Vietnamese Army, General Vo Nguyen Giap, was not impressed. He maintained that NVA and VC forces were nowhere near ready to face withering American firepower. But after General Thanh died of heart disease in mid-1967, Giap inherited command of the offensive and resolved to make it work.
Setting Up The Chessboard
Build-up and preliminary moves for the Tet Offensive began almost a year before the actual storm broke on January 30th, 1968. Since the primary target for the Tet Offensive would be the major cities in South Vietnam, General Giap worked through 1967 to draw as many American units as possible out into the remote Vietnamese backcountry.
As early as April 1967, Giap opened operations near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the border area between North and South Vietnam. Ferocious battles started in the hills between US Marine Corps bases like Khe Sanh and Con Thien, where gunfire was often called in from US Navy heavy cruisers and battleships built during World War II.
In October 1967, Giap applied pressure in the south, near the Cambodian border. He hit South Vietnamese units (ARVN, Army of the Republic of Vietnam) at Song Be, and Loch Ninh was overrun and had to be retaken. As US and ARVN units deployed to these deep jungles, the cities along South Vietnam’s coast were left increasingly open.
The worst came in November 1967 in the central highlands, near Dak To. The whole 1st NVA division backed up by two independent regiments, had to be pushed back by the US 4th Infantry and 173rd Airborne Brigade, backed up by tanks. Again, US forces were drawn away from the cities, allowing VC battalions to creep closer to their Tet targets.
The Storm Breaks
Finally, the Vietnamese New Year holiday arrived in early 1968. By now the Americans were certain something was up; such a build-up couldn’t be concealed completely. But the American commander, General Westmoreland, remained convinced that Giap was preparing for a conventional ground invasion out of North Vietnam.
Yet no plan goes perfectly, and right off the bat, the Tet Offensive tripped over a massive screw-up. The actual date for the Tet holiday depended on which version of the Vietnamese calendar different units were using, and although officially planned for January 31st, some communist units launched too early and attacked on January 30th.
Yet even with this misfire, so lax was ARVN readiness in the midst of the traditional Tet holiday cease-fire that the Viet Cong retained nearly complete surprise. US and South Vietnamese response was disjointed and off-balance. The communists hit most of the forty-four provincial capitals in South Vietnam and attacked 100 cities and towns overall.
Saigon & The US Embassy
Wars Lost On Television
One of the primary targets for the Tet Offensive was the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon. Spearheaded by the elite “C-10” sapper battalion, communists hit the presidential palace, the HQs of the ARVN Joint General Staff and Navy, the city’s radio station, Tan San Nhut Airbase, and the American Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).
Also struck was the United States Embassy, a prominent symbol of America’s presence in South Vietnam. During the opening attacks across Saigon, a force from the Viet Cong’s C-10 battalion blew a hole in the wall of the embassy compound, killed a Marine security guard and four military policemen, and stormed the embassy.
This attack sparked a six-hour firefight which was televised live around the world. The reality of the situation was almost entirely symbolic, almost all the Viet Cong’s officers had been killed in the initial skirmish and only fifteen or so remained to be rooted out of the compound.
None of that mattered. In a pattern that would be repeated throughout the Tet Offensive and the Vietnam War in general, it was the imagery on the evening news that counted. The American public, assured so many times that “the end in Vietnam was in sight,” now saw in living colour a desperate battle to retake their own embassy.
Other attacks across the city were slightly more successful. But after seizing their initial targets, VC units were surrounded by ARVN units, American military police, and reinforcements rushed in from neighbouring bases (very few American combat units were actually in Saigon itself), pinned down, and eventually destroyed.
The Viet Cong had intended for these initial sapper attacks to be rapidly reinforced by main force battalions staged around the city. But these reinforcements never arrived, cut off and pinned down in vicious street fighting. Thus the sappers were left to annihilation, though it would take weeks of hard fighting to eliminate them all.
It should be noted that most of the heaviest fighting in Saigon was done by ARVN. Despite the infamous attack on the US Embassy and a similar bloodbath at an American officer’s barracks, the VC was mostly contained by South Vietnamese troops. Giap himself would credit much of Tet’s relative failure in Saigon to ARVN, not US troops.
Long Binh & Bien Hoa
Battles Around The Suburbs
In many ways, the battles around the suburbs of Saigon were even more ferocious (and militarily speaking, more important) than the fighting in Saigon itself. There were more military installations out here, and the Viet Cong had an easier time getting main force battalions closer to these targets than in the centre of the capital.
One such battle came about fifteen miles north of Saigon at the neighbouring towns of Long Binh and Bien Hoa. An extensive US logistics and headquarters centre (US 2nd Field Force and ARVN III Corps), Long Binh was hit hard by the 275th Viet Cong Regiment of the 5th NLF Division. Just up the road, Bien Hoa was hit by the 274th Regiment.
Long Binh and Bien Hoa were the American headquarters for most of the southern part of South Vietnam, and even as Lieutenant-General Frederick Weyand (commander, 2nd Field Force) coordinated responses for units in Saigon and across the country, he also directed the immediate battle to protect his own headquarters.
This is the major battle we’ve tried to recreate on the tabletop for this part of the article series, particularly a “compressed-scaled” look at the American response to the Viet Cong’s attack at Bien Hoa. Starting off, we have initial American defences and counterattacks launched by the 199th Mechanized Brigade.
As fighting heated up between the US 199th and the Viet Cong 275th, and as American commanders steadily got a grip on the sheer scale of the nation-wide offensive, more units were coordinated into the battle. Very quickly, units of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment were committed at Bien Hoa, getting American tanks into the fray.
With no tanks of their own, Viet Cong forces had to rely on close urban conditions and RPG ambushes to deal with the threat. They were assisted by U-1 and 238th local Viet Cong Battalions (using mines and shaped charges), now coordinating with 5th NLF Division’s attacks on Long Binh and Bien Hoa.
Yet again, the pattern was the same. Taking advantage of surprise and initially uncoordinated US and South Vietnamese response, Viet Cong forces took their initial objectives quickly enough but could then not hold them against concentrated American firepower.
Proof came at Bien Hoa when, in addition to the 199th Mechanized and 11th ACR, air strikes and helicopter gunships were brought in to further reduce the withering Viet Cong positions. Headquarters operations at 2nd US Field Force and ARVN III Corps were never meaningfully disrupted, and the situation steadily stabilized by the hour.
Finally, 2nd Battalion/506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne was “Huey-ed” into Bien Hoa to shift the balance decisively against the Viet Cong. If 2nd Bn/506th sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the parent unit of the famous “Easy” Company, the one from Band of Brothers fame. Here they were twenty-four years later, still winning America’s far-flung battles.
Of course, we’re just outlining a few of the battles in and around Saigon, and even if we could do them all, these Saigon battles were only a small part of what was happening all around South Vietnam. There were battles in the Mekong Delta, the central highlands, and of course very heavy action against the NVA up north near the DMZ.
So please come back next week as we look at some of these other attacks. There’s the NVA attack at the Special Forces base at Lang Vei (one of the only times the NVA was able to use tanks), the siege of Khe Sanh, and of course the brutal battle between the USMC and the NVA in Hue City (as anyone who’s seen “Full Metal Jacket” knows).
In the meantime, please post your comments, questions, and input down below. What do you think about the effect of global, real-time media in modern warfare? How can this be worked into a tabletop game’s victory conditions?
What do you think of the Tet Offensive or wargaming in Vietnam in general?
"...General Giap worked through 1967 to draw as many American units as possible out into the remote Vietnamese backcountry"
"What do you think about the effect of global, real-time media in modern warfare?"