Armies of the Vietnam War (Men-at-Arms, Volume 143)

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In the initial phases of US participation, the helicopter emerged as one of the most important innovations of the war. Its great mobility and carrying capacity provided the essential ingredient for operations in the diverse terrain of Southeast Asia against the enemy's light infantry. As a carrier of supplies, ammunition, equipment and wounded personnel, its functions ranged far beyond that of simply being a combat vehicle. Only the helicopter could accomplish the variety of tactical tasks ranging from the insertion of a long-range patrol to the vertical assault of an entire division.

Employment of the helicopter enabled the free world forces to mass men and equipment in a fashion fundamentally affecting tactical methods. Helicopters could transport units to a battle area and could also enable them to maneuver or to reinforce, displace or withdraw combat power during the battle. Helicopters could also be used to concentrate forces quickly. The dominant characteristic of the development of infantry organizations and tactics during the war was the increasing application of airmobile concepts and tactics. Before US troops entered the war, the Army had developed the operational terminology to describe the three basic types of operations conducted.

The terms signaled the difference between the Vietnam War and previous American wars. The first type of operation was "search and destroy. No fixed model existed for such operations. Or, in a "hammer and anvil" operation, a blocking position could be occupied, and an attacking force could move toward it. Another variation included the emplacement of ambushes along likely avenues of escape.

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When an allied force moved into the area, escaping enemy units were ambushed as they attempted to flee. Straightforward attacks were also used. Ground forces often moved into enemy base areas, seeking contact and hoping to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy before he escaped. In April , the Army dropped the term "search and destroy" since it was, as General Westmoreland noted, "equated in the [American] public mind with aimless searches in the jungle and destruction of property.

Although "clearing" operations resembled search-and-destroy operations, they usually placed a greater emphasis on pacification. While search-and-destroy operations chased the enemy from an area or destroyed him, clearing operations kept him off balance and allowed the South Vietnamese government to extend its influence into the area.

Reconnaissances in force, combat sweeps or other offensive operations continued to be conducted, but the greatest emphasis in clearing operations was placed on eliminating local or main force enemy resistance and destroying his support base. Local commanders and political authorities, for example, often used cordon-and-search operations to "clear" a village or area.

Thus, clearing operations usually lasted longer than search-and-destroy operations.

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The final type was the "securing" operation. These operations protected pacification accomplishments, but concentrated on eliminating local guerrilla units and the enemy's political infrastructure and support base. Although multi-battalion offensive sweeps could be used to secure an area, the norm was probably saturation patrolling and cordon and searches of hamlets. With effective Vietnamese, police assistance, these efforts emphasized thorough interrogation and identification of the civilian populace, They also included an intense civic action program and such things as medical assistance.

Theoretically, the proper sequence of operations was search and destroy, clear and secure, with the final phase being dominated by the South Vietnamese Regional and Popular Forces and the police. While search-and-destroy operations engaged the enemy's main force and provincial battalions, the remaining smaller elements were rooted out with clearing and securing operations. The ideal models for types of operations, however, often resembled actual operations only in their purpose rather than in their specific techniques.

Given the wide diversity of terrain, weather and enemy throughout South Vietnam, commanders who unimaginatively applied ideal models to less than ideal conditions were more likely to meet failure than success. Innovation and diversity were the rule rather than the exception, and orthodox procedures were often revised in Vietnam's non-conventional environment. From the perspective of most ground commanders, the primary purpose of ground tactical operations was to defeat enemy forces. Consequently, "find, fix, fight, and finish" the enemy became a much-repeated slogan during the Vietnam War.

The goal of destroying enemy forces eventually assumed a greater importance than the theoretical sequence of search-and-destroy, clear and secure operations. An underlying reason for this focus on attrition was the nature of the enemy. His great mobility and unpredictability frequently forced the free world forces to conduct search -and-destroy operations or fight major battles in areas that had supposedly been freed from most enemy influence. The enemy's armed forces essentially consisted of three major groups-local and provincial VC guerrillas, main force VC units and members of the regular North Vietnamese Army.

The local VC guerrillas usually operated as part-time soldiers who blended into the civilian population by day and became effective fighters at night. They operated in-small units usually squad, platoon or company. The provincial Vietcong usually organized into battalions consisted of forces recruited from local villages.

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They normally operated in the province from which the unit's members were drawn. Main force VC units were organized into battalions and regiments, but could also be organized into divisions for operations throughout South Vietnam. They were better equipped and trained than the local and provincial VC units and were fully capable of relatively large-scale and violent operations.

Yet they could also break down into squads and platoons and could operate in the same fashion as the local Vietcong.

Because of their detailed knowledge of local terrain, extensive combat experience in guerrilla warfare and often intense dedication to their cause, the VC soldiers were formidable opponents throughout the war. One American officer described the Vietcong as "a fanatically dedicated opponent who would take on tanks, if necessary, armed only with bow and arrow. The NVA units were better equipped than the VC units and usually operated as battalions, regiments or even divisions. The NVA units possessed greater combat power than the Vietcong, as is illustrated by their eventual employment of heavy artillery and tanks, particularly in the latter phases of the war.


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Except for the greater firepower and usually larger units, NVA methods of operation resembled those of main force Vietcong. At times, the NVA units also conducted light and highly mobile guerrilla operations, similar to those of the local Vietcong, but such operations were often not as successful as those conducted by local forces. Because of his lack of familiarity with South Vietnam and relatively easy identification as a foreigner, the NVA soldier sometimes could not blend into the local population.

By mid, large-scale offensive operations by free world forces had flushed the enemy's larger units from many of their base camps and sanctuaries near large urban areas in South Vietnam. Thenceforth, NVA units often operated in border areas where they could elude pursuing free world units by fleeing across the Vietnamese border into relatively safe sanctuaries. Despite the variety of units, the enemy's forces operated in an interdependent fashion. There was no notion of each type unit fighting in its own way without regard to the methods or mission of other units.

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Local force Vietcong, for example, provided important logistics support for main force units while continuously harassing allied troops. Similarly, main force units bore the brunt of the heaviest fighting in the larger operations, but, without the intelligence, preparation and assistance of the local forces, their successes would have been extremely limited. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army used essentially infantry tactics, and mobility was the key to all operations, from the small actions of the local forces to the larger actions of the regular forces.

The enemy rarely accepted battle in unfavorable situations and only accepted decisive contact under exceptional circumstances. His operations were usually ruled by the maxim: "When the enemy advances, withdraw; when he defends, harass; when he is tired, attack; when he withdraws, pursue Yet the Tet offensive of February demonstrated that the enemy was more than willing to accept massive casualties if he deemed it necessary, and his tough defense after the offensive of March-April demonstrated that he was willing to stand and fight.

The enemy's tactics attempted to compensate for his relatively weak firepower.


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Since his light infantry units did not possess the same firepower and staying power of most of the allied units, he sought to inflict the most casualties with his rifles and automatic weapons in the early minutes of an engagement. Whether in the jungle or along routes of movement, no patrol or column was safe. Various techniques of ambush were often used effectively.

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For example, the "lure and ambush" sometimes drew pursuing soldiers into carefully prepared traps. Another variation often accompanied a sharp, violent attack on an installation or unit. When a relief column rushed forward to assist or relieve the threatened position, it sometimes found itself to be the real prey. The Vietcong were especially adept at harassment. Sniper fire, booby-traps, mines and mortars constantly harassed free world forces. The enemy also employed rapid strikes against allied weak points. An example of such tactics occurred on March when Ban Me Thuot was captured.

According to General Van Tien Dung, the NVA chief of staff, his troops avoided defensive positions on the outer perimeter of the city and struck the command and control centers of the South Vietnamese inside the city. After capturing the command centers, NVA troops moved outward to capture perimeter positions, Such tactics enabled the North Vietnamese Army to capture Ban Me Thuot in just over 32 hours.

NVA and VC units also used mass assaults, sometimes supported by heavy supporting fires. Rapid, violent attacks against carefully selected objectives enabled the Vietcong and North Vietnamese to maximize the combat forces of their infantry and to inflict casualties on the defender.


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Such attacks were minutely planned, meticulously prepared and frequently rehearsed, but weak tactical communications often forced the enemy to adopt highly inflexible plans. Regardless of the method used, the enemy normally sought to inflict casualties and then escape. VC and NVA units used several other techniques to weaken the effects of the allied firepower. One of the most important of these was night fighting. Their ability to operate at night under the concealment of darkness often served to nullify an overwhelming firepower advantage of an American unit.

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